Friday, February 20, 2009

The Feminine Mystique, 21st century style

This week marked the 46th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique – the groundbreaking book by Betty Friedan that helped spark the modern women’s movement. In identifying “the problem that had no name” – educated women unfulfilled by their lives as suburban housewives – she pointed out that this problem was not one of individual women suffering from neurosis but the result of a larger social structure that idealized domesticity and didn’t allow women to seek fulfillment in other ways.

As I sit here writing, I’m watching the clock to see how many more minutes until my kids’ nap time is over and I need to shut the computer. And frankly, though I am so grateful for the numerous ways that feminism has transformed American society, these days I am keenly feeling the incompleteness of this revolution.

The “problem that has no name” has morphed into several problems, with various names: “the myth of the superwoman” and “the second shift” among them. Take me, for example: an urban working mom with two kids, a husband, a PhD, a mortgage, and a senior position (albeit 4/5th time) in a challenging job. I was raised to expect I would have all these things, and yet juggling them is much harder than I ever expected. Something’s got to give.

What gives? Well, my ambition, for one, seems to have taken a hit. The egalitarian ideals that we wrote into our ketubah, for another, remain hanging on our wall, behind glass.

Sometimes my husband and I joke about how we really need a wife to make our lives feel more manageable; sometimes we say we really need a servant. The apparent interchangeability of the two makes me shudder. And I've noticed, in this Obama age of change, that my friends who have ascended to the most impressive jobs are almost entirely either men with stay at home wives or single women.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a mother. It’s by far the most meaningful and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I’ve made choices – had the luxury to make choices, really – about my priorities, choosing, for example, to work outside of the home, but not full-time.

But it’s not all about choices. There are still structural inequalities that define the options. In today’s world, where two incomes are necessary to live a middle-class life, where nuclear families live in their own little, inefficient units without much help from extended family, where child care for toddlers costs as much as college tuition, where you're lucky if you get any paid maternity leave, where men still generally earn more than women, where the average working woman spends more hours per week on domestic duties than housewives did in the 1950s… we don’t choose freely.

My female friends and I talk about these issues frequently, usually at the playground. Sometimes the tone is joking and ironic, wondering how we ended up here. Sometimes it’s despairing. We all read The Feminine Mystique. We know that the personal is political. And yet we don’t know how to move beyond the playground conversation. We don’t know what the next step is, how to make change in our own lives or in the wider society, how to spark the next feminist revolution. And anyway, nap time is over.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Big Family Fun

We just got back from a long weekend at my family's house. Chamudi loves these visits--he talks about them for days before and weeks afterward. They expand his mind and his heart.

For better or worse, we live hundreds of miles away from any immediate family. Most of the time our "family" consists of Ima, Abba and Chamudi. But every few months we pack up the car and join the clan and become part of something much larger.

My sister has five kids. They're all beautiful and sweet and they love Chamudi, especially now that he's talking and running and able to keep up with their nonstop fun and games. Chamudi is beside himself with excitement when he's with them, and more and more our visits are all about making sure the cousins get to play as much as possible. It's amazing to watch a whole new generation of kids in our family, and to see a child of my own take his place mong them.

Chamudi's also learning a lot about family relationships. Chamudi senses that they are complex, and he's constantly trying to work it out. The fact that Doda is also someone's Mama and that Savta and Saba are also Mom and Dad is tricky. And then there are those pictures on the wall--the ones that Chamudi is sure are Ima but are really Savta, and the ones of Ima when she was a Chamudi. All hints of a family history that far precedes--but also includes--my little boy.

Now we're back in our little apartment, with our little family. I'm happy to be home and unpacking. But I'm also reminded of how much Chamudi gains from being part of a the ganse mishpacha, and that I should probably make the trip a little more often.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

where is my creativity?

I have always prided myself on being creative. When I was little, my best friend and I would spend hours making up games to play. We required no summer camp, parental intervention, video games, etc. We lived on our imaginations. One time we recorded that entire Grease movie - on a little tape recorder. Another time, we wrote a book for her sister about the perils of tattle telling.
We even recorded our own pop song - Pay You Back, which bore an eery resemblance to She Bop, by Cyndi Lauper.

I always thought that this would translate beautifully into my parenting. And maybe it will. At this point, I admit that I am disappointed in my lack of creativity when it comes to interacting with my children. Where are the funky arts and crafts projects? the parsha skits? the silly games?

Now I realize that my kids are only 4 and 2. I didn't even meet this friend until I was 11! Still, I feel like even at this stage, I should be somehow be more creative. More imagination. Less TV.

I try to keep in mind that my own parents were pretty uncreative when it came to interacting with me. They pretty much left me to my own devices.

My job as I see it, is to give my kids the resources and space to grow their own imaginations.

Nonetheless, I still feel a bit boring.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Three-Ring Circus

In the first ring you’ve got the little miss. She’s just finished “davening,” which involves placing my watch on her forehead, wrapping a shirt around her wrist, and rocking back and forth. Now she wants, simultaneously, her “moshu” (pacifier) her “daddymilk” (chocolate milk, in honor of her friend’s daddy) and to “brush the teeth.” I am fully aware that such wishes wreck the parallel structure of a sentence. I’m also pretty certain the kid has got a rather heavy oral fixation.

We depart from the eschatological perspective that would allow all three to happen simultaneously, and accomplish them chronologically. And it occurs to me that the phrase “three-ring circus” is redundant.

It’s my lucky day: after reading 10 books, the girl wants to play “sweep the kitchen,” and she’s also amenable to helping me put dishes away. In her babydoll stroller I discover the missing sippycup lid, the missing kiddish cup, my string of pearls, and a letter from my mother. I’m able to make pizza dough in between tasks (we did, after all, wake up at 6 am). Normally I like finishing one task before beginning another. For example, I prefer to empty the dustpan before rolling pizza dough. But today I do what I can.

It’s my morning “off,” which means I have no baby sitter while I prep for class. I must teach a graduate class in the evening (the second ring). And today little miss is coming to campus with me. Our normal Tuesday evening babysitter, our love, has been gone for nearly two weeks seeking clarity, or deciding whether the custody suit, the unemployment and, finally, the current hiring freeze in Israeli universities is going to be too much for him (ring 3, or is it ring three squared? Can you square a ring? oh will the circle be unbroken?)

By 10 am, little miss falls asleep from sheer exhaustion on my back in the ergo as I’m rolling pizza dough. I prep for class in my apron with flour all over the table and tomato sauce spattered. 40 minutes later it's done. And that’s about it for the nap today. My daughter sleeps like Thomas Edison did. About 4 hours every 24 hour cycle.

But her timing is perfect. The people we nanny share with have phoned and are coming over for pizza. They leave an hour or so later, and it’s time to play clean up.

Office hours are held in the presence of little miss, who has decided she wants to “work” too, by which she means press the keys on my laptop. Last time she did that I couldn’t reformat my screen and had to have professional help. Laptop is shut.

The arching of the back. The roar far too mighty to belong to a 22 lb girl-child.
The profuse apologies to colleagues currently holding office hours.

Are there trumpets and flowers falling from the sky? No, it’s just the lovely graduate student, who used to be a kindergarten teacher. She plops down on her stomach and draws pictures with my child using the washable markers she brought with her. I can go sola to class.

The assignment was to translate Rilke’s Duino elegy #1. The one that begins “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels hierarchies?”

Who, indeed? And Rilke didn’t even have children.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Go To Sleep Already

It's past 9pm and Chamudi is in bed, quiet but not yet sleeping. I'm pretty excited--this is EARLY for him to be settled down.

Herein lies the problem. Most of my friends have their kids in bed by 7pm. The wild ones have them there by 8. But not us.

The problem really started when Chamudi began school in November. Now that I'm not paying by the hour I leave the house a little more slowly in the morning and get home later in the day. We're home by 6, pull together dinner, sit down and have a nice family meal and then start playing with blocks, trains, books, whatever.

Before you know it, it's 7:30pm. And Chamudi doesn't want to to take a bath, or get his jammies on, or read a book. He wants to stay awake. And the truth is, we want to spend more time with him. We miss him.

So we dawdle. And comment idly on the tie. And completely fail to lay down the law.

Somewhere around 8 or 8:30pm one of us summons the grown-up-ness to start the bedtime routine. If we're lucky lights are out by 8:45.

Then begins the massive stall. Water. Music. Tuck in. Tuck in again. And so on. We try to ignore him, but we're softies--both of us. And have I mentioned that we miss him?

I am completely embarrassed to say that it is not unusual for our toddler son to drift off to sleep at 10pm. Fortunately for him he's also able to sleep in (not one of those up with the sunrise kids). Most mornings he sleeps until 7:30 or 8--and he still gets a good nap midday.

He doesn't seem that much worse for the wear. So what's the harm?

One of the biggest downsides is that he's pretty much ceased going to synagogue in the morning with Abba. Up until 2 years old he was basically a regular at morning minyan and daf yomi--which was surely a hassle for Abba but also an amazing experience for them both.

For another thing, our grown-up time--to get housework done, or watch tv, or just be with each other--has pretty much been confined to the hour or so between Chamudi's bedtime and mine.

We do the calming routine thing. But no routine in the world will convince a toddler that he wants to go to sleep when really, he doesn't. And while I may be able to make him go to school, or put on his jacket or say please, nobody but nobody can make him go to sleep.

Maybe if we can just start waking him up and pushing him out earlier in the morning he'll naturally gravitate towards the earlier bedtime. But it'll take a few weeks of purposely starving him of sleep--a tough sell for everyone involved. Assuming it even works.

So there you go. Our dirty secret: we're bedtime failures.

Monday, February 02, 2009

To Facebook or not to Facebook, that is the question...

I am a social being.
I love shmoozing (my husband complains that he can't ever get me out of shul - at least on the Shabbatot when I actually make it there).
I love big Shabbat meals, parties, reunions, all of that stuff.

I also love knowing what people are up to. Whenever I see a friend, I need to know not only how they are, but how anyone we know in common is doing. I love people information (not necessarily gossip, but some might classify it as such). I want to hear that the people I love, or once loved, or like, or maybe even just peripherally know, are doing well. I want to know where they live, if they are married, kids, work, EVERYTHING.

So "why?", one might ask, "why have you not joined Facebook?".

Well, there are a couple of reasons,
  1. I am afraid that people won't friend me. Close friends say that's ridiculous, but I still fear not being friended. I remember almost everyone I have ever met- from grade school, through Israel trips and college. What if they all don't remember me?
  2. I am a stay-at-home-mother. Many days I love what I do and I am proud that I do it. Some days I don't, and I'm not. Yeled and Yalda are my lives right now. They are the most interesting things in my world. I'm not really convinced that anyone really wants updates of my life on a regular basis- doctor visits, school runs, Mommy and Me, I just don't feel that exciting right now. Comfortable, boring, simple....yes! Exciting, not so much.
  3. This is where I can get myself in trouble- I also feel somewhat apologetic that I'm a SAHM. I know that I shouldn't, but I do. It can be somewhat embarrassing that I have an Ivy-league degree, a law degree, and that I used to work at a top ten law firm, and now- I'm "just at home with the kids".
There, I've said it. Phew.

I'm sure I'll eventually give in to the pressure (even my parents have joined), but for now, I'm happy to stay a little bit anonymous on-line, and I will hopefully keep up my shmoozing off-line.

Pakistan Juice

My just turned two-year old copies everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - her big brother says and does. No matter how absurd. Today in the car, they were both acting silly as always, and he started asking for "Pakistan Juice." And whaddaya know it? She starts asking for Pakistan Juice. My husband returned recently from a trip to Pakistan, which is how I think the word came into his head. So I spent the ride passing back cup after cup of imaginary P. J.

This past week, we celebrated her second birthday. My son demonstrated one of his first signs of attention jealosy! For once, his sister was the main event and all eyes were on her. He adjusted remarkably and surprisingly well to her entrance into the world and for the most part, has loved sharing the attention. But truthfully, the vast majority of the time, he is the king and she, his loyal subject.

My little girl just loved the party, and surprised me by how into she really was. But I also think it was good for my son to watch that and experience a role reversal of sorts.
After a minor meltdown, he got it together and settled down for a piece of cake and apple juice.
(I ran out of Pakistan juice.)