Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Buses, yes. In the book I write about how it's just hard to get traction on the motherhood/parenting/fatherhood question. There are so many moving parts. You need fixes in government policy, like taxes and social security credits. You need workplace changes, starting with a general understanding of the real labor that parenting takes. You need economic and finance changes, so that houses aren't so expensive, and so we can all live on less. And then there's the schools issue, which has some of us working really hard for lots of money to buy houses in good public school districts, or living in cities and often paying through the nose for private school when urban districts are in disarray and hard to navigate. And that's not even the half of it. It's hard to know where to start. One can start big, with federal legislation, but that's complicated, especially with politics as they are right now. Or one can start very small and local, but raise the same issues.

Back when I was in Durham, and at a party at author Faulkner Fox's home, one of the mothers told a story about how her son was starting middle school, and she had just gotten him enrolled at a charter school, because the general middle school was deemed too rough. She had been at home all these years and was ready to go back to work, but she had just learned that the charter school didn't provide bus service.

That's all the detail I know. The group talked about it for a while, and then the discussion moved on to something else. But the conundrum stayed on my mind for a long time after.

In all our discussions of parenting and work, most of us would never point to buses as a culprit in the lack of support so many of us feel. They're not the main problem, by any means, but what I've learned is that the parenting problem is the sum of lots of small ways that parents don't get the help we need, of things that one by one feel small and petty but which add up to a climate that undermines us. You can't go after a climate, but you can take it apart and try to fix things one by one. I look around, and many mothers and fathers end up delaying a return to work, or feel like they can't go back to work, or that their part time hours are compromised, because of difficulties in getting the kids to and from school. Again, it's fine for many of us. I don't mind dropping my daughter off and picking her up. But that day when I tire of working from home all by myself, and I want an office job--well I'll be mighty glad that the school provides buses.

The mother seemed resigned to the situation. I understand that. We live in political times where we doubt that ordinary citizens can make change happen. And we are told again and again that motherhood, fatherhood, and family life are private, individual, and can't be fixed ever by group or governmental efforts of any kind, which is just plain ideological and wrong.

After the discussion, I kept wondering. What would it look like to raise a fuss about buses, to call the school district, to write to the papers, and not to limit the discussion to the simple "I want bus service" but to link it to the whole structure (or lack of structure) that supports (or doesn't support) parents and work, that makes it harder to do ordinary things, like get our kids to school. What would it look like to say, families need buses because in lieu of bus service, it's the mothers (mostly, and the few at home dads) whose lives balancing work and family are made more difficult. Because the savings on the part of the school is made up for by the unpaid labor of mothers and fathers, to raise the bus issue as a parenting issue.

I think sometimes we're afraid to make those links. We're afraid that someone will say we're insane, that there's no linkage, that a bus is just a bus. It's that small fear, or perhaps not a small fear, or being ridiculed or having someone say "you're wrong, that's silly" that keeps us from raising issues in the most immediate ways we know how, by calling school and city officials, by talking with our friends, and by writing letters to the editor.

Still, a bus, it turns out, is not just a bus, but one of many microcosms of the frustrations that families face.

And I wish that mother luck.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Philadelphia Launch--this coming weekend.

For any Philadelphia readers and visitors: this weekend I have two book events.

The first is Saturday April 30th: a reading/signing at Robins Bookstore, 108 S. 13th street, near Sansom, at 4 pm. Rumor has it a friend of mine's bringing home-baked chocolate chip cookies to match the book cover! My readings tend to be less me reading and more everyone talking, so come out and talk.

The second is a book launch party on Sunday, May 1, 2-4. It's a private home, and to protect the privacy, I don't want to list it here in cyberspace. But: if you're interested, and it is a big open book party, email me and I'll tell you the address.

Read below about Elizabeth from Half-Changed World, and I've really been enjoying daddy chip and daddychip2, so check them out and tell 'em I sent you!

Half-changed World/How to be happy

Elizabeth from Half-Changed World showed me the way to this post, which I really like, so, continuing the "what is a satisfied life" thread, here to read and ponder:

How to be happy

In the online edition of the Washington Post, there's an interesting article today on Six Ways to Be Happy with Your College Choice. It could just as easily have been called Six Ways to Be Happy With Your Work-Life Choices.

The list, based on a book called The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, is:

1) Listen to your gut instincts -- don't over-analyze.
2) Count your blessings.
3) Be happy about "good enough" and don't worry that you might not have achieved the absolute maximum level of happiness.
4) Regret less.
5) Remember that the grass is always greener on the other side, and don't take it as a sign that you've made the wrong choice.
6) Avoid conversations about your choices with people who don't follow the above rules.

Or as our grandparents might have said "you pays your money, and you takes your choices."

It's good to remember that choices are rarely permanent -- you can stay home for a while, then go back to work, or vice versa -- but it doesn't do anyone good to constantly second guess themselves.


Something about the grandparent quote got to me: I could actually imagine my dead grandfather telling me that. Now at the same time, I can hear my part in this imagined conversation. I would be saying that choices are more complicated, that we don't have all the choices we want and need. But there's something about this post, in it's distillation of "live your life" that appeals to me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Having it All 2/I Love Seattle

Well I had a terrific time on KUOW the other night, and it whet my appetite for my visit to Seattle next month for several readings and luncheons and a book salon and even a TV appearance. There just is such a difference between the east coast jadedness I'm used to, and a certain pacific northwest smartness, and a utopianism I really appreciated.

So what does it mean to have it all? At show's end, Jeannie Yandel, the producer, asked us to think about alternative phrases. A sequenced life? (referring to working and family-caring and working in sequence, but not at the same time). That sometimes describes it, but many women and men move in and out of the workplace, they carousel, and they do part time work. A reflective life? A thoughtful life? These get at the comined spiritual and intellectual senses of really calling our rhythms into question, and considering how they fit into the structures around us. The next day, a Seattle woman and new friend emailed to suggest that we call it "a satisfied life." There's something fitting about that. It doesn't have to be about a megalomania. Life doesn't even have to be excessive. It echoes some of the pop-psychology literature on how it's okay to be a good-enough mother. We're used to thinking about 'satisfactory" as not so great, like getting B minuses in college. It's satisfactory, but not anything to write home about. We've got to change that sense. Real life isn't college, and it's not graded on a curve. It's good to be satisifed.

Tomorrow I'll pull out my notes and write about the discussion, becuase it was so interesting to me, in part because men and stay-at-home dads called in and we got to hear a bit of what was on their minds. As I go about undermining the mommy wars and the tendency to divide women into camps against each other, I also want to make sure we don't start building up oppositions between at-home mothers and at-home fathers.

A good night to all.

Monday, April 18, 2005

What Does it Mean to Have It All?

That's the question I've been asked to reflect upon tonight at 8, pacific time, on Seattle/Puget Sound Public Radio's KUOW Presents (see to stream it to your computer/).

What does it mean to have it all? I did a quick jotting-down of notes. Having it all seems so quaint, an old-fashioned term that's more a problem than an ideal worth holding on to. It seems to have emerged during the 70's, when feminism was in part boiled down to a vision in which women could have kids, and have an interesting, well-paying job (the interesting and well-paid job was the ideal, anyway, we know most jobs fall short). But anyway, having it all was family and work.

From the perspective of 2005 and mainstream culture, that seems awfully simple and easy. Now 'having it all' means the family and the job--which must be a great job-- and it means having a great, in shape body, and being fashionably dressed, and driving a fancy car and owning a house in the right neighborhood. It's turned into a much more material vision of what life needs to be good. A much more narrow vision.

And a nearly impossible one, what with longer working hours demanded from all our jobs, and less support for children than we need. Not to mention how damn expensive that dream's become. having it all is less about the relative simplicity of family and job for women, and more about how women and men both need

So what does it mean, now, to have it all? Even that's not how I'd answer it, I think first we need to take the question apart even more. Were really talking about figuring out what gives life meaning, what makes it worth living. Just as I detest the word 'balance' that's used as shorthand for all that, perhaps we should also get rid of having it all. Having--posessing? All--everything? What does possession have to do with it? Why understand what we want in those terms. What happens when we get rid of the catch phrases and instead put the desire back in: What do I want? After all, there's so much cultural pressure these days. The standards are ever raising. If mothers and wives once just had to keep their homes relatively clean to pass the neighborhood gossip's eye, now you've got to follow the latest decorating and interior design trends. If once you just had to get the basic foods and vegetables on the table, now you've got to be a foodie too, and it all must be organic and expensive, not to mention locally grown and not wrapped in plastic. And the cultural standards for raising and educating our kids are through the roof: ivy-education for all? As if that's what all our kids want? What would it mean for all of us to be able to be more critical of all the pressures and class-related competitions and ambitions, to locate them, to anaylze them, to put them up for question and in the midst of all this, say: now what do I want? What really makes me happy?

I have other thoughts, too, on how for many of the women and men I interviewed for the book, working less and attending more to family meant investing more in public life, in civic life, and in neighborhood life, and that I think this is very positive, Left out of any of the having it all definitions is the sense that part of leading a good life might be feeling part of one's community, and participating in something that's bigger than our family lives, and that's not paid work.

But for now, it's off to school pick-up!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Iowa Radio, Friday 5-6

Anybody checking in from Cedar Valley, Iowa? I'll be on the Mike Bunge show, from 5-6 pm, TalkRadio 1540 on the am dial. That's me following the author of a book called "Undressing Infidelity," about women who cheat on their husbands.

Friendship Lessons from North Carolina

I had lots of fun in Durham. The reading at the Regulator Bookshop was well attended, but more important, we had a very spirited conversation that really gave everyone a chance to talk about motherhood issues in a more political and cultural way. No weaning advice from me! And you know I firmly believe that we must talk, and talk hard and long about these issues, that contra the New York Times' cavalier assertion of "issue fatigue" on motherhood, real parents out here are struggling to make sense of the worlds we face, and we need to talk, and put our experiences in context, and find explanations that make sense and help us move forward.

Also at the reading I met the viviacious Amy Tiemann, aka MojoMom. In an act of friendship, she brought me a copy of her book, and a mojomom.com hat, which I've been wearing around my neighborhood. Her book will be available in May, and I will write more about it later. Some writers are competitive with each other and unsupportive. I'm not like that, that's not my model, and neither is it hers. She autographed her book for me "Let's kickstart this revolution." This woman has smarts and spunk--and then, it turns out, I learned yesterday that she went to middle school with Susan, whose daughter is in first grade with my daughter. It's a small world spread out over many years and many states.

I have much to think about as the result of my visit, especially as I spent the days with Jean O'Barr, my graduate school mentor and muse. The themes that pervaded the whole weekend were 1) how do we keep talking about the motherhood issues that are falling so heavily on women's shoulders, and 2) what does it take to help mothers see our issues as not just individual, but as communal, and as political. We live in a culture that tells us that individual responsibility is key, and we believe this, to an extent, but there's a limit, and that limit is reached when we mothers need to see how our lives fit into policy, when we realize that we can be responsible all we want, and we still can't control the limitations and inequities of the workplace, for example, and when we realize how much we must learn to help each other more.

It was a very provocative weekend, and I'll have several posts as I assimilate the many discussions I was involved in.

Here's one, with thanks to Vivian Robinson, a woman I knew years ago when she worked for Duke Women's Studies, and is now a therapist in Durham, so if you live in the area, and want therapy, Vivian's office is where you want to go.

Several of us were at dinner, at Jean's house. One woman said that she's realizing that friendship in adult life is not really about finding kindred spirits and soulmates, as we used to think, but rather, about being there, about going to the Y three times a week and talking to the same people, or, for many parents, going to the playground, or the schoolyard, and suddenly, those people become your friends even if they're not who you thought you'd be best friends with.

We all talked about this for a while, and agreed, but the conversation held a bemused tone, as if to say that we didn't quite believe that being there is enough to build friendship on. And then Vivian made a comment that being there is an expression of trust. That when five mothers or fathers see each other five times a week at the playground, there's a level of trust that builds up. They are showing each other that they are present, that they can indeed be counted on. It doesn't have to be spoken, but that's why playground friendships build so strongly, even among people who have little else in common. She took something that seemed trivial--making friendship on something so silly as being in the same place at the same time, repeatedly--and linked it with one of the most fundamental of human desires and qualities: trust.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Second Edition, on it's way!

Thanks to everyone who's buying The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars (and if you haven't and want to, the quickest route is through the amazon button on the right hand side of this blog, it really works).There are still lots of books out there, if you want to share it with friends and family, at bookstores, and online. I'm here to report, though, that just two weeks after publication, and even before our formal launch, the warehouse is empty and Seal Press is sending it back to the printers for more. Hooray, thanks for the support, dear readers, and enjoy the book!

North Carolina/Bathroom Talk

If anyone stops by my blog from North Carolina, I'll be reading at the Regulator Bookstore, in Durham, this Friday (the 8th. The Regulator is on 9th Street, and the event will be starting at 7 pm. I'm excited to see who shows up, and also excited that I'll be seeing my mentor Jean O'Barr, mother author Faulkner Fox, of Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life fame, and blogger and mother author Amy Tiemann (you can check her out at MojoMom.com; she's emailed to tell me about her new book on motherhood, and I'm particularly excited by the Mojo Mom caps she sells on her website.

On the Kevyn Burger show last week (see below), the discussion of motherhood turned to how mothers cooperate rather than compete, ie, the times that we're not stuck in silly Mommy Wars. Since then, I've been hearing and seeing even more than usual the ways this is true. Kevyn mentioned how a friend made sure she knew about the local girls' softball league, and that reminded me to make photocopies of the announcement of Wild Things softball expanding into the 1st and 2d grade set, and give them to the school teachers to hand out to all the girls, so that everyone knows the schedule.

Sometimes modern parenting turns so petty. People withhold information because somehow they think this gives their kid an edge; they get their own private cool activity experience which will set them apart from the pack and assure that they will happy and successful the rest of their life. As if. And as I write in the book, parenting should not be an Olympic sport. Cooperation, fellow mothers and fathers, cooperation. Even when it's hard. We must trust that cooperative parenting will help build the support systems that all of us need.

Here's a story I want to pass on, told me by a friend. It was summer, and their family was at a pool, or perhaps a beach, and it takes place in a large bathroom, which means my daughter will automatically love this bathroom's-r-us tale. His wife was in a bathroom stall when an eight year old girl came in. She was very sunburned, and in much pain. Her mom came in with the spray to help, and the daughter just lost it and started to tantrum and yell out "You're the worst mother in the world."

The tantrum continued for a bit, and when there was finally a moment of silence, as she caught her breath, my friend's wife hears a woman a few stalls down said, "No. I'm the worst mother in the world."

There's silence. And then, from a few stalls down the other direction, another woman raises her voice into the conversation. "No way. I'm the worst mother in the world. By far."

My friend didn't relate what happened next. It's at this point we all start to laugh. I can't help think of this as a behind-the-stalls act of womanly solidarity. One can easily imagine the mother of the sunburnt girl cringing, feeling mortified that her daughter's hurting body was her fault, and waiting for others to judge her. Instead, the women defused it all, and supported the mother, who I'm sure was feeling bad enough that her daughter was in sunburn pain.

Send me more stories like this, that's all I can say. When do we cooperate? When do we act in solidarity?

ps. thanks for all the messages readers are emailing to me. Feel free to respond on the blog, too.