Monthly Archives: May 2011

That Stinks!, or, disability exists at the intersection of the individual and society

Pregnancy1 is a blissfully neurology-stabilizing state for me. Not only do my moods stabilize (auto-comparatively…), but my migraines decrease significantly, both in severity and frequency. Which has been allowing me to take risks and perform tasks I usually don’t or can’t or am much more wary of — which in turn has me thinking about migraines and chronic illnesses and the social model of disability.

Note: whether or not migraines count as a disability per se may be up for debate (though I’d be more likely to say, are up to the individual migraineur’s2 situation and identity), but regardless, I’m going to use my experience with migraines here as illustrative of disability in general and an explanation of the social model of disability — both because I have at times in my life been disabled by migraines and because I cannot fully separate my bipolar disorder from my migraines3 (though one is more likely than the other to be recognized as a disability). The extent to which the following is translatable to any other experience of disability or chronic illness will vary, and I do not mean for it read as The One Truth About Disability. But I will say that in my talkings with others with disabilities and my readings of other disability activists, it shares enough similarities to be valuable as an illustration.

Even while pregnant, though, I am at risk of them: my migraine status at any given time (vulnerable? migraineous? active migraine? post-migraine hangover? low risk?) is always in my mind, and is always something I consider, however briefly, when planning my day.

That is not disabling.

My home, even in pregnancy, has differences from a non-migraineur’s home4, differences so ingrained I don’t even think about them the vast majority of the time: you will find here no scented products5, no striped or strongly contrasting color-schemes or curtains or clothes in our closets, no checkerboard tile patterns, no battery-operated noise-making or light-flashing toys, no energy-efficient prone-to-flicker long-bulb fluorescent lights6, no TV on in the background, no wood-burning fires (even if we had the fireplace), no slatted blinds (and very few window screens), no — for all people find this the hardest to believe — chocolate.

None of that is disabling.7

There are certain behaviors inside (and outside) my home that I engage in (or, more frequently, refrain from engaging in) because of my migraines: I rarely play video games anymore (sob!); there are many movie/TV scenes and some entire movies I do not watch, or do not watch unless very solidly in a Low Risk state (which I will likely move out of if I do watch said scenes); I don’t cross my eyes or spin around or watch others (even my child) move too rapidly in a repeated motion, such as jumping on a trampoline; I sleep as regularly as is possible with a child and a writing compulsion and a brain that often doesn’t cooperate; I don’t eat chocolate (or licorice or anise), even when available and offered and oh-so-tempting.

These are frequently annoying, but they are still not disabling.

When I have a migraine — a full-on, active migraine — I am incapacitated. I am in pain (to put it mildly), nothing in my brain works quite right, my word recall goes to shit, my cognition deteriorates (and not solely from the pain), my senses go hypersensitive and screwball (think apples that taste like sunscreen, voices that fall like hammers, scents that smell like pain, lights that I shy away from like a vampire from the sun), and I am more or less unable to do anything productive, enjoyable, or, well, anything except exist and wish I didn’t and wait for it to go away. These happen sometimes no matter how many precautions I take and reduction behaviors I engage in.

That is, in someways, disabling — but it’s also just my life, and my luck.

What is disabling, what disables me and limits my life in ways I do not find as easy to adapt to and integrate, is these:

cigarette smoke, both primary as I’m trying to get from my car to the store, and secondary as the chronic smoker walks by my restaurant table

perfume and cologne, dabbed or drenched on the person seated behind me on the bus

the laundry aisle at the supermarket — most days when non-pregnant, I can’t even walk down it without holding my breath (and sometimes, not even then)

the pattern in the carpet that seems to shift before me, that I have to walk over (eyes closed) for 10, 100, 500 feet to get to my destination

strobe lights in every dance hall, ever

bass lines so loud they can be felt without eardrums — in bars and trendy restaurants and the car driving by my house and played by the neighbours in our first apartment building

automated bathroom odor-maskers and hand soap whose scent lingers for hours, even after getting home and washing it off — twice

that one light in every classroom, every mall, every not-ridiculously-overpriced grocery store that’s on the fritz and flickers constantly

These are triggers I cannot control. These are triggers I risk exposure to if I wish to enter public at all, triggers that can make the difference between my accomplishing my goals in public for that day or not, can make the difference between being able to function again the following day or needing to hide in the dark quiet praying for death and/or sleep.

And no, I don’t expect every space to be entirely trigger-free, to look and sound and smell like my house. I would and have and will advocate for reasonable accommodations, including scent-free places, public smoking restrictions, sound limits, improved lighting, and so on, but it would be unreasonable for every possible trigger to be removed entirely from public spaces.8 The point is not that society must change in every conceivable way that would benefit me (though really, a few small changes is not too much to ask). Rather, the point is this: it is not until I step out of my home that my tendency toward migraines changes from something I deal with without much thought or bother to something that hinders my ability to go about my life.

That is when this part of me — my predisposition for migraines — becomes a disability. This disability is not inherent in my neurology, for all that my neurology not the same as the majority’s (and is frequently a pain and an impairment): no, the point it becomes a disability, that I am disabled, is at the intersection of my self and my society.

That is what I mean when I speak of the social model of disability — and why I’ll keep banging away at society’s role until ableism both individual and systemic is no longer the culturally accepted default.

  1. Or at least, both times I’ve been pregnant long enough to notice any effects.
  2. Migraineur: one who gets migraines.
  3. For three reasons, in increasing compellingness: there is a high overlap between people with mood disorders and people who get migraines, more so than either appear alone in the general population; the same drugs are often used to treat/prevent both; and, for me, stability in one part of my neurology goes along with stability in another — that is, when my moods are better, my migraines decrease. Whether or not it’s true in anyone else’s life, for me, the two are inextricable.
  4. Though I will say that every migraineur is different, with a different set of triggers, and so what is true of my migraine-reduction needs may not be true of someone else’s.
  5. No candles, no deodorizing sprays, no incense burners, no essential oil diffusers, no “aromatherapy” soaps or lotions or dryer sheets, and only unscented dish soaps, bath soaps, hands soaps, and laundry detergents; no shampoo at all, because it’s so impossible to find one that both doesn’t reek and does work (thank you baking soda and apple cider vinegar).
  6. I do OK with some compact fluorescents, as long as they’re not the only light source in a room.
  7. No, not even the lack of chocolate.
  8. If nothing else, I have no desire to be the focus of a mob wielding broken ceramic mugs blaming me for the banishment of every chocolate cafe.

Gender neutral parenting, gender stereotyping, and the “genderless baby”

Odds are, you’ve already heard about the Toronto couple who are “hiding” their youngest child’s “gender” — I know I’ve seen stories about it show up in my various social media feeds dozens of times in the past couple days, and had no fewer than half a dozen people send me links or ask my opinion directly. I was even contacted for comment for an article about the family.

To be honest, I think I gave a particularly enthusiastic quote mostly because I’m very tired of this family — and any family who steps outside the mainstream in attempts to avoid or counter the bigotry therein — being so put down and criticized. That said, I don’t think it’s as simple as “everyone should do this!!!”

To start with, let’s get it clear that what Witterick and Stocker are doing isn’t “hiding Storm’s gender” or “keeping the baby’s gender a secret”: someone’s gender, like their sexuality, is something which only that person can reveal for themselves. What it seems, from the stories I’ve read (and that’s a big caveat, given how distorted a person’s life can become through the filters of media), that this family is doing is declining to assign their third child a gender of “boy” or “girl”. And while others are free, should they see Storm’s diaper being changed while out and about, to peer at the baby’s genitals and make their own assignment based on Storm’s apparent sex, they’re not revealing the baby’s phenotypical sex1, either, because in this culture, in which vagina = girl and penis = boy, to do so would be to assign the child a typical binary gender.

(Still with me? Good.)

Next: is it a good thing that they’re doing?

Aw hell, I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’ve heard some transgender people say they wish their parents had done this for them, or that all parents should, or that maybe this will help raise people’s awareness that there aren’t just two genders2. I know that as “damaging” as some people think Witticker and Stocker’s choice is, every day kids (both transgender and cisgender) are being damaged by the assigned genders and gender roles they’re forced into by a culture that cannot abide not “knowing what it is” and the parents who go along with that culture’s dictates.

I know that this is a path made easier by the fact that in most other respects, Storm accords with hir culture’s idea of the “default person” and hir family with the “default family”: apparently white, not visibly disabled, apparently middle class, the parents married and apparently cisgender, the children not adopted3. While sexism and cissexism are hardly only middle class white people’s concerns, having privilege in these areas means this family are not being questioned about race and class and sexuality and dis/ability the way a more marginalized family would likely be, which frees up time and mental energy to approach gender and sexism, and to attempt to protect their child(ren) from the worst effects thereof, in this particular, culturally disapproved, way.

I know that logistically, in the English language at least (and many, but not all, others), it’s ridiculously difficult to avoid gendered pronouns, unless we are to call a child “it”. While I very much hope, and work toward the day, that pronouns such as “ze” (or “zie”) and “ou” and a singular4 “they” are universally known and understood, the truth is that right now, they simply aren’t, and playing the pronoun-avoidance game gets wearying. All this on top of dealing every day with people who obsess over gender if it doesn’t accord with their expectations5, much less if you try to introduce a third category to their binary-believing minds, means I completely understand why it’s such a rare choice — one The Man and I don’t make, for instance.

Ultimately, I know that whatever gender (or supposed lack thereof) we assign to our children, the best things we can do for them are:

1) realize that such assignments are, by necessity, provisional, and that we cannot really know our child’s gender until they tell us,

2) turn down (and to the best of our ability turn off) the coding that says gender determines activities, desires, and personalities, and

3) let them be who they are — whether or not that accords with the gender or gender role(s) we’ve assigned them. This means both supporting our assigned-boy children’s enthusiasm for pink and dresses (and supporting our assigned-girl children if they like the same!), and understanding that while gender-neutrality is an excellent place to start kids off from, it should never be our goal for them in the long run.

There are ways one can be any level of “gender neutral”, including taking a path such as Stocker and Witticker are taking, and fail at all three of these, and there are ways one can take the easier path of going along with gender-typing-based-on-genitals6 and follow them well. And while I certainly think that gender-neutral, or better yet, gender-diverse parenting is inherently a good thing, I have no desire, much less the time or energy, to sit in judgment of whether people are doing it “right” — especially a family I don’t personally know and have never talked with directly.

(There’s a lot I want to say about the inflammatory, and often explicitly bigoted and hateful, ways this story is getting reported and commented on7, but I’d be here for another week, and y’all would probably stop reading. But I will say this: 10,000 Dresses is not a story about a boy, it’s a story about a girl whose family thinks she’s a boy, and the fact that even the less overtly biased reporters get that wrong speaks volumes.)

A friend of mine said, “I may not agree with how they are trying to send counter signals [to society's gender stereotyping messages] but I respect that they are.” To me, that is what it comes down to. From what I’ve read, this family has chosen one, albeit unconventional, way to attempt to counter the ridiculously and horrifically stereotyping gender messages and gender roles society puts on children — starting well before birth, now, thanks to ultrasound8 — and regardless of whether I think it’s a (or the) “right” or “best” way, I’m entirely pleased that they are at least trying.

  1. Phenotype: a category based — for our purposes — on appearance, and is not necessarily the same as one’s genotype. That is, a child can have entirely “normal” appearing penis and testicles, and not necessarily have an entirely XY genotype; ditto vulva and vagina and XX.
  2. A hope perhaps proven false by reports that call the baby “genderless”, as though if not “boy” or “girl” one doesn’t have, and could not possibly have, a gender at all.
  3. To my knowledge; I only am sure, from the reports, of the (non)adoption status of Storm.
  4. Or at least, singular-bodied.
  5. But insist that we’re the ones who make such a big deal out of gender by “obscuring” or subverting it. Sure.
  6. And note that because “gender neutral” is a spectrum, these are overlapping categories.
  7. In fact, I had a troll here earlier who called me a “mental case” and a “fucking insane cunt” because I spoke positively about it and about gender neutral/gender diverse parenting in general.
  8. A factoid I find fascinating: I am asked nearly daily if I know “what (I’m) having”, and when I reply “a probably-singular baby”, the other person is more likely than not to admit that they, too, declined to find out the “gender” (read: genital sex) of their child(ren). Ultrasound sex determination (read: guessing, if educatedly) is so ubiquitous that even those of us who decline it nevertheless assume everyone else is doing it.

More on mother guilt

In a previous post on the MIRCI conference, I wrote:

Guilt sucks. At least half of the talks mentioned the devastating effects of mother guilt — not only is it a tool of control of the kyriarchy (or “the dominant cultural discourse”) by keeping the focus on “what’s wrong with me” not “the prescription of the ‘good mother’ is wrong”, it makes us worse parents. We overcompensate out of guilt, we lose our autonomy and authenticity because of guilt, and we snap from the stress of feeling guilty. Drop the guilt.

And so, of course, as soon as I got back home, the universe decided to test me on the topic. I’m not going to go into the details right now, not least because everything is still very much in flux, but the Boychick has been having difficulties in preschool that came to a peak on his first session back after my return. And oh, did the guilt come on in force.

I had left him.

I let his sleep disregulate.

I exposed him to “adult language”.

I failed to regulate my moods around him.

I broke my child, and he would never “succeed” at school, and it would be all my fault, forever and ever and ever amen.

What good did this guilt do me? Did it help me identify areas to change? Did it grant me the courage to make the changes I needed? Did it help me accept the situation as it was so I was free to move on?

No. It made me want to grab my child and climb in a dark hole where no one could get at us, and sob in his sweet soft curls, his long limbs curled in my lap, my eyes squeezed closed and streaming salty tears. It froze me. And I had to let it go before I could move, before I could talk, before I could plan for any action but that, that impossible urge to run and flee and hide and burrow and board off the world.

Even now it threatens to overwhelm — your selfishness is responsible for all his problems, it whispers, seeking to slip in wherever it can, my culture’s beliefs borrowing my brain’s voice to torment and tie me down — and must be ignored, set aside, even — radical notion! — forgiven if I’m to help my walking heart as he deserves.

It’s this strange game we play: we are blamed, so we blame ourselves, carry this guilt, wield it before us — “See, I’m doing my job, I know it’s my fault, don’t blame me more, I’m not a Bad Mom, I know I’ve done bad, but I’ll try harder, do better, beat myself for it, don’t hurt me more!” — so as to stop it being wielded against us. It doesn’t work, of course, but in many ways it is worse when we dare to declare “No, I won’t take this on, I did not mold my child, he is who he is and I’ll help him as I can but I am not his creator or his owner or his personal omnipotent god and there is only so much I can do.” Then, we are told, we don’t care, our blasé ‘tude proof of our culpability, our unfulfilled responsibility, our negligence and negative influence. And to try that as a mother with a mood disorder? Then, the voice smirks, the culture accuses, I must be delusional. Obviously I have damaged him. Obviously I am bad, wrong, unworthy, unable to parent without causing pain.

And maybe some small part of that is true. Maybe some of how he is is because of how I am. Maybe his life is harder because mine isn’t easy. But guilt? Doesn’t ease either of our burdens, doesn’t help us move, doesn’t help us grow. Guilt would have us hide away, deny us the sun and air and freedom we need, both of us, to thrive in our own unique ways.

I have my difficulties. So, as much as it breaks my heart to know but as has always been inevitable, does my child. And we are both beautiful and perfectly imperfect exactly as we are.

Guilt? Would only get in our way. And we’ve got too much to do to let it.

The Boychick’s Bookshelf: Will There Be a Lap for Me?

Welcome to The Boychick’s Bookshelf! In this series1, I review children’s books of interest to those who want to raise children free from and opposed to kyriarchy. These reviews focus on books which showcase stories and lives beyond the dominant culture of white straight middle-class families, or which contain explicitly anti-kyriarchy messages (anti-racism, anti-ableism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism, anti-cissexism, anti-violence, anti-colonialization, and so on).

Will There Be a Lap for Me?

The Story

Young kid Kyle loves sitting on his mother’s lap — but the lap is vanishing as his mom’s pregnancy progresses. The other laps available to him aren’t the same, snuggling next to his mom isn’t the same, and he’s afraid he’s not going to get his special place back. And then the baby arrives, and his mom is always busy with his new little brother. While it’s nice to stroke the baby’s soft skin while he’s nursing, it’s not the same. At the end, though, Kyle gets to reconnect with his mom and sit in her lap while the baby’s sleeping.

Intended Audience

Obviously aimed at older siblings as a new-baby preparation book, Will There Be a Lap for Me? also has an implied middle-class and USian and explicitly heteronormative audience, with a presumed stay-at-home mom (there are only two mentions of Kyle’s father: when listing the other laps that aren’t as good as his mother’s and when coming home with the new baby, whereas the mother is seen repeatedly doing shopping and parenting). Unlike most sibling-prep books, the family is Black, and they use public transportation and apparently-cloth diapers, and the mother is seen breastfeeding.

Reader age recommendations online range from infant-preschool to preschool-Grade 2. The text is simple, with only a few lines on each page, so it would likely be good for a child as young as two, and is just right for the Boychick (four years old), but more than a couple years older than that and they’d likely find it too baby-ish and simple.

Changes in the telling

Although ideally for our family and the Boychick the birth would take place at home, rather than at some unspecified “away” place, the only change I make in the reading of Will There Be a Lap for Me? is the line about the father’s lap. It’s written as “Daddy’s lap was too hard and bumpy”, and leads the section on all the other laps (daddy’s, grandma’s, and the babysitter’s) that aren’t adequate substitutes for mommy’s lap. Because we both don’t want to devalue fathers and fathering and want to honor the kid’s desire for his mother’s lap, I change this to “Daddy’s lap just isn’t the same.”

Right on!

I was thrilled to find this book when browsing the used bookshelves, because it’s hard enough to find a sibling-prep book that either doesn’t put me off with use of bottles or with misogynistic portrayals or that features nonwhite families — to find one that managed both was like hitting the jackpot. Written in 1992, some of the illustrations are dated (the father’s mustache cracks me up, for instance), but the portrayals of breastfeeding, babywearing (an apparently-white dad at the grocery store), and a teenage male babysitter far outweigh the clothing styles the Boychick is too young to know are passé.

But does it appeal? The Boychick’s take

Although the Boychick isn’t wanting to be read to as much these days, he’s allllll about the new baby, and so this book regularly falls in his top ten or so. He has no problems identifying with the nonwhite family, and loves to comment on the baby breastfeeding or getting his diaper changed. If anything, I think he’d like it more if it had more of the baby in it, but he’s still a fan nevertheless.

Buy it, Consider it, Skip it, or Compost it?

If you’re pregnant with a new baby in a heteronormative family, especially if you’re planning to breastfeed and have an assigned-boy child already, strongly consider it. Although I wouldn’t use it as the only sibling-prep text, it’s a valuable addition to any collection to acclimate a young kid to a new baby in the house and the changing relationship with hir mother.

Purchase at Powell’s Books or Amazon.com.

Your Take

Have you read Will There Be a Lap for Me? What do you think, and what do your kids think? Are there sibling preparation books, especially featuring non-white families, that you prefer? Do you have any questions after reading this review?

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Purchases made through the Powell’s and Amazon links offered here support this blog and compensate — quite minimally — my time and work as a blogger. I encourage you to support local, independent booksellers whenever possible, but if you’re to order online anyway, why not support an independent blogger?

  1. However intermittent or infrequent…

Further conference thoughts, and some Big Questions

So, I arrived home safe and relatively sound, though I’m still dying from this cold1 and I left my notebook at the conference2, but Thoughts have been swimming in my head. Well, I say Thoughts, but I mean Questions, or Observations that I’m not sure what to do with yet, and, me being me and this being a blog, I thought I’d share them with you3:

How can we have a (singular) “motherhood movement” when what we want, as mothers, is not all the same? Cindy Sheehan evokes her motherhood in her pacifism; Sarah Palin does the same in support of her pro-war, pro-gun stance. My motherhood most definitely informs my support of gender-neutrality or gender-prescriptivism-abolition. Andrea O’Reilly argues that there is a motherhood movement, with a “diffuse style of organizing… reflective of the eclectic and democratic nature of maternal activism.”4 But where, if anywhere, is the line between democratic and discordant, between non-hierarchical and non-cohesive? Further, is it possible to create a cohesive “us” (to say “yes, we are part of the same [motherhood] movement”), without necessitating an opposition to a “them” (“you are not a part of this movement”)? Does it even matter whether we acknowledge or create this cohesion currently, or do we get on with our lives and our work and let history sort it afterward?

Speaking of our work, where is the balance between big picture thinking — knowing where we want to go, and specifying what is wrong with where we are — and single-step action? Does working to address one small injustice “bog us down in the details”, or is it the only way the whole is ever changed — or do a bit of both? And how do we — do I — pick which one (or few) small step(s) to work on? When we — I — care about so many parts of social justice (breastfeeding support and rights, birth choices, abortion access, disability rights, queer rights, just to name a few), how do we say “this is where I shall dig in my teaspoon”5, leaving the rest to “someone else”?

I adored being at a conference where for three days the topics, and the majority of attendants, were mothers. And yet… We cannot — will not — achieve gender equality until men, as a class6, are spending as much time on their fatherhood and their fathering, are as worried about work-family balance, are as invested in the domestic sphere as women, as a class, are. But, the “fatherhood movement” equivalent has so far shown to be patriarchal and misogynist, focusing on holding on to their society-granted status as “head of the household”, not moving toward doing the housework. So what would a non-patriarchal parenting movement look like? Can we only get there via a motherhood movement, just as we required feminism to gain what small equalities we’ve achieved outside the domestic sphere? How do we simultaneously keep in mind and move toward the equality we desire while acknowledging the all too real power differentials that currently exist — whether the topic is parenting, or race, or gender, or sexuality, or insert privilege/marginalization axis here?

And finally7, and far more personally, when am I going to get to do The College Thing? Will I be able to do it this time? Is this a socialized desire based on a hierarchy that places Official Academics above non-institutional thinking and lived experience, a needy feeling born, or borne, of my feelings of insecurity at academic conferences and around those with Important Letters after their names, or a real longing reflecting my joy in intellectualism and all the better parts of academia? And how long will it take after the new baby comes for my brain to de-mush itself enough to me to attempt, again, The College Thing, and figure all this out?

If motherhood and activism and women-with-children “speak[ing] out on why we need to change the world and how to do it” is your thing, check out MIRCI. Get your hands and eyes on a (heavy! huge!) copy of The 21st Century Motherhood Movement. And if you are able, get thee to a MIRCI conference. Sure, it’s smaller than BlogHer, and you won’t be bringing home a Potato Head or a KitchenAid unless you pay full price for it, but oh will your brain thank you.

At least, if it’s anything like mine.

  1. Not really — I think — but very much Not Enjoying it, especially the coughing-until-I-piss-myself-or-vomit aspects, and no one in Toronto actually ever heard what I sound like, but, y’know, I’ll heal…
  2. Thank the God/dess for meeting someone Very Nice there who lives not two miles from me, found it, and brought it back to Portland for me. But we haven’t managed to meet up here in Oregon yet, so I still don’t have it.
  3. In no particular order except which ones came into my cough-addled brain first.
  4. The 21st Century Motherhood Movement, page 3.
  5. I don’t know if Liss coined it or merely popularized it, but I learned of this metaphor — not the same as the spoon theory — at Shakesville.
  6. And not merely a few individual men, whatever one pseudoenlightened egotistical mansplainer on Twitter says.
  7. For tonight, at least.
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