Monday, July 30, 2012

Nine months

Graham turned nine months old today, and we celebrated by taking a naked nap. 

Graham turns one year old on October 30, and on the Saturday nearest the 30th (the 27th, I think) we're going to throw a costume birthday party, since it's so close to Halloween, and ask attendees to dress as their favorite character from children's literature. I love Elmer the patchwork elephant, but I also love the way Graham looks in his plain birthday suit. Pictures posted three months from now will reveal Graham's costume! 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fighting a baby

Mimi likes to say that her life was "a happening." Without exactly planning anything, everything turned out nicely for her. She married my grandfather, who took such complete care of her that it wasn't until after he died that Mimi realized she didn't know how to put gas into her car—he had always done it for her. She says that she went directly from her parents' care into her husband's. (Almost immediately after marrying my grandfather, as they drove away from the wedding together, Mimi asked, "Bill, what am I going to do if I find someone I like better than you?" And he replied coolly that he would work very hard to make sure that didn't happen.) When Mimi says that her life was "a happening," she means that she never calculated its events or outcomes. They just happened.

Feeling a lack of responsibility for—or a lack of control over—your own life is a hallmark, I think, of depression. But Mimi is not depressed. Feeling that your life has made itself without your active, planned input might amount to a sort of ontological humility:  it's difficult to resist regarding yourself as the center of the universe—although I have heard that our first-person mode of being/thinking is a construct, I truly can't imagine it any other way—but maybe being the center of things just means that influences are pressing in on you from every direction all the time. If you're satisfied with the result of the pressing, I guess you could be called humble. Maybe Mimi is satisfied; maybe Mimi is humble. 

Before Eva was born, Aron and I went to lunch with Ashley and Paul, and during that lunch Paul asked something about putting a baby on a schedule—I don't remember what he said exactly, but I think it was a suggestion-disguised-as-a-question, like, Isn't it a good idea to start your baby on a schedule early so that she can develop at least a small sense of self-sufficiency by recognizing that there are times that are for you and the baby together and times that are for you and the baby separately. Aron and I essentially said that you don't impose a schedule on a baby; a baby imposes a schedule on you. A baby is a whole universe of influences.

But ...

I did some research on Google a few nights ago and became convinced that Graham has been experiencing night terrors. (I am not entirely convinced that he has ever truly had a night terror, and no one I've mentioned his "night terrors" to has been even slightly convinced that he's ever had one. I think the consensus is that I'm being a dramatic, panicky mother.) Within thirty minutes of putting Graham to bed each night, he wakes up screaming and is, for up to two minutes, inconsolable. (Night terrors can last fifteen minutes or more, so if Graham has in fact had night terrors, I am grateful that they are the brief kind.) What I learned when reading about night terrors is that babies who have them are actually asleep during the episodes even when they appear—because of open eyes and thrashing—to be awake. I also learned that a sleep-deprived baby is more at risk of having night terrors, so for the past four days I have been forcing Graham to take at least two naps, together totaling at least three hours, each day. A couple of weeks ago Graham started fighting his morning nap so hard that I thought he must no longer need to take one, but reading about the connection between night terrors and sleep deprivation has convinced me that his need for significant periods of daytime sleep remains. So I have, like I said, forced Graham to continue taking his morning nap.

Which means I did something. Did I exert a strong maternal influence? Did Graham have no other option than to submit to my napping commands? Well, only kind of. What does it mean to force a baby to nap? It means being as patient as possible through whiny, flailing protestations. It means giving up at least thirty minutes in struggling to calm a baby who is attempting to rub his sleepy eyes and crawl simultaneously, and then it means giving up another hour to be the mattress for the baby once he has been successfully subdued. 

Ensuring that Graham gets more sleep during the day is necessary for his wellbeing. He needs sleep, so I fight him for him. He is happening to me much more than I am happening to him. I would like to claim credit for the fact that Graham almost never pees on me during diaper changes anymore, but I don't think I had much to do with that either. It has just happened to work out that way.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Feeling healed at the Farmer's Market

I went to bed Thursday night after reading an article in The New York Times about a man in his mid-30s who has been in prison since he murdered both his parents at age fourteen. The article covered his efforts to earn early release from prison, which a judge agreed to grant—partly because of strong support among prison officials for the inmate's early release—as long as the murderer's family didn't object. One aunt, the murdered mother's sister, objected, so the murderer must serve the remainder of his prison sentence before, ten years from now, being released. After reading the article, I went to bed but, feeling deeply disturbed by the story, didn't sleep very well.

And when I returned to The New York Times homepage Friday morning, during Graham's nap, I saw the news about the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. It is profoundly, inexpressibly sad to imagine the pain and fear of the victims—those killed, those wounded, witnesses, and all their family members and friends. Following the shooting, Adam Gopnik wrote an article for The New Yorker called "One More Massacre." (I have been begging everyone I know to read it, and I'll continue to beg:  please read the article.) Gopnik reiterates in his article on Aurora what he regarded as THE horrific afterimage of the rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007:  on the Virginia Tech campus, cellphones rang from the pockets of dead students as their worried parents called. I won't pretend to know how painful it is to lose a child, but I'm certain that parents and other relatives of the victims, as well as the victims' friends, are feeling so much sorrow. I've been thinking about these people. 

And I've also, selfishly but naturally, been thinking about Graham, who has already showed interest in leaving my arms and will eventually, undoubtedly make and realize plans to leave our home, which seems—coffeetable corners, electrical outlets, blankets and all—much safer than the world outside.

In the article I read Thursday night I learned that one feature common to the lives of children who commit parricide (as noted by psychologists) is that they (the children) are shut in by family and cut off from a larger, non-familial social network. I'm not worried about figuring out a way to raise Graham that doesn't involve his murdering me. I don't anticipate that being a challenge. I'm not meaning to be flippant. Being killed by Graham just truly isn't a concern I have; however, what psychologists have said about children who commit parricide has made me take seriously the possibility that my reclusive tendencies could be inimical to Graham's development. I wouldn't want him, for example, to become antisocial. I don't want to impart my social anxieties to him. He shouldn't be afraid of the world, but if he takes too many of his cues from me, he might grow up awkward, shy and frightened. (Two things I'd like to note:  1. I understand that I may be overestimating my influence on Graham, who is his own person and has his own personality; and 2. You can invite me parties—I'm not exactly a weirdo:  my anxiety is mostly internal, and beer is a very effective treatment for it.)

But it's true that I fear the world. I'm afraid of violence, car accidents, racism, guns going off accidentally, apathy, desensitization to the pain of others, contagious illnesses. I'm afraid when anyone—anyone—allows Graham to chew on her fingers. Strangers' fingers and viral rashes are just two of the things that can be avoided simply by staying home. But staying home won't help Graham know the world in a real, experiential way.

What I want to talk about is the beautiful time Graham and I had at the Athens' Farmer’s Market on Saturday. It was tremendously restorative emotionally. We arrived just after 10:00am and stayed until nearly noon, doing little more than watch families shop and play and listen to Kyshona Armstrong's gorgeous voice and guitar, live. (Please check out her website. She will blow your mind gently.) Graham and I bought an eggplant and purple okra, but the okra's purple, as you can see in the picture below, didn't survive steaming.

purple potatoes, edamame, okra, spinah/arugala salad with kiwi, mango and almond slivers
Because I drink at least three liters of water each day, I make extremely frequent bathroom visits, and because I very rarely put Graham in a stroller (he's almost always in my arms and propped on a hip), my public bathroom visits are always challenging. Wearing a dress simplifies things:  I can get my underwear down with one hand and hold Graham in the air while I pee so he doesn't get toilet seat germs on his feet. And then, somehow, I wipe. This is an unconvincing rendition of just how skilled I am at peeing in public with Graham. I feel incapable of relating all the maneuvers involved (I myself am unsure how exactly it happens), but I want you to know that I am without fail very adept at going pee while holding Graham, which I had to do during our trip to the Farmer's Market.

One hand washes the other, unless you're a mother holding your child at the sink, in which case one hand washes itself while the other hand, attached to the arm holding the baby, awaits its turn to wash itself. That's how hand-washing after peeing with Graham normally happens:  one hand at a time. But at the Farmer's Market on Saturday, another mother, with a child in a stroller, offered to hold Graham after she washed her hands so that I could afterward wash mine. I said, "Gosh, where were you when I was awkwardly pulling my panties down?!" Just kidding. I said, "Thank you." I said it three times:  once for the act itself and twice for her recognizing that someone needed help and instantly offering to be that help. I am so glad this woman exists. I am sure she makes lots of lives happy. She's such a mother.

It drizzled lightly for most of the time that Graham and I were at the market, and although the rain was soft, it fell so steadily that the ground was soaked. I saw several mothers sit themselves on the wet ground and be the dry seat for their children as they ate snacks and listened to the live music. So many moms not minding getting wet since it meant that their kids could stay mostly dry. 

There are pie, pastry and coffee booths at the Farmer's Market, and next week I plan to bring a stroller so that Graham can sit while I indulge in coffee and a treat. I am so surprised each time I use a stroller by how nice it feels to not have a sore back and sore shoulders. It's an unfamiliar feeling, but usually feeling sore is worth the closeness of having Graham in my arms. We like being close, and we love the Farmer's Market.

If I whispered "patty cake" into Graham's ear at the end of a performed song, he could clap. And he will next week, too.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Alphabet Pal and other bad influences

Before Graham was born Aron and I planned to forbid battery-operated toys in our house. Aron and I both have nieces and nephews who play with toys that yell at them in unintelligible mechanical voices and sing songs that sound like a car breaking down. Finding those sounds insufferably aggravating as an aunt made me worry about my maternal prospects. I worried that feeling overwhelmed at times by all things children—the way they enjoy being tossed onto a pile of pillows for hours; the way they like shows like Veggie Tales; the way they whine and are indefatigable—was a clear indicator of my parental unfitness. Anyway, we all know that beggars can't be choosers, and neither, evidently, can acceptors. Aron and I have accepted lots of battery-operated toys from generous (and disobedient) family members. They haven't threatened our sanity as I expected. The noises that amuse Graham don't annoy me at all. And although I get physically tired from chasing and emotionally tired from caring, it's never an overwhelming drag to crawl on the floor with Graham. Graham's good moods are so contagious. Because he likes his noisy toys, I like them too. But I still worry that singy, blinky toys encourage passivity—I don't know whether that's a reasonable worry, but it's an intuition I have. And I also worry that Graham will learn to repeat silly toy sentences, and a certain noisy toy called Alphabet Pal makes me think that's a valid worry, because Alphabet Pal, featured above with Graham, has been designed to avoid certain words.

Alphabet Pal is a plastic caterpillar with, yep, alphabet letters running along both sides of its body. The toy has a few different settings:  one makes Alphabet Pal sing the alphabet, one makes Alphabet Pal say the alphabet, and one gives the phonetics of each letter (so A is "ah.") If Alphabet Pal is on the phonetic setting, it won't play the S-sound if the P-, E-, -N-, and I-sounds are hit first; instead, Alphabet Pal giggles and exclaims, "That tickles!" I don't know if a giggly "That tickles!" is the best response the toy could give after a user nearly touches penis

I know that Alphabet Pal is ticklish because my husband I have the curiosity of children and the dirty minds of pre-teens. With each other's help, Aron and I got Alphabet Pal to pronounce handjob—cooperation was necessary because handjob is a longish word and its letters are spaced far from one another along Alphabet Pal's body. We were going to try cunnilingus after having success with handjob, but I think some sort of parenting task got in the way of our figuring out the sequencing. "Okay, I'll get the C, I, L, and G if you can hit the U's and the N's." Timing is the real challenge. I'm determined to try again soon:  does cunnilingus tickle Alphabet Pal? I've never seen Veggie Tales, but I know the show stars a penis and a vagina disguised as a cucumber and a tomato, so I didn't start the fire.

Graham isn't allowed to watch TV until he's three (for real), at which point he'll be restricted to high-quality, slow-paced, non-violent films, like … I don't know. Is there a director who combines the slow, meditative cinematography of Terrence Malick and (pre-Pineapple Express) David Gordon Green with the tenderly dark humor of Robert Altman's family dramas? It's fine if he's bored.

Graham reads neither my blog nor my thoughts, and he hasn't yet repeated anything Alphabet Pal has happened or been made to say. I hardly ever utter bad words in front of him, and Aron's teaching him Italian, and the occasions that I attempt to read him Latin are the ones when I, out of frustration, let bad words slip. "Tantum religio potuit, ummm, sadere, oops, shit, suadere malorum. That's why you can't watch Veggie Tales. Because Lucretius said so."      

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The inventory of easiness

Graham at eight and a half months
Aron and I went with Graham to the video store a few weeks ago and caught ourselves in an interesting lie. For the last two months of her pregnancy, we had been telling Ashley (Aron's sister) and Paul, her husband, to take as many naps and watch as many movies as possible before Eva was born. (Eva is now one month and one day old.) We had been warning them that once Eva arrived their napping and movie-watching opportunities would surely depart. But as we perused the new release section at the video store a few weeks ago, Aron and I kept coming across movies we had seen since Graham's birth. In total we counted four new release movies that we had rented and watched, but I also remember a week of watching only Woody Allen movies on Netflix (my favorite:  Hannah and Her Sisters)—so between Graham's first and third month, Aron and I watched eight movies. It was strange to both of us to realize that. We had both felt certain that we hadn't seen a movie since I was pregnant, but in fact we've seen several.

During our video store visit (which, before making the new release discovery, we thought was Graham's first time in a video rental store), we rented Carnage and Shame. We were able to watch Carnage over the course of three days, with the volume very low and the subtitles on, as Graham slept on top of me. I was too afraid to watch Shame around Graham. Even if it were on mute and Graham's eyes were closed, and even if his head were facing the other direction—even if he were deaf and blind. I shouldn't have rented a movie that we can't watch around Graham's eyes or ears, because we are never far from Graham or his component parts.

Graham doesn't nap alone. If he did, I don't know what I'd do, so unused am I to not being a mom mattress. And I love being a mom mattress. But I guess if I weren't Graham's bed I'd be able to watch a movie during the day while he slept in his crib. Watching movies has gotten more difficult, impossible even, because we don't want Graham to even peek at moving images or hear dialogue in his sleep. But movies are probably the only regression we've experienced since Graham's early babyhood. Everything else about life with him has gotten so much easier. 

I remember on the first day of one of my classes last semester everyone having to introduce herself to the rest of the class:  every student had to say his or her name, major and why she signed up for the class. I said my name, my major and that my new baby was the reason for every one of life's "whys." And then I was asked how old my baby was, and I remember saying, "Ten weeks." And I remember the class gasping collectively. 10 weeks felt old to me then, and now, of course, it seems so young. Later in the semester, a student doing a presentation asked his classmates to raise our hands if we had (or didn't have, I don't remember which) a smart phone, and I whispered to the kid sitting in front of me, "What's a smart phone?" and all the students sitting near me looked at me like I was an oddball for not knowing. I thought a smart phone was a brand of phones, like a Blackberry or something, not just a type. Later in the semester the word colostrum came up, and I enjoyed seeing my classmates look confused about it. 

Anyway! Ten weeks. Graham was ten weeks old when my most recent semester of school started. (Since I didn't take a semester off, Graham was only two weeks when I returned to school the very first time, but there were only a couple of weeks remaining in the semester before winter break.) When Eva was born she had skinny legs that I marveled at. I honestly didn't remember Graham’s legs being as skinny, but just two weeks ago I saw a picture of his legs at seven days old:  they were just as thin as Eva's, maybe thinner. Sometimes I think I don't remember a thing.

Yesterday Graham and I went to Publix for asparagus and granola, and Aron stayed home to work on his Italian homework. When Graham and I returned to the house, I put the granola on top of the refrigerator while I was holding Graham with one arm:  his legs were wrapped around my hip, and he was holding my chin and smiling as I made it and his hands move up and down, and he started to laugh, and then I started to laugh, and I said, "I miss you." And Aron, who was sitting at the kitchen table watching Graham and me interact, said, "Why do you miss him?" I didn't know why. I was holding him that moment, and I hadn't been away from him all day. But I did have a missing him sensation, and I realized that Graham is growing so fast, and developing so many capabilities over such short amounts of time, that I sometimes don't recognize him as my baby. My baby, for example, couldn't pull himself up on the coffee table. Graham can. My baby didn't try to eat my flip flops. Graham does. 

Making an inventory of things that have gotten easier and more impressive about Graham helps me realize that his growing up is as good for me as it is for him. Here's what the easy inventory looks like:
  • SLEEP!:  Although he doesn't nap alone, Graham has grown into a stellar sleeper! During the first month, Aron and I got (or felt like we were getting) fewer than four hours of sleep each night. (I always found it difficult to follow the "sleep while the baby sleeps" advice during the day. When Graham took daytime naps, I wanted to wash dishes and fold laundry. Clutter makes me crazy.) These days Graham usually sleeps the first four hours of the night in his crib alone. After those first few hours, he wakes up and needs to be cuddled back to sleep, and I tend to keep him in bed next to me for the rest of the night, which feels easier than risking his waking up by lying him back down in his crib. I rarely get fewer than eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Eating:  The past month has been the only time in Graham's life that I have felt confident that he's eating enough. (The pediatrician has never doubted that Graham was getting enough food, but I still worried.) Graham eats about thirty ounces of formula a day and six to eight ounces of solids, including stage thee meals like minestrone and ratatouille! He also takes excellent poopies.
  • Sleeping/eating:  Because Graham eats so well during the day, he has started to sleep through his former nighttime feedings. Sometimes he gets hungry around 4:00am, but for the most part he sleeps from 8:00pm (minus a frantic waking or two when he needs some snuggles) until 7:00am. 
  • Laughter:  Graham makes me laugh. I make Graham laugh. Graham makes himself laugh, which makes me laugh. We live in a funny house!
  • Mobility:  Parents of crawlers and amblers used to tell Aron and me to enjoy having a non-crawling baby. They told us that a crawling baby is an exhausting baby. That's true, but a crawling baby is also an impressive baby. And although I am halfway heartbroken each time Graham wants to get out of my arms and onto the floor to play, I am also discovery that it's nice to be able to use my hands for something other than holding Graham. The openness of our house allows me to cook in the kitchen and still be able see Graham's adventures in the living room. And our house is small, so he's never closer to true danger than I am to him. And I'm quick, quicker than he is, for now.
  • Reading:  Graham doesn't enjoy being read to as much as I enjoy reading to him, but as he's crawling around contentedly it's easy for me to sneak some poetry into his ears without him becoming a restless audience member. 
  • Cognizance:  Graham is increasingly aware of the world around him. He waves to the birds he hears chirping in the trees. He waves at strangers on the street. I think he attempts to sing along when I start the the "A B C" song (though it's true that I have optimistic mom ears). In August we are going to take him to the aquarium. I am so excited to see his eyes see all the animals stolen from the sea for a profit. I'll work on developing his moral cognizance when he's a little older. 
  • Games:  I try to relax and allow Graham to explore the house without constantly hovering over and redirecting him, but there are certain spots that are dangerous, and he just doesn't get it. Graham is very interested, for instance, in Aron's bike, which we keep in the hallway. I am, for Graham's sake, very afraid of Aron's bike, but there really isn't anywhere else we can keep it. Graham seems aware of the fact that he's not permitted to play near Aron's bike, because as he crawls toward it and I come from behind to redirect him, he looks over his shoulder and laughs before speeding up in pursuit of its pedals. And when I get on the ground to crawl with Graham, we take turns chasing each other. My saying, "I'm going to get you! always makes him laugh.
  • Robust stuff:  Graham spends the day standing and falling, usually on his butt but infrequently he'll bump his head. He almost never cries about it. He just pulls himself up again.
But I do sometimes miss the baby we brought home from the hospital, even if he didn't let us sleep.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My boobs

When I'm clothed the right one is imperceptibly larger than the left, and when I'm naked the difference is noticeable. That could've stayed a secret between me and the shower curtain, but I figured that the declaration that my boobs are wonky would allow me to discuss them without it seeming as if I'm eroticizing them. Normally I wouldn't presume that my boobs have any erotic potential, wonky or not. I don't ever have to turn down advances:  I'm never advanced upon. I'm not hideously ineffable (I know what ineffable actually means, but it also sounds like it could be a synonym for unfuckable), but I think my aura is insecure and asexual, and I don't tend to inspire flirtation or earn stares. But today I wore a dress that pushed my boobs together and left a cleavage-y area exposed, and I received an unusual amount of attention. My boobs are on my mind for that reason.

Aron and I went downtown to do some chores:  he took Graham with him to pay our water bill, and I went to the post office right across the street by myself to ship a book that I recently sold on Amazon. As I walked on the sidewalk toward the post office entrance, an older gentleman passed me. He nodded his head in a friendly way, but it took me a moment to notice, and by the time I caught onto his friendly gesture and sought eye contact to give him a friendly nod back, his eyes were undeniably on my boobs. He was not a casual gawker. And then after I shipped my book a young Aryan frat boy held the door open for me at the post office exit. Frat boys aren't considerate people. (I know that's a generalization, but so is Cars have tires. There may be cars without tires, but that doesn't mean that I have to use qualifiers like "most" or "usually." But I can use those qualifiers, lest I offend anyone:  Most frat boys aren't considerate people usually. They don't even throw away their own beer cans. They have landscapers.) I don't want to personally attack the Aryan frat boy from the post office, who might've been a car without tires, but I also didn't want to accept a "favor" from him, so instead of directly exiting the post office, once I noticed him looking at me while propping the door open, I stopped and peered into a trashcan until he lost patience. It didn't take long.

I recognize that I may have felt looked at today because I wasn't carrying Graham with me:  maybe our being separated disrupted my emotions and made me a less reliable perceiver of reality. Or it could've been that the man looked at my boob area because he was surprised there wasn't a baby there. And maybe the frat boy opened the door because I looked as lonely and vulnerable without Graham as I feel without him. But it's also true that my boobs were on display today. 

I'm not offended or frightened when someone looks at my boobs. But that's just such a dumb place to start. As I have mentioned many times before, my boobs are broken. They didn't produce breastmilk. Looking at my boobs is like dreaming of owning a used Buick. I distrust the taste of anyone who looks at my boobs, unless it's a woman, in which case I imagine that she sees them and also sees instantly that I'm a mother, and even if she notices that my boobs are wonkily different sizes, she'll still think they're beautiful, and then she'd imagine that my stomach is home to gorgeous pudge, unless this woman is a typical sorority girl, in which case she might not think so generously.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The newspaper, part 3: tender and vicious

Mimi, my only remaining grandparent, is a widow who has a dog named Rosie. On the phone with Mimi this morning she told me that two nights ago she became overwhelmed by loneliness and looked to Rosie for comfort. I take notes during our conversations, because Mimi says funny, fascinating, awful, shocking and sweet things all the time. Because I take notes and because Mimi has a slow southern accent (it's elegant-sounding, not backwoodsy), this should be verbatim:  "I felt suddenly that there was no life left in the world. Rosie sleeps on the floor in the summer. I said, 'Rosie, get into bed with me,' but she didn't, so I said, 'Rosie, please get into bed with me.' She has a big belly, and I just, you know, put my hand on it and felt her breathing. I've never felt that way before. I don't like to feel that way."

I have a bad habit of feeling sorry for people—it's bad for a lot of reasons but primarily because it's useless and condescending. The last time Aron and I were in Atlanta I saw a blind lady stepping off a curb and into the street, and I imagined that her life must be so difficult, and then I cried about it. The idea of the woman ever being insecure or afraid is deeply distressing to me. But those feelings seem to imply something unkind:  I must think she's too weak to deal with the same emotions that everyone else deals with, and I'm sure, upon reflection, that that isn't true—and if it were true that she was weak, then I should help her instead of feeling depressed about it. Anyway, I mention my tendency to feel (uselessly and condescendingly) sorry for people so that you'll know when I say that I don't feel sorry for Mimi, not even slightly, that it's not because of a general inability to feel sorry for people. Mimi doesn't let you feel sorry for her.

(At some point the difference between sympathy and empathy started to be discussed by everyone. Sympathy and empathy really shook up the culture. Maybe it was around the same time that the song "Ironic" came out and everyone liked to boast knowing that the song doesn't use the word right. People still seem to enjoy talking about that. Anyway, I'm too afraid of being reprimanded to use sympathy or empathy. Maybe the whole point of the lexical uproar was that people who feel pity shouldn't mistake that feeling for either of the more noble emotions of empathy or sympathy. Isn't it ironic that I just now came to understand what all that talk was about?)

Mimi is very matter-of-fact when it comes to expressing emotions that may make her appear vulnerable. When she says that she felt so lonely that she had to feel her dog breathe to reassure her that life remained in the world, she says it like she's reading the ingredients of a frozen dinner:  in bed, felt lonely, called dog, watched the up and down of lungs. All logos, no pathos. But she delivered, during our conversation this morning, a passionate diatribe about President Obama, who wants the government to own everyone's life, who is un-American, who wants children to grow up with parents who are on welfare and have no work ethic, who is changing the way this nation has been for two hundred years. All pathos, no logos. "He's a socialist," she said, "and I despise him." And I said, "He's doing better, but he's certainly no Socialist yet." Mimi didn't agree that he's doing better. 

Mimi thinks that how a person treats children and animals determines the quality of her character. I agree, but I would add to that how a person treats waitstaff. Mimi thinks that once you have a child, you never stop thinking about that child. I agree, but as I may have mentioned before, Mimi hasn't said "I love you" to my dad in years. You don't want to be there after he says it to her. It's awkward.

I guess it's because my parents have been divorced for so long that I tend to separate my family into poles:  my dad's side, my mom's side. Neither side is particularly demonstrative. Graham and I are touching, or close enough to touch, each other at least twenty hours a day. He might grow out of it, but I won't. My mom's mom, actually, was very affectionate. I remember sitting on her lap and holding hands, at the same time. During my conversation with Mimi, she said, "Your grandmother Zelma always had a garden." Sometimes she'd ask me to pick tomatoes before dinner. Mimi also grows tomatoes, and I've also picked them. She grew bell peppers this year too.

I don't understand anything. In epistemology there's a group of people known as process reliabilists who maintain that if a process that produces a belief a reliable, then that belief is justified. Reliability is justification-conferring. But it's a problem for reliabilists to articulate in a coherent and determinate way just how reliable a process has to be in order for the beliefs it produces to be justified. A comparable problem exists in ethics regarding the ascription of virtues. Like, how honest does an honest person have to be? 

The newspaper Aron brought home Wednesday featured an interview with a man, Matthew, whose truck every Athens resident recognizes. The truck is so recognizable because huge confederate flags attached to poles in the truck bed fly behind the truck as Matthew is driving. Through the course of the interview readers learn that Matthew is shy, lives with his elderly mother and enjoys knitting. Maybe morality needs an algorithm. There should be a band called The Algorhythms.  

Ascribing moral virtues and failings shouldn't be a challenge for me. It shouldn't be anything. I shouldn't do it. I should leave it to the professionals, like Nancy Grace. But I often find myself in extremely judgmental moods about my family members, and I'm not satisfied to regard them dispassionately and simply call them complicated. I was thinking today that listening to Mimi talk about politics is kind of like watching a dog have a dream. I'm enraptured by Jeffery's dreams, and I don't know why. But I don't judge him for his dreams. Maybe that's the lesson. But what am I going to tell Graham?  

Friday, July 13, 2012

The newspaper, continued

I dreamed the plot of a mystery novel last night but couldn't put the dream or the plot pieces back together after waking up, and I'm sure that isn't as tragically unfortunate as it feels since the jokes I dream—even the ones that make me laugh in my sleep—are never funny once I'm awake. They're not even unfunny once I wake up—they're non-jokes. They're declarative sentences, like, "We have to deposit your paycheck before the bank closes." What I dreamed probably wasn't even a mystery story—probably the plot of my dream was that I MapQuested directions to a funeral. I remember being in a modern mausoleum in my dream, and I vaguely remember being cognizant of a twist—maybe the dream was from my point of view and I (here's the twist) ended up being the dead one. But that wouldn't be a mystery plot—that's supernatural, and that's silly.

It's interesting to me that mystery novels—or detective novels, I'm not sure what the distinction is (a dick, maybe?)—contain murder(s) without being scary; they're suspenseful without making you frightened the way a horror story does. I guess it's because logic overlays the mystery plot whereas horror stories have inexplicable nemeses, like monsters. Aron won't watch "Dexter" with me—not because the writing and acting are bad but because the violence is too conceivable, which I guess is evidence that shoots in the other direction. Aron watches horror movies without feeling afraid for even a second. I think motherhood has made me too sensitive to horror movies. I don't enjoy being merely afraid—it's like hot sauce without flavor:  a bland burn. If I'm going to be exposed to a fictional dead body, there had better be an interesting, intelligible reason for it.

Because I couldn't extract my story-that's-probably-not-a-story from dreamland, instead of writing a mystery novel during Graham's nap today I returned to the newspaper, the same one Aron brought home Wednesday. Minga's still there, killing me with her cuteness.

The newspaper contains its own mysteries. They're mysteries in the same sense that Graham's growth is a mystery:  it's not unknowable, but I certainly don't understand it. Each morning as I undress him and change his diaper, I hold his feet in my hands and behold his legs with my eyes:  they're so long and thick and straight, and they used to be short and skinny and curved. I don't know when his womb legs left, but they're undeniably, irretrievably gone. And I wonder, because I don't know any better, where this length and the flesh that covers it come from. Does Similac turn into skin? The thought that Graham's foods make him grow and become his skin makes me especially depressed about not having been able to feed him food from my body. But like I said, his growth is not mysterious. I don't understand how there is more of Graham today than there was yesterday, but that doesn't mean it's a secret:  it means I need to read a biology textbook or a Wikipedia page.

But instead I read the paper. I read about a support group called "Emotions Anonymous" that takes place at a church. I'm thinking about renaming my blog Emotions Anonymous. I once posted a secret to a version of Post Secret that some UGA women's studies students set up. What was my secret? I'll never tell, although it was cryptic enough to not be incriminating in any context. Emotions Anonymous is free and open to anyone who would like to be "emotionally well." Is emotional wellness a state? Is it boredom? Is it happiness? I want to go to Emotions Anonymous. Not too long ago—but certainly before I was pregnant—I tried to sit in on jury selection (which I thought was public) instead of going to my German class, but a bailiff told me I wasn't allowed to, so I skipped German in a coffee shop instead. (I don't think I’m unique in any way other than this one:  I want to be on a jury, badly.) I want a story. Emotions Anonymous may not contain a story, but it must contain some characters, and I'd like to eye them. I probably don't want to shake their hands.

The real appeal of the newspaper is that it contains story parts—not complete stories, and probably not even short stories, but story parts. Here's a story part that I heard for the first time just yesterday:  my grandmother and grandfather were so poor when my aunt Sandra was born that they paid the doctor with a donkey instead of money. Imagining the beginning of that story is all the fun you need for an hour.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Some jokey lines on anxiety

I know you think the world's a jungle gym
And you're right—it is:  a gym of dangers
A tangle of potential injuries
You're safe, go play, avoid the sun and sticks
Playing is traveling toward happiness
And how fingers are lost in an instant
You're mobile:  I'm so proud and full of fear
The world awaits your mind and eyes—watch out!
That pillow won't smother me, you will
One of the things you might say if you could
And you can, if you keep your mouth intact
With both legs you can leave me:  Mommy, bye.
I'm not somewhat worried, I'm worried a lot
You may think the world's a nice, safe place, but—

The newspaper

Aron brought home the newspaper yesterday, and it reminded me that there's a world out there. I fell asleep last night thinking about taco shells, or maybe I was thinking about my old job, where I both sold tacos and fried taco shells. When someone ordered a taco I'd have to ask, "Would you like your taco hard or soft?" Surprisingly often a customer would respond, "I don't care," to which I'd say, "Me either. But a soft taco costs thirty cents more than a hard one." It was an awful but interesting job—interesting to experience, not to talk about, so I shouldn't talk about it. But I fell asleep vividly recalling the sensations of taking customers' orders, which I did for two years, starting shortly after moving to Athens and ending when I was seven months pregnant, when my hormones were at such a rolling boil that I told a customer who asked the most popular menu item that I was a cashier, not a statistician.

Graham and I listen to The Economist radio program most mornings, another piece of evidence in support of the notion that things exist outside this house. We also often sit on the porch.

In the newspaper I saw an ad listed for a part-time position for something called a "program director." It's eighteen hours a week at ten dollars at hour. I can email writing samples and a résumé to the company. I could squeeze eighteen hours out of a week. It would look like the occasional pieces of spaghetti that poke through the colander holes. But my eighteen hours are at awkward times:  late night, early morning. And I have no idea what a writing sample is. "Upon an island hard to reach, the east beast sits upon his beach. Upon the west beach sits the west beast. Each beach beast thinks his beach is best." That's a writing sample:  it's a sample of Dr. Seuss' writing. The only reason I was drawn to the "program director" listing is because I doubt that it's serious but am confident that it sounds serious. Maybe on my résumé I can write that for two years I was the program director of taco shells.

The newspaper also had an ad imploring me to adopt a cat, which I have been wanting to do for as long as I've been alive. When I was pregnant, we were too afraid to get a cat. When Graham was a newborn, we were too afraid to get a cat. But I think we are all now prepared to invite Minga, who is "fine with kids," into our home. Aron is never going to bring me the paper again.

I realize that this post was about nothing. But it's my 50th post.

a Graham poem

A lonely mother is in love with you
Long blinks are a good sign sleep is near
She cooks meals that take teeth to eat
Long blinks mean that sleep and dreams are both near
She constructs her dreams from daily things:  baths
He sleeps on both sides, rolling this way, that
A lonely mother needs her son near her
She may hear him need her, sleeping deeply
A mother may be lonely for her son
At night she might fret, want to wake him up

Nearness, distance:  a crib is not a home
So she'll watch his breathing, be its witness

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


This morning I told Graham that it's cooler today than it has been for the past two weeks, and then I asked him, "Is there anything more boring than the weather that I could tell you about?" And right after that, these dull cramps that I've been getting intermittently in my legs returned, and, thinking they might be growing pains, I asked Graham, "Do you think I'm still growing?" He didn't answer either question, but this post will answer the first one:  Yes, I can discuss something more boring than the weather. I can discuss motherhood ad infinitum. I can probably discuss motherhood ad nauseam. Maybe I have already discussed motherhood ad your nauseam. I have nearly discussed it ad my nauseam. Here's a ginger ale picture:

As you know, I have a full-time mom-job, and it's the kind of job that required no experience, qualifications or references to secure, and it's a job that's almost impossible to be fired from—this is an incredibly fortunate situation for me to be in, because the truth is that I'm vocationally unmotivated. If I had nothing but intermittent cramps in my legs, that would be a bad reason for me to first not finish school and next not job-hunt. But I have a good reason for not yet having finished school. Kind of.

My grandmother complains about her nephew, Matthew, who is my second cousin and whom I've never met—my dad's side of the family is like that:  strangers with my last name. It's sort of like how if I lived in an apartment complex called River Mill in Athens that wouldn't mean that I know the people who live in an apartment complex called River Mill in Birmingham. And if we met we might only have ten seconds' worth of anything to talk about. "Oh, that's interesting, I live in a River Mill apartment complex, too." But Matthew and I might have more to talk about than the fact that his last name is Laney and my last name used to be that. Matthew and I also have in common that we've been in college long enough to earn two degrees without even earning one. That's what Mimi's Matthew complaints are about, and when she complains about Matthew, I know she's really complaining about me. I wonder whether it's amusing or aggravating to Mimi when I agree that Matthew is a bum who needs to get his act together, graduate and get paid for something, anything.

Having a baby does not, unfortunately, excuse my life retroactively. It's not as if it's acceptable that I graduated from high school with a 2.2 GPA because I had a baby six years later. And I had already been in school for five or six years (I've lost count)—minus two semesters off—when Graham was born, and four years is more than long enough to earn a degree. But I do recognize the favor that Graham does for me simply by being mine and my responsibility:  he's why driving is scary, but he's also why my family can't criticize me directly. He's why we have to talk about Matthew the slacker instead of Amy the slacker.

It seemed necessary to confess that motherhood is not the inconvenient barrier to my dreams that I have sometimes made it out to be. I've called motherhood a rut. I've complained that it prevents me from cultivating my other interests. But because I am afraid of the real world and having a career, motherhood is actually more like cinder blocks tied around the ankles of a murdered body to make it sink. Mimi is the inevitable buoyancy of the human body. Graham is laughter and sunshine. I am bad at metaphors. I am grateful in a million ways for my baby boy, the most adorable excuse I've ever had for my slowness in building an adult life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The community of good mothers

A mom-friend on Facebook recently wrote a status update asking parents for advice about how to deal with a picky eater. One of her friends linked a blog entry on the topic of picky eating written by a mom-blogger ("One Fierce Mama") who describes herself as "unapologetic, uncensored, opinionated." I read One Fierce Mama's picky eater entry, although I wasn't looking for advice on the matter since, so far, Graham has eagerly eaten everything we've fed him (and has even tried, with some success, to eat dust and dog hair). One Fierce Mama doubts that children are ever actually picky eaters—she thinks "picky eater" is a persona we project onto a child as soon as a new food makes her face crinkle.

I wasn't home the first time Graham ate plums. Aron introduced the two and reported to me that the plum feeding didn't go well. "Graham made such a sour face," Aron informed, concluding that Graham must not like plums. The next day there was still half a jar of plums in the refrigerator, so I decided to try again. Graham didn't make a sour face, and he ate the remainder of the first jar and more than half of a second. I concluded that Graham likes plums. What One Fierce Mama wrote about picky eating corresponded pretty well with my experiences, so I kept reading her blog, starting with her (then) most recent blog entry, "How not to raise a little racist." 

One Fierce Mama is thoughtful and engaging and, like she says, opinionated. She's a fucking cool mom who uses the f-word. She's militantly opposed to circumcision. Graham isn't circumcised, because the procedure is (generally) medically unnecessary and (invariably) painful, which are two of many more reasons supporting One Fierce Mama's circumcision opposition. I liked reading One Fierce Mama's blog, and then, in an entry that discussed breastfeeding, she alienated me.

She alienated me from the community of good mothers. She wrote about breastfeeding the way many write and think about breastfeeding—it's the right way to feed your baby, and it may require work, but the vast majority of mothers make milk. (She also wrote that if a mother has "honest to God" production problems, she should look into procuring milk from human milk banks, which aren't exactly on every corner. And, incidentally, human milk is insanely expensive. I want repeat the Brecht adage:  morality is for those who can afford it. But whether to formula feed or breastfeed is simply not the moral issue that some mothers make it out to be. Formula feeding, even if by choice, is not immoral.)

I'm pretty sensitive about breastfeeding. But I suspect that most mothers feel pretty sensitive about something. And when motherhood—in the blogging world, in magazines, in mommy-baby groups—is elevated to the level of competition, I figure every mother at some point feels like a loser. I feel like a loser all the time. You'd think it's a hobby. But it's not. It's the worst feeling. Nothing is as important to me as Graham, so if I'm made to feel like I'm failing him in any way, I'm failing in the worst way possible. On October 13th, my birthday, three years ago, the professor of my 19th century philosophy class passed out essays she had just finished grading, and I got an F, along with some helpful and some unduly nasty criticism. It makes me laugh now to think how anguished I was about a failing grade on an essay. But I think I'll be unendingly unhappy about failing to produce breastmilk, and the more militant faction of the "breast is best" army doesn't make recovering from the emotional disappointment any easier.

Do I make another mother feel alienated from the community of good mothers when I write about Graham being uncircumcised? I hope I don't. I often write like there's an award for Most Anxious Mommy and like I want to win it. For the first month of his life I dragged Graham's bassinet into the bathroom every time I peed. I practically brag that I'm afraid of blankets. And now maybe I'm writing like I want an award for Least Competitive. I want an award for something, for sure.

I am competitive. Last time Graham and I visited my mom I wanted to show off to her that Graham can patty-cake, but when I started to sing the song, Graham's cousin, who is four months older than he, started to patty-cake waaay better than Graham, and he didn't stop and look perplexed when it came time to "roll it" the way Graham does—and I was pissed about Graham getting shown up! (Never play air hockey with me:  I'm not threatening that I'm good—it's just that I am a true jerk about it, and I don't want anyone to see me in that state. Really. This is not a joke. Air hockey makes me a mean person. Aron was once beating my badly in a game of it, and I threatened to divorce him.)

Motherhood makes me an insecure person, because it means so much to me. It doesn't mean everything to me. I do have other interests. There are things I would rather do than be a militant mother, strictly barricading the community of good mothers and relishing as I deny entry to formula-feeding, circumcising, and epidural-having mothers. I am in love with Graham, and I want to do everything I can to help him be emotionally and physically healthy. 

I also dream of one day making a brief return to my old life, where I would make an F on a paper and then go directly from class to a bar, order a drink, sit outside with it and read for fun. Maybe I'd read this: 

I wouldn't understand it, but I'd enjoy it, because it's easy to enjoy something that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I don't understand philosophy. People whose job it is to understand philosophy understand it. But I'm the one whose job it is to raise Graham, and it's a job I take very seriously. I think most mothers take the job of mothering pretty seriously—it's why they write blogs about it and why they can't enjoy going to a party and why they are offended when someone takes issue with the way they do their mothering. I'm in love with Graham. I will do the same inane thing repeatedly and for as long as his laughter about it lasts. Last night when Graham was having his bath, I dunked my head under water and then pulled it back out dramatically, my wet and heavy hair splashing everything around me. It made Graham laugh. So I did it again. And again. And again. So many times that I had to take Tylenol this morning because my neck was sore. Motherhood is ridiculous. I know it's important, but I don't like feeling bad about it. Graham is just going to grow into an adolescent who resents me and then an adult human who doesn't really care about me. Graham will never love me as much as I love him.

What's the point of this long blog? I don't know. I'd rather read and drink than criticize or be criticized for mom stuff.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fourth of July, housewife style

Aron had the Fourth of July totally off—no work, no school—so we started the day with a family trip to Starbucks, where Aron works, to get coffee, coffee for free. And then we sat on a blanket on the grassy part of campus and tried, successfully, to keep Graham from eating bugs and leaves.

At Starbucks I ordered a grande iced coffee with two shots of espresso, which partly explains the cleaning frenzy I embarked on once we returned home from our morning outing. The other part of the cleaning frenzy explanation is that Aron's being home meant that he could lie down with Graham for his morning nap. I generally enjoy being immobilized by a sleeping baby. Nearly every blog I write is typed with one hand while Graham naps on top of me—that's how this one is being composed right now, but it'll be edited only once I have the opportunity to sit upright, a position from which I am better able to detect errors, which there are invariably many of when I type with one hand while reclined. Yesterday, Aron was the one immobilized by a napping Graham. While Graham napped, Aron watched the beginning of an Italian movie, and I cleaned the bathroom.

Aron is the least lazy man I've ever known. He's not just not lazy—he is almost hyperactive domestically. He enjoys cooking, and he even enjoys cleaning up after the meals he prepares. He is practically the sole laundry folder of the house. We have a fairly large backyard but no lawnmower, so Aron uses a weedwacker to cut the grass, a task that takes about three hours. I wanted to mention Aron's willing, uncomplaining domesticity in case the fact that he watched a movie while I cleaned our bathroom made it sound as if I was suggesting that he's bummy. Graham has to have a nap buddy, and Aron gave me a very welcome break from being that buddy.

And I spent that break cleaning the toilet.

When you're pregnant, parent-people like to tell you uplifting things about shit, like that your baby's won't gross you out. They're not lying. It stinks and is sticky and will surely make it onto your shirt one day, but there's something magically neutral about your own child's poo. I can't explain it. When I take Jeffery to the dog park and have to clean up after him, I gag and retch and feel sometimes on the verge of crying—that's how grossed out I am about poopy. But Graham's poo has more than once somehow gotten under my fingernails—I wasn't pleased about it, but I wasn't horrified. 

How I feel about cleaning a toilet more closely resembles the way I feel about Jeffery's poo than the way I feel about Graham's. Cleaning a toilet is a horrific experience. Ray Bradbury has a line of writerly wisdom that I repeat to myself during my rare attempts to create a story out of words; Bradbury advises writers thus:  "Don't think—just write. Thinking is the enemy of creativity." The line can be modified to apply equally well to housewife chores. "Don't think—just clean. Thinking is the enemy of cleaning." 

It was important to avoid thinking as I cleaned the bathroom not only because the reasons the toilet gets dirty make me want to yak—it was also important to banish rational thoughts because they would've prevented me from sweeping the floor and the corners of the bathroom, where spiders have built homes. As I've mentioned before—I’ve mentioned it twice before, and this makes three times—we live with spiders. I don't know why I keep bringing it up. It's relevant to the story of cleaning the bathroom, but it's also an avoidable detail:  I could've said that the bathroom was dusty without explaining that the dust in the bathroom is the sort that spiders make as they build themselves home. Maybe I keep mentioning the spiders we live with because if you care enough about me and my family to read my blog, then you may also care enough to one day visit our home, and I don't want you to be alarmed upon your arrival to catch sight of cobwebs in the corner, and I also don't want you to think it's because I've been negligent in my housewife duties that the webs are there. The webs are there because they are the homes of harmless critters. A family of hornets has stationed itself on the right end of our porch, and many family visitors have offered to return with spray on their next visit so that we overwhelm the hornets with poison. We don't do that. We just use the other side of the porch.

But for aesthetics' sake, because I was sick of seeing a mess of webs, I swept the floor and lower corners of our bathroom yesterday, and in the process I destroyed some spider homes. Aron thinks they'll have no trouble rebuilding, and I hope both that he's right and that they'll rebuild in the upper corners, which are higher than my eyes have the habit of looking. 

Friends, I'm not only a housewife—I am also an entrepreneur. I am the proprietor of an Amazon account that I call Hall's Books. When Aron and I moved into together we had several of the same books, so we donated the duplicates to a local bookstore that has since, and sadly, gone out of business. We've also donated a few dozen books to thrift stores. It's rare that we feel willing to get rid of a book, because it's often that I think of a line from a book and feel strongly compelled to return to the book in question and reread, at the very least, many pages ahead of and behind the line. If I no longer had the book, I feel sure that some sort of panic would set it. But like I said, we have been known to give books away. During this most financially desperate summer of my adult life, however, I have turned to selling books on Amazon. In the last week I have sold two books, earning close to thirty dollars. (The books we sold are both sociology anthologies—we aren't wild about anthologies for some reason, and sociology, Aron's second major, doesn't thrill me either. I am particularly unconvinced by the latent/manifest content duality.) Anyway, it's because Hall's Book made thirty dollars that Aron and I allowed ourselves a bottle of wine for the Fourth of July. And that's the Fourth of July housewife style:  cleaning and wine-drinking. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


I was having a telephone conversation with Person-X (that's an anonymizing nickname—I don't know anyone actually named Person-X) yesterday, and Person-X told me about a violent impulse Person-X has, and I blame that bit of the conversation (not Person-X, because I'm magnanimous like that) for a very bad dream I had last night. There's nothing as boring as another person's dream, but I have to sometimes treat this blog like a personal journal—where I'd unreluctantly recount my dreams—or I risk losing all writing motivation. The honesty impulse is strong, hopefully less strong than Person-X's violence impulse, which disturbs me deeply.

In my dream, a family member intentionally made me enter the belief state that Graham was injured. It was an evil aunt who did it—I don't have an evil aunt, but dreams inexplicably make the most outlandish things feel real. The evil aunt of my dream wasn't a permanent fixture of my family—she was like a witch who'd visit the family, do damage, cause panic and leave. She was like a headache. You didn't know when to expect her. She was also like a silverfish. She couldn't bite or sting you, but she could startle you into jumping and stubbing your toe. And I think in the world of my dream it was totally normal to have an evil aunt; they were just a nasty fact of the world. 

The evil aunt found a spot on Graham's head and opened the skin there, and he bled heavily from the opening. It was a terrifying sight, but his health wasn't in jeopardy. The blood was basically like paint. But the evil aunt was counting on me to panic and rush him to the hospital, and she expected that I could get clumsy and actually bump and injure his head in the panicked process of rushing him to the hospital. It was a truly terrifying dream. Graham sleeps in the bed between Aron and me, but after waking up from the scary dream, I felt like even when his back was curled against my stomach he still wasn't close enough. So I made him sleep on top of me. He didn't mind. He's a very snuggly bunny.

I love that little tomato so much, and that's why the evil aunt's evil deeds are so effective. I feel like the evil aunt is as real as wind, because the dream is still haunting my thoughts today. But the truth is that I'm an incredibly anxious parent-person even on days that follow nights of peaceful sleep.

It's not, incidentally, because I'm anxious that Graham sleeps in the bed with us. I sleep much more soundly when he's in his crib, safely away from sheets and our massive bodies. But he'll sleep as eleven consecutive hours in bed next to us and no more than two in his crib before waking up and needing to be cuddled back to sleep. We sleep-share (to use the Sears' word for it) because it offers all of us the most hours of sleep. Graham sometimes sleeps the first five hours of the night in his crib. I think he will grow into an independent sleeper.

It's not just because of the Person-X conversation and my nightmare that I'm thinking about violence—violence is on my mind also because it's the Fourth of July, a holiday that makes me think of fireworks (which are violent), war (which is violent), and, although it's less clear to me why, Legends of the Fall, which was my favorite movie as a child because of Brad Pitt (to whom I wrote love letters that very much resembled my love letters to Gavin Rossdale). About two years ago I rewatched Legends of the Fall, and I was disappointed, violently, in the movie. Violent disappointment—that's the connection.

There are plenty of smart people who aren't pacifists, and that, along with a big pile of other facts, makes me think that my pacifist inclinations reflect an inability to understand the complexities of relations between nations. Would I kill the evil aunt of my nightmare if she were realer than the wind? I wouldn't be able to call the cops on her, because she's sly like a witch, sort of like Uganda. My internet homepage is the New York Times homepage, but I'm only allowed to read 10 free articles a month, and so I end up reading the ones that have to do with parenting, women's issues, or a book I like instead of the ones that relate to anything internationally significant. For 99 cents a week I could, for four weeks, get unlimited access to the New York Times online, but Graham only takes so many naps a day. Three. He takes three naps a day. That's close to three hours a day that I could use to learn why violence is necessary. I don't know that that's how I'd like to spend my "free" time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A chip on my shoulder

My friend Caroline recently wrote a very thought-provoking post about being a feminist and a housewife, and I think you should read it. Caroline got a lot of encouraging comments for her post, and many of the comments were as thought-provoking as the post itself. One comment in particular has ruffled me and made me reflective. Here's the comment:

"Great post. I am a feminist housewife. I have a masters in English literature and a minor in women's studies. I love staying at home with my kids. My only beef is the idea that we stay at home moms are underpaid/deserve a salary, as though money equals intrinsic value. I think it is a great luxury to be able to stay at home with my children and my husband and I have made a great deal of sacrifices to ensure we can. I understand some people are stay at home due to lay offs, etc, but, for the most part, we stay at home parents choose. We should not have a chip on our shoulder because we feel society does not value our contribution. Our identity needs to be internal, rather than external. This is true with all occupations, not just stay at home parents."

And this is the post where I'll try to figure out what ruffles me about that comment.

I have suggested before—or have come close to suggesting—that I deserve a salary for the human-raising that I devote my life to, but it's a suggestion I've made in frustrated jest, which is not to say that I think stay-at-home parents are undeserving of a salary. Full-time parents' deservedness of pay is not my issue, but I imagine I could be compelled by an argument made in favor of it. It just seems like the kind of thing I would be pretty sympathetic to. 

As Caroline points out in her post, staying at home with a child is a job, and as I've mentioned before, it's the kind of job where you might not get a lunch break. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in a fairly lengthy Atlantic article  called "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" (which I recommend reading if you have a spare hour, which I had over the course of a few days), presents an interesting thought experiment:

"Consider the following proposition:  An employer has two equally productive and talented employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he's not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office. ... That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance."

Slaughter asks us to "be honest" when we consider whether we suppose that the employer would make the same assumptions about the parent. Caroline noted in her blog that childcare workers often earn meager wages, which is telling of how much—or how little—we value their work. (Of course childcare isn't the only difficult job with an inadequate wage attached to it.) 

Caroline's post and Slaughter's article make me feel that I'm in good company when I doubt that the difficulty of being a stay-at-home parent is fully appreciated. (Slaughter's article pertains to mothers who work outside the home, but she makes a number of points about societal attitudes about parenting in general, which of course has implications for stay-at-homers too.) Parents themselves seem at a loss to explain just how difficult it is to have a child . It's not just about time or chores, although I always feel like I have no time and endlessly many chores. But it's more than that. It has been said that having a child is like having your heart walk around outside your body. That's the situation of parenthood in words, but the situation of parenthood in feelings—stress, hope, joy, exhaustion, worry, pride, astonishment—is really incommunicable. 

You may be more impressed to meet a marathon runner than a mother. But the assumption that a marathon runner works harder than a mother isn't the only fact that intimates a broader underappreciation of parenthood. Stay-at-home parents work, but stay-at-home parents don't get paid. I'm not arguing that they should get paid, but to point out that they don't doesn't mean that I have entitlement issues. It means that I've noticed that other people who work as hard as I do—or less hard than I do—get paid, and I wonder where the difference lies.

Maybe children are like lawns:  I don't get paid to mow my lawn, even though mowing the lawn is work, because my lawn is my responsibility. But I would pay my neighbor to mow my grass because he'd be doing work that isn't his responsibility. Maybe that explains why, insofar as analogies explain, I don't get paid for raising Graham and why I would pay whomever I might temporarily delegate that duty to (like a daycare or a nanny). But of course lawns aren't citizens, and even lawns in rainy regions probably don't need to be cut more than three times a week, and if a lawn isn't read to and cuddled it'll still be a fine lawn, and no one cares if a lawn learns empathy or the alphabet. I didn't introduce the lawn analogy just to point out what about it doesn't work. It seems to offer a conceptual correspondence that I find personally useful:  Graham is my responsibility, and that might be why I don't get paid for raising him. And it's not like I have a contract with the nation to procreate. The United States didn't ask me to get pregnant. 

But I still have a chip on my shoulder, and it feels heaviest when people suggest that it shouldn't be there at all. It's fine to not get paid; it's a little less fine to hear anyone adamantly reject the idea that what stay-at-home parents do deserves pay (which isn't exactly what the comment I originally quoted was maintaining). I wouldn't mind hearing that I don't get paid because American citizens already feel too heavily taxed. It wouldn't upset me much to hear that the majority of Americans would prefer keeping more of their paychecks over easing the financial hardships of a family with only one parent whose work earns a paycheck. I already assume that's true. If what I hear on Facebook, in family conversations, and in class is representative of America, people would rather keep more of their paychecks than have the option of food stamps available to poor families. No one says, "Poor people don't deserve to eat." They say, "I don't deserve to have money taken out of my paycheck so that poor people can eat." There's a difference, it just may not be a very morally significant difference. So I wouldn't be surprised to hear that people don't want my family stealing from their paychecks to pay for my choice to have a baby even though we're poor. That's saying something different than saying parents don't deserve pay, period.

I'm not even really addressing or taking issue with the comment I originally quoted. Like the commenter and her husband, Aron and I have chosen to keep Graham at home rather than in daycare. It's true that we couldn't afford daycare on our own, but it's also true that the state provides daycare assistance so that mothers can work out of the home and earn an income. And I agree with the commenter that the value of raising children is intrinsic, but of course joy and pride over a child's accomplishments don't buy bread, which is why Aron and I have had to be on WIC. (And anyway, plenty of people who work for monetary pay remark that they enjoy their job—that doesn't mean they stop getting a paycheck.) 

The welfare mother is one of the most hated cultural figures. There's Arab terrorists and the welfare queen. You can say that stay-at-home parents don't deserve pay, but in the same paragraph of your mind where that belief lies I would hope there also exist thoughts that make you cringe over the fact that the Walton children are millionaires. I hate to put the words American and dream next to each other, because I think it sounds cheesy, but it's worse than cheesy:  it's misleading, and it may even be untrue. But people do—in classes, on television, in general conversation—talk about the American dream:  hard work pays off, in a financial sense. Stay-at-home parenting is hard work that doesn't pay off in a financial sense. Being a stay-at-home parent—a job that is immensely and endlessly fulfilling emotionally—has put my family in a financially precarious situation, one where we have required vouchers from WIC to pay for groceries. Maybe stay-at-home parents don't deserve a wage, but not earning a wage for my work has meant that we've been reliant on welfare, and that means that the condemnation of an American dream-driven culture has been heaped upon me. When people complain about welfare recipients, they're complaining about me. It can't be that I both don't deserve a wage and don't deserve groceries. It reminds me of when I hear the same Republicans who complain about lack of jobs also complain about food stamps. Well, if it's true that there aren't jobs, how's it a bad thing that there are also more food stamp recipients? Isn't that a necessary combination of facts, morally speaking? 

None of this has had much to do with feminism. I'm an aspiring feminist. I read more books by men than women, more of my favorite authors are men, I've only taken two women's studies classes, I've never protested for a specifically women's issue:  those are some of the reasons I'm reluctant to call myself anything more than an aspiring feminist. I wouldn't call myself a vegetarian if I ate meat but had an emotional aversion to chicken farms and slaughterhouses. I feel limited in the home but also feel that it's not as if working outside the home would make me more involved or persuasive in women's issues. I'm planning to raise my son to be a very good man, and that is, I think, a feminist project. I'd like more of them, but I just don't have the time. If I worked outside the home, I likely would still lack the time. Maybe we just need more time, all of us. Maybe I'm a blabby pants. Maybe I want an occasional five-day weekend, but that would only feel like a break if it meant that Aron would be able to be home to help me.

I don't have a chip:  I have chips.