the kind of “two” people talk about

Our first child was two, once, of course. But he was never Two.

I hate labeling. And I hate dismissive and overgeneralizing language about children. And I will avoid endorsing phrases like “a good baby,” “the terrible twos” and its older cousin “teenagers [eyeroll]!,” and “temper tantrum” to the end of my days.

But with our first child, I objected to “the terrible twos” both for those reasons and because our two-year-old was really quite pleasant company. He was not a danger to himself or others.

You know what’s coming, of course.

Our younger child–who happens to be two and a half at the moment–is …

I don’t know.

He is a danger to himself! And others! We’re all always injured; hair is tugged out in tufts, bridges of noses are bruised, bite marks and scratches decorate our flesh. And never in a mean or vindictive way, just happily and lovingly causing all sorts of problems for our poor physical selves.

He finds frying and boiling things fascinating and wants to climb on the handle to the under-oven drawer. I find myself hollering advice such as “JESUS MARY AND JOSEPH NO NO NO!” and “OH SHIT WHAT IS THAT IN HIS HAND?!?” and “UH-UH!” on a regular basis, in various states of terror. And this is a child who is never, ever unsupervised.

Because he has vampire-like speed and an astonishing eye for breakable and/or dangerous objects, you see.

He yells “OW! OW!” when prevented from doing something he fancies doing, even if no one touches him in any way. He is indignant. It hurts his little soul.

All day every day he cheerfully pulls books off my bookshelves, throws them to the floor, smashes lines of books to the backs of their shelves. (I’m one of those lovely people who are so particular about the state of their books’ spines and pages that their spouses refuse to read them and borrow library copies instead, so this cuts deep.) It’s unstoppable. He didn’t do that during the summer, possibly because he got to rip crap up and hit things with sticks outside a lot more back then? Or because it just recently occurred to him? I do not know. He’s not saying.

He is impervious to other people’s efforts to alter these and other behaviors. He wants to be Big, now, thank you, and as The Management has unfortunately not provided adequate Bigness to date, he is going to climb on shit (even shit with wheels, if necessary!) and do all the Big People activities regardless. He sees absolutely no reason why we’re allowed to do something and he’s not. He wants to do it his own self. He literally, I am not joking, says “DO IT MY OWN SELF!”

He is also the most affectionate child I’ve ever encountered–more so even than Noah, who was/is very sweet and also spent/spends a lot of time off in his own imaginary worlds and ideas, whose feelings have always been more easily hurt (something I rather miss when I’m at the end of my rope screaming and Simon is just utterly unfazed).

He is also surprisingly considerate. This two-year-old has been known to refuse to eat a dessert until Eric came home from work so everyone could have a piece together, to notice a scratch on me and kiss it and then later ask if it’s feeling better, to run unbidden for an ice pack from the freezer when Noah’s crying.

He is also hilariously precise and colorful in his language and thought processes, just like his older sibling. He’s clever and funny and kind.

It’s difficult not to yell cruel things, things he will soon understand. It’s difficult not to grab that little arm a bit too hard. Then two minutes later, it’s impossible not to smile. You’re getting kissed with that soft little mouth; you’re being asked ever-so-politely to read a particular story or “operate the windows” (i.e. open the blinds so he can wipe down the condensation with a paper towel).

It’s a freaking mess, is what it is.

It’s mostly an ordinary sort of beauty and love, comfortable and easy. Sometimes it’s a stifling hell.

It’s the kind of “two” people talk about, I think.

a privileged white mother raising privileged white boys in an obscenely racist, sexist, violent world: some thoughts

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?

Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.

–Chris Rock in New York Magazine; interview text here

I have said very little on Twitter, my chatty place, during the past several weeks.

My Twitter feed is awash, you see, with terrifying stories that are not my story. I am hearing a lot from fellow parents, but parents whose children look different from my white-blond ones. Parents who suffer the heartache of these police killings–and the ensuing miscarriages of justice, and then the smear campaigns on both victims and protesters–in far more personal terms than I ever will. (Have you read Carvell Wallace’s beautiful essay on the evening of the Ferguson decision? You really should.)

Unlike a lot of white people (apparently), I was not particularly taught to trust the police; my hippie parents distrusted authority, and some sense of racist and homophobic police brutality filtered through my very safe, secure, and privileged daily life. But my parents also did not fear for my life at the hands of law enforcement officers. Teaching my brother how to interact with cops was about keeping him out of trouble, not about keeping him alive. No police officer will ever, ever hassle (or arrest, or attack) me because I’m driving, or walking with my hands in my pockets, or enter my own home.

That’s the tip of the iceberg of my privilege, and I know it. And I’m home with my children, not out at protests. And I’m not teaching this semester, not having those conversations in the classroom or in office hours or at the library reference desk. So I have very little to say beyond this hurts my heart, I am so confused, I am so angry, I see all of this agony, I cannot fucking believe the shit white apologists are saying, do these people seriously not hear their racism? But it’s so not about my sad feelings. And I can’t really imagine tweeting about my cranky two-year-old or the cute things my children have said or how my novel’s coming along when the “What’s happening?” box sits above endlessly scrolling pain and rage.

But I also know the vast majority of people reading this blog are progressive or liberal white professional-class women with young white children. If you fit into that category, you are surely struggling with how to raise white children in a white supremacist culture–oh hey and a sexist and classist one to boot. (Well, you should be. We should be.)

And I can’t give you some shiny answer, because I’ve been struggling with that question ever since my first child started engaging with language and culture. But here are a few resources and strategies to consider, I think:

  • Read the stories, opinions, and reporting of people who fit into different categories, people whose lives are different from yours. I know Twitter is famous as an echo chamber or bubble, but do you know what? You can choose who you follow there.  Books too. There’s the whole We Need Diverse Books movement for greater diversity in children’s and young adult literature, as I wrote about recently, and a bunch of reading lists have sprung up around the Ferguson conversations, like this and this and also this roundup.
  • Actually talk with your children about race. And not, like, how everybody’s really the same and skin color doesn’t matter. I think it’s my responsibility, and my partner’s, to point out our own white privilege and to talk about both individual and systemic racism in direct ways. Over and over. White people tend to think we’re somehow raceless, like race doesn’t have anything to do with us: I can attest to this fact, having taught a whole lot of white undergraduates who believed that race and racism are attributes of Somebody Else (brown people and bad people, respectively). That shit just can’t fly if we want the people with power to act right.
  • I also think it’s important to embed this knowledge in the larger history, to talk about how change can happen and why it’s so damned hard, and not to present US history as essentially a cheerful progress narrative. Reading from those lists I linked to above can help a lot in terms of building this knowledge base, if you don’t happen to have it already.
  • Answer questions for real. Children ask good questions; these are our opportunities. I remember years ago when our first child asked, of the church up the block from our apartment, “Why do just black people go to that church?” That can be a scary sort of question for a lot of white parents. But it’s a wonderful question to ask, and it deserves a real and complicated answer.
  • Constantly make connections for and with your children. Our lives are different in such-and-such a way because we’re white. Such-and-such an event or struggle shares certain characteristics with this story you already know. This picture book doesn’t match up with what we know about Thanksgiving. That throwaway line in a TV show reminds me of xyz. And ask questions, listen to their perceptions, give them opportunities to think and process. Talking and thinking about race and racism–and gender and sexism, and so on–should be a part of sharing our values and living our family lives, not some separate thing like The Talk.
  • Be honest, show your pain in ways that work for your children where they are, talk about tragedies and all the strong people working for change in ways that work for your children where they are. Like parenting around sexual violence and healthy romantic relationships. Like parenting around bullying. Like everything, I guess.

(Oh hey and Jay Smooth did yet another video you should watch.)

book review: Home Is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering

[My dear friend Anna–blogger at The Feminist Librarian, grown homeschooled person, and go-to understander of my complicated work/family story–mentioned this book to me and said she’d be interested to hear what I thought. So naturally I borrowed it from the library; here’s what I think! I’ll apologize in advance for the length of this post. It’s just that I think so very much …]

Why do some mothers choose to homeschool their children, despite the immense workload and wearing stigma? And how do they manage to keep at it in the face of these challenges?

Jennifer Lois became fascinated by these questions when she moved to an area where homeschooling was more common. But since she’s a sociologist, instead of being like “hmm weird,” Lois observed and interviewed homeschooling mothers over a 7-year period and then wrote this book.

Sociologists are like that.

not like me

I really enjoyed reading Home Is Where the School Is, in part because it doesn’t reflect my family’s experiences and dynamics. As regular readers know, I have somehow accidentally turned into a homeschooling parent who usually doesn’t do wage work. We are enthusiastic about public schools and sort of fell into homeschooling. I haven’t been able to find a long-term job post-2008, but I always planned to do professional work outside our home throughout parenting and would prefer that to be what happened. (In contrast, 23 of the 24 mothers Lois interviewed wanted to forgo paid work during their children’s early years, even if they hadn’t yet planned to homeschool). And yet I very much enjoy and feel good about learning at home with Noah. I guess it’s the best part of being unemployed and career-less, so … that’s something?

Perhaps this outsider/insider perspective, coupled with my academic background, make me an ideal reader for this particular book. Lois began this research as a person without children, and completed it as a mother of two conventionally-schooled children with a full-time professional job. She is deeply respectful toward and sympathetic to her subjects, but she isn’t and doesn’t want to be a homeschooling parent.

And, gosh, who would? If it’s exhausting, labor-intensive, self-sacrificing, and constantly scrutinized and stigmatized to boot? If this were my lived experience of homeschooling, I would have done it for approximately three days.

Lois’s study participants experienced a whole lot of questioning and criticism from family members, friends, and even total strangers. We, on the other hand, have never encountered that questioning or criticism. Why? Perhaps because of our PhDs, perhaps because we know very open-minded people and live in Minnesota, perhaps we live far from our extended families, perhaps because everyone knows we don’t give a shit what they think anyway.

For most of the study participants, homeschooling also involves a great deal of work and planning. It is time-consuming and requires great sacrifices. This is also not my experience. Part of it seems to be the “lesson plans” and “curricula” that get mentioned a lot in the book. We’re strictly planning-free, although I do spend about an hour every couple weeks searching for library books and other resources. And because we have a two-year-old who’d be home anyway (since my career-less-ness has nothing to do with the fact of homeschooling, and we certainly can’t afford daycare), I don’t YET feel like I’d have any more time for writing or other pursuits if our older child were in school.

justifying home education (against & through “good motherhood”)

Why do these people do something that sounds like such a haul? Well, also unlike my family (but probably more like the majority of homeschooling parents), the study participants really feel a need to educate at home instead of in a school environment.

  • The mothers Lois categorizes as “first choicers” feel called by God to teach their children at home, and/or believe fervently that home education is the best possible way for their children to learn, and/or find such fulfillment in the “intensive mothering” role that they want to extend it into the schooling years.
  • The mothers in the “second choicers” category feel trapped in homeschooling because their children’s particular needs are ill-served by the particular school options available to them (or because their arrogant asshole husbands are seriously pressuring them to mother in this way; Lois doesn’t put it in quite these terms, but CRAP, PEOPLE).

In that context, it makes sense that these parents make sacrifices to follow this path (despite pressures to parent more normally). Then, Lois finds, they justify homeschooling through the mainstream rhetoric of “good mothering” in our culture. They’re just like all the other “good mothers”–caring, responsible, joyful in the motherhood role, experts on their own children, always ready to put their own desires behind their children’s well-being, and so on–and homeschooling is an expression of (rather than a “bad mother” departure from) those traits and values.

This is an especially interesting argument because Lois ties both the critics’ remarks and the mothers’ defenses to ideas about maternal emotions. Many jabs at homeschooling mothers boil down to you’re not doing motherly emotions right (you’re being overprotective, clingy, smug, extreme). Reasonably enough, then, many defenses boil down to nuh uh I’m doing maternal emotions AWESOME. This move, Lois claims, further embeds these mothers in some really demanding ideas about mothering.

role overload

Because of our culture’s broader understanding of “good motherhood,” and because of both systemic and individual sexism, home-educating mothers (like their conventionally-schooling counterparts) often get the short end of the parental responsibility stick. Mothers are somehow more responsible for children and domestic chores than fathers; fathers may “pitch in,” but mothers are in charge of getting them to do so, or of doing whatever fathers don’t get around to. Mothers are somehow the default experts on our children, too, in a way fathers aren’t.

In short, this bites. It’s stressful and exhausting to be the person who has to keep track of everything mentally, figure out everyone’s needs, and make sure things get done!

In Lois’s sample, even the liberal- or progressive-identified families have (what strike me as) wildly inequitable divisions of household labor. An example that stands out to me is that of Leanna’s husband, who:

worked full-time as a public school teacher and had trained for five marathons in recent years. Leanna told me that he had very little energy to contribute to household and family duties, which meant the housework, child care, and homeschooling of their nine-, six-, and three-year-old boys fell on her. (106)

What would happen if Leanna wanted to train for marathons? Meanwhile, she is experiencing burnout and feels she can’t keep her head above water with “her chores” and her educator role. STOP RUNNING MARATHONS AND BE A PARENT, MAYBE, LEANNA’S HUSBAND.

When I described these housework-related patterns to my spouse, his response was, “What the fuck?” And that gets to the heart of the matter, I think.

After getting Simon down for a nap and Noah into his room for “quiet time,” I have literally never thought now that I have this time to myself I’d better go do some household chores. That line of reasoning has not occurred to me. In my family, my writing and my own personal needs (like maybe a shower, or a cup of tea enjoyed while seated) obviously take precedence over the dishes. In my family, I am not innately responsible for all cleaning or cooking. We frankly do not understand how someone could care for a small child (who seems determined to lose an appendage or decimate our house by preschool) and also do lots of household crap. Let alone care for a small child, do lots of household crap, and help an older child learn outside school. These study participants, like so many mothers, are carrying a terribly heavy burden in terms of both labor and stress.

At a bigger-picture level, we have this similar dynamic:

Despite Benny’s conviction that there was great value in being home with the children, neither Jackie nor Benny mentioned the option of Benny quitting work to be a full-time parent, though […] he had left his paid job and was home pursuing his dream of writing a screenplay. The full-time at-home parent decision, and the emotional turmoil that accompanied it, was Jackie’s, a gendered pattern that other research on mothering has also uncovered. Indeed, sociologist Pamela Stone found that the mothers in her research felt their husbands’ support on the surface–“it’s your choice”–but they interpreted the subtext of that message as “it’s your problem.” (52)

I love how Lois describes this and other dynamics later in the book: “Homeschooling parents […] protect[ed] fathers’ free time while invalidating mothers’ claims to it. In the process, these families created meaning systems that prioritized workplace time over domestic time, which granted fathers, but not mothers, the privilege to choose their level of family involvement” (121). Totally.

are you cherishing every moment?: time & managing tough emotions

One of the homeschooling mothers in this study stated that “There is something extremely sacrificial about homeschooling.” Lois goes on to describe some mothers’ experience of homeschooling as “sacrificially altruistic to […] literally self-obliterating” (119). These are people who feel that their children’s and husband’s well-being, needs, and interests always come before their own. They see themselves as giving up their own lives or their own interests during the precious years of their children’s childhoods, to give them the very best education they can have and to cherish every moment of intensive motherhood.

Lois finds that the mothers use temporal (time-oriented) strategies to manage their emotional experiences. That “cherish every moment” thing–Lois calls it “savoring”–draws on a desire to avoid regret in the future and an anticipated nostalgia for this childhood time once the children are grown. “Sequencing”–this is the time to be with my children, there will be time for me later–is also a common temporal strategy for emotion management amongst these (and probably very many other!) mothers.

I am not sequencing because I didn’t choose to be outside the professional workforce, and because I have no idea how or when I might be able to sneak back in. Instead, I’m just taking life up on what it appears to be offering right now. I do try to manage some stress and misery with savoring, though. With mindfulness. With appreciation for the good in the now.

me me me!: a conclusion

My own reading of this book was–obviously!–so much about me. How has our family ended up looking so very retrograde (Daddy goes to work downtown in a collared shirt, Mommy stays at home to nurse her toddler and teach her third-grader long division) but feeling so very anti-sexist? How do our intentions and perceptions interact with the powerfully sexist gender dynamics of our society? What does it mean to homeschool–such a strange thing to do!–because we all just sort of feel like it, because it’s working for us right now, because it makes us all happy? Where does that put us in relation to “the homeschooling community,” which I witness but never seem to enter, exactly?

Home Is Where the School Is offered broader context and raised further questions as I pondered my own experiences, something I always welcome in a book.

Children Need Diversity in Their Books. And We Can Help Make That Happen.

I’m sure you already know there’s a problem with diversity in children’s literature.

Like every parent I know, I want my children to grow into kind adults who can work and play with people who don’t look/sound/act/believe/etc. just like them. Adults who can recognize the humanity of every person they meet. Adults who will never ever abuse or crush another person.

Most of us, I think, believe in the power of stories to help achieve these parenting goals: to light imaginations and empathy afire.

So why did researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison find that only 2.9% of 3200 children’s books published during 2013 were about African Americans? The numbers for Latino, American Indian, and Asian American characters are also depressingly low. When a different team of researchers analyzed over 5000 picture books published during the 20th century, they found that boys, men, and male bears/toys/monsters/etc. show up in book titles almost twice as often as their female counterparts in titles. They’re central characters 1.6 times as often.

Children’s books talk a lot about being ourselves and accepting differences, and that’s awesome. But these numbers send a different message. They tell children that some people’s stories are more interesting than others’. They suggest that some groups of people are more real, more normal, more important–reinforcing crappy messages that are already blaring from other sources (movies, TV shows, advertisements, peers, adults, the works).

What we read, see, and hear affects what we care about and what we imagine is possible.

What can a parent do?

First of all, parents make better decisions when we realize there’s an issue. More specifically?

1. Size up your current collection. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already doing this. But it’s important, so I’ll say it anyway. Glance through the books on your children’ shelves (or floor, if your home is ‘organized’ like mine). How many focus on male characters? On female ones? How many tell the stories of people with disabilities, older people, people living in different countries from you, people with family structures different from yours? How many feature main characters who are white, and how many focus on characters who are African, African American, Asian, Asian American, American Indian, Latino/a? Do girls and women behave in strictly stereotypical ways, or does it look like there are lots of different ways to be a girl or a woman? What about boys and men? Are characters with disabilities stuck in passive roles, with able-bodied friends saving the day? Do racial stereotypes show up in your books? The point is not to censor the collection or pick on any individual book. Instead, the idea is to look for patterns and any “missing pieces” you hadn’t noticed before. You can discuss the patterns with your young readers, and you can work to fill in the gaps.

2. Seek out diversity-friendly publishers, booksellers, and librarians. There are excellent children’s books with diverse characters and strong stories out there. Check out A Mighty Girl, the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer Project, Lee & Low Books, Star Bright Books, and Tamarind Books. Also try asking a real live librarian–sometimes the best resource of all. (I’ve written about the how-to-find issue with regard to nonsexist children’s books elsewhere, too.)

3. Learn and discover online. Especially during the past several months, children’s librarians and authors have talked a whole lot about diversity in children’s literature.

4. Raise awareness in small ways. It matters for parents to talk with our children about what we’re reading, hearing, and watching together. Educators also need to hear that parents care about diversity. Why not recommend (or donate, if that’s welcome) a new book for the classroom, ask about themes or groups of people that seem poorly represented on a bookshelf or reading list, and/or thank a teacher or librarian for having such an inclusive collection or display?

we took a vacation, and it was good

I didn’t take the time to draft and schedule this week’s post, for the very pleasant and snazzy reason that Eric and I were both busy not doing any sort of work at all. (Except unpacking and organizing in the basement, and carrying on with laundry and all that, which while admittedly “work” is also quite pleasant to do in a more relaxed and efficient way than usual.) I wrote maybe fifteen hundred words of novel draft in eensy pieces of time, just because I wanted to be in that world during those little lulls, but otherwise I was pretty much away from my laptop and tablet.

Assorted highlights:

  • We prepared and ate good food.
  • We found our winter gear under duress, as we had the season’s first snow and then a cold snap with highs in the teens and low twenties! (I know I saw that box somewhere … I found one of Noah’s mittens, do you know where the other might be …)
  • We enjoyed watching Noah and Simon gleefully shovel snow with our brand new shovels. Simon repeatedly informed me that Eric (at the hardware store) had asked if Simon wanted a little shovel, but that he hadn’t so he got a big one.
  • We especially enjoyed feeling smug about how right we were to seek out a house with a small non-corner lot. This place involves maybe a third of the snow removal of the house where we last rented. It’s a huge difference.
  • I wondered at how deeply relaxed I felt somewhere around day 3. Then I realized that Eric and I haven’t had a week when neither of us went to work–and haven’t had even a shorter period without entertaining guests, except for scattered three-day weekends–since he started this job a year and a half ago. It makes sense that it felt like a relief! Also, we should definitely not go that long again.
  • You know how I can’t get adjunct work? Eric was somewhat randomly offered an online course in his field, through a local college. So he’ll be working his full-time job plus a part-time job during the spring semester. Yay. No, I mean really we need the money (I was supposed to be making it, and then some!), and it’s kind of neat for him to get to use his PhD in a more direct way. But we’re going to be stretched a little thin during that period.
  • We live in such a cool place. We went to various museum/zoo/conservatory-type places this week, and it was just delightful. Plus Simon’s finally getting to an age when he can remember not to grab things or climb into exhibits, and instead understands a lot more about what he’s seeing and hearing.
  • A butterfly landed on my nose! It felt weird! And another one landed on my eyelid! Also weird, as you might imagine.

I’ve been reading Home Is Where the School Is, an interview-based scholarly study of homeschooling mothers’ experiences and emotional lives, and it’s super interesting. I’ll review it here eventually.

book review: Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy

A single 35-year-old librarian with strong nurturing tendencies toward cats–but with no intention of becoming a parent, ever–discovers that her IUD has failed. She’s pregnant.

As the back blurb on Laura Crossett’s memoir Night Sweats points out, only about half of US pregnancies are planned pregnancies. And yet “we rarely hear the stories of women who did not seek to become pregnant.” The story Crossett shares in her book is the story of an unintended and very very surprising pregnancy. It’s the story of deciding whether or not to have a child, a nuanced and straightforward take on an experience that seems so political and so taboo in our society but that’s really incredibly personal and common. And it’s the story of a pregnancy, with all the idiosyncratic physical and emotional stuff that always entails.

The structure of Night Sweats suits it well: it’s based on posts to a private blog and maintains that mini-essays-breeding-with-journal-entries style. There’s a lovely immediacy. These entries are then organized according to the Episcopal church calendar, tying in effectively with the story’s ongoing engagement with biblical imagery and other churchy things. (It’s not annoying, by the way. Not churchy as in preachy.) It’s a very slight volume–just 93 pages long–and usually I hate for things to be short, but somehow it works here.

The writing is beautiful. Extremely apt descriptions are peppered throughout.

Actually, this book is now one of my favorite pregnancy/parenting memoirs. I don’t even know how I came across it (oddly, I spent a year hanging out in one of Crossett’s favorite online spaces and remember her a bit from there, but it was pre-pregnancy and therefore pre-book). But I’m glad I did: it just really captures some of the texture, messiness, ugliness, beauty, and–for word people and idea people like me–thinkiness of the pregnancy experience. My pregnancies were both very much planned, and yet this story resonates with me far more than most pregnancy accounts do.

And behold, here is my obligatory mention of the fact that, though many readers expect self-published books to be poorly edited, this book is both self-published and well-edited: nicely designed, too!

Self-published books can be hard to get one’s hands on, though. Because my public library system is made of awesome, I have access to Night Sweats through interlibrary loan. You can also, apparently, buy the paperback version through Lulu for ten bucks or get it various other ways (listed at the end of this Our Bodies, Our Blog post).

A Feminist Parenting, Pregnancy/Birth, & Books Blog