Tag Archives: Amanda

Beyond Suicide Prevention: An Overlooked Threat to LGBTQ Youth

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Having recently returned to paid, full-time employment in the domestic and intimate partner violence prevention and intervention field, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss barriers to serving queer youth, especially when so many entities dictating the structure for provision of programming are still mired in homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism.

Any input from readers is much-appreciated.

– Amanda

I don’t often consider the reality that my children will be teenagers someday: probably because I still need to periodically remind myself that I’m not a teenager. 15, in particular, really stands out as a Me-seeming age. However, even my rudimentary math skills allow me to easily calculate that both of my kids are closer to 15 than I currently am — in terms of years, if not emotional maturity.

Actually, I am the same age as Steve Kornacki, the news editor at Salon.com, who recently wrote an article about coming out as a gay man. At 32.

It’s a sobering, but not all together bleak, tale of finding one’s way in the dark.

Kornacki describes how, although he knew he was attracted to other guys as early as his sophomore year in high school (when he was probably around 15 years old), he quickly wrote off the idea of ever openly acknowledging his preferences. Because he didn’t believe he fit the stereotypical image of how a gay male is expected to behave (he is a rabid sports fan; others described him as “straitlaced”; he notes that his role models had always been wholesome [and presumably straight] “family men”),  he was driven to,

[learn] how to compartmentalize. I didn’t have to spend all day fighting my urges; I could just ignore them in public and acknowledge them in private, fleeting moments. …  Back then … the idea of being 35 or 40 seemed ridiculously far off – distant enough for me to tell myself that everything would take care of itself and I’d end up married to a woman.

Reading Kornacki’s story, I experienced an almost palpable Oh-God-I-Am-Definitely-A-Parent epiphany. I’m not 15. I’m a stodgy woman in her early thirties. And I have Concerns.

Back in July of 2011, I wrote about the glaring omission of — and ever-contentious debate over — LGBTQ representations in pre-literate children’s media.  Parents, educators, and otherwise invested adults must step up our game, I reasoned,  if we want to ensure that gender variance and a diversity of (nascent) sexualities will be considered par for the course by the time our current crop of preschoolers reaches adolescence.

But there is another major void that I was so inured to,  I simply failed to notice. Until Kornacki’s article got me thinking.

Most people who are supportive of and wish to protect young, queer people understand that attitudes obfuscating LGBTQ identities, and corresponding policies like the infamous (and — as of today — erstwhile!)  “neutrality” mandate in my region’s Anoka-Hennepin (Minnesota) School District, pose a danger to children.  They (1) implicitly sanction violence against and abuse of LGBTQ youth; and (2) unapologetically marginalize these kids, isolating them from some of the most fundamental sources of encouragement (i.e. teachers,  school personnel and other professionals tasked with advocating for young people) to which they should reasonably expect access. The climate resulting from the collision of these two factors has spawned a rash of widely-reported-on suicides and suicide attempts.

Unspeakably tragic though this is,  we need to remember that LGBTQ experiences’ absence from very basic, “life skills”-oriented discussions also has an impact on those who make it through this stage visibly unscathed.

In an opinion piece on the Anoka-Hennepin neutrality policy, Jeremy Tedesco wrote, “…  schools are places for education, not indoctrination”: a sentiment echoed by many supporters of maintaining the status quo.

If taken at face value, it’s hard to argue with Tedesco’s logic, especially when use of the term “indoctrination” conjures images of  drone children,  spouting political slogans.  But I believe one of the purposes of school is priming kids to be functional, healthy, self-actualized grown-ups who can Play Nicely With Others. Yeah, parents “should” be the pace-setters with regard to all that stuff. Having to put these skills into practice at school, though, gives children and young adults the opportunity to navigate less insular waters that more closely replicate, in microcosm, the challenges they will face in the real world.

Okay, then: by exclusively acknowledging heterosexuality and gender binary conformity (the premise behind the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” in the Tennessee legislature, which applies to students in kindergarten through grade eight),  kids won’t be tempted to ‘try out’ LGBTQ ‘lifestyles’.  The truth of the argument, similar to the “If we don’t teach comprehensive sex ed in schools, teens will be less likely to have sex” line of reasoning that was prevalent during my high school years, simply isn’t borne out by anecdotal reality. With regard to Abstinence Only education: teenagers didn’t abstain from sex without mandatory, comprehensive sex ed curricula in public schools; they were simply sexually active in more precarious ways.

Ibid., what does happen with alarming frequency: LGBTQ youth are left floundering and are forced to either retreat into emotionally difficult — and socially stunting — self-denial, or forge their own path in the domain of dating and sex … without much of a safety net, and with unpredictable outcomes.

Assuming that Kornacki’s account is more thorough than not, he was a relatively “lucky” one. That luckiness, of course, still involves 17 years of hiding his sexuality from family, friends, and other important people in his life; a coercive sexual encounter with someone he met online; and a lot of fear and uncertainty.

For many others, even those who are out, by degrees, this  represents the tip of the iceberg. They are the not-so-“lucky” ones.

My small-ish and decidedly Midwestern-ish circle of friends who identify as … something other than one hundred percent straight and cisgender … have an alarming number of stories, from their teens and early twenties, of sexual assaults, relationships mired in physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, survival sex that included instances of rape and battery, high-risk alcohol and drug use, and semi-anonymous sex that could have easily turned dangerous.

Somewhere along the line, this simply became part of the script: not good, certainly, or a mandatory rite of passage. Just common and unsurprising.

Why? Templates for young, queer Americans’ first forays into dating and sex aren’t stamped onto our collective unconscious: not the way straight kids’ experiences are, at least.  Hetero coming-of-age narratives have been a national obsession for — what? 50 years? But LGBTQ correlatives are not exactly writ large for eager minds seeking a direction.

Say you’re a — coughcough — comfortably middle class, white, gay male high schooler living in moderately-sized community in the US Heartland. You have, frankly, quite a lot of privilege going for you, other than the whole liking guys thing.  And, speaking of which, you want to find one with interests similar to yours, talk about and partake in said shared interests, and make out a bunch. Now,  how to achieve this goal?

Genders of the main players notwithstanding, this is pretty much the woebegone thesis of  every wretched teen romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. But our plucky protagonist has more hurdles to overcome than his straight counterpart pursuing … Selena Gomez or whoever.

1. Where do you meet someone your age?

The obvious answer is “at school,” which presents additional hurdles. How do you know who is safe to approach? If you express interest in a classmate who does not share your feelings, can you be sure that they’ll simply decline your advances instead of, y’know, murdering you? And if you’re fortunate enough to go to a school with an active Gay-Straight Alliance (or similar), do fellow participants really represent the entirety of your dating pool?

Outside of school, though, the rules are even more nebulous.  The city where I grew up — with a population in the neighborhood of 65,000 — offered a LGBTQ support and social group, facilitated by volunteer human services professionals, for under-21s. Even in that environment, where one could  assume a certain degree of security, you run into the difficulty of a small number of prospective “candidates” to work with, made even smaller by the reality that there is no promise of encountering anyone who has much in common with you beyond your shared non-heterosexuality.

Then, lest we forget, there’s the internet.

As I’ve written before, it’s a double-edged sword. The internet allows people to feel less isolated and forge self-defined community … while simultaneously providing a refuge for those inclined to prey on vulnerability. And if you’re a queer-identified young person in the United States, regardless of where you live, and through no fault of your own, you’re vulnerable.

2. What do you do on a date?

One of the most compelling parts of Kornacki’s article is a throwaway comment about a realization that occurred, for him, at age 24: “I found myself hoping [he and a man he was interested in] could get dinner or go to a movie. Dating, I think it’s called.”

It’s easy to write this off as naive, until you think about all the ways in which the stars must align for someone to date “normally” in high school. If you’re a kid who is, in any way, dependent on your parents for transportation, money, or a place to non-platonically watch TV and eat pizza, they have to be somewhat cooperative. Want to go anywhere in public? Hoping that no one you know sees you, suspects that you and your date aren’t “just friends,” and then relays this information to someone who could make your life miserable … well, that doesn’t exactly smack of equality.

And if you plan to attend some kind of Teen Milestone Event, like prom or a homecoming dance, it might be No Big Deal (in which case you also run the risk of well-intentioned people demonstrating just how progressive and open-minded they are by rubbing your face in the NBD-ness at every opportunity), or it might be a Very Big Deal — like the Constance McMillen case, which involved school district subterfuge, the ACLU, and a nationwide media circus. Whither the simple promise of spray tans and limo rides to the Red Lobster?

3. Who gets to know?

Okay, so I understand that “your parents” isn’t going to be an inevitable answer for any teenager. Flying slightly under the radar regarding the particulars of your dating life is a common tactic for young adults trying to assert an autonomous identity. I don’t look forward to being the nervous parent in this scenario. But I get it.

Are you comfortable with at least one friend knowing about the relationship, though? And, if so, is that friend someone whose opinion you value? Someone you trust to speak up if she or he notices any red flags? To know when it’s acceptable to keep your confidence, and when to call in reinforcements? Would the policies in place — either tacit or actual — allow a teacher or counselor at your school to respond to your direct requests for advice, or even act on their suspicions that something is amiss?

Herein lies the crux of my fear.

The fact is, intimate partner violence (and I use “violence” loosely to include myriad physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual behaviors) among teenagers, in general, is staggeringly common. Fortunately, this is finally getting more recognition; and programming to educate young people on how to strive for equanimity and mutual respect with their dating partners is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools. Students are given the opportunity to critically examine the components of a healthy relationship, define their personal values, and cultivate the skills necessary to communicate these to their partners. They also learn to identify features of an abusive relationship, and how to respond to threatening situations in a safe and productive manner.

As someone who has actually worked with students on these issues, in a classroom setting, I can’t place enough emphasis on how important such curricula are, or how much potential good they can do. Nonetheless, we are doing a huge disservice to many young people if we stand (solely) by a heteronormative model when hawking our message — even if that is more politically expedient and palatable.

We must start actively welcoming LGBTQ kids to the table, being unafraid of their sexuality, and divesting ourselves of the idea that they are not a sizable enough population to matter.

Doing so might register as more radical in practice than it initially seems in theory, though: owing largely to the above-mentioned complications.

Simply leaning on ambiguous pronouns and leaving it up to kids to infer the rest isn’t going to cut it.  If we do not directly signal to LGBTQ youth, who have spent so much time in obscurity, that we are speaking to them, they will assume that we are not.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that their experiences — if not their fundamental feelings — are different due to the ever-present specters of homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and a whole lot of other compounding oppressions. It is hard to reconcile this with an impulse to will everything into fairness by pretending the disparity doesn’t exist.  Yes, LGBTQ youth should be afforded the same rites of passage, on the same timeline, as straight, cisgender youth; but, in order to help them now, we also have to let their current realities steer our outreach efforts.

Although I don’t have a proven formula for making this happen, it is something I have been discussing with other personal and professional stakeholders, including young people themselves. And a handful of key points seem to be raised, time and time again:

  • Tell kids it’s okay to be queer. Like, really: just fine. Value-neutral. Period. If you find yourself harboring a kernel of doubt about this — but still have a child in your life who you love and think deserves health and happiness — keep on repeating that mantra until you do truly believe it. But tell kids they’re okay anyway, without adding any disclaimers or provisos. Because introducing your “personal belief” boilerplate into the conversation isn’t going to result in anything positive for anyone involved. Trust.
  • Assure young people that it’s also fine to accept or reject (or take an a la carte approach to) the trappings of “regular” adolescent social patterns. Personally, I feel that this could stand to be applied to all young adults. I was pretty firmly situated in the REJECT camp during my youth. Then again, my gender and sexual orientation lined up well with the implicit defaults; so I had greater license to be a sullen malcontent (wink).

Queer kids may take some extra convincing that, no, they don’t have to capitulate to (frankly, fantasy-based) archetypal high school experiences in order to be accepted for who they are; and, by the same token, they don’t have to shun these in order to legitimize their queerness.

  • Meet them where they are. Some life lessons have the greatest impact if learned through trial and error. When adults acknowledge this, we also accept that our children are entitled to try and fail, and, thereby, achieve personal growth. Shifting into harm reduction (that is, providing people with tools and resources to make their choices — however subjectively “unhealthy” — less permanently or fatally detrimental) mode with your beloved kiddos is no small task. But I feel vesting LGBTQ youth with this level of trust is especially  important in order to underscore the point that their sexuality and gender aren’t “risky behaviors” in and of themselves: a fallacy that these kids are all-too-susceptible to internalizing.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district suicides I mentioned earlier? In a widely-quoted blog post by Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council, the author wrote, “[Y]outh who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [for suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle.”

Let that sink in for a second. If Prichard — and others whose opinions his statement represents — is blaming young people’s sexuality and gender identities for directly precipitating their deaths, it stands to reason that similar attitudes exist about what they should expect from their involvement in relationships. It’s a vicious cycle that goes something like this: sanction willful disregard for promotion of safety in LGBTQ young adults’ relationships -> lacking the resources to properly navigate the proverbial minefield of love/dating/sex, LGBTQ youth end up in situations that compromise their safety ->  “See, I told you ‘homosexuality’ was inherently dangerous!”

 My point, then, is this: we, as adults, need to counterintuitively resist using an aggregate of scary information to put the kibosh on  LGBTQ young people experimenting with dating and sex altogether. This only functions to (1) reinforce the message that being queer is dangerous, (2) ensure that they are, developmentally, behind the curve established by their straight/cis peers when they reach an ill-defined “magical age” at which relationships are suddenly deemed “safer”, and (3) in effect, dare them to defy this edict and retreat even further from our watchful eyes.

Remember that the “particular vulnerability” I keep mentioning is entirely predicated on environmental conditions. So educate, inform, equip, and support away. Just don’t ensconce them in bubble wrap and sequester them from the world. There are threats, sure. But there are a lot of great, formative experiences to be had, too.

Where do we go from here, on a larger scale?

I am developing both inclusive and LGBTQ-specific curricula and teaching tools — following on the path forged by a handful of pioneering individuals who have also observed this need in their own schools and communities — for use in my work with interpersonal violence initiatives.

If you have any suggestions or insights to contribute to this effort, I welcome your comments.


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Chewbacca’s Senior Portrait

I framed a photo of Chewbacca the Wookiee for MaryAlice's nightstand. The girl loves Chewie.

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My Two-Year-Old: The agony and the … well, just agony

Look at this face:

Now ask yourself, How could this child’s mother ever be moved to write the following on Twitter?:

Based on my 2-year-old’s behavior this evening, if I had to speculate about future career prospects, “Courtney Love” would top the list.
One of the things I admire most about MaryAlice is her, uh, “spirited” temperament. She is a girl, so I give her a wider berth. It’s not because I believe girls are delicate creatures who should be dealt a more forgiving hand, discipline-wise. Rather, it’s because I know her behavior often strays pretty far afield of what people generally accept as “appropriate” for girl-children, and I don’t want to even be perceived as joining the chorus of gender-enforcing “Shhh!“-ers. I’m not saying that’s a rational or “right” choice: only that I have this fairly well-substantiated fear that, if she is told to shut up often enough and by relevant enough stakeholders, she won’t just turn the volume down a notch, she’ll turn it all the way off. (For the record, I don’t discourage my son’s gender-binary-non-conforming behaviors, either. Those simply tend to be less disruptive and inconvenient. Shrug). 
In light of all that: truth time. If she was an adult — and possibly even if she wasn’t my kid — I would think she was a total jerkstore.
Maybe this feeling of desperation is related to being in the home stretch of the Terrible Twos. Oh, yeah: they exist. They aren’t universal, though. My son, who will be five in December, struggled a little, in the usual “I HAVE BIG EMOTIONS AND LACK THE VOCABULARY TO EXPLAIN THEM” vein. But because he was a colicky nightmare as a newborn, anything that fell short of an eight-hour stretch of ceaseless screaming registered as un-noteworthy.
Aside from the occasional a-hole days or weeks, Stuart has only gotten progressively “easier” as he’s aged.  
MaryAlice has not.
Here are some delightful little affectations that have materialized since her second birthday, last September:
    1. Reactions to crises(-of-her-own-perception) are completely unmodulated according to the severity of said crisis. “I DROPPED MY FORK!” hysterics are virtually indistinguishable from what I’d imagine “MY HEAD IS CAUGHT IN A BEAR TRAP!” hysterics would sound like.
    2. When she has a tearful meltdown, she runs into the bathroom to check the mirror and see how sad she looks, then modifies her face for maximum pathos.
    3. Like most toddlers, MaryAlice has a knack for finding and walking around with objects that we’d rather she not have: our phones, expensive-ish electronic doodads, knives … . We have to use the utmost caution when trying to coax her into surrendering the object, and can never, but never, attempt to “wrest” it away. (She has a vise grip). One false move, and our DVD player remote or camera or mezzaluna is hurled  — often at our respective heads.
    4. Whenever we are anywhere in public, and MaryAlice can’t be strapped into a shopping cart or otherwise physically restrained, there is a 50-50 — no, let’s say 80-20 — chance that she will take off running, heedless of (A) her personal safety, or (B) anything (people included) in her path. But, wait! If we chase her, she just does that thing that dogs do, looking over her shoulder at us with a mocking glint in her eye while maintaining the established pace. This has resulted in a full-throttle crashes into  doors, trees, columns, and (literal) brick walls.
    5. Oft-heard fit-of-rage phrases: “Back off!” “Fine! I go home!” “You so damnit!” and, my personal fave, “Stupid hate!”

I can’t emphasize enough how ill-equipped to manage this I am. Actually, scratch that and replace “manage” with “tolerate.”  Logical, natural consequences? Zzzzip! Out the window during a Terrible Twos Fugue State (particularly because I don’t want to be the object of demonstration when it comes to following through on the logical and natural consequences of launching a pair of manicure scissors at my cornea).   The only management, so far as I can figure, involves containment and removal. Like kudzu or zebra mussels or something.

Oh, and P.S.: before you say, “Well, at least you’re a parent who is considerate enough to take their disruptive child out of social settings mid-tantrum,” know that I don’t — not always. When I am in public spaces with the kids and without my partner, there is usually a task at hand that, for whatever reason, couldn’t wait until reinforcements were available. (Family grocery shopping outings that involve four adult hands instead of two are a  comparative cakewalk). If the threat of an “episode” was enough to keep me home, I would never leave the house.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m not totally committed to the retreat-and-surrender approach. I have this bizarre notion that, if children are going to learn how to function as full-fledged members of society, they sorta hafta be in it. Trust me: you aren’t going to want to meet the fragile whelp who has been sequestered in his home, every whim bowed to like that kid in The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life“.

(Quick aside: I know the subject of exclusive spaces for adults has been a hot-button issue lately. My thought is, aside from locations that are patently inappropriate for children [a porn store  or … I don’t know. A hookah lounge?], accepted patronage of people of all ages should be generally behavior-specific. You know: “Disruptive individuals may be asked to leave.” This is all very relativistic, of course. The definition of “disruptive” is probably different if you are dining at Chuck E Cheese’s versus, say, The French Laundry . But I do feel that, bad apple horror stories aside, most parents are acutely aware of when their child, and those around their child, have reached the tipping point. A little latitude on the part of the non-child-having public is always much-appreciated as well).

Anyway: tolerance.  My own reserve is all but sapped. Part of me is genuinely worried that turning three won’t cure her, or even be the gateway to recovery. Do I have the mettle to effectively parent a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Thanks, but I think I’ll just lie on the floor while she dances on the empty-shell-that-was-my-self, brandishing that mezzaluna, and yelling “Stupid hate!”  … probably all while naked, too (something I forgot to add to the list of grievances, above. Those cute butt dimples are losing their luster from over-exposure).

Really, then, this post is less a rumination than a cry for help. As someone who works an average of 60 hours a week outside the home, I’m with my daughter for precious little time; and I’d like our interactions to be spent with less open combat on her part, and less ducking and wincing on mine. Any suggestions for making peace with a child who is easy to love, but can be difficult to “like”?


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How is This Not a Non-Issue Already?

It’s July 3, which means it is also three days after the end of Pride Month (recognized both informally since Stonewall [42nd anniversary on June 28th, folks!]  and, for the last decade or so, in about as official a capacity as exists). And I messed up.

Instead of bringing the kids to the area Pride parade and festival last weekend, as was our original intention, my husband and I sent them away for a few days’ vacation at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Why? I was exhausted. I had to start a 16-hour shift at work later that afternoon. The money for gas and parking and food vendor concessions hadn’t been figured into our already-tight budget. Plus, I’m just gonna say it: the Pride festival makes me grumpy. It’s gotten bogged down with corporate-shilling-in-the-guise-of-goodwill; with political niceties and empty appeasements and pandering. (Dykes on Bikes do temper this harumph-ing, though. A little).

But the sum total of all these roadblocks doesn’t result in me being willing to let myself off the hook.

I’ve mentioned here on Pax (Ro)mama that I live in a small town in Western Wisconsin, the nearest major metropolitan area to which is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up in a more middling community, an hour’s drive east of my current digs, that was located just a smidge outside the “Minnesconsin” subsumption radius, and had a fairly distinct civic identity.

Since college, I’ve been gradually creeping eastward: first to the cute riverside commuter city where I did my undergraduate degree, and then, thanks to the real estate bubble at the end of the last decade that rendered all other options unaffordable, to the  to the tiny village where my family has reluctantly put down shallow roots for three-years-and-counting.

Weirdly, the paths my husband’s and my professional lives have taken have had an inverse relationship with our homesteadin’ direction. My primary job is at a branch of a State agency in one of a handful of non-suburban, self-contained communities directly outlying the Twin Cities metro; and my husband works for a non-profit headquartered in an ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged neighborhood in St. Paul.

For me, going home at the end of the work day often feels less like returning to my sanctuary than returning to my cell. I mean, it would conclusively feel this way were it not for the fact that I’m living in a age that affords me 24/7 access to an incomprehensible volume of information from the (relative) comfort of my own home. The internet also allows me to connect with others whose backgrounds, interests, challenges, and self-defined cultures are similar to or at an incredible remove from my own: freely, and at any hour of the day or night. It’s an incredible lifeline for taciturn, socially anxious and situationally isolated people like me.

But I’m an adult. I can make, with few limitations, choices about what information I seek out, what types of entertainment I consume and participate in, and with whom I associate. My kids, who are four and two, don’t have that luxury. Not just them: all young, pre-literate children. They still have to, by and large, accept what is handed to them; and what is handed to them subsequently becomes the foundation of their worldview. I wrote about the ridic level of psychic tension this has caused me — perhaps with greater hopefulness at the time — here.

It’s not all bad. In fact, because of the unfortunate reality that, in the U.S., kids are a cash cow of a demographic, if we want to rail against simple uniformity, we don’t really have to lift a finger. (Ni Hao) Kai Lan and Dora and the grand dame of them all, Sesame Street, have our backs (and our wallets). It’s clear to me that there has been a concerted movement, amongst children’s entertainment taste makers, to diversify offerings. Regardless of whether this is simply the result of revenue-motivated lip service, I think most people would agree that it is a step in the right direction.

There’s at least one big exception to the general trend, though, and it’s making me increasingly livid. Few in the field, or parents of the children that partake of this entertainment, seem to care much about heterosexism, homophobia, or cis essentialism. And even when they do, people tread lightly: myself, I’m sinkingly realizing, included.

Some context:

When I was in high school, I had a lot of queer friends. Like, a lot (proportionally speaking). In my free time, I watched VHS tapes of Derek Jarman and Gregg Araki movies from the only  (miniscule, independent) video rental place that shelved them, and borrowed Sarah Schulman books on inter-library loan. I tend to play my cards pretty close to the chest; so people who meet me as an adult — and ohmygod especially those who have only known me as a “mom” — are either unaware of my nearly-20-year-deep history as an unlikely stakeholder in the LGBTQ-what-have-you (we’ll talk about acronym-pain another time) movement , or suspect I’m working some angle but can’t quite isolate my motives.

The real story is … there is no story. And I think that’s what paints me as a curiosity for some, and has made me question, on many occasions, whether my support is even appropriate or desired.

By way of quasi-explanation, then, here’s where I’m coming from:

  • I identify as, and probably read as, a straight, cisgender woman; but I’m not wrapped up in this identity. Nor anyone else’s identity. Whether a person wants to firmly stake their claim in an incredibly specific way , or stays pretty flexible: it matters not one whit. I should also mention that I’ve been partnered with a cis man for 12 years.
  • I never had an epiphanic moment that guided me to “embrace teh Gay.” There’s no pat narrative. Many similarly-inclined heteros are like, “[Such-and-such close friend or family member] came out, and so I dedicated myself to the cause on their behalf.” I got nothin’. Except …
  • I’ve always been alienated from the (broadly-defined) Mainstream for reasons difficult to pin down, and have endured truly cruel, baseless bullying. So my empathy barometer is sensitive. I’m also culturally Catholic; my extended family is — frequently in practice, but universally in a philosophical sense — social-justice oriented and knee-jerk moderate-liberal. Is this the recipe that yields a straight, Midwestern girl who is fluent in the oeuvre of David Wojnarowicz, though? Eh.
  • And, no, I didn’t and don’t have any “sexually non-threatening gay male quasi-boyfriend” fantasies, or a desire to seem outre and rebellious, or a hope to be praised for my “progressive” attitude, or an anthropological sense of curiosity.

Lots of people and events and writings and works of art have informed, modified, and refined my attitudes. But, fundamentally, I continue to be motivated by the queasiness I feel when I think about queer youth — especially those who are still largely invisible, in rural areas or conservative, religious enclaves — trying to eke out a life without knowing whether their subsistence needs will be met, or if they will be safe from physical, emotional, and psychological harm, should anyone correctly speculate about their identity. For all the internet’s powers of connection-beyond-borders (be they geographical or cultural), in this case it may be (1) giving some vulnerable kids a false sense of security; and (2) allowing adults to feel all “mission accomplished” when the work is, in fact, not finished.

Ergo, when I became a parent, I knew I was being presented with a new opportunity to set things right in my own, small way. After all, the only anti-queer argument that appears to be given any non-fringe-legitimacy these days is, to quote Helen Lovejoy, “Won’t someone think of the children?!”

It’s a total strawman, of course, because clearly the people putting it out there don’t universally “think of the children” (with regard to educational opportunities, health care access, adequate nutrition, safe housing, et cetera).

Yet, somehow, we still allow it to retain trump card status.

Well, screw that, I thought. I’m a person with children. I want them to know that they can love and partner with whomever they choose, and so can everyone else. (I have had to break it to my four-year-old that marrying Grandma isn’t a possibility).

It’s recently dawned on me, though, that non-exclusivity isn’t the same as inclusivity, particularly if we’re dealing with a child’s developing consciousness. When I wrote about the call for accepting (traditionally) gender-normative behavior while still promoting gender-diverse parenting practices, I suggested,

If taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?

The always-amazing and oft-cited Arwyn (my bloggy hero!) from Raising My Boychick responded,

While there’s a very big and important difference between anticonformism and nonconformism …, the cultural indoctrination around gender (among other things) is so very strong that to a certain extent, we need to lean far the other way just to make a difference in the overall trajectory of our children’s lives — and in part because we unconsciously, will we or nil we, aim them toward the gender typical ourselves.

Point well taken.  And, when I applied the lesson to my so-called efforts to ensure that my kids’ outlook didn’t have a heteronormative “default” (without exotifying or othering queerness [okay, so that sounds like an oxymoron]), it was apparent that I had set the bar way too low.

Unfortunately, I also learned that there were relatively few resources to help me raise it.

This is where living in a small town really complicates matters. As does, I guess, the fact that both my husband and I have (multiple) outside-the-home jobs, which means that the kids are with non-family caregivers for much of their day. (Although I hardly need an excuse to induce further guilt, there).  Due to Stuart’s and MaryAlice’s homogeneous surroundings, diversity awareness is something that has to be actively facilitated: and facilitated in a way that doesn’t favor the lens of the Dominant. (E.g. A children’s book about a Hindu family celebrating Diwali would be preferable to a story about a white, Christian kid going to his neighbors’ house to participate in their Diwali celebration and learn about the holiday).

As I mentioned earlier, this is now a breeze — requiring little-to-no effort — when it comes to fostering an understanding of differences in ethnicity, religion, ability, and socioeconomic privilege. But look for child-aimed literary, cinematic, and, most especially, television representations of  queer people and it’s largely … tumbleweeds.

Perhaps even more so because of the caveat that’s always at the front of my mind. I demand that these representations be unspectacular.

There are a handful of good children’s books (I am not aware of any widely available movies or television shows for preschool and early-elementary school-aged kids, although I do harbor suspicions about Victor and Pedro on Clifford the Big Red Dog), like King and King and 10,000 Dresses , that address non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities in an Issue du Jour way (and, I should add, with the hetero/cis parents portrayed as kind of assholish); or, like Daddy, Papa, and Me and Mommy, Mama and Me , that talk about families with same-sex parents. But I’ve been hard pressed to find titles where these factors are totally incidental to the “real” story. The one in our pretty extensive home library that most closely fits the bill is And Tango Makes Three. Which is about penguins.

(By the way, if you want to have an idea of what sort of conversations make me prickly-slash-hysterical, check out any of the unfavorable reviews for the aforementioned books).

In 2005, the PBS children’s animated/live-action hybrid television show Postcards From Buster (about a globe-trotting, anthropomorphized cartoon rabbit who meets kids and learns about their lives) notoriously attempted just the sort of casual approach to LGBT inclusivity that I advocate. And everything went kablooey.

In an episode called “Sugartime!”, Buster learned about … (gasp!) maple syrup harvesting and sugaring in Vermont. Some of the real kids featured on the episode had parents who were lesbians. Witness the horror.

PBS decided not to distribute “Sugartime!” to its member stations; in fact, the then-Secretary of Education sent out a missive warning against airing it, later explaining, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.”

We took Stuart to a maple-tapping demonstration last March. Should we be expecting a visit from Child Protective Services?

The conclusion I’ve drawn from all this ruminating is that, unless I want to awkwardly use my friends and their lives as object lessons for Stuart and MaryAlice (Um, no. Besides being inappropriately entitled, going  that route would also mean I’d need to leave my house more frequently [snerk]), the Pride festival is pretty much all there is for us. A less-than-perfect, once-a-year event, an hour’s drive away.

That. Is. Pathetic.

See, while I know the statistical likelihood is that my kids are (or will be) straight and cisgender, they are also my stand-ins for all the other children their age who aren’t. My ultimate vision is not that, in ten years or so, Stuart and MaryAlice and/or their peers won’t have any qualms about coming out to their parents, relatives and loved ones, but that the idea of coming out at all will be anachronistic. No one will care anymore, one way or the (/an) other. The kids will moon over stupid celebrities and shuffle through awkward proto-dates and openly sulk about unrequited crushes. And the parents will furrow their brows about more important things. That’s my hope.


The chance to realize this wish may be quickly evaporating for today’s children, as our adult-governed culture of fear is allowed to continue to use the supposed “best interest of youth” as a smokescreen. It’s more than discouraging; and, try as I might, I can’t buoy my optimism by thinking, Well, maybe my grandchildren’s generation, then. Just 30 more years, and then  — then things will really be different. Forever, this time.

Because how many kids are we going to needlessly lose in those intervening years? And, when the sea change finally does come, how will I answer the question, “What took you so long?”


Filed under Amanda

Pink Apologia

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Is there a more divisive color?
I’ve written about the utility and frugality-influenced decision to dress my son in pink clothing as an infant. (And, on the very day I caught wind of the flap surrounding a J Crew ad featuring a five-year-old boy with pink-painted toenails, guess whose toenails were,  indictingly, sporting a Wet ‘n’ Wild shade called Bar-B ).  Based on the feedback I got, it’s pretty clear reasonable people  understand that (A) boys, of any age, wearing pink clothing is not an offense worthy of comment — or an offense, period; and (B) gender performativity and gender aren’t one-to-one correlatives. To say nothing of sexual orientation.
However! What is considered defensibly boundary-defying when applied to boys still inspires pushback from some high-minded, unorthodox parents when applied to girls.  I’m talking about parents, usually of a pedantic ilk, who question the implications of various childhood rules and rituals, and talk their way around the acceptance or rejection of these. (See also: “What we concern ourselves with when we aren’t concerned about where our next meal is coming from”). Yeah, I’m talking about parents like me.
 A lot of these … whatever … parents have no problem saying, “I would never dress my daughter in pink clothes” or deriving pride from their little girl’s pink-repulsion.  And, I admit, I might have done the same. In fact, this issue probably wouldn’t even be a blip on my indignation radar if not for MaryAlice, my two-and-a-half-year-old (in case you missed it in the slide show):

MaryAlice, whose current hair-hue comes courtesy of Manic Panic’s Hot Hot Pink, has a certain appreciation for the color: one that Stuart really doesn’t.  Her mindset hasn’t reached an “I will forsake all  other colors!” plateau. But, when given a choice between a pink object and a non-pink object, it isn’t hard to guess which one she’ll select.

“Why?” doesn’t really matter. We didn’t deluge her with pink from birth or eliminate it from her realm of awareness. In fact, she mostly wore hand-me-downs from Stuart — which, again, meant her wardrobe included pink items but was not exclusively pink.

As a child who has been around other children, most of whom are products of traditionally-inclined  households, since she was eight weeks old, has MaryAlice digested the idea that Girls ♥ Pink? Well, sure, probably. On the other hand, if taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?

I think it’s difficult to divorce emblems from their perceived connotations or historical, cultural, or iconographic roots. And it’s less complicated  to put the kibosh on, essentially, an aesthetic preference than it is to “say what you mean” — to quote the eminently quotable Lewis Carrol.  Just like it is less complicated to forbid branded and cross-branded toys and apparel and food and household products than to have a frank, age-appropriate discussion about the detriment of consumerism and insidiousness of advertising. (Believe me, I’ve been there. In the past month, my four-year-old has exclaimed “Trix are for kids!” and questioned, “What does that Cheetos cheetah [shady and beshaded spokestoad Chester Cheetah] want us to do? Should we eat Cheetos all the time?”). Or to put princess-blinkers on our daughters than to celebrate and cultivate the multifarious characteristics that make them special people. (This is also territory I’ve covered before).

Ah, princesses. Without deviating too far off-course — because this topic probably deserves a post unto itself — I want to briefly bring princesses into the discussion, if only because they, and the alleged damage they cause, are often conflated with the color pink, and vice versa.

Peggy Orenstein has been getting a good amount of press for her latest offering, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the actual book in its entirety, but have seen it excerpted widely. Here is a quote from the afore-linked NPR interview: 

Orenstein says very young children don’t yet understand that your sex is fixed — that you can’t go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy. So little girls may be drawn to pink, sparkly princess gowns as a way of asserting that they’re definitely girls.

But an overemphasis on pink can eventually be harmful, Orenstein says. “Those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they’re allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures, become big gaps.

“When your daughter is sitting there in her room, with her pink princess dress and her pink Scrabble kit … and her pink Magic 8-Ball, it just makes those divisions so much bigger and so much harder to cross.”

I understand why archetypal fairytale princesses make people squeamish. They are demure; delicate; in need of “rescuing”; objectified; valued only for their beauty. Their chief goal is to be desired, and subsequently obtained, by a prince. 

This is not a revelation.

I will point out, though, that (A) the whole trope has been revised significantly (if imperfectly) in many cinematic and literary interpretations of the past several decades; and (B) I don’t think princesses’ appeal, for young children, is even rooted in those classic traits. From observing my own children, who are pretty typical, I’m all-but-certain that they are mesmerized by the pageantry, the sparkle, the ostentatiousness : l’art pour l’art. Pink figures prominently into this schema — and tulle and glitter and cupcake-like embellishments. All of these things are value-neutral in a vacuum.

For example, Stuart and MaryAlice call Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz a “princess.” Does her lack of monarchical lineage contradict this assumption? Or her disinterest in princes/men, her ability to act independently, and her role as a font of guiding wisdom in the story? Of course not! She’s a “princess” because she’s got an absurdly impractical dress that looks like it’s made from cotton candy, a disco-mitre crown, and travels in an incandescent, fuchsia bubble. Just like, in their minds, I’d be a doctor if I donned a white lab coat and wore a stethoscope. (Thankfully, few people over the age of eight or so could be similarly fooled).

Here’s the thing I don’t get: why the princesses — and pink — are being singled out, as supposedly hyper-gendered signifiers, for lambasting. Why should girls be steered toward so-called “crossover” interests (more on that in a bit), and boys, by and large, left to their paradigm?

To try to respond to my own confusion from Orenstein’s perspective: she  may be castigating them because she’s built a career on writing about social challenges foisted upon girls. Plus, she has a little girl. It’s an immediate concern for her.

Nonetheless, some of her quotes and conclusions give me pause:

 I wanted [my daughter] to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely — that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation. For a while, it looked as if I were succeeding. On her first day of preschool, at age two, she wore her favorite outfit — her “engineers” (a pair of pin-striped overalls) — and proudly toted her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox … My daughter had transcended typecasting.

Then, of course,  disappointment sets in when, under the influence of her Princess Svengali classmates, Orenstein’s daughter takes up the pink-loving torch:

As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. … [F]or her third birthday [she] begged for a ‘real princess dress’ with matching plastic high heels.

Shame. Failure. Bad feminist mommy.

So many of these feelings that one needs to write an entire book to expiate them? That’s a bit of a reach on my part.

It isn’t too farfetched to say that Orenstein  is not alone — not by a longshot —  in stamping implicitly or explicitly boy-aligned toys, colors, interests, even behaviors and emotions, with gold-star status, and declaring them honorarily “gender neutral,” while taking their girl-aligned counterparts to task. 

As  the proverbial “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” are given nods of approval from every direction, boys are still the clear default target demographic, and girls a mere afterthought. Orenstein herself bemoans Thomas the Tank Engine’s tokenistic treatment of female characters:

I complained to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the Learning Curve company, which pictured only boys on its Thomas packaging and had made Lady, its shiny mauve girl engine, smaller than the rest. (The other females among Sodor’s rolling stock were passenger cars — passenger cars … ).

Dressing in pinstriped overalls to emulate a conductor on Thomas  might be “transcend[ing] the stereotype”; but is it a victory for girls? And, critically, is it better than an infrastructure  that deliberately places girls’ existence at its center? After all, even in the most abhorrent, outmoded fairy tales in which princely acceptance is regarded as the ultimate goal, and physical beauty is viewed as paramount, those princes are just kind of set-dressing, plot devices. Heck, they usually don’t even have memorable names!

So, regardless of intention, this reactionary favoring of “boy stuff”  makes boys the litmus test. Again. Still.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us — especially women — continue to unwittingly devalue, and even demonize, the traditionally “feminine” because we are trying to shield the young girls in our lives from the imperatives that we, ourselves, may have struggled with. We wanted a Transformer and got a Barbie instead. Science and Math were seen as masculine subjects in school, so we were encouraged to make our mark in English and Art. We babysat, while our brothers had paper routes. There was internal  dissonance  if we followed the mandates to a T and  external tut-tutting if we didn’t.

This, I absolutely agree, is unhealthy for girls, and unhealthy for boys.

But not because newspaper-hurling is a worthier pursuit than babysitting. Or because excelling at English or Art has no merit. And neither Barbie nor Transformers are the ideal role models for children of any sex or gender. (Can I note, though,  that Barbie and the Magic of PegasusBarbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia and Barbie of Swan Lake meet Bechdel/Wallace standards? Anything from the Transformers franchise of films: uh-uh).  

 The way to counteract gendered pigeonholing is not to give a figurative cookie to girls who say their favorite color is blue and roll our eyes at the “false consciousness” of girls who say their favorite color is pink. As I said earlier, challenging though it may be, we need to divest these empty symbols — pink, princesses, frippery — of their connotative power. It’s adults who enthroned them, and adults who need to topple the regime. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tastemakers don’t care about this in the least … or , even more discouragingly, are so convinced of the importance of upholding gender codification that a kindergarten-aged boy wearing pink nail polish makes international news.

It does, then, need to be an individual effort. If your daughter is offered a pink balloon without being asked what color she would prefer — something that offended Orenstein — you ask her what color she would like, thereby giving her permission to state her selection with impunity. Shopping with your child for his or her friend’s birthday gift? Don’t simply stick to the “boy aisle” or “girl aisle” as a matter of course. And, importantly, when confronted with a transparently objectionable message, point it out for what it is and tell your child why it bothers you.

Arguably the hardest part of all this is avoiding the temptation to get sucked into an “either/or” fallacy. You don’t “win,” as a parent,  if your daughter loves construction machinery and karate, and “lose” if she favors butterflies and cheerleading. There is an undeniable desire, especially among those of us whose tastes run in a countercultural vein, to have kids with an enviable coolness quotient.  But, in the end, their lives are their own, and their likes and dislikes will probably follow a very circuitous path before cementing. Just like ours did.

Your daughter can still win, though: provided she knows you support her ability to make choices, and demonstrate this by giving her the latitude to do so. Even if she is wearing a tutu, brandishing a fairy wand, and twirling, twirling …


Filed under Amanda

Dear MaryAlice, You Were a Surprise.

The Feminist Breeder, who just gave birth to her own daughter this morning (congratulations, Gina!), recently launched a “Letter to My Daughter” guest post series. It ran on her blog from March through April.

I intended to respond to TFB’s call for submissions with my own piece a couple months ago, but couldn’t synthesize my thoughts quickly enough to keep up with the horde. So, assuming there isn’t anything proprietary about the concept, I’m offering up my “letter” here, instead.

– Amanda



There were congratulations. But, mostly, I remember stunned silences, cautious questions testing the water: “How do you feel about … this?”

All their unchecked enthusiasm had been spent on your brother, who was born a little more than a year before we learned that you – or some incipient, translucent-skinned version of you – existed.

Stuart’s arrival narrative seemed to have been plucked from the Middle-American Domesticity Playbook. The main players, then, were your father and me:  a two-years-married couple living in a cozy, shabby, one-bedroom apartment, wishing for a baby. And when we had one, people were happy for us. We were happy for us.

We could still live, cozily and shabbily, in the one-bedroom apartment with your brother; it was still a “romantic” kind of hand-to-mouth existence. But when we bought an abandoned house on the cheap and spent our evenings and weekends renovating, baby chewing his fist on a yoga mat while we made the neglected lath-and-plaster walls persimmon and cocoa and robin’s egg blue – well, people were even happier for us. We were “growing the nest,” “building sweat equity.”  Everything was delicately balanced. But we were doing it the Right Way, the careful, considered way that didn’t raise eyebrows or make waves.  A small, young family, teeming with optimism and determination, snug and insular like the Three Bears from a fairytale. 

That would make you Goldilocks, I guess. You ate the porridge. You upended the chairs. You rumpled the covers on the family bed.

Except, you weren’t, and you didn’t.

I took a positive pregnancy test on Valentine’s Day, 2008, after, in the depths of winter, I started feeling familiarly nauseous.

“Do you think you could be …?” your father laughed, nervously.

It was a funny thought. Gallows humor, I remarked, wryly, in retrospect. I hadn’t had a period in nearly two years, and, remembering how we had tried and tried for months to conceive your brother, charting temperatures, trying to divine the subtlest signs and symptoms — pregnancy struck me as the least likely explanation for my sudden food aversions, my sensitivity to certain smells, and my bone-deep exhaustion.

Yet there, on the test, were two Valentine-pink lines.

As we started sharing the news, some weeks later, we responded to those stunned silences and cautious questions with, “It was a ‘surprise’!”

That was our diplomatic slant, side-stepping the awkward details. “Surprise,” we thought, conjured up birthday parties and Easter eggs and errant five-dollar bills found in the lint trap. Good things.

Still, we heard a lot of replies cautioning, “Don’t ever tell the baby that.”

They meant we shouldn’t tell you that you were unplanned, and, by extension, “an accident.” Or, even worse, “a mistake.”

The thought makes me heart-hurt.

You see, even though I’m not a fatalist — far from it — I believe that you were meant for our family, that, in the end, we needed you. I, especially, needed you.

Stuart was first, was my only point of reference for having a child. So comparisons are hard to avoid. Please don’t mistake that for meaning he is the gold standard, though. You are each other’s complements and foils, and were since the day you came home (your brother, unable to pronounce your name, simply calling you “Bébé” with an inscrutable French lilt).  

And do you want to know a secret? I enjoyed your babyhood more. Because I was more comfortable the second go-‘round, sure. But also because, while Stuart wrested himself away from kisses and howled inconsolably for hours and ineffectually pummeled the air with his angry little fists, you were a serene-faced observer: my little piece of luggage. I guiltily sent Stuart to daycare most weekdays while I was on maternity leave from work, and you and I would make a nest of pillows on the couch. You nursed and burrowed into my body, and I tucked you under my chin and we both slept the sweetest sleep.

That is one way you helped me. You gave me some absolution for the times I had cried along with Stuart; for burning out the motor on a blow dryer when its steady, white noise roar was all that would calm him; even for blearily letting him tumble off of the nursing pillow after dragging myself from bed for the twentieth feeding of that interminable stretch of brightening and darkening hours that everyone else flippantly called “a day.” (We were both shocked into alertness. And, again, we cried, together). You showed me that I wasn’t the source of this, that I wasn’t to blame for being anxious or unproven.

A doctor on his rounds when I was discharging from the hospital after Stuart was born told me, in a failed attempt to reassure, “Not everyone is a natural mother.” At the time, I thought that my ineptness was so transparent; I was so unmistakably a lost cause.

You showed me that what the doctor should have said is, “No one is a natural mother.” Maybe some play the part more convincingly: more fluidly, with fewer false starts. “Nature” – inherency – neglects the two-sidedness, the give and take of burgeoning relationships, though. The parent has the advantage in terms of years logged on Earth; the baby is putty-like, primal.  But, nonetheless, both have to stumble into the dance, negotiating the rhythms of each other’s personality. Stuart and I flailed and staggered for weeks, months before we reached that accord. The moment you and I locked eyes, it seemed were gracefully in step.

Now? You are two-and-a-half and a firecracker. You take off running, head down, hurtling forward and not stopping for anything. You pretend our cats are babies that you are defending from werewolves on the prowl. (You extend your arm and mime “shooting” them. “Do you have a wand?” I ask. “No,” you reply, “A gun.”). Combing is not on your agenda, so we keep your hair short and disheveled. You love unsentimental Children in Trouble movies; Spirited Away and Coraline are your favorites. The parents are ineffectual and the girls are impudent and brave. I probe your preference for deeper meaning – because that’s what I do.

 I want to keep you this way: so fully yourself, and unafraid. You might grow your hair long, and wash the slick of raspberry jam from your chin, and start thinking that spelt cereal and black coffee is a more judicious breakfast choice than “chocolate waffles and marshmallows.” Those things don’t matter. It’s that real kernel of you-ness I want to preserve: the one so easily stifled in girls.

And, yes, your being a girl is the fulcrum, here.  For years, I have read about the fragility of girls’ identities – or, to reframe, the unrelenting assault our society wages on them. Studies and anecdota, all commenting, grimly, on the waxing and forced waning of girls’ sense of autonomy.  Not to mention that I was a little girl once, too. It only seems real and menacing now that I have a coltish, feisty girlchild of my own, though: threatened, yet blissfully unaware.

It is, I think, is your greatest gift to me. Just your existence has made me un-lazy about redressing all of this mess – doing it, of course, by making sure you know how extraordinary you are … but also by striving to model self-acceptance. That isn’t something that comes easily for me at all. Nonetheless, being your mother is making me realize that if I value the individual beauty of other women and girls, if I want their intellect and ideas to be treated with deference, if I believe their passions are worthy of being pursued, if I know that their emotions are legitimate, I need to believe the same standard applies to me, too. Whether I like it or not, I am your Adult Woman Archetype. Every off-handed swipe at my own competence and worth has the potential to register as a hairline crack in your sense of self. So, simply, I am learning to be kinder to myself: for you and because of you.

That is why I am going to flout those warnings and say it, plainly. MaryAlice, you were a surprise.

You were a surprise better than a birthday party or Easter egg or five-dollar bill.  You upset complacent balances that needed upsetting; but you also threaded your confidence around the weaker stalks of my own and made us both more resilient.

Keep the surprises coming.


Filed under Amanda

Full-time, Part-time: Cloth Mother, Wire Mother

These orphaned hedgehogs adopted a scrub brush as their surrogate "mother." In some people's opinion, the scrub brush is still a superior mother to YOU.

The Feminist Breeder had a great post a few days ago about the problematic recent trend of women, previously stamped with the “stay-at-home mom” label, claiming the designation of “full-time mom” instead.

The phrase isn’t fractious in and of itself; people can call themselves waffle irons for all I care. Hackles get raised, though, when the implied corollary is “part-time mom.”

TFB is quick to point out, both in the body of the post and in response to reader comments, that construing parenthood within an economic model is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, anyway. We can take equal issue with the term “working mom,” as it insinuates that caring for children and maintaining a household is not “work.” (To this end, however, I have seen greater movement toward the WOHM [work-outside-the-home mom] designation, which seems fair enough). The main thrust of TFB’s argument is that, whether one works outside the home for compensation, or within the domestic sphere without compensation, one is always a full-time mom. The characteristics that make a person a mother can’t be quantified in terms of number of diapers changed, number of meals prepared, or even hours of “face time.” Being a mom is, in fact, such a nebulous, highly individuated quality that applying a universal definition is kind of pointless.

Unless you’re down with the Cult of True Womanhood.

And, hey! It turns out some people still are! Check out this comment in response to the TFB post:

I have used the FT/PT distinction in the past, but in a real way I think. For me, the PT mom isn’t the mom who goes to work. It’s the one that doesn’t nurse cause she wants her breasts perfect, doesn’t even try for the natural, vaginal birth because she wants to stay tight, who dumps the kid in daycare so she can have the day to herself even when she’s not at work, and who doesn’t go get her kid out of daycare/school when they’re sick, but leaves them there to get everyone else’s kids sick. It’s those mom’s who don’t seem in it or to care really that get me. In my world those few mom’s that do earn the PT title are the working mom’s also, but certainly not all of them.

First: Plural nouns do not require the use of apostrophes.

(Now that I have that punctuation smackdown out of the way …)

Second: I’m really excited that she included the clarification  “in my world,” because this is fabulous anecdotal evidence supporting the possibility of interdimensional  and/or interplanetary travel. You heard it here first, arbiters of scientific fact!

In my world, I’m pretty sure the Part-time Moms, as defined above, don’t exist.

This is, in some respects, part and parcel to the fresh versus frozen blueberry debacle that Jen wrote about a couple of months back. What’s the old adage?   “You can’t boost yourself up by bringing others down”?

Let’s be honest, though: it can make you feel good about yourself temporarily — especially if you’re really needing to internally justify some choice that is teetering on the razor’s edge of your personal parental standards. “Yes, I let my child eat three packages of fruit snacks for breakfast … but at least they were Annie’s Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks. Have you read the label on  [Brand X] fruit snacks? The parents who let their kids eat those might as well just pour high fructose corn syrup down their gullets!”

You feel all superior for a moment. And the moment passes. And you (by “you,” I mean “me”) allow some other ridiculous, kid-related ephemera to gnaw at your conscience.

With her thumbnail sketch of a Part-time Mom, the commenter is really going for the jugular. Birth choices. Breastfeeding. Daycare “dumping.” I think it’s safe to say that HFCS-laden fruit snacks aren’t weighted with the same cultural baggage.

“But, wait!” you shout, “I know someone who works with someone whose sister-in-law is that exact tight-vagina-ed, perky-breasted, blithely baby-chucking succubus that she described!” Or maybe it’s one of those Real Housewives of Perdition. Whoever this Part-time Mom  happens to be, chances are it’s probably not someone to whom you are very close, or who you find very sympathetic in general; and vilifying their mothering choices figures into the Supreme  Matrix of Identifying More Reasons Why They Are Horrible. Am I right? Yes?

Because, if the person making these choices was a friend, a loved one, a person whose every move and affectation we don’t critically examine with a jaundiced eye, we are likely to process — to even speculate about — their decisions with a lot more gentleness. Gentleness that might look a little something like this:

  • Elected to have a medically unnecessary cesarean birth to avoid sexual dysfunction.  Maybe she knows someone who experienced urinary incontinence or vaginal prolapse, and associated that with their vaginal birth. Maybe her OB-GYN has told her that she was risking urinary incontinence or vaginal prolapse if she attempted a vaginal birth. Maybe “big babies run in the family,” and no one bothered to dispel the myth that this automatically translates to more pain, tearing and potential for longterm damage. Maybe she wasn’t aware of the physiological aspects of vaginal delivery and postpartum recovery of the structures involved.  Maybe she was a survivor of sexual violence and did not want to risk the birth of her child triggering traumatic memories. Maybe her partner made insensitive remarks about not being able to think about her romantically after seeing a baby come out of there. Maybe cesaerean births have  been so normalized by the medical establishment in the United States that she didn’t consider all the ramifications of an elective surgical birth; it wasn’t a hard sell; “keeping tight” seemed just as good a reason as any.
  •   Didn’t even try to breastfeed because she wants perfect breasts.  Maybe her medical providers were not supportive of breastfeeding, and did not inform her that new research suggests breastfeeding does not contribute to breast ptosis (although, sadly, pregnancy itself does!). Maybe, even if she was aware of this study, the entrenched lore says otherwise — and dominant beauty standards prop up (no pun intended!) “perkiness” as an ideal. Maybe her partner convinced her that she would not be desirable if breasts were associated with baby-feeding.
  • Dumps her kids in daycare, even when they’re sick (or questionably sick), even when she HAS THE DAY OFF!  Maybe …

Oh, hell. Let’s make this personal. That particular facet of the Part-time Mom mythos is me. My kids are in daycare because I work (outside the home, for compensation. Yes). I work, among other, more esoteric reasons, because I have two post-secondary degrees, greater earning potential than my (brilliant, capable, undervalued-by-whoever-determines-salary-standards) spouse, and carry the family’s benefits. I place enormous value on the quality of care providers we have engaged, but I am faced with certain financial and location-related limitations. I miss my children and worry about them when I am at work, but not to the point that I cannot fulfill my basic, job-related obligations and call into question my ability to work.

And speaking of: when you (again, read: “I”) have two children under age five, both of whom are being monitored for chronic health concerns of varying degrees of severity and are still susceptible to all the crud that gets passed from grubby hands to mucous membranes and back again, it is more alluring than the One Ring to just stick them in a clean diaper, hurry them out the door and hope that that 3:30 AM bout of diarrhea was their last. Or give them a dose of infant’s Motrin and a popsicle and hope the fever goes down. Or run the humidifier all night, squirt some saline mist in both nostrils and hope the torrent of nose-gunk dries up. Because let’s just say the theoretical boss? While generally very understanding and accommodating and willing to try to frame your experiences in child-rearing in the same terms she uses for wrangling her three dogs … sometimes she seems a little skeptical that a small humanling can really be sick so often.

Finally,  we’ve come to the bit about leaving children in daycare when the mom doesn’t have to be at work.  Like one of those obscure-ish holidays (“Oh — it’s Presidents Day?” [scratches head]) when daycare is still open. I admit that this one has given me some pause in the past. If you love your kids so much and are always lamenting how little time you get to spend with them, why don’t you take advantage of an opportunity to do just that?

First, the quick, brush-off: “Because most childcare providers charge for days when the child doesn’t attend, anyway, so I’d be ‘losing’ money.”

Then, the slightly more considered response: “Because an odd handful of days each year isn’t going to make enough of a difference in my or my children’s perception about the amount of time we spend together.”

And, at last, the truth comes out: “Because I am a big introvert and need to be alone with my thoughts (someplace other than my car) every once in a great while.” (When this time alone with my thoughts does happen to fall on Presidents Day, I promise I’m contemplating the rich history of our nation’s executive office from sun-up to sun-down, though).

So. My radical idea is this: treat every mother — even the Part-time Mom, doing everything “wrong,” who doesn’t “seem in it or to care really” — with the same gentleness, the same regard as we would a friend or a loved one. Imagine that flat caricature into three-dimensionality. Do not falsely conflate child abuse and neglect with straying from (sometimes equivocal, and definitely culturally relative) best parenting practices.

All of the knowledge we have, as parents, and all our strongest convictions, weren’t acquired in a vacuum. I know that proponents of some parenting styles like to promote their approach with claims about biological essentialism. But, uh, I don’t think that implying that a person is fundamentally, like, contravening nature is going to win a lot of converts. Instead, we’ve got to knock off the “smirking from on high” act and spread the wealth a little bit.

How does one do that? Well, like this:

  1. Jen has had a positive experience with cloth diapering.
  2. Jen shares her positive experience with cloth diapering.
  3. “But isn’t it messy/stinky/costly/time-consuming?” ask the people who have never known a world without disposable diapers, or who ruefully recall trying to sun-bleach pre-folds on the clothesline in mid-November, thirty-some years ago (that would be my mother-in-law).
  4. “Why no!” explains Jen, “And here’s why … . Oh, and here are some other advantages to cloth diapering, too …”

The clincher:

*Jen does not demonize them when they turn around and buy an economy-sized box of Pampers, in spite of her persuasive argument.

She knows that they did not invent disposable diapers and saturate the market with them. She knows that they did not pour millions of dollars into touting the convenience of disposables, and downplaying the post-consumer impact. She knows that they did not set the price of disposable diapers, so that an $8 weekly expenditure seems less costly than a $200 start-up investment in cloth.

And she also knows that, by confidently speaking to her beliefs, she has planted a seed. While her advocacy may not tip one person’s opinion in her direction, it might do just that for another. This is how the snowball starts rolling.

Share away, then. Talk frankly about those most taboo, most feared aspects of vaginal delivery and breastfeeding with expectant moms who trust and value your opinion. Problem-solve by suggesting feasible ways in which they can strike a happier (for them) balance between work and family life.

And, simultaneously, start attacking the right monsters. Hint: they aren’t the “Part-time Moms”.

Question the widely accepted employment practices that serve as barriers between parents and children trying to form mutually healthy relationships. Think about whether you would be willing to brace yourself against whatever fall-out arose from adopting Canadian-style maternity leave benefits as a national standard (including protests about funding sources and the perceived legitimacy of mothers “taking a year off”). Expose the artificiality, and misogyny,  of aesthetic “ideals” that commodify and co-opt women’s bodies and that teach us to always and only value form over function.

If we truly care about effectuating longterm change, if our goal is truly improving the quality of life of mamas and children, this is how we slowly inch our way there.

If we only want to “cast stones” at those whose parenting acumen isn’t up-to-snuff, though … we’d better be prepared to hunker down in a hermetically sealed, concrete bunker (certainly not a proverbial glass house!) for the rest of our parenting days. And take lots of Valium.

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