Modifying Lullabies

She's holding it...

Look, a man holding a baby! (Photo credit: BenSpark)

I know it’s not the best blogging etiquette to apologize for not posting. But, I’m going to do it anyway. You see, back in September, I started working on the story of my daughter’s birthing, thinking it would be easy to write. It wasn’t, and I’ve been working on it ever since. Her first birthday is in two weeks, so I’m hoping to have it finished by then, but I’m not sure it will be. In the mean time, I’ve been thinking about this blog and how it functions in my life and as a meaningful force in the world. I recently took a personal development class that helped me think about my definition of success.

Enter, bedtime.

I sometimes sing my daughter to sleep. I sing several songs, but the one I am thinking of is “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” The Lyrics:

Sleep, baby, sleep
Your father tends the sheep
Your mother shakes the dreamland tree
And from it fall sweet dreams for thee
Sleep, baby, sleep

And so I began to think about the message this sent. Daddy works, mommy cares for you. I am more worried about the message it sends that daddy doesn’t care for baby girl than the idea that mommy doesn’t work. So I sing this, too:

Sleep, baby, sleep
Your momma tends the sheep
Your papa shakes the dreamland tree
And from it fall sweet dreams for thee
Sleep, baby, sleep

I know it isn’t much. But I want my daughter to grow up knowing that daddies take care of babies, too.

Actual Risk versus Social Risk

Breastfeeding symbol

Image via Wikipedia

I posted a link to a book review to my Facebook wall, because I was really interested in the underlying thesis of the book, as explained by the reviewer. I haven’t really the book, but I’ve atleast read the review – and the argument was about what the author calls “neoliberal risk culture,” or the conflation of actual risk and social risk. Unfortunately, the example that was used by the author to illustrate her point was one of the most contentious of motherhood debates: bottle versus breast.

The actual risk of feeding your child formula, or the risk of not breastfeeding, is quite small. According to the review, the risk of not breastfeeding is a few upset stomachs. However, the social risk of not breastfeeding (at least amongst middle class women) is high — because of all the propaganda surrounding breast feeding, the decision of bottle feeding without trying to breastfeed is the social equivalent of saying that you’re not doing everything you can to make your baby smarter… and everything else that breastfeeding claims.

Bottle feeding does not carry real risk — rare is the baby in danger because they are bottle fed. That baby would have to have some severe allergies. But in an age of New Momism, the social risk is immense. So immense that women are pressured into trying breastfeeding when it might be better for them to bottle feed — and women who want to breastfeed feel guilty when medication, mental health, etc., prevent them from continuing.

The conflation of small actual risk into large social risk does a huge disservice to mothers, especially, and also society as a whole.

Another example for mothers is bedsharing versus co-sleeping versus nurseries. Bedsharing is considered the most risky, co-sleeping a nice middle ground (if you must have your child close), and a nursery the most safe. However, a close reading of the studies shows that the rates of SIDS is probably equal, and the cost benefits extremely personal, much like breast versus bottle.

I am a bedsharer. There, I said it. Socially, the sleeping arrangement that allows my family to get the most sleep, it’s the most risky. Common perception suggests that I am willingly risking my baby’s life for convenience, even though it was a decision I researched before making. Trust me, I do not lazily risk my daughter’s life.

I’m trying to think of a non parenting example — something where there is a small risk, but a large social backlash. Smoking is probably one, considering how much government propaganda surrounds not smoking. My occasional fast food eating is something I don’t like to admit, so I’d consider that an example of over blown social risk for something with minimal actual risk. I think that multiple sexual partners probably falls into this same category — as long as you practice safe sex, both physically and emotionally, it probably isn’t as risky as our society makes it out to be.

Life is risk, and yes, some risk is more risky than other risks. But, in the end, some things may be more about what works for you.

Why I am not looking for a job right now

It’s not because the Michigan job market is crap, and most of the jobs I’m qualified for skill-wise wants me to have a Master’s Degree, though all of that is discouraging. It’s more like this:

1. The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 does not apply to me.

FMLA was hailed as a great thing early in President Clinton’s term. It granted 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave with benefits intact and job security for persons who worked for a public agency, a business with 50 or more employees in a 75 mile radius, who had worked for the company at least 1250 hours in the last 12 months.

In other words, you have to have worked some place for a year, and that place has to have 50 or more employees, or be public agency in order to qualify for these federal benefits.

My term of service for my national service with AmeriCorps ends February 3rd; I have worked with a nonprofit for the last two years, and probably qualify as a public employee — but since my service is ending, much like a contract position does, it is all a moot point.

The jobs I want are in nonprofit or public service; nonprofits rarely have more than 50 employees, and if I were to work for the state government (where there are plenty of job openings due to retirements), I would not qualify by time-served.

Long story short: the federal government would not protect my job security or benefits, nor my right to the time needed to care for a child after birth. Some states have extended the benefits; most not enough.

2. Individual Employers may extend FMLA-like leave to non-qualified persons, but it’s risky business.

First of all, the fact that any law exists — even a law as admittedly as flimsy (on a personal, policy, and international scale) as FMLA — shows that individual employers were not protecting their own employees. As it stands, the law only begins to apply to what I’d believe you call “second stage” businesses — no longer start ups or small companies, but neither are they big companies either.

From an economic point of view, it does not make sense to hire a 7 month pregnant woman, train her, and then allow her to take 2, 6, or 12 weeks off (debates about how long the postpartum period last are on-going) to take care of her child and adjust (or readjust) to motherhood, and then return to work. First of all, training someone is a huge investment in and of itself; it’s why many companies require contracts of 2 years in order to train people in the first place. Then, there is no guarantee of loyalty; with the way motherhood is treated in today’s society, it isn’t certain that the mother will return to work — thereby costing her employers the money and time spent on training, even if the leave is unpaid and benefits are suspended for its duration of the leave.

From a functional and managerial point of view, it’s quite possible that the job held by the pregnant women is vital to a small company, and will need to be filled while she is away — either by a temporary employee, covered by another employee at the company, or possibly hiring a new employee. This last option is prohibited by FMLA — but let’s remember that I’m not covered by FMLA, and neither are many people working at companies with <50 employees. Temporary employees are expensive (training, remember?), and delegating a leave-taking member’s responsibility may cause resentment if not managed correctly. Conventional wisdom says it isn’t really good management to let employees take a leave of absence like the one described by FMLA.

From the employee’s point of view, especially mental health-wise, more than 12 weeks is ideal — a baby at 12 weeks hasn’t smiled spontaneously, yet. But, without the protection of FMLA, or even the NEED to work because going without income for 3 months is impossible, 2 or 4 weeks just has to suffice — leaving mothers separated from their children and at greater risk for postpartum depression and other complications. Perhaps individual employers could work with employees for longer periods of leave; but because of the above reasons, it would need to be a seriously enlightened employer to make that happen.

If I were to apply for a job, I’d have to hope that they would look past my being pregnant to hire me in the first place; that they would train me, that they would keep my job for me, and give me sufficient leave for me to become a confident parent and protect my mental health. It seems too much to ask, and it’s a lot to hope for.

3. A new job and an infant at the same time is a recipe for Postpartum Depression.

Let’s be honest, I’m a prime candidate for PPD. I’m already depressed and anxious, my medications don’t cut it, I haven’t been in therapy (but I’m going back!). One of the first things they tell you to help prevent PPD is to not change too much in your life at the same time you have the baby — you know, like move (done last month), end a job (2/3), or start a job (not happening).

It’s easy to be overwhelmed when caring for an infant. It’s easy to be overwhelmed while beginning a new job. Hint: attempt only one at a time.

4. It is because I am privileged that I can make this decision, to not look for a job.

This is a choice I can make because I have a committed partner whose job pays most of our bills. It is because our rent isn’t unaffordable, because we have health insurance through Tim’s work, it is because we don’t go hungry when only one of us works that I can say, “I can’t work right now.”

I want to work, like many other mothers out there. Many mothers need to work. But public policy does not support women who need to work to make ends meet; and then vilifies them for being on welfare.

I wish I could apply for job after job and be the top candidate always and when they deny me the leave that I need to make sure I don’t spiral deeper into depression, I could walk away and teach them a lesson. I wish I could stand up and be an example, to cause discrimination to occur and start filing lawsuit after lawsuit. Would I be teaching them the right lesson — that it is important to take care of your employees? Or would I be teaching them that what their mentors told them about pregnant women was right — you can’t trust them to keep to their commitments? (That double standard is a whole post in and of itself.)

I’m not strong enough to make an example of myself; to live through the day to day of poor policy. And I can avoid it — I am privileged enough to avoid it, to become a housewife and a stay-at-home mom.

But, damn it, as soon as my baby is old enough, as soon as I’ve regained my mental health, I am going to do something about all of this — I’m going to Grad School and study the social policies that got us here, I’m going to intern and work for nonprofits and advocacy agencies that stand up for women’s rights, for the rights of those in poverty. I’m going to volunteer where I can, and I’m going to challenge this disgusting status quo.

Babies need Mamas, and Mamas need money to care for their babies. Can we please make it easier?

The purpose of parenthood

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?

How did we get to New Momism?

The Mommy Myth is a book that is specifically about the media, and how the media represents motherhood, and what that says about society’s view of mothers. It is therefore implicitly about culture, since media contains cultural representations, but I want to bring the cultural implications to an explicit level. So, up to now, we’ve talked about the “societal ideal” mother, we’ve talked about why that ideal is injurious, and now I want to talk about how this ideal was created.

Douglas and Michaels put it like this:

For a new set of rules about proper behavior to take hold, warnings about what will happen if you break the rules also need to circulate through he culture. And let’s remember that the media are about creating drama — that’s what they do. To create drama, you need heroes and villains. […] The heroes have wonderful qualities we’re supposed to envy; the villains, repugnant traits we’re meant to disdain or despise (141).

So, in the celebrity mother profiles, the rules for being a good mother are outlined. The most important of which can be summarized thus: No matter what, children always come first to a mother. What happens when women with do not devote their entire being to being a mommy?

On page 88 of the book Douglas and Michaels explain how media panics work. Rather than giving you the 300 word paragraph to read, I’ve decided to turn it into a nice outline for you.

A media panic:

  1. Identifies a person, group, event, or condition as a deeply destructive threat to society
  2. The media then represents the person (&/or etc.) in a highly sensationalized or stereotypical fashion
  3. Authorities then assume the role of moral police. The authorities may simply be reporters, editors, elected officials, or other people who have not necessarily researched a subject.
  4. The moral police does three things:
    • Expresses outrage
    • Demands swift punishment
    • Creates a massive search for other potential threats
  5. Other stories are then connected to this first story, increasing the panic over time
  6. A panic may inadvertently support and reinforce conservative political stances and polices not necessarily shared by the majority of the population which is considered necessary because of the panic.

The book gives many many examples of media panics, but I want to focus on two specific media panics (sexual abuse in day care centers and crack babies) because both produce interesting situations for women that provide clear class and race demarcations in motherhood outlining who can and cannot be a good mother, and also produces polices that impinge upon women. Continue reading

What is New Momism?

A little note on culture

We walk through our lives performing actions that have meaning to  ourselves, meaning to others, as we are self-directed by the meaning  that we have internalized — which we then act out, in a constant cycle  of action and interpretation and reinterpretation and reaction. This  cycle is one theory about how culture functions in our lives. Culture is  what provides meaning to those actions and reactions.

Some people take this cycle completely for granted. They live an  unexamined life, they take the meaning that is demonstrated to them and  perpetuate it. They continue to use these symbols and meanings until  something stops them, until the meaning that they’ve been using isn’t  enough to explain a situation or a symbol — in other words, sometimes common sense  isn’t enough. Some people walk through life examining the meaning of  everything, or they become cynical to every meaning — both of these  stances, which might be categorized as being “unsettled” — are both  rather exhausting.

Culture defines the world so that we can act with confidence within  it. Cultural systems both teach and express orientations to the world —  they teach moods and motivations. We each have our own cultural repertoire, a mental catalog of symbols, rules, and rituals. Only, the  meanings of these don’t work for all people at all times in the same  way.

Take this one for example:

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the  baby carriage!

What is this rhyme but a set of instructions — or a rule — for how  to conduct your adult romantic life? Of course, the rhyme says nothing  about boy-meets-girl or pregnancy and delivery, but because our society  assumes hetero-normativity and because the law prohibits (for the most  part) legal union between same-gender couples… you can see how this  common sense rhyme might not be a culture took that is comfortable for  everyone.

It isn’t a cultural rule that I’m completely comfortable with myself.  Maybe if it were first comes education and career, then comes love,  then comes legal recognition of a relationship, and then comes a  community possibly including a younger generation.

But that’s not nearly as snappy.

Somehow, the cultural rules about motherhood didn’t seem all that  contradictory to the reality I knew from caring for other people’s  children. The two were never side by side in my mind. I don’t think I  realized how insidious these “rules” of motherhood were until I read the  definition of New Momism that Douglas and Michaels propose:

[It Is] the insistence that no woman is truly complete or  fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary  caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman  has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and  intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly  romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards  for success are impossible to meet (4). The ‘new momism’ is a set of  ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented  in the media,  that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but  which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your  reach (5).

But I have a choice, right? I can choose not to have children. Or I  can choose to parent differently. Not so fast, says The Mommy Myth:

Central to the new momism, in fact, is the feminist  insistence that woman have choices, that they are active agents in  control of their own destiny, that they have autonomy. But here’s where  the distortion of feminism occurs. The only truly enlightened choice to  make as a woman, the one that proves, first, that you are a ‘real’  woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one, is to become a  ‘mom’ and to bring to child rearing a combination of selflessness and  professionalism that would involve the cross cloning of Mother Teresa  with Donna Shalala. Thus the new momism is deeply contradictory: It both  draws from and repudiates feminism (5).

And the nail on the coffin: “The new momism involves more than just  impossible ideals about child rearing. It redefines all women, first and  foremost, through their relationships to children (22).” Continue reading

The dominant culture of “New Momism”

 

Praise mothers in rhetoric, revile them in public policy, and make them pay to prove their love.

The Book

The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, outlines the trajectory of the rhetoric surrounding mothers in the mass media, the revulsion that mothers are subjected to in public policy, and finally, how mothers and children have become a market. From this rich framework, they have this thesis:  While we have come far from the Feminine Mystique, the problem has a new name (New Momism) that is couched in the rhetoric of feminism itself (i.e. choice).

Douglas and Michaels call this problem the New Momism, for reasons that they astutely and accurately outline in the introduction to their book. I suggest you read it — here, let me link you to a pdf version — because the introduction is quick, to the point, and almost stands alone from the rest of the book.

But what I find really interesting about the book is that it outlines, very precisely, the cultural “rules” surrounding motherhood. Of course, they’re critiquing it, and they’re using it as a call to activism, but the rules that they put together for being a celebrity mother (the pinnacle of motherhood in the media, they argue) are not all that different what I’d imagine a list of rules for being a good mother would be — or at least what makes a good mother on television, in the movies, in advertisements, and in our heads.

The rules are (From pages 126-130):

  1. The mom is gorgeous, in clear control of her destiny, and her husband loves her even more once she becomes pregnant and the baby is born.
  2. They are always radiantly happy when they are with their kids.
  3. They always look and feel fabulous — better than ever — while pregnant, because they are nutrition experts and eat exactly what they should and have the discipline to exercise regularly.
  4. Whatever your schedule, whatever institutional constraints you confront that keep you away from or less involved with your kids, it must be clear that they are your number-one priority, no matter what.

And, to be honest, this is how I have imagined motherhood. I have imagined that Tim and I would conceive, which is a word that is imbued with strange magic, that he and I would be joyous and in love, that there would be no ambiguity as we prepared for the birth of our child. I would be a joyful and attentive mother, and Tim would be a doting and remarkable father, and we’d all live happily ever after, at least until the kids became teenagers.

I’m cringing as I’m writing this, realizing how hopelessly naive I probably sound to someone who is a parent. And I think I knew it was hopelessly naive — I was 9 when my little brother was born, I helped take care of him as an infant. I spent my middle school and high school careers babysitting. I know how much attention and care infants need, how their older siblings get jealous, I know about toys being flung across rooms, and trying to stop children from hitting each other and making them go to bed. I know how big of a mess they make, and how boring it can be to play games about a bajillion developmental stages below yours.

So, mothers out there, and aspiring mothers out there… have you ever bought into this ideal?

There’s much, much more to this review, but I’m trying to keep it bite sized. So, for now, the common conception of what a good mother is in popular culture.