Friday, February 25, 2011

Princess Bride: Get a Job?

What does it mean to be dependent on one's spouse? Carol Chandran, at the blog 4 Mothers, responds to Katrina Onstad's recent and controversial article in the Globe and Mail about Kate Middleton quitting her job to become a princess. Most of the comments on Onstad's piece are negative, but I like that she took on the topic and I appreciated much of what she had to say--it struck a chord, as I continue to struggle with what it means to be a contributing member of society (and no, I don't think paid work is the only path, but it sure is lovely to contribute financially to my family's fortunes).

Chandran's response is measured and thoughtful. She disagrees with Onstad's premise that paid work equals social contribution. Chandran, who supports her family of four as a lawyer, points out that although she is the primary earner in her family, she is nevertheless dependent on her husband to look after their children and support her on the home-front. She writes: "'Dependence' is a maligned word in our society because it is associated with a lack of autonomy and weakness. But all strong foundational relationships like marriage or the parent-child variety expose our vulnerability."

I needed to hear that, today.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Women's Writing: Discuss

Must must must link to this provocative and well-argued piece, by Kerry Clare, on women's fiction, and how it continues to be viewed by critics as being of lesser value than men's fiction, long after Virginia Woolf wrote about the issue in A Room of One's Own: "This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop -- everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists."

In her essay, Clare posits that the gestational nature of a book like Lisa Moore's February is indeed very much unlike the plot- and conclusion-driven fiction that we consider to be traditionally male; but that the layered and continual sock-folding nature of "feminine" fiction should not and cannot be dismissed simply because it approaches time and human transitions differently.

I guess my question is: do women really understand time and action differently than men do? Is this a feminine quality, or does it relate more to the fact that more women than men, even now, spend time folding socks, and completing repetetive daily tasks? Do our bodies call us to repetition and a less linear understanding of time, are women by nature gestational beings? Just asking. I don't know.

Read the article. And then comment, because I want to know what you think (... as I sit here, writing what seems to me to be a prototypically feminine book).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Squeezing Time

This is a cross-post from my main blog, Obscure CanLit Mama, but seems particularly applicable to Moms Are Feminists Too.

Wow. Some really interesting changes are taking place in my life right now. Changes are causing some conflict, and also opening up opportunities for discussion and potentially radical shifts (though I suspect these will be slow and steady rather than sudden and shocking).

This year, I've focused on my spirit, and that's taken me to places of quiet reflection and also drawn out of me greater confidence and courage. My family has been noticing this is round-about ways, as I head out early in the morning to go for a run, learn how to swim, take time to bury myself in writing, head out as soon as supper's on the table in order to take a yoga class, or set up the tripod and camera; all things that I am doing on my own, that don't necessarily connect to their lives, and that might actually exclude them in one way or another.

My husband and I have been struggling to find, in the midst of this extra-curricular activity, time to spend together. This morning it occurred to us that this is a problem of home economics. My husband was the one who made this observation, not me. He observed that I am responsible for the bulk of the domestic work, and if I add in other work, whether or not it is of the paying variety, it means that my time becomes more and more squeezed. So I am writing down a list of all the domestic/household labour that I do (and that he does, too), with the idea that we work to split it more evenly, and also among the children, to some degree.

It's quite a list.

Thinking about sharing this work, and therefore having time to focus more freely on the triathlon project and writing generally, brought me to a new revelation: I think part of me wanted to go back to school to train to be something else because then my time would be accounted for, my work outside the home acknowledged as important, and the family obligated to pick up (some) slack--because I wouldn't always be there to do it for them, and with good reason. It is a little fantasy of mine to imagine children packing lunches for school and getting their own snacks after school, and then tidying up. (I did say it was a fantasy).

My husband admitted that he has fallen into gender stereotyping--well, we both have. He works and earns the money, and I keep the home fires a'burning. Except I also try to squeeze in a side career (I am a writer), and it is indeed very squeezed. Partly this is practical: because he earns the money that keeps us afloat, his work-time isn't optional, and mine, with its occasional grant/prize windfalls and trickle of odd-job cheques is nowhere near enough to feed and house a family of six. So, the divide has made sense. But we've also become trapped by it, and blind to it. Because of course my work will never add up to much if I can't commit to or pursue freelance jobs that would require even moderate time commitment over and above what I've already carved out. And fiction writing is the kind of business that demands long-term investment, a risky investment at best. But without investment, it will add up to precisely nothing.

So, our question now is: how to go forward, treating what I do, outside of domestic duties, as work worthy of more time, and energy?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


An excellent and nuanced reflection from Kerry at Pickle Me This on how a mom-centred approach to breastfeeding saved her breastfeeding life. What I like about her argument is that she looks at the disconnect between the two opposing camps--on the one side, the quitting-breastfeeding-is-the-best-thing-a-mom-can-ever-do camp, and on the other side, the all-mothers-must-breastfeed-and-sing-songs-of-joy-about-it camp--and how neither side in the debate really serves the actual individual woman who is trying to do her best for her baby and herself.
Breastfeeding is a really individual experience. Even at its apex (and I had an easy time breastfeeding my babies), it is messy and time-consuming. It's worth acknowledging that there can be complications, pain, infection, et cetera. On the other hand, it can also be any number of really lovely things, too. For me, I missed being pregnant, and breastfeeding was a way of extending that intimacy; it eased our separation. I felt a lot of power (in a good way) knowing that my body continued to feed my babies' bodies. And it gave me an excuse to sit down.
I'm sure every mother would have a unique story.
What strikes me most while reading Kerry's piece, though, is that it seems these camps exist because of a fundamental cultural insecurity about motherhood. All of us secretly wondering: have we chosen right, are we doing the right thing, and therefore demanding affirmation, and needing to squash or belittle all alternatives. If we believed in our own instincts, maybe there would be less judgement all around; at the very least, we'd be more impervious to it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Short Rant

My mother-in-law loves to shop and our family has been the beneficiary of her generosity over the years (and since I hate to shop, this is a particularly wonderful gift). She essentially clothes our children, and occasionally I actually have to request that she not go overboard, and remind her that our toddler has an attic filled with boxes of hand-me-downs, and does not need brand new ... well, anything.
This spring, I requested shorts for the two eldest children. And before we knew it, a parcel had landed on our porch. The kids dug in, and discovered piles of clothes, something for everyone; but they assumed all of the "girlie" shorts were for our younger daughter. When I went to take a look, I saw why: the shorts were short. My eldest daughter is not short. In short, the clothes that were meant for her were inappropriate. I do not think my mother-in-law has the slightest intention of turning her seven-year-old granddaughter into a sex symbol--in fact, I'm positive that's not the case. My guess is that those very short shorts were what she found available in the stores, for girls. For boys, shorts continue to be made of comfortable material cut into practical lengths.
My daughter was mildly perplexed: why were the shorts so short? She couldn't wear them to school (which has a finger-length rule), and they weren't much use for playing soccer and doing running club anyway. So, she's been wearing her (one pair) of soccer shorts instead. I just went upstairs and dug through her older brother's drawer and found some shorts that would fit her, too.
And I thought to myself: what is this about? What is the message being sent to girls and not to boys? Here's my reading: girls are (sexual) objects to be decorated, and not active participants. How can you play soccer in teeny-tiny shorts? You can't, really. And you won't look sexy playing soccer anyway, so why would you want to play?
How can we empower our daughters to make decisions that honour their bodies, their aspirations, their desires, their sense of freedom and play, if we are dressing them in clothes that subtly undermine those powerful and positive messages.
I'm not suggesting there's a clothing company conspiracy; the clothing simply reflects what our culture accepts, or even requests, perhaps without even thinking about it. Let's think about it. I'm going to ask my mother-in-law to shop for shorts in the boys' section--for my daughters. Free play for all!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ah ... Maternal and Infant Health, Such a Simple Subject, No?

So, while I was away, Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, thought he'd appeal to women (he apparently doesn't poll well with us as a group), and to this end (or am I being too cynical?), he proposed an initiative to improve maternal and infant health in developing nations. His initiative, while laudable, has one gaping hole: it does not include funding or support for family planning; most specifically, of course, for abortion. As I said to my husband, imagine if we had no access to family planning--how many kids would we have??? (We have four, full stop). Blessedly fertile, without family planning--in our case, condoms and now a vasectomy--I would be pregnant non-stop, and not only would my own health suffer, but so would the health of our children.

Spacing out children and deciding how many one can reasonably care for is critical to both maternal and infant health: in fact, it's critical to the health of a family, and communities, and society generally. To survive and to thrive, infants and children need parents who have the resources to protect and nurture them. Not to mention that a woman who is constantly pregnant has the story of her life written for her: and the plot-line revolves around constant, repetitive, menial labour; and, often, early death.

Blue Milk is an awesome blog about mothering and feminism, and I discovered this piece on abortion and motherhood. About pregnancy, she writes: "... this state of being is a devouring one, and ... it is vital that it not be experienced unwillingly by a woman."

That's the crux of the matter, for me. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy is like being trapped in the body. There is a tendency to judge women who accidentally become pregnant, but I've no interest in moralizing. Let us observe that some women carrying unwanted pregnancies are already mothers. Some have more children than they can care for. And some are willing to go to desperate measures to prevent their bodies from carrying another pregnancy to term. A recent article by Geoffrey York in the Globe and Mail detailed the dangers and prevalence of abortion "clinics" in African countries where abortion is illegal. Guess what--it happens whether or not it is legally available. This shouldn't be news. Speaking as someone who has carried four children to term, it's entirely understandable. Had I not wanted to be carrying those children, the state of pregnancy would have been terrifying, overwhelming, devastating.

To imagine that you can craft a policy focused on maternal and infant health and leave out family planning, contraception, and, yes, as a last resort, abortion, is to imagine a world in which every pregnant woman is pregnant willingly. In other words, the policy could only be crafted in a fantastical vacuum; and though it might shock Mr. Harper to hear this, not all mothers idealize motherhood. In the messy and complicated human world in which we actually live, I, as a mother, accept that not all pregnant women are willingly pregnant. And, as a mother, having with love and excitement and gratitude borne my babies, I can imagine how desperate I would feel trapped in that other reality. Denying legal access to abortion does not deny access to abortion; it sends desperate women underground--including women who are already mothers.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Politics of Breastfeeding

I haven't been here in awhile. Somehow, my brain stopped looking for feminist/mom-related news stories over the winter. But I came back for a visit, after lunch today, and thought I'd like to check in more often.

Here's a link to an article on the politics of breastfeeding by Hannah Rosen, published in the The Atlantic, and suggested by a reader (whose comment I only saw today ... apparently the comment settings on this blog needed tweaking; consider them tweaked).

The article is controversial; but I did not respond quite like I'd anticipated. The article argues against "lactivists" and the popular medical advice given to women that breast is best. (Note: I do actually believe that breast is best). Ms. Rosen is a breastfeeding mother of three who began to investigate her own ambivalence about breastfeeding when her third child was newly born: and she walked right into a minefield that pits mothers against mothers.

Now, despite being a breastfeeding mother of four, I find sympathy with her argument. I chose breastfeeding because I wanted to breastfeed. I took a lot of pleasure from the experience. If my husband had been the one with the breasts, I would have been devastated. Lactating was an extremely powerful experience in my life. But I recognize that this is not the case for every woman. And I also recognize that breastfeeding is a major time-sucker (literally!). Because babies breastfeed through the night, I spent a good portion of my breastfeeding days sleep-deprived. My husband was pretty tired, too; we shared the night-time burden in the early infant days--I would nurse, and he would change the diaper or fetch the baby, if the baby had moved on to sleeping in another room. But I was the one whose body was working to make the milk. I was the one with the non-negotiable job--and it never felt like a sacrifice to me.

Neither did pregnancy. Definitely not birth. Those were formative life experiences that brought me strength. But, as my fourth child ends his nursing career, slowly, and I end my career as a lactating woman (and I've done the math--I've breastfed babies for a total of SEVEN YEARS), I get that other perspective: that desire to share the burden of childcare more fairly between partners. Breastfeeding can factor into that inequity.

Here's one more thought, though. Rather than wishing our bodies were different, is there some way to recognize and incorporate the realities of our bodies into the world of work and life? Only women can bear children. Only women can lactate. Whether you see this is a burden and a sacrifice, or a privilege and a joy, or perhaps as both, depends on a whole lot of factors, and may even change from day to day, or child to child. Breastfeeding out of obligation and with a strong sense of sacrifice may not be the best for you or your child. Still, it's always easier to make choices when there is plenty of support for the harder choices; support, not pressure; and I don't think we have the balance yet.

In the final paragraph of her article, Ms. Rosen tries to analyze why, despite wanting to quit, she hasn't given up breastfeeding entirely: "Breast-feeding does not belong in the realm of facts and hard numbers; it is much too intimate and elemental. It contains all of my awe about motherhood, and also my ambivalence."

I like that. How well I relate to that honest take on motherhood: awe and ambivalence.