Last week I wrote an article for The Atlantic about feminism’s PR problem. Within a day or two, a rundown of my article popped up on The Spearhead, a publication with ties to the MRA (men’s rights activist) movement. (If you’re unfamiliar with MRAs, feel free to read several different takes from The Good Men Project: here and here and here.)
The MRA movement has a fairly significant online presence and their antifeminism tends to manifest as blatant, hateful misogyny on the so-called “manosphere.” The Spearhead article itself, to be fair, is pretty straightforward and neutral in tone. While the author clearly hates feminism, he takes no potshots at me personally, even discussing his own parallel discomfort with the MRA label, which was interesting to read.
The comment thread, however, quickly derailed into an ad feminem feeding frenzy, exhibiting the woman-hating rhetoric that is so characteristic of the men’s rights movement.
I came across all this for the first time while breastfeeding Julian to sleep—he is a leisurely eater at night, so I sometimes resort to perusing the web on my iPhone. Being in this peaceful, banal setting made it all the more bizarre to suddenly stumble upon a slew of hateful words about me from a bunch of strangers. Here is a sampling, for your viewing pleasure (warning — strong language ahead):
Seriously, what type of mangina would want to marry a woman like this?
Never underestimate the cunning of women. To see women as children, unlikely to accept responsibility, is wise.
She’s an attention whore.
PR problem? Honey, you ain’t seen a thing, yet. Wait ’till MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way – an MRA separatist movement] starts to really bite, and all those cock carousel riders with their worthless “wimmen’s studies” degrees not only can’t find a beta to wife them up, but thanks to the economy they can’t find a job, either… It will only hurt more in the years to come. Squeal, you pigs, squeal…
Most men now know what a bunch male hating parasites women have always been … Seriously women, you didnt know have to burn your underwear to let us know how useless women are …
[Her students] are just sissies who have to put on their big girl panties. They are only seeking attention because once they left high school and got into the real world, they suddenly find out they can’t always have it all and their own way.
My take is that she’s just another fucked up idiot.
One commenter appeared oddly fascinated with me personally and linked to this blog for more fodder. He quoted extensive excerpts from my most recent entry, imposing a bizarre narrative onto the snapshot of my life I discussed. My husband became “Mikey, the poor schlub,” a “beta schmuck” who I married, because I couldn’t keep around an “Alpha bad-boy.” He attempts to paint me simultaneously as a feminist extremist and a right-wing religious “Churchian” who would pal around with the likes of Mark Driscoll and Glenn Stanton. (I’m sure Driscoll would be surprised hear that we are compatriots!) When I step back, it is actually fascinating to see him flounder to bring these two facile stereotypes into anything resembling a coherent narrative.
Initially—I’ll be honest—I was thrown off-balance after reading all this venom targeted toward me. I felt particularly disconcerted by the blog invasion, as if some weirdo with a grudge had broken into my house and taken a big shit on my couch. Of course, it was completely naïve for me to harbor the illusion (even subconsciously) that my blog is a private, personal space – it might be personal, but it’s online and open to any reader, including my charming MRA fanbase, and it’s been good for me to realize the full ramifications of that.
As I read these comments, my feeling of disorientation soon gave way to righteous indignation. I could feel my passion for feminism being rekindled, an irony that amused me. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, the malicious MRA types are often their own worst enemies. Their very existence fans the flames of what they most despise (feminism), while their overt hatred keeps them mostly on the fringes of culture, in an online “underground.”
That night, some of my dear friends and colleagues, who happen to be men, came over to hang out with Michael and me (sorry, guys, but being my friends probably means you are “manginas,” too). We spent a good portion of the evening brainstorming an epic blog entry that would skewer the MRAs! and rally the troops against sexism! We came up with some great ideas, and I sat down tonight intending to write that post.
Now that I’m here, however, I’m finding myself writing in another direction. While perusing various MRA articles and blogs over the past couple of days, I’ve come across some of the stories of these men, which typically involve broken marriages and families being torn apart, like, for example, the story of W.F. Price, the guy who wrote The Spearhead piece (who, again, wasn’t malicious toward me, although he does lapse into misogynist rhetoric elsewhere). For some of these men, perhaps many of them, their rage springs from deep pain. Feminism, painted in broad, clumsy strokes, gives them an adversary, something they can blame, something that can explain the implosion of their personal lives. And apparently, for many, the rage goes beyond feminism to womankind writ large.
But as I read these stories, my anger dissipated. I treasure my son’s close bond with his father; I can fathom the agony of being separated from one’s children and, not knowing whether these separations are justified or not, this gives me a point of connection with these men – one they would no doubt deny, but one that’s nonetheless hard for me to overlook. I began to realize that their nasty comments aren’t really about me at all. They have no idea who I am or how I really view the world. I was just their rhetorical punching bag of the moment, some faceless feminist on which to project their own fury and pain.
As I’ve processed this through writing, the power of the hate-fueled words has vanished. I don’t feel the need to skewer the MRAs – instead, I mostly just want to leave them alone, to let them stew in their manosphere and blow off steam. And another part of me wishes I could somehow dialogue with them, if I could find one or two willing to actually talk to me. I’m not trying to justify or exonerate the displays of misogynist words or attitudes, or play into the woman-bashing victim mentality. I’m just trying to remember that human beings are complex, and although it would be very easy for me to impose my own simplistic narrative onto all MRAs, and to attempt to dehumanize them, I don’t want to return the favor. Weird as it may sound, I want to humanize them. I want to see them as people.
More than that, I don’t want to unwittingly play a part in their “war of the sexes” script. Increasingly I am convinced that a primary hurdle to gender equality is the pervasive, entrenched notion that gender is a “zero sum game,” that men and women are perpetually at odds, that if one is winning the other is losing, that if one has power, the other is a victim. The “men’s rights” mentality feeds this dynamic, as do some of the more divisive and vitriolic camps of feminism – which, by the way, is a fragmented rather than monolithic entity.
For me, feminism has never been about tearing men down. I first encountered feminism in the classroom of a male professor, and I’ve always known men who are proud feminists. Moreover, the two most precious beings in my life happen to be male. I want my son to live in a world where he is encouraged and allowed to reach his full potential; I just don’t believe that has to happen at the expense of girls and women.
Sometimes the best reminder of something is to encounter its inverse, to be shown its absence. My little foray into the MRA world has, somewhat paradoxically, given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the men in my life. While it’s important to be aware that this sort of blatant hatred of exists, it is also nice to be reminded that that’s not where I live; those aren’t the men that I know.
The men I know are real men. Strong and good men. Men who love and respect the women in their lives, and who are loved and respected in return. And they certainly don’t fit the facile “beta-male” straw man the MRAs love to construct. The men in my life are a diverse bunch: some are atheists and skeptics, some are conservative Christians and Mormons, some have high-powered careers, some are at-home dads, some are wealthy, most are not; introverts, extroverts, pacifists, sports fanatics, fathers, husbands, bachelors, gay men, straight men, liberals, republicans, vegans, hunters – these are not cookie cutter men. But there is one trait they do share: these men aren’t threatened by women’s success; their sense of identity and power is not dependent upon mastery or dominance. They don’t hide out on the Internet and take potshots at mommy bloggers.
Their masculinity is not so precarious, so fragile, that they must tear down women to feel like men.
I won’t let these bastards grind me down, because, honestly, they are doing a good job of grinding themselves down. And the good men in my life overshadow them.
Even if some MRAs find this blog post and, reading it through their misogynist filters, proceed to throw Molotov cocktails in the comments – that’s okay. Because I get to shut my laptop and revel in a life that is filled with love. An ordinary life, but one with an undercurrent of quiet joy. When I finish this post I will go into the bedroom to nurse my baby boy, to enter a perfect moment that is played over again each night. Right now, he’s sleeping next to his father, and I will get to curl up between their warm bodies and sleep, too. And that reality is something that no online thread can touch.
Eleven days after Julian’s birth, when I was still in those waning throes of the so-called Baby Blues, I sat down in a rocking chair to eat some yogurt and check Facebook while my newborn son pawed absently at the air on the bed next to me. This was a customary scene. I remember that the sun was actually out for once, if half-heartedly, and I’d flung open our thick red curtains so December-born Julian could understand that Oregon was not a land of perpetual night.
But if I was feeling good that morning, the sensation was soon replaced by growing dread when I saw my sister-in-law’s status: “Hugging my little ones a little tighter today. Can’t imagine what the parents are going through right now. Praying for all of the families that have been affected by this tragedy.”
Even though I immediately felt a sense of I don’t want to know, I somehow found myself on Google, reading a headline about dozens of elementary school CHILDREN being gunned down.
“Oh my God.” I cried out and flung the iPad away from me, as if burned. And that’s not just an offhand simile; I felt physical pain reading those words. They leapt from the screen and pierced me.
I didn’t even try to read beyond the headline – it would be days, in fact, before I allowed myself to glean the whole story. I just crawled onto the bed next to Julian and held him close to me, my lips against his warm fuzzy head, and tried not to think of those parents, who had cuddled with their babies like I was doing in that moment. If they were once me, I could be them. And that was not something I felt capable of facing, then or now.
That was Sandy Hook.
This week I encountered the nightmarish horrors of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, not through the news – I’d been unabashedly avoiding the news since the whole birth control mandate debacle early in my pregnancy – but through social media. Wanting to be an informed citizen, especially about issues concerning women and children, I tried, I really tried to read the article from The Atlantic, but again, I couldn’t make it past the first few words without feeling assaulted, without wanting to be sick. This time I wasn’t at home, where I could sedate myself on baby-love and shut out the world. I was in my office, alone, and so I just sat at my desk and cried.
And now Boston.
I have a recurring fantasy that involves me running a marathon – or a half-marathon, if I’m being more honest with myself – and having Michael and Julian at the finish line waiting for me. This is not a recent fantasy; I’ve had it for years, before Julian even existed, and there was just a cute, nameless baby in Michael’s arms. This image spurred me on when I ran my first (and only) half-marathon in New Orleans in 2011. There’s something about running for someone and towards someone.
I’ve been dodging news stories again, but I know that an 8 year-old boy was killed today in Boston. He was at the finish line. He was waiting for someone. And someone was running for him, toward him. And now that someone will keep running that race, she’ll forever be reaching for the line where he’s waiting to collapse against her in a sweaty hug. But she’ll never get there. She’ll be running for the rest of her life.
This is what it is to be a parent, to live always on the brink of grief.
And that’s just if you’re one of the lucky ones who get to linger on that edge, if you’re not plunged into the abyss entirely when the worst happens.
Never before have tragedies struck so near and cut so deeply.
On the one hand this might be a good thing. Violence is more abhorrent, more intolerable, to me than ever. It’s too easy for me to see Julian’s face when I hear of someone, especially a child, being victimized.
HOWEVER. The thought of my baby being harmed by another person takes me to a violent place immediately. A place where I would murder to protect him, no question. I know I should be a pacifist, and I want to be a pacifist, but I also know that I would kill to keep my child safe.
You may have heard about the “trolley problem” – a nifty thought experiment that forces you to consider whether you would sacrifice a life that is dear to you in order to save the lives of many others. This used to be an interesting philosophical problem to mull over; now there is no mystery. My heartfelt apologies to anyone on that imaginary trolley, but I would save my son. Always, always, I would choose to save my son.
A couple of weeks ago I attended part of a writers conference, and one of the keynote speakers discussed Kierkegaard’s reading of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. I missed about 80% of his talk, because I was off pumping breast milk, but I caught the tail end, and I was surprised at my distasteful reaction to the biblical story itself. The story was hardly new to me, having grown up in a Christian home, but sitting there in the audience, missing my infant son, my breasts newly emptied of milk for him, I felt utterly disgusted by both Abraham and God. What a sick, twisted test of faith.
I know one thing: that would not have been me up on the mountain, knife raised high. I would have called God’s bluff from the start. And, if need be, I would have turned my back on him. That might make me a terrible Christian, but I don’t even feel like I’d have a choice in the matter. Motherlove is in my veins, and the force of it is as overpowering as God must have seemed to Abraham. This Motherlove is ruthless and all-consuming, in an Old Testament kind of way.
All that to say, I have been changed. Not that I used to be uncaring or calloused before, or that I did not love incredibly deeply – I wasn’t, and I did. But I am wounded now in a way that I have never been.
Being a mother is like living with your heart outside of your chest. You have tethered it to another impossibly fragile life, and there is a wound leftover, a hole that will never heal.
* * *
I am only four months in. My son, who hasn’t quite mastered rolling over yet (so close!), is probably safer now than he will ever be. But already I’m wondering: how can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?
Sometimes in the depth of night, Julian stirs, begins to cry himself awake, and I put my hand on his chest to calm him back into sleep. My hand easily covers his torso, and I can feel his tiny heart against my palm, fluttering like a hummingbird. Not so long ago, this heart was beating inside me; our twin organs shared both body and blood. Now I swear I can feel both hearts there, beneath his matchstick ribs. Mine echoes in the beats between his, a desperate murmur, a plea: don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…
I have a new goal in life. Someday, I would like to experience a visit to the pediatrician that does not involve me having a complete meltdown. Luckily, so far, I’ve managed to not have said meltdowns actually in the doctor’s office; they come later, like aftershocks, when I’m at home and can fling off bra and dignity and really let loose.
The first, and more epic, meltdown happened two months ago, at Julian’s two-month appointment. I’ve written elsewhere about my somewhat reclusive new-mama behaviors. I wasn’t one of those adventurous new moms who go straight from giving birth in a hospital to shopping for non-maternity jeans in Anthropologie, baby tucked in a perfectly-wrapped Moby.
I was more like a furtive coyote mother whose den is being encroached upon by Evil Humans, and she is forced to dart out into the night, pup dangling precariously from her jaws, in order to survive. At least that’s how it felt, every time I ventured beyond the warm womb of my house with a newborn. As you can imagine, I didn’t get out much.
So this inaugural visit to the doctor’s office, which is about a 35-minute drive away, felt like a BIG DEAL. I prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask the pediatrician, imagining that she would be a warm, uplifting Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman knockoff who would make me feel competent and normal and reassure me that everything’s fine, and I’m doing a great job, and my baby is healthy, and maybe we could come over to her house later for some hearty pioneer cooking and meet her white husband who nonetheless has the Soul of an Indian.
I particularly wanted to ask her about Julian’s breastfeeding habits. He’d just started doing this weird snacking thing, where he’d dive toward my boob like he’s bobbing for apples, eat aggressively for five minutes, and then just pop off, totally done, totally uninterested in my attempts to lure him onto boob number two. (Spoiler: he’s still doing this.) He seemed sated, but I wasn’t sure he was eating enough.
This anxiety was fed by my tendency to play the parenting comparison game – yes, already, just two months in. Some friends of mine have a baby with these amazing fat rolls all over her cuddly body. Even on her forearms. She’s a delicious Stay Puft Marshmellow Baby, and I used to look at her pictures and wonder, where are Julian’s forearm rolls? Is he not eating enough? Do I have wimpy milk? Then I’d go google “failure to thrive.”
I brought all this new mom anxiety to the appointment with me, hoping to have it dispelled. The visit started out well enough, but by the time the doctor came into the soulless exam room, Julian’s pleasantries had disintegrated into hysterics. On top of missing naptime, he had to get undressed and redressed TWICE, because the first medical assistant completely bungled his measurements. (She’d concluded, for example, that his head was 22 inches around, which was only about EIGHT INCHES OFF. Julian comes from large-headed stock, but that there’s mutant territory.)
Our doctor, who more closely resembled a female Woody Allen than the winky-eyed Jane Seymour, seemed totally weirded out that he was fussy. “Is he always like this?” she asked, looking a little alarmed, because apparently she is the ONE pediatrician on the planet who has never had to examine a crying baby.
Finally, after the poking and prodding, Julian fell asleep on Michael and I told her about his eating habits.
“There’s no way he’s getting what he needs in just five minutes.”
That’s what she said.
There’s no way he’s getting what he needs.
I looked over at my baby, who suddenly looked emaciated. He was curled up on Michael’s chest, asleep, no doubt dreaming that he was writhing in the middle of a milkless wilderness, surrounded by shriveled boob cacti. I could almost hear his tiny tummy growling.
There’s no way I’m giving him what he needs.
This, by the way, is THE WORST THING you can say to a new mother. At least to this new mother. For those first two months, breastfeeding was a physical and emotional rollercoaster, and to hear that we were still doing it “wrong,” that my baby was apparently starving, was beyond distressing.
The doctor also seemed particularly bothered that he wasn’t sleeping well at night and that he was only in the 20th percentile for weight (even though he was in the 80th percentile for length and the 98th for head size).
Well, I want to see those the other babies in her practice, the ones who are apparently safely in the 50th percentile in everything, who apparently never scream when being prodded by incompetent medical assistants, and who apparently sleep through the night from birth. SHOW ME THOSE BABIES.
So, after having my fragile new mama soul adeptly crushed, we headed home with our scrawny baby, who now had Band-Aids on his spindly little famine legs from the two-month vaccinations. I spent the next twelve hours cuddling with him in his post-vaccine stupor, feeling like the worst mom on earth.
Throughout the next day, my anxiety held steady, a persistent buzz in the background. I fretfully watched the clock whenever Julian nursed, feeling a twinge of despair when he failed to eat for at least 15 minutes, which was the benchmark the doctor had mentioned.
And then, in the middle of the second night following the doctor’s visit, Julian stopped eating altogether. Cold turkey. Nada. Around 2 AM he stirred as usual, and I rolled over like a sleepy sow to let him eat, like always. But he didn’t eat. In fact, he started screaming bloody murder when I tried to get him to latch on, and it took a warm bath to calm him down. Somehow I managed to get back to sleep, lulling myself into believing that all would be well in the morning.
But it wasn’t. When we woke up, Julian was still refusing to eat.
It may sound ridiculous, but this seemed like an EMERGENCY. I was already obsessing about my baby’s finicky eating habits, worried that he was slowly wasting away, so when he’d refused to eat for about 12 hours, I panicked.
I would have probably gone into full meltdown mode at that point, but my mom managed to calm me down over the phone, assuring me that death was not imminent. I half-believed her, enough to make a successful call to the advice nurse, who suggested we try feeding him breast milk from a cup (we weren’t yet using bottles).
So, armed with this goal, this salvific task, I marched to the bathroom and began to seriously pump for the first time. After about 15 minutes, I had managed to fill two bottles with rich, frothy milk – liquid gold, it’s called, and in that moment I so believed it. Those two bottles were precious boons, brimming with an elixir that would coax my son back into functional babydom.
And then, as I was trying to detach the bottles from the pump apparatus, I spilled that liquid gold, all of it, all over the bathroom floor. Most of it was sucked right up by the bright blue bathmat, forming a large, demoralizing wet spot, and for a mad instant I actually considered wringing the milk from the mat. Then it hit me that there was nothing to salvage, every drop was wasted, my baby was going to starve to death, and I would have to kill myself.
THAT is when I lost it. We’re talking full-scale meltdown here. I collapsed on the bathmat in frenzied sobs, cradling it like a beloved corpse. I went all out. I made Scarlett O’Hara look like Mr. Spock. I pounded my fists against the floor, threw my head back, probably even choked out a few “Why, God? Why????” entreaties.
Even in the midst of my hysterics, it did not escape me that I was literally crying over spilt milk. That just made the whole thing seem even more tragic.
About an hour later, after I’d completely wrung myself out, Julian started eating again. Just like that, the switch flipped back on. Turns out that “loss of appetite” is a side effect of the DTaP vaccine. (THANK YOU, INTERNET.) Which no one thought to mention to us. After a long conversation involving my baby’s eating habits, no one thought to say, “Oh, yeah, and by the way, your baby might randomly STOP EATING FOR AN ENTIRE DAY.”
I came through this whole ordeal with a few nuggets of wisdom.
1) Don’t expect your pediatrician to make you feel normal. S/he is trained to see the abnormal.
2) Your doctor’s tendency to pathologize is like a hungry bear that hangs out at campgrounds and is now accustomed to humans. DO NOT FEED IT.
3) Don’t obsess about the numbers.
4) Don’t look at the clock.
Julian still snacks during the day — if anything, he’s an even more distracted eater now — and then gorges himself on half-hour-long feasts throughout the night. It’s not “normal.” That’s just what he does.
His cheeks have now grown so much that sometimes it looks like his face is melting. But he’ll probably never have forearm rolls. I’ve given up on that dream. Unless his eating habits stay consistent and he goes on serious night binges as an adult, in which case he’ll probably have all kinds of rolls. And I’ll love him anyway.
My son just turned four months old yesterday, and I’m already wondering how I am going to talk to him about sex. To be perfectly honest, this is something I’ve been thinking about for years, long before becoming a mother.
Yes, I have a problem with “future tripping,” as a friend of mine recently phrased it. One of my many neuroses is the inability to stop planning for and fantasizing about things that are years down the road – like the sex education of my children, for example, of whom only one has been born yet.
I’m still working on the finer details of the “sex talk,” which I imagine will be an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-time super-awkward chat about “what happens when mommies and daddies love each other.”
I do know one thing, though:
I’m not going to talk about virginity.
I’m done with virginity. Done and dusted. Yeah, no big surprise, you say: I’ve been married for seven years and have a baby – of course virginity and I have long since parted ways. And that’s true. In fact, we parted ways quite awhile ago. Before I got married. Yes, I was one of those 80% of evangelical Christian youth who pledge to save sex for marriage and don’t actually make it. But that’s not what I mean by being done with virginity. I mean that I’m done with the concept itself.
There’s been some buzz on the blogosphere lately about the damaging impact of “purity culture” within Christianity, and I feel compelled to throw my hat into that ring, because I’ve got some serious wounds from growing up in that culture, wounds that keep splitting open just when I think they’ve finally healed. [Check out these other posts on the topic by Emily Maynard – no, not the Bachelorette – Jamie Wright, and Elizabeth Esther.]
I won’t get into the finer, messier details of my story here. (I tried to reassure my mom the other day that I do have SOME boundaries when it comes to blogging – which doesn’t mean I won’t eventually share my full story; after all, it is mine to tell. But I don’t feel ready yet. Probably because of those wounds I mentioned earlier…)
Instead, let’s have some fun with bulleted lists!
This is what the virginity narrative taught me:
- Sex is dirty and shameful — until you’re married, and then it’s suddenly AWESOME! AND BEAUTIFUL! AND FROM GOD!!!
- There are two classes of Christians: those who waited, and those who failed. You now belong to the second class.
- Your sexual history is the most important thing about you.
- As a woman, your moral worth is rooted in your body and sexuality.
- “Virtue” is just another code-word for “virginity,” which you lost…
- …And, since you are no longer a virgin:
- You have less to bring to a marriage. (If anyone actually decides you’re worth marrying, that is.)
- You’ve lost a part of yourself that can never be regained.
- You are damaged goods.
- You can never be “pure” again.
- Your marital sex life will be haunted by the ghosts of your former partners.
You are a creature of shame.
That last one is the cruelest. The last one is a fishhook to the soul. I’m not talking guilt here. Guilt implies a fault in one’s behavior, and I think guilt can sometimes be helpful for us to experience, when we’ve been naughty and it’s warranted.
Shame, however, is a different animal altogether. Shame isn’t about what you’ve done. Shame implies a flaw in one’s being. “Purity culture” isn’t just about policing behavior; it’s in the business of ontology. And that’s dangerous.
It is this narrative of flawed being that broke me. Even years later, despite much time and healing, I can still abruptly stumble into deep wells of pain when I hear “purity talk.” Suddenly the shame I thought I’d managed to peel away from my skin reappears, burning like ice, and I feel sick. I want to hide.
Some might say that I’m just another anecdote about why sex before marriage is so damaging. But I know that what really damaged me was being told that I was damaged. We desperately need a new Christian narrative about sexuality, one not fueled by shame and fear, but a narrative of wholeness and health and grace.
So that’s why I’m writing this, even though I’m feeling anxious and exposed as I type this out. I’m writing this post for the girl I used to be, for the 17 year-old non-virgin who showed up at a college (ostensibly) full of Christian virgins and learned to devalue herself, learned to see herself as unworthy of love and respect. The girl whose classmates gave her all sorts of new ways to think about herself — as a piece of candy that had already been sucked on, or a bride in a wedding dress covered in red handprints, her shame for all the world to see.
I want to tell that girl that those are lies. I want to tell her that she cannot be reduced to her history, that she is valued for her mind and her fierce heart, that she has a life of fullness and love ahead of her.
I want to tell that girl within me – because she’s still there, still aching – that one day she’ll meet a boy who couldn’t care less about her non-virginity, and after years of great marital romping (which, it turns out, is NOT haunted by the ghosts of past lovers) they’ll have a cute baby, and then maybe a couple more babies, and she’ll somehow figure out how to talk to those babies about all this sex stuff without shame.
More than anything, I want to tell that girl, and others like her, this:
You are whole and holy.
You are immeasurably loved.
And that’s not something you can lose.
I’ve been trying to write this post all day, in between putting my baby down for naps, folding laundry, taking a shower, breastfeeding, etc., and it’s a disorganized mess. I want to write about the idea of “having it all” and what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how we need a new way of thinking and talking about work-life balance. [If you’re interested, here’s a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that made some waves on this topic. And here is Slaughter explaining why she’s decided to renounce the phrase “having it all.”]
But any time I start going down one direction, I begin to argue with myself and get pulled in another direction. So, I’m just going to write a disorganized post and throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Hopefully this won’t scare away any faithful readers who expect me to know my own mind all the time. (Hint: lower your expectations.)
On the one hand…
I’m done with the ideal of “having it all.” This post represents me killing it, for good.
Those words feel like a yoke around my neck, something I owe to my foremothers who bravely struggled for the rights women of my generation now take for granted. I want to honor their struggle, but sometimes that’s just too much pressure.
When I hear or read about women “having it all,” I can’t help but think, “Of course I can’t have it all. NO ONE WITH KIDS HAS IT ALL.”
The other day I was leaving for my writing group, and Michael looked at me woefully and said, jokingly, “One of these days you’re going to leave and never come back.”
“I have to come back,” I said. “I’m lactating.”
And that’s no joke! Every three hours or so, I have a date with either a pump or my baby, and all that pumping and breastfeeding is more time-consuming than you’d think. And that’s just the wee tip of the icy tundra of parenting. I’ve only been a mother for four months, but already I’ve had to make professional sacrifices to keep up with motherhood. (Not to mention the professional and financial sacrifices involved in Michael being with Julian fulltime.)
But I’m tired of feeling guilty for making those sacrifices, as if the time I spend with my baby is somehow wasted time, that I should be using that time to meet with students or write another book or go to a conference or somehow make a name for myself because BETTY FRIEDAN IS WATCHING.
If “having it all” becomes my battle cry, I’m afraid I’ll constantly be asking myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I climbing far enough, fast enough?”
I’m also annoyed because “having it all” carries some weighty and troublesome assumptions about gender. We don’t hear much kvetching in the media about how men with high-powered careers have had to sacrifice time with their families. Nope. It is assumed that that will happen, and it’s not seen as a loss for those men, or their families. Not only does this undervalue the very real and necessary work of caring for children and keeping a home running; it undervalues the importance of children having close, intimate bonds with fathers as well as mothers.
Yet women are always at the center of this conversation, because the conflict between work and family is assumed to be a uniquely female conflict – which reveals that this conversation is ACTUALLY focused on what happens outside the home (i.e., in the workforce) and not so much what happens within it. Because if our culture really valued domestic labor, we’d be concerned that, by and large, men aren’t taking part. (Feel free to check out my earlier post on this issue.)
This concept of “having it all” seems married to a value system that privileges money and power. And sometimes I feel like American feminism has too easily absorbed the cultural values of said money-making and power-grubbing. But how can we seek both to empower women AND reject that power as problematic? (And now I am beginning to understand why this post is so difficult to write…)
The implicit message we grow up with is that what we do to earn money should be our center of gravity, rather than the people we love, or other kinds of unpaid work we do out of necessity or enjoyment (like blogging!). And the scary thing is, you can climb and climb and accumulate and accumulate – and then you retire and die. There’s always more money to be made. Even the mind-blowingly wealthy among us are busy making more money. I worry that the attitude of “having it all” means that nothing will ever feel like enough.
On the other hand…
As soon as I hear myself say, “you can’t have it all,” I think about my female college students, women who are just beginning to find out who they are and who they want to be – personally, professionally, philosophically. Women who are learning to believe in themselves, to see themselves as leaders in their communities. I don’t want them to hear in these words that they have to choose between having a job they love and being a successful parent. Because you can do both, absolutely. Many women, including myself, are living proof of that. [Of course, it might mean that your living room looks like THIS for several years.—->]
[And, as an aside, my single best piece of advice for women who hope to have a career and a family is this: choose a supportive partner, someone who is committed to co-parenting, someone willing to making sacrifices and compromises alongside you.]
But you don’t HAVE to have both. You can also choose to pursue just one of these paths, or you can hop back and forth between them. You can decide to be an at-home “breastfeeding executive” (which is how one of my smart, successful SAHM friends lists her occupation on facebook). To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.
And you can also choose to NOT get married (seriously, you can!), or to get married but not have children. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your ovaries, or your parents, or the species, or God. None of these modes of living is inherently honorable or valuable or “successful” than the others. There is no cookie cutter for your life.
I also think about my male students, who have grown up in a culture that tells them to define their self-worth by what they do to make money outside the home, beyond the context of their family and community. I want to tell them that success actually might look like “having less” – it might look like working less, or earning less, in order to be present to the people they love.
What I want these young men and women to understand is that having a family — whether you have a career in addition or not — will always require certain sacrifices and compromises. It means that, in the pursuit of balance, you might have to make some tough choices. And in that context, measuring yourself against a slogan of “having it all” could feel like failure. Which is why I want to jettison those words.
I want to give my students, and myself, permission to shirk the societal model of ladder-climbing, the success rubric of money and power, to choose NOT to define ourselves by what we earn and own, but by who and what we love.
So as I reach the end of my jumbled thoughts, I guess my conclusion is this:
Don’t ask, as you enter the world, “Do I have it all?” Ask: “Am I living deeply? And where am I putting my roots?”
[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]