Thursday, June 12, 2008

MotherTalk book review: The Maternal is Political

Maternal is Political 2 I have no idea whether it was coincidence or whether finding out I was included among the reviewers for this book got me looking for this kind of thing, but ever since it had pretty much been raining opportunities to think about the intersection of maternal and political around here.

Last week Monkey's classmate spent the night here, and I had to get both of them to school the next morning. No biggie, except it was before Shavuot, and the girl's mom forgot about the school request to have the kids wear a white shirt and bring in a fruit the day after the sleepover. The white shirt was no problem-- Monkey has a bunch. It the fruit I was a bit worried about driving home from the afterschool activity both girls attend the night of the sleepover-- we were on the distal end of the shopping week, and I wasn't sure how many apples were left in the fruit bowl. Two, lucky me.

I didn't know what the school was going to do with the fruit, but we dutifully deposited the apples into baskets in the school lobby the next morning. As we were headed out that afternoon, that was what I asked about. "What did you do with the fruit?" "We didn't do anything. It's going to the Women and Children Lunch Place." Ah, that explains it-- the school is heavy into tzedaka, charity. The kindergarten class had a wildly successful spare change money drive this spring to raise the money to donate a goat through Heffer International (Monkey took in some change, but also some of the money she got for her birthday), so successful they got two goats and some other small creatures. There are a couple of food drives and a couple of clothing drives each year. There was even a bicycle drive organized by one of the Bat Mitzva girls.

I considered, for the briefest of moments, dropping the subject right there. My curiosity was satisfied, and Monkey was actually now telling me about the other unusual part of the day-- the multi-age group projects they engaged in that afternoon in celebration of Shavuot. But Shavuot is a holiday at least partly about learning, the educator in me knows that an educational activity is only meaningful if you think through it and assimilate it, and in the end this was a setup too rich to drop. So we talked about it. Where IT was big enough to fill the entirety of our drive.

We talked about why places like the lunch place have to exist. Monkey didn't like that the place singled out women and children. What about fathers, she wanted to know, what if they get hungry. I told her that I was sure they wouldn't turn a daddy away, but then we had to talk about why women and children might need extra help, extra protection. Yeah, gender politics for a six year old. I was surprised to realize that having that part of the conversation actually made me feel ashamed. Ashamed that in this country, in the 21st century, it was still a relevant, oh, so very relevant a topic. (I have to say that having grown up in a place where gender equality was so much more a given, I had many a moment of adjustment since coming to the US-- realizing again and again that the things that are obvious as day in my head are not so in this culture.) We talked about why fresh fruit was an especially good gift to the place. We even talked about why it may be able to help more people if the place cooks and serves food rather than hands some out to each family (the class read about and cooked stone soup earlier in the school year, and I was happy to see that she got the connection). And I felt no compunction whatsoever telling her that because this place is needed, because there is so much social injustice around us, mommy and daddy will be voting D this November and for as far an the eye can see.

In "The Maternal is Political", a collection of essays by women about the very many intersections of mothering and public policy, there are two essays that are, to some degree, about shaping the little people that live in our houses in our own political images, about what happens when they then take their budding beliefs with them back to school. I have to say that in our case, the last part is less worrisome than for at least one of the writers (Carolyn Alessio)-- our school, unlike her daughter's, would never ask why we would talk to our daughter about voting. Our school, in fact, stages mock presidential debates and mock elections, and, in the spirit of making their educational objectives very-very transparent, tells the students that the reason they are doing all of this is so that the students learn to appreciate their citizenship, so that they learn to feel responsible for their country, and so that when the time comes, they are ready and eager to vote for real.

The essays in the book span a wide range of topics. When my sister came to visit the afternoon my copy of the book first arrived, she grabbed it, scanned the names on the cover, and immediately dove in to look for Susie Bright's contribution. She then made merciless fun of me for not knowing who Susie Bright is and proceeded to read large chunks of Susie's essay out loud. First grade values Susie talks about sounded pretty trying to navigate, and I was feeling all smug about not needing similarly deep conversations to handle the kindergarten values. Of course you know what comes next, right? Pride, fall, predictable order thereof.

Monkey's previously professed best friend in class' mom asked me whether there is any truth to Monkey not wanting to play with her daughter as she has been reporting lately. My gut reaction was to say can't be-- Monkey had written in her very first diary that she got for her birthday that Hannah is her best friend in school. Yes, but since then, Hannah's mom insisted. I asked Monkey later on that afternoon, and what do you know-- another girl in the class has "made me like her more." Um, how exactly could she do that, I asked, taking note of Monkey looking very uncomfortable and rather shamed. "She kept telling me how she is better than Hannah, and how I should play with her instead." What I was dumbfounded by was that she was willing to suspend her judgement. We talked about that. Then JD came home, and they talked about it. Next day I listened as she apologized to Hannah, clearly feeling very bad about her behavior and searching for the right words. Hannah said "Thank you for saying you are sorry," and Monkey said "you are welcome," and I snorted. I then collected myself and talked to the both girls about using their own heads and their own judgement and not letting anyone else, even another friend, set rules for them.

There were many more moments of recognition for me. I was grateful to find that I am not the only one who gets the blood in the ears, can't stop myself even though I probably should compunction to talk sharply and uncompromisingly about difficult and controversial topics, especially when the topic is raised in an unfair and biased way. Why, if Anne Lamont herself can't resist, surely I can be forgiven for succumbing once in a while. Although I have never tried M&Ms as a recovery treat afterwards. I should remember that. In the impolitic section, I was also cheering for Amy L. Jenkins as she was taking on the fresh-faced and self-congratulatory patriarchy of a preacher's son. Speaking of which, listen, kid... If you get beaten in sports by a girl, don't make it her problem. You are welcome to work as hard or harder and to beat her next time. Got it?

It's the same thing, really, that had me furious good fifteen years ago in the conversation with a friend who was studying to become an Orthodox rabbi and who, at that particular moment, was trying to tell me that the reason women should not sing in services is that their voices may distract men into thinking impure thoughts. Dude, I said, you are saying that men, that YOU have no self-control, but that somehow that is supposed to be MY problem? It is supposed to prevent me from getting the most out of services? What we have here then is reason #7337 that I will never be Orthodox. (Ok, one more confession. JD feels bad for the boys on playground who come there with their dads, try to show Monkey up, and inevitably end up shown up themselves. He doesn't feel anywhere nearly bad enough to say anything but "great job!" to Monkey, but he does tell me he feels bad for the boys being shown up in front of their dads. One chink in his feminist armor. We are working on it.)

And should I even mention the vigorous internal head nodding that was happening as I was reading several authors' sharp critiques of the system in academia that serves to bottleneck women out of the prestigious and secure career tracks and into part-time and adjunct roles? It was particularly vigorous these past couple of weeks as I wage my own battle for respect as an educationalist working with at least one reluctant member of the science faculty. My sister, by the way, was rather pissed at me a couple of years ago when I decided that I would not be returning to bench science and would instead stick with education. She thought I was giving up. I wasn't. I was making a choice between things I was good at and liked in favor of the field that required less time away from my family. Not that I wasn't pissed too. But what I was pissed about was that the choice I was facing was tremendously lopsided by virtue of the structure of academia. I understand why my sister was mad-- at the time I was deciding to walk away from the bench for good, she was applying to graduate schools. She was just beginning on the path that might, one day, bring her to the same exact choice, and she might not like her other option as much as I like mine.

I would like to have coffee, if coffee could last for, say, days, with many of the authors in this volume. I want to talk with Marion Winik about wonder, but also about the community and social justice charges of my faith. With Sarah Masterson about immigrant nannies. With Ann Douglass about working political campaigns. With Jennifer Brisendine about the impact of No Child Left Behind on both elementary and secondary education. And I would love to hear from Barbara Kingslover what happened to her daughter since that letter at thirteen. For my imaginary date with Kris Malone Grossman I think I would need something stronger than coffee. Untangling gender politics in academia, society, and family unit, with an eye on raising girls as it differs from raising boys? That seems to call for at least a pitcher of fruity drinks.

Not that I agree with every author in this book on every single point. I would love to argue to Stephanie Losee that it is ok to raise a political mini-me, as long as you make sure that your child isn't just parroting your words but can in fact argue for his or her beliefs. I would like to argue with Carolyn Alessio about immigration. Because really, she can't expect to just toss that little nugget out there and have it go unnoticed.

The book is meaty. There are a lot of things in it I don't have personal experience with-- representing a culture's idea of beauty by virtue of looking like that culture's former oppressors; raising a minority child to not self-segregate away from opportunity; intersection of mothering and serious mental illness; generational memory and second-parent adoption in a same-sex couple; mommy wars from the point of view of a onetime active participant; disability; being a prominent figure. The book is chock full of thought-provoking and just plain good writing. It will highlight phenomena you might not have thought about, or might not have thought that important. It will make you nod your head, and it will likely make you shake it too, for we can't possibly all agree on everything. It will make you think. It's a great book.

In fact the only negative I have about the book, and I saved it for last because I hesitate a bit here, is that I find myself needing to recommend that you skip the introduction by the volume's editor, Shari Macdonald Strong. I hesitate because clearly she did a great job collecting and editing these essays. I imagine that assembling such a diverse and stellar cast of writers couldn't have been easy. And that is exactly why the introductory essay doesn't sit right with me. It feels too light, too cartoonish, too ditzy even for what comes next-- profound, honest, deep. The intro, as I read it, is an overstrained cheer for team Engaged Mom, a motivational speech about how ha-ha, I used to be such a ditz, like totally, and if I can be reformed by motherhood, so can anybody-- rah-rah, goooooo team. It felt, to me, unworthy of the volume's contents, too fluffy for the serious and honest treatment the rest of the essays give its subject matter. In fact, Shari Macdonald Strong's other essay in the volume, although not my favorite, is much-much better, and you are honestly a lot better off with that essay as your sole impression of the volume's editor as a writer.

So that is my recommendation to you-- skip the intro, read the book. And because it is conveniently subdivided into bite sized pieces (i.e. individual essays), you can sneak one or two of those in between all those boring adult activities that make your life run. You might even experience some withdrawal symptoms when you finish the book. In that case, look up two of your favorite contributors on the internets and call me in the morning.

15 comments:

loribeth said...

I heard about this book through Ann Douglas, who (as you noted) is one of the writers featured. Ann is a fellow babyloss mom & prolific writer whom I've met both in cyberspace & several times in real life (I'm even quoted, briefly, in two of her books!). She has several blogs, including http://anndouglas.blogspot.com/ and http://anndouglas.typepad.com/one_woman_one_blog/

Thanks for the review -- I will keep an eye out for this!

STE said...

Excellent review, Julia. This has always been of interest to me, but particularly since the events of the past year.

I'm putting this on my list.

Anne said...

If you read Barbara Kingsolver's new book, called "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," you will find out where her daughter (now 20) is now--she actually co-wrote the book!

Thanks for this review--I am definitely going to check this out of the library.

Tash said...

Interesting. Will put it on the list.

Beruriah said...

Looking forward to reading the essays.

But you know, I feel bad for the boys too - not because Monkey can beat them, but because gender constructs can hurt them too.

Reminds me of having gone to my niece's dance recital recently. While her costume & routine was appropriate, some were not. And I thought, among other things, oh, thank goodness I have a boy. But then I thought, oh wait, I have to teach my boy how to be a good man in a world that puts little girls in those costumes, and those dances....

Aite said...

Oh, I want to read that book now! And I want to argue with you about gender equality in the Old Country...

Kim said...

What a great school Monkey goes to! I love the way she thinks!Sounds like a great book! NCLM

Heather J. said...

dropping by for NaComLeavMo - Hi!

I'm glad to hear your review of this book. It's been on my to-be-read list since I heard about it a few weeks ago, and you're comments just make me want to read it even more.

Carbon said...

I'm not a mother yet, but I hope to be within a year or so. Politics are an oft-discussed subject between DH and I. I will definitely put this book on my list to supplement my regular reading of the MotherTalkers blog.

http://www.mothertalkers.com/

The Town Criers said...

Seriously, the place I kept returning to in this essay is what we teach our children; and as mothers, what we teach our daughters. I kept returning to your story about Hannah and saying to myself, "how would I handle that and how would I explain."

Magpie said...

The book sounds fascinating - thanks for the review.

Michelle said...

here from NCLM...how interesting! I will definitely check this book out.

Daisy said...

Your child's school's involvement in service is wonderful. I hope the students carry the philosophy of giving as they grow older. How thoughtful of your daughter to worry about Daddies being hungry, too!

Rachel said...

Thanks for the great review - definitely a book I plan to read this summer.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

My PhD dissertation including an entire section on why the personal is political and the politics of maternity care. I am going to order this book, thanks to you, from Amazon now.

Thank you so much!