Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Would You Like a Side of Narcissism With That?

The recent debate over how to praise kids (Is it okay to say that they’re smart? Is it dangerous to say "good job"?) prompted an observation from my mother: "I don’t remember ever being praised," she said, "and my friends don’t either. It was just really clear that we weren’t all that important." To be sure, her parents were not exactly paragons: my grandmother worked full-time, so from a young age my mother was expected to let herself into the house after school and put on the potatoes for supper. In the summers, she was farmed out Monday through Friday to a family who boarded her on a cot behind the piano, where she cowered each night when the man of the house came home drunk.

These anecdotes give a false impression of my grandparents, though – they were basically decent, caring parents: their decisions may seem shocking today, but at the time they were considered to be quite normal. Measured by the results, they were very effective parents indeed: my mother is an empathetic, intelligent woman with a steady moral compass – something she attributes to her upbringing: she always knew that her parents expected honesty and fairness from her and it took very little to secure her compliance with these expectations.

Being a working mother was both harder and easier in my grandmother’s day: day-care was non-existent, but then again, so was judgment. Though her choice to work was unusual, it was not fraught with the same atmosphere of guilt that working mothers struggle with today: my grandmother did not come home at the end of the day and try to make up for her absence by lavishing her daughter with undivided attention. This was the 1950s, and mothers had not yet moved into the workforce in large enough numbers to prompt a backlash: the culture of parenting still insisted that parents came first, and that it was actually good for children, both morally and psychologically, to know their place.

An article in this morning’s newspaper reports that levels of narcissism are rising among college-age students. Compared to 1982, when the study was initiated, college students in 2006 scored 30% higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which asked them to respond to statements such as "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to." Researcher W. Keith Campbell commented on the results by observing that although narcissism can be useful for American Idol auditions, it also puts people at risk for "infidelity … game-playing, dishonesty and over-controlling and violent behaviours."

I wonder, myself, whether the usefulness of the instrument has changed over the years. A generation raised on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood need not be narcissistic to agree that they are special: we’re all special, these days – only someone with unusually low self-esteem would deny it. Assuming, though, that there is some validity to the study’s conclusions, these increasing levels of narcissism seem like a predictable result of the sea change in parenting that has occurred over the last few decades.

When my parents were growing up (during the halcyon days of stay-at-home mothers and white picket fences), social gatherings did not revolve around the children: adults did not congregate to admire their antics or to brag about their accomplishments. Children were placed at the kiddy table so that the grown-ups could get on with their own (more important) conversations. Family life, likewise, did not revolve around enriching child-oriented activities: as my mother put it, there were no activities back then, aside from the occasional swimming lessons – only vast swathes of time during which children were not only physically free to roam the neighbourhood but also emotionally free – free from the hothouse environment of modern parenting, free from the eagle eyes of approving parents, always at the ready with a supportive remark or a carefully chosen compliment.

Much of what I’m saying here is, of course, well-known: the problems of over-scheduling are well-documented, while the perils of the child-controlled family have been the target of many an op-ed. But what hasn’t yet been said enough, I think, is that there is something fundamentally problematic about the way that our culture frames mothering in terms of "what is best for the children." Should mom work or stay at home? Under what circumstances can a mother allow her baby to cry it out? Exactly how miserable does she have to be before something other than the child’s immediate happiness is considered important?

Even when someone is daring enough to suggest that the mother’s happiness is a factor to be entered into the parenting equation, the idea is usually presented in "best for the children" terms: it’s essential for mothers to be happy because children need emotionally stable mothers to thrive. I would argue that it’s important for mothers to be happy because they are people too – their happiness is neither more nor less important than anyone else’s.

But, just in case that argument doesn’t fly, I like to have that "best for the children" clause in my back pocket: we can’t put our children first all the time because, ultimately, that’s not in their best interests. A bit of benign neglect not only fosters independence and creativity: it also relieves children of the burden of being the centre of the universe.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Outgrown Obsessions

Kurt Browning’s Gotta Skate IV was on TV last night, featuring the Barenaked Ladies. I had made a note of it while browsing through the TV guide Saturday morning, but needed to be reminded when the time came. It made me kind of sad: at one time, a figure skating program would have been a top priority for me, worth cancelling a dinner party for, let’s say, or a night out at the movies. I have fond memories of Katarina Witt’s gold-medal performance in Sarajevo in 1984, but I really became a fan after watching the Battle of the Brians at the Calgary Olympics in ’88. For six years thereafter, figure skating was a rare pleasure to be enjoyed once or twice a year when the Canadian or World Championships were televised. Then one day, Tonya Harding got her boyfriend to whack Nancy Kerrigan’s knee, and suddenly figure skating was being televised in prime time every weekend. U.S.A. vs. The World! The Battle of the Sexes! Each pro competition was kitschier than the last, and I watched all of them: it took several years before I recovered from the scarcity mentality that meant figure skating trumped all other forms of entertainment.

Since the Salt Lake City Olympics (best Winter Olympics evah!), the bloom has been off the rose for me – I’m a curmudgeonly skating fan now, convinced that none of today’s young whippersnappers can compete with the likes of Kurt Browning or Gordeeva and Grinkov. I still watch as much Olympic coverage as possible (though the demands of childcare dictate that I cannot simply switch to another time zone as I did when the Olympics were in Lillehammer or Nagano), but I no longer know the skaters intimitely enough to spot changes to their choreography or hold my breath as they approach the triple Lutz that tripped them up at the Four Continents Cup.

Obsessiveness is nothing new for me, you see: my blogging obsession may or may not interfere with my quality of life, but if I were not obsessed with blogging, I would undoubtedly be obsessed with something else. Obsessions can be inconvenient sometimes, but for all that, a reminder of a lost obsession does inevitably trigger a sense of regret for me. For fifteen years, "figure skating fan" was a part of my identity: I prided myself on my ability to pronounce names like Bestiamanova or Ponomarenko and to visually identify the difference between a double Axel and a triple loop. Nothing happened to turn me against the sport (years of watching Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko had made me impervious to the trauma of judging scandals or choking under pressure); nothing came along to replace the role figure skating fandom had once held in my life: there was simply a long, gradual flagging of interest, a slow removal of investment in a sport that had once brought me great entertainment.

Figure skating is only one of my lost obsessions. Cats I might count as another. Hubby and I have always been cat people: we are the kind who have opinions about the relative merits of the various breeds (Siamese and Abyssinian = cool; Persian = best left to Cottonelle commercial-makers). We are cat-owners, but moreover we are cat-decorators: our home bears the evidence of our shared inability to resist purchasing anything cat-shaped. In the front hall, there is a cat coat-hanger as well as a cat key-holder; in the kitchen there are cat salt-and-pepper shakers and a cat napkin-holder; on the walls there are cat calendars and framed prints of cats in dignified poses with strawberries and pots of cream. (This is one of many reasons that I will never be known for my fashionable interior decoration.)

Like figure skating, though, this obsession seems to belong to the me-that-was rather than the me-that-is. Since my children were born, my cats have had to compete for increasingly scarce resources of nurture and physical affection; as my maternal investment in my furry children has waned, so has my interest in purchasing wooden, plush, or wrought-iron counterparts to the flesh-and-blood creatures who can now consider themselves lucky if they get a few pets at the end of the day rather than a "hush!" and a shove. I never thought I would be the kind of mother who neglects her kitties for the sake of a couple of wretched babies – and we all know what happens to mothers-to-be who say "never."

Some of my former obsessions have gone by the wayside through conscious choice (Harlequin romances) or lack of material (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Others have simply run their course (Babycenter, or the Kindred Spirits mailing list for L.M. Montgomery fans). At one time, these enthusiasms were central to my life; gradually, they have fallen away, as, perhaps, blogging will do as well one day. But no matter what new obsession arises to take their place, these old pursuits leave their mark – I feel a little less like myself without them.

What obsessions have you outgrown – and why?

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Pyjama Post

In an effort to escape from my slavish devotion to the typical blogging formula (which Andrea sums up succinctly as "anecdote, rumination, epiphany, resolution"), I thought I’d mix things up today by doing a Seinfeld-style post about nothing. Pyjamas, I thought, would be the perfect topic. First, there’s the great spelling debate: pyjamas or pajamas? Then there are the various preferences: negligee, flannel nightie, or (my personal favourite) bona fide two-piece flannel jammy-jams covered in polka dots. What I failed to take into account, though, was that (a) I am no Seinfeld, and (b) I am no Seinfeld.

Undeterred by my failure to spin this very ordinary straw into comic gold, I thought perhaps I could do a photo post: start with a picture of me striking a ridiculous pose in my brand-new candy-cane flannel pyjamas, add a photo of Bub looking adorable in an old pill-ball-y navy sleeper, and call it a day. It’s amazing, though, how few photographs I have of any members of my family in a pyjama-clad state. Aside from a few Christmas morning pics, there’s nothing (nada, zip).

While I was looking through my photo archive, though, I came across this:


I remember how horrified I was when this photo was taken. I came very close to destroying it altogether, before deciding to keep it as documentary evidence of the hideousness of my post-partum body.

Then, a few months later, I decided to fool around with the colour and focus, trying to see if there was a way to edit the photo to make it anything other than a horror show. I gave up in disgust after turning it all pink and blurry – there’s just no way to edit away the curve of that paunch.

And then, today, I looked at that photo and gasped at the beauty and fragility of that two-day-old baby, with tears in my eyes. Who cares what my belly looks like? I made that.

Finally, by way of a contrast, here’s a photo of what Bub’s face looked like moments after he was born (he’s four months old in this photo, but the expression is identical):



*****

Hey look! I’m the CHBM Mom of the Week! I’ve been secretly longing for this honour for months, so a very hearty thank-you to everyone who voted.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fear

As a Canadian exchange student in Germany, I was entitled to participate in a week-long educational field trip to West Berlin. By "educational field trip," what was meant was an opportunity to go out to the discos every night and pretend to be really cool. On the first of these nightly disco outings, I carefully sipped a few shot glasses of Bailey’s Irish Cream and, upon realizing that I was ever-so-slightly unsteady on my feet, concluded that – gasp! – I was drunk. Upon my return from Berlin, this descent into debauchery occasioned several confessional long-distance phone calls as well as an anguished study of the New Testament passages condemning drunkeness. In the short term, however, having crossed the rubicon and lost my drinking virginity, as it were, I was free to toss back a few lemonade-and-vodkas on subsequent nights (in for a penny, in for a Deutschmark, I guess).

By the end of the week, I was exhausted. While my more experienced roommates planned yet another all-night disco marathon, Pam and I decided to stay at the hostel and catch up on some sleep. Shortly after we were left to ourselves, a clattering at the window announced the presence of some guys we had met the night before. They were basically nice, polite German boys: we had, as I recall, even accepted a ride from one of them, whom we had nicknamed Mickey Mouse for reasons that I can no longer remember (perhaps a play on the German pronunciation of Michael?). In any case, when Mickey Mouse and his friends showed up outside our window, hollering our names, Pam and I panicked: we hurriedly shut out the lights and then huddled under the covers, willing them to go away. Much of our terror arose from the fact that our hostel did not feature locks on the individual doors; there was a lock on the outside door, to which all of us had a key, but if the Mickey Mouse gang managed to breach those defences, there would be nothing stopping them from barging right into our room.

It was a terrifying half-hour or so before they gave up and went on their way, and even at the time I was aware that it was my own behaviour that was scaring me – if I had simply called out the window, saying that we weren’t interested in going out, I would have felt no fear. But the act of hiding under the covers in the dark created its own sense of peril.

"That is the way fear serves us," George MacDonald writes: "it always sides with the thing you’re afraid of." Fear weakens our judgment, saps our energies, lends imaginary strength to our enemies. I’d like to say that since that night in Berlin I’ve always faced my fears boldly, but such is not the case. There are all kinds of fears that govern my daily decisions, that limit my freedom and perpetuate my perception of myself as a potential victim. I fear Rape, and so I don’t walk alone at night, ever. I fear Physical Injury, and so I don’t drive on icy roads or go on the pirate ship ride at the fair. I fear Failure, so I stay well within the bounds of my own expertise. I fear People Getting Mad at Me, so I censor my speech and even my thoughts. I fear Rejection, so I sit home waiting for friends to call me, rather than picking up a phone and calling them. I fear, more than anything, Regret, and so I work hard, cover my bases, and hope for the best.

I am not an adventurous person; I don’t thrive on the giddy sensations provided by such fear-defying activities as bungee-jumping and calamari-eating (I know, I know, calamari are really tasty – but they’re squid, and all the deep frying in the world isn’t going to change that). Perhaps for that reason, I surprise myself sometimes with the things that I don’t fear.

I don’t fear Grief, or Sadness. When the news of my ex-husband’s affair came to light, I was plunged into a deep and sudden abyss of grief, but it was only a few days before the thought occurred to me, "I can do this. I’m good at this." Facing emotional pain makes me feel strong; I can plant my foot in the midst of searing heartache and feel the breakers washing over me without being overwhelmed by them. There is something soul-expanding about sadness; I can feel the borders of myself widen and deepen. And in the midst of such sadness, small pleasures become almost unbearably sweet: the vivid colour of a rain-washed yellow leaf is enough to make my heart quake with happiness.

Likewise, I do not fear Embarrassment. This discovery is more puzzling to me. At one time, embarrassment was a regular source of wretchedness for me, but I rarely feel embarrassed anymore. I quite regularly do things that other people would find embarrassing. I do a waltz or a Charleston in front of my giggling students; I reveal things on my blog that sensible people keep to themselves. (Fairly often, I feel a low-level embarrassment after I post something unusually revealing, but this never stops me from doing it again.) I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, though. Perhaps where grief and sadness have the pleasurable side-effect of increasing my sense of self-importance, my capacity for embarrassment has decreased as I’ve let go of the ambition to appear important to others. (Don’t get me wrong: I still have a sometimes pathological need to be liked, trusted, and even admired: what I do not seek these days is hierarchical superiority or the illusion of dignity.)

The things I value most in my life, I’ve achieved in spite of my fears. I fell in love even though doing so was against all the rules for healthy recovery from a broken marriage. I wrote my entire dissertation in ten months, after two years of being paralyzed by self-doubt. I drove my car through downtown Toronto at night in order to meet a gorgeous and congenial group of fellow mommy-bloggers. I am a cautious, fearful person, but it’s good to know that when it matters, I can be brave.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Letter to Myself




(With thanks to Miscellaneous Mum.)


From: Bubandpie
February 24, 2007

To: GKC
September 1, 1989

Dear Self,

I expect you’re a bit surprised to receive this letter. Get used to it: more surprises are coming. A few weeks from now, the Berlin Wall will come down, and you’ll watch in amazement as the world wakes up from history. (You haven’t heard that song yet, but you will. And you’ll find that history has a longer shelf-life than people are giving it credit for.)

You’re feeling nervous about the upcoming year, your last year of high school. A decade from now, grade thirteen will be abolished, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying it. You’re stronger than you think: those three months in Germany last spring have given you some perspective, emboldened you to make a terrifying move – joining a new lunch table. Your terror is not unfounded: there will be some snubs, a few red-cheeked moments of humiliation. But it’s a calculated risk, and it will pay off rapidly: the friendships you make this year won’t last a lifetime, but they will change you, make you happier and more adventurous.

I know you worry sometimes about what I think of you. Do I read your diaries and laugh at you? Am I embarrassed by your earnest ideals? Well, sometimes, maybe. But more often I envy you for your drive, for the confidence you place in your future. What you may not realize is that I worry, too, about what you think of me. Have I disappointed you? Have I repaid the effort you’re putting now into this last year of high school? I’ve made a few compromises along the way, I admit – I’ve balanced one dream against another, balanced ideals against reality. The results are a bit mixed, to be sure.

I have no advice to give you, my eighteen-year-old self. I could tell you that you’re beautiful (astonishingly beautiful, and almost totally unaware of it), I could tell you that you’re smart, likable, and not inherently disgusting to boys – but I know it won’t make any difference. Your mom tells you that stuff, too, and it helps less than it should. I could warn you to beware of handsome Italian men, or advise you to check your tendency towards narcissistic projection (if you think you’ve met someone just like you, it’s not because you have) – but these are lessons you need to learn for yourself. I don’t want to change the path you have ahead of you, because eventually that path leads you here.

What you really want me to do, though, is to give you a sneak preview of what’s up ahead. I’ve always been prone to self-indulgence, so I won’t hold out on you: here it is, the good and the bad.

The Good News: You’re going to get married – and way sooner than you think.
The Bad News: It won’t be to Jeff – or even to the right person. The right one will come along eventually, but don’t start looking for him just yet – right now he’s about five feet tall and about to enter grade 9. (Sorry.)

The Good News: Eventually you’ll find yourself teaching that Children’s Literature course you’ve been looking at so covetously in the university syllabus.
The Bad News: You’ll be teaching it in London, and not the one in England either. Don’t worry – you do get to go away for a few years, but eventually the white-bread blandness of home will start beckoning you away from your dreams to live in Germany and England.

The Bad News: All those warnings about the ubiquity of computers turn out to be completely true. (I realize you don’t know the word "ubiquity" yet, so go ahead and look it up – it's one of several words you’ll pick up in the next couple of years, along with "diaphanous," "paradigm," and "continuum." University really is everything you hope it will be – and good for the vocabulary too.) Tell Dad that the top-notch typewriter you’re going to purchase in a few months is really not the good investment that it seems: if you go whole hog and buy a brand-new 386 IBM-clone you won’t regret it.
The Good News: Computers aren’t nearly as scary as you think they are. Pretty soon, there’ll be a few innovations like "Windows" and a "mouse" that make them a lot easier to use. One day, you may even find yourself using a computer voluntarily in your spare time.

The Bad News: I know how much you want children, or, to be more specific, a daughter. You’ll get one (and you’ll even give her the name you’ve had picked out since you were sixteen years old, with one or two variations in spelling). But first you’ll have a boy. I know that sounds kind of scary (it was scary for me too, even after fourteen years’ experience in actually talking to boys). But it will be okay. Really.
The Good News:

(Need I say more?)

So there you have it: your future, both less and more than you’re expecting. I can give you no warnings or advice, my dear self, but I can give you this encouragement. You’re desperately hoping right now that the people who call high school the best years of their lives are either (a) dead wrong, or (b) the washed-up former prom queens Bruce Springsteen sings about in "Glory Days." Don’t worry – the answer is (c) both of the above. The worst is over – it only gets better from here.

Love,
Me.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Anxious

It’s as if my brain has been exfoliated, the tanned shell of common sense scrubbed away to reveal soft grey matter, exposed to every breath of wind.

  • One of the women has dropped out of my Thursday morning parenting class. At the meetings, she had seemed glowingly grateful, but now she has taken offense. One of the volunteers arrived at her house to offer her a ride (presumably by arrangement, since we don’t have the women’s addresses unless they choose to provide them), and she opted to view that as a violation of her privacy. I review all the reasons that I should not be upset by this. We knew these women had issues – that’s why they’re in the program. It’s not a personal slight – it has, in fact, nothing to do with me directly. But I still feel stabbed by this concrete evidence of how little value she has assigned to what we are trying to do for her.

  • One of my students passes a note to another. They smother grins behind folded hands, exchanging furtive glances. I become instantly, absurdly aware of the pouchy protrusion of my postpartum belly, so humiliatingly visible in my still-too-tight clothing. I might as well be a fifteen-year-old slouching down in the seat of a yellow schoolbus, trying not to hear the stifled shrieks of laughter from the popular kids behind me.

  • My blog stats take a sudden (and, really, laughably small) turn for the worse. Instead of shrugging it off (my official policy), I look for a cause, detecting a higher-than-usual degree of pedantry in my writing. That exposed brain of mine shudders in the cold wind of imagined rejection.

  • We talk about sleep in the parenting class. I’ve brought a Cabbage Patch Kid and a blanket so we can practice swaddling; I talk about nap routines and co-sleeping, adopting as expansively tolerant an approach as I can muster while avoiding the elephant in the room: the dreaded CIO. Finally, one of the volunteers brings it up herself: "Are we going to talk about the fact that it’s okay to let the baby cry?" Sensors go on high alert; I hear a suppressed gasp on one side of me, see a raised eyebrow on the other. I stutter something unintelligible about considering options when you’re at the end of your rope, and cringe at the many layers of my own hypocrisy: how I am afraid to discuss the fact that I let my own children cry, how I am afraid to give these women permission to do the same, in case they don’t know how to locate the line between strategic CIO and outright abuse. My rhetoric of respect-for-everybody’s-choices is more than usually empty today.

I’ve always said that everybody has a crazy-door – that back door in their psyche that usually stays wedged shut until the pressure of events forces it open. Usually, my crazy-door is the fear of bees, a phobia that remains manageable except when I am under stress, at which point it escalates into a more pervasive agoraphobia. Lucky me – it’s winter now, and the bees are sleeping under a blanket of snow. It’s up to social anxiety to pick up the slack; I hear whispers of rejection around every corner, see signals of mockery and contempt in the slightest curve of an eyebrow.

And I know exactly why I am feeling this way, too: next week is Reading Week, Slack Week, Spring Break. My usual schedule of classes will be in abeyance; I’ll have a few free days to catch up on my marking, to renew my license plates and visit the doctor and dentist. Surely this has to be my most pathetic trait – this inability to adapt to any alteration in my routine without the ritualistic nervous breakdown, as predictable as rain. One of the perks of my job is that my schedule changes every few months. I never have to settle into the weekly grind of a 9-5 job, instead shifting regularly from full-time hours, to part-time hours, to the two-month unpaid vacation that arrives each summer.

I really like this about my life – I get to know what it’s like to be a stay-at-home mom; I get to go back to work again, though, before that life starts to drive me around the bend. I just wish I could skip these days of unexplained exhaustion, of quivering recoil at every imagined slight.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Thinking Bloggers




Back in my days as a newbie blogger, the term "link-love" caught my eye. It flattened me with its slangy jauntiness, made me briefly convinced that I could never fit into the bloggy crowd, never wield the lingo with that kind of insouciance. (See? At heart, I’m really the kind of girl who uses words like "insouciance." And wants to put that period after the closing quotation marks, but bows to the pressure of North American usage. Even as she defies such usage by putting a comma before "but" in a compound predicate. That kind of girl.)

Nine months later, I find myself poised at my keyboard, all set to write a sentence like, "I’m never one to shy away from the opportunity to spread a little link-love around." (In this case, at least, the period before the quotation marks feels right.) The occasion for all this linky goodness and associated navel-gazing is the latest round of blogging awards, the Thinking Blogger Awards.

There have been a few good posts lately (like this one) about the way the blogosphere spilleth over with Vote-For-The-Best-Sidebar-Titles or Nominate-Your-Favourite-Template awards. Certainly no one’s accusing us of low self-esteem around here; we are constantly admiring one another’s Justice, Perfection, and ability to make each other ROFL.

We’re embarrassingly transparent in our need for validation, we bloggers, and there are plenty of people willing to call us on it. But really, on a day when my ears are ringing from a three-year-old’s screaming, and my arms are weary from a toddler who can’t figure out whether she wants up or down, there are worse things than learning that someone appreciates these words I throw out into the ether – claims, even, that my words make her think.

So thank you, So Fast Away, for the nomination. The great thing about this award is that it is also a meme: I tag five people who have made me think, and then they tag five people, and pretty soon it’s like we’re all in that Breck commercial with gorgeous ’70’s hair curling around our shoulders.

The only problem, really, is that the people who make me think usually inspire me to write posts in which I link back to them – so I feel rather redundant here as I offer up a kind of Works Cited list for my blog. In truth, all the blogs I read make me think – they make me think about how better to love my children, and how better to live as a mom in this world. So please consider this a list of just a few people (and posts) who have been making me think lately:

1) A Garden of Nna Mmoy: Andrea’s recent posts on privacy have been the very definition of thought-provoking, but the one that has stayed with me longest is this post on fear.
2) Mom – Not Otherwise Specified: This is the mom I want to be when I grow up.
3) NotSoSage: This, the latest installment in Jill’s series on etymology, made me tell the women in my parenting class this morning, "I want to be a gossip!"
4) Toddled Dredge: Veronica writes about faith with such sensitivity and reasonableness that she always makes me glad to be a Christian. The first of her series of Lenten reflections starts here.
5) Under the Mad Hat: Mad Hatter always makes me think; today, she’s making me think it’s no coincidence so many mothers are sleep-deprived.

Consider yourselves tagged, my friends. Who has been making you think lately?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Renunciation

Mothers in nineteenth-century fiction are usually dead. On the rare occasion that they manage to survive their daughters’ infancy, their presence is a mixed blessing at best. Case in point: Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Her lapses of good taste and good judgment are legendary (and they amply prove that parents had been embarrassing their children for centuries before the invention of mommy-blogs). A typical example of her foolishness occurs when Lydia departs for her ill-advised (and, in the event, disastrous) journey to Brighton. Her mother’s parting words are laughable; as Austen describes it, "Mrs. Bennet was diffuse in her good wishes for the felicity of her daughter, and impressive in her injunctions that she would not miss the opportunity of enjoying herself as much as possible; advice, which there was every reason to believe would be attended to."

Instead of parenting her daughter, leading her on the difficult path to self-discipline and wisdom, Mrs. Bennet lives vicariously through her, finding in Lydia’s flirtations a gratifying reminder of her own youthful beauty and predilection for red-coated suitors.

This is not a mistake my own mother has ever made. Self-denial is one of her favourite virtues, and when she dropped by the house yesterday, the sight of my long-neglected Conair foot-massager prompted her to make this remark: "You just need to give up on enjoying yourself!"

While this advice is laudably distinct from Mrs. Bennet’s foolish words, I believe it is equally misguided. To be fair to my mother, I don’t think it was my possession of an unused Conair foot-massager that led to her warning against my hedonistic path to destruction. Moments earlier, Bub had caught me with my mouth full and had responded with several unsolicited announcements that "Mama’s eating CHOCK-WIT! Mama’s eating CHOCK-WIT!" The effort of not responding to this news with a lecture on nutrition had clearly eroded my mother’s defences, and the internal pressure caused by the un-given lecture erupted eventually in a blanket ban against all enjoyment.

To be sure, enjoying oneself is not the primary purpose of life. Indeed, I consider enjoying myself to be the fuel that allows me to do the other things I want or need to do in life. A good episode of Lost refuels me so that I can muster the energy to teach my classes the next day. The promise of a few freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, hot out of the oven, adds a few extra feet of rope to my short and quickly-fraying temper during supper and bath-time. An evening out at Starbucks with friends sets me up for a weekend of marking essays while the children nap.

I might go so far as to say that I consider enjoying myself to be a duty. Nonetheless, the virtues of the ascetic life are preached by more people than just my mother: there is a genuine tension between the psychological need for self-indulgence and the broader social realities that ask us to be more disciplined, more self-denying. It used to be that renunciation was the province of Roman Catholicism, which raised it to an art in monasteries peopled by ascetics with flayed backs and hair shirts. Fast forward a few centuries, and now environmentalism has assumed the ascetic mantle, exhorting people to want less, to consume less, to take up less space on the earth. This argument is not only scientific – it is also strangely appealing. There has always been an unexpected pleasure in the renunciation of pleasure.

This is the pleasure my mother would like me to find in food. A lifetime of reading about nutrition, combined with a vivid imagination, has rendered my mother incapable of enjoying saturated fat. She can actually visualize the fat deposits forming on her arteries, and the idea makes her ill. On the other hand, she does derive real enjoyment from eating ten vegetables a day. She admires the vivid yellow of a crisp bell pepper, the lycopene-red of the tomatoes in her lentil-barley soup. She mixes up cabbage, garlic, and lentils for lunch and eats it on whole-grain toast with an organic blueberry-yogourt smoothie and a good book. Duty and pleasure are one for her: she doesn’t reward herself for good behaviour with an otherwise forbidden indulgence – instead, the good behaviour is her indulgence.

I recognize the value of her approach, but so far that hasn’t altered my hedonistic ways. I sneak a few chocolates when I think my mother isn’t looking; I model for my children a different solution to the problem of balancing self-indulgence with self-denial.

And that, of course, is the scary part: not only do I have to weigh and balance my needs with those of others, and those of the earth, but I have to figure out that balance for my children as well. It’s my job to provide them with opportunities to enjoy themselves, to show them that they are worthy of laughter and joy – and it’s also my job to teach them self-discipline, renunciation, and wisdom. No wonder I need a good cookie now and then.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Efficacy of Contradictory Authoritarian Demands in Producing Docility and Compliance in the Maternal Population

(In response to Andrea’s challenge, a journal abstract of a forthcoming study.)

In the 1940s and ’50s, several ground-breaking experiments in the fields of psychology and sociology suggested that subjects could be rendered docile and pliable through exposure to certain stimuli. The most obedient responses were achieved when subjects were bombarded with contradictory orders from men in positions of authority. Faced with impossible demands, participants exhibited a predictable sequence of responses: their initial anger was followed by guilt and self-blame, leading eventually to passive submission to the authority figure’s orders.

Unfortunately, this fruitful line of research was cut short due to ethical concerns. This study proposes to revisit an area of knowledge that has received too little attention in the past fifty years by examining the impact of high-pressure authoritarian tactics on vulnerable populations. The test subjects are mothers of infants born between August, 2003 and July, 2005.

In order to test the impact of contradictory messages on the test subjects’ psychology, copies of Attached Parent magazine were placed in the waiting rooms of the subjects’ doctors and pediatricians. Enclosed play areas were provided for the babies so that the subjects could give their full attention to the articles, which included advice from trusted baby expert Dr. Sears. After a 30-minute waiting period, the mothers were ushered into an examination room, where they were provided with copies of the following books: On Becoming Baby Wise (by Gary Ezzo) and Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (by Dr. Richard Ferber). Once again, the women were given a half-hour in which to peruse the material before the entrance of the pediatrician, who administered a questionnaire measuring the women’s levels of stress, guilt, and depression.

As compared to the control group (who spent the 60-minute waiting period reading blogs on a laptop provided for their use), the test subjects showed an increased willingness to introduce solids early in response to their doctor’s instructions, a significantly greater likelihood of addressing the doctor as "sir" or "master," and a slightly increased risk of manifesting a massive outbreak of paranoid and/or antisocial behaviour. In one isolated case, the subject’s head did actually explode, but upon further testing, researchers were able to ascertain that this outcome could be prevented by replacing the article entitled "Babywearing Through Toddlerhood: The Only Way to Prevent Psychopathy" with the less severe "Babywearing Through Infancy: Be the Best Mommy on the Block!"

Although there are risks associated with exposure to the stimuli employed in this experiment, it is the position of the research team that the benefits of increased docility across the population outweigh the dangers posed by the few who succumb to maternal psychosis. It is recommended that these reading materials be made widely available, especially at pivotal junctures such as the passage of legislation affecting day-care and parental leave.

(Disclosure: This study was funded by the S. Harpur Foundation for the Manipulation of Mothers.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Not the Post I Was Planning to Write

As I often do, I jotted down some notes this morning for a post I planned to write later today. It was going to be about how grateful all of you should be to my mother for saving you from the minutiae that I might otherwise be tempted to post. Usually, I call up my mom whenever something exceptionally complex comes out of Bub’s mouth (which is, lately, once or twice a day). But she’s away this weekend, so I have no choice but to pour all my confidences into your long-suffering ears. To wit, here are a few of his latest gems:

  • (after being given a slightly misshapen carrot) "It’s getting too broken." (handing it back to me) "You might want to fix it." (Please note his use of a modal verb and an infinitive phrase – all in the same sentence!)

  • (upon hearing me singing "Robot #1" under my breath) "Mama, are you talking about a robot song?"

  • this conversation:
    Bub: (holding up one of his plastic kitchen utensils) What’s this?
    Me: It’s a pizza cutter. You use it to cut pizza.
    Bub: Where’s pizza?
    Me: We don’t have any pizza, but you can cut a pretend pizza here in this frying pan. (enthusiastically moving pizza cutter across empty plastic frying pan)
    Bub: (retrieving pizza cutter and blowing gently on it) Bubbles!

    (Please note his use of the interrogative and his back-and-forth turn-taking. A couple of months ago I had to think really hard before I tentatively checked off "yes" beside "Holds back and forth conversations" on his autism assessment. What I meant back then was that I could ask questions that he could answer; now we’ve switched roles.)

  • (while playing "Make a Match" on Starfall, an alphabet-themed website that is Bub’s favourite bookmark: I was clicking on cards to turn them over, and he was matching the letters to the objects they stood for) "Jet! You need a J! B! You need a ball! There you go!"

I jotted down these anecdotes this morning, planning to use them as a follow-up to my post about finding wonder in the ordinary, perhaps winding up with a few reflections about the widespread assumption that these kinds of anecdotes are ALL we talk about here in the momosphere. But that last item reminded me that I wanted to test whether Bub's linking of J with jet and B with ball was a sign of phonemic awareness or merely a memorized association. I gathered up a few magnetic letters from the fridge and spread them out on the coffee table, giving Bub a toy car and asking him, "What letter goes with car? What letter makes a ‘kuh’ sound?"

Bub delightedly grabbed a few letters and arranged them to form a word. "B-A-D spells car!" he announced.

That's when it all unravelled. The Pie lunged in to grab the letters and Bub shot out an arm, knocking her to the floor. I stood there like a deer in headlights, trying to figure out who to punish, while the Pie scrambled up from the floor and snatched a few letters. As fast as she could pick them up, Bub was prying them out of her tightly gripped fists. Then he was running away and she was being dragged along behind, refusing to release her pit-bull hold on his shirt, and both of them were screaming until I came to my senses and separated them, giving a few of the letters to Bub and a few to the Pie.

And then it all happened again. And again a few more times, with minor variations. So I put the letters back on the fridge and the children screamed and cried because it’s only letters on the coffee table that are fun, and only if they don’t have to get them off the fridge themselves. Finally, Bub started rooting around in one of the kitchen drawers and I heaved a sigh of relief because he was finally directing his attention away from fighting with his sister, who curled up gratefully in her father’s lap to read a story. And then Bub found what he was looking for – a can opener – carried it into the family room and threw it at his sister’s head.

Hubby hauled him up and said, "Bub, I can’t even think of anything to do to you that’s bad enough for what you did," and then put him in time out for five minutes. Bub accepted his sentence quite cheerfully - it was as if the entire episode had been an experiment just to see what would happen. In the past, his acts of violence have had a clear motivation, either to gain control of a coveted toy or to vent his immediate frustration. This, however, was pre-meditated: he did not seem angry, nor was there anything concrete to be gained by his action. It was a surgical strike, a scientific study of human behaviour.

So there are a few more milestones for you. Bub is beginning to display the following new abilities:
  • holding a grudge
  • misbehaving to get a rise out of his parents
  • vengeance-seeking
  • opening kitchen drawers.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Cool

One Father’s Day a few years ago, my husband and I gave our fathers the same gift: Railroad Rush Hour, a Tetris-like plastic puzzle game for the couch potato who has yet to enter the computer age. Their reactions were entirely typical: hubby’s father nodded once or twice and gave an appreciative (?) grunt; my own father, on the other hand, nearly leapt from his chair shouting, "Hey!" and grinning from ear to ear.

My father has always been an effusive man; he is easily excited by anything from a fumbled football to a hole-in-one. When I come over to visit, he invariably passes me his hand-held Yahtzee game, saying "Check out the latest high score!" with ill-concealed glee. This is a man who has had a successful professional career, first in accounting and later in "wealth management" (who knew there even was a field called "wealth management"?). Yet he is able to derive enormous pride from a series of three Yahtzees. "I got the ‘Joker’ on my second yahtzee and put it in ‘large straight,’" he explains jubilantly.

This ready fund of exuberance, this willingness to be ridiculously pleased by petty accomplishments, is one of my favourite traits in my father (one I’m delighted to have acquired from him). It’s conducive to his happiness and that of those around him. What it is not, by a long-shot, is cool. I have it on good authority that my father was popular in high-school. Indeed, he’s popular now. When my plumber asked how I got his name, the mention of my father split his face open in a smile. "What a guy!" the plumber exclaimed, before raving for several minutes about my father’s delightful personality. (My poor mother merited scarcely a mention; her virtues are less readily perceived by random strangers and service people.)

Despite his crew-cut and football-team membership, however, my father was never entirely cool in high-school. His excitability always gave him away. He was the squeaky-clean jock, never the brooding Danny Zuko. In the annals of coolness, it never pays to be too happy – what is required is a jaded cynicism that demonstrates that one is far too sophisticated to be anything but bored by the provincial pursuits that bring delight to others.

Coolness has never been within my reach: I’m too much like my father, only without the bottomless fund of small-talk. I am an uncool mother, not because my children don’t wear black or listen to the Ramones, but because I’ve never been able to conceal my amazement at myself for becoming a mother in the first place. I cannot be jaded or blasé about my children, and I am equally unable to conceal the irrational sense of accomplishment I derive from the most ordinary of achievements. I took the kids out to play in the yard – I’m such a star! I managed to eat three whole meals today – even though I’m a mother! Whoo hoo! I read books with my children this morning instead of throwing in another Wallace and Gromit DVD – somebody give me a prize!

If I wrote the way I feel about parenting all the time, every sentence would end with an exclamation mark. Not just the sentences about my children, and the amazing way their minds develop. Not just the sentences about how Bub went up to another little boy yesterday and said, "Hey Ben! Come and sit down!" (though that brings tears to my eyes every time I think of it). The sentences about me, too, merit that punctuation, the ones that reveal that I am doing this hard, hard thing, this amazing effort of patience and perseverence, and that I’m doing it, somehow, while still carving out space for myself.

Nobody gives out medals for parenting, so I’m glad I have this capacity for self-acknowledgment. I give myself far more praise than I deserve – but that praise keeps me going. When I can’t be cool, I fall back on irony, poking fun at my own absurdities, but the irony never entirely erases the self-congratulation.

It is this attitude of self-congratulation that has prompted the recent attacks on "hipster" parenting. "Look at me!" the hipsters write, "I’m the dad who listens to Metallica! I’m the mom who has tattoos and a baby!"

"You’re not revolutionary," the critics respond, "you’re not alternative, or rebellious, or special. You’re a parent, which makes you just about the most ordinary person in the world." Stop being so impressed with yourself, they say. It’s embarrassing. It’s uncool.

In my books, the parent who’s trying too hard to be "cool" isn’t the one who listens to punk rock or wears leather underwear. The "cool" parent is the one who pretends that all of this is ordinary, who pretends not to feel that parenthood is a brand new discovery, something huge and extraordinary, something that needs to be invented anew every day.

I’m not cool, as a mother – and for that I am very grateful.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

By Popular Demand (Part 2)

So tomorrow is the big day: after spending two hours on the comma, I have one hour left in which to cover all the remaining punctuation marks. Here’s the Coles Notes version:

The Dash: Use it whenever you feel like it. It may or may not be effective, but it’s unlikely to be wrong, unless you’re writing a very formal academic paper. In that case, throw dashes around with abandon, but then go back through the essay when you’re done and replace them with properly pedantic colons and semi-colons.

The Semi-Colon: If you know how to use a period, you know how to use a semi-colon. Both come at the end of an independent clause; semi-colons come in handy, though, when you’re long-winded and/or arrogant enough to believe that the stunning complexity of your thoughts requires more than one independent clause for full clarity and persuasiveness.

The Apostrophe: Such a boring punctuation mark, the apostrophe. There’s nothing challenging about the principle governing its use: when you feel tempted to add the letter "s" to a noun, simply ask yourself, "Do I need to add ‘s’ to this word because I have more than one of it, or because something belongs to it?" Apostrophe errors are almost always the result of carelessness rather than a misunderstanding of the rules.

Whew. With those lesser punctuation marks out of the way, I can turn my attention to the underused, yet elegant and beloved colon. Most punctuation marks have very little to say for themselves. A comma says, "take a quick breath," a period says, "take a deep breath," but a colon says, "Don’t panic. I know you’re confused, but never fear: I can explain everything." Like a semi-colon, a colon always comes at the end of an independent clause, a word group that could stand alone as a sentence. Unlike the semi-colon, however, the colon can be followed by almost anything: a list, an appositive phrase, a quotation, or even another independent clause. It doesn’t really matter what grammatical form the words following the colon take; what matters is what those words do. They clarify; they explain; they offer an illuminating example.

Colons are most typically used following a cryptic statement. "Life is like a box of chocolates," Forrest claims, and we pause in bewilderment. What does he mean? In what sense can that be true? The colon stops such speculations in their tracks, and reassures us that all will be explained. Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.

(This adage, by the way, is particularly pertinent right now as I select a chocolate from my Valentine’s box. Hubby got it at a local chocolatier, so it doesn’t have one of those little cards that translate the swirls and swoops for you, a curlicue signalling strawberry cream, a dark chocolate ridge hinting at liquid caramel lurking below. I think I’ll pick one now, blogging in real time, as it were. It’s a milk chocolate square with three lines crossing it diagonally. Yum. It’s a Skor-bar-type crunchy toffee. Life is full of wonderful surprises, isn’t it?)

Let us resume. In its most well-known uses – to introduce a list and to introduce a quotation – the colon performs basically the same function as it does in Forrest Gump: it points toward something that explains, proves, and amplifies the introductory statement. I have a wonderful variety of candies here: chocolate-dipped caramels, almond bark, coffee cream, and coconut crisp. The list in that sentence provides a more specific version of "wonderful variety of candies," clarifying what might otherwise have been a tantalizingly ambiguous statement. Quotations work the same way: Terry Moore has proposed a 12-step program for chocoholics: "NEVER BE MORE THAN 12 STEPS AWAY FROM CHOCOLATE!"

The colon is the most sympathetic of punctuation marks; it understands your needs and promises to fulfill them. Use it often; use it well.

*****

A postscript: I promised I would post about my least favourite grammatical rule. This particular rule governs the use of a comma before a coordinating conjunction such as and, or, but, or yet. Coordinating conjunctions join together things that have equal grammatical weight: two nouns, two adverbs, two subordinate clauses, etc. A comma is required only when the coordinating conjunction is being used to link together two independent clauses. That means that the comma in the following sentence is incorrect: Charlotte ate the whole box of chocolates, but sipped a Diet Coke. That sentence is an example of a compound predicate: the coordinating conjunction "but" is used to link together two verbs ("ate" and "sipped"), both of which belong to the same subject ("Charlotte").

As I tell my students, we cannot expect Charlotte to jump over that comma to get to the second verb. To me, though, the comma feels necessary – it prepares the reader for the shift of emphasis from Charlotte’s gluttony to her senseless attempt to cut calories. I might even go so far as to use a dash, actually (and if I did I could probably get away with it, since dashes escape the scrutiny of the comma vigilantes). If we want to keep the comma and satisfy the grammar police, however, we must supply a second subject, turning the second part of the sentence into its own independent clause: Charlotte ate the whole box of chocolates, but she sipped a Diet Coke. Somehow it doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

I’ve broken this rule at least three times in this post. Can you spot the errors?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

One Last Valentine Hurrah

In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats claims that the height of romantic passion occurs in the moment just before consummation. He congratulates the two lovers whose images are carved into the cold stone of a Grecian urn: they are about to kiss, lips hovering only barely apart, and they are frozen eternally in that ecstatic moment, "For ever warm and still to be enjoyed, For ever panting and for ever young." Their lips will never meet, but their beauty and passion will never abate.

I know that maturity brings deeper love and all that, but when it comes to cupid and his arrows, I’m with Keats: the most romantic of Valentine’s Days, for me, was the last one of the last century, the one that landed just a few weeks before now-husband and I dropped the pretense that we were just friends.

Hubby was a student in a neighbouring city at the time; every weekend he came home to the London area, showing up faithfully at any social event I was likely to attend. And then, during the week, we emailed. "Our email relationship is strangely thrilling," I wrote in my journal at the time. "I almost look forward to the days when he’s at school, because then we can engage in a flurry of email messages, most of them fun, silly, and loaded with double meanings. In person we tend to talk about serious subjects – books, theology, relationships – but online we banter about nail polish: I was telling him that I fear I’ve lost my edge – instead of relishing fierce, sexy, rebellious colours like Ink, I’m beginning to crave colours like coral, lilac and periwinkle. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked – ‘Girlification, that’s what,’ he responded, ‘and it may be past the treatable stage too.’ I love that."

Fittingly, then, it was by email that he threw out the casual invitation: he was staying at school over the weekend, planning to attend a Valentine’s Day poetry reading entitled "Wine, Writers, and Song." There would be chocolatey desserts, unconventional love stories, and readings by award-winning poets. Does that sound like anything I’d be interested in? Hmmm. Actually, yes it does.

I described the evening this way: "There was a vast array of desserts, including a few bowls of chocolate mousse decorated with chocolate hearts; I ate my sweets with a pink fork and sipped a glass of white wine that produced an instant flush of lust and happiness. I had worn my ‘velvat’ – a black top I got at the Gap, with a dramatic v-neck and fashionable three-quarter length sleeves. I sat at the end of the row with [now-husband] beside me and chatted amiably with his old roommate, who entertained us with stories of [now-husband]’s first-year capers – the best one involved him awakening everyone in the residence at seven a.m. one December morning by blasting Spanish Christmas carols on his stereo."

After the poetry reading we went to the Moody Blues Café, where I drank vanilla-flavoured tea and clutched my souvenir of the evening, White Stone: The Alice Poems, by Stephanie Bolster:


The collection is a sequence of poems elaborating on the life of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. My favourite poem, the one Bolster read for us that night, envisions Alice and Elvis together in heaven, playfully comparing their levels of fame: "he cites the Churches of Elvis, the Vegas tributes, while she mentions the Alice shop in Oxford, the Alice ride at Disneyland. … Both delight in their limited edition collector’s plates."

I read this poem to my children’s literature classes, my voice always breaking just a little as I get to the final lines:

She lays her head against his chest
during late night TV, murmurs of the man
who gave her fame, and he of the woman for whom
he won his. She wants to sway
to the beat of his heart in her ear, slow
as "Are You Lonesome Tonight." In sleep
their tear-blotched faces could be anyone’s.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Wee Rant

It’s quite the catch-22 we mommy-bloggers find ourselves in: if we write about ourselves, we’re self-indulgent, and if we write about our children, we’re violating their privacy. The contradictory nature of these attacks suggests that the oft-expressed discomfort with mommy-blogging arises from something other than the content of the blogs (which, after all, is so diverse as to defy generalization), that it arises, indeed, from the mere fact that mothers are writing.

As I remarked in a comment yesterday,

I think what really freaks people out is the idea of mothers inhabiting the spotlight AS MOTHERS. Aside from a few ultra-conservatives, most people have gotten used to the idea of women in the workplace, women having public lives even after they have children. But the fiction that makes that system work is that their motherhood gets left at the doorstep: while at work, a woman functions as a childless, androgynous WORKER, not as a mother.

The thing about blogging that seems to take people off guard is not just that mothers are writing, but that they can write as mothers about not just their children, but themselves, their politics, their goals: it's the refusal to compartmentalize in the socially prescribed ways that allow our culture to preserve the 1950s ideal of motherhood while simultaneously requiring those mothers to work full-time jobs (and, in the case of the U.S., to return to those jobs at only 6 weeks postpartum).

Having developed that theory in response to Andrea’s post, I was gratitfied to have it confirmed today by this Time Magazine article, entitled "Too Cool for Preschool." The writer, James Poniewozik, takes aim primarily at the new, hip model of parenting espoused by websites like Babble. "Goodbye Baby Mozart; hello, Baby Ramone," he quips, citing Rebecca Woolf (of Girl’s Gone Child) as an example of this new "punk-rock" approach to parenting. All joking aside, however, he assures parents that he does not require them to forgo their own lives: "Subordinating one's self is especially fraught for women, who historically often lost their identities in marriage and motherhood. Moms and dads can be unique, creative individuals after they have kids. It's being a unique, creative individual through your kids that's disturbing."

Having so magnanimously acknowledged that women are entitled to their own lives, Poniewozik explains that the key is to respect the boundary between the woman’s "self" identity (in which she is entitled to be unique and creative) and her "mother" identity (in which she is still required to conform to a cookie-cutter model which precludes things like blogging).

The idea seems to be that parents check their individuality at the door: they can continue wearing their favourite fashions, but their children ought to be dressed in whatever is the socially prescribed Baby Gap uniform of the day. The article is illustrated with a photo of a scantily clad mother (of course it would be a mother, even though the article focuses at least as much attention on Neal Pollack’s Alternadad). The real dig, though, is at the baby, who is garbed in the same plaid uniform, though not in the matching black leather lace-up boots:


Clearly, it would be ludicrous to lament that infants are becoming fashion victims: babies are entitled to love, attention, food, and warmth, but not to a particular style of clothing or music. As if aware of that basic flaw in his argument, Poniewozik changes tacks. What is really wrong with cool-blogger parents who refuse to keep their individuality separate from their parenting is that they are violating their children’s privacy: "I sympathize with the parents. But I sympathize more with the toddlers whose bouts of playing with themselves, feces hurling and projectile vomiting are being recorded, page by gigabyte, for posterity. Someday, one will write his or her own memoir of growing up in public."

Rather than respond to the charge that we are violating our children’s privacy (which is addressed, with brilliant clarity, here), I’d like to point out what a change of topic it is: one can blog about one’s children without embracing the punk-rock ideal touted by Babble, and one can be an "alternadad" (or mom) without having a blog. They’re separate issues, and conflating them is simply Poniewozik’s way of retreating to safer ground. What outrages him (through most of the article) is not the violation of a child’s privacy, but rather the violation of our culture’s norm (touted in every single parenting guide and magazine) that there is one right way to parent – right for all babies, right for all parents – and that the right way is a form of self-annihilation. Mothers can have their own lives, of course – so long as they park them at the office. As soon as they return home, though, to the embrace of their adoring children, the leather lace-up boots come off and the June Cleaver apron goes on. After all, every child is entitled to the same kind of mother, selfless, devoted, and insatiably fascinated by Mr. Potato Head.

Individuality and parenting are a dangerous mix: if we start thinking and writing about parenting through the lens of our own beliefs, values, and personalities, the very foundations of society might shake. The economic impact alone would be shattering, as the sales of Baby Einstein, Dr. Sears, and Baby Gap start to plummet. Just imagine the ramifications if instead of following rules, we developed relationships - if instead of reading about the "7 Ways to Boost Your Baby's Brain" we started communicating with one another about the anxieties that underlie our competitive parenting. First, the mom-tinis – then the deluge.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Valentine Blogging

Guess what? I opened up the newspaper this morning to discover that I am the ideal mate, according to the majority of men surveyed: "Smarts and fidelity, not good looks or great sex, are the most important traits for a mate, according to a recent poll."

Leger Marketing asked Canadians to weigh the importance of criteria like ambition, money, "knowing how to listen," and "being nice" in determining their selection of a mate. The predictable gender discrepancies occurred: men placed more value on physical attractiveness and sexual prowess, while women were more likely to care about ambition and a love of children. The only potentially surprising finding is that women were significantly more likely than men to rate "respecting the other’s independence" as a key factor in mate selection. Does this mean that women are more independent than men? Or that men are more likely than women to interfere with their mate’s independence?

The truly interesting questions, of course, did not get asked. What are the positive factors in creating attraction, and what factors eliminate a potential spouse from contention? If 26% of women rate "being nice" as an important quality, does that mean that women are actively out there seeking niceness? Or does it mean that 26% of women feel that ugly, abusive, non-nice behaviour is a deal-breaker?

For me, physical attractiveness served more to limit the pool than anything else: there was a certain threshold of attractiveness that I would not go below, but once a prospective mate had cleared that hurdle, I would assess other factors, such as intelligence, sense of humour, and interests. From one perspective, then, physical attractiveness was the most important factor: no amount of funny jokes or sympathetic remarks could overcome the negative impression created by looks. Viewed from another perspective, though, physical attractiveness was inconsequential, far less important than, say, a well-developed appreciation for Star Trek: The Next Generation or the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator.

Before hubby and I started dating, he expressed some friendly interest in what had been on my "list": the list of traits I looked for in a mate (the list that had produced such a disastrous choice the first time around). Of course, I never had such a list: the qualities I looked for had to do with the relationship, not the man. I wanted passion, I wanted stimulating conversation – I wanted someone who would eat popcorn and read Shakespeare with me. I didn’t know then that anyone would do those things, for awhile, if that’s what it took to get into my pants.

When I did make up a list the second time around, my attempts at objectivity were constantly foiled by the fact that hubby and I had already met: he was always lurking in the wings, contaminating my list. I want a mix between Captain Von Trapp and Mr. Darcy, I decided: I want an INTJ, someone who is rational and dedicated and loyal. Then I would share those criteria with now-husband so that he could do his best to emphasize his Von Trapp and Darcy qualities (something he did enthusiastically, even to the point of describing himself, quite falsely, as arrogant). We were such cute young kids.

So what about you? Did you search for a man to conform to a predetermined list of desirable traits? Or did you find the man first and make the list afterwards?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Just Post (January)

Just Post Jan 2007

My Just Post nominee for January is this post by Emmie from Better Make it a Double.

You remember that scary news release from Consumer Reports, claiming that all but the two most expensive carseats were pretty much guaranteed to kill your baby? Well, the report has since been discredited, but don’t let that stop you from reading Emmie’s perceptive take on the matter. She talks about how the rhetoric of safety and babyproofing functions as a screen discourse for all the things we don’t want to think about: the deteriorating environment, the crumbling public-school system – the problems affecting our children that can’t be solved with a $2 electric-plug cover or a $350 carseat.

Returning to her post this week, I’ve been struck at how the public dialogue about motherhood functions in much the same way – as a red herring, a distraction from the fears we don’t want to acknowledge. My newspaper is full of terrible stories this week: a toddler smothered by a 13-year-old foster child, a baby scalded by a desperate mother who used a kettle of boiling water as her cry for help. Children are terribly vulnerable in our society, and there are gaping holes in the patchwork of social services designed to protect them and support their parents. So how do we respond? With rules. Never drink on a play-date. Respond promptly to every cry. Spray down the change table with anti-bacterial spray once a week. Never leave your toddler unattended.

And we respond with laws to make spanking illegal, to require helmets on toboggans. If we always speak in absolutes, and raise the bar for mothers high enough, maybe the real problems will just go away. A law is much cheaper than a respite program or adequate parental leave; psychological pressure is easier and more convenient than real support.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Booklust

I have too many books.

This, I know, is an unusual admission for a blogger to make. By and large, we prefer TV to books, and when we do buy a book, we’re able to read it rapidly due to the copious amounts of free time afforded by our current lifestyles. All of which is to say, I am a giant cliché, I know. But bear with me.

From where I sit now, at my kitchen table, I can see two stacks of unread books. There are my birthday books:


(Recommended by Mom-NOS and given to me by Bub.)


(Recommended by Mary P. and given to me by the Pie. It’s a good thing my kids keep up with their blog-reading, isn’t it?)

And then there are my Christmas books:




Finally, we have the books Random House was kind enough to send me in response to my faithful promise to post regular reviews on my blog:




All in all, there are twelve unread books stacked on the toychest and on my kitchen counter. These, mind you, are just the ones I can physically see right now. There are more unread books upstairs - some thirty of them, I believe.

Living at my house is kind of like living at the library, except without all the comfy chairs. Despite the general swampitude, however, I snapped up twelve (12) of the proffered Random House books, and they’ve been arriving in the mail for several weeks now. For my first review, I picked Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a collection of short stories about, um, mothers and sons.

Short stories are not my favourite genre, I have to admit. I say this advisedly, having taught many of the classics of the genre for my first-year fiction course. The trouble with short stories is that they’re too much work: with a novel, you invest a bit of time getting to know the characters and setting, and you expect to reap the rewards of that investment with a hefty 300 pages or so of good reading. Fantasy novels, which require a much greater initial investment (learning a whole new geography, littered with oddly named characters and strange magical beings) often keep on paying back that investment for ten or twelve books, each of which might be a thousand pages long.

Short stories, on the other hand, are stingy: just when you’re getting attached to the characters, they come to an end. The truly classic short stories make sure that the ending is a doozy: stories like "A Rose for Emily" or "A Cask of Amontillado" create a looming sense of menace, and then close with a single evocative image, a grey hair on a pillow or a man bricked up inside a wall. Necrophilia and suffocation are the pay-off for the reader’s willingness to put in the effort of sorting out the story’s deceptive and/or convoluted narrative.

The trouble is, these tricks get old. What seems like an exciting twist the first time it’s used becomes a painful cliché the second. Toibin’s solution to this problem is to end his stories just before the moment of resolution. The first clue that the story is over in this volume occurs when you turn the page and read the title of the next one.

What this technique loses in terms of the ending it regains at the beginning: there is a simplicity to these stories that draws the reader in quickly. Some are told from the perspective of the mother, others from the point of view of the son, but in all cases the narrative focuses squarely on that formative relationship. It’s easy to become emotionally involved with the characters, easy to sort out the dynamics of what often turns out to be a conflict between old and new Ireland. One of my favourite stories, for instance, details the struggles of a widowed mother of three who shocks the neighbours by converting her heavily mortgaged grocery store into a chip shop. Her teenage son is more conservative than she: he envisions himself as an important local merchant, aping the pompous, traditional manners of his elders; he doesn’t notice that "his" business is founded upon his mother’s willingness to fly in the face of convention.

When the Bub was in utero, one thing I struggled with upon learning that I was carrying a boy was the idea that boys grow away from their mothers. As Scarbie Doll pointed out this morning, some women call their mothers three times a day; many men call their mothers four times a year. The distance between mothers and their grown sons looms large in this book, but underlying that is the tight, living bond that runs between them. There are sons in this collection who have not spoken to their mothers in decades, sons and mothers whose inner lives are largely unknown to one another. But something about the ragged, open-ended structure of these stories allows Toibin to capture the open wound that is the mother-son relationship, the connection that cannot be severed by time, or geography, or opposing personalities.

Critics have praised this book for its bleakness, calling it honest and unsentimental (because you know, of course, that one cannot write about mothers and sons without evoking the terror of sentimentality!). I value the book for the opposite tendency, for the way it uncovers in even the most deeply flawed relationships those unexpected moments of compassion and connection.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

By Popular Demand

You guys are clearly overestimating the entertainment value of what I have to say about the comma. I am no Lynne Truss – I do my best to make my writing classes interesting, but when I succeed it’s due to pep rather than wit. (My attempts at wit are usually a dismal failure. And yet I keep on making them.)

Take for example the dilemma posed by multiple adjectives. I am drinking a rich, thick, chocolatey milkshake. I am eating a large milk chocolate Toblerone bar. Why are there commas between the adjectives in the first sentence and not the second?

The answer, my friends, has to do with the distinction between coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are descriptive words we append at will to our nouns, throwing them about willy-nilly, with little regard to the order in which they appear. To be sure, we typically prefer to place the longest adjective last, but if we wished, we could alter the order without disintegrating into nonsense. I am drinking a thick, chocolatey, rich milkshake. Doesn’t have quite the same ring, of course, but it does make sense. I could not, however, say that I am eating a chocolate milk Toblerone large bar. That would be absurd.

Another test is to replace the comma with the word "and". I am drinking a rich and thick and chocolatey milkshake. Sure, why not? I am eating a large and milk and chocolate and Toblerone bar. Sure, and my name is a Borat. (See what I mean about the wit?)

Of course, coordinate and cumulative adjectives can also be mixed. I could eat a huge, expensive milk chocolate Toblerone bar, or I could drink a rich, thick, high-fat McDonald’s chocolate milkshake. The key is to distinguish between adjectives that specify a category and those that merely describe. "Chocolatey" is not really a word, but if it were, it would be a descriptor. "Chocolate," on the other hand, specifies a particular kind or category. Commas are unnecessary before or after category-type adjectives (also known as cumulative adjectives).

A third trick to test for whether an adjective is coordinate or cumulative is to move it to the predicate and precede it with "very". My milk shake is very rich, very thick, and very chocolatey. My bar is very large (okay), very milk, very chocolate, and very Toblerone (not so much). Large is a coordinate adjective, but the others are all cumulative. The "very" part of the trick won’t work for absolute terms (like "unique"), but the switch to the predicate should work in most cases.

The underlying principle here is that one does not place a comma between an adjective and whatever it modifies. We do not say, "Thank you for the nice, present." "Nice" describes "present," so we omit the comma. Same thing goes for adverbs: we do not say, "The bridemaids wore pale, pink dresses" because "pale" modifies "pink" (tells to what degree the dresses were pink). In the case of cumulative adjectives, each adjective modifies all the words that follow: when we order a "tall decaf gingerbread latte," "decaf" modifies "gingerbread latte," and "tall" modifies "decaf gingerbread latte." (I would say that "nonfat" and "decaf" are both coordinate adjectives, though: the "tall" has to go at the beginning, and the "gingerbread" has to go at the end, but "decaf" and "nonfat" could go in either order in the middle.)

It’s hard to say which quality all this information exhibits to a greater degree: dullness or uselessness. Most people will punctuate adjectives correctly by instinct; those who cannot often have great difficulty learning and applying the above rules. The effort of studying these precepts often results in an immediate (and hopefully short-term) deterioration in the quality of one’s writing: there are certain errors that only arise from second-guessing one’s first impulse. Only after my class on "who" vs. "whom," for instance, do I receive essays with sentences like "George W. Bush is the president whom sent the troops into Iraq."

Speaking of who vs. whom, though, I am reminded that there is a whole other set of rules governing adjective clauses and appositive phrases. Somebody stop me, please, before it’s too late.

*****

Six years ago today, I got up to find an all-day sucker waiting for me on the kitchen table, a present from hubby. "Thirty Sucks," it said – and when I saw it I burst into tears. (The fact that hubby himself was twenty-five at the time – a mere infant in arms, as it were – served to add insult to injury.) Today I am at peace with being firmly entrenched in my thirties. When I go to work, people no longer mistake me for a student; I look like a woman rather than a girl, and I no longer feel quite so surprised when strangers take me seriously as a responsible adult. I’m as old now as Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were when they died, and a year from now I hope to be older still.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Forgiveness

"I forgive you, I forgive you," I chanted under my breath this morning as I gave the Pie her morning sauce (applesauce, which she eats in preference to cereal in the morning). The crime for which I was offering such magnanimous absolution was that of awakening at 5 am for the third consecutive morning (long enough to form a worrisome pattern, but not long enough for me to have achieved acceptance).

Studies and sermons on forgiveness tend to be long on the why and short on the how. It’s all very well to read stats on the psychological benefits of forgiveness, or hear admonitions about seventy-times-seven, but that doesn’t necessarily help us to do it. Nevertheless, my mantra proved helpful: after a minute or two I lost the urge to glare at my baby girl, and even relaxed enough to sit down with her for a round of Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Of course, forgiveness comes more easily when the offender hasn’t done anything wrong. But how do we forgive those who have truly wronged us?

As part of her twelve days of Christmas series last month, Veronica Mitchell posted this piece on forgiveness. She closes her meditation by alluding to that most embarrassing of Christian teachings, the doctrine of hell. As unpopular as it may be nowadays, hell has long served an important function as a reminder that our acts of forgiveness do not imply a miscarriage of justice – rather, they involve placing the responsibility for justice in other hands. That rings true for me – I am reminded of how relieved I felt many years ago when a phone call with my ex-mother-in-law revealed her deep, deep rage at what her son had done to me and to our marriage. I could stop being angry, I realized; I could let somebody else take care of the job of holding him accountable.

Nevertheless, when I read the book of Revelation, with its fire-and-brimstone imagery, I often feel confronted by a cultural chasm: we read this book today, if we read it at all, as a kind of horror fiction. For its original readers, though, it was meant to be a source of comfort, a source of hope. I try, and fail, to imagine the suffering that would make a person cling to the promise of the apocalypse, a promise to blot out the earth with war and earthquake and pestilence, and then to start afresh. Sometimes, when I read Holocaust literature, I can capture for a moment that yearning for divine judgment to fall upon the earth. But even then, the method seems to lack subtlety.

It is a luxury of ours, though, this predilection for mercy. That’s made clear in one of the short stories I taught last term, Toni Cade Bambara’s "Gorilla, My Love." The heroine is a young black girl who has been raised to stand up for herself: she refuses to sing Southern songs in school, she asks questions out of turn, and she sets fire to the candy stand at the movie theatre when the film Gorilla, My Love turns out to be about Jesus instead of about gorillas. This is not a girl you want to dupe with the bait-and-switch. And she is unimpressed by the values of meekness and mercy: when the film depicts Jesus hanging from the cross she reflects, "My daddy wouldn’t stand for nobody treatin any of us that way. My mama specially. And I can just see it now, Big Brood up there on a cross talkin bout Forgive them Daddy cause they don’t know what they doin. And my Mama say Get on down from there you big fool, whatcha think this is, playtime?" In this family passion play, everybody gets involved: Daddy runs for a ladder to pull his son down off that cross, and in the meantime mama and Aunt Daisy grab their pocket books and start beating the Romans over the head.

The story is not quite enough to convince me that mercy and forgiveness are for chumps (I’m not sure that it intends to) – but it does remind me that it’s a lot easier to preach forgiveness when you’re not part of an embattled minority, when your survival does not depend upon your willingness to fight.

Forgiveness need not mean acquiescence, however – indeed, the word implies some degree of power on the part of the forgiver: it’s a willingness not to exercise the vengeance to which one is entitled. This definition of forgiveness has been on my mind ever since I watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica the other night. I’m working my way through season three these days, trying to catch up to the current episodes before the season ends. The episode I have in mind deals with the "second Exodus," the escape of humans from Cylon occupation. When the episode begins, the danger is now past: the humans are back aboard Galactica, and six individuals have been selected to form a secret jury to try, convict, and execute those who collaborated with the enemy during the occupation.

As we watched the episode, my husband kept spluttering about the illegality of these so-called trials: the accused were not permitted to speak in their own defence, and the jury was composed of relatives of the victims. Nothing about this set-up seemed designed to deliver justice, and yet there was a kind of pragmatic wisdom to it: for an angry and divided people, these summary executions might satisfy the appetite for vengeance while allowing for a swift return to normality.

Such Machiavellian reasoning aside, however, the show makes it clear that injustice to the collaborators is only one of the flaws with this system: at least as serious is the psychological damage to the jury members, who pull hoods over the heads of their victims before blowing them out the airlock as they scream, "I’m sorry!" While hubby analyzed the lack of safeguards in the system, I proposed an alternative: "What they need is a Truth and Justice Commission."

This, in fact, is precisely the solution the writers reached as well: taking a leaf out of Desmond Tutu’s book, the President closes the episode by issuing a general pardon and setting up a commission to "hear our stories." Were it not for the heavily emphasized parallel to South Africa, this ending would seem utterly laughable. How can so much betrayal and trauma be dispelled simply by telling stories? If your family has been slaughtered by turncoats working for an oppressive regime, how is a mere recording of that event going to satiate the need for justice? If it hadn’t actually happened in real life, I would never have believed it possible.

The effectiveness of the Truth and Justice Commission makes me wonder whether the thirst for vengeance isn’t simply an example of our lack of self-knowledge. We think that punishing the offender will make us feel better, that exchanging tit for tat will restore the cosmic balance. And yet that desire for revenge is often verbalized as a desire for repentence: "You’ll be sorry," we threaten; "I’ll make him sorry he did that to me," we vow. Perhaps those phrases reveal the underlying purpose to our acts of revenge: what we want is not so much to hurt our enemies as to believe that they truly regret having hurt us.

"Do you think he’s sorry?" a rape victim asked on last week’s episode of House. It was a good episode, with House uncomfortably trying to use his usual diagnostic tricks with a problem that can’t be solved by a simple differential diagnosis. Throughout the episode, House tries various approaches, all designed to produce the appropriate "cure" for her condition: a willingness to talk about what happened and an agreement to abort the resulting pregnancy. In the end, he succeeds in getting through to her: she aborts what House calls her "rape baby" and moves on with her life. But the pat ending is undermined by House’s belief that he hasn’t helped her, that his treatment, though effective, has not really solved anything.

Therapy and justice are the treatments our society has to offer to redress wrongdoing. And they’re not to be underrated – they are, in a sense, all we can do. But that doesn’t mean that they’re what we need: we need the wrongdoer to be sorry, and when he is, we need to be able to forgive. God help us.