Monday, November 24, 2008

Essential Twenty-First Century Mom Conflict

Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Is it just me, or is everyone having the same fantasy? I find myself saying to myself several times a day, “Oh, that’s okay; when Barack Obama is president, that’ll be solved.” "That" being everything from the ever-sinking Dow to our high health insurance premiums to the mice who have taken up residence in our cupboards to my daughter’s continuing refusal to become potty trained. Now and then I remember that Obama is just a guy, albeit a smart and attractive and charismatic one, and that he probably can’t wave his hand and produce miracles, but I think it’s probably good for my nervous system to pretend he can right now.

A friend of mine sent me two articles today that stirred up my Time, Money, Calories matrix and left me panting for breath. One article was from the magazine Brain, Child and the other was her response to it. The Brain Child article is called "Eco-Housewives" and tells of a woman named Shannon Hayes who is writing a book tentatively titled Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity form a Consumer Culture. It sounded right up my alley—a sort of Annie Leonard "Story of Stuff" homesteady fantasy, and with trepidation, I started to read my friend’s response to it. My friend, the mother of three and a brilliant professional writer and card carrying feminist, took offense at the suggestion that “eco-moms” were somehow more enlightened and evolved than those who, as she does, shop at ShopRite and occasionally accept plastic bags when they forget their canvas ones. My friend raised the question “what is enough?” which to me is at the root of what I keep thinking of as the essential Twenty-First Century Mom Conflict.

What is enough? My friend was clearly disturbed and, by her own admission, thrown on the defensive by Hayes’s embrace of a completely consumer-free lifestyle: no TV, all local organic cuisine, no presents at Christmas, etc. Hayes’s stance didn’t bother me in the least: I admire her; occasionally want to follow that path; don’t (I have many an eco-sin); and figure it’s good enough that I use cloth diapers and make my own wipes and drive a biodiesel (which may or may not be an eco-sin, but that's a topic for a different post). It’s about batting averages, I figure, and I am grateful to the Hayeses of the world for allowing me to have lower ones.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own areas of defensiveness. I get defensive around moms who spend most of their day actually doing something that can be perceived as “playing” with their kids. I am pretty good at making up stories, but oddly terrible at engaging with my daughter around her stuffed animals or dolls. This is especially odd as that was exactly the kind of play I did as a child. The other day when I was lamenting my lack of talent and interest in imaginative play, my husband said, “You don’t like to play with her that way because you brought that part of you along with you. Now you play by writing novels and songs, and you can’t go back.”

Maybe so, but I still feel like a rotten parent when I see someone else–– a babysitter, another parent, my husband–– animating one of her dolls and getting her to giggle and shriek with joy. I have friends who get defensive––in fact, go on the offense––when it comes to a career they may have left behind. These moms speak with passion about selfishness and priorities and deathbed regrets.

Whatever. Motherhood, career, good stewardship of the planet, It's impossible to do it all. I give up. Also, I give up on trying to be enlightened. The High Priests of the Present Moment may now come and officially excommunicate me. I’ve been trying so hard to live in the Now so as not miss a single thing my darling children do or say that I think I’m seriously in danger of losing my sense of humor forever. I wish today, with all my heart, that my friend and I (and all the Shannon Hayeses of the world) could just relax and enjoy our few moments here, even if that means we are zoning out and watching Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central; EVEN if that means we are sitting around the kitchen table judging our other mom friends for watching Comedy Central. Either way, at least we will have a few precious moments for ourselves, even if they are self-righteous ones.

Today I let my daughter cry in her crib for five minutes after I put her down for her nap, and yes, I felt terrible, and yes, it was the absolute best choice I could make given how exhausted I was and how my son needed his diaper changed. Then I noticed that she stopped crying, sung herself the ABC song and fell asleep. When she woke, she was in a great mood.

“I say 'hostibal,' mama, and you say ‘hospital.’ Isn’t that funny, mama?”

I picked her up and snuggled her. “I’m sorry you were sad before your nap,” I said.

“I not sad now,” she replied. “Talk about the bear and the scary boy, okay Mama? That’s a good idea, right Mama?” and she hugged and kissed me, and perhaps I was forgiven, but at any rate, her innate, instinctive kindness allowed me to forgive myself. In this, as in all things parental, the kids are the best teachers of all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Bear, Part One

In late October, Tom and I had a $26 date. I packed up my dinner and met him at the Haymarket, our local coffeehouse/ vegetarian eatery where Wi-Fi is free and the local writers hold office hours. The $20 was for the babysitter; $6 was for Tom’s egg sandwich. On the way home, driving past Smith college, I saw what looked like a giant Newfoundland dog bounding in front of the art museum.

“A bear!” I shouted, pointing. The bear ran across Main Street right in front of our car, Tom jumped out with his cell phone and called the cops, following it a pace. I called out to the Smith students, “There’s a Bear on Bedford Terrace,” and they responded with appropriate enthusiasm.

When we got home, of course we told Lila right away. That might have been a mistake.

“But,” she said, wrinkling up her eyes and nose and feigning amusement but actually looking terrified, “Will the bear come in our house? I don’t want the bear come in our house.”

“No, sweetie,” I said. “Bears don’t come inside houses.” Then I remembered too late that our most recent favorite book—the one we read three times per night—was Goldilocks. “Real bears don’t come in houses,” I amended. “They can’t. They don’t have hands, so they can’t open doorknobs.”

This didn’t seem to relieve her much, so Tom quickly added, “And they like woods. We don’t have enough woods here for the bears.”

Three days later, our family of four traveled to Brattleboro VT where Katryna and I participated in a No Nukes Jubilee. It was a dismal day, not quite raining, but definitely threatening to, and the crowd was not huge. The first thing we saw, (having hoped for face paint and a bouncy house and maybe some farm animals to pat), was a clown dumping a barrel of autumn leaves on a group of children. Lila promptly screamed and jumped into Tom’s arms. “Who’s dat guy wif lipstick?” she shrieked.
And now it’s, “Clown’s can’t come into our house, wight Mama, because dey don’t have hands.”

It’s a time of fear and loathing—after all, it’s almost Halloween, not to mention election day. We Democrats are so scared we can hardly look each other in the eye these days. The polls look fabulous, with our guy above 50% and campaigning vigorously in states that haven’t voted for a Democrat since before the platypus became extinct. People are talking landslide. People are talking mandate. People are talking about a filibuster-proof Senate. People are talking about major parties on November 5. And I continue to be glued to my laptop where I can read the latest article about Why McCain Fell Short and The Palin Effect and Who’s Going to Be in Obama’s Cabinet instead of doing a million other things that would be, as my friend says, more nurturing.
Like: meditate, exercise, write in my journal, play with my kids, write a song, or best of all, do nothing. As a life coach, I often prescribe just this for clients. Take five minutes of nothing and call me in the morning. Today, I raced upstairs to get dressed for my weekly morning self-care date (therapy plus Pilates=saner and fitter mama) and as I passed my unmade bed, I lept onto it, rolled on my back and lay there for the count of thirty. Then I jumped back up, put in my contacts, washed my face and brushed my teeth. Tonight, after dinner and before my writing group, I found a CD from my college days—the fifteen century Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez––and let the complex melody with the simple one voice arrangement act as a tonic to my nervous system. I recently learned that the young child (or baby) uses his parent’s nervous system to regulate his own. He literally relies on the parent to calm him down, and as anyone who ever played those outdoor adventure/inner quest activities knows, one must be well grounded in order to ground others. Thus, the Gregorian chant.
That extra hour we got when we “Falled back” was lost on us—it just fell into the big sleep deficit.

So this last week went a little differently from the previous weeks. I tried to put the oxygen mask on my own face before putting it on my kids, to use my all time favorite metaphor. I made sure I got to the gym, scribbled some musings in my journal every day, and went out for dinner with my husband and another wonderful couple while our kids got to eat Halloween candy and misbehave with a babysitter. And it worked, and I did feel better: not quite as convinced that if I didn’t take in every single last moment with my two growing children that I would lie on my deathbed regretting all my choices.

People didn’t used to parent the way we parent today. My parents left us in our bassinets by the side of the tennis court, and we turned out just fine, mostly. Some nights when I wake up in a pool of vomit (or worse) and my neck is bent at a radically unnatural angle as my body curves around my sleeping boy, I wonder why I let fear of SIDS keep me from using that lovely crib in what used to be my office down the hall. But then, just a frequently, I take in the unparalleled sweetness of my sleeping son, cuddled in the crook of my arm like the ultimate teddy bear and know these days are numbered: he’ll be in his own bed soon enough. I got an email from a friend whose boy is now 13. “I sat through the entire season of American Idol last year,” she confessed. “Just so I could cuddle with him on the couch under a blanket.” I totally get this.

I was reminded recently of one of the benefits of our way of parenting in a recent New Yorker: apparently the teen pregnancy rates (and even abstinence rates) are lower in so-called Blue states, and many sociologists attribute this to attachment parenting. Of course, all those sociologists probably are or were attachment parenting devotees, so the report may be suspect. Are we going overboard in our slavish devotion to our children? Where is that elusive balance? Given that my resources are so taxed, can I settle for a life where it seems the pendulum keeps swinging from one extreme (focus on kids) to the other (focus on self)? Or, to put it another way, can I let go of all my judgments, not to mention the judgments of others and just live my imperfect life imperfectly but with great joy?

Friday, November 07, 2008

I Might Have to Hang a Flag (Rightside Up) Off My Porch

I might have to purchase an American flag and hang it on my porch.

I come from a family of patriots. Every July 4 my mother dressed my sisters and me in red, white and blue, complete with red, white and blue ribbons for our braids. We climbed Snake Hill Road in Long Island with other tri-colored patriots in the annual Fourth of July parade. We sang “America the Beautiful” and other America songs and waved small cloth flags, and in the summer of 1976 we collected Bicentennial quarters. We grew up outside Washington DC and every time a friend or relative came to visit we took them on tours of the Smithsonian, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Washington Monument and the American History Museum. I knew the stories of Paul Revere and Betsy Roth better than I knew the episodes of the Brady Bunch. My grandmother, a Democrat, could barely speak of her brother-in-law who had been an America Firster in the forties—not because he had been a Republican, but because he, in her view, had distorted the notion of patriotism into something resembling selfishness. My other grandparents were Republicans, and until 1980, my parents were independents, choosing their leaders based on trustworthiness, intelligence and experience.

Then Reagan showed up, and I don’t think anyone in my family has pulled the lever for a Republican since.

But I don’t want to write about the past twenty eight (!!) years of partisan politics. As much as I am an eager participant in the blood sport; as much as I enjoyed this morning’s Huffington Post expose of the rifts between the McCain and Palin camps (she thought South Africa was just the southern tip of the continent as opposed to a country unto itself! She couldn’t name the countries in NAFTA!), I mourn the America of my childhood, broken and disillusioned though it surely was to the adults who were living through Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, oil embargoes and the first wave of culture wars. Back then, there may have been rancor between Democrats and Republicans, but it wasn’t codified the way it seems now to be.

In July of 2004 I was sitting next to my fiancé, now husband at our friends Dar and Michael’s house in front of the Democratic National Convention. We watched a fresh young candidate from Illinois running for the senate stand up and address the people, urging us to put partisan politics aside because:

“We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

I turned to Tom and said, “Why can’t we have him as our nominee?”
“Why can’t we have him as our president?” said Tom.

It seemed like such a ridiculous long shot. First of all, there was the name. I found myself wishing he would change it. There was no way, in my mind, that someone whose last name rhymed with—was one letter different from—our public enemy number one, and whose middle name was the same last name as our public enemy number two, could be elected chief dog catcher, let alone commander in chief. He wasn’t even yet a senator, and if he did get elected, he’d just be in the job a mere four years. Maybe he could run in 2012, or 2016. Hillary was a safer bet for sure.

I read his first book and discovered this was a man with a remarkable sense of himself, a balanced visionary (didn’t know such existed) who by the way could write like an angel. Then Iowa happened, and I was a goner. If a lily-white state like Iowa could believe in this guy, surely I could too. So I did what little I could given my pregnancy and motherhood of a toddler: made phone calls, sent money compulsively, saving the thank you post cards for my daughter, put bumper stickers on my car, argued with my in-laws and anyone else who couldn’t escape, and prayed to my awesome God. High-fived when he––we––won another primary. Became mentally ill from checking the polls every five minutes. Almost walked out of my church on Easter Sunday when our minister noted that Barack Obama was not going to be our real savior any more than Jesus Christ was—the real savior is and always has been ourselves (yes, I go to an unusual church, if you can call it that.)

Of course, the joke about that is that this is what Obama has been saying all along. The change is us, people, the change is each of us. And that is why I am in love with our country again, so in love that I might have to hang a flag, rightside up, off my porch. Because ever since I first voted in 1988 (for Jesse Jackson in the primary and Michael Dukakis in the general) I have thought that elections were big shams. Back in the 80s and 90s, only about 50% of the population at the most even voted—so no politician was really chosen by very much of the populace. And even though I could tick off issues where I agreed with my Democratic politicians, I never loved them. I never really thought of them as leaders. A leader is one who has a vision and through the power of example and inspiration compels others to follow him or her. That was never the case for me, even with Bill Clinton, whom I voted for strategically: to protect the supreme courts; because I knew he was intelligent and would make better decisions than Bush. But I never felt he had a vision I could be a part of, except the vision of a Democrat majority, which never materialized, even with a booming economy.

Then in 2000 and again in 2004, voter turnout increased significantly, and many more red states turned blue—but, well we all know how that turned out. Our guy won the popular vote but the whole thing hung on those hanging Florida chads. Our guy was up in all the polls, even the exit polls, but the whole thing hung on broken machines in Ohio. We had the most cynical administration in history systematically destroy our reputation in the world, our economy, our justice system, even our media (remember how the press couldn’t interview the Bushies unless they proclaimed fealty?) Karl Rove and the Dicks: Cheney and Armey, Donald Rumsfeld–– their very names like dull clubs on my skull. I seriously fantasized about a new nation composed of the northeast, the left coast and some choice blue cities like St. Louis, Boulder and Chapel Hill.

But what happened on Tuesday night changed all that. I, like all of you, saw America on the front yard of Chicago, weeping and cheering and taking their marching orders from our new leader; someone whom we chose, as Frank Rich said in the Sunday Times on Nov. 2, because “we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.” The real leader is ourselves. Democracy works. We cashed in that promissory note that all of us are created equal; that we each have a voice and a vote; that if we don’t like the government, we can change it, because the government is us: by the people, for the people. This is my country. Not since those July days in the 70s have I felt that that has been true. Since Reagan, I’ve always felt like a leftie oddball, a small nag shaking my tiny fist at the powers-that-be. But today, I feel powerful, and my guess is that you do too. Having felt the power of the people, the power of a good vision, my bet is that we are never going back to our disenfranchisement.

And, for the moment, I am done with partisan politics. May the goodwill that seems to be burbling up from every corner of the world seep into every corner of this great land of ours. May we lay down our swords and shields and be, as Obama calls us (as Jesus and every leader of every major religion calls us, as our own consciences call us) our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. May we rejoice together that our hopes and dreams and love overcame our fears on November 4, 2008. May God bless the United States of America, and may our country be a good, caring and righteous patch of green on this big blue planet.