Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The trouble with bathrooms.

The wheelth on the buhth go round and round. Round and round went my four-year-old on the couch, lisping along with the disembodied voice coming from a video on my iPad. I'm still mystified as to how he navigated the internet to find it. Sort of. My boy, he's proven to have a brain that outpaces his age. As he grows into a man, I hope that squished up mass of gray and white matter will serve him well.

The boys on the bus go grab, grab, grab. The theme song of my school-bound bus rides didn't embody the innocence of my young son's couch-bound concert. My bus route held a few offenders. As I made my way to my seat, at least one of them would take a handful of butt or breast—usually butt, as that turned out to be fan favorite. It never happened in the mornings. Always on the way home. That makes sense, given they'd just spent seven hours in the hormonal centrifuge called Junior High.

The social implications of my posterior predicament of seventh grade has come to the forefront as I've been reading about "this whole transgender issue" in countless articles and Facebook posts. The gender-neutral bathroom debate has mostly become one massive logical fallacy wherein the heart of the matter has been lost to rhetoric. Everyone is outraged, but few are talking about what has fed this monster: If we are this terrified of male predators in restrooms, then what we have is not a bathroom problem but a man problem. I don't think it a stretch to assume that many of the men in uproar over the possibility of their daughters sharing restrooms with boys are the very men who perpetuate the disrespect and degradation we tacitly accept as part of daily life for women.

If you have ever catcalled a woman in public, if you will label a woman a whore for having multiple partners but will high five your buddies for gettin' that ass, if you accept dress codes regarding what kind of straps should hold up a young girls' shirt to reduce the temptation of her shoulders and breasts but you don't teach your son to be better than that, you are part of the problem. We don't need you to save us.

I wish I had known better in seventh grade. I wish I had been outraged over my body being treated as a buffet. Rather, I was enticed. Twenty-seven years later, I remember how I felt as I wound my way down the bus aisle past groping fingers and ogling eyes: I loved the attention, and, probably more so, the danger. I knew there was something wrong about what was happening, and I relished getting away with it. My perception was, of course, all wrong. I was not exercising volition to break the hold of my protective parents' constant oversight. I was not an unapologetic outlaw. I was a pawn for the reckless boys on my bus. It was I who let them get away. I wasn't the only one.

We have a man problem in this country, and it begins with boys. Like water, this problem persists. It finds entry in the porous minds of our children; it stagnates and festers as they struggle through puberty and into early adulthood. It flows. It evaporates and replenishes. By the time they're grown, some of them, like me, will see our gender-relation problem with clarity. Others will not. Others still will rebuke it. They will say this is how it's meant to be. They'll perpetuate the myths that perpetuate the problem, like boys will be boys and girls should be ladies.

In college I had two boyfriends: one, a sensitive singer/songwriter who always wore a t-shirt under his t-shirt; the other, an overly sensitive painter whose first proclamation of love for me was as troubled as his last. What I need to confess about these two relationships that defined my early adulthood is this: I burped. In front of two boys. My mother was horrified when she found out. Although I don't recall the conversations particularly, pattern tells me Mom and I entered into one of our philosophical arguments that inevitably involves her telling me some thing or another is just how it is and me telling her it's okay, if not necessary, to ask why.  We are taught that boys' bodily functions are funny and girls' bodily functions are shameful. If you think this has nothing to do with what happens in school buses and alleys and dance clubs and in the public restrooms we're verbally mauling each other over these days, then you are part of the problem. 

I'm typing from the comfort of a chartreuse nursing glider, not a pedestal. My history with men is soiled with missteps and too many ill-begotten tears. Two times in my life, a man I loved called me a whore. One was black-out drunk; the other, a mix of heartbroken and enraged. I forgave them both, although only one did anything to earn it. Whore is the weapon of choice against a woman who dares misbehave. Her transgression could be sexual. Or maybe she burnt the pot roast. Or she caught him cheating. Or she simply didn't love him back. Some women are not whores but cunts, a word found less frequently but I'm told is the most poisonous. I've been called that too, most notably by a woman who mistakenly believed she had something to protect from me: "Oh, and by the way, in my book, you're just a stupid cunt," read her text-transmitted sentiment, both preceded and followed by equally petulant remarks, the most important of which were typed in all caps and followed by multiple exclamation points. I did not respond in kind. Why would I engage in a battle I knew I'd already won. If only I could let that last sentence sit alone. If only I could act as if I've never fed the monster of our culture's man problem. I have fed it, but I draw the line at teenage-style girl fights. That happens in bathrooms too, by the way. And it's more destructive than our reaction to it indicates we believe. Women often degrade women because of men who have degraded them first.

Paradigm shifts are lofty goals. Fortunately, the fearless among us—past and present—have disrupted the accepted order to bring change regarding gender, race, religion, education, and so many other aspects of our daily lives. Our man problem is like water, seeking its own level. We can make change be like water too. The way is to live that change and help others see how they can do it and why it's important. I have two sons. How I choose to raise them is one way I can positively contribute to the world. When my four-year-old sourly says his pink shirt "is for girls," I recognize an opportunity to offer perspective and I remind him that boys and girls can wear whatever color they like. I encourage him to be gentle and thoughtful. I let him fix my hair and paint my nails. I will never tell either of my sons that boys solve problems with fists. I will never let them believe that dishwashing or vacuuming are women's chores.  During both of their teenage years, we'll have conversations about respect and about sex—particularly about how it's not a conquest and how it's honorable to wait—for love, marriage, whatever it may be. My goal is not to neuter my boys but to help them find balance. I believe gender is both a social construct and biology in action, and I accept both of these realities in ways that make sense to me. When my oldest son asks what I'm putting on my face, I have no problem saying "Makeup. Girls wear it." Later in his life we can take a fine-tooth comb to the issues of sex and gender he'll encounter. I don't know if my sons will grow up to embody the lessons I instill, but I'll do my best along the way. And here's perhaps the most important part: I will expect the man in my life, their dad, to do his best as well. As a model for two male minds new to this world, his relationship with me and with the female sex in general is no small thing.

Time and again, I have balked at calling myself a feminist. How could I, having a blemished history with men, speak for other women? How could I not. Feminism is not a club for women who have always gotten it right. It's for women with eyes that have seen and ears that have heard and voices informed by experience. Did you know? Feminism is for men too.

Whether you are or aren't outraged over who might be peeing next to your daughter/sister/mother/wife, that's not the issue. What I said earlier, it's only part of the truth.  Our man problem is a woman problem is a humanity problem. We need to raise sons who will know better and daughters who won't put up with it. We need to protect girls and women not from public restrooms but from public opinion.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I at first hoped for a girl. When we found out it was a boy, my cousin told me not to worry, that the world needs women like me to raise boys. That's a high compliment. I intend to live up to it every chance I get. I hope when my boys are old enough, they'll be proud of their feminist mom. I hope they'll be feminists too.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The revolution will be digitized.

I was 17 and hated kids when I got a job as a playground attendant. Eventually, both my work ethic and my biological instincts evolved. The latter took 18 years. I named him Zion on the day he was born. 

That was four years ago. This year on Mother's Day, my father wrote a note in my card, as he does for every holiday where a card is appropriate. I imagine brief, ordinary compliments grace the white space of most cards. Not mine. My dad is the poet laureate of greeting card greetings. On this first Sunday of May, 2016, in handwriting that looks like the child of geometry and kitchen knives, Dad told me, among blessings and expressions of love, You are a conscientious mother. Unlike the fleeting glory left by flattery of the physical, a deep compliment of the inner self remains deep.

I am eight months and four days into my second go at motherhood and six weeks shy of my first anniversary (ever) of cohabitation. Mother of two boys and all-intents-and-purposes wife, that's me. Rewind five years and I would've scoffed at the mere notion of it. Somewhere amidst managing two 37-pound weight gains, two unplanned guttings (aka birth by cesarean), breastfeeding, breast pumping, poop patrolling, single parenting, life partnering, dinner cooking, and domestic engineering of 1,500 square feet, my past labels have rolled up around the edges and lost their adhesive. I remember five-years-ago me: hard-body runner, Sunday bruncher, fierce freelancer, coffeehouse klatcher, pit bull collector. Especially on days when my sleepless baby has left me in dire exhaustion, I mourn her.

What my conscientious father didn't realize as he crowned me a conscientious mother is this: The selflessness of a mother must be accompanied by self-preservation. That is my truth, at least. It is a goal unmet, and daily I ponder how to attain it. Daily, I also wonder how many mothers feel the same or how many don't or how many find it shameful to harbor such an urge. My thoughts turn to my own mother as she was raising me and my older brother.

Fourteen years ago, a Polaroid from my childhood became part of my college senior thesis in a poem I titled Us, 1979. My mother sat cross-legged and held me on her bed, looking straight into the camera with her eyes of ocean glass and cherry-stained hair, straight as truth. Was she fulfilled, my autumn mother, cradling her winter child with the unfinished face which will grow to resemble hers: hint of cheekbone, crooked bottom teeth. 

If I found out that my Polaroid-preserved mother had longed for more, I wouldn't resent her. I would empathize with the dichotomy of desire she probably faced back then. Mothers are bequeathed a legacy of prescriptive orders. We are instructed to love every minute of it, even when many of those minutes involve a lack of rest that borders on inhumane. We are pressed to wear frenzied like a badge of honor. We are given guilt trips when we say we'd like a break.

If we dare speak up, we are ungrateful.

Before becoming a mother, I thought I knew one thing about being a mother. It turned out to be true: To be the mother she wants to be, a mother needs more than motherhood. She needs a separate sense of self. She needs the freedom to both embrace and resist cultural expectations. That is my truth, at least.

Three years ago, when I was still a single mother living with my parents and struggling to regain my livelihood, I applied for a job as a copywriter at a radio station. The interviewer, an aging head of programming, asked if motherhood would get in the way of my job performance. I'm nearly certain this was illegal. As I occasionally do, and usually regret it, I held my tongue in order to continue the discussion. What I should've said: Yes, motherhood will affect my job. Deeply, and often. I will decide how I feel about it, which will range from exasperated to ambivalent to joyful, and I will not justify any of it to you. Just like you don't justify to me why you have a ponytail that looks like you hacked it off the ass of an emaciated mule. Bitten tongue or not, "radio copywriter" is not on my resume. 

Yesterday was the Sunday after Mother's Day. My oldest son was visiting his grandparents and my baby was somehow napping despite sheets of blazing sunlight sneaking into my bedroom through three oversized windows dressed only in white wooden blinds. My boyfriend with the textbook sexy mouth grinned as he watched me typing and asked if I was blogging about how awesome he is. Now I am. I have a thoughtful, selfless, smokin' hot partner. Still, at times I have visions of growing horns and escorting him to the pits of Hell, but then I remember I haven't chosen to leave as I'm free to do, so I must want to keep him. I'm told this is normal.

I've experienced pregnancy as a single woman and with a devoted partner. The outcome of my personal social experiment is not surprising, at least not to me: The expectations of a mother are all encompassing, no matter what. Last week, my hair stylist jokingly told me the feminists screwed us by fighting for our right to have it all. Now here we are, having it all, and we don't even get the chance to pee in peace. What that theory is missing is the fact that even if we didn't have it all, we'd never get to pee alone. Motherhood is unfathomable love and immeasurable responsibility. Why should we fear our feelings about it? We can love our children to the deepest abyss of our souls and yet have days where we wish we could run away. We can have moments where our children are so precious that it's hard not to nibble on a chubby chin or a button nose (what? don't you?) and yet an hour later we will collapse in tears over the unfairness of our role. We can be dedicated to giving our kids attention, education, healthy meals, and memorable activities and then despair over having to scrounge for leftover minutes to meet our own needs. 

As mothers, we often hear about our grandmothers who worked from dawn till dusk to care for the family. Grandma never complained or needed a day off, we're told. We are told these things by women who followed Grandma's footsteps of self-effacement. Each time I hear tales of strong-as-steel women past, I wonder: Did anyone ever ask Grandma if she wanted more? Did anyone ever tell Grandma that her individuality mattered? That it was okay to feel overwhelmed? That it was okay to ask for a break?

We are not ungrateful for venting. We are not weak for wanting a break. We are not warriors or superhuman. We love our children beyond the bounds of language. Stop telling us we can't love ourselves too. 
I was 38 and new to commitment when I chose the role of life partner and mom of two. As I've learned, motherhood is evolution. It's revolution too. Raise your fists, moms.