Thursday, August 15, 2013

I'm Turning Into My Mother, I Really Think So

I try to keep it light in the summer.  When I say that, I realize that my last post was about the decline of American feminism.   But really, that couldn’t be helped.   I'd read a survey about it on the Huffington Post.   And I’m a sucker for surveys.  They’re so provocative. So easy to read.  And at the same time, so delightfully absent of any real, explanatory facts or details.   Perfect fodder, really, for a blog.

Well it must be my lucky month.  Because a few days ago, I came across another survey that I had never seen before.   This one (which was actually taken a few months ago, when I was busy tracking the decline of American feminism) was commissioned by a company called Dotty Bingo.  It asked the following question:
            At what age do women turn into their mothers?   

I love that question!  Of course I do!  I’m a living, breathing human with a soul, aren't I?   Also, I am a woman.  And when it comes right down to it, there are two things that every woman loves to obsess about.   Their age.  And their mothers.  So what if this was a dumb survey, created by a company named Dotty Bingo, for the sole purpose of tracking women's bingo playing?   Bingo is a game for old women.  Women who become their mothers are old women.  Transitive Property.  Boom.  

And yes.  In case you were wondering.  It’s 31.  

That is when women turn into their mothers.  Why 31?  Because that’s the age by which women have apparently had their first children.  That’s the age by which they’ve become mothers themselves.  Coincidentally, that is also the exact age of the Duchess of Cambridge.   I'm not calling her an old woman.  But I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that she could probably kick William’s ass at bingo. 

For some people, this mother survey is old news.  I get it.  You digested the Bingo survey when it first came out,  you read that article about it on Slate, and now you're over it.  Well, I’m sorry if I'm being redundant but really -- how do you think I feel?   I apparently turned into my mother more than 13 years ago.  And nobody even bothered to tell me.
Well, OK, a few people tried to tell me.  Like a few of my mom's friends and acquaintances.  On a few different occasions in the past few years, different people have declared – right in front of me, almost as if I wasn't standing right there – that my mom and I look “just like sisters.”    And that was so great.  Because that is a great compliment.   For one of us. 
To be fair, my mom and I do look a lot alike.  Sometimes, I think our physical similarities may even throw people off.   Like when I’m at the grocery store, and a perfect stranger looks at me like I'm a ghost.   I'm never surprised by this because frankly -- now that I'm old enough to play bingo -- I do look sort of dead without my makeup on.  But also, I figure, they probably just know my mother.  So they’re confused.  All these years, they've been hanging out with my mom, and she never told them she had a sister.  Or as some people might call me -- in an effort to be a tiny bit polite -- a daughter.  

Recently, though -- and even before Dotty Bingo started calling out the mother numbers --  I've started to notice some behavioral similarities too.   I'm not talking about the spontaneous weeding that my mom does -- in the middle of a conversation, and sometimes on other people’s property.   I'm not talking about her relative inflexibility regarding grammar rules, either.  Because -- and I think she would agree with this statement -- mom and me are just different that way.  

I'm definitely not talking about the way she sends cards -- and sometimes also a gift, or a thematic cookie -- to every member of her family on every single national, religious, official and unofficial holiday.  I don't do that.  I’m way too self-absorbed to send cards on minor holidays.   But my sister isn't.   Which is good.  Because someone has to turn into my mother in all the ways I'm not.  And for the foreseeable future, anyway, my kids still have a decent chance of getting chocolate and cards from someone in the family on Valentine's Day.

But I have noticed a few things.  Here, for the record, are 5 ways I think I'm definitely turning into my mother.  I wonder if anyone else can relate to any of these.  But remember  --no tokens on the board until your number is called.  


            1.  I Put Butter In Pretty Much Everything.

You may wonder why I don’t just introduce myself to the strangers who stare at me in the grocery store.  The answer is that I’m too busy racing around the grocery store, snatching up all the butter. And really, the butter hoarding should’ve been my first clue.  (Or maybe my second.   Because for decades now, I’ve been enjoying sandwiches simply as a conduit for mayonnaise.)

But more recently, I’ve started making a lot more recipes with butter.  This wouldn’t be a big deal, or even notable.  Except that most of those recipes don’t actually call for butter.   Like.  At all. 
            White rice with tofu?   Toss in some butter.   
             Hamburgers?   Let's fry that sirloin in some butter.   
             Fresh tomato and roasted red pepper sandwich?   Does that toasted sourdough need butter?
I know good cooks always use a lot of butter.  In fact, people say that every meal you order at a restaurant probably contains one full stick of butter.  Not to mention, a whole bunch of salt.   Of course they do.  That’s why you wake up the next day with puffy eyes, indigestion, and a much better idea of what you will look like in a few more years, when you turn into your mother. 

But in retrospect, I have to give my mom props on this.  She’s a great cook.   Butter is just one part of that.  But more importantly, she stuck by butter all those years, when the rest of the country was switching over to margarine.   And that was about loyalty.  And probably, being Slavic.  And now, redemption has come to us all.  Because all these years later, it turns out that butter was probably the healthier choice all along. 

Also it definitely makes you slimmer.   Scientific fact.  Look it up.
            2. I Tsk at Your TV Shows. 

Perhaps you have never thought to express your disapproval of another person's television watching habits by clicking your tongue against the roof of your mouth.  If not, you should really try it.   Because in our family, that's what makes you a mom.   To be perfectly honest, it used to bug the shit out of me when my mother did it.  But now -- somehow, as if by bingo magic -- I do it myself.  Mostly to my kids.  But sometimes also to my husband.
It sounds irritating but frankly, there's an art to the TV Tsk.  It has to be loud enough so the kids know I don’t like something they’re watching.   At the same time, the tsk has to be quiet enough so that it won’t disturb the program.   Because if they can’t hear the program that they’re supposed to feel terrible about, they can’t go ahead and feel terrible about it.  Obviously, I don’t want them to stop watching the program.  If I wanted that, I’d just get up and turn it off.   Rather, I want to badger them -- passive aggressively -- into disliking it themselves
When we were kids, a lot of TV shows got the Tsk. Of course they did.  It was the 80's.  Three's Company was the most elevating thing on the boob tube.   But no program got it more in our house than The Simpsons.   And that is because -- while some gals were down in the church basement, watching their moms play bingo --  my mom was hanging with the nuns.  And nuns, of all people, would not tolerate boys telling their mothers to "chill out."   That is totally rude and unacceptable, Bart Simpson.   John Ritter was simply trying to scam his landlord by pretending to be a homosexual.

You, young man, are a cartoon.

            3.   I'm Almost Wearing A Fanny Pack.

 Recently, I purchased a small satchel for use on vacation.  I couldn't help but notice that -- in certain key respects, and apart from the shoulder strap -- it looks a lot like my mom's fanny pack.  I haven’t worn an actual fanny pack since the 1980s. That is when everyone stopped cooking with butter, everyone starting moving in with their fake gay male roommates, and everyone under 31 stopped wearing fanny packs.  But now that I’ve got my shoulder satchel, and it looks just like a sideways fanny pack, I find myself thinking: Why not just upgrade to the fanny pack? 
Fanny packs are practical for traveling.  They hold stuff securely around your waist.  They can’t be easily snatched by a foreign mugger, unless he can rapidly unfasten the giant plastic harness clip that is partially enveloped by your stomach pouch.  At the same time, the fanny pack pouch can be opened easily with your own hands.  Any time you get the urge to stop, and buy a new beret from a street vendor. 
For my coming trip, my mom actually offered to lend me her fanny pack.   I turned it down.   I wasn’t  quite ready.  But deep in my heart, I know that the writing is on the wall.  Soon enough --  and certainly by the time I drop my kids off at college -- I'll be rockin' that fanny. 

And as soon as I sign up for that campus tour, I will proudly click on my fanny pack belt, and fill that pouch with the following practical items: a small campus map, a hotel key, and a tube of lipstick.  (The tube of lipstick, by the way -- totally got that from my mother.)  

            4.   I Teach My Kids Moral Lessons, Through the Medium of Song.

The other day, my kids were complaining about the cool weather.  I was a little annoyed.   But instead of absorbing their negative energy, I just decided to turn it into a teaching moment.  So I started singing Desperado, by the Eagles.   

 It May Be Raining, But There’s a Rainbow Above You.  You've gotta stop complaining about the weather, before it's too late.  

The fact that those were not the real lyrics -- and that the song isn’t actually about the weather -- made no difference.  The kids didn’t know that.  And once I started singing a classic rock song, against the backdrop of moral righteousness -- they stopped talking to me entirely and found something else to do. 

For my mom, the message was actually important.   Whether it was Slow Down, You Move Too Fast, or  So Far Away... we always understood the larger point.   Sometimes, she sang to turn the mood around -- we got a lot of songs like Yes, Sir!  That’s My Baby! performed with some basic soft shoe choreography, and a ladle full of melted butter.   Other times, I think she just felt like singing.  Someone would mention the Mona Lisa, and she'd launch into You’re The Top.  For no apparent reason.  

Back then, I rolled my eyes a lot.  But it was sweet.  And now that I'm turning into her, I must admit, she knew a lot of lyrics.  An astounding number, actually.   And it's a little unclear to me how I'll be able to follow in her footsteps.  Because I don't know that much Frank Sinatra.   And I grew up listening to bands like The Smiths and Nirvana.   And Smells Like a Teen Spirit seems like a weak foundation from which to launch a message of moral uplift.  Right?

            5.   No Boys On the Second Floor!

Not long ago, my older daughter had a friend over. They decided to play up in her room.  The friend was a boy.  After several minutes, I went upstairs to find out what all the silence was about.  I found the kids standing there, looking out the window, talking.  Of course they were.  They’re nine.  But the whole experience did get me thinking:  How many years do I have until boys are banned from the second floor?  

When I was growing up, house rules mandated that if a friend came over – and that friend was a member of the opposite sex – they were not allowed on the second floor.  AKA, the bedrooms.    This was true even if your male friend was truly just your friend, was the baby brother of a neighbor, or was -- already in the 6th grade -- obviously gay.  

Personally, I thought this was an unnecessary and outlandish rule.  One day, it went from being outlandish to being downright comical.  That was the day, late in high school, when my mom walked into my bedroom and somehow mistook my brother for a strange male companion.  She introduced herself in a tone of obvious disapproval, to throw him off his game.  In retrospect, my mom thinks she suffered some kind of temporary dementia that day, or a minor stroke.  That is obviously not comical.  But the look on my brother’s face – when his mother stood right in front of him, and mistook him for a rakish male suitor – was a laugh to last a lifetime. 
Anyway, now that I’ve turned into my mother, my only question is this:  Why stop at the second floor?  I mean, we have a large TV room.  We have a finished basement.  All of these places, like the second floor, have doors that close.   I can't ban boys from the whole house.   So I guess I shall have to follow the kids around and introduce myself repeatedly -- in a menacing tone of voice -- to all of their guests.   Or maybe just invite them all to play board games with me.   


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Has Feminism Lost the War?

I haven’t written much about the so-called Gender Wars.  This may seem odd, given that I am obviously a feminist.  I frequently drive, for example, when my husband is also in the car.  Also, I kept my maiden name after getting married.  And sometimes, I actually just call it, “my name.”   

As it turns out, though, feminism in America is on the decline.   According to a recent study, most women today no longer identify as feminists.   And most men don’t either so –no change there.  

Women’s reasons for rejecting the feminist label are mysterious – at least to me.  This is especially true because the same women who reject feminism apparently do believe in equality.  When I first saw that, I thought: Hmmm.  Maybe some of these gals just don’t really know what feminism means.  Because their friends have never posted it – in the form of a kissy face picture -- on Instagram.  But the fact is, most people – including the people who did the survey – define feminism roughly as believing in equality.

So how does feminism differ for them?   Do they think it’s outdated?  Old fashioned?   Too threatening, and aggressive?  Historically, feminism has been coupled with the word movement, which suggests moving.  And change.  Believing in equality does sound a lot nicer.  And less demanding.  And possibly even more feminine. It’s confusing for me because at the age of 40 something, I’m already a bit of a feminist dinosaur.   (As an aside, if I were a dinosaur, I’d totally be an Ankylosaurus.  Those lizards had bony tail clubs, and were threatening and aggressive.)  

But as a feminist, I’m a diehard believer.  In college, I did a consciousness-raising group (sans mirrors).  I always planned to keep “my name.”   And hello –corsets?   I can’t even wear an underwire bra without feeling like my civil rights have been a little bit violated.  Yes, I believe in feminism.  And everything it stands for.  With the possible exception of my hairy armpits in college, which probably weren’t as critical to the cause of women’s lib as I once believed.    

I still think about women's issues a lot because -- you know -- that was a steep hill of sexist shit our foremothers started to climb. Today, there are reasons to feel really encouraged about the progress of women.  Sometimes, I think we’ve almost arrived.  And then, my 8-year old daughter does a simple internet search, on the subject of peaches. And instead of learning about fruit, Google turns up a hundred porn sites.  With really nasty images.   Not one of which she can ever remove from her brain.   And I think – nope.   We aren’t even near the top yet.

So what does feminism mean to women today, such that they can't identify with it? They must know that our foremothers gave us equal opportunities, basic protections, nominal legal rights. Women are increasingly part of the boy’s club.  We can have a job, we can run our own companies.  Theoretically, at least, we can even work as professional athletes, and get a degree in math or science. 
And yet, it's also clear that inequalities remain.  And often times, the ones that remain seem more protracted, and complex, and divisive than ever.   So I wonder: now that the civil rights movement has long passed, and the word feminist is no longer associated with a visible movement, and the challenges we face are only growing more complicated every day, do the majority of women really feel that feminism is no longer necessary?  Or is it possible that they don't work for feminism because they think it's no longer working, for them?  

Take the sexual culture.  Speaking as an old school feminist, I used to think the Miss America pageant was pretty sexist.  Grown women, standing in bikinis and high heels, showcasing their talents?  But now, we have toddlers in tiaras.   American Apparel ads. Pedophilic Halloween costumes. And what should feminists do about the proliferation of -- let's call it what it is -- rapey internet porn? Caitlin Moran wrote a genius essay about stuff like that in her book, How To Be a Woman.   You should read that, because she’s smart.  She basically advocates not against porn, but for more female-friendly porn.   But not all women will agree with her, either.  And she’s a feminist.  So, I mean, it’s a slippery issue.  No pun intended. 

If some feminist issues seem very difficult, others seem a little stalled.  Periodically, for example, you read an article about how women still do most of the housework.   This inequality not only leads to a lot of frustration, and marital argument, but it significantly impacts the choices some women make about how much to work. Privately, many women will probably say that their standards are higher.   They see the dirty countertops and their husbands don’t. Ok.  But, I can't really blame women for feeling like giving up.  It’s been more than 40 years since second-wave feminism. Why are we still doing all the laundry

It’s weird because, in so many areas of human achievement, men are so capable.  They’re obviously capable of doing the following series of simple tasks, in repetitive sequence. 
  Get basket. 
  Fill it with dirty clothes. 
  Go downstairs.
  Start machine.
And yet, I know very few women whose husbands do the family laundry.  Is that because laundry is a chore that involves clothing, and the menfolk can’t relate to that?   Does the laundry repel them because it’s so different from, say, trash?  I get that.  Garbage goes from one bin to another, and then it’s done.  Whereas laundry requires us to collect a variety of fabrics -- from various locations throughout the house, some of which are bins and some of which are tables and hooks -- and then do a whole bunch of other things to them.  Or is it simply that -- more often than not -- doing the laundry involves getting up and down from the couch several times at night -- that special time of the day when the only people in the house still getting up and down from the couch are women?  

Laundry?  Right now?  So much standing up!  What does permanent press even mean?  Wait -- people clean tablecloths?

Apart from domestic equality, there are other issues that could be clouding the feminist mission for modern women, and making it hard for them to stake out a position.  If you don’t believe me, just watch two women – from different walks of life, or career perspectives -- debate breastfeeding.  Feminists taught us that breast milk was healthier for babies than commercial formula.  Particularly that kind of formula that’s made in China, and is flavored with turpentine.  

But choosing to breastfeed – or not – has never been easy.  Women who work outside the home full-time have to carry around a breast pump the size of a small artillery projectile in their handbags.  And it’s not necessarily any easier for women who don’t.   Personally, I had so many health problems from breastfeeding that I sometimes forced my poor husband to go – in my stead -- to a store called The Upper Breast Side, for special clothing, pads, and creams.   And really, let’s be honest.  The name of that store alone could turn an entire generation of women against feminism. 

The most intractable issue of all might be the dreaded “work/family balance.”  This is an issue that we never stop discussing, or disagreeing about.  And yet somehow, it changes so little.  Unlike the laundry, however, we can’t just hire someone else to do it.  Once a year, there’s a new book or article, a panel of qualified experts, and a tough female TV anchor – in a very short skirt, with a TV camera pointed right at her, um, knees -- moderating the conversation from the middle.  Wherever that is.

And you know, the fact that educated, career-minded women are still having this conversation about balancing career and family is itself a measure of progress.  We’re not defending the location of our uterus anymore, after all, or how it’s disrupting our humors.  And it must be said: a short skirt is not a corset.   That whale bone was tight, bitches.   It took like an hour to tie.   Don’t start.
Still, if someone asked me my feminist position on how to juggle work and family, I’d probably say: Um.  Make it up on the fly, however you can?  Or maybe I’m just saying that because that’s what happened to me.  When I was getting my PhD,  I never thought about how I’d juggle it all.   Somehow, I just hoped it would work out.   But when I got my first job, my spouse also had a really busy job.  In another city.  And instead of having that “easy baby” who would thrive in day care, I got one who cried and cried.  And who literally never napped for longer than 33 minutes. (As an aside, 33 minutes is a surprisingly difficult interval of time in which to accomplish personal goals.  I couldn’t even get to the Upper Breast Side and back in that time frame.)

Having choices at all is obviously a privilege.  But for most women, decisions about work and family are still made with conflicted feelings.  And a lot of anxiety.  And maybe not enough information.  And at the last minute. In my case, that meant somewhere between when the head crowned, and when I was legally contracted to show up for work.  So when I asked my new employer about working a flexible schedule, the conversation went roughly like this:
Part time? 
Then I left my job. 

To me, being a feminist means going to work full-time, raising kids full-time, or working a flexible schedule that allows for both.   But some women may not see it that way.  It’s a complex issue, with a lot of potential contradictions. And the frustrating fact is, feminists have been debating this issue forever.  Virginia Woolf wrote about it – 80 years ago – in A Room of One’s Own.  And what she basically said there was: The monks didn't plan for this nonsense.   Modern work routines and standards were not established with linen tablecloths and achy breasts -- or, as a matter of fact, women -- in mind.   Most monks probably didn’t even have kids.   Not legitimate ones, anyway.    They certainly didn’t have to take care of them.  Or be around after school to protect them from pornography on the internet.
Here is a short list of some other things that monks probably didn’t do:

Leave diaper rash instructions for the nanny.
Make triangular pb&j sandwiches for the lunches.
Fill out the yearbook forms.
Try to mend the ballet tights and eventually get new ones.
Call the cable guy, and wait all day for him.  twice.
Measure the amount of vegetarian protein in the dinner.
Take the cat to the vet.
Take the vacuum cleaner to the repair store.
Clean up the cloisters for their mothers-in-law, 

In fact, I’m pretty sure all the monks had to do – apart from wearing cool rope belts, and trying really hard not to catch Bubonic Plague – was to write their books. 

So Virginia Wolf knew this was a problem. Why then, 80 years later, is it still a problem?  And how does it relate to women’s ambivalence about feminism?  Well, I'm not sure.  But I do know a cool quote by Karl Marx:

           People make choices, but they don’t make choices within circumstances of their choosing.

Karl Marx wasn’t talking about educated western women who have financial means, or take Pilates, or drive minivans.  But I thought of this quotation in regards to feminism because --while the feminist goal of giving us the choice to work was clear and winnable -- the broader social circumstances in which we make those hard-won choices still seem very complicated.  And possibly even harder than ever to solve.
So we have choices.  Some women want to raise their kids full time, and don’t even care if their husbands can’t do laundry.  Some women are leaners, and only want to talk about merit hiring, competitive packages, and equal pay.  Some want something in between -- with on-site child care, family leave, and periodic and part time employment with benefits.         
Some (like me) just want science to figure out how to make a safe version of Ambien for infants, a hormone that allows men to breastfeed, and another one to curb the maternal instinct.  Those women might just prefer to be men.  I guess we’ll never know.  But my point is simply this: Is feminism today speaking to all of these women simultaneously, and still working for all of them?    I’m not really sure.  And I’m a feminist. 

 I’ll always be a feminist.  I think “believing in equality” sounds wishy-washy.   And we still need a word that means we’re actively climbing the hill.   But that is not, apparently, how most women see it.  I don't know how they see it, but we should probably look into it.  Maybe those women think feminism is no longer needed, because we have arrived.  Or maybe feminism -- one of the greatest inventions in human history – has won many of the battles but ultimately, lost the war.