We got a new kitten. And Sophie got enough literacy to read some books. Here she is, teaching Lulu to hunt.
Professing, Mommying, and Living
We got a new kitten. And Sophie got enough literacy to read some books. Here she is, teaching Lulu to hunt.
Before we even got to the zoo, Everett was thrilled with the highway. “Momma, bus!” he said, “Momma, trash truck! Momma, look!” Two-year-olds are so superb at relishing the mundane details of life.
And then there was the zoo. “Mum-tees!!!” the boy keeps saying. That’s his pronunciation of “monkeys.” Monkeys used to be his absolutely favorite thing at the zoo, so much so that he thinks that the name of the zoo is Mumtees. Every single time a monkey swings from a tree branch, he breaks out laughing. I swear: every single time.
This time, though, Everett was also interested in hippos, gazelles, llamas, elephants, flamingos, and one surly-looking cheetah. He was also interested in running along the zoo paths. And eating the grapes I had packed. Oh, man, snack plus zoo equals toddler heaven right there.
I was feeling a little guilty that I hadn’t organized a birthday party for him. The truth is, I haven’t organized many friendships for him. His older sister got a playgroup and a baby-sign-language class and a whole bunch of play dates that pretended to be for her but were actually for me, a new mom desperate to find other moms to talk to. He doesn’t get that as much, because, now, I have enough mom friends. He gets dragged along to her play dates. Or he gets a date with me. For his birthday, this year, he and I went to the zoo.
We played with stuffed animals in the gift shop, giggling and tickling each other with plush toys, until all of a sudden he broke off the game in order to bring a single small cheetah up to the clerk, place it next to the cash register, and then wait patiently, silently. He knows how to buy things already. It was so adorable, I bought it for him, and then he didn’t let go of it for days.
He liked the animals at the zoo, but, even more than that, he was intrigued by the golfcarts that the zookeepers zoom around in, and one bulldozer cleaning an elephant pen, and, or course, the tour-buses. Finally, I took him to ask a bus-driver where to purchase bus-tickets. “Where do you want to go?” she inquired, and I explained, “It doesn’t matter. My boy just wants a bus ride.” His admiration for her vehicle was so clear that she offered to let us on the bus for free. Then she dropped us off by the tram ride, and Everett stopped talking about monkeys. Now all he talks about is “UP! UP! UP!” We rode the sky-tram across the zoo. Then we rode it back. Then we rode it back again.
Finally it was time to go home, and the gatekeeper stamped his arm for reentry. “Tattoo!” he exclaimed. “Like Daddy!” He was so proud.
We picked his birthday cake up from the bakery, then picked his sister up from school, and the task of holding the kids off the cake proved impossible.
“Elmo cake!” has become another happy refrain of his, now. Whenever anyone says “Happy birthday,” he answers, “Elmo cake!” He met another two-year-old at the swimming pool the other day, and while the mom & I established that our kids were indeed close in age, he just told the kid: “Elmo cake! Elmo cake!” The kid seemed to appreciate that idea.
To complete his special day, Evs asked for nail polish.
See those chubby cheeks in that photo? Irresistably cute.
This morning, Ben swears Everett declared, “I got this.” What I hear most often from Evs lately is, “Edit do dis,” which, of course, means “Everett is going to do this,” or, more loosley translated, “Let me do this myself, darn you big people always rushing in, I’m getting to it, I’m growing up, do NOT keep me from climbing on the tall granite counter and grabbing that glass jar of baby vitamins. You and your silly only-one-vitamin-a-day rules. Sheesh. Let me do it.”
We’re proud of him, of course. And frustrated, but trying to stand back and let him carry his own little-baby-potty, full of sloshing pee, precariously balanced with his thankfully-baby-proof nightlight. We’ve got a lot of rags and an easy-to-clean floor. And we’re hoping that all his recent bruises will heal soon.
Just before Everett was born, we planted a fig tree. Now it’s giving us dozens of figs a day. This isn’t a perfect metaphor, because the mandarin-orange tree that we also planted isn’t thriving so well, but let’s not think about that. Look at the figs.
In the past few days, Everett has switched from a crib to a real bed. He’s switched from diapers to real underwear, with Elmo on his butt and an adorable aren’t-you-proud-of-me dance every time he uses the potty. He’s started saying “please” and sometimes even “thank you.” He started preschool. And he’s eating lots of figs.
It’s almost going too fast.
“I don’t look like anyone here,” Soph complained. “Can I wear my traje traditionale again today?” I tried to assure her that it’s okay to sometimes be a racial minority. I told her it might help her better empathize with others when we get back home. Still, I know that I never had that feeling until I was an adult, backpacking in Asia. I felt a little guilty thrusting minority status on my child so early. And I realize how much that last sentence smacks of white privilege. Yup. Sorry.
We went to Guatemala, because I wanted an adventure and our friends were there. And we could.
Soph greeted our four-year-old friend — whom she had never met — by running across her yard, arms out, passionately yelling her name, like a bad romantic comedy. The two played together adorably.
They weren’t scared of long suspension bridges.
Sophie wasn’t scared of the traffic or poisonous spiders or germ-infested water or after-dark walks on narrow jungle paths. She wasn’t scared of anything that scared me. She liked taking tuk-tuk rides and using lots of hand sanitizer. What she was scared of was thunder (it was the rainy season, it thundered every day), extinct volcanos (whenever a cloud drifted over a volcano, she asked me if it might be erupting), and, most of all, not fitting in.
She felt better once I bought her the traditional outfit that most of the Mayan women wore in the village we were visiting.
Her blonde hair still stood out. Villagers kept stroking her cheeks, all of a sudden. Kind clusters of older women giggled at us, snapped Sophie’s photo, and then offered to help re-tie her corte (traditional skirt) that I could never manage to tie correctly. This felt okay to me.
Here’s Sophie visiting a Guatemalan school, trying to fit in.
A gringo friend told me that Rigoberta Menchu (who came from a nearby village) wrote that seeing tourists wearing her people’s clothes felt like a knife to her heart. “A lot feels like a knife to Rigoberta’s heart, you know. That’s just how she writes,” my friend added. “I don’t see a lot of people looking like they feel knives to their hearts, now. They just seem to be amused at us.” They did.
I understand that native peoples, from whom we’ve taken so much, don’t want us to take their cultures too. I don’t dress exactly like villagers I visit. Still, Soph wanted to wear traditional clothes, and wanted it so badly that I couldn’t say no. Another tourist affectionately called Sophie a “gringa princess.”
It wasn’t an untouristed village. One day, when I got sick (I think from washing my face with unclean water, something Sophie never did), I sent Soph off to an “ecofest” downtown, with our friends from Brooklyn. It was a festival encouraging Mayan villagers to use more ecologically efficient ovens, to slow down deforestation. A New Orleans folk duo was performing, because they were my friends’ parents. A retired Waldorf movement teacher from Hawaii shared his juggling sticks with Soph. The confluence of all this randomness must have amused the news photographers as much as it amuses me, because, that day, Soph ended up on the Guatemalan television news. This may be what globalization looks like, at its best.
The Guatemalans we met were amazingly patient with my bad Spanish and amazingly sweet to Sophie. When she fell asleep on a crowded ferry, instead of complaining that she was taking up too much room, more than one person asked if she wanted to rest her feet on their lap. It was a surprisingly child-friendly place to visit.
We went kayaking in a lake-filled volcanic crater, hiking in a butterfly preserve, and touring 300-year-old wooden saints who live in people’s houses. Soph complained that the saints tour was boring, so I let her set our agenda the next day, and she chose tree-climbing, swimming, taking a tuk-tuk into town for icecream, fairy-playing, and then swimming again. It was a pretty good vacation.
And here are our wonderful friends, in front of another house in that compound.
Our worst culture clash came on the last day. It started out pleasantly enough: our friends had invited other kids over for a pool party. Soph was briefly disconcerted that everyone was speaking Spanish or Tzutujil, but she eventually figured out that running around in circles is fun in almost any language. She befriended one Mayan girl, Astrid, who seemed especially eager to be given a tour of the little four-house foreigner’s compound where we were living. “I’m going to show Astrid the pool,” Soph told me, and I, foolishly, said okay. I was busy packing because the van to take us back to the airport was due to arrive in less than an hour. I didn’t stop to think that a Mayan villager might not be fully trained in pool safety. Or, really, that no six-year-olds anywhere should ever be left unsupervised near a pool.
Thank goodness another adult was close by and fished Astrid out of the pool when she fell in. The other adult (a Mayan man) left Astrid with us, and then we faced a challenge: Astrid did not want to take off her soaking wet clothes. Her ideas of proper modesty overrode any effort to get her comfortable after nearly drowning. I offered her Soph’s dry clothes, but she firmly rejected anything that might show her shoulders or knees. She assured me she felt fine, dripping there from her head to her sneakers. I found another Mayan adult woman to help, insisted that Astrid come into our house, pulled the curtains, found some long-sleeved, long-panted clothes of Sophie’s, and then left them alone to handle the modesty problem themselves. Astrid ended up looking incredibly good in Soph’s stuff. I half hope that, if we return to that village in a decade or so, the small stores of seamstresses may be selling versions of Soph’s clothes as “traditional outfits” to the new tourists.
It was a great vacation.
Here’s how Soph spent her long weekend.
Could it get any more adorable than her using the miniature watercolor set that Ben packed to keep her entertained on their alpine adventures?
There are more pictures here. Ben has mastered the art of taking a kindergartener backpacking.
Evs, on the other hand, wasn’t ready, even for the 3-miles-or-shorter hikes that they were doing. Everett is too old to be carried, but too young to move linearly along a path without stopping to smell every flower, leap off every rock, and generally frustrate everybody who’s actually trying to get somewhere. He’s also at that age (1 1/2 to about 2 1/2, I think), when he just won’t sleep in a tent, and I wasn’t quite up for staying up all night for three nights. Also, I didn’t want to pack out poopy diapers. We’ll go car-camping with him next month, but backpacking camping just didn’t seem like it would be a success.
So Evs and I stayed home while Ben & Soph went to the Sierras. I took Evs to the donut store down the street. I took him to the zoo, where he giggled every time a monkey jumped. I took him to our local botanical gardens and almost accidentally stayed past closing time, because he was having so much fun wading in the stream there while I chatted with other parents about the adventures we used to have, before our weekends consisted of going to the children’s play area at the local botanical gardens. It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought, staying home. It was nice for each child to get sustained one-on-one time with one parent.
And, next month, I get to take Soph on an adventure, too. We’re going to Guatemala to visit friends in Santiago Atitlan. The prospect of this is cheering me up enormously.
Lest this blog turn too mopily worried about gender conventions, let me show you some photos.
Ben has been teaching Everett to cook.
And, in preparation for their backpacking trip, Ben taught Soph how to saw the handle off her toothbrush. Of course. I can’t resist pointing out that she’s doing that in a dress she sewed herself, this week at camp, when she learned to use a sewing machine. At home, she asked me to help her sew a stuffed-animal alien, and so we did.
In addition to teaching her to sew, Soph’s sweet little camp also taught her to be a scientist. Here she is explaining her crayon-melting experiment with such aplomb that my heart swelled.
And here is Evs, looking like a Maurice Sendak character.
Here they are together, in our garage, in one of their favorite after-dinner activities, a kind of hybrid of rock-climbing, rappelling, and swinging.
I suppose I don’t have too much conventionality to worry about.
I keep hearing it at the playground:
“Argh, I packed a snack for the kids but forgot to pack one for myself.”
“What am I doing this weekend? Well, we’ve got two birthday parties, a soccer game, and a T-ball game. Oh, and swimming lessons.”
“Sorry, I remember your kids’ names, but not yours.”
At its best, parenting involves a nearly-sacred level of generosity. At its worst, it involves a dangerous self-erasure. I would like to figure out how to keep it on that good side without slipping into the self-abnegation that our culture seems to impose on moms.
In pop-culture, moms are generally absent, dead, or impossibly saintly. I’m just trying to be human.
I have long felt that my life has had different chapters. I’m glad I got the backpacking-around-Asia chapter and the planting-trees-in-urban-parks chapter, the going-to-grad-school chapter and the bicycle-activist chapter and the spending-every-weekend-rock-climbing chapter before I entered this current chapter of conventional domesticity.
Now I spend most weekends standing around in parks, standing around and watching my kids play or my husband race. Instead of debating the ethics of traveling to Myanmar, now I spend my time helping my daughter decide which fabric to choose to reupholster the kitchen windowseat. My intellectual questions seem to have narrowed to how to find time to iron on those girl-scout-uniform patches (somehow, I earned multiple Ivy-League degrees, but I can’t manage to take care of girl-scout patches), or how much to tip a hairdresser who cuts not only my daughter’s hair, but also my daughter’s doll’s hair. I find questions like this amusing, somewhat, sometimes: who knew that we would find a $100 American-Girl-style doll at a used store for “only” $20, perfect except for hacked-up hair that needed a professional to fix it? Who knew that my daughter would long for a $100 doll? At other times, in other moods, I find questions like this tediously limiting.
Lately, I am feeling stuck in the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. That’s the one where she begins interviewing her Wellesley college classmates for their college reunion and discovers that each of them feels lonely, bored, and trapped within suburban privilege and gendered expectations.
“Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even herself the salient question – “Is this all?”….What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?”
These women acknowledge that their status as mid-century suburban housewives represented a remarkable privilege, and yet, for them, it could also be frustratingly unfulfilling.
I teach this almost every year, and it’s odd how much it still resonates for many of my students, as if the last half-century of second-wave feminism never happened. Of course, many others of my students long for the luxury of domesticity that Friedan’s privileged interviewees resented. I recognize the critiques that can be made of Friedan and I applaud the concrete changes that Friedan and her fans helped put in motion.
I write this with full respect for those changes, and full respect for stay-at-home parents of any gender: for me, still, STILL the isolation and the sometimes-self-imposed tedium are real problems.
Unlike Friedan’s interviewees, I have a paid career that I love, thanks in large part to Friedan and the activists she inspired. I also still have the bulk of the housework and childcare, for complicated reasons that I don’t fully understand. I think it might be a sign of how huge are the obstacles to gender equality and home/work balance. So many of us are still re-fighting the battles that our foremothers started fighting in the 1970s. Too many of us are still struggling to figure out seemingly-tiny yet life-determining issues, like who does the dishes and laundry and daycare drop-off duties in each household, and too many of us are still doing it without enough structured societal support.
Statistics show that today, working parents of both sexes actually spend more hours on childcare than stay-at-home parents did in Friedan’s time, and I feel that burden of heightened expectations for parental attentiveness. Almost every day I spend endless hours repeating “Chugga chugga choo choo” and “Do you need to go to the potty? Are you sure?” until even I am sick of listening to myself. If I have to listen to one more children’s tv program (since I let Soph watch 30 minutes a day while I’m cooking dinner or grading my online students), I think I’m going to scream – but I’m afraid the solution is bigger than just finding better programs or teaching Soph to watch tv with headphones.
I know that I should feel grateful to have a life that lets me do intellectual work even while I also get to construct backyard mudpuddles. But, lately, I just feel trapped in the too-few-hours of the day, resentful of the way those mudpuddles don’t leave me time to revise my book manuscript or re-imagine my pedagogy or re-connect to the activist communities I once knew. I love the mudpuddles, but I also feel stuck in the feminine mystique.
I think I need to bring those earlier adventurous chapters of my life back into this current domestic chapter, but I’m not sure how. My playgroup held a mom’s night out playing trampoline dodgeball. That’s a start. My friend took her family to volunteer in Guatemala. That’s tempting. I need to find more adventures and also more civic meaning in my life, since serving my own family and my students isn’t feeling like quite enough, right now. I’m still figuring out how to escape from Betty Friedan’s first chapter.
Maybe my malaise simply stems from the fact that every June, I attempt to do the full-time job of teaching summer-school while having only very part-time childcare. Or maybe I’m facing the midlife crisis of my impending 40th-birthday. I want more time for solitude and more time for adult friendships, more time for exercise and more time for scholarship, more time for wilderness and more time for citizenship, more time for virtually everything except screen-time — and I recognize the irony of working out these thoughts by typing them on a screen. I need all those other times so that I can better enjoy my time with my family. Because I don’t want to give up the mudpuddles, either. It’s a conundrum, one women have been facing since 1963.
Evs is finally approaching the promised language explosion. Lately, he will repeat the last two syllables of whatever his sister says. So she is teaching him the words she deems important: booger, buttcrack, eyeball, Om, and Lady Gaga.