I will eat!

I’ve been busy, preparing for events this month (see the news box on the right), and answering the fascinating comments on the posts: Divided We Stand and On Narcissism. So I’m posting sort-of a re-run. Here’s an essay I wrote for Mothers Movement Online, reproduced here in case you never visited. I must warn you that it is long–longer than a readable post (and there are no pictures), so come back later if you need to. Here goes:

Crack Your Shackles, Martyred Mom!
I want to be a feminist mother but I am shackled by guilt, enslaved by a cultural and familial legacy of martyrdom. My culture tells me that I am not a good mother unless I unfailingly put my child’s needs before mine. My family history hints to me that my worth is measured by my suffering. As my husband says of his mother (a holocaust survivor), a martyr is a hero. Of course I want to be a hero. I strive to achieve the ideal and I feel guilty when I fail to measure up.

And yet, when guilt is my master, I cannot be a whole free woman. When guilt commands, I rush to get home by the time school is out even when my work is not done. When guilt twists its knife, I express avid interest in my daughter’s story even when my mind is on the unfinished work. When I obey the guilt, I push myself to be a better mother than I actually am.

But who is this Better Mother that I try to emulate? She is my cheerful neighbor, whom I hardly know. She is the woman on the magazine cover, smiling as if to invite me into her arms. She is the mother I always wanted.

What?

Yes, we are both victims and perpetrators of the inflation of the mommy ideal. When I set out to break free, I ran smack into my own doomed vow to surpass my mother. If I could live my ideal, I would show her and all the women around me that I am not so damaged. But I couldn’t do it. And that is what saved me.

Throughout my life, I have noticed that real change happens when I come face to face with the inevitable impossible. It was impossible for me to surpass my mother because I had become my mother. No, I didn’t look like her. I was assertive while she was apologetic and diminutive. I was flashy while she was subtle. And most important, I was super-attentive to my child while she was, I always claimed, so self-absorbed that she missed my cues, dissed my desires, and confused her needs with mine. If I could attune perfectly to my daughter, if I could adjust myself to her, if I could meet her needs, then surely I would vanquish my Bad Mother. So I did not realize at the time that I was replicating my mother’s insides.

I indulged in this intensive approach to mothering when my daughter was a baby, persisted when she was a toddler, then a preschooler. But then I hit 40, and a realization hit me. As a professional psychologist, I was nurturing everyone around me, but something very big was missing. For one thing, a long dormant desire to perform was surfacing. I had started on the path of an actor years ago but took a turn toward a psychology career. Now I found myself in dance class again, wanting attention again. All around me, I saw women pouring themselves into their children, gathering to pick them up from school, volunteering in their children’s classes, devoting their evenings and weekends to homework and kid activities. I couldn’t keep up. And increasingly, I resented the demands of the school, the expectations of the other mothers, and the relentless interruptions by my child, who had learned, from me, to assume that any utterance mattered more than my unbroken train of thought.

While sometimes mothers around me would complain good-naturedly about this state of affairs, no one seemed to question the importance of this level of self-sacrifice. Anything less would be self-absorbed and bad for the children. Privately, gradually, I was beginning to question this idea, and I began to write about my experience and to read various perspectives on mothering. Where, previously, I sucked up Penelope Leach and Alice Miller, I now hungered for feminist literature, including Phyllis Chesler (Women’s Inhumanity to Women), Douglas & Michaels (The Mommy Myth), Anna Fels (Necessary Dreams), and Jessica Benjamin (The Bonds of Love). It became apparent to me that we were all making a fatal error. The odd thing was that, despite the clarity and consensus in the writing, it did not penetrate into my experience or the experience of the mothers around me. I cancelled my plan to write a book and sunk back into my dilemma.

And then one day…there was my daughter, dressed in a princess outfit, wielding a sword, saying, “I am King!” I picked up a camera. That scene, and how I worked with it, prompted the change that finally helped me crack the shackles of martyrdom. My daughter was beautiful and powerful, and she was sapping the life out of me. But when I picked up the camera, I picked up my power. As I filmed her and then mothers brave enough to talk about the price of sacrifice, I put myself back into the picture. I put my mother back into the picture, and with her, recovered my self.

I couldn’t become a feminist mother until I understood, from the inside, what mothering had taken from my mother. In the movie I ended up making, I say: “My mother ate me up, but she apologized for it. Chomp. Sorry. Chew. Sorry.” and so on. All my life I had been furious about the chomping. But now I understand that it was the apology that was the problem. Now I understand her hunger and how limited was her buffet. When she apologized to me, she injected the guilt that prevented me from being able to satisfy myself. To be a feminist mother, a woman needs nourishment, and not just from her children.

My mother was not able to tell me what she needed, not in words anyway. But she showed me. I saw her unhappiness in her expression, which she tried to hide but revealed in self-portraits that she drew. Through her art she taught me the truth and the value of truth. When I picked up the camera, I picked up her wisdom, and learned a way for us to be intimate at last. As she writes in her poem, Not Yet But Almost:

…the times ahead will be rough.
But I’ll wait out the loss.
I’ll wait for recovery, and rediscovery,
until we can know each other anew,
through the brush stroke, the key stroke,
the camera’s eye.
Through the pain, the laughter, the play
of the singular labor of art
we will wind our way
to the truth of the heart.*

I am making my way to the truth of the heart, Mommy.

Without social action, we have no hope of expanding the buffet. But, without internal change, we will not be able to eat. To become a feminist mother, I learned to disobey the guilt. Guilt informs me that I am not enough; I need to do more, be more, before I can take what I need. I now say, it is enough to be not enough. I am flawed and I am adequate. I will eat.

A feminist mother is an UnMartyred Mom, a woman who shows her children by example that a woman can experience fulfillment, can have an excellent life. A feminist mother joins with other mothers to embrace the full splendor of our varied lives and to improve our world. Let us face ourselves, come together, and dance the mothers’ movement toward freedom.

*Full text of my mother’s poem and much more can be found on the website Martyred Moms.

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Divided We Stand

By now, I’ve written so many posts on women’s groups that I’ve decided to add a category. Why is it so important? As study after study has shown, we humans thrive when we have social support. We are tribal creatures. And the really freakish thing to me is that simply the number of friends we have is predictive of health and happiness. So it all comes down to being popular, which is what any middle school girl can tell you.

My middle school daughter, Vita, was having a conversation with her friend during an interminable car ride yesterday.

Friend: “Are you a girly girl?” Vita: “no.” Friend: “Are you a sporty girl?” Vita: “no.” Friend: “yeah, I think I’m a mix. girly girl and sporty girl and some other things. I’m kind of girly when it comes to boys…” My daughter is not answering, but her friend is working out her identity. She is categorizing herself in a way that fits her personality and that will promote conversation. Unfortunately for her, since Vita has little interest in talking about boys, the conversational bid was ignored. I worried about the silence for a while but they seemed comfortable with it–with the help of some electronic devices.

The night before, I’m having drinks with 2 friends, both working mothers. working mothers!? Just by using the term, I expose all manner of assumptions and cultural values. Of course, all mothers work, really hard, at something. Very few of us are sitting around on our duffs, indulging in bonbons, and watching the tube. Either we are making a living, or we are doing something else. But, sitting with my friends, we join as working mothers to complain again about the unfair demands of the schools and the all-too-ready collusion of the “stay-at-home” mothers.   stay-at-home?!–see comment above.  But, listen!  Some SAHMs have actually advised my friend that her child would be damaged if she did not attend an event that was scheduled during the middle of the day:   Graduation from Social Studies, Part 1, or something along those lines.

As per my conversation with my sister-in-law, I bemoaned the cultural values that cause women to compete with each other on mothering styles.  Of course I have my opinions.  As a militant but still conflicted UnMartyred Mom, I really resent the implication that hovering is the best mothering.  But I know that if I did not have a career that reminds me of my effectiveness, I would sure put all my achievement needs into mothering.

What is mothering, anyway?  Most simply, mothering means having a child.  In that sense, we are all full-time mothers.  But mothering also means the jobs that we do as mothers and home-organizers. We vary in how much we like or value those jobs. I like to clean, bake, and talk at length with my child, but I hate hate hate field trips.  Why can’t we collaborate?

So many reasons.

At this moment in our civilization, we women are deeply divided; some of us breast feed, some don’t; some let our babies cry, some don’t, and on and on and on. And yet we have to stand together. The more value is placed on women’s work, the more we can exchange services fairly. If it is all legitimate, we can all feel good about what we choose to do. Until then, it really isn’t ‘choice.’

Let’s start here.  We can stand together by supporting the right policies and politicians.   We can stand together by noticing when we contribute to disrespectful criticism.  We can stand together by learning to disagree openly instead of covertly.  And we can stand together by supporting each other’s different paths.

Mommies of the Serengeti

Subtitled “playgroups, birthday parties, and learning to run with the herd,” this essay in Brain, Child, has been working its way through me like a koan. The author, a former loner, describes her journey from exclusion, e.g. “a playgroup is the social equivalent of surgery without anesthesia,” to membership in a tribe of women. Overcoming what she describes alternately as a fear of rejection or as contempt, she learns to conform to the standard of birthday parties and give her son a whopping one. It was a great success. Well written and thoughtful, it is a lesson in transformation and friendship.

I was horrified!
aaah!

She even made fun of how apparently ‘fashionable’ it is to complain about an alienated state. So, where do I go from here? If a fellow alien found her way into the herd, what is my excuse? I should suck it up and join. Especially because I can’t stand the thought of doing anything fashionable.

Do you see where I’m caught? I can’t join and I can’t not join. Not only do lavish parties stress me out, but I also actually believe that it should be ok to do it differently. On the other hand, I most definitely do not want to foster contempt or fear of rejection or actual rejection; I do not want my child to be without a social group; I do not want do not want do not want do not want…

I want to be able to have a quiet and cheerful party. I want to be able to question ‘attachment parenting’ and feel tender toward attached parents. I want to say what feels true to me and still have friends. I want I want I want it all.

I’m going back to my meditation cushion. Ring the bell when the next century arrives.

Illegitimate

Last week I had a conversation with my sister-in-law that has continued in my head. Of course, it didn’t continue in person because we were interrupted by children, but that’s another post.
Mommy

So, we’re talking, or attempting to talk as I may have mentioned, and she tells me what she is learning since quitting work to stay home with her three children. She tells me that she used to take pride in her identity as a nurse, but now she is learning to take pride in just being herself. I answer, supportively I think at the time, that it is hard to value what our culture does not value. But inside I’m feeling grateful that I have a legitimate job, that I am a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D.

We don’t finish the conversation, as you may remember, and I’m left feeling confused. I notice that my ‘supportive’ response arose from a slight feeling of superiority, yet later I begin to feel that it is she, who doesn’t seem to need legitimacy, who is actually superior to me.

And it gets worse. I come to realize that actually I have nothing. There is nothing remotely legitimate or even romantic about a 47 year old mother who is trying to do something creative. At a recent dinner, my friend tells me that she is going to change her work schedule to be more available to her son in the evenings. I tell her I’ve cut back my psychology hours to make films…and blog. I feel like an idiot.

No. I take that all back. We don’t make value judgments, do we? It’s wrong. We just make different choices.

Different choices. Diversity. Tolerance. Curiosity.

I talk that talk, and even walk that walk on a good day, but sometimes my mind rages on, obedient to its conditioning–measuring, comparing, assessing, criticizing–quite symmetrical in its displeasure with self and other. Would that I could be free of it all!

Pulp fiction

Do you find it as agonizing as I do to confront the proliferating choices at the grocery store? All I wanted was to buy some orange juice. But because some child somewhere wouldn’t drink orange juice if it actually contained tiny bits of orange known as ‘pulp,’ a whole industry responded.
Pulp fiction

Now I have to decide between some pulp, no pulp, and extra pulp. What is regular orange juice? and why can’t a kid just drink it as it is? Come to think of it, who is responsible for the absurd varieties of any given product? Was it you? Or was it me on some weird food trend? Read Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice and you will understand why going shopping nowadays engenders debilitating self-doubt and dread.

We live in a kid-centered culture, where most restaurants provide ‘kid menus,’ where the child is idealized and where the need of the child trumps all other priorities. My question is how do we know what a child needs? Is it the same as what the child wants? Sure, she refused to drink the juice with pulp, but if she had no choice she eventually would have swallowed those pesky bits. Doesn’t she need to learn to tolerate some discomfort? I know I do. I go to yoga; I meditate; I torture myself in a variety of ways just so that I can experience the freedom that comes from being able to tolerate some discomfort. Do I want to take that away from my child just because it is easier to please her?

Women’s Groups Redux

I spent the weekend at the Psychotherapy Networker with a Group of Women. As you know, I have renounced groups, renounced my ill-fated attempts to fit in and stand out simultaneously, renounced renounced renounced. If you’ve seen any of my videos , you know how I like to repeat repeat things.

Not only did I survive but I learned a few things. Like a participant anthropologist, I studied and practiced the ways of women. I learned that while we usually prefer to agree, it is possible and even stimulating to disagree as long as we attend to each other’s feelings. This requires an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring, and a willingness to be challenged at a fairly deep level. And, of course, humor! Disagreeing about child-rearing or religion, for example, is a lot easier after some rowdy banter about sexual exploits, or lack thereof.

I learned, too, that competition between women is complicated business. We rarely brag, unless it is about our children, yet we occasionally compete in misery. It is relieving and even fun sometimes to share stories of embarrassment or failure, and we play ‘one upswomanship’ with each other on the badness of it all. Now, this can be a very good thing. I pity the members of the other gender who are unable to show weakness; and yet I wonder if our relative comfort with weakness perpetuates our position. Are we polishing our glass ceiling?

Anyway, I managed to play well enough, and felt accepted by The Group. Mind you, although I have renounced groups, I do enjoy good company. What I renounced was carving myself up to fit the image that I thought people needed to see. It isn’t easy feeling all that longing to join and still take conversational risks. In one workshop, we learned about women’s characteristic response to stress: tend and befriend. Me, sometimes I fight. But I applaud all the women who manage the mental gymnastics of including their authentic and diverse selves as they nurture their friends. You know who you are!

Dancing with my Prius

Driving my Prius is related to Renouncing Groups, which is related to Martyred Moms.

What?

Well, you see, when I first got the Prius, I was quite impressed with the feedback screen which shows MPG in real time. Captivated, I made every effort to keep it low by maintaining a steady speed, curbing my TypeA tendencies, etc. Then, I topped out. I couldn’t seem to increase beyond 44 MPG, so I decided to just drive normally. My mileage began gradually but steadily slipping….til HORRors!…one day it dropped below 40. Resolving to do better, we reset the car and I became attentive again–so attentive that I became quite tense. Still the MPG climbed to 48 or so. It was hard to maintain, though, so I relaxed and began to dance with it. Gentle on the pedal but speeding up when it made sense. I’m averaging 45 MPG now, and enjoying the ride.

Do you get the connection?

Vision followed by determination and very close attention followed by setback followed by another dose of determination and very close attention followed by the dance of the middle way.

So here’s what made me so tense when I was driving steadily and relatively slowly (only 10 mph over the speed limit): I was not keeping up with the other drivers! I was one of the people to be criticized in the slow lane. Believe me, I’ve done some criticizing myself. I know I know, you can’t imagine that I would ever criticize anyone, but I’ve done it. So, driving in an energy efficient manner requires settling down and managing my reactions to the other TypeAs.

Being an UnMartyred Mom means managing my reactions to the more self-sacrificing Moms out there. Can I maintain my intention to be an equal player in my family? Can I do it without judging the other moms? It is tricky business but I’m learning the steps. I can hear the music.