Time with Mother Ungoing


© Gorshkov13 |

There has been a certain velocity to my life.  A lot of going and going and going.  I was on an anti-anxiety med a while back and finally went off of it simply because I missed the going.  But it’s been a tortured relationship, me and going.  I have a very hard time ungoing, or even slowing down.  This characteristic is helpful when it comes to professional accomplishment, and even in some aspects of house and home accomplishment, but it is rather an affliction if one wishes to avoid burnout or stress, or to live life more fully. (I don’t say anything about “balance” here largely because I believe it to be an elaborate hoax, a sham manufactured for purposes of blaming individuals for the high-intensity, over-stressed lives in which we must function, and for selling ostensibly balancing products and services, rather than taking a serious look at how social forces shape our lives and could very well shape them differently if we would quit dumping responsibility for social problems in the laps of individuals and families.)

This going is something I acquired from my mother in large part I think, and I’ve been reflecting on this fact the past week after we spent some time together at the beach. I think my acquisition of it is not simply about her having modeled a life of movement but also about genetics too a bit.  I’m rather wired toward movement, as she is; she seems to have acquired this wiring from her father. We were sitting one morning down at the beach, having coffee in aqua adirondock chairs and coffee mugs that matched them, and I was making some list of something—lists of somethings being an anchor for my life—and she made a comment to the effect of “You are always thinking.  It’s no wonder you accomplish so many things. And then you do the things you were thinking about. I can’t think and do that much.”  I replied, “Well, now, maybe.  But you’ve lived most of your life going and going.  Where do you think I got this from?  I learned this directly from you.”

That conversation made me think about her life as having historically been perpetually in motion. And about how sometimes she was hard to be with, given all that motion.  And about how one of the advantages of her slowing down some at this point in her life is that there is more stillness and more opportunity to be near, and tranquil, and in deeper communion with her.  I thought too that it must be hard for my own children to be with their mother, given all my motion.  About the very real possibility that there is little opportunity for them to be still and tranquil with me.  And I’m wondering if I should be doing something about that, or if it is a matter of life stages and transitions that evolve on their own.  I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between.

I do have very vivid memories, despite my mother’s inclination toward movement, of time when we’ve been still together.  I remember a period of time just before kindergarten, when we were home together; me playing and her near, and she made my lunch in my new lunchbox and thermos because I insisted on practicing with it before I went “off” to school. I remember too the times, I suppose around the same period, that we got “up in the bed” for a nap in the afternoons (I realized recently that in our family one gets “in the bed” at night but “up in the bed” during the day) and she would read to me from our red hardcover book of childrens’ stories.  I loved the sound of her voice, there with those stories, and too when she sang hymns at church.  I get misty-eyed thinking about how her voice soothed me so.  Those hot south Florida days on our screened back patio and up in the bed are placid in my memories.  I remember fondly too the times, when I was in elementary school and she would drive on field trips.  She didn’t do them all the time and maybe not even often, but I liked having here there, much more than she liked me volunteering her for the job, I learned.  Ours was a time when parents did not feel compelled to attend en masse their children’s every activity like field trips.  (Oh for the days.)  I remember a day of errands when we bought donuts and ended up eating the whole dozen by the end of the day, just the two of us.  A ridiculous indulgence that we still talk about in mild disbelief. I remember a time when she would go jogging and I got up with her a couple of times to jog with her in the early dawn.  When I was fourteen she took me to a fancy restaurant and we had cold daiquiris and hot popovers on pink tablecloths.  I remember too that she took me to my first gynecology appointment and to get contraception, and that she drove me to my college orientation and we stayed in the dorm room together.  And now I add to that list, which gets longer as I tap my memory, our recent trip to the beach, where we talked all the way down there and back as my son slept in the back seat with his iPod. Or maybe it was mostly me talking.  And we ate hard boiled eggs and PB&J and grapes and apples and cheese.   And we laughed and we laughed as we always do.  I hope my own children can build a list from their memories of unruffled time with me.  I suspect it won’t be a long list but I hope it doesn’t leave them pining after time with their mother, ungoing.


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Looking for authors

Please share with anyone you think might be interested.  We are looking for chapters for our upcoming book Performing Motherhood.  Read the Call for Papers here.  We only need an abstract right now; the deadline is in two days (midnight June 15th).

We seek the following in particular: 1) essays that are empirically and theoretically grounded that explore/complicate everyday life performances of the maternal; 2) creative performance texts that explore maternal agency; and 3) theoretical or research-based examinations of broad scale maternal performance, from community or global activism to the ‘performing arts’.

Check out the link above for more information. We especially are in need of Canadian authors, as the publisher contract requires at least 50% Canadian content.  We will consider all authors.



Keep Your Hands Off My Summer!

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[This is a a reprisal of a summer theme from a couple of years ago. Things are a little different in high school but the message bears repeating.]

© Birckoff |

It is difficult for me sometimes to keep my deep resentment of “the state” and its intrusions into my family life at bay.  I can feel those dark waters starting to churn this week as my son heads back to school (I know, right?  Summer?  Anyone?  Help a sister out here).  We are on a year-round school program which, instead of giving an 11-week summer, gives a 6-week summer and places the other 5 weeks at other spots in the school year.  This plan would work better if schools in general were on such a schedule, because it would mean that there would be more options for summer programming and camps and the like during that sorry-excuse-for-a-summer we get and it would mean that those 2-3 week breaks in the middle of the school year would represent something other than the biggest-hassle-of-my-stinkin’-life as I try to figure out how to provide some kind of supervision for my (yikes) now 13-year-old while simultaneously keeping my job.  If all the schools were on these big breaks than surely I’d have some options here.  It seems.

Now the truth of the matter is that, as a full time mom who also works outside the home full time, I do benefit from my son being back in school as do many, many parents, despite the fact that it breaks up a long and (for some people) leisurely summer and despite the fact that it, perhaps more importantly, rubs up against our sense of what ought to count as a summer break.  But even so, it just seems dead wrong somehow to go back to school in July.  I don’t know, I just can’t seem to get it to feel right.  Maybe one reason I’m struggling so, now that I think of it, is that our school does not find it sufficient to take a machete to my son’s summer (read: my summer); oh no.  It feels at liberty to assign a summer reading project over summer!  Can somebody help me out here?  Now, the truth of this matter is that I wholly support reading year-round and foster an environment of love-for-books in our house, and send my son to camp with a couple of books and (worn) reminders that “reading is the key to everything.”  Even so, I’d like for this to be my own lesson about the importance of reading and how it interweaves into all of life.  And I’d like for this to be my son’s ownchoice—to read or not read in a given moment based solely on his own passions and desires; to read what he wants and not what’s on the teacher’s list doled out at the end of the previous school year (you know the one—we were just there a few weeks ago for god’s sake).

The schools, and the experts, and the cultural powers that claim to know more about how my children and I should spend our time have such immense power in shaping every movement of my family life, as writers like Judith Warner (Perfect Madness) and Susan Douglas & Meredith Michaels (The Mommy Myth) have explained, and the work of organizations like The Motherhood Project have worked to highlight.  Well I’d really like for them to value the family for a change.  I’d like for them to keep their  hands and their book lists and their reading assignments and their presumptuous intrusions off of my summer!  Quit sucking the fun and personal volition right out of the children’s every reading endeavor!  Leave a brother alone for 5 stinkin’ weeks, would you please?


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Class, Power, and Meaning, with Biscuits

© Aditya Kok |

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As many of you already know, I recently was awarded a research development grant from my university to study the relationship between motherhood and family dinners.  I’ve been doing a good bit of reading on the topic and expect that I will be doing a good bit of blogging about the topic as I think the ideas through, though I already seem to write about the topic often.  I seem always to be working through ideas about the family dinner—my experiences of it growing up, my trials and triumphs with it as the primary cook in our house, my concern as a mother over what meanings my children take from our “table.”  Recently, I read an article* by cultural anthropologist Richard Wilk about the dinner table as a context for meaning-making.  He talked about the very different points of view that he and his wife bring to the table about meals, about how these points of view were rooted in the practices of the separate families in which they grew, about how they have recurring conflicts over how meals should be served, and about how the serving of meals, as with any issue related to food, is knotted up with a host of other things—social class, control, personal identity, to name a few big ones.

Mealtime is a way that people, to play with scholar Dwight Conquergood’s phrase, “interpret themselves to themselves.” It is a stage on which they play out various roles, figure out who they are, communicate beliefs and needs, embody or resist social codes. What we do at the “dinner table,” whether ours is literal or figurative–our lap in the car or the edge of the counter at which we’re standing, or the desk where we’re working—serves multiple functions that go far, far beyond the taking in of nutrition and plenty of times, of course, it scarcely does even that.  “If you dig even deeper into the meanings of the many different ways to serve food,” Wilk says,” you find really basic moral differences about the way people should care for each other.”

I grew up in a lower income family whose mealtime practices were  kind of transplanted from southern Appalachia with its own distinct cultural codes.  When I was growing up, we oscillated between full scale meals when my father was home from the fire department and on the Sundays that we ate with my maternal grandparents.  Every third night though, when dad was at the fire station, we had “whatever,” which often meant leftovers from those bigger meals, each child’s plate looking a little different, depending on how much was leftover of this or that, and maybe some food preferences or hankerings.  The meanings culled from these practices were many.  When we sat at the dining room table (we had a kitchen counter with stools for children, and a dining room table proper with chairs for everybody; no kitchen table) we had a host of rules to guide behavior, most especially that of the children:  no talking with mouths full; napkins and non-dominant hand in laps; knives across the top of the plates; no dragging teeth on utensils; passing dishes around in the same direction; responding to someone’s request for a bowl to be passed around (not handed across) if you were closest to it, while not daring to grab a spoonful first; being mindful of your 1/6 share while recognizing that dad’s sixth is not the same as your sixth.  Children were rarely included in the conversation; they were to be seen, watched even, but not heard, and they were to be at the table when dinner started or face consequences.  Everyone had to eat everything on their plates; I remember my brother, the only boy and the only child of my mother and stepfather together, having much more leniency on this note, though as my own children have grown I’ve come to take childhood egocentric memories with a grain of salt.

We almost always had leftovers from those dinners, I think, and we regularly had a refrigerator full of them.  From either a Cultural Anthropology or a Communication perspective, these components of our meals were ways that we interpreted ourselves as frugal but not broke, able to perform upper middle class norms even though we were not members.  We were simple people who would travel long distances in the back of a pickup truck with a “camper” top and eat sausage gravy and biscuits, and once that I can remember very simply hoecake and gravy (my mother still makes she best gravy no matter the kind), and people who had a pop-up camper and a trailer at the lake for vacations.  We were people who picked and snapped and canned their own green beans but who could also catch their own lobster and eat it with drawn butter by candlelight.  The dinnertable also enforced the hierarchies in our home—that of the parents and that of the patriarch, even if the latter’s power came almost solely from discipline or threat of it; my mother held all the rest of the power.  She had to work for hers in ways he never did, though I remember dad as always employed in two jobs, even if under his father-in-law, which appealed to him not at all.  So his power, too, came at some price.  Our dinner practices were one of the ways that we negotiated dual spaces for us in both working class and middle class cultures.  It was how we embodied our roots in the Black Mountain range of North Carolina and at the same time practiced the etiquettes of more upscale families, in case we were ever in the company of them or, more hopefully, in case we ever became them.  It was a complex affair, negotiating these spaces.  And it is intriguing to look at the enormous constitutive and  communicative and creative power in something as everyday and taken-for-granted as dinnertime. So much to discover there.

*Wilk, Richard. (2006). “Serving or Helping Yourself at the Table.” Food Culture and Society, 9:1, pp. 7-12.


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A Counter-challenge to Time Magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough” cover

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There is no dearth of response to the current Time magazine cover featuring a woman looking at the camera, her child standing on a chair next to her, attached by mouth to her breast.  The child is 3 years old; he is dressed strangely in camo and is looking into the camera along with her.  On one side, folks are flipped out that a woman would be featured so brazenly and publicly with her breast out to feed her child; people do love to insist that human or social issues should remain in the private realm, (mythically) separate from the public one.  On another side, folks are flipped out that the child isn’t an infant, in which case they might have almost forgiven the brazen photo.  Folks in the U.S. do love to pretend that our cultural patterns are the ones that ought be universally held, and it is our cultural pattern to ignore that international averages for breastfeeding go many years beyond the baby stage and that such practices are quite normal, healthy, and non-“primitive.”  We do love to turn motherhood, as we learned several years ago from Judith Warner through her book Perfect Madness, to turn motherhood into a religion, with all the goods and evils, purity and fallenness, and requirements for guilt and redemption thus implied.  And on still another side, folks are flipped out the anyone is even getting flipped out over a mother-child breastfeeding photo of any sort, frustrated at how uptight everyone is about something that is so natural and beautiful and normal (even though for many women it’s none of that), and appropriately calling us on our cultural acceptance of baring women’s breasts for the gaze of men, but not for the nourishment of children (though I’d venture to say that there was no “breastfeeding” going on in that photo shoot).

When I first saw the cover last week I was, interestingly enough, at the MIRCI international Forum and Conference on mothering, in Toronto.  My first reaction was an eye roll and an unspoken “oh brother.”  I knew the cover would elicit the very reactions it did, indeed, the very reactions Time strategized to evoke.   Never forget that Time covers are designed to broker a purchase that enables buyers to see what’s under the covers, as it were.  And I knew that the hoopla would effectively divert our attentions away from the real matters related to breastfeeding and media images of motherhood, as media hoopla so skillfully and regularly does. I knew it would effectively pit mothers against each other, thus keeping our vision and our critiques directed inward, at ourselves, and sideward, at each other, where the problems are not, instead of outward, at culture and larger social structures, where the problems are.  We’ve seen it so many times—in the nineties during the media-concocted ‘mommy wars;” in response to recently released books by Badinter and Druckerman and Le Billon about how awesome French mothers are and, by association, U.S. mothers aren’t (see the recent piece on by Deborah Siegel and Heather Hewett here for insightful treatment of these and their impact).  And even still, the idea that mothers are at odds with each other, embroiled in conflict over who is the “better” mom (a kind of conflict no one is claiming fathers even give a damn about much less are embroiled in) holds a certain allure in the public eye.  And this allure remains, despite the fact that research rebuts the idea that at-home mothers are concerned about what at-work mothers are doing, and vice versa (see for example the forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, written by Jocelyn Crowley at Rutgers; the book is not yet titled).

And all of the false representation of mothers “warring” with each other makes the teaser headline on the cover all the more irritating.  The title is by definition provoking and argumentative; not an unbiased news story in the least.  When the image is paired with the title, the viewer is compelled to automatically put them together.  And Time, of course, knows this.  So they  issue the challenge:  Are you mom enough to whip out a breast and look at people in the eye with hand on hip and an air of either defiance or nonchalance?  (I can’t tell which Time is wanting to connote here, defiance or nonchalance, but in either case, the gaze of others still is conveyed as mattering a great deal to the mother in the image). Can you look this (white and) good when you’re breastfeeding?  Can you handle being all woman and all body to your “little man”? And publicly?  If not, you’re not “mom enough” (whatever that can possibly mean). Now, doesn’t that make those of you who answered yes feel superior?  Or those who answered no feel inadequate or defensive or at least all abuzz?  And aren’t the two of you now more focused on other mothers than on how your culture refuses to really support the motherwork you are doing and the vast continuum of how it can be done?  Good!  Perfect!  Just the outcome we at Time, and all the innumerable sensationalizing media outlets who will pick up the cover image but not the actual article were hoping for (the article, by the way, is about William and Martha Sears, the essential namesakes for attachment parenting, and not about breastfeeding or what the hell “mom enough” means).  And just the outcome that public policy and government agencies count on so they can continue, undetected,  saddling mothers with all things family when they should be actively responding to maternal life as a human and social and public interest that should be, in the best interest of the nation and all its citizens, supported.

I’d like to issue a counter-challenge to Time’s, and the challenge is this:  RESIST.  Resist the temptation to direct your scrutiny and critiques inward or sideward.  Render Time’s challenge, dare I say, impotent.  Refuse to let this magazine cover, and the endless hype that will continue to follow, distract you from fixing your gaze outward, and from the real issue of changing social structure so that motherhood and family life are adequately supported for all moms, no matter their social status, income, ethnicity, family form, employment status, or parenting style.


Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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Ten Things I Probably Should Care About as a Mom but Totally Don’t

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I was at a cookout with faculty and students last night and I sat with a friend talking about life.  She has two rather stimulated dogs and needed to keep them out of the fray, so we sat to the side and found ourselves drawing parallels between mothering of people babies and mothering of doggie babies, whether or not either was technically a baby.  She was talking about the times when she feels like her bodily boundaries become totally breached by her dogs and how it reminded her of my work on the topic with children, in which I talk about being home with a breastfeeding infant all day and telling my partner who comes in for an “I’m home from work” kiss, something to the effect of I love you.  Do not touch me.  I have been mauled all day; I can’t stand the feel of another person’s skin on mine right now. The conversation with my friend moved to how things change in time, and how your very perceptions and positions change, and how little it makes sense to worry about how you’ll handle something in the future since you won’t be the same anyway, so your approach to it will be different than it is now.  In reflecting on that conversation this morning over coffee, I’m thinking of some ways my maternal thinking or approaches have changed over time, so I’ve gathered a list of things I slowly came to not care much about, perhaps because I purposefully reconsidered them or because I just got tired.  Fatigue can be a beautiful thing.

  1. Dirty bedrooms.  My mother quite wisely recruited the labor of the children into caring for our home but she really didn’t focus much on our bedrooms.  I remember the space beneath my bed being crammed with I don’t know what.  Initially, I connected the shape of my children’s rooms to my own maternal value but I’m happy to say I got over it. Every once in a very great while I’ll say Dude. Your room. Lookin’ good. Which is code or Could you make a path at least so I can enter and talk to you?  But other than that, don’t care.
  2. Swearing.  As I’ve mentioned in my post “Curses,” my concern here is more about strategic placement of swearing than on its presence  per se.  If you’re strategic and wise about where you place profanity, don’t care.
  3. Teen alone time.  I found it difficult to not care about this one, but I’ve managed to figure out how over time and across two children.  My kids spent/spend a lot of time alone in their rooms engaged in some combination of creating music, doing homework, playing video games, and connecting on Facebook.  Now, other than calling children downstairs to eat dinner and/or watch a show with the fam (sometimes simultaneously and sometimes not), and occasional queries about whether there is any “Columbine” action going on up there, don’t care.
  4. What (else) gets pushed out when you’re birthing a baby.  When I was in late pregnancy and learned from a girlfriend who had a 2 year-old that one’s body was indiscriminate when it pushed out expellable contents at birth, I was mortified.  I called my mother so that she would tell me it wasn’t so.  She didn’t.  She did say You will have to trust me on this:  you. will. not. care. about what else ends up on that table.  She was totally right. Didn’t care.
  5. Kids sleeping in on the weekend.  My childhood best friend, Elaine, had a rule at her house about 9:00.  At that time on non-school days, her parents made the kids get up and out of bed.  Just because.  This seemed weird to me then.  When I had kids I thought maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to keep kids from sleeping till noon and sometimes after that on a weekends. I got over it.  Don’t care.
  6. Making up snow days.  The school is obligated to hold school on Saturdays when we’ve missed in-class hours due to snow.  But I’m not obligated to drag my otherwise sleeping-in kids, and more importantly self, in to school for that silliness. Not gonna do it. Don’t care.
  7. Kids wearing pajama pants to school.  Just kidding.  Totally care about this one.  Not gonna happen.
  8. My children’s friends calling me by my first name.  Just kidding on this one too.  Totally hate it.
  9. Whether or not young children give their grandparents a hug or kiss.  I’ve never told my kids to give their relatives a kiss or a hug.  I think it teaches them to ignore their own sense of bodily boundaries and to let other people tell them who can touch them and how they should feel about that.  I did tell them things like “tell Grammy goodbye” and most typically they would give her a big ol’ smooch, but not because they were so required.  If they chose to simply say goodbye without hugs or kisses and exercise agency about who they want their body to touch, don’t care.
  10. Loud music.  If their is music amped up at my house and bass is vibrating the walls, it means a child is safe in her/his home, enjoying being bathed in their music, and probably creating it themselves.  So as long as it’s not happening after my bedtime, don’t care.

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If Looks Could Kill

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I’ve always talked to my kids like they were fellow human beings first.  I do not now, nor have I ever—well OK maybe briefly when they were infants but briefly…and they were infants—talked to them like they were some kind of bizarre species that needed specialized communication deployments in order to connect with adults.    I have met only a few other parents who talk with their children like I do, I’m afraid, and as a consequence, my children have been frequently caught in a tightly woven web of adult perceptions about what kids need to make sense of their world; suspended in uncomfortable moments from which neither they nor I can escape.  I have no history to speak of of talking with them in a high-pitched voice, bent down toward them so our faces are on the same level, my legs bent, my knees together  and cupped by my palms, eyebrows raised to show my supreme intensity and total immersion in each momentary interaction, the likes of which are typically characterized by lots of questions lobbed at them by one ostensible grownup or another, who I guess believe that everything, everything, everything in adult worlds must be restructured, refitted, rephrased, and reshaped to within an inch of its life because bless their hearts the little darlings must be catered to, catered to, catered to in order to have the slightest hope of functioning. I have vivid memories of both my children when they were younger suspended in such a web, trapped in an interaction with one of those ostensible grownups who sound anything but grown up to their little ears, trying to dart their eyes over to me in a desperate appeal for rescue.  I remember the first time my daughter had someone talk to her in this way which, I would imagine, felt not on-the-same-level at all but quite condescending.  I remember the mix of fear and confusion in her expression as she shot that look at me…what is this bending over thing she is doing? And why is she doing those hyper-communicative facial expressions so close to my own face? And why is she smiling so hugely at me and acting so enamored with me when a) I don’t even know her and b) I haven’t even done anything to be enamored with? And why-oh-why is she talking to me in that high-pitched voice, for the love of pete?  It’s weird. Creepy even.  Now you might think, upon reading this post, that a single look from a small child can’t say all that at once.  But I suspect that, if you care for children in most any capacity, you know for a fact that it can and I suspect that you’ve even seen some version of this very pregnant-with-meaning look.  Actually, when I saw the look I thought it was astounding that my daughter could say all that with a glance.  And also I was hoping with all my might that her wholly dismissive ‘tone’ didn’t get picked up by the woman bent in half singing questions in my daughter’s face because I think the woman might well have come completely unraveled.  But really, I thought this was a one-time deal, until I saw her shoot that look at me other times—a look that sometimes appeared to be more about terror than confusion or dismissiveness. And then I saw the same dang look in my son, years later.  I realized that my children aren’t afraid of the dark or being left alone; they’re afraid of scary interactions like these when adults treat them like freaks or incompetents.  They’re afraid of not being taken seriously as thinking, sentient beings.  They’re afraid that the adults who should be taking charge of the world are bent in half smiling inane questions at them instead of standing tall, articulating meaningful ideas with them.  And all I can offer is yes, of that you should be afraid.  Be very afraid.


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