Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: feminism

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We are teaching our young people that there is no value in motherhood and that homemaking is an outdated, misogynistic concept.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

Week 6: A Great Time to Return to Work

Not.

It’s no secret that parental leave in the United States blows big time. Until now, the most our government has been able to approve is the Family Medical Leave Act (1993), which guarantees that employees won’t lose their jobs while they take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave related to family responsibilities, which can include giving birth.

Go us.

Hard-line Republicans would say that government has no business in providing paid leave to its citizens, regardless of the reason. That’s simply not the role of government. We don’t want to become a “nanny-state,” do we?

And why should workers be paid when they’re not working? Says the hard-nosed capitalist who views human beings solely as workers, completely divorced of any human attachment that might decrease their productivity.

In her book, “O

(Sorry, just needed to spend 40 minutes feeding and soothing a baby. Ahem.)

In her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte describes capitalism’s “ideal worker” as

“…freed from all home duties, [he] devotes himself completely to the workplace. He is a face-time warrior, the first one in in the morning and the last to leave at night. He is rarely sick. Never takes a vacation, or brings work along if he does. The ideal worker can jump on a plane whenever the boss asks because someone else is responsible for getting the kids off to school or attending the preschool play… So tied to the job is the ideal worker that he works endless hours, even if it costs him his health and his family” (p. 77).

Obviously, there is no room in this ideal worker for care-taking. Also, this ideal worker is decidedly male.

Maybe we should neither be surprised or dismayed by this. After all, we have a capitalist economy. But pure capitalism won’t survive, my friend. Pure capitalism is calculating, cold, and ultimately cruel. If we all adhere purely to capitalism, there would be no more room for care-taking of any kind.

As long as we don’t see our country longitudinally, we’re fine. As long as only the present matters, we’re fine.

After all, pure capitalism can make a generation great.

But the generation that came before and the generation that comes after will suffer for it.

As long as our country doesn’t need to a future, capitalism is splendid.

But back to parental

(Sorry, had to rock a screaming baby to sleep once again. Also, I had a bowl of Grapenuts with one hand while holding the pacifier in the baby’s mouth with the other hand. Also, Terminator Genisys is playing in the background. I’m missing a lot of the plot points, but it doesn’t seem to matter. And for as much as I like Emilia Clarke as Daenerys, I’m not crazy about her in this movie.)

Let me summarize my rambling, because this was supposed to be a post about the lack of parental leave in this country.

What I’m saying is that our country’s capitalistic view of screw-your-need-for-parental-leave-there’s-nothing-in-it-for-the-company is dangerously short-sighted.

But, in fact, there is something in it for the company.

A future, healthy, educated workforce to do their future, highly-skilled jobs.

People like this don’t just grow out of the ground.

They start as babies. Cared for by tired, invisible, and underappreciated hands. Mostly by mothers who have either dropped out of the workplace or are pausing their careers as they take time off to give birth and provide care.

They start as children. Educated by underpaid, overworked teachers.

They end as old people. Cared for, once again, by tired, invisible, and underappreciated hands. Sometimes by their children. Sometimes, by nursing homes, where the care-takers make a few dollars more than minimum wage.

This care-taking is work, even if it is done with love.

It’s work that is done behind the scenes.

It’s work that creates the pedestal on which the Ideal Worker stands.

Now, excuse me, the baby is crying again.

IMG_3958

Sometimes, this is how you have to nap. (Moving your hand is *not* optional.)

Why Women Have 20-Week Abortions

You are pregnant.

(Just go with me.)

You met your husband in your 30s. It took a while for you to find the right one, but you did. You waited a few years before thinking about having kids. Then, you started trying. Everyone else was getting pregnant so easily, so you thought it would happen without much effort.

Six months go by.

Then a year.

You’re 35.

You start visiting the experts. You take medications and injections. You and your husband are put through the wringer. You spend $20,000 of your own money.

But it works.

The two lines on the test confirm it.

You are pregnant.

But now, the anxiety sets in. You want to know that everything is okay. You wonder why doctors haven’t invented some special at-home ultrasound for you to check out your uterus everyday. Your bloodwork is normal. The genetic tests have come back normal, but you ask them not to tell you the baby’s gender. Not just yet.  You want to have that moment at your 20-week ultrasound.

When you’re 18 weeks pregnant, you finally feel it.

The baby moves. It kicks you. You rush to your husband so he can feel it too, but it’s still too early for him to feel anything.

You relax a little.

When the day of the 20-week ultrasound comes, you are more excited than nervous. You both stare at the ultrasound screen, not quite sure what you’re seeing. You’re smiling. You’re ecstatic even. Waiting for the technician to tell you if it’s a boy or a girl.

But she is quiet as she moves the wand on your belly. You see feet and legs, kicking and squirming. You see hands and a chest.

“So, you’ve got a little girl,” she tells you.

You cry. Because you were hoping for a girl.

But the technician is still quiet.

“I need to run some measurements by the doctor,” she says as she places the wand in its cradle. “Just one second.”

Your heart bottoms out.

***

The doctor says a word that you’ve never heard before.

Anencephaly.

…baby has no brain… incompatible with life… cannot survive…

But you’re not listening anymore.

Your thoughts are running wild.

You know it’s your fault. You should have gotten pregnant earlier. Why did you selfishly wait to try?

You should have taken more folic acid. That’s what causes brain defects like this.

And then there was that time that you went through those full-body scanners at the airport when you flew home to see your parents for Christmas. All that radiation couldn’t have been good.

And didn’t you have a spicy tuna roll in those first few days of pregnancy, before the test came back positive? That was careless.

You don’t deserve to be a mom.

Get a clue. Spend your energy elsewhere because you’re not cut out for this.

But…

When can we try again? Maybe it will be better next time. Next time, I’ll be more careful. Next time, I won’t take any risks, no matter how small they seem. I swear.

Somehow, you manage to ask the question. You’re not crying. You’re completely numb. As the words come out of your mouth, it doesn’t even sound like you saying them.

“Do you know when we can try again? Because… I’m going to be 36 soon. It took us a few years to get pregnant… and I just…” You can’t finish your sentence.

He tells you that you can start trying again when you’re ready. After you deliver this baby.

Right, you think. I still have a baby in me.

***

You spend the evening sobbing, your thoughts still running wild. You google anencephaly and you almost throw up. You google pictures of babies that have it. Actual babies who are born with it. You read miracle stories of babies surviving anencephaly.

Your husband holds you, but he has nothing to offer except his own tears.

Your head is throbbing, but you don’t want to take any medication because… Then you realize that you no longer have a reason to be careful anymore.

You toss back some Excedrin. You think about having some wine, but you can’t bring yourself to do it.

When you wake up the next day, you lie there in the morning light, your hand on your still-so-small belly. You talk to your baby.

You tell your husband, “I cannot do this. I want this to be over.”

You call the doctor. You talk about abortion. You want to know whether they use anesthetics so the baby won’t feel any pain.

And that is when you find out.

You don’t have a choice.

You will have to give birth to this child–because in the state of Ohio, it is now illegal to end the pregnancy.

You cannot believe it. Your child won’t live. You are suffering. You cannot do another day of this. And now you might be carrying this pregnancy for another 20 weeks.

***

But that’s not what happens.

That would have been much more merciful.

At 23 weeks, your water breaks.

You give birth.

Your baby tries to breathe, but she turns blue. Her lungs are underdeveloped. She makes a horrible noise that no mother should have to hear.

But she keeps trying.

It takes your little girl three hours to die.

In your arms.

***

On its face, this is a fictional story. But it is made up of a collection of stories that I have heard and read from other women who have walked this terrible path. A story like this can, and probably will, happen in the state of Ohio next year.

Because on December 13, 2016, Governor Kasich officially signed a 20-week abortion ban. No exceptions for rape, incest, fetal anomalies, and “only very limited exceptions for women’s health.”

Twenty-week abortion bans have become more and more common. Seventeen states now have similar 20-week abortion bans.

I know, I know. Some of you are thinking, Please. This emotional, fictional story that you just told doesn’t represent all 20-week abortions. I know a lot of those babies didn’t have any problems at all.

So, let’s look at some facts.

How many women would the state of Ohio stop from having abortions after 20 weeks?

In 2014, it was 510 women (Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions, p. 9).

That was 2% of all abortions performed in that year.

Out of those 510 abortions, how many do you think were performed on viable fetuses?

One.

One abortion.

The other 509 abortions were performed on non-viable fetuses.

***

One of the main reasons that women have abortions after 20 weeks is because they have just learned that their child has a terminal diagnosis. And carrying these pregnancies can put the mother’s life at risk.

This is Mindy Swank. Here, she talks about how she was forced to carry a non-viable pregnancy because her Catholic hospital wouldn’t perform an abortion.

“…he tried to breathe, he was turning blue… he wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t a magical time, like people think.”

Or how about this interview with a woman who had an abortion at 32 weeks?

Or this woman who had an abortion at 21 weeks because her baby had half a heart?

Or the women mentioned in NARAL’s 2016 report entitled “Abortion Bans at 20 Weeks: A Dangerous Restriction for Women”?

These are just a few women who have had to face the reality of how 20-week abortion bans affect women’s physical and emotional health.

***

But let me be pro-life for a moment.

Let me acknowledge that some of you are reading this and thinking, Okay, fine, but I’ve read articles that have talked about women who get third-trimester abortions on perfectly healthy babies! And I won’t stand for that! It’s not right! If those women weren’t so selfish, someone could adopt that baby, someone who could give it a wonderful life!

Let’s assume you are right. Let’s assume there are women who are ending viable pregnancies after 20 weeks.

You know what?

That woman’s right to end her viable pregnancy is intertwined with another woman’ right to end her non-viable pregnancy.

The truth is, not many of these 20-week abortion bans that have been passed in individual states make a distinction between mothers seeking abortions for a non-viable versus a viable fetus.

They’re all lumped together.

Just as they are in the state of Ohio now.

Banning 20-week abortions isn’t simply a matter of “protecting life.”

At least in Ohio, a ban on 20-week abortions doesn’t save babies from certain death because many of these babies will not survive.

Instead, a ban like this amplifies the already unimaginable grief that some pregnant women bear.

The truth is, women in Ohio will soon be forced to carry non-viable pregnancies, regardless of how they feel about it.

There’s nothing pro-life about that.

Portrait of a White, Suburban Ohio, College-Educated Woman on Election Day 2016

I wake up at 6:00 a.m.

I roll from my side to my back, feeling the weight of 29 weeks of pregnancy.

I put on some maternity leggings, several layers, and the ever-so-sexy pregnancy belt.

Carrying 27 pounds of extra weight, I walk and jog in the cool darkness, the road lit by the occasional lamp post. I watch my heart rate rise and fall.

I count the political signs.

I run on.

At 6:45, I return home and wake up my husband.

Our three-year-old daughter, still asleep in her bed.

I make her lunch and set out her vitamins.

I eat a bowl of oatmeal, topped with raspberries.

Take a breath.

Climb the stairs to coax the kid out of bed.

She is pissed.

Her voice is hoarse, so I know she’s getting sick.

Through screaming and tears and some negotiation, we get her dressed and vitamin-ed.

Then off to daycare.

In the car, she asks for music. I played her favorite, Grouplove’s Tongue Tied.

Then, she bursts into tears.

Yeah, she’s feeling pretty miserable, I think.

I set out her breakfast once we are in her preschool room. Today, she insists that she does not want milk on her cereal.

She gives me a hug. And a kiss.

Across from daycare, the church is a polling place. There is extra traffic. Turning left without a stop sign or stoplight is a nightmare.

Back at home, I make a second breakfast. Because pregnancy.

Eggs and English muffin. And coffee. Because second pregnancy.

I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition.

Shower. Dress for work. Make-up.

My husband is running behind.

So we decide to vote together.

We have a nice conversation in line for 30 minutes. We talk about last night’s dinner with friends. Our daughter. Our church. His work’s potluck.

Then, we vote.

Because we are Americans.

Because we are parents.

Because we are feminists.

Because time moves forward. Not backward.

We hold hands on the way out. Give each other a quick kiss and hug.

We go to work.

voting

A Response to “Meternity” author, Meghann Foye

Few things incite my anger as quickly as the characterization of maternity leave as “vacation.”

In a recent interview with the New York Post about her new novel, Meternity, author Meghann Foye suggests that maternity leave allows mothers to take a step back from their lives and find their focus. She reports that she felt “envious” that mothers would leave the office to pick their kids up while she stayed behind to “pick up the slack.” Her sentiments led her to believe…

… in the value of a “meternity” leave — which is, to me, a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.

After reading this interview, I was infused with rage and resentment. I ranted about this interview to some colleagues (because I read it at work–where I actually have a few moments to read something on the Internet).

I am far from the only one. Here’s what Jenn Mann, author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat, posted about MeternityAnd if that’s not enough, take a look at the Amazon reviews for the novel that started this whole mess.

meternity

Understandably, hoards of American mothers have rushed to the social media crime scene of Meternity to put in their own two cents about Foye’s misguided attempt at humor. Many of their comments focus on their frustration about the fact that Foye has completely misrepresented maternity leave. This is true. Foye presents “meternity leave” as a parallel path for women without children to take in order to focus on self-discovery.

But she misses the mark completely.

Her concept of “meternity” isn’t parallel to maternity leave–it’s the exact opposite.

Which is why mothers are so freakin’ pissed.

***

Contrary to what Foye assumes, when I was on maternity leave, I had never before thought so little about what wanted in life. What I wanted–nay, needed!–in life was at the very, very bottom of the priority list.

Time for reflection? When?

Here’s 24 hours with a newborn. Midnight-1:00: nurse, change, soothe. 2:00-3:00: nurse, change, soothe. 4:00-5:00: nurse, change, soothe. Etc. And that’s when everything is going well. Throw in some bouts of baby gas, constipation, colic, the fact that you haven’t showered in three days or that you’ve got four visitors in your home… I think I may be preaching to the choir on this point.

The first time I was able to finally step back and reflect was when I returned to work and my daughter was in daycare. While Foye sees “meternity leave” as a way to reflect on her life, the reality is the privileged American mothers who actually have maternity leave need to end it in order to have the time and space to reflect.

And let’s not forget all the American mothers who don’t get maternity leave, be it paid or unpaid. Then, there’s the mothers who must return to work ASAP because they’ve run out of vacation days and sick leave (two unfortunate misnomers that feed the ignorance about maternity leave). And what about the mothers who stay home and are immersed in care-taking day in and day out? Are their lives full of reflection?

It’s no wonder that so many mothers are absolutely incensed that (once again) care-taking has been written off as a kind of leisure activity.

***

Meghann, let’s level with each other. It is especially hurtful to hear maternity leave compared to a vacation when it comes from another woman. I’m assuming you’ve experienced times when you’ve been the target of presumptive, uninformed judgments from men who don’t have a clue.

But let me be fair, Meghann. You have indeed made a spot-on observation about maternity leave:

From the outside, it seemed like those few weeks of (new mothers) shifting their focus to something other than their jobs gave them a whole new lens through which to see their lives.

You are right, Meghann–but it’s not because new mothers simply have time off from work, which is how you envision “meternity leave.”

The reason that mothers emerge with a new focus is because they have been plunged into a nonstop, grueling training program that schooled them in quickly distinguishing what was important and what was simply window dressing. Through pain, blood, and tears, they learned how to put aside hunger, frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt in order to find the strength to keep mothering.

They learned how to get rid off all the noise and distractions in order to find a place to drop the anchor so they could hold on while the storm waged on.

That’s how mothers redirected their focus. That’s how they “found” themselves. Not by traveling and thinking and reading and ruminating. They did it through boots-on-the-ground training, every hour of every day for weeks. And then for months. They did it through self-denial, arguments with their spouses, and constant reassessments of how and when they could have social lives and personal time.

Becoming a mother is an ongoing lesson in humility, beginning from that obvious (yet still surprising!) realization that your baby cannot thank you for getting up four times at night. Your baby doesn’t thank you for suffering with a torn vagina just so he could emerge into this world. In fact, your baby can’t even really have a conversation with you for another two years.

So those early weeks of new motherhood are training for a lifetime of not being thanked or even acknowledged. And while we continue to feel annoyance and frustration about this, new motherhood does a remarkable job of tempering our emotional reactions.

But everyone has their limits.

So maybe you can understand why we get pissed when one of our own gender joins in the obliviousness of calling maternity leave a vacation. We get frustrated because what we do during our leave is often done in the dark, with no thanks or acknowledgement.

In fact, that is one of the reasons that I wrote my book, Becoming Mother. When I was pregnant, I noticed that there was a true dearth of books that actually took a pregnant woman into what it’s like to become a mother. There were plenty of books about the physical side, but nothing really that dealt with the emotional and mental upheaval, which is truly what makes maternity leave so necessary for coping with new motherhood.

When I was experiencing those first weeks of motherhood, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about this? This is insane! This is so unbelievably hard that I can’t believe no one talks about this.” And while there were plenty of books on first-time motherhood that took the shape of humorous confessions, no one was really being real with me.

So I wrote a book that would be real with new mothers.

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

I wrote it to cast light on the hidden side of maternity leave.

I did this so that others could sympathize and perhaps even advocate for new mothers. After all, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave–and that won’t change as long as this country holds onto the myth–even jokingly–that maternity leave is a vacation.

***

While everyone seems to be having their pound of flesh over the absurdity of Meternity, I’m looking for my compassion for Meghann.

Okay, she doesn’t have children yet. Okay, maybe the closest she has come to someone who has taken maternity leave is her view of the empty desk that she sees at work. But the gravest error that Meghann has made is choosing a subject that she doesn’t know much about. And then going so far as to write a novel about it. And then approaching that subject from an angle that provokes the ire of millions of mothers.

Put simply, her gravest error is a lack of humility.

But I’m venturing to guess that she might be learning that lesson now.

I could have written off this whole concept of “meternity” as very poor taste and a lack of social awareness. I could have just rolled my eyes, stewed at my desk while eating my lunch in fifteen minutes (so I could finish grading final exams–because I don’t have time to grade at home), but this is too important of a moment to let it go.

This is the moment when we need to say something. This is the moment when we say, “Knock it off with the vacation comparisons, already.”

It’s not funny.

It’s not even cute.

At best, it’s feeding a culture of misunderstanding.

At worst, it mocks what mothers of newborns actually experience.

Beautiful, The Bitch

When I was a teenage girl, I had very little in common with Beautiful.

I was sure of it.

Here is what Beautiful and I shared:

  • I was white.
  • I had long hair.
  • I had pretty good skin.

That was it.

I met Beautiful for the first time in the public library, where I spent Saturdays paging through crinkled copies of Teen. And if I was being really adventurous, it was Seventeen.

Beautiful was white, tall, and thin. She had straight, white teeth. Thin legs, small hips, flat stomach. A flat, flat stomach. I cannot overemphasize flat. She had boobs, although I had no idea what size they were. I just knew they were bigger than mine. She usually had long, straight hair, and it was usually light brown or blond. She could spin in place, her hair perfectly fanning against the wind. She wore short dresses and high heels. Her skin was flawless and her eyes were dark and drew you into her stare.

Seventeen_magazine_1994

It only took me 2 minutes to find a picture of Beautiful.

Real women were like Beautiful. Other women existed, yes, but you didn’t want to look like them because their lives were sad. They never really got what they wanted.

But not Beautiful.

Beautiful always got what she wanted. Simply because she was Beautiful. Beautiful could make a man forget everything that he valued. She could change his mind. She could consume him.

This unspoken narrative was parroted everywhere I looked.

Teen_magazine_1993

This is how I first learned that women achieve their goals through manipulating men. By using their bodies.

And let’s be clear about what the chief goal was: to be loved by a man. Being the recipient of a man’s love was the pinnacle of female existence.

My male readers (I know I have a few) might be thinking at this point, Who cares! Why are women so hell-bent on being like Beautiful? Can’t they recognize that these are advertisements? Don’t they realize that guys don’t really care about all of that?

Well, no, girls don’t really know that. Especially young girls.

Young girls gaze out at the world and see that the women who are happy in every known form of media look at least a little like Beautiful. And the ones that don’t look like Beautiful are constantly cut down to size, derided, and Internet-shamed (see Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, etc.) to remind them that they are breaking the rules.

***

I was 10 years old when I first started gazing out at the world and noticing what made women happy and how. It was all so clear to me–the women who were happy and had great lives were Beautiful. They were married and had great jobs.

This was also when I first realized how different I was from Beautiful.

I tried a lot of horrifyingly awkward ways of shaping and changing my hair and my body so that I resembled Beautiful. I put my faith in Cover Girl and Pantene and Gillette.

Being like Beautiful required that I stop being free and start learning the rules.

It’s when I started caring about leg hair and body odor and matching my clothes. It’s when I learned where I should buy my clothes. And because I was too poor to buy my clothes from those stores, I quickly learned where I could buy cheap imitations, hoping that no one would notice.

I learned how to pee in a public bathroom without farting and if–God forbid–I had to actually poop, I learned how to do it as quietly and discreetly as possible, for fear that another girl would know that I was currently pooping.

I learned how to hide.

How to suck it in.

How to button it up.

Which clothes would cover my rolls.

Which ones would give me the appearance of boobs.

I learned which masks to put on. The aw-so-sweet-I’m-gonna-cry one. The I’m-so-surprised one. The I’m-so-angry-with-you-until-you-apologize one.

I learned all of these rules through shame–either directed at me or at another girl. I quickly learned the reasons that you could be worthy of teasing. And I made it my ultimate goal to never, ever be singled out.

It was the reason that I preferred to be silent much of the time at school. Most people never make fun of the girl who never talks. She’s not an obvious target. I tried to blend in as much as possible. I opened up only to my close friends, many of whom also shared the same fears.

Although I wanted desperately to look like Beautiful, I didn’t.

I was Overweight. Shy. Weak. Spineless. Powerless. Voiceless.

But I was also Pure. Good. Obedient. Trustworthy. Godly.

Over the course of my teenage years the pounds kept coming and coming until I was 50 pounds overweight in my junior year of high school.

I clung to the promise of the Ugly-Duckling narrative that was played out in countless teen movies like She’s All That. I told myself that someone, somewhere out there would someday see how beautiful I was on the inside. Because, ultimately, the world is a place of justice and fairness.

***

But when I was 17 years old, I starved my way from 195 pounds to 155 pounds in four months.

Yeah.

Why?

A boy, of course.

Even though we clicked on all other levels, he told me that he couldn’t be with someone that he didn’t find attractive.

Well, that’s it. I thought. I’m done believing that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Fuck. That.

I’m not terribly proud of this. It shows how much I hated myself. It shows that I derived my own self-worth through the eyes of someone else. That I thought that I was so ugly and fat that I didn’t deserve food. That I thought that the only way I would ever be happy would be if a man loved me. And I couldn’t be loved unless I stopped looking like myself and started looking like Beautiful.

So I starved myself.

And what happened?

He started to like me.

And it wasn’t just him. One of the security guards during my night shift at Target started to blush whenever I talked to him. One of the stock guys said, “You losing weight? It looks nice.” (It. Not you.) I got hit on by male customers while cashiering. One guy even had the balls to ask for my phone number, his wingman digging his elbow into his ribs to urge him on.

Holy shit, I thought, completely flushed as I clumsily declined his offer and turned away. I have to learn how to turn guys down now.

It was the power that I dreamed of.

But it made me feel like everything that I had reassured myself–that true beauty was on the inside–was nothing but bullshit.

It made me feel like Beautiful had been right.

What a smug Bitch.

***

But being like Beautiful left me feeling empty.

Now that I was like Beautiful, now that I could turn heads, is that really wanted I wanted for myself? Did I really enjoy being objectified and positively judged simply because of how I looked? Is that really the way that I wanted to spend my life? Achieving what I wanted by using men?

And if my answer to these question was yes, what kind of a person was I? I would lead a self-centered, egotistical existence, caring nothing for the hearts that I would trample on along the way. And weren’t women supposed to be nurturing? Caring? Loving?

Can you see the conundrum that I faced?

Now that I had this power, I didn’t want it. I wanted the universe to take it back.

***

But perhaps the biggest problem of all was this: Beautiful was a Bitch.

I didn’t like the idea of becoming Beautiful the Bitch.

I wanted to be better than her. I wanted to be Beautiful + 1. I wanted to have the waist, the hips, and the boobs of Beautiful because it would give me power.

But I wouldn’t use that power.

I wanted to be Beautiful because it was an implicit, persuasive argument–even if it was irrational and unfair. I knew that Beautiful was powerful. And I had seen enough to know that everyone listened to Beautiful when she talked.

But I would be different. I would be like the right-handed knight that fights with his left hand for a challenge. Even though I could use my looks, I would use my wit instead. I would surprise people. They might not say it, but they would think, Damn, she’s smart. Not what I expected. Or maybe they would think, She could be so full of herself, but she’s really down-to-earth. Wow.

I would turn Beautiful on her head. I would make people rethink Beautiful to the point that it would kill her.

***

Of course, none of that happened.

Beautiful is still alive and well.

And while I am starting to see the last ten years creep into the corners of my face, Beautiful is still that ageless, flawless wonder.

My desire to be like Beautiful has become more lukewarm these days. I have thankfully moved past those days of extreme self-denial when I believed I was undeserving. It took a relationship built on discovering and celebrating what made each of us Amazing. We redefined Beautiful to include intelligence, drive, compassion, openness, and even forgiveness.

It has changed how I feel about Beautiful.

I realized that I wanted more than what Beautiful could get by herself. Beautiful got lust, but not love. Envy, but not friendship. Pride, but not acceptance.

When I see Beautiful now, I see that she is that smug, bitchy friend who was terrified of someone realizing that she was nothing special. She never bothered to explore who she could really be because being what everyone else wanted was enough. It made her one-dimensional. If you turned her to the side, she would completely disappear, leaving not even a trace.

And that is not how I want to live my life. I want to be remembered. I want to leave not just trace, but a trail.

***

When I look in the mirror today, I see a version of Beautiful.

Sharon_2015

But I also see that 17-year-old girl, who was desperate for someone to love her because she thought it was the only way she could ever be happy. I still feel her broken heart. I still hear her vicious thoughts, full of self-loathing and shame.

Ugly. Fat. Uncool. Poor. 

Sharon_1998

1998: Tenth grade

Ugly thoughts. Truly, ugly thoughts.

I wish I could go back in time and give her a hug. I wish I could tell her to open her eyes and her heart so that she can see that Beautiful is just another way to control women and mold them into being lifelong consumers of products that will never solve all of their “problems.” I wish I could tell her that Beautiful is a Bitch and that if a guy only wants Beautiful, let him go. Because Beautiful is a myth.

And you can never become a myth when you’re Real.

I wish I could undo all the damaging messages that Beautiful has whispered into her ears. I wish I could help her be as carefree and wholehearted as this little girl.

Sharon_1991

1991: Fourth grade

This girl cared more about learning about the planets and stars and her multiplication tables than matching her clothes. She loved a good book, especially Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club. She looked forward to reading all Saturday afternoon at the library. When she had a question, she asked and didn’t feel stupid.

She played on the playground like it was no one’s business. She ran and sweated and got dirty. She sang out loud with abandon. She never thought twice about saying exactly what she thought because she believed wholeheartedly that people would always be kind and accepting. Because God made people. And God is love.

This girl didn’t realize that she lived in a working class family–or even that this was something that people found shameful.

This girl made decisions based on what she thought was interesting and fun, not based on what she thought other people might not tease her about.

Like all mothers, I want a better world for my own daughter. A world of diversity and openness rather than selectivity and judgment. Where the goal is to seek to understand ourselves and each other better, rather than trying to reshape ourselves so that they fit into acceptable boxes that make it easier for us to determine whose voice should be valued and respected.

I wish that there were some magical way of doing this.

I wish the hands of a Just God would reach down into our nations and instill in our cultures an equal respect for both genders. Perhaps then, women would be more equally represented in the upper echelons of our government and corporations and institutions.

There’s a saying that I hear a lot in my church. I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or not, but I like it.

They say, God’s work. Our hands.

I know that this is how real social change happens. By each of us putting our hands into the messy work of change. And every day, I am doing that. Every day, I’m showing my daughter what it means to be a woman who loves herself.

Valentine_picure

The Bad Boy

The first time I met a man, I was twelve years old.

It was a Friday night in 1993 and I had just finished bowling with my friend, “Angela,” who lived just two houses down from me on Pepper Drive, a street firmly planted in the working class side of town. On our street, you could tell which houses were owned and which were rented simply by looking at the lawns. Gleaming green? Owned. Patchy and brown? Rented. (Our lawns were… meh.)

Angela slid a quarter into the pay phone and called her house. She exchanged a few mumbled words over the phone before she dropped the phone into its cradle. Then, she rolled her eyes.

“Tim’s coming,” she huffed as she sunk her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker.

“Oh,” I said.

Angela always complained about her stepdad. He was always telling her no and “being mean.” He even called her names like stupid and cow. But I knew it was more than that.

I saw behind her mother’s makeup, so thick it cracked at the corners of her eyes and lips when she managed to smile. I listened through Angela’s flimsy explanation for why the glass coffee table was cracked from end to end. But it was also terribly easy to tell when Angela was lying. Her eyes would dart upward and fixate on the center of your forehead.

And Angela lied a lot.

But they weren’t the kind of lies that would erode a friendship. Her lies never made me question whether or not she liked me. No, Angela gave pathetic, pitiful lies with the intention of covering her own shame. According to Angela, her shirts always came from The Limited and her Nikes were always from The Finish Line. She only earned bad grades in her classes because her teachers were terrible and unfair. She wasn’t really overweight…she was just so bloated because of her period.

But I knew better–because I had lies of my own.

When Tim pulled up in his brand new 1992 black Camaro, I could hear the music booming through the windows.

“Come on,” Angela said as she grabbed my arm and pulled me to the passenger side of the car.

I had never been in a two-door car before (courtesy of growing up in a family of seven), so I pretty much awkwardly fell into the back seat of the car since I had no idea of where to put my feet in order to slide in. I had just pulled myself upright and was searching for a seat belt when Tim took off.

He didn’t ask us about how bowling was. He didn’t even say hi. We were in his space now. And his space was dark, save the soft lights of the dashboard, and it reeked of a sickly sweet mixture of new car scent and Marlboros. He slouched into his reclined seat, his head lifted just enough to see over the steering wheel. From his fingers dangled his glowing cigarette.

But what defined Tim’s space the most was the booming bass notes of Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

It seems no one can help me now

I’m in too deep, there’s no way out

This time I have really led myself astray

I had known the protective, authoritative side of masculinity. The side with advice, answers, and optimism. Ambition and plans. Smiles, hugs, and encouragement.

But I knew that I was now seeing an entirely different side of masculinity, something that had been hidden beneath all the other roles that men had occupied for me: father, uncle, pastor, teacher. This new masculinity was divorced of anything paternal. It was… dark.

Runaway train, never going back

Wrong way on a one-way track

Seems like I should be getting somewhere

Somehow neither here nor there

The notes of this song screamed hopelessness and despair. I could almost see Tim in his endless line of dead-end jobs that barely paid enough to cover the rent. I could see that this car–however he managed to afford it–was an escape from the reality of his life. I could see his life playing out before him, a thousand different ways, but all of them ending in the same, lonely, frustrated death.

It felt like the first time that a man was ever being real with me. Like he was leveling with me and say, “Fuck it. I don’t have any advice for you. I’m just living for now.”

Suddenly, I could see all the walls that men had built around themselves. They were held up by these walls, brick by brick, assurance by assurance, plan by plan. But they were also trapped behind them. And if they lost their footing, it was a long way to fall.

But sitting in that car, I started to see through the bricks in these walls. I started to see that the only thing holding the walls together was pride.

No man had ever let me see his unguarded side.

And though I didn’t have the words for it when I was twelve years old, I realize now that I found this whole situation… incredibly sexy.

Soul_Asylum

Soul Asylum, 1993

***

Now, none of this changed the fact that Tim was an alcoholic with a violent temper.

But somehow, all of that was forgotten in this moment when I was able to see through these walls. I was so dazzled by the existence of this softer, more vulnerable side that I forgot all those horrible insults he had said to my good friend. Maybe, deep down, he really is sweet, I might have thought.

And because of that, I can understand the initial attraction that women often feel to the bad boys. And why many of them stay.

Admittedly, some of the boys that I had the biggest crushes on during middle school and high school were those quiet, introverted loners that listened to Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Live, and Soundgarden. I didn’t have the vocabulary and the self-awareness at the time to understand why I could picture myself with one of them rather than a popular, well-liked, or even a really smart guy.

But I realize now that the attraction came from my ability to see why a quiet, introverted loner would want to date me.

And the biggest reason that I thought one of those guys would want to date me?

Because he would need me.

What could I offer a popular or smart guy? I wondered.

I thought I was ugly, so why would a popular guy be seen with an ugly girl? And I wasn’t so sure that I was that smart (Algebra I was a real nightmare), so why would a smart guy want to talk to an average girl?

I just couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a guy wanted to be with me just because I was me.

I was not enough. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. Not cool enough. Not smart enough. Not interesting enough.

So if I wasn’t enough by myself, I needed to be able to offer something. By being able to see why someone would want me, I could finally re-imagine myself as desirable.

So in all of my daydreams, I had clearly defined what I had to offer a guy:

1) I could see him for who he really was when everyone else couldn’t

2) I could be the only one who wouldn’t leave.

Maybe I couldn’t be thin and pretty. Maybe I couldn’t be smart.

But, by God, I could be loyal.

***

For the life of me, I cannot remember what Tim looked like. I have no memory of this. But for me, the attraction to the bad boy isn’t about appearances. It’s about emotions and singularity. It’s about the allure of being the only person that the bad boy trusts, the only one to whom he reveals his vulnerability.

Being the only one makes you feel special, chosen, anointed.

It makes you feel desirable–and that is one hell of an aphrodisiac. It’s a strong cocktail of sex and power.

After all, isn’t that what attraction really is? A dance of power?

Wanting someone who is just out of reach. Or being just out of reach to someone else. Overpowering someone with your desirability. Or being overpowered by someone else’s desirability.

That’s attraction.

***

Personally, I’ve always found physical attraction much more fleeting than emotional attraction.

Allow me to digress for a moment.

I used to work with a rather attractive guy at the main library at Miami University while I was going to school there. He was super tall, a real broad guy, which I loved because I’m also pretty tall. He had a shy air about him, but he had such a great smile. I would tell him jokes just so I could see him smile.

We had a Friday night shift from 7:00 p.m. to midnight together one semester, so we ended up spending Friday after Friday sitting next to each other at the circulation desk. Most of our conversations were just friendly banter for the first six weeks. Then around the middle of the semester, we turned away from our books and started talking to each other late one night, probably around 10:30. We talked about where we grew up and what our childhoods were like.

It was great. It had all the components of a date while in the safe context of “Well, we’re just talking at work.” If things got too uncomfortable, I could magically find something that I needed to do.

Then, we started talking about the future—what our plans were after college. By this point, our books were pushed to the side of the counter and we were leaning forward in our chairs, laughing. Then, he said this: “Yeah, I think your twenties are all about making the money. Then, your thirties are about doubling it.”

Womp-womp.

Never had I been so quickly and completely turned off.

***

We need attraction. In the beginning, it’s what holds our attention.

But attraction isn’t love.

Too often, we slap the word love onto the feeling of attraction. We confuse the dance of attraction and desirability with the holiness of love.

Love is a different animal. Love remains when attraction drops its arms. It lingers when the other person has become broken and messy. Love draws us wholeheartedly into the mess. Love compels us to give and give beyond what we thought possible. In the presence of love, fear and mistrust die. You cannot fully love someone whom you don’t trust.

And I think that this is where a lot of relationships with the bad boys fall apart. Inability to trust is almost always one of the main reasons that he became a bad boy in the first place.

Someone abandoned him or disappointed him. He loved someone–a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover–and that person betrayed him. And instead of moving through the pain, he built the walls higher. He climbed inside and toughened up. It made him feel safer, sure, but more importantly, it made him feel powerful.

And if he is powerful, he can’t be hurt.

***

When our middle school years were over, Angela and I drifted apart. We were on two entirely different academic tracks in our high school of 1,600 students. In my junior year of high school, I saw her in the cafeteria when we were all gathered together for some kind of assembly. I sat across from her at a lunch table while she propped her chin on her hand, looking so incredibly bored. She rolled her eyes lazily, only keeping them half-open as she asked me what kinds of classes I was taking.

It was incredibly awkward for me, but I’m certain that Angela was too stoned to remember anything that I had said. As I was talking, I could see her eyes looking through me, as if I had completely disappeared.

“You probably have, like… Lots of good, smart friends, huh?” she asked.

“Yeah, I know a lot of people in my classes,” I admitted.

“Good for you…” her eyes landed on my forehead. “I do too, really. You know Misty? Misty… what’s-her-name… You know who’m talkin’ bout?”

I shook my head.

“Anyway, we real tight. Yeah, we hang out a lot. Her and her dude. Oh and I got a man, too.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” she rolled her eyes. “He’s like real crazy for me and shit. Like, we have sex, like all the time,” she bragged. “He’s got a job already and we’re gonna get a place together as soon as I get out of this shithole,” she waved her free hand at the room.

“That’s great,” I lied. For a moment, I thought I should feel jealous. But I knew that what I was feeling for her was pity. It was awful. I swallowed hard and tried to climb out of this confusing mess of a conversation. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Tommy,” she said, playing with the zipper on her backpack. She tossed her hair as she looked around the room. She had gained about forty pounds since I last saw her. Her eyes were slightly bloodshot and she had patches of acne on her forehead and chin.

“He’s like fuckin’ all over me, I can’t even stop him,” she added.

I nodded, too stunned to find any words.

“Totally loves me and shit.” She yawned deeply.

I imagined Angela in this new relationship. I knew that she kept everyone at arm’s length, even her close friends. I knew how she acted when she was confronted with her lies. I knew her shame and how she coped with it. I knew the example of love that had been lived out before her through the tumultuous relationship of her mother and stepfather.

At that moment, I couldn’t articulate why I knew her new relationship was already doomed. All I knew was that she was used to staring at the walls that men built around themselves, her eyes looking up, always up, landing on the center of their foreheads. I knew that what she classified as love was unstable and dramatic. It played out in an exhausting script of pleading, ultimatums, and second chances.

I knew that all the pieces of herself that she had to offer were jagged and uneven and they would cut anyone who touched her. Deeply.

But I know Angela couldn’t have seen this. Not yet.

As she sat at that table across from me, her eyes lit up. “Hey, maybe we should hang out some time,” she said.

“Yeah, maybe…” I smiled, my heart growing tight in my chest.

“Pshh…” she rolled her eyes. “Nah, you’re too good for me now, aren’t you?” she joked. “You’re all hanging with the smart kids and stuff.”

“No, really, we’ll hang out,” I lied.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “Okay.”

That was the last time I ever saw Angela.

God, the Mother

God, the Father. God, the Son. God, the Holy Spirit.

“God the Father” Gottvater Veronese, Paolo. 1528-1588.

 

Adam, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Moses, Samson, Saul, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, John the Baptist, Jesus, Saul/Paul, Peter, James, Philip, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Bartholomew…

jesus-washes-feet-of-disciples-02

 

And then there was Eve, Sarah, Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Mary, Mary Magadalene… These are the ones I can remember.

Looks like I left out three of them...

Looks like I left out three of them…

***

How we imagine God makes a difference.

How we imagine God’s followers makes a difference.

***

For man did not come from the woman, but woman from man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but woman for the man.” 1 Corinthians 11:8

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed and the Eve. Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” 1 Timothy 2: 11-14

***

I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, where such verses were summoned forth as rationale for explaining the subjugation of women according to the Bible. But I always had a problem with these verses.

Man did not come from woman?

It was clearly a reference to the creation story in Genesis. I understood that. And at the time, I believed in that story. I was taught to read the words of the Bible literally and not get lost in the sticky web of interpretation.

Read the words. Believe the words.

But I could not understand why the apostle Paul was so adamant to throw the creation story in the face of the reader. Man did not come from woman? Give me a break. Men come from women all the time. It’s called birth.

But Eve was deceived, not Adam.

Who cares? I’m not Eve. Hadn’t I been taught that I was responsible for my own actions, not the actions of my ancestors?

I just didn’t get it. Why was it so important to blame women for the fall of all creation?

***

During my senior year of college, I was reading some chapter in a linguistics textbook about the “rhetorical situation”: speaker/writer, message, audience, and context. Then, it struck me.

Women were not the authors of the Bible.

The authors were all men. The people who got to make the decisions about what to put down on paper–they were all men. Men got to decide which women would be mentioned and how they would be represented.

But then, new questions opened up: Why were women left out of Bible stories? Why were their stories less worthy of telling? How had women ended up so powerless in societies throughout the world? Had it always been this way? Were men just naturally stronger and better at organizing political and economic systems?

***

When I wasn’t studying and reading for my other classes, I spent a lot of time in the stacks at the library. Not kidding. I was on a quest to learn more about the origins of Christianity, and I was determined to come away from college with some answers. The more I read, the more I added to my reading list.

And I came across this book:

When God was a woman

This book rocked my world.

The author, Merlin Stone, pieces together archaeological evidence and primary texts from a number of ancient civilizations to present a narrative of a grand shift in how people imagined God. In 25,000-15,000 BCE, many civilizations all created similar religions, ones in which the chief divine figure was a Goddess. She was called different names, but in all of these societies, she was revered for her powers of fertility.

Why fertility?

Because we worship what is important to us in our time and in our place.

And fertility was a power so great at that time that it was worth worshipping.

At this time, people didn’t recognize the relationship between sex and reproduction. The idea of paternity was non-existent. Therefore, women were seen as powerful because they had the greatest power of all: the power to give life.

Because paternity was non-existent, children were raised both by their mothers and the community. Mesopotamian societies at this time had mostly matrilineal descent patterns, with children tracing their origins through their mothers. Inheritances were passed from mother to offspring.

In addition, societies that worshipped a Goddess were typically relatively peaceful agrarian communities. Labor was not spent on making weaponry, but rather on growing food, care-taking, and leisure. In short, the Goddess of these communities mirrored what they people valued: the ability to produce and reproduce.

But things shifted.

Stones states that a group of “northern invaders”, also known as the Indo-Europeans, entered into Mesopotamia in wave after wave of invasions for 1,000 to 3,000 years. The timeline is not completely clear since writing systems were not used until about 2400 BCE. This is why we don’t know as much about the Goddess religions. No one was writing it down. The most prevalent and convincing evidence of this time period are the statues of the Goddess found in numerous civilizations.

Ishtar, goddess of Bablyon, 19th century BCE – 18th century BCE

Indus Valley Terracotta Figurine of a Fertility Goddess, Pakistan/Western India Circa: 3000 BC to 2500 BCE

Indus Valley Terracotta Figurine of a Fertility Goddess, Pakistan/Western India Circa: 3000 BCE to 2500 BCE

Venus Fertility Goddess from Falkenstein Austria 6000 BP

Venus Fertility Goddess from Falkenstein Austria 6000 BCE

Mother goddess Nammu, snake head Goddess figure, feeding her baby - terracotta, about 5000-4000 BC, Ubaid period before the Sumerians

Mother goddess Nammu, snake head Goddess figure, feeding her baby – terracotta, about 5000-4000 BCE, Ubaid period before the Sumerians

However, the Indo-European invaders enter the historical record around 2000 BCE, when they established the Hittite civilization in modern day Turkey. Historical accounts of these invaders call these groups of people, “aggressive warriors, accompanied by a priestly caste of high standing, who initially invaded and conquered and then ruled the indigenous population of each land they entered” (p. 64).

Among these warriors were the ancestors of Judaism, which explains a lot of the imagery used in the Old Testament to depict God. (trembling mountains, lighting, fire, etc.) Just as the Goddess mirrored the lives of the people in Mesopotamia, the God of the Indo-Europeans mirrored the lives of the Indo-Europeans. Their God was a young, war-like god. He was a “storm god, high on a mountain, blazing with the light of fire and lighting” (p. 65). Because these people originated from mountainous areas in Europe, they had probably interpreted volcanic activity as supernatural events. Therefore, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to see how and why the Indo-European God was seen as a god of fire and lightning.

And because the Indo-Europeans were engaged in constant invasions of occupied lands (i.e. what was important to them was conquest), it’s not difficult to understand why the God of Indo-Europeans was a war-like God.

As the Indo-Europeans moved into the area of Mesopotamia, they brought with them their war-like practices, their religion of the storm god, and their patrilineal social organization (if their God was a man, didn’t patrilineal descent seem natural?). As they fought against the societies that worshipped the Goddess, they won. They crushed the previous civilizations with their advanced weaponry.

But it took longer to crush the religion.

***

I won’t go into all of the details of When God was a Woman (it’s far too detailed to do it justice in this single post), but I will summarize Stone’s account of how the Goddess religions were crushed and the new Indo-European God was revered.

As I mentioned before, the idea of paternity in societies that worshipped a Goddess was non-existent. Eventually, people figured out the connection between sex and reproduction. As the Indo-Europeans won more and more land and power, they sought ways to destroy the old religions that stood in their way.

One specific practice of the Goddess-worshipping societies that especially bothered the Indo-Europeans was their sacred sexual customs. In some Goddess religions, temples offered space to people to have sex, which was a form of worship to the Goddess of fertility. Some women lived their whole lives in these temples and were considered holy women. Although the paternity of their children was unknown, their children were not considered illegitimate. They simply took their mother’s name and acquired her status.

This drove the Indo-Europeans nuts. It was completely incompatible with a patrilineal descent system.

After all, how could a patrilineal system be maintained unless the paternity of children could be certain?

And in order to determine paternity…

you have to control women.

More specifically, you have to control their bodies.

Stone suggests, “it was upon the attempt to establish this certain knowledge of paternity, which would then make patrilineal reckoning possible, that these ancient sexual customs were finally denounced as wicked and depraved and that it was for this reason that the Levite priests devised the concept of sexual ‘morality,’: premarital virginity for women, marital fidelity for women, in other words total control over the knowledge of paternity” (emphasis in the original, p. 161).

So the challenge of the Indo-Europeans was to end the sacred sexual customs. And they did so through demonizing the worship practices of the Goddess religions, which then gave birth to taboos and shame surrounding women and sexuality.

***

It’s not hard to see that the Indo-Europeans were successful. The thought of women freely having sex with whomever they choose elicits words of shame like, whore, slut, prostitute, while men who engage in the same behavior are called studs. Women can’t enjoy sex too much (or risk being labeled nymphos). Women are more judged for having sex before marriage (girls should be virgins at their weddings, but boys are expected “to sow their wild oats”) and outside of marriage (cheating men can be forgiven, but cheating women will be forever shamed.)

***

Hearing this narrative of the predominant religions that once existed and comparing them to the major religions of today helped me understand that there is nothing natural about seeing God as a father. Seeing God as a father makes sense when we see the world through the lens of a patriarchal society. This view of the world is further upheld through religious texts that were written at a time when the Indo-Europeans sought to assert their superiority over the older Goddess religions.

Understanding this helped me to read the Old Testament with different eyes. The authors of the Old Testament were writing from a place of inadequacy. The religion that they were offering people of Goddess-worshipping societies did not appeal to them. Although the Goddess-worshipping civilizations were conquered, their hearts remained true to the religions that had shaped their world for several thousands years.

The writers of the Old Testament were writing for the purpose of redefining their current reality–a reality in which other, more established religions around them conflicted with their long-range goals of asserting widespread domination.

They were writing to redefine “normal” and “natural.”

And they succeeded.

 

***

As a Christian, I say “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit” in the liturgy.

But in my mind, I add, “God the Mother, God the Daughter, God the Holy Spirit.”

And when I say “God the Mother” to myself, I feel differently about my relationship with God. When I imagine God as a mother, I feel nurtured, accepted, and loved, regardless of my actions. When I imagine God as a father, I feel fearful and judged, like I must be on my best behavior. That I must put on a good show and not disappoint. (I should add here that my own father was nothing like this. I think my psyche hearkens to archetypal portrayal of fathers in our culture.)

Of course, God is neither man nor woman.

But how we imagine God makes a difference.

***

 

Other reading if this topic interests you:

  • Armstrong, Karen. (2004). A history of God: The 4,000 year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 2nd ed. Gramercy Books: New York.
  • Stone, Merlin. (1976). When God was a woman. Harcourt Brace & Company: Orlando.

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.

“You complete me?”: The problem when birth becomes a romance

In a different post, I wrote about how love isn’t what mothers feel in those first days of motherhood. I asserted that what I felt when I first saw my daughter was not love—it was euphoria. And that euphoria faded.

When we say things like, “I loved my baby from the first moment that I laid eyes on him,” we drop ourselves into the familiar roles of a Westernized romantic narrative, where the mother is delivered, redeemed, and fulfilled by the child.

1) It’s love at first sight.

2) You are soulmates, meant to be mother and child.

3) The child completes the mother (but does the mother complete the child?)

This is how Westerners tell traditional love stories. Romantic love is the pinnacle of life, a kind of self-actualization. Snow White comes to life when her prince kisses her. Kate Winslet is saved from a bad marriage by Leonardo. Julia Roberts is delivered from her life of prostitution when Richard Gere parades in his limousine with flowers to win her back. (Or how about when he delivers Debra Winger from a lifetime of factory work?)

Through romantic love, a woman is resuscitated, rescued, and whisked away into a life free from financial obligations.

<Cringe.>

Some romances have moved on and allowed the female protagonists to have high-powered careers and what appear to be fulfilling lives. Until the plot reveals that something is missing.

Oh yes. A man.

Children are often viewed through the same lens. Great marriage. Great house. Great career. Still—something missing.

A child.

courtesy ww.hdwallpapersfit.com

courtesy ww.hdwallpapersfit.com

Instead of viewing children as additions to life, they are sometimes seen as the pieces that fill the gaps. Children become solutions, even comfort.

But those who have been married and who have children can look back on these narratives and find them laughable.

Marriage? The solution to all my problems? Ha!

Children? Complete me? Ha!

We can laugh because we know what happens after the couple marries or the baby is born. We know how the plot continues to march on—in clunky, messy steps. With unexpected, unrewarding, and unfinished twists. There are no more clean arcs to the action. It’s a sticky, messy web of conflict that sometimes has no good solution. Or at least no solution from which everyone benefits.

It is far less glamorous.

It is the stuff of heavy, ponderous dramas that leave you sapped of energy. And no wonder—it’s reality. Just the thing we are trying to escape by watching a movie. Love still exists in marriage and parenthood, but it is all exposition. It’s no longer the conflict, the thing that everyone is watching to see what will happen next. It’s the comfy sofa in every scene.

But through popular media, we unconsciously develop expectations about marriage and parenthood—even if they are unreasonable and impossible to sustain.

 

Sometimes, romantic love spurs us to believe in the existence of God or the inherent goodness of people. There is a God! I knew it! It’s destiny! We were meant to be.

This is dangerous, too. Because what happens to that belief in God when the relationship ends?

If belief comes from your heart, what happens to that belief when your heart is broken?

What happens when your destiny turns into… a mistake?

God no longer exists. People are no longer good at heart. You are no longer a person worth loving. And you will never find another person who will love you so deeply.

 

With so much resting on the shoulders of “love,” it’s no wonder so many of us get divorced. Such heights don’t exist without the valleys, and it’s only a matter of time before we find them in our relationships.

Like I said, this line of thinking is dangerous—for how we view marriage and for how we view our children.

If our children are responsible for our life’s meaning, what happens if tragedy befalls them? What if—God forbid—our children die?  Does our life’s meaning end?

Having a child isn’t meant to follow this same narrative of love. It’s unrealistic to expect a child to “complete” your life. “Complete” makes me think that you were missing something before they came into your life, when—let’s be honest—before you had a child, you may have felt like things were going just fine. It may have felt like everything was in its right place. It’s only after the child is born that you have this thought of “What have I been doing my whole life?”

When we try to rewrite our stories with our children as the saviors and redeemers of our lives, we raise them to such a height that they are bound to disappoint us. We put ourselves in the center of the universe, and we imagine how the child will grow from our amazing light and energy.

So perhaps it’s healthier to put the child at the center of the universe, where we are replenished by the warmth of our child’s love?

Hardly.

In both of those models, someone’s needs are forgotten. Either the child doesn’t reflect the efforts we’ve invested or we expect our children to be more emotionally rewarding than they really are.

Instead, it makes more sense to acknowledge that you are both traveling, following different orbits, perhaps even warmed by different suns. Sometimes, your paths intersect, you sing in harmony, you see a bit of yourself in your child. Sometimes, your paths are distant. Their actions make no sense to you. You wonder how you can love someone who can hurt you so much.

But in this model, when your child strays, you don’t wonder what you should have done to “complete” them. Nor do you bemoan their distant, remote paths as a reflection of bad decisions as a parent.

Yes, we love our children. But let’s also be mindful about what that love means–and what it doesn’t mean.

 

 

 

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