April 23, 2013 § 12 Comments
When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. – Anna Quindlen
About a week ago, I wrote a post that I never should have written. I knew it about an hour after I hit “Publish,” even before the comments began to come in. Write what you know is the golden rule. And I wrote about what I didn’t know, which is what it’s like to be a girl today.
So now I am attempting to write what I should have written then, which is what it’s like to be the mother of boys in a society that still gives women the short end of the stick. Not that I know what I’m doing of course in raising these boys, but I am familiar with the struggle, with the getting it wrong.
The other day at the park, Oliver and Gus were on the swings and we were having an abstract conversation about helping people. “Especially if they are girls,” Oliver said, pumping his legs, and soaring higher.
“What?” I asked, taken aback. “Why if they are girls?”
“Well, remember Mommy?” Oliver said on a downswing, “You told us we should hold doors open for girls?”
Shit, I thought, because I remembered completely our conversation on chivalry. I remembered telling them that they should hold doors open for everyone but always for girls and women. And now? Did I need to retract or amend that in some way? “It’s a good idea,” I said, “To help anyone who needs it.”
“Right,” said Oliver, leaning back as if his feet were going to touch the sky, “But especially girls.”
I loved Anna Quindlen’s book “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” because she was so honest about how hard it was to raise boys to be feminists. In an interview with Terry Gross, Quindlen said: When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. That’s asking them to be different from people — certainly different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them. I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great.
What I wish she wrote more about was how she managed to accomplish this.
Lately, Gus has been obsessed with the fact that girls don’t have penises. “Mommy?” he asked while eating his breakfast the other day, “Do you really not have a penis?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Does Naomi have a penis?” he asked referring to our 4-year old neighbor.
“Does Leah?” he asked about the little girl down the street.
“No,” I said, “Only boys.”
He was silent as he pondered this, and I told Gus what the amazing Carol Castanon said to the children at Oak Grove School, when Oliver went there: “You’re thinking about what it’s like to be a girl and what it’s like to be a boy.”
“No,” said Gus, “I’m just wondering how the pee gets out.”
Later, we took 4-year old Naomi to story hour with us, and in the car, Gus was telling her about how he could get across the monkey bars with his hands, which I know for a fact he can only do if I hold him up the entire way. It was hard not to laugh but I love how much confidence Gus has, how he still believes he has magical powers.
“Four-year olds can do a lot,” I told them, but they were intent on coloring in the back seat and ignored me.
“I accidentally made it across the monkey bars once,” Naomi told Gus, and I gripped the steering wheel as the word “accidentally” twisted in my gut. “I’m not allowed to use markers when I have my dress on,” she continued, and in the rear view mirror I watched as she smoothed her purple tulle skirt.
“They’re washable markers,” I told her, but still, she gave the marker back to Gus in his camouflage pants, and I thought back to a few weeks earlier when an old friend informed me that I was the first Cornell female to win a race at Penn Relays. “Oh, that,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “Well that was a fluke anyway.”
There is something in the way girls are treated today that makes me feel culpable, probably because I am. There is something in the way that I defer, or deflect, or – despite my denying it – place my worth in the way I look or how clean the house is that is likely rubbing off on the current generation. Because how can it not?
Today I thought of Gus and Naomi while listening to NPR, to an interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution. She was talking about listening to former Avon CEO, Andrea Jung, speak at a conference about all that she had given up in order to become CEO. “No male leader does that,” said Hewlett. “I feel that many of us are still mired in the expectations of the 1950s.”
Something shifted in me when I became a mother, and I am still trying to right myself. For decades I was stalwartly feminist. I was never going to be the one to stay home, wash the dishes, or change the diapers. And then my son was born and I couldn’t imagine leaving him with anyone else. To be honest, this has more to do with my controlling nature than my maternal instincts, but still, in saying Yes to this, I said No to what I thought I had wanted for years. I said No to an income and a business card and to being a female in an executive role.
Many military wives wear their role with pride. They wear sweatshirts emblazoned with “Marine Wife” or bumper stickers or window decals that say “I Heart My Soldier,” and I’m not really in that camp either. “I don’t really mind being a name or a number,” my friend and fellow Navy wife, Mae, said to me a few years ago, “But I do mind being my husband’s name and number.”
In some ways I have one foot in two different worlds and below me, watching my every move, are my two boys. “Hold the door,” I tell Oliver and Gus, and then in the next breath, I am telling them that women are just as strong as men. It’s no wonder they are confused, because most of the time, i am too.
Once, when we were living in Coronado, I went for a run with Oliver, who sat in the jogger with his books and his blanket, his eleven Matchbox cars and a bagel. We lived very close to the SEAL base where my husband worked and sometimes, I saw Scott and his battalion doing their PT run while we were out. Scott is a Seabee – an engineer – and he and his group were always friendly if we met on the road. On that morning, it was foggy, and I saw a group of soldiers ahead of us in their standard PT gear, so I picked up my pace to catch up. “Let’s see if that’s Daddy,” I told Oliver, and in a few minutes I was gaining on them.
As I got closer though, I saw the letters EOD on their backs, which stands for “Explosive Ordinance Disposal.” These are the people who diffuse bombs and they tend to be rather hard core. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at that point. I was by the golf course, on a wide road with few cross streets, and my only choice was to slow down or pass them. There were only about ten of them, running in a line behind a heavily muscled young man, and I moved way over to the center of the road to pass. “Good morning,” I said and waved and the guy in front did a double-take when he saw us. Then he jumped off the road and onto the golf course. “Drop down,” he yelled at the guys behind him. “Drop down and give me fifty, you pussies.”
I ran the rest of the way home feeling terrified that I had done something wrong, that I had gotten someone into trouble, and also a bit relieved that I was still, in some manner, capable in the ways I used to be. If I’m honest, this is also how I feel much of the time: mostly terrified and sometimes capable.
And this is what I would like most to change because it’s the terrified bit that gets passed on like a secret, that becomes the karma of the next generation of girls and boys. It’s the fear of not being enough that becomes inherited, and it’s the trait that I most want to be recessive, to become extinct. My good friend Sarah keeps reminding me lately that I don’t have to be so black and white, that we live in the grey area most of the time, and I am trying to remember this, that it’s not about being a CEO or a housewife, strong or weak, terrified or capable. Perhaps it’s just about being a human being doing the best that we can. Maybe what I need to impart to my own sons is that women and men aren’t really that different after all.
Except for the penises of course.
April 17, 2013 § 14 Comments
I thought of you and where you’d gone and let the world spin madly on – The Weepies
I had something to post this week, but after Monday it was like, who cares. After Monday, I wanted to respond, but I was too angry to be helpful, too bewildered to even sit down, really.
On Tuesday, my son was in his first school musical put on by the most amazing bunch of kindergarten, first, and second graders I have ever seen, and I cried though most of it, the beauty and sadness coiling around me like a hurricane.
I read somewhere that what a hurricane wants most is peace, that it spins to resolve itself.
What has resolved my own spinning during these last few days are Lindsey’s words, Katrina’s words, and Jen’s words, this song by the Weepies that I have been listening to on repeat, and Anne Lamott’s words below.
In the yoga class I taught tonight, we did a lot of core work so that we could meet the present moment with integrity, exactly as it was, no matter what. And as usual, my students were braver than me.
Wherever you are, whatever you are feeling, I wish you peace.
From Anne Lamott’s Facebook page, April 17, 2013:
Frederick Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
But it is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer in God, in Goodness, in Divine Mind, and the immortality of the soul, and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.
The temptation is to say, as cute little Christians sometimes do, Oh, it will all make sense someday. Great blessings will arise from the tragedy, seeds of new life sown. And I absolutely believe those things, but if it minimizes the terror, it’s bullshit.
My understanding is that we have to admit the nightmare, and not pretend that it wasn’t heinous and agonizing; not pretend it as something more esoteric. Certain spiritual traditions could say about Hiroshima, Oh, it’s the whole world passing away.
Well, I don’t know.
I wish I could do what spiritual teachers teach, and get my thoughts into alignment with purer thoughts, so I could see peace and perfection in Hiroshima, in Newton, in Boston. Next time around, I hope to be a cloistered Buddhist. This time, though, I’m just a regular screwed up sad worried faithful human being.
There is amazing love and grace in people’s response to the killings. It’s like white blood cells pouring in to surround and heal the infection. It just breaks your heart every time, in the good way, where Hope tiptoes in to peer around. For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe; telling my stories, and reading yours. I keep thinking about Barry Lopez’s wonderful line, “Everyone is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together; stories and compassion.”
That rings one of the few bells I am hearing right now, and it is a beautiful crystalline sound. I’m so in.
April 5, 2013 § 23 Comments
“Oh mother!” Beezus was all enthusiasm. “Just think. You’re going to be liberated!”
Ramona was pleased by the look of amusement that flickered across her mother’s face. “That remains to be seen,” said Mrs. Quimby. – from Ramona the Brave, by Beverly Cleary
I have two boys and we play a lot of Legos. What I love most about Legos is that they have a life of their own, that while they now come with instructions and in complete kits, they inevitably end up as something different altogether. Oliver recently designed and built two research ships, led by the genius Dr. Invention, and they search the Arctic Sea looking for sick and injured animals while also mining the ocean for potions that cure them.
What I don’t love about Legos is the sets they design for girls. They make me crazy. When I was little, we had a bin of Legos and I remember spending hours in my living room making boats with tiny rooms, spaceships, and little zoos. This was before Lego came out with people, so we even had to make those. I could have been the girl in the photo above with my red pig tails, rolled up Billy the Kid jeans, and Keds.
My sons always have enjoyed playing with girls more than boys, so we have a lot of little girls in our house, often playing Legos or some version of animal rescue or pretending they are cats. And the girls build things too, despite the fact that we don’t have Lego Friends sets, which the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood described as, “so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush.”
Of course, I am not the only one who wants to strangle someone at Lego and the debate over gender-specific toys has been going on for years. A little over a year ago, Peggy Orenstein wrote a fantastic Op-Ed for the New York Times on this topic and she writes about it frequently on her blog. But lately, my hatred of Lego Friends and all things Barbie and Disney has deepened. I hate that little girls seem to be running around in tutus and tiaras all the time. I hate that girls’ clothes so often have a ruffle or something sparkly. I hate when Oliver’s and Gus’ friends ask me if I want to play “princess.” No,” I want to say vehemently. “I don’t want to play princess. Why don’t we play CEO instead?”
Maybe it’s because I am growing closer to these girls or maybe it’s because they are growing up and I am deeply afraid for them. Let me be clear: this is not a post about parenting girls but about being a girl now, which I imagine to be excruciatingly difficult.
I was born in 1973, six months after Title IX was signed into law. And although my mother was about as traditional as it gets (she went to secretarial school and worked as a corporate secretary in Manhattan before marrying my father and then leaving her job to be a stay-at-home), she was also a bit of a closet rebel and and quiet hippie, even though she would probably say this wasn’t true. Way before Michael Pollen began writing about food, my mom drove us to an orchard 20 minutes away to get local fruits and vegetables, I don’t remember her ever not being politically progressive and some mornings when I woke up, she was doing yoga moves while someone on TV named Joanie wore a white unitard and lifted her knee to her nose. We listened to a lot of Carole King and Simon and Garfunkel growing up, and for a while, we boycotted grapes.
More importantly, she was a feminist, although she might say this wasn’t true as well. “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” was a mantra she frequently repeated. She signed me up for swim team when I was four, telling me – as she would for years to come – “If you can jump in that pool (or run that race or take that job) then you can do anything.”
Once, I came home from school when I was eight or nine and told my mom that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up and she laughed at me. “Oh you don’t want to be that,” she said, while zooming one of my brother’s Matchboxes back to him. “You’re going to grow up to do something much more important than that.” It’s a testament to my mother’s love and devotion that I didn’t interpret this to mean she didn’t want to be a mom, but rather, that I was destined for a better lot than she had, that I was supposed to do something in the world.
We were also lucky, because in the 70’s and 80’s we had the Women’s Movement. I still have images in my head of women in jeans and tee shirts marching in Washington, carrying signs with the initials E.R.A. We had a force behind us, a maelstrom of protection and righteousness and passion for equality that spun around me and propelled me through an ocean of naysayers: girls can’t be doctors, girls can’t run as fast as boys, girls can’t build things. Those comments always lit a fire under me. Oh yeah, well just watch me.
I don’t think we have those women now and that makes me sad, both because I truly believe the Women’s Movement has completely stalled out and also because the girls who are eight and ten and twelve now are without the role models I once had. I am grateful for Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg (whose new book I have not yet read) and Oprah, but somehow the role models now lack the panache and passion of Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem.
I really loved Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and of course I’m not new to the table on this issue either. In fact I’m about eight months late. But I just love how she seems to describe my life and my choices (although at a much higher level), that perhaps if I wanted to I could have kept the corporate gig going through my kids’ childhood, but I just didn’t want it badly enough. As Slaughter says, I knew I was replaceable at work, but not so much at home. Sheryl Sandberg would probably say I should want it more, that I let women everywhere down by not trying harder, and maybe I have. Maybe this is even why the women’s movement is so stymied. Maybe we don’t want it badly enough anymore. Maybe we’re too comfortable.
Or maybe it’s because we blame each other too much. Maybe it’s because we don’t respect each other’s choices. Maybe we are too busy arguing about whether or not Ms. Slaughter or Ms. Sandberg is right that we are completely missing the bigger picture. A part of me thinks this isn’t what men would do. If men were the ones who wanted to be “liberated,” I have a feeling they would gang up, form a team, order a pizza and then call a lobbyist in Washington or someone on Wall Street who played hockey with someone else’s brother back in high school. They would see that what we truly need is affordable childcare, flexible work hours, job sharing, and the ability to telecommute. They would start a movement with funny YouTube videos, interviews with Jimmy Fallon, and free beer.
Or do I think that solely because they are already in power, and we, as women, are not? And who is to say those ideas would even work? France, despite having affordable childcare and excellent healthcare is 57th on the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, below Cuba and Uganda. (According to the World Economic Forum, the Global Gender Gap measures gender-based disparities based on: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment).
As I read this report, the word empowerment struck me particularly. We as women are just not empowered. As soon as a woman CEO makes a controversial decision, she’s all over the media, critiqued not only for her ideas, but for her suit and her haircut. Perhaps most destructive though is that we don’t have each other’s backs. We’re constantly criticizing each other’s choices, parenting decisions, how often we show up to the PTO meetings or the the happy hours at work.
Finally, here at the end of my rant, you would probably expect some answers or at the very least, ideas, but I am all out. Frankly, I often feel like a sell-out, because I gave it “all” up to marry a guy in the Navy, an organization which does not exactly advocate equal rights for women. As a commanding officer’s wife, I am also the one who organizes meal trains, hosts baby showers, and wears heels when a senior officer comes to dinner or for an event. On these occasions, I am the one who cooks the dinner, or orders the salad, and tries to keep my mouth shut. It’s not very empowering, to be honest, and I have a deep sense of letting Gloria Steinem – and maybe my mother – down.
For a long time, I’ve felt that if we could organize – no, empower – military wives, we could change the world. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy changing diapers and making pb&j’s and trying not to think about too much about what this says about me.
And perhaps that is what is what I am upset about, that I am culpable. That by making a choice that was right for me, I haven’t helped the girls who have come after me. Or maybe it’s the other way around and true liberation means doing what is right for oneself, no matter what it looks like.
April 1, 2013 § 16 Comments
And the day came when the risk it took to stay tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
Last week I began an Ayurvedic, 21-day group cleanse with one of my favorite and most influential yoga teachers, Laura Plumb. I realize that a cleanse is not blogworthy or even very interesting. And yet, I have always had such a strange relationship with both food and cleanses that have nothing to do with either food or cleanses*.
Ayurveda is a sister science to yoga and I could say a lot about it that may or may not be accurate, but basically, it’s about living closer to nature, eating foods that are in season, and practicing ways of being in harmony with natural rhythms, like getting up at sunrise and winding down at sunset. It’s very simple.
And yet, simple doesn’t mean easy, at least for me. During the first seven days of the cleanse, we eliminated coffee, sugar, alcohol, dairy, wheat, and meat. I don’t eat meat or much dairy or wheat, but still, without sugar or coffee or a glass of wine on those “hard days” I thought I was going to die. “When you want to reach for the sugar or the wine, or the coffee, ask yourself, who are you without the sugar or the coffee or the wine?” Laura asked us all on our group phone call and I didn’t like the answers: sad, overwhelmed, burned out, bored, frustrated, irritated. I just want to be happy and peaceful all the time and it feels wrong to have any other emotion elbow its way in and plop itself down.
I have written before about cleanses, about how, for me, it’s never about what I am giving up but what I’ve already lost. It’s about rolling up my sleeves and finally looking at the original wound, at the ways I was torn apart at the seams and the clumsy methods I used to patch myself together: an extra glass of wine, a pot of coffee at 3 pm, those five chocolate chips eaten with my eyes closed, standing in a corner of the kitchen. A cleanse for me is less about what I’m eating and more about removing the tight and messy stitches. It’s about looking into the open gash, the jagged scar, the emptiness in my heart that has nothing to do with the hunger in my belly.
One girl in our group posted so beautifully and honestly to our Facebook page about why she wanted to do the cleanse:
“I have begun to notice the ways that I outsource for guidance, minimize my own power, and fog-out when things become uncomfortable. Food is a major outsource for me and I want to reclaim the power of my body and what I put into it.”
I could completely relate.
Since I began teaching yoga less than a year ago, I’ve been profoundly aware of the ways in which I am not living my practice and the way I eat is one of them. For the most part, I eat a healthy, mostly plant-based diet. Except, when something tough happens and I outsource, mostly to chocolate. About a month ago, when I had my students move into pigeon pose, I felt like a fraud. I was instructing them to feel their way into their breath and then breathe their way into their feelings, inhale by inhale. And yet, in my own life, I was jumping ship when the sensations became too strong.
Last week, I read Anais Nin’s famous quote at the beginning of class when everyone was in child’s pose: And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. In class we did a lot of “blossoming” poses: vashistasana (side plank), ardha chandrasana (half moon), garudhasana (eagle) and then unwinding. Most of the people who come to my class are beginners, older woman, or young Marines with back and knee and hip injuries so I always give plenty of modifications. We do planks with knees down, side plank with the top leg in front, sole of the foot on the ground. Even so, I watched them stumble and struggle and sigh and giggle and then try again on the other side without a moment of hesitation. Tears filled my eyes and my heart ached with how fearless they all were, how remarkably vulnerable.
In pigeon pose, I had planned to talk more about unfolding, about being open, about blossoming, but it just felt all wrong. Instead, I shared something Rolf Gates had said in our teacher training, something that I didn’t really fully understand until I watched my own class so gamely lift their hands and hearts to the sky. “When I think back to all of my constricted states, all those times I was jealous or angry or afraid,” Rolf told us, “I realize that I needed all of those constricted states in order to truly open.”
As everyone folded into pigeon pose, blankets under their bums, I shared what Rolf had said and how exhausting it can sometimes be to be constantly told to unfurl! dream big! blossom! transform! grow! shift! evolve! When we look at the life cycle of a flower, how many days does it spend deep underground, coiled up, curled tight? Maybe the same is true for ourselves. Maybe we’re allowed days or even seasons of being colorless, tight, and protected; angry, jealous, and afraid. Sad, overwhelmed, burned out, bored. In the yoga DVD I do some mornings, Baron Baptiste says, “We can’t force a rose to open. We’ll just break off the petals.” And yet, how often do I do that to myself?
Spring isn’t for the faint of heart. Cleanses aren’t for punks. Learning how to open takes time. Sometimes it takes fear and anger and jealousy. Sometimes, it takes chocolate. Mostly it takes sunlight and warmth, kindness and true nourishment. For me, it seems to take a cleanse, a bare-bones diet and a balls to the wall process of self-inquiry and truth telling.
This week, as I started my (surprisingly delicious) mono-diet of kitchari and greens (and the dates I can’t quite do without yet), I walked outside and was stopped in my tracks at the tulips poking their green shoots through the dirt in my front garden, effectively giving the finger to my neighbor who said they wouldn’t grow. Yes! I said, doing a fist pump. Yes!
Kate is the winner of last week’s giveaway! I selected the winner through Random.org.
* I want to emphasize how important it is to do a cleanse with guidance and NOT to do a cleanse solely as a way to lose weight or to punish yourself for overindulging. Also, stay away from those ghastly Master Cleanses!