Imperfect Parent blogger of the week

Imperfect Parenting has named my humble little Moralia their parenting blog of the week. Toward the end of August the site will having voting for blogger of the month, and I’ll be in the running. Stay tuned.

The lazy shrew and the breeder pig

Last year there was a discussion on an e-mail list I’m on about the Duggars, the notoriously large family of 17 (soon to be 18) children. There were comments about how that was too many children to give individual attention to each, a snide comment or two about Mrs. Duggar’s hairstyle, and the general consensus seemed to be that the Gosselins were a more “real” family to whom my list-mates could relate because the Duggars seemed too scarily perfect in a Stepford sort of way.

At the time, I had heard of the Duggars but not the Gosselins, but hadn’t seen either family on TV. Curious, I searched the TV listings, found the Gosselins’ show John & Kate Plus 8 (a regular series) along with a show about the Duggars (who do not have a regular series; I know of only two documentary-type shows featuring the family). I watched the Duggar documentaries and a couple of episodes of John & Kate, and did some online reading that revealed some of the similarities and differences between the two families.

Differences: John and Kate Gosselin only (did I say only????) have 8 children, a set of twins and a set of sextuplets, while Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar have more than twice as many, with two sets of twins but the rst single births. The Duggars homeschool their children, while the Gosselins do not. The Duggar children behave so well and their parents are always so calm and relaxed (at least in the two documentaries) that it’s enough to give most normal parents an inferiority complex, while the Gosselin kids often run their parents ragged.

Similarities: There are a lot of people out there who really, really, REALLY hate these people. A lot of people have spent a lot of time online venting their spleen against these two families, and in particularly against these two mothers. The “lazy shrew” part of this post title refers a blog characterization of Kate Gosselin, while the “breeder pig” part refers one of the many vile epithets about Michelle Duggar that pollute the internet.

Let’s take the lazy shrew first. There is a blog called Gosselins Without Pity in which fans (if people who watch a show obsessively and then complain about it can be called fans) of the show post their comments, which frequently take the form of long, detailed explanations of what Kate Gosselin did wrong, why she’s (a) a control freak, (b) lazy, (c) mean to her husband, (d) mean to her kids, (e) all of the above. Jon gets either sympathy for being henpecked, or contempt for not setting his carping shrew of a wife straight.

I have to be honest and say that I simply haven’t watched the show often enough to know whether these criticisms are justified or not. I am too busy taking care of my own four children to watch any non-news TV regularly. In the two episodes I did see, Kate did nothing especially reprehensible. And if she gets testy sometimes, well, I can see how that might happen when you have two 7-year-olds and six 3-year-olds in the house. My one 3-year-old alone is enough to drive anyone to distraction.

In addition to the Gosselin-specific blogs (there are more than just the one I mentioned) there is much discussion of Jon’s and Kate’s (but especially Kate’s) shortcomings elsewhere on the web. This post at imperfectparent.com from last October has garnered well over 13,000 comments so far. A more recent article from a few months ago has 3,500-plus comments and they’re still pouring in.

Now for the breeder pig. Online haters of Kate Gosselin have nothing on the crowd that picks on Michelle Duggar. Adlyn Morrison posted on her blog last month a collection of particularly vile comments posted at You Tube after the Duggars announced they were expecting their 18th child.

One comments,

Nice f***ing hair, breeder pig.

Another writes,

oh god…twisted fundamentalist midwestern Christians…bah all the girls have those ugly long hair styles and they’re all wearing dresses…”cough…these people must really hate gay people.. [sic; all capitalization and punctuation errors in original]

How wearing dresses and having long hair signify hatred of homosexuals is beyond me. A third opines,

This family disgusts me. I’m surprised this woman’s uterus hasn’t fallen out while walking down the street. [Misplaced modifier alert: the uterus isn’t walking down the street; the woman is.]

Personally, I think the state of Mrs. Duggar’s reproductive organs is her own business, and far too private a matter for internet speculation, but alas, all too many people don’t agree. A particularly offensive photo crops up frequently on websites and blogs discussing the Duggars. It is a formal studio portrait of the Duggar family, on which some devilishly clever and classy person has added the caption, “VAGINA: It’s not a clown car.” The photo appears, for example, here, where still more people are spouting off with great wit and verve about Mrs. Duggar’s reproductive organs and hair (one comment eloquently opines that Mrs. D’s hair is “f***ed up”).

Earlier this month, there was a discussion on the Pregnancy and Parenting bulletin board about the Duggars, and while many of the comments were either supportive of the Duggars or expressing the view that it’s no one else’s business how many children the Duggars have, there were a few making comments like this one from Kathy on July 11:

Personally, I think that BOTH Michelle and her husband, Jim Bob, need to be rounded up and FORCIBLY STERILIZED!!…Can you imagine the ABSOLUTE DRAIN on the environment that this ONE FAMILY creates???…No wonder that the environment is in such terrible shape and Global warming is increasing with SELFISH people like Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar (doesn’t that name just SCREAM hilbilly hick??) draining the Earth’s natural resources with their endless brood! [ellipses mine; original post was longer]

The “kids are bad for the environment” argument is something I’ve posted about before. This is strictly an affluent Westerner’s line of thinking, the sort of reasoning you get from the kind of people lampooned on StuffWhitePeopleLike.com.

While one does find defenses of big families online, one finds far more of the obnoxious and insulting attacks, like the question posted on Live Journal asking, “do you think the duggars are batshit insane?” Needless to say, many respondents did.

By allowing TV cameras into their homes, the Gosselins and Duggars have opened themselves up to this sort of thing, just as I have opened myself up to it by starting a blog. I now receive insulting comments (mainly on my political posts) but that’s the price of being in the public eye. The negative comments people make in cyberspace about Kate Gosselin are sometimes mean, but they focus primarily on her parenting style, whereas the comments about Michelle Duggar are often truly beyond the pale.

Update 12/28/08: This post has been updated to show longer quotes in block quote format. None of the content has been altered.

Bouncing back after baby

British mother of 13 (soon to be 14) Joanne Watson was featured in a Daily Mail story the other day. One photo in the story shows the 37-year-old blonde Mrs. Watson with her blond husband and baker’s dozen of mostly blond and beautiful children. The other photo is a full-length shot of an amazingly slim Mrs. W a mere five days after giving birth to her thirteenth child. The article informs us that this paragon of fertility wears a size zero — without dieting, no less. She explains:

I don’t put on much weight during each pregnancy as I don’t have a huge appetite and afterwards the excess goes very quickly.

I suppose I’m running around a lot after the children, taking them to school, making their meals and taking them shopping or for walks in the park so they keep me pretty fit.

I can imagine the eye-rolling and under-the-breath cursing this may elicit from some mothers who labor nearly as hard taking off the baby weight as they do pushing out the baby.

While I don’t have quite as easy a time of it as Mrs. Watson, I can say that having four children hasn’t left me any heavier than before my first was born. Or having three didn’t, anyway. I’m only 12 days postpartum at the moment, and weigh 15 lb. more than I did when I got pregnant this last time, but that’s a manageable amount to lose, and some of it is probably still retained fluids and will come off on its own. Like Joanne Watson, I have found that running around after my children does keep me busy and active enough that I don’t have a lot of trouble with my weight. I actually had to work harder at staying slim before I had children than after. The only physical downside has been the result of having them by c-section, which means your lower abdomen is never really the same again without a tummy tuck, something I used to think wistfully about but at the moment, still having pain from the c-section, the idea of voluntarily undergoing another abdominal surgery does not appeal in the least. Besides, as I’ve mentioned in the past, taking the plastic surgery route to middle-aged Barbiedom isn’t a road I want to travel.

In general, my philosophy of life is an Aristotelian “moderation in all things.” I deplore our society’s sexualization of everything, including mothers. The images of madonna and whore, once polarized in the Victorian male imagination, have become fused. Where once there was the madonna on her pedestal and the whore in her boudoir, we now have the madonna as whore. The most vivid icon of this new ideal was the August 1991 Vanity Fair cover on which Demi Moore posed nude and seven months pregnant. Not long after, the most daring mothers-to-be were posing for artsy (and not-so-artsy) photos as nude and pregnant as Demi, though without the benefit of professional airbrushing. I learned of this when I was pregnant with my second child and on an e-mail list with other expectant mothers who were all due the same month I was. One of the women on the list posted very casually that she’d had some photos taken, and sent the link for the rest of us to see a number of nude photographs of herself in the late stage of pregnancy, accompanied in some by her two-year-old daughter. From what I have been able to gather since, this practice has not become mainstream, but neither is it as rare as some might think. Some expectant mothers who are not ready for the full monty settle for “belly pics” with shirts lifted to expose their future progeny but nothing more. I personally have known a number of mothers to exchange these with their girlfriends by e-mail or on internet discussion lists, and I’ve seen them hanging on the walls of people’s homes. The latest maternity fashions include pants and skirts that rest below the belly worn with cropped tops that leave the protruding middle exposed. Even full-coverage maternity clothes tend to be increasingly form-fitting (I noticed the change over the course of my successive pregnancies) and the maternity shops in the malls sell thong underwear.

In The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, Vicki Iovine says the bounce-back time for her and her girlfriends to get their figures back was generally around ten months (“ten months on, ten months off”). As if to prove the rule, Demi Moore was back on the cover of Vanity Fair a year after her nude and pregnant cover, buck naked again but this time adorned with a “suit” painted on her slim, ten months postpartum body. Not only are women supposed to be sexy while they’re pregnant, but they were supposed to be sexy again almost immediately after having the baby. In addition to a slew of vapid magazine articles, a number of books have hit the shelves giving new moms their marching orders: Hot Mamma: How to Have a Babe and Be a Babe (2003), Sexy Mamas: Keeping Your Sex Life Alive While Raising Kids (2004), The Hot Mom’s Handbook (2006), I’m Too Sexy for My Volvo: A Mom’s Guide to Staying Fabulous! (2006) and across the Atlantic British mums are instructed how to be The Yummy Mummy (2007).

Not every woman swallows whole the pop culture mantra that we all ought to look and act like the Sex and the City gals even with two toddlers and a newborn at home. Some women make a conscious decision to reject the ideal of the pregnant pin-up girl and the post-partum sexpot in favor of what I call an “Earth Mother” ideology. This ideology rejects the mainstream cultural ideal of thin, youthful feminine beauty, celebrating instead the female body as the site of childbirth, lactation and maternal nurture. It views breasts as beautiful not because they are firm and shapely, but because they provide the only natural source of sustenance for babies. The ideology accepts and indeed embraces those physical consequences of childbirth and lactation that the mainstream culture stigmatizes: weight gain, sagging breasts, stretch marks and all the rest. A woman I knew from an e-mail list (not the woman with the nude photos), used to end all her e-mails with the same signature line, one that included a mini-manifesto on maternal beauty that began with something to the effect of, “The beauty of my body lies not in the slimness of my thighs or the firmness of my breasts, but in . . . ” I cannot recall the exact wording, but it continued in the same vein, waxing poetic about the deeper meaning of her stretch marks, broad hips and breasts that sagged because they had fed four children over the course of many years. The image those lines always evoked in my mind was of the so-called Venus of Willendorf, a prehistoric stone figurine with enormous breasts, thick thighs and a more than ample midsection. This figure is interpreted by some as a sacred image of the Mother Goddess, the nurturing deity some people (mainly women, and not academic historians) believe was worshipped in an idyllic past before the harsh rule of God the Father subordinated women to his patriarchal rule.

No doubt there are any number of husbands who cherish their wives’ “beautiful because they give and sustain life” bodies, men who don’t mind having the baby and/or toddler sleeping in bed with them (or with their wives if they themselves have retreated to the guest room), who accept leaking milk as a natural part of foreplay for years on end, but I suspect a lot of them aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the Earth Mother mystique as their wives. Some of these are good sports about it, especially if they’re only planning on a few children and they can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but for others the challenge of living in a society as sexualized as ours must be difficult for a man whose wife is unwilling to make any effort to conform to society’s standards of feminine beauty.

Somewhere there is a happy medium between the expectation that mothers should all look like Joanne Watson five days after bearing a 13th child, and the defiant refusal of the Earth Mothers to make even the slightest effort to keep up their figures.

To boldly go…

As I was reading Maureen Dowd’s cleverly titled column “Ich Bin Ein Jet-Setter” about Barack Obama’s world tour, the phrase “he will have to successfully complete a number of tasks” jumped out at me: yet another split infinitive appearing in what is arguably our nation’s most illustrious newspaper, The New York Times, written by one of the nation’s top columnists. I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Dowd; everybody — and I do mean everybody — does it these days. Splits their infinitives, that is. You know, as in Star Trek‘s “To boldly go,” which ought in proper English to be “To go boldly.” Somehow the correct form just doesn’t have the panache of the incorrect, though it may just seem so to me since the incorrect one is the one I’m used to.

That last line was incorrect too, by the way. One isn’t supposed to end sentences with prepositions, as I just did — on purpose, may I add, to make a point. I ought to have written, “the one to which I’m used,” but who on earth talks like that? “The one to which I’m accustomed” sounds better, and for writing it’s fine, but in conversation it sounds pretentious. Same with who and whom: those of us who know the difference will in most cases write “Whom did you see?” but in conversation say “Who did you see?” Of course, which to choose, the correct but pretentious-sounding or the incorrect but normal-sounding, depends upon who you’re speaking to (which should read “to whom you are speaking”).

I realize I fixate on grammar more than the average (or ought I to say normal?) person, but my recent hospital stay kept grammatical errors in the forefront of my mind. Just about every nurse in that hospital told me to “lay down” or “lay still” or “just lay there,” when in fact each of those verbs should have been lie rather than lay. I have no idea why, but this is the error that irritates me more than any other. I have said “lie down” to my children from birth, but they all say “lay down” since everyone else they hear, including the teachers and aides at preschool, says lay rather than lie. Now that we are homeschooling (i.e., not paying other people to teach our children to use incorrect grammar in place of the correct grammar they learn at home) perhaps that will change.

A grammatical error that bothers a lot of people oddly enough doesn’t bother me: can vs. may. I know the difference of course, but grew up in a family that used can (be able) instead of may (be permitted), but that’s no excuse, since my mother says lay instead of lie and I broke that habit. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I say may sometimes and can sometimes, but I know my children always say “can,” except Cordelia, who says “may” a lot but misuses it, asking, “May you…?” instead of “Will you…?” I’ve explained a thousand times that “may” is for “May I…?” but she does right on saying “May you…?” and “Can I…?”

In her controversial book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris made the point that children speak like their peers, not like their parents, which is why children of immigrants speak perfectly unaccented English and when they do speak their parents’ native tongue, they never reach the level of proficiency they have in English, and English is the language in which they dream. This is true of class-based accents as well; the example Harris gives is Margaret Thatcher, who came from a working-class family but spoke with the upper-class accent of her classmates at the elite school she attended on scholarship. The linguistic arguments aren’t the controversial part of the book, by the way. The uproar over the book was because Harris argued that it was peers rather than parents who were responsible for shaping not just language and accent, but personality and behavior as well. The book sparked reviews with titles like “Do Parents Matter?” and much passionate insistence that in fact they do. I finally got around to reading the book only recently, and it’s worth it’s own blog post, so I’ll say no more about the socialization debate here, and say only that I think she’s dead right as far as language is concerned.

Nevertheless, I will not take my children’s poor grammar lying (not laying) down, and will continue to go boldly (not to boldly go) on trying to fight the good fight as well as I can (not may).

C-section moms to the back of the bus

For years I’ve been reading about how there are too many cesarean deliveries performed in this country, that vain celebrity moms choose c-sections to have smaller babies and preserve their figures or suit the convenience of their schedules or avoid some of the potential after-effects of vaginal birth. We hear repeatedly from natural childbirth advocates that birth should be a natural rather than a medical event, that doctors and hospitals cover themselves against insurance risks by performing excessive and intrusive procedures that make surgical deliveries more likely, and so forth. We hear the laments of women who took their natural childbirth classes, did their breathing exercises, and went to the hopsital with a detailed written “birth plan” that called for no drugs, no IV, no fetal monitoring, delivery by a midwife rather than a doctor, lots of walking around and calming music, delivering in a squatting rather than prone position, maybe even in a bathtub, and hubby there all the while with video camera in hand to capture the magic moment when mom brought forth new life through her own valiant labor, a creative force of nature rather than a patient surrendering her maternal power to medical practitioners — only to have things go terribly wrong and end up drugged and catheterized on an operating table as doctors sliced open their bellies and removed their babies, robbing them of the earth mother fantasy that had been playing itself out in their heads for months.

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, I had none of those dreams of heroic labor. I was in my late thirties, had had trouble conceiving, had repeated miscarriages, and was afraid I’d missed the boat and would never have a child. Under those circumstances, I saw birth as a means to an end, and didn’t much care how I delivered. The doctor could take the baby out my left ear for all I cared, as long as the child was healthy and safe. So when I’d been in labor all day and things didn’t progress as they should have, I wasn’t upset when the doctor said he needed to perform an emergency cesarean. The recovery was painful, but it is after any abdominal surgery, and after a few days of bad pain and a few weeks of limited activity, I was as good as new. I experienced none of the guilt or depression I’ve heard about so many other c-section mothers having. The idea of feeling guilty because I had somehow “failed” at the test of true womanhood strikes me as ludicrous, and yet I’ve read a fair bit about it, and even heard it from women I know personally. I’ve also read that postpartum depression is more common after surgical delivery, but I was lucky enough not to have it, and I know a number of women who delivered vaginally — some completely unmedicated — who had postpartum depression anyway. I’m no expert on this subject, but it seems to me that if the incidence of depression is higher after surgical delivery, part of it stems not from the surgeries themselves but from people making c-section moms feel bad (intentionally or not) for failing to live up to society’s ideals about childbirth.

I have a friend who, like me, has four children. Our firstborns were actually born on the same day of the same year; our seconds were born in the same month, my third a few months before her third, and her fourth a few months before my fourth. Both of us labored with our first and had emergency c-sections. Both of us had the choice of scheduling a c-section for the second or trying for a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean). I opted for a second c-section because the admittedly slight risk of uterine rupture in that procedure scared me. My friend, who was pressured by family members to try for a “real” birth (her sister-in-law came right out and said that she wasn’t a “real woman” if she couldn’t deliver her babies vaginally) tried for the VBAC, went through a horrendously long labor but was still unable to deliver, and ended up having another c-section after all. My recovery from a scheduled section was fairly easy, while hers after a traumatic labor followed by surgery was difficult.

I freely admit that often VBACs are successful. I know a lot of women personally who have had them, and were thrilled at being able to deliver naturally after a previous surgical delivery. I’m happy for them, and I agree that the choice ought to be the mother’s. But in all too many cases the choice means pressure to make the right choice: to choose the kind of delivery that will validate your credentials as a real woman, much as the choice of feeding by breast or bottle means that making the wrong choice marks you as a substandard mother.

As I wrote before, my first three c-sections were performed at a hospital in California where a nursery was available. Most of the mothers who delivered vaginally there kept their babies in their hospital rooms with them, and after the first 24 hours after surgery, I kept my baby with me most of the time too, except when I wanted to sleep or shower. But for that first day after surgery, I really could not take care of a baby on my own, and because there was no nursery staff to help, what that really meant was that for c-section moms, the hospital policy was BYOBN: bring your own baby nurse. Pretty neat racket for the hospital, which doesn’t have to pay a nursery staff, and for the insurance companies, which have to pay out less for each hospital stay since c-section moms are eager to get the heck out of the hospital and go home. I stayed four nights after each surgery in California, but only three this time, because what was the point of staying in the hospital when I couldn’t rest? I had to have someone stay with me every night I was there, my aunt the first and third nights, and a good friend (and Portia’s godmother) the second night. The logistics of the BYOBN policy bring me to yet another way this hospital made me, as a c-section patient, feel like a second-class citizen.

St. Vincent’s hospital has two types of rooms in the maternity ward, one for mothers delivering vaginally, and another for patients recovering from c-sections. Because a woman delivering vaginally remains in the same room for her labor, delivery, and recovery, the rooms are large and spacious. They have a table and chairs in addition to the bed, plenty of room for walking around, wood (or what looked like wood) floors, big windows with nice views, and big flat-screen TVs on the walls. The rooms for c-section recovery patients are about a fourth (that’s being generous; it might even be closer to a fifth) of the size of the nice rooms the real mothers get. The window in my room looked out onto the machinery on the roof of a lower level of the hospital, the old TV had a remote that didn’t work (eventually they managed to find one that did), and the baby nurse I was expected to provide for myself had to sleep on a small chair that pulled out into a very uncomfortable and undersized facsimile of a bed. When this “bed” was pulled out, there was barely enough room to get around, and we had to keep moving the baby’s bassinet in order for my aunt (the BYOBN) and the hospital nurses to get to my bed. I was still hooked up to the IV and other unmentionable attachments so wasn’t doing any walking around myself. On the second evening they let me move to a regular two-bed room in the pediatric ward next door (no way they were letting me into one of those posh rooms saved for the real mothers) and the rest of my stay was more comfortable.

In her book about motherhood, actress and c-section mom Patricia Heaton called the cesarean “the kindest cut of all” (for those of you who think I named my baby after a car, that’s a play on a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — Caesar, cesarean, get it?). After my California deliveries, I agreed with her completely. If enough hospitals go the way of St. Vincent’s here in Santa Fe, I’m afraid we’ll have to put the “un-” back in that line.

Portia Louise, home at last

PortiaPortia Louise Russell and her exhausted but deliriously happy mother came home from the hospital on Sunday, and it’s taken this long for me to get around to writing about it.

First, the name. Portia is the name we had in mind when I wrote my earlier post about baby names, but I was keeping it quiet just in case we chickened out and named her something more conventional. We had considered Portia for our third daughter, but ended up naming her Theresa after my mother-in-law instead. I’m glad we did, both because Terry (MIL) was so pleased, and because the name seems to suit Tessie (our daughter) so well. Several of our relatives aren’t mad about Portia’s name, but not everyone liked Cordelia’s (our second daughter) either, and they’ve all changed their minds and love it now, so we’re hoping for the same result this time. Reactions from hospital staff who asked the baby’s name really ran the gamut. It was immediately obvious which ones had heard the name before, and which upon hearing Portia (which is pronounced POR-sha, as some people pronounce the name of the car Porsche) clearly showed by their dumbfounded expressions that they thought I had named my baby after a sports car. One nurse actually laughed. To her credit, she tried to stifle the laugh, but it was too late and she didn’t quite manage. It reminded me of the scene in that 1980s comedy film, A Fish Called Wanda, in which Jamie Lee Curtis and John Cleese are having a laugh at the expense of Kevin Kline’s character after Curtis tells Cleese that Kline is so stupid that he thinks Cleese’s daughter Portia was named after a car. I was surprised by how many people had never heard the name Cordelia either, but at least it can’t be confused with a car. I really hope I haven’t done something awful to the poor child by giving her such an unusual name. To me, it was just mainstream enough, but to the vast swath of humanity who hasn’t read much (any?) Shakespeare, it obviously isn’t.

Second, the delivery. Like all the others, it was by cesarean section, and recovery this fourth time around has been slow going. The hospital stay was not as restful as the ones I had in California, where there was a nursery available, and I had some bad reactions to the pain medication. Having experienced this, it makes me shudder in dumbfounded wonder that anyone would want to take narcotic drugs for recreational purposes. Bad enough when you have to take them for pain, and can call the doctor when bad things start to happen. The idea of doing it just for fun, and not being able to call a doctor if something goes wrong…well, it just boggles my mind. I’ll have more to say on this delivery in particular, and c-sections in general, tomorrow or the next day. Right now I just want to get this post up.

Finally, the baby herself. She was 7 lb., 4 oz., and 21 inches long. She has dark blue eyes and an abundance of jet black hair, as all my babies have. The other three all have different hair and eye color now, so it’s anyone’s guess how Portia’s will end up. As a c-section baby, she has perfect features undamaged by a traumatic trip through the birth canal, and to my maternal eyes she’s the most beautiful creature in the world. Not that I’m biased or anything.

They say babies don’t make eye contact until they’re a week or so old, and my second and third daughters didn’t. My firstborn Elizabeth did, however, and so did Portia. I cannot even begin to describe the effect that had on me, having my newborn child look right into my eyes within an hour of delivery, and knowing (I don’t care what anyone says; I’ll always believe it) that she wasn’t just looking, but was really seeing me, and perhaps even recognizing me as the owner of the voice and heartbeat she’s been hearing muffled by amniotic fluid all these long months.

Welcome home, my Portia. Welcome to your family.

Parenting news and blues

Newsweek poses the question: Having Kids Makes You Happy: True or False? The article cites several studies that find parents are in fact less happy than the childless (or childfree, as many prefer to call themselves), and that they have less happy marriages as well. The author, Lorraine Ali, is herself a parent, and counters the negative data with a reminder that “there are other rewarding aspects of parenting that are impossible to quantify” and that even if parents report themselves less happy, they still have “a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who’ve never had kids.” For my part, I can honestly say that I am much happier now than before I had children. Was my life more carefree back then? Definitely. Is my life harder now? Absolutely. But what I have gained from parenthood is not just a sense of purpose and meaning (though of course I did gain those) but happiness as well.

A new NBC series, The Baby Borrowers, thows teen couples into the parenting pit and lets the world watch as they squirm. I didn’t watch the show, but the LA Times review of the premiere reported that contrary to what one might expect, the young men did rather better with the babies than the young women, who frequently dissolved in fits of tears and frustration. I doubt I’ll bother watching, since (a) I don’t like reality TV in general, and (b) I’m going to be reliving the madness myself in a little over a week, when our new addition joins the household, and any TV I do watch is going involve things to take my mind off the crying baby in my own house, not provide back-up in stereo.

Having just visited the show’s website to obtain the URL for my link, I saw that it contains a poll asking at what age couples are best suited to become parents. The results of the poll when I voted just now were: Teens 27%, Twenties 31%, Thirties 41%, Forties less than 1%, and later than that less than half a percent. The fact that 30s ranked highest didn’t surprise me, but I would have thought that 20s and 40s would both have garnered more votes, and teens far fewer. In case you’re curious, I voted for 20s as the best time, even though (or more likely because) I had my own children in my late 30s and early 40s. One of my earlier posts (and one of my favorites) will explain why.

Lisa Chamberlain, author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction, which will be published in a few days, writes on her blog about the effect getting “knocked up” (her term, not mine) has had on her life. So far, not much. She doesn’t feel any pressing need to marry the boyfriend who knocked her up (like so very many others today, alas) and doesn’t think the baby is going to affect her career all that much. Okay, stop laughing, all you mothers out there. You see, Ms. Chamberlain is a member of Generation X, which is far superior to those stupid Baby Boomers (you know, the ones who for the most part did think it was important to get married before they got knocked up – or at least before they started showing) in that Gen X couples practice Shared Parenting, that is, Gen X guys aren’t hamstrung by outmoded ideas about gender roles, and they really do half of everything house and kid related, fifty-fifty, share and share alike. Personally, I can’t wait to read Ms. Chamberlain’s blog a year or so from now to see how her boyfriend is doing in the fifty-fifty department.

Men behaving badly – and the women who blog about it

One of my husband’s friends gave him a hard time because I “slammed” him in my blog the other day. I was dumbfounded, since the post in question didn’t mention my husband, and my comment was a general one about how mothers tend to feel guilty for frittering away time on the internet instead of spending it with their children, whereas fathers apparently don’t, from what I’ve been able to ascertain at least. I never said my husband wasted more time online than I do, or that I read to our children more than he does, or even that there would be anything wrong with the situation if those things were true.

When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision that I would not use it to “vent” when I was frustrated and upset with my husband, as so many female bloggers – especially the ones who are mothers – do. I will, however, be writing fairly often about male-female issues on a more general societal level. These issues are central to the book I’m writing, and are frequently on my mind. But I will never, at least intentionally, write anything about my husband personally that I would be offended if he wrote about me.

Amy of Amalah.com is typical of some of the Mommy Bloggers out there, who pull no punches in cataloguing their husbands’ shortcomings for all the cyberworld to see. In just a few recent posts, she tells how her husband Jason did a lousy job installing a light fixture, screwed up her instructions about bringing home dinner, was too incompetent to install a simple childproof latch to a cabinet, and so forth. Occasionally Jason does come out looking less incompetent than Amy, but the proportions seem to follow the sitcom rule: smart wife/mother, clueless dope of a husband/father who occasionally does something right only so you don’t throw up your hands and call her an idiot for putting up with him.

I will tell you, if I wrote half – no, a tenth – no, make that any – of the things a lot of these blogging women write publicly about their husbands, I seriously doubt I’d still be married. I have an idea I’d get an “It’s me or that blog!” ultimatum, and he would mean it. My husband loves me, but public ridicule is a price I know he’d be unwilling to pay for that love.

And you know what? I wouldn’t put up with it either. I wonder how many of the Mommy Bloggers would, for that matter, if it were their husbands spewing forth all their foibles and foolishness on blogs for the whole world to read.

The worst mother in the world

Is there a mother who doesn’t feel like this is her once in a while? When we yell at the kids over something stupid and feel like a complete jackass afterward. When we sit like a zombie surfing the internet instead of reading to our children like we promised ourselves (or God forbid them) we would.

Dads don’t feel this way, from what I can gather. They surf the web and read the paper and play computer games and whatever else guys do and it never occurs to them to feel guilty because they could have been painting watercolors with their children. Guilt is largely a female affliction.

Update – I take it back. I am not even remotely in the running for worst mother in the world. I wrote the above before my trip to the grocery store today, where I saw several times over the course of a long shopping trip a slovenly girl with overdone Goth eyeliner and no wedding ring. She couldn’t have been much over 22 or 23 (and looked younger than that) but had two children aged around 7 and 4. They called her “Mom” so she wasn’t a sister or aunt or babysitter. I heard her yell, “Why don’t you shut the hell up!” at least twice, and pretty much everything she said was said angrily.

Yes, I have a bad day sometimes, and yes, I get irritated and snap at my children. But if this young woman treats hers like this in public, how much worse do you suppose she is in private? I’m not saying she’s the worst mother in the world, just that she made me realize that I’m being a bit hard on myself when I think that I am.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to be the best mother I can be. It only means that I feel very sorry for that young woman’s children.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille

Gloria Swanson in Sunset BoulevardAge has been on my mind more than usual lately, probably because I’m 43 and about to have a baby. Because I had children relatively late in life, I’m in the position of being in a playgroup where I’m old enough to be the mother of some of the other moms. They like different music. They have tattoos and pierced noses. I’m the “bridge generation” between the moms and the grandmas in my children’s social circle. Back in LA, where we lived until two years ago, there were lots of moms of my age. There are some in Santa Fe too, I’m sure, but I don’t happen to be friends with any of them.

By luck of the DNA draw, my husband’s hair started graying when he was in his 20s, while I didn’t get my first silver strand until well past my 40th birthday, and am frequently told that I don’t look my age. The result of this is that my husband has been congratulated slyly by other men for “robbing the cradle” when in fact he’s only three years older than I. He, of course, loves this, getting the ego boost of appearing to have a younger trophy wife while actually getting to grow old with the wife of his youth.

Even though I may not look my age just yet, I realize it’s going to happen sooner or later, and am trying not to mind being middle aged. I want to grow old gracefully, not be one of those women who turn into an obscene caricature of their younger selves as they cling desperately to their fading beauty.

Even as I worry about aging, I worry that I shouldn’t be worrying. Inner beauty is what counts, right? Doesn’t being wise and successful and strong and confident matter more than firm thighs and dewey skin? Yes, yes, so we’ve been told. The bloom fading from the rose shouldn’t matter, but does it matter?

You tell me.

Essentialism

Contemplating the maternal urge to nest the other day, I started thinking about what feminist theorists derisively term essentialism, the idea that there are essential differences between men and women. I heard this term for the first time my first semester in grad school, when the USC History Department’s mandatory seminar for first year students was taught by an ardent feminist. The theme for the entire two-semester course was to be gender, with the first semester spent reading on the topic and the second semester writing a paper on it. This course was really my first exposure to feminist theory, since I had done my undergrad work in the early 1980s before Women’s Studies departments and courses were on everyone’s radar screen. When I began my doctoral studies in the mid-1990s, all that had changed, and I had some catching up to do. Of course, when you come at this material as a 30-year-old married woman rather than an 18-year-old, you’re not quite so easily bedazzled by the high-flown rhetoric of theory.

What feminists call the “Second Wave” (the “First Wave” refers to the suffrage activists of the 19th century) began in the U.S. the year I was born with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1964), then took a radical turn in 1970 with a trio of manifestos ringing the death knell of sexual difference: Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. All three authors minimized biological differences between men and women, and believed that patriarchy was historically created rather than natural, and thus could be dismantled, paving the way for a world in which gender differences are all but erased, gender being the set of social roles and expectations that go along with biological sex, rather than simply a synonym for sex. Thus, technically, when you ask a pregnant woman, “Do you know the baby’s gender?” you’re misusing the term; the correct question is, “Do you know the baby’s sex?” But I digress.

Anyway, once the patriarchal bastions had been breached (as they clearly have) and traditional gender roles had been stripped of their legitimacy (as they have for a large portion of society), gender differences were supposed to “wither away” just like the post-capitalist state in Marxist theory. Only they didn’t – not states, and not gender.

Part of the problem with the radical feminists’ views of gender as 100% socially constructed was that those passionate young women writing in 1970 weren’t mothers. They could weave grandiose dreams about a brave new world of communal childcare and housekeeping that freed women to be just like men, but not one of them had ever lain in a hospital bed and been handed a tiny, helpless creature that depended upon her completely for its very survival. Childless women can read feminist theory and talk all they want about motherhood being “socially constructed” but once a woman has a baby and the reality of motherhood hits her like a ton of bricks, the theory may seem less compelling.

I honestly don’t think I am devoted to my children because I was socialized to be so. As I explained in a previous post, my mother actively discouraged me from a maternal vocation, and the culture in which I grew up was one that emphasized personal and professional accomplishments rather than traditional domesticity. And yet here I sit, letting my academic credentials gather dust as I sort and wash baby clothes, cook for my family, and teach my daughters to read. I don’t think it’s the oppressive hold of patriarchy that makes me want to do this – or think I want to, when if I’d had my consciousness properly raised I’d realize that my kids should be in daycare and I should be doing something that really matters. Call me a deluded tool of the patriarchy if you like, but in all honesty, raising my children myself rather than turning them over to “communal childcare” really does matter.

No more nurseries?

What do you mean you don’t HAVE a nursery?????

This was my dumbfounded response when I toured the maternity ward (the only one in Santa Fe) where I’ll be delivering next month. The hospital where I had my other three children had one, and since all my deliveries were c-section and I wasn’t quite up to round-the-clock baby care the moment I came out of surgery, all my babies spent at least some time in there. I just assumed all hospital maternity wards had nurseries. They all used to, at any rate, as I’ve read many a mournful lament and many an angry diatribe from mothers who were deprived of crucial bonding moments because hospital staff insisted on taking their babies to the nursery for one reason or another.

Over the past several decades, rooming-in (where the baby stays in the mother’s room and sometimes never even goes near the nursery) has become more common, but at my old hospital it was an option rather than a requirement. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s a good option. If a new mother wants to have her baby in her room every moment of her hospital stay, more power to her. But I’m going to be recovering from major abdominal surgery and facing a return home to four young children including a baby who will have me up every couple of hours for who knows how long, and those few nights in the hospital are going to be my last chance to get some sleep.

When I pointed out that I was going to be recovering from surgery, and wasn’t sure I was up to taking full charge of the baby for the entire hospital stay, the nurse blithely suggested my husband could stay with me and sleep on a chair that pulled out for that purpose. Since we have three other children my husband will caring for at home, that isn’t an option. And even if it was, I wouldn’t want him in that tiny hospital room with me, tossing and turning on an uncomfortable chair-bed, and I’d wake every time the baby did anyway. I liked being alone in the hospital when I delivered before; I don’t like an audience for my physical maladies, and I want to be alone again this time.

When I told the story to one friend (who had also delivered by c-section), she said that her hospital had had a nursery, then added, “But I couldn’t imagine who would want to send their baby there.” That’s the attitude most mothers giving birth today have, I’ve found. So I guess dinosaurs like myself, who are selfish enough to want a few hours of uninterrupted sleep while recovering from surgery, will just have to adapt.

Wherefore art thou Ethelbald?

If Romeo and Juliet had been called Ethelbald and Hildegarde, would their names be synonymous with romance?

Names have been on my mind lately, since we have to choose one for our fourth daughter next month. Our first and third daughters have traditional, mainstream names, Elizabeth and Theresa, and we didn’t catch any flak about those. Our second daughter, on the other hand, we called Cordelia, and we got an earful from a couple of relatives about it. The relatives have come around and now really like the name, and most importantly, Cordelia herself loves it.

When we chose it, I didn’t think Cordelia was that much more unusual than some of the other old-fashioned names that have seen a resurgence of popularity recently, but the Social Security Administration says otherwise on their Popular Baby Names website.

This is a site where an expectant mother can really waste some serious time. You can see the top 20, 100 or 1000 baby names of both sexes for the United States and for each state individually. You can also track the popularity of any name over the past hundred years. For example, Cordelia usually came in between #400 and 700 for the first few decades of the twentieth century, then dipped slowly downward until 1950, then disappeared without a trace. In 2003, the year we named our Cordelia, I was amazed to find that names like Imani (#329), Itzel (#434 and yes, for a girl), Justice (#451), Isis (#585), Teagan (#636) and Meadow (#761) far outranked it.

I think we’ve finally decided on daughter #4’s name, but I’m keeping mum on the blog until it’s official, except to say that it’s not on this year’s top 1000 list either.

And no, it isn’t Hildegarde.

DNA explodes Greek myth about women – or maybe NOT

Mask of AgamemnonThe Guardian‘s headline reads, “DNA explodes Greek myth about women,” but after reading the story, I’m not particularly impressed by the magnitude of the explosion.

In the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann excavated the Bronze Age tombs of Mycenae, which contained 35 bodies and a great deal of treasure, including the gold funerary mask pictured at left. A decade ago scientists used facial reconstruction techniques to offer portraits of seven of the bodies, and now geneticists have extracted DNA from some of the bodies. One pair, previously thought to have been husband and wife, turned out to be closely related. The article announces rather dramatically that the DNA “revealed they were brother and sister” but then in the next paragraph has Professor Terry Brown of Manchester University admitting, “To be precise our DNA evidence suggests the pair were closely related, possibly siblings or possibly cousins. However, the facial reconstruction work…also shows they were very similar in appearance which indicates they were brother and sister.”

Oh really? As to the facial resemblance being so close that they must have been brother and sister, well, I have only to look at my sister-in-law, who resembles one of her first cousins more than she does her brother (my husband). I have a niece who looks so much like me that people confuse whose picture is whose, and an aunt and niece are far less closely related than siblings. The Mycenaean graves may well belong to a brother and sister, but on the other hand, they may just as easily not.

But what difference does it make whether they were cousins or siblings? It matters because of the historical argument being made from the DNA and facial reconstructive evidence. “The critical point,” according to the article, “was that the woman was thought to have been buried in a richly endowed grave because she was the wife of a powerful man. That was in keeping with previous ideas about Ancient Greece – that women had little power and could only exert influence through their husbands.”

“But this discovery shows both the man and the woman were of equal status and had equal power,” the article quotes Prof. Brown as saying. “Women in Ancient Greece held positions of power by right of birth, it now appears.”

At the risk of repeating myself: oh, really?

Marriage between first cousins was common in the aristocracies of both Greece and Rome, and the pair could easily have been both first cousins and spouses.

In announcing a complete overturning of the scholarly paradigm on gender relations in Bronze Age Greece, Prof. Brown is making more of the evidence than is there, and The Guardian is reporting speculation as established fact.

Motherhood as battleground: Alice and Rebecca Walker

This story appeared yesterday on my friend Patrick O’Hannigan’s blog, The Paragraph Farmer, but my friend Martha Brozyna, medieval historian and author of a recently published book on stock trading, had already sent me the link to the Daily Mail article.

In it, 38-year-old Rebecca Walker blames her famous mother, author Alice Walker, for very nearly depriving Rebecca of the joys of motherhood. “I very nearly missed out on becoming a mother – thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman,” says Rebecca Walker. “You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women.” She believed what she was taught, and did not have a child until her thirties. “My only regret is that I discovered the joys of motherhood so late – I have been trying for a second child for two years, but so far with no luck.”

Rebecca Walker claims that she and her mother have not spoken since Rebecca became pregnant, and that Alice Walker has never seen her only grandchild. “My crime?” Rebecca askes rhetorically. “Daring to question her ideology.” I suspect there is more to the story. Even if Alice Walker was disappointed that her daughter chose motherhood, it is difficult to believe that she cut off all ties with her daughter for that reason alone. It’s possible, of course, but there is a great deal of bitterness between mother and daughter, and we only have the daughter’s side of the story, told in more detail in Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence, published last year but recently released in paperback. I have not yet read it, but the word “narcissism” crops up frequently in the Amazon.com reviews.

Whatever the real details of the Walkers’ mother-daughter relationship may be, it’s clear enough that Rebecca felt discouraged from becoming a mother in large part because of her own mother’s teaching. “It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.”

This is something to which I can relate very well myself. While neither my mother nor my mother-in-law were active members of the feminist movement, neither of them were particularly eager for my husband and me to have children. Both of them emphasized how difficult children were, how they tied you down, how your life would never be your own again. My mother was married, had two children, and was divorced all well before she was thirty. When other pretty young women were out having fun in the hedonistic early 1970s, she was an exhausted single mother, working all day and coming home every evening to two children and no help from a husband. Small wonder that she saw motherhood as more burdensome than joyous. My mother-in-law had a husband with a successful business, but seemed to have a natural immunity to baby fever. She had her first child because her husband wanted one, and her second because contraceptives weren’t as reliable then as now. She was a kind and conscientious mother, but she hired nannies and went right back to work because she enjoyed being out among people.

Once we finally did have our first child (late in life, like Rebecca Walker), my husband was struck by how little the “ball and chain” scenario of parenthood that he’d been given corresponded to the way he actually felt about being a father. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it diminished one’s independence. But because people had always emphasized the negative aspects, he was not fully prepared for just how wonderful the positive aspects would be. I had wanted a child desperately already, but once we finally were parents, my husband became even more enthusiastic than I about having more children. We were lucky, and are expecting our fourth in July.

I wish Rebecca Walker equally good fortune.

The Myth of Ageless Motherhood

On Mother’s Day, a story called “Ageless Motherhood” dominated the front page of my local paper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. The cover photo featured Joyce Bond, 53, with two of the triplets she recently bore. Births to women over 40 are “soaring” according to the article, with the birth rate to women 40-44 growing 45% between 1995 and 2006, and births to women 45 and older doubling during the same period.

Because I am part of that statistic myself, having given birth at age 40 in 2005 (and at 43 am expecting another baby next month), one would think that I would be applauding this story as a welcome bit of good news for women like myself. While I’m thrilled for Mrs. Bond and others like her, the issue is more complicated than the New Mexican article implies. Mrs. Bond became a mother for the first time in her fifties, and this is extremely unusual. It is even unusual for women in their forties to conceive and carry to term a first child. The “soaring” birthrate to women over 40 includes a lot of women like me, who had their first child or two when they were under 40, and then had another child (or children) past their fortieth birthday. It is more common for a woman like me (or 41-year-old Michelle Duggar, now pregnant with her 18th child) to conceive over 40 than it is for a woman who is trying to conceive for the first time.

Sylvia Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, makes this point cogently and with statistics to back it up. Her book demonstrates that a great many women who put off childbearing during their twenties and thirties, secure in the belief that they can always have a baby past forty (don’t all the articles like “Ageless Motherhood” and all the aging celebrity mom success stories say so?) end up bitterly disappointed when their lives don’t turn out like Joyce Bond’s or Jane Seymour’s. I have several friends who ended up in this situation. Some adopted children, others conceived with donor eggs, and still others simply reconciled themselves to a life of childlessness. Having a first child past 40 is certainly a possibility, but it is most definitely not a certainty.

And yet that is exactly what my generation has been told for decades. We were encouraged to put off marriage, establish our careers, travel, enjoy life, and leave childbearing to some distant future when we had done everything else we wanted to in life. I was very nearly a casualty of this bad advice myself. I dodged the bullet of childlessness, but I had five miscarriages because 30-something and 40-something eggs aren’t as good as 20-something eggs. All my children were born when I was at what the medical profession dubs Advanced Maternal Age (over 35) and so I spent much of my pregnancies worrying about whether I was carrying a baby with Down Syndrome (I don’t have amnios since I won’t abort). The daughters I bore at 36, 38 and 40 were perfectly healthy. I’m still worrying and praying about the one I’ll bear this summer at 43. Ageless motherhood indeed!

I extend my heartfelt good wishes to Joyce Bond and all the other lucky women who beat the odds and had their first child after 40. But for all the women in their twenties and thirties who think they’ll be that lucky too, I have only a warning: don’t bet on it.

Does the world really need another new blog?

I’ve asked myself that question for several years now, hesitant to join the countless multitudes already offering their unsolicited opinions on everything under the sun. Probably not, but I wanted to start one anyway. After all, what makes my unsolicited opinions any more superfluous than anyone else’s?

So why didn’t I? For one thing, I keep having babies, and that keeps me sort of busy. But then my friend Melissa started her blog three months after her sixth child was born. If she can homeschool four school age children while taking care of a three-year-old and a newborn and still find time to blog, then I figured I could too.

For another thing, I’ve been working on a book, and thought blogging would take too much time away from it. But my children already make it so difficult to get any substantive writing done that it’s probably a lost cause anyway, at least right now.

And so I began Moralia.

Update, August 16, 2017:

More than nine years later, I’m still blogging, but under my own name dot com. The name Moralia came from a source I used for my doctoral dissertation, the collected essays of Plutarch, a Greek biographer and moral philosopher who lived and wrote during the early Roman Empire.

Some of the content from Moralia has come over to the new site, but not all. Some of it was dated, some was on topics about which I no longer write, and some was just plain boring. You’re welcome.