Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: The Work Life

Week 8: Is There Room for Motherhood in Feminism?

A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me a link to a blog post by Samantha Johnson, called “When I Became a Mother, Feminism Let Me Down.” She argues that while feminism prepared her to break barriers and pursue any dream she desired, it did not prepare her for motherhood.

Motherhood was not considered to be one of those many dreams of feminists. Feminism has railed so hard against the culture of homemaker/breadwinner that now, there doesn’t seem to be much of a space to stand inside of feminism while you are a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom, for those unfamiliar with the lingo).

Johnson writes,

We are teaching our young people that there is no value in motherhood and that homemaking is an outdated, misogynistic concept. We do this through the promotion of professional progression as a marker of success, while completely devaluing the contribution of parents in the home.

Ouch.

But I have to agree.

Before having a child, I saw myself as a successful product of feminism. I had a Bachelors and a Masters degree. I had a full-time job at a university. I had presented at state and national conferences in my field. I had married a man who was also a feminist. He was the cook in our marriage, for God’s sake.

Check, check, check. And kicked-ass-while-doing-it, check.

By societal standards of success, I was doing very well.

Our culture is very good at instilling the idea that for anything important, you should engage in some kind of education or training. But the subtext underneath all of this required preparation for a career (and the pride from all of my accomplishments while engaging in that career) is that no preparation is really needed for motherhood.

Either because it’s so easy that anyone can do it? Or perhaps there’s nothing much that you can learn before actually becoming a mother?

Both of which any mother can tell you is far, far from the truth.

In my twenties, I had privately viewed the work of mothering as not as difficult as the job for which I had worked so hard to be prepared. On an arrogant day, I might have even been so bold as to believe that mothering also wasn’t as important or valued.

My logic went like this: Millions of women are mothers, but how many women can say they teach English as a second language? And if I was doing something “less” than my what I could with all of my capabilities, wasn’t that a step backward in life? How much time would I have to take off from work before I could jump back in? Would I still be able to travel and present at conferences?

Would I be as proud of myself for being a mother as I was being a teacher? Would “mother” be a title that I would use to introduce myself to others at parties? And if not, why not?

And then I turned 30.

Tick. Tock.

***

Having a child changed our lives for sure, but our changes haven’t mirrored some of the national trends.

Unlike many American women, I didn’t have to quit my job to stay at home with the baby. We live in Ohio, where the cost of living is still very reasonable and the commutes are not bad. We make enough money jointly to be able to afford daycare (even though it’s still extremely expensive).

But I can’t deny that I’m not reaching for the stars anymore. I’m doing my job but I have to admit, I bristle at the thought of working evenings and weekends. And gone are the days when I would fuss and fret over a task until it was “just so.”

Unh-uh. Ain’t nobody got time for that anymore.

Sometimes, I think about the trajectory of my career now that I’m in the middle of “small-child-dom.” It would be nice to do something a little different than what I’ve been doing for the last twelve years… but good health insurance.

Ah, to rise so “high”, only to be stymied by family responsibilities and health insurance.

“High” is in quotation marks, of course.

That’s exactly the problem. The modern vision of what it means to “succeed” never, ever depends on having children–although plenty of “successful” people have kids. Children are definitely part of the vision that we have for a modern American family (and if you don’t have kids, people definitely notice and make comments, regardless of the reason).

But when was the last time that you watched a movie where a character was being portrayed as “successful” and that character’s success depended on their role as a parent? (See the bachelor version of Nicholas Cage in The Family Man.)

Usually, the plot of the movie is that the character needs to discover that, hey, being a parent is actually a hell of a lot more important than the job that makes you money (See Adam Sandler in Click!).

***

All of this reminds me of a recent episode of the podcast, On Point with Tim Ashbrook. In the episode called “A Scathing Critique of Contemporary Feminism,” author and writer, Jessa Crispin explains that feminism has gotten away from one of its main goals–to change systems of oppression. Instead, it has become a movement that seeks to elevate women further and further into the upper echelons of systems that have benefited mostly men. Instead of changing the system, feminism has inspired some women to not only join the system, but rise higher and higher inside of it. While it works out fantastically for those women (what company doesn’t love to brag about how many women it has in upper management?), it leaves the rest of us in the dust.

Or perhaps more fittingly, either unemployed or underemployed.

Her commentary gave me a lot to think about.

In the feminist view, what is “success?”

How do we talk to our children about what it means to be “successful?” And what changes do we need to make in our own minds about what success is so that we may instill a different understanding of success for the next generation?

rosie

On Using the Snotsucker: A Letter to My Colleague

nosefrida_inaction

Last weekend, one of my colleagues became a father for the first time. Thinking we had plenty of time, our work planned to have a baby shower for them today. Well, life happens, and his wife gave birth a full three weeks before her due date.

A healthy (8 pound!) baby girl.

Our work is still hosting a shower for them today. And frankly, my hat is off to these new parents if they actually show up to this shower when their baby is not even one week old yet.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend.

Still, I wanted to do something nice for them, beyond the typical baby registry items. So I emailed my colleague and asked him what they still needed. He requested some diapers, size 3, for the future. I got those.

But what else?

What else could I get them that would actually be something they would really need as first-time parents?

Then it came to me.

The Nosefrida.

A.K.A. “The Snotsucker”

nosefrida

But such a gift would require some explanation.

So here is the letter that I wrote to go along with my colleague’s gift.

***

Colleague,

Okay, so listen.

Your baby is going to get sick.

Maybe (hopefully) not right away. But she will get sick. And it’s going to suck. Big time. Not just because it hurts to see your kid in pain, but also because you don’t get any sleep if your kid doesn’t get any sleep.

And your kid can’t sleep if she’s so congested with thick mucus that she keeps coughing. And bonus, she can’t blow her nose either.

So with that in mind, I’m presenting you with several items that can help you get through a bad cold. Not all colds will require this level of care. But—God forbid—if she gets RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), getting out that thick mucus could save you from a trip to Children’s Medical Center (and the hefty bill that goes along with that.)

Looking at the Nosefrida (A.K.A. “The Snotsucker”), I know what you might be thinking.

Ain’t no way I’m doing that to my kid! Sick! That’s sooo gross! Forget it!

I thought that, too. And hey, I completely understand the repulsion that drives you to arrive at that decision. In fact, go ahead and continue to think that. You are totally justified in thinking that. It seems rational. It makes sense now.

You’re thinking, I hate snot! You don’t understand. I really have a gag reflex. I’ll puke all over my kid at the very thought of sucking snot out of my kid’s nose!

Yes, I know how you’re feeling. Go ahead and continue to feel that way.

As long as your child is healthy.

But when it’s 2:00 a.m. and your kid has been coughing and coughing and coughing… And you know she’s not going to get better unless she sleeps… And you are out of your mind without sleep… You’ll try anything.

So when you’re ready to “try anything,” here’s what you do.

  • Get your wife. You will need two people to do this.
  • One of you holds your daughter’s head in place. She’s not going to like this at first.
  • The other person sprays the saline mist into each nostril. Be prepared. Your daughter is going to cough. And if she’s a hefty cougher, she might take it too far and actually puke. It probably won’t happen. But better to be prepared.
  • Get the Nosefrida. Make sure the blue spongy filter is in place.
  • Put the light blue end of the Nosefrida up to your baby’s nostrils. Pin the other nostril closed with your finger.
  • Put the red part of the Nosefrida into your mouth.
  • Suck in air. As hard as you can. If you need to empty the gunk in the blue tube into the sink before doing the other side, do that.
  • Repeat on the other side.
  • Wipe your baby’s nose with a Boogie Wipe. They will keep her nose from getting too raw.

wipes

  • Evaluate if you need to repeat. Listen to her to determine if her breathing is less rattling.
  • Comfort her back to sleep in whatever way works for her.
  • If you have a humidifier (and I recommend you get one), turn it on close enough to where she sleeps so her breathing passages don’t get too dry. This is especially useful in the winter.

So there are my tips for getting through that first awful cold. Like I said, not every cold is going to require this level of care. But some do. And having things on hand to help you get through it will make life a lot easier.

One last little truth. Even though taking care of a baby can be tough, the love that you have for your child numbs you to how hard it really is. You’ll get through it.

Wishing you both all the very best,

Sharon

(P.S. Here is my cell phone number in case you need clarification on what to do.)

I Took a Nap Today

nap

I don’t think I can overstate the importance of this title.

Guys, listen up: I took a nap today.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have been going, going, going since Monday, March 28th. It’s my own damn fault for saying yes to too many good opportunities to develop my career and my writing. Everything just kind of converged into one hot, continuous mess for the past three weeks. As I mentioned in a previous post, I knew I would feel better once I had gotten past these last few weeks, but I’ve forgotten how wonderful sleep can feel when you’ve been going and going and going for weeks on end.

As I’ve been planning and traveling and conferencing and networking and teaching and grading and mothering, I’ve realized that a huge source of stress comes from my introverted nature.

As an introvert, I’m happiest when I have time to process an experience. I thrive on having a bit of downtime to make sense of conversations with people I’ve just met or interesting presentations that sparked an idea. I like the experience, but I also like the time to process. And now that I’m a mother, all that time that I used to have within my reach to power down and process… It’s pretty much gone.

My thinking is now done in the car. On the way to work. On the way to daycare.

It’s done in the shower.

It’s done during that blessed hour or so of nap time on the weekends. (How will I survive when she drops her nap? What will I do when we have two kids? Thoughts for another time I guess.)

Parenting when you’re an introvert feels like you’re constantly trying to come up for air before you’re pushed down under the current again. And as an artist, I’m especially prone to feeling this way, as Kim Brooks explains in her fantastic essay, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom.”

Today, I’m breathing deep. Grateful for the air. And ready to keep on going.

Traveling

flying-traveling-travelling-airplane.jpg

Take your life and put it away

Take what you need and pack a bag

Two for free, one for pay

Park your car and take a plane

You’ve carved out some time, that’s great

I know it’s hard to get away

One day, a mother, now you’ve changed

You’re teacher, colleague, just some new face

Your mind is in this room, this place

But your heart is still three states away

Yes, feel guilty. No, it’s okay.

Can you call at least three times a day?

She needs your voice. She needs your face.

She asks for you when there’s too much space.

Miss you, too, but I’m okay.

I’ll be back soon. I’m being safe.

Night-night, honey. Be good. Love you.

I’ll see you soon.

I promise.

You too.

Excuse me while…

I hyperventilate.

As my personal, career, and writing lives all collide in massive, continuous explosions for the next three weeks.

Round one of quizzes/tests/assessments.

Midterm grades.

Midterm conferences.

Oh yeah, and keep teaching.

Coordinating, coordinating, coordinating.

Presenting to university faculty. Presenting at a conference.

Meet and plan class with the practicum student. She needs to start teaching in two weeks!

Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop (and all the lesson planning for subs so I can attend said workshop).

TESOL 2016 Convention (and all the lesson planning for subs so I can attend said convention).

Flights. Hotels. Taxis and mass transit. Receipts, receipts, expense report within the week please!

You’ve been selected to be observed by one of the reviewers for our accreditation! They’ll need a lesson plan. Can you submit it before you leave for TESOL? 

Don’t forget your performance review is coming up! Everything needs to be updated. Tell us everything that you did in the past year to develop yourself. And you need new goals for next year. Got to keep growing! 

Church get-togethers.

That one kid’s birthday party.

Can you get the groceries before you come home on Friday? I guess after that dinner you’re going to?

More diapers. Oh my God, enough with the diapers already! Sit on the potty every time! I know you’re doing it at school!

Post-Its hanging from the sides of my computer monitor. Post-Its hanging from the bottom of other Post-Its.

I’m surrounded by Post-Its.

IMG_20160331_072135

It’s a kind of nightmare–all these reminders of things to not forget.

I realize in a few weeks, I’ll be fine. I’ll be thankful to have had all of these opportunities. I’ll feel like, What was the big deal anyway?

But right now, hyperventilating.

Okay. Now, I’m done.

Onward.

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

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