Friday, April 27, 2012

Mother Nature's Son

The interwebs have, of late, been full of foment over motherhood. The current debate has two centers: a discussion of whether 'natural parenting' undermines the status of women based on Elisabeth Badinter's recent book entitled "The Conflict;" and a discussion, spun off of Mit and Ann Romney's recent inarticulations about work and motherhood, of whether stay-at-home parenting is 'work.'

After a bit of time pondering, I'm going to toss out that I don't think these two debates are separate at all. And I think both of them are the sort of straw-mom scuffles that distract us from addressing the real issues of motherhood and work in our culture.

In October of 2005, I started working as an environmental compliance specialist at Death Valley National Park. It was great opportunity - good pay, good benefits - that would likely have turned into a career for me. I was able to work three-quarters time because my husband and I worked ten-hour-days, staggered our days off, and paid one of the few other mothers in the valley to look after our two-year-old for a couple hours two mornings a week.

I was off on a new career track. A track that ended, less than a year later, with the birth of my son.

Would I have chosen to quit because I wanted to stay home with him? Maybe...  I don't know because I didn't have that choice. There was no reliable infant childcare available in Death Valley. (Our presence in the Valley and our housing allotment was based on my husband's job, not mine, so his staying home wasn't an option). Twelve months later, when my son could have moved to cow milk, my job had been filled by someone else. A single guy who didn't have any kids in tow.

In the back-and-forth over Badinter's book on Slate, Hanna Rosin says of formula that, "This powdery substance is arguably as critical a chemical innovation as the birth control pill in fostering women’s progress and freedom." Given my own experience, I just don't buy that. A parent can have a supertanker filled with formula and it is only going to liberate her to pursue progress and freedom if she has a trusted, reliable, affordable caregiver to make sure that the formula makes its way into their infant. And to make sure that the baby's diapers (whether cloth or disposable) get changed. And to make sure that the baby gets to sleep (whether in a swing or held in a sling against someone's chest). And to make sure that the baby gets entertained (whether that means with a plastic teething ring or whatever chemical-free, brightly colored, organic, Bach-playing do-dad parents are being sold these days).

The limiting factor on the progress of women isn't some ivory-tower ideal of 'natural' parenting to which American women are alleged to be striving, failing to achieve, and then cat-o-nine-tailing themselves over.  

It is the lack of reliable, affordable child care.

Which, I hear tell, isn't quite so much of a problem over in France.

My kids are now eight and five. When I talk to the other mothers around town, I generally have no idea what their children ate for the first year of their lives. I don't know if they drank a glass of wine, ate sushi, or rode mechanical bulls during pregnancy. I don't know whether my friends had epidurals, doulas, gave birth in a whirlpool tub, or had a scheduled c-section so they could make it to a Dave Matthews concert. I don't know what sort of carriers they used; where the baby slept; whether they used cloth diapers, or disposable ones, or if they swaddled them in the bark of a willow tree. I don't know if they ever hand-ground organic wheat into crackers, whether their boys are circumcised, or if they cut their teeth on toxin-free blocks.

What I do know is that, years after the moments to make these choices have passed, and long after we might have been 'freed' by the existence of a miracle white powder that our children could drink from someone else's hands, we are still struggling to balance finances, motherhood, work, and childcare.

What do we discuss? Often the fact that money is tight, that a second job doesn't net much in income, and that trusted caregivers are hard to come by.

What rarely comes up? The ways in which many of us - myself included - failed to live up to the alleged 'natural mother' myth. The myth itself doesn't come up much, except when outside sources raise it as something to which we are comparing ourselves. It certainly isn't something that conditions our daily interactions and aspirations.

So, here is my plea: let's agree to table the fight over whether we as a culture of mothers are being oppressed by this mythical vision of the 'perfect natural parent.' Yes, parenting choices matter, but bickering solves nothing. (I learned that from my kids!) And basing sweeping statements about the oppressed state of American mothers based on the inference that some sad-faced woman at a park in Seattle is chastising herself because her organic orange marmalade didn't jell right solves nothing. (Although, for the record, I think she was sad because her childcare fell through).

Let's work instead towards an affordable system of childcare for families of all income levels.  We could model it on the French system, even. Then parents (whether moms or dads) who want to return to work, or need to return to work, or simply need a break from their tyrannical infants (which, heavens know, I needed: A LOT), can pursue "progress and freedom," or "the dignity of work," or even five minutes alone in the shower without someone banging on the door and crying. Whichever applies to their particular case.

My son will start Kindergarten in the fall. It has been 70 months since I held a career-track job. I'm glad I got to spend time home with my kids, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have jumped at the chance to take on some part-time, intellectually and financially rewarding work years ago. I'm worried that with my out-of-date resume, getting my foot back in the door won't be easy.

Especially since a full-time job will mean $800 a month in after-school care.

We'll see what I can find.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Memory Remains

A few nights ago, I watched Coraline with my kids.

This was a mistake.

Not that Coraline isn't a good movie. It is. But it scared the daylights out of Lilly. The scene where Coraline returns from the Other Mother's world to find her parents gone - a bag of long-rotting veggies on the table - was the real kicker.

Coraline was alone. No one was there to take care of her, or tell her that everything would be okay. It's a terrifying prospect.

Later that night, Lilly asked me to tell her the most terrifying movie I'd seen at her age. I think she takes comfort in the knowledge that I was once afraid, too.

And I was. I remember a movie frightening me in the exact same way.

Time Bandits. An excellent movie. A hilarious movie. That ends with this:

Just like Coraline, Kevin finds himself alone in the world. The prospect petrified me. It kept me up at night. Just like Coraline is now keeping Lilly up at night, waiting for me to get into my own bed where she can see that I am still there. That I haven't left her. That I haven't disappeared at the whim of pure evil.


A few days after we watched Coraline and discussed the toaster oven that contained the a chunk of evil that whisked parents away to nothingness, our toaster oven broke. For a day, it limped along, toasting only the bottoms of our Eggos and warming - but not browning - the cheese on our nachos. It was a circumstance I was willing to live with, given my feelings about this particular toaster.

But then it gave up entirely. Kaput. The little red light goes on, but nothing warms.

It made me sad. Beyond what one would consider normal grief for a minor household appliance. Not because I would now have to get a new one - that's a pretty minor annoyance - but because of the toaster's origins.

It was a wedding gift.

After my husband and I got engaged, we went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and were duly armed with a UPC gun that allowed us to wander through the store making a wedding registry. While I spent my time making important life decisions about whether we should go with sage or seafoam, my husband headed straight for the toaster aisle declaring that - whatever else happened - our lives would be incomplete without a toaster oven.

I was dubious. Maybe because of Time Bandits. Maybe because my mom purchased a toaster oven soon after we watched Time Bandits and - on what might have been its maiden toasting - it set a tortilla aflame. In that moment, as my mom approached the appliance intent on putting out the fire, I believed - with 100% certainty - that she would open the oven and simply disappear.

Which, to my great relief, she did not. But it didn't matter. I never trusted that toaster oven again.

So, when Rick wanted to put a toaster oven on our registry, I checked to see if they came in green, determined that they did not, and left the rest up to him. Wasn't my thing.


The toaster oven was purchased for us by Betty and John L. Friends of our family, they came into our lives - to the best of my recollection - when I was in the third grade. About Lilly's current age. They often took care of us when my parents were away. Betty always told us that John L - a mechanic for American Airlines - would personally check out the plane our parents took when they flew away. At some point I must have realized that that left all the connecting flights uncovered, but it remained a comfort.

And Betty cared. She always knew what we were up to and how we were doing. She gave us hugs and ate lunch with us when we visited my father at work, and she was always there with a note or a card when we passed milestones like birthdays and graduations. When I got married, she bought the toaster oven off of our registry, delighting my husband. I told her how overjoyed he was and she told me she was glad, and that they'd gotten it because toaster ovens were, in fact, very useful appliances.

Which, of course, they are. We used it all the time. So much so that, in these days of designed obsolescence, it amazes me that it lasted eleven years. For the most part. The handle only lasted seven. We persevered.

Just about every time I used the toaster, I thought of Betty and John L. It became bittersweet for a while because - not long after our wedding - Betty died when the car she was in was struck by a drunk driver. The toaster made me sad then, too. I'd use it and wonder why something so unfair had to happen to such a wonderful person.

There is, of course, no answer to that question. There never is. Bad things happen and people disappear.

I don't remember when exactly, but time passed and it once again became sweet to be reminded of a wonderful woman who had been a caring presence through my childhood and early adult years. Someone who was interested, and was willing to take care of me when my parents went away.


And so - at the end of this toaster-oven's use life - I am sad.

Not for the oven itself, of course. But because I realize that - strange as it sounds - part of the joy of this toaster oven is the memories that came with it. Harkening back to my days studying archaeology, I can put a name to it. Ideofunction: When an artifact encodes or symbolizes ideas, values, knowledge and so forth, it is said to be serving an ideofunction (Skibo and Shiffer 2008:110).

This toaster oven was more than just a toaster to me. It toasted things and it was a symbol. It helped me remember a good woman.


Sometimes people disappear. Not because they touch a fragment of pure evil smouldering in a toaster oven, or because a Beldam traps them in a snowglobe. They die, they move away, they simply become busy with other things and make choices that lead them down paths that no longer converge.

This is one of the great terrors of life. For children and adults.

And one of the comforts is knowing that, should your parents go missing, there is someone in the world who will step up and try to make things okay. And - even if they can't make things okay - they will try. Someone who tells you - when your parents fly off on a plane - that nothing bad could possibly happen because John L checked to make sure that the plane was working right.

As a child, I had many people that would have stepped up if my parents had inexplicably touched the evil in the toaster oven. I was lucky that way. It is still a comfort to remember them as I move through life.

Even adults need to believe someone will be there for them.

It is strange, perhaps, to keep your memories of someone in something as mundane as a toaster oven. But it is nice, too, because you get to think of them every time you make nachos. In that way it is better than keeping your memories of them in something precious and rarely seen.

In a few days, I'll go to a store and buy a new toaster oven. Maybe - eleven years on - I can find one in sage or seafom. Or maybe not. Either way, I'll buy it, and bring it home, and - probably - I'll think about Betty as I do all those things.

And, knowing me, I'll go right ahead and think of her when I use the new toaster oven, too. That's the thing about symbols. You can make them for yourself out of anything you want. You can put them in mundane places so that the memories are never too far away.

I find great comfort in that.