• Two stories caught my eye this morning, both relating to families.  In oneBoston Globe columnist Shirley Leung champions the rights of mothers to return to work the week they give birth.  In the other in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Parkinson in Istanbul and David George-Cosh in Toronto analyze the ways Nilufer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, a drowned, 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy, has gone viral.

    What’s the link between the two pieces?  “We” still haven’t figured out what our responsibilities are to all families: men, women, and children around the world.

    As for Leung’s piece, when will privileged women who work in highly-paid jobs re-frame their choices so that they lobby for the rights of all parents — men, women, rich, poor?  I get that women are judged unfairly when they choose to “go back to work” soon after giving birth, while the decisions and behaviors of their privileged male counterparts receive nary an eyebrow raise. The different standards and treatments deserve scrutiny.  But.  The bigger issue is that they have choices. They have jobs to return to, they can choose when they want to return to work, and, most probably, they can even decide IF they want to return to work.  What doesn’t get said?  They can afford the best possible child care that enables them to leave their infants behind.  To write a piece that does not mention the role privilege plays in women’s choices is to miss the bigger picture…

    …of the picture.  Nilufer Demir — a woman — captured what may turn out to be the single most compelling image of the Syrian refugee crisis: a toddler, face-down on the beach, drowned in his family’s attempt to find safety in the EU.  Several important points, here:

    Until we sidestep nationalism and bring our attention to crises around the world affecting families and young children, we aren’t doing justice to the principles of feminism.

    The photographer Demir answered questions about the photos she took of dead refugees washing up on the beach.  She was asked “as a woman,” how she felt seeing the dead toddler on the beach.  “As a woman?”  Why would anyone assume that a woman’s grief would be any different from a man’s when seeing dead children washing in with the tide?

    Last: why are “we” moved to act when confronted with the image of what “we” consider the most innocent victim, a child?  All refugees are innocent victims.  What has any of these men, women, or children done to deserve the chaos inflicted on them by people who put power, -isms, and money ahead of the wellbeing of families?

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  • A long-time, much loved friend posted a question months ago, which I paraphrase: what do you think about parents who have the resources not to work outside the home and who know, from the get-go, that they will seek full-time employment because they want it?

    My answer today is prompted by a piece I read on Politico.com this morning.  Writer Michelle Cottle criticizes Michelle Obama for  “Leaning Out.” Cottle complains that Obama has wasted her Ivy League education and career as a high-powered lawyer and that when, this week, Obama weighed in on an education system that leaves behind impoverished kids of color — especially impoverished girls — it was too little, too late.  Cottle also criticizes the First Lady for choosing a public role that has emphasized traditionally “feminine” issues such as healthy eating and exercise.  I am sympathetic to the complaint that Obama might have focused on less traditionally feminine topics, but I draw the line at the following: “Turns out,” Cottle writes, “she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.”

    With privilege comes personal choice.  People with relatively large amounts of money and power, whether they are men or women, have options that at this point aren’t open to everyone.  They get to choose the work/life balance they wish, and they are often — but not always — able to move into increasingly interesting public work as their children mature.  This ability to lean in and out, in and out, over the course of a long life is precisely, as The New York Times reported, what many women want.  Which way they lean?  Doesn’t have much to do with whether they are “good” parents.

    Michelle Obama, the most privileged woman in America, has had a choice.  As a feminist, I respect her choice to give her daughters the foundation and protection they need growing up in the Klieg-light-glare of the presidency.  I’d have respected her had she chosen to allocate her time and attention differently — to “work outside the home” or to take on something other than vegetables and exercise from her spot in the East Wing.  But I would not have respected her had she ignored the implications for her daughters of her family’s choice to inhabit the White House for eight years and work in politics at the highest level.

    Here’s the thing about having kids: most of them don’t raise themselves.  Some children are relatively easy and uncomplicated.  Others need extra medical and emotional support.  All need attention.

    The relatively wealthy are able to pay others to attend if they don’t choose to have the time to do it, themselves.  They can enroll kids in good day care, pay private school tuition or buy homes in districts where schools have longer hours.  They are also able to make their mortgage or rent payments if one parent chooses not to work or to work part-time.  That the choice should appear to rest solely on the shoulders of women is wrong.  That the choice isn’t available to all parents, all women, is just plain unfair.  Rather than criticizing Michelle Obama — or any other mother, for that matter — for her personal choices regarding work, get out your bullhorn to increase access to the options currently only available to those of relative privilege so that all parents are able to give their children the attention they need.

    This past June, I finished my work days by stopping at a pond for a swim at around 6:00.  One evening, I noticed two different moms with their kids.  Mom # 1 sat on the dock.  She caught the rays off the water and periodically yelled at her children.  Mom # 2 was in the water.  She was talking with her kids, encouraging their diving and swimming, laughing with them.  I have no idea what these moms were doing all day — whether they were at work, whether they had nannies, whether they were on vacation.  The one I respected and admired from afar leaned in.  In her spare time, she leaned in to her children.

    And so, dear friend who I have known since our children were two, you have chosen to work full-time outside the home from the beginning.  You have had an excellent mate.  You’ve had the support of a warm, on-the-scene grandparent.  You had access to excellent day care and child care.  Your child was relatively easy to raise.  And: in the almost 20 years I have known you, there has never been a time when you have not taken every opportunity to lean in and get “in the water” with your kid.  I say: hats off to you!

     

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  • I can’t improve on Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times yesterday, Pom-Pom Girl for Feminism, in which she takes down Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Lean In will hit the shelves and its website will go live March 11, 2013. Sandberg wants women to think positively about moving up through corporate America’s glass ceiling.  She’s pushing to get women meeting monthly in small groups, where we will empower one another “to explore topics critical to [our] success, from negotiating effectively to understanding [our] strengths.”  Dowd complains that the wildly successful Silicon Valley exec “doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign.”  Dowd, herself, is inclined to “lean out.”

    But me, I’m in favor of leaning in.  Closer.

    I wholeheartedly endorse Sandberg’s impulse to get women in small groups to recreate a ’70s-style consciousness raising vibe.  The issue — now and in the 1970s — is who belongs in the group.  The single biggest problem with American women’s attempts to organize for rights over time, from the 1840s to the present, is its inability and/or unwillingness to consider class and race.  Our contemporary women’s movement does not need another wealthy, articulate white woman encouraging increased dialogue among similarly entitled peers. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Betty Friedan…not to take away from the remarkable achievements of these foremothers, but we’ve got to reconfigure our frustrations and rage so that we are angry on behalf of all women, not just ourselves.

    None of us has time to rely on Trickle Down — not in our economic policies, and not in our feminism. Sure, women at the top and women in business generally need better strategies to negotiate for higher salaries and better promotions. But I don’t for a minute believe that by earning these bigger paychecks and securing higher-powered jobs, better-off women will be paving the way for the poorest, most disenfranchised women in the country. They’ll be paving the way for themselves.

    If any of us needs a reminder of what women need, here are two, separate examples reported recently:

    The Last Clinic, a powerful, short documentary about the one remaining clinic in Mississippi providing abortions

    and

    Episodes 487 and 488 of This American Life, focusing on gun violence in Chicago’s predominantly African American Harper High School.

    We need to pull together, to lean in closer, so that we are working to ensure that all women have what the richest of us have: affordable health care, day care, sensible parental leave policies, the choice to use affordable birth control, access to nutritious foods, safe neighborhoods, and freedom from abuse, violence, and fear. We need to unify as a group so that we achieve these goals. Then, and only then, will the tide rise high enough to lift all boats.

    So, yeah, create a software platform that allows social media connections and the formation of  consciousness raising groups. Write an algorithm that peoples these groups with members who aren’t like each other in at least three or four profound ways.  Set up guidelines to help us tell our stories to each other. We need to listen deeply. And then? We need to get busy on behalf of each and every one of us.

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  • In case you missed these beautiful photos, here’s a link to images of American Olympians with children. They are all photos of women.

    Of course, I wondered how many Olympic men are dads…and why that’s completely un-newsworthy. The underlying assumption is that men, whether or not they have fathered children, are always free to pursue excellence. Women, on the other hand, spend their energy putting their children first. That they have time to become the very best at anything astonishes.

    I actually don’t think that the goal ought to be to eliminate the surprise in being able to raise kids and reach for the stars. A better goal would be to spread the astonishment around. Some day, we’ll lift our collective eyebrows when anyone — male or female — raising young children is able to go for the gold.

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  • For my 49th birthday last year, Mark rented me a cello. He also gave me a music stand and a beginner’s book. I drew the bow inexpertly across the strings and made a commitment to this hour-glass shaped beauty. Sound waves rumbled up my arms.

    The summer passed before I managed to find a teacher and schedule lessons. Everything I’d been doing to coax sound out of my instrument was wrong. I’d been sitting wrong, holding the bow wrong. Even the size of the instrument was wrong. I rented a different-sized cello. And I practiced. Twenty minutes a day.

    The more correctly I placed my fingers on the cello’s neck and the more expertly I employed my pencil grip on the bow, the more my elbows and wrists ached. The fingers in my left hand went numb. Joints in my right hand stiffened and swelled in protest.

    Though I was in pain, I continued to practice. I learned ecumenical plucking: “Jingle Bells” and “The Dreidel Song.” Kids home on a visit in October asked for a concert, and I obliged. “Let’s hear that again,” they teased.

    My sense of loss around the absence of Sam’s power drumming diminished. I was no longer lingering in the hall, recalling Max’s increasingly indifferent, irregular sessions on trumpet. My cello and I, we were making new music memories to fill the Big Empty.

    A friend asked me how things were going with the cello. I filled her in, including details of numb fingers and joint ache. Why, she wanted to know, was I doing something that gave me pain?

    “I just need to practice harder,” I told her.

    “Will you listen to yourself?” she asked.

    I knocked off for a few weeks. Sensation returned to the fingers in my left hand. My wrists ached less. The bow lay where I’d left it, its strings slack but still coated in powdery rosin. And I thought.

    Or maybe I felt.

    I wanted to fill my heart and head with vibrant sound. I wanted to try something completely new. I didn’t want any more pain than I was already experiencing.

    So, this past January, I joined a choir. Every Wednesday, I retrace steps I took with my children to our neighborhood public elementary school. I climb the steps to the third-floor music room and slide into a stiff, plastic chair, squeezing in among the altos. The only pain I experience comes from climbing the stairs. That and the times I occasionally pinch my fingers in the metal clasps of the three-ring binder that holds my sheet music. Our brilliant, tart-tongued director warms us up. I take a deep breath and open my mouth. Sound waves rumble through my chest and out of my head. Our improbably named, almost 90-year-old accompaniest — Flossie — plays the first few bars of Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” and we’re off.

    I’m not good, but I’m getting better. I have trouble tracking the line, so I’ve highlighted the music staff in yellow. My counting is often off, so I’ve written in the beats, noticing time signatures, rests, and odd rhythms. I don’t practice, I won’t be in town for the year-end concert, so there’s no public payoff. But I am fully present each week. I join my voice with the rest of the choir and experience the joy of making music.

    I need to return the cello to the rental company, since the year-long contract is almost up. In a month, I will no longer punch “49” into the touch screen on the exercise machine I use at the gym. Fifty. And what have I learned in the first year of empty nesting, the last year of my forties?

    To age gracefully has little to do with skin care, hair color, sagging neck, or even productivity. The trick, I think, is to hold onto the dreams that matter most and to be creative and flexible in making them come true.

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  • Last night, I listened to “Glory (Feat. Blue Ivy Carter),” rapper Jay-Z’s tribute to the birth January 7 of his daughter.  And then I listened again.  I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head: “My greatest creation was you.”

    Many musical papas have written love songs to their newborns, with ABC News’s Bill Weir noting that fatherhood is “the ultimate softening agent.”   Dads who’ve publicly crooned to their kids include John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, George Strait, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Alan Sparhawk, Loudon Wainwright, and David Byrne (in no particular order).

    All of these songwriters — with the exception of Jay-Z — focus on the baby as they marvel at the newly arrived.  But not “HOV” — Jehovah, God’s gift to rap — as he refers to himself.  Who is this new, sweetly wailing creature? “A younger, smarter, faster me,” Jay-Z exults.  Not even a younger, smarter, faster…Beyoncé?  The rapper acknowledges his daughter’s mother, diva Beyoncé Knowles, who burst onto the pop music scene as lead singer for the girl group Destiny’s Child: “You’re a child of destiny / You’re the child of my destiny / You’re my child with the child from Destiny’s Child / That’s a hell of a recipe.”

    “Glory” shines a light on two classic parenting mistakes. Never assume that your child will be a better version of you.  Don’t think that there’s a special recipe to produce a great “creation.” Little Blue Ivy might just turn out to be tone deaf, hate music, and have two left feet.

    When I think about the (initially) female progeny of power performing duos — Carrie Fischer, Jane Fonda, or Chaz Bono, say — I don’t think happy.  Narcissistic parents have trouble grasping that the “glory” of giving birth to a child comes from the “giving” part.  Maybe Beyoncé will have enough good sense and girl power to tell her husband, a man who publicly crowed that he “got the hottest chick in the game wearin’ my chain,” a man who declared himself, “not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” that in twenty years’ time, the “feat” in the “glory” of having children is in giving them some of the same freedoms we’ve given ourselves.

    Or maybe he’ll listen to himself. “This is the life that I chose,” Jay-Z rapped in “december 4th,” a hit song about his own birthday from The Black Album, “rather than the life that chose me.”

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  • “Cuba-to-Florida Quest Defeats Swimmer at 61,” the headline reads in today’s New York Times. Diana Nyad, famed marathon swimmer, tried to make her way from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage in one go.  Her shoulder cramped.  She kept swimming. She had an unexpected bout of asthma.  She kept swimming. She began vomiting uncontrollably.  She stopped swimming. Her handlers pulled her from the water, and that was that.

    I want to be supportive of pretty much anything anyone does to challenge themselves, but this venture struck me as kinda dumb. But, then, I don’t get mountain climbing, either. So what if you can swim from Cuba to Florida? Or climb K2? Seems like a huge waste of money, plus it’s really dangerous. And you could leave people who love you feeling awful forever if something bad were to happen. Like if you were to die.

    In addition to my usual “hunh,” I didn’t respect Nyad’s motives.  She told reporters she was feeling bad about getting old. Or older. Whatever. She announced that “60 is the new 40” and that she wanted to do something that would prove she was in great shape physically and in better shape mentally than ever. “People my age must try to live vital, energetic lives,” she said. “We’re still young. We’re not our mothers’ generation at 60.” And this: “I’m standing here at the prime of my life; I think this is the prime, when one reaches this age.” I rather lost patience when Nyad counseled to “[b]e your best self.” Didn’t Oprah retire, already?

    In yesterday’s newspaper I read about 70+ year olds clamoring for elective plastic surgery. I don’t want anyone discriminating against my saggy old self. But, really, when do I get to let go a little? When can my “best self” admit that it’s not in its prime any more, that it can’t do what it did at 20? When can my “best self” have a bad knee and crow’s feet?

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  • Making my bed, Wellfleet, Mother’s Day 2011, I tucked hospital corners into white cotton sheets — just as my mother taught me.  I folded an ancient Hudson’s Bay four-point blanket in half, smoothing it to rest between sheets and duvet, to keep me warm on my side of the bed.  I first slept under that blanket in 1986 in a bed my mother-in-law made in Taos, New Mexico.  It came to me, here in Massachusetts, when my father-in-law sold the house that held that bed.  I fluffed the duvet in its clean cover this morning, grabbing two corners, following my sister-in-law Katherine’s instructions.  I arranged pillows in their soap-smelling cases, wondering who next would rest here — my husband? I? guests?

    To all the mothers who have taught me to make beds, meals, homes for myself and my family: a wish that wherever you are, you can feel my gratitude.

    To all the young mothers who make beds: a wish that there will be a time — it’s not here, not yet — when you get to make your own bed and sleep in it, without interruption.

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  • Rebecca from the visa service called with an update. She wanted to let me know that by listing myself as a “writer” on my application form, I was putting myself in a category that would require five to seven weeks of scrutiny. “The consulate will read everything you’ve ever published. They’ll want to know what you might be writing about the country.” I protested that I also put down that I’m unemployed. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’ll consider you part of the news media.”

    I let out a deep sigh. I’d need the visa in five — not seven — weeks to make the flight. I didn’t want to risk a delay. I didn’t want to lie, either. But the truth of my professional identity is layered and multiple. Any number of labels fit. The squirrels in my brain did a few backflips.

    “What if I were to put down ‘housewife?'” I asked.

    “Perrrfect,” Rebecca purred.

    I filled out the forms again, FedExing them to New York. Five days later, my passport returned to me in the mail, visa affixed.

    “Housewife.” The term traditionally refers to a woman whose sole role it is to tend a home while her husband earns a living in public. Feminists have objected to “housewife,” preferring, instead, the term “home maker,” because the latter doesn’t presuppose dependence on a man. Either way, the assumption — as the consulate concluded — is that housewives and homemakers are harmless. Whom would you rather let into your country: a writer or a housewife? A writer might be dangerous, cause public trouble. But a housewife? Can she bake a cherry pie?

    An obscure British definition of “housewife” refers to a sewing kit, complete with needles. I like this one. A lot. Self-contained. Portable. Able to provide valuable assistance with the most ordinary of objects. Handled unwisely, capable of wreaking havoc and causing pain.

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  • Two pieces in yesterday’s New York Times caught my attention  One, by The Times’ ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane, addressed the paucity of obituaries celebrating women’s lives. The other, by “Motherlode” blogger Lisa Belkin, analyzed the decision of a group of academic psychologists to declare parenthood the pinnacle of human experience. Both Brisbane and Belkin were well-intentioned, but both missed the implications or their arguments on the connection between parenthood and women’s lives.

    Brisbane was addressing reader Mike Sponder’s complaint that The New York Times seems to publish women’s and men’s obituaries at a 1:8 ratio. “Women rarely die, it seems,” Sponder quipped. Brisbane turned over Sponder’s observation to Times obituary editor Bill McDonald. McDonald wrote that the Times has to “narrow the field to those who made the largest imprint and possibly found fame or notoriety in the process.” Given where women were seventy or eighty years ago, when most of these dead people were born, there’s not much chance that they’d make the cut. Brisbane urged McDonald to look harder, contacting organizations such as NOW to cast a wider net.

    Belkin wrote this week’s Times Magazine’s “The Way We Live Now” column about a new configuration of  the hierarchy of needs Abraham Maslow posited in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow theorized that people have to meet low-level needs first (food, shelter, safety) before they can contemplate reaching their full potential, or “self-actualizing.” The tippy top of human experience these days? Parenting. That word used to be thought of as a noun, Belkin noted, but these days it’s a verb whose infinitive form is “to parent.” Belkin was appalled by the new hierarchy.  “Most of all,” she wrote, “it raises the question of whether to sanctify parenting has gone a bit too far.”  The psychologists who put parenting at the top of human experience, just above finding and retaining a mate, she wrote, have lost their sense of perspective. Parents, she proclaimed, are supposed to be making themselves unnecessary, since the goal of parenting is to raise self-sufficient adults.

    Maslow wrote his essay when many of those appearing in current Times obits were born. In other words, his organizing principle of human behavior informed the worldview of those now in their seventies and eighties — as well as obit editor Bill McDonald. By telling McDonald to look harder for notable women, Times ombudsman Arthur Brisbane didn’t challenge the fundamental assumption that greatness and notability appear primarily in the public sphere.

    For her part, Lisa Belkin missed a critical bit of demographic data. Academic fields, especially psychology, have largely been feminized in the last seventy years. When Maslow was busy focusing on self-actualization in 1943, he was writing as a man for a mostly-male audience of academics and practitioners. The group that reconfigured Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t resemble Maslow and his peers. Belkin didn’t mention in her condemnation the possibility that women, who continue to perform the bulk of parenting responsibilities, likely made up a large part of the academic psychologists who declared mating and procreating the pinnacle of human experience. She didn’t consider that for the first time women have had a chance to value their own roles, to publicly declare that what they do (we do) privately matters as much as or more than anything else transpiring on the planet.

    While I, too, am grossed out by the self-indulgence of my generation (and myself) at times, I want to make sure to celebrate this new hierarchy of experience. This ranking values something that has historically been private and unworthy of note. If we follow the reasoning of McDonald, Brisbane, and Belkin, humans who spent and continue to spend much of their lives raising the next generation to be healthy, independent adults aren’t worthy of obituaries in the Times.  If we follow Maslow.2, perhaps we have to rethink what it means to make an impact publicly, since, for the first time, an academic discipline has privileged what has traditionally been women’s private sphere.

    Maybe it’s time for editors and reporters to acknowledge more fully that creating families and caring for others (parenting, nursing, teaching…) at times may well be the way we humans make “the largest imprint,” whether we find “fame or notoriety in the process.”

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