Monday, May 15, 2006

Mother's Day Round-up

First, the obligatory post on how Mother's Day began as anti-war protest.

Second, the round-up on mother's day coverage is that there's been a noticeable shift. This year's op-eds and features are much more political than anyone can remember. Several of us have been emailing around, and found these very good pieces in the Washington Post (and here's another from the Post), the Boston Globe, and the much smaller Newark Star Ledger. offers its own round-up, concurring: there's been a change.

The message is getting through.

Of course, the newspaper that comes to my home, the Philadelphia Inquirer alone, it seems, stood out for a ridiculous article about Mom CEO's and professional moms. These are not, as you might think, mothers who are smashing the glass ceiling and the maternal walls to real power in our society. No, they're mothers who are taking avid notes during a talk by a household organization consultant on how to redo their pantries and best structure their time. I too like well-organized closet, but this article is about three years behind the trend. In a season which saw a real shift to seeing motherhood in a public, political light, this old-style mom's-the-head-of-a-private-empire type of reporting really stood out. (Here's the link, so you can see if you agree. I've been advising people to write letters to the Inquirer: Inquirer.Letters at

Let's be clear. Given the wage gap, given the maternal walls we face, given how damn hard it is to have kids and rise to the top of the business world and gain come of that capital, economic independence and public influence, being a mom CEO is a very different thing than being a mother who's an actual CEO. Let's not erase that problem by referring to moms as CEO's or Chief Household Officers when we're not. It's one thing to devote part or all of our lives to raising kids and keeping a home together. That's fine. But that's not being a CEO.

Know how you tell the difference? CEO's get their own private airplanes. A black towncar drives them directly onto the tarmac. They have personal assistants clearing the way in front of them, and cleaning up in their wake.

See what I mean?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Thank You Ellen Goodman

A lovely column from Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe. May all the Mothers Day coverage be this good. Personally, I've had calls from several reporters, and for each, I must say, the tenor of questions really has shifted in the past year. The calls I took asked about big pictures for family life. Reporters asked about dads. They asked me to tell them about different kinds of mothers. They asked me to explain why despite mommy wars rhetoric, they observed groups of mothers being supportive and kind. They asked me about political futures for family friendly bills.

Are some of our points getting across?

Quite different from a year ago when I was asked to respond to things like the Washington Post's survey claiming that mothers are really happy.

I can say that this Mothers Day, the black towncar won't be driving up to my house and swishing me to the CNN studios, but it will be great fun nonetheless, especially since I have the Wild Things Softball club annual Mother-Daughter softball game to look forward to. And Saturday evening, I'll be doing a MotherTalk in NY, at the home of Alpha Mom TV's Isabel Kalman. If you're in NY, leave a note here for the address.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Marrit takes on AlternaDad, and the culture of money

There really is an alternative parenting scene, and alternative writing about parenthood, and I'm proud to be linked up with that. As Marrit Ingman, one of my fave alterna-writers reminds us, contra New York Magazine, the idea of alternative parenting wasn't and isn't all about having lots of money to afford all the toys. With her, I too wonder: when did 'hip' become synonymous with 'affluent'? When did hip become something I could no longer afford? When did hip stop being about rebellion?

Well, it's no news that Marrit Ingman is a favorite here at the playground, so run, don't walk, to her latest post "Reinventing the Neal," where she takes on Neal Pollack, aka AlternaDad, and claims
a) that he may have plagiarized some of her writing, and
b) that he clearly felt no need at all to read any of the many, many alterna-moms who plotted the way before him. Women and mothers are just so invisible.
c) He's wrongly making "cool parenting" into a competitive and judgment-driven sport. As Marrit writes, with her characteristic humanity and grace:

"Therein lies the problem for me. I simply don'’t tolerate pitting parents against each other. Not mothers against mothers, not fathers against fathers. When I meet other parents, I don't run down a list of how we're different and I am better. Alternative parenting isn'’t about being the coolest kid in the room. It's about coalition-building and rejecting the ready-made, not about bragging and slagging."

So go and read.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Andi Buchanan's It's a Girl

Since I've already done some book events with Andi on the It's a Girl tour, including one where I screeched the car into a nearby parking lot, plunked down twelve dollars, yes twelve outrageous dollars to park in Center City near the Barnes and Noble because I was already forty minutes late for the reading, having had one of those evenings--I'm still getting used to the mechanics of our two child family--where nothing went quite right, I'd thought I'd have out at my turn on her blog tour.

On her blog, Andi's featuring my essay in her book. Since I rarely write personal essays anymore, and that's what the book is about, I'll take the liberty of reposting both her excerpt from my essay, "Cheerleader." I wrote it to make sense of what was then Samira's passion for girly cheerleader things, my usual hunch to let things be balanced by my critical sense that things are not right, gender-wise, with the world. This episode, last year, coincided with my concern that she was not being taught math well. It also coincided with a series of discussions I had with her teacher about how in the morning free time, the boys in the class were playing chess and the girls were writing their names in bubble letters on white boards. In the end, the teacher made morning free time into something more structured so that all the kids learned similar skills in school. The combination of the disparity of learning and the genderedness of the skills being taught, with the girls' immersion in a culture where, as I write in the essay, even teen heroine Kim Possible has to fight bad guys and be a cheerleader too, left me angry, and searching for the best path for educating my daughter in how to be a girl.

Cheerleader, an excerpt.

If you ask [my daughter], she’ll tell you the best birthday party she ever attended was Jeannette’s. Jeannette’s mom and dad gave everyone shiny purple pompoms. Jeannette’s older cousin Sarah—a real live high-school cheerleader—taught the six-year-olds key cheerleading moves and chants. She belted out the cheers for all of Philadelphia’s major sports teams. She gave the girls pompom instructions. She even demonstrated the split where you begin standing, and you end with one leg bent in front and the other bent behind, arms held high, up, and out in a triumphal V—and of course, a perfect, full smile on your face. My daughter loved that party. She bounced home that afternoon, shiny purple pompoms in tow, elated, to tell me all about it. I watched as she showed off her new skills. I tried not to be the dour, downer mom.
A week or so after that cheerleading party, Samira’s friend Megan came home with us after school. The two girls scrounged around the dress-up trunk and emerged with—what else—cheering outfits. ...They jolted into the bedroom, where I was folding laundry, wanting to show me their outfits and their cheers.

“And mom, you know, cheering teaches us to spell,” Samira pointed out.

“That makes it good! We can spell Philadelphia—no f’s.”

I was not in a sporting mood. I launched into a mom version of the History Channel, telling them that cheerleading reminded me of times when girls weren’t allowed to play organized sports, when we couldn’t be at the center of attention except as smiling beauties.

My daughter and her friend are both daughters of feminist moms, and both daughters of writers. They’re used to their mothers passing down mysterious, impassioned fragments about the once-upon-a-time tormented life of girls—and then telling them why they can’t do really fun stuff, like cheerlead, or hang out at the mall (not a real possibility for them at six and seven, but something they learned from Polly Pockets). ... I imagine they’re used to hearing these strange ramblings from us every so often. Which isn’t to say they can make sense of it....

After the essays were in, Andi asked me to comment on it, for the blog tour. This, I remember, is what I typed out to her:

The funny thing is this: almost as soon as I wrote that piece, Samira changed. All of a sudden, blue became her favorite color, and then of course, orange, the color featured in all the kid stores this spring, and orange paired with blue denim, well that's the T. Samira had been taking swim lessons for several years, and this winter, joined the swim team at our local Y. She loves being on a sports team, and is developing an identity as an athlete: she swims, she plays soccer in the fall, and each spring joins up with Wild Things, our local girls softball extravaganza. When "Cheerleader" came out we read it together, at least the first few pages, after which Samira looked at me and said, "I liked cheerleading? How revolting."
After writing that piece I realized that of course I don't trust the gender values of the culture she's growing up in. How can I? How can anyone? I have decided to trust her, to trust the parenting that her dad and I do, and to trust that she's growing up surrounded by good adults. She's 7 1/2 now, and sometimes will surprise me by her criticisms of the images she sees around her. I've decided to step back, to model rather than critique, at least for the time being. She'll see billboard images of girls and women that make her feel uncomfortable, usually images that are too sexy for her seven year old soul, and say, "Mom, that's gross. Why do they put that there?"

My friend Dana notes constantly, and critically, that parenting turns people into gender essentialists, more convinced than ever that boys are boys and girls are girls, by nature, and with fairly rigid definitions. I strongly agree with her, and disagree with our tendencies to go easy, to pretend it's all okay and that gender roles, well heck, it's nature so there's nothing we can do about it. The gender-is-nature line gives up, and it absolves us from having to think about the results. It's all harmless we think. It absolves us from having to rebel, and one day, we'll regret that deeply, on our own accounts, and when we realize the limitations our kids, girls and boys both, will face. I think we can't discount the huge impact of the images they are confronted with, from day one; the messages we give them (how come I constantly here people call their boys "little man" and I've never ever ever heard a parent call their daughter "little woman"), whether these messages are more or less conscious. Untill we're really committed to looking at how we pull our gender system along, how we reinforce it with the smallest acts, then we're not ready to declare, with no scientific backing at all, that girls and girly and boys are boyish. We're turning back so much of the little progress we've made, and we're doing it as the generation who was raised to be different, raised to create a bit more space in the world to just be.

So that's my once-a-trained-feminist-theorist-always-a-trained-feminist-theoriest view of things. For a batch of beautifully written, and I can attest, well edited, personal essays (I loved Catherine Newman's on her daughter's chubbiness and her own, and Ann Douglas' on her daughter's eating disorder), take a look at Andi's book. Available from bookstores and the usual places online.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Pick up your Telephone

Many times I've talked about how we need to have a daily political practice, something that reminds us that we are citizens and that we matter. The way that meditation or yoga work to ground us (or some of us, anyway) in a world larger than ourselves, a world of calm, a daily political practice can remind us that we are not just our individual private selves.

And it might even help make a difference in the world.

Now, we all know that making a positive difference in the world can be an arduous process. It doesn't happen over night. There are some who would respond that individuals can't do a damn thing and you must join an organization. I'm not against organizations. Join them if you'ld like; there's power in numbers, and power in recognition. I know that I'm not much of an organization type, so I'm casting about for ways that individual acts can matter.

I've also mentioned in the past that we should all be in touch with our elected officials. That they rarely hear from us, and as a result they don't realize what we need. Some officials will undoubtedly be against what we want; there's scores, hundreds who will vote against something like paid family leave, or pro-rated benefits policies, or what have you. But many others will actually be emboldened from hearing from us.

I am not organizing a movement. I can barely organize my weekly grocery list. But I will tell you a pair of stories.

This week I've been digging around for stories for an article I'm working on. As part of that, I've been calling elected officials in Pennsylvania who have been introducing various bills about paid family leave. One suggests tax credits for employers who offer paid leave, one offers a wage replacement benefit, and another allows 20 hours a year for parents to take off and go to their kids' school events and medical visits.

I call their office. I tell the person who answers what I want to know. They connect me.

I know we don't believe this happens. We don't believe they're actually this close.

So let me back up. First I google their name. Within a click or two I am on their home page and I have their numbers for the capital and home offices. Or look for the listings in your local phone book.

It's that simple. Really.

And they are nice to you when you call. I promise.

Here's what I found out. I spoke with a member of the PA house, and a member of the PA senate. The House member told me that he introduced his paid familly leave bill because of the many voters who were coming by his office and telling him they needed paid medical leave to care for elderly parents. (That's the M part of the FMLA, the part we new parents forget about, the part that lets you take off to help sick people in your family). The stories added up, and the bill was introduced.

The Senate member told me that a student at a nearby college had written him a letter. She told him about the low percentages of mothers who qualify for paid family leave, about the low numbers who even qualify and take the unpaid FMLA. He read the letter with interest, and a few days later, got his staff involved in thinking up a solution.

Can we talk about the influence of individual acts and stories, and the public telling of those stories?

Now, neither of those bills have been signed into law. There'll need to be some legislative change and a Democrat-controlled statehouse for that to happen. As State Senator Mike Stack told me yesterday, the statehouse is not filled with the old model of Pennsylvania moderate republicans, the Arlen Spectors and John Heinz's of the world, but with a bunch of Rick Santorum clones. (We can and will discuss another day why the Rick Santorum clone-types don't actually support family values in real life). But when that changes, and it must, these bills could make headway. And that would be a big help.

So make those phone calls. Yes, a phonecall doesn't change the law. But it can help get the ball rolling. If we're going to have an impact, we have to begin moving beyond talk, and into the legislative arena.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Busy and Wonderful Week

Wow, I've had a wonderful of being on the road and talking about motherhood. This past week I was in DC not once, but twice, and over the next few days I'll post more. The first event was a talk with the Wednesday Morning Group, a wonderful collection of moms who gather at the Unitarian Church in Bethesda, deposit their children in the childcare rooms, and spend an hour listening to speakers of all sorts. It reminded me of Betty Friedan's instructions near the end of The Feminine Mystique that we moms should keep an intellectual life around us, we should have interests and new information coming in, especially during our years with young children. I wrote about this part in my book, because it's not the one-answer portrait of Friedan we always hear. It's the part where she writes about how demanding young children are. The new vision for women, she wrote, is to not have to separate our minds from our daily lives. The WMG seemed to be acting on this.

I gave one of my more political and policy driven talks yet, in part because my friend Rebecca kept telling me how much she and other moms rely on WMG for their burst of smart talk during the week, and because I figured every mom in the room knew the basics about what's simultaneously great and frustrating about motherhood. And after all, this is DC; if you can't talk politics here, where can you? And, finally, because I'm at the point of exhaustion at hearing the same thing over and over again. We've all got to start moving ahead out of the mommy wars cultural saturation we've been in.

And moving ahead means getting political. It means learning what's going on, breaking it down into pieces, and figuring out what to do, how to move ahead. It means shifting the discourse. One thing I've noticed, oh so many times, is how rarely many women--not all, but many--still don't feel comfortable with political talk. Well, we need to raise our comfort. Gain information and tools. And see ourselves--what's the phrase I'm looking for?--as political actors--as people, as citizens who deserve some change.

On Saturday evening I did a Mothertalk with Andi Buchanan and Marion Winik. This was loads of fun, not just because I was in the same room as two beloved writer-pals, but because the room--at Kakki Lewis' wonderful home in Bethesda--was filled with so many other writers and bloggers. Devra Renner, of Mommy Guilt fame, and Tracy Thompson, who has a wonderful and moving book coming out about motherhood and depression.

And drum roll please. That night I was in the room with two of my favorite political/family bloggers. Yes, Elizabeth from half-Changed World, and Brian from Rebel Dad were both there. It was so much fun. They are both lovely, and of course it's a treat to meet them in real life.

More insights to come, and I promise to provide links in the next few days, but if I stop to do it now, this will never get posted, so forgiveness, please, from all.