Category Archives: Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer

Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer

WFPP Guest Post: Can Mama Bear Let Go?

Welcome to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer, PhD in Parenting-style. Annie brings to the WFPP her usual informative flair on the subject of leaving her children in the care of her partner while she leaves the house to work.

Annie wishes to include this disclaimer: This post gives the perspective of a male-partnered cis woman who carried and birthed her two children (“mama bear”). The biological facts and societal assumptions discussed in this article may not apply in adoptive or surrogate situations or in non-heterosexual relationships.

Can Mama Bear Let Go?

A baby develops a connection to its mother as it grows in the womb. That connection is reinforced as the mother holds the baby to her breast for the first time and then over and over again. Biology and society place the mom as the primary caregiver for new life. In her book, The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine, M.D. describes what happens after a woman gives birth to a baby:

For the human mother, the lovely smells of her newborn’s head, skin, poop, spit up breast milk, and other bodily fluids that have washed over her during the first few days will become chemically imprinted on her brain – and she will be able to pick ut her own baby’s smell above all others with about 90 percent accuracy. This goes for her baby’s cry and body movements, too. The touch of her baby’s skin, the look of its little fingers and toes, its short cries and grasps – all are now tattooed on her brain. Within hours to days, overwhelming protectiveness may seize her. Maternal aggression sets in. Her strength and resolve to care for and protect this little being completely grab the brain circuits. She feels she could stop a moving truck with her own body to protect her baby. Her brain has changed, and along with it her reality.

Brizendine goes on to explain that for a woman who does birth a baby, this is perhaps the biggest change she will experience in her life. But increasingly, people are realizing that despite this strong biological connection and despite society’s assumptions about a mother’s role, the birth mother does not have to take on the lion’s share of the nurturing and caregiving. Whether the parents choose equally shared parenting, whether the birth mother is the primary breadwinner, or whether the non-birth mother chooses to induce lactation to share in the primary care duties, there are many scenarios where mama bear…the one who carried and birthed that baby…may need to let go. If we want to achieve the goals of feminism, we need to not only ask for more options for mothers, but also ask their partners to step up and be more than a babysitter. But we need to give them the space to do that. We mama bears need to be willing to let go a bit.

Letting go, for me, had two parts. First, I had to be able to separate myself both physically and emotionally. Second, I had to be able to trust my partner to take over a significant portion of the nurturing. In this post, I’ll share some of my thoughts and experiences about letting go as a working mom whose partner is a stay at home dad.

Separating myself

Physically turning and walking out the door as your child tugs at your pant legs and screams “MAMAAAAAAA” is excruciating. Listening from the other room as your partner fumbles through a difficult parenting moment when you feel you have the answer requires patience. Being a slave to a breast pump instead of holding your baby snugly at your breast is tough. In her post Where’s the numbness?, Naomi from Mama’s Apple Cores wrote:

So, why on earth do I want to turn our world upside down so that I can be the one home? It seems so selfish, but I just can’t move beyond this strong feeling that I need to be home. I try to embrace what we have and focus on the richness of our life, and I do okay for a few days. And then one day I go crazy wanting to be home. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I scream. Drive and cry. Drive and scream. Panic attacks. Feel like I’m losing my mind. Maybe this is just my personal instability and being home would not solve that? Would I be happier if I was home? Would I be more stable? Or is this just a combination of me and lack of sleep?

For me, focusing on and getting the most out of the time I had with my kids was critical. When I was home, I babywore, breastfed, co-slept. That meant that even on the days when I did have to go to work, I could still physically be attached to my children for around 14 hours of the day. I never understood so-called “experts” who suggested a 6pm bedtime for a baby in a crib in a separate room. That would have devastated me. That would have meant seeing my child for 15 minutes in the evening and maybe an hour in the morning before work while trying to get ready and get out the door. Not an option.

Giving something to my baby while at work helped to. I pumped breast milk at work for my son until he was 12 months old and for my daughter until she was 18 months old. I would think of them constantly during the day and even get caught humming Elmo’s song over and over again as my brain connected with them despite our physical separation. The drive home was long, very long.

Having a routine helps. It is hard at first. But after a while you and the kids kids realize that each morning Mommy gets up and goes to work. She stays there for a while and she comes home not long after their afternoon nap. Once you realize that there are five days (or whatever it may be for you) where you have to plow through it, but you can then spend two days focusing on your kids, it gets easier. At least it did for me. But a big part of it getting easier was knowing that my kids were in great hands, which brings me to the next part…

Trusting my partner

To have peace of mind when I go out the door or even while I focus on a task in one room while my partner parents in another room, I need to trust him. For me, trust means knowing we agree about the big things and understanding that the little things don’t matter that much.

My partner and I share the same basic attachment-based parenting philosophy. We both agree that leaving our kids to cry it out is not an option. We both agree that breast is best and that our children were going to be given breastmilk exclusively as infants. We both treat our children with the respect that human beings deserve. Knowing that we are on the same page about the big things is what allows this mama bear to let go. I know of other couples where one of them believes in crying it out and the other doesn’t. Where one thinks it is fun to sneak an infant a McDonald’s sundae and the other one wants the baby exclusively breastfed. Where one regularly humiliates and spanks the children and the other believes in gentle discipline. When parents have such vastly different parenting philosophies, trust is difficult and I know a lot of moms who take it all upon themselves so that they do not have to leave their child with the irresponsible or abusive person they chose to raise children with. I am so thankful that I am not in that position.

But letting go also requires not freaking out about the little things. For me, much of how I parent is about the way that I want to relate to my kids. It is about the relationship that I want to build with them. It is about the way that I want them to see me. It is about what I want to teach them and the values that I want to pass on. But the reality is that every human being will have to deal with a large variety of different teachers, bosses, friends, partners, colleagues, and so on over the course of their life. They will not all relate to them in the same way and I think it does children good to learn different ways of relating with different people. Being exposed to different parenting styles will help prepare them for that. The little things are just not worth sweating. They will not make that big of a difference (if at all) in how your child turns out, but stressing over them will have a big impact on your anxiety levels and on your relationship. Your partner needs to know that you trust him or her to make good parenting choices when you are not there (or even when you are) and that even if he or she does have a bad parenting day, that that is okay too.

Finally, your kids need to see that you trust your partner. I like to remind my kids as I am leaving that they will have a fun time with Daddy. I ask them when I get home what fun things they did together. I try to show them that I am happy to see them develop that bond and to have that special time with their other parent.

Hibernating?

In my experience, yes…mama bear can let go. But maybe not forever. I go on dates with my kids to reconnect. I need extended vacations with my kids to deepen and strengthen our relationship after long periods of hard work and repeated separation. This summer, I’m looking forward to hibernating for a few months with my kids while papa bear ventures back out of the cave for a bit.

Annie is the mom of two kids, Emma (age almost 3) and Julian (age 5). She tries to stir up issues and spark discussion on the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.

WFPP Guest Post: On Dressing a Daughter…and a Theoretical Son.

I’ve written before about my opinions on gender and kids’ clothing: this entry to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer brings in a more femme opinion from a self-identified “girly-girl” feminist.

Jenny, who recently started blogging at The Big Cheesy, talks about her feelings around dressing her daughter in frilly clothes — sometimes — and her reluctance to dress any probably-boy child (should there ever be any) in the same.

On Dressing a Daughter…and a Theoretical Son.

Two things about me have almost always been true: I’m a girly-girl, and I’m a feminist. There are more of us out there than you might imagine. We are the women who adore pink, want lace trim on everything, and think the heel could always be higher. But we’re also always striving to achieve everything we might want, without thinking for a moment that our sex limits us. Feminists like me are the fierce, unstoppable, eternally equal women who have a lot of fun with our lipstick and ball gowns. We’re not unlike drag queens in that way.

But like a drag queen, I don’t live in my uber-girly outfits. Although I do have a closet stocked with stilettos, mountains of beads, pounds of makeup, and enough lacy lingerie to outfit a proper brothel, I usually don’t wear that stuff. Often enough (okay, 9 out of every 10 days), I wear my hair in a bun done without looking, no makeup whatsoever, the same unisex jeans I’ve had for years, and a loose-fitting tee shirt (most likely purchased at a thrift shop). The same frayed brown flip-flops are on my feet. My fingernails haven’t been painted in almost two years. I’m not wearing perfume, or even lotion. And I don’t feel like any less of a woman than I do in my tight turquoise satin D&G minidress.

Because, as I’m sure I don’t need to explain to a feminist audience, my woman-ness has almost nothing to do my costume. Whether I’m in fishnets or my husband’s sweatshirt, I’m a Woman, with every strength and capability than Man has to offer. Being a woman is not about dress, or scent, or mannerisms (or even genitalia, frankly). It’s because I’m so confident in this, my female identity, that I can switch from dressing in a very gendered way to dressing in a very un-gendered way. To be honest, I never think about it. I don’t divide my days into Girly or Unisex. I’m just me, transitioning from one costume to another without thought.

But what of the female child I bore almost 2 years ago? How do I dress her on any normal day, given my penchant for the frills and the froth? To be sure, her closet is stuffed with elaborate dresses and blouses and pretty little coats, things on which I spent too much money. There are so many of them that she outgrows them before the tags come off, usually. Which is probably because she spends her days, like her mom, in jeans and t-shirts. And it’s not that I’m making a statement, gearing her up to be a feminist. I imagine she, like all the intelligent women I know, will be a feminist all on her own (but that’s her choice, not mine). I dress her in the comfortable stuff every day because…it’s comfortable. She is a toddler. All she wants to do is run, jump, climb, and smear herself with avocado. I don’t think either of us would enjoy that exuberance all swaddled in a lacy sundress with matching bloomers. So she wears clothing that could belong to either a girl or a boy–indeed, much of it is purchased in the Boys’ section. I’m not so much of a girly-girl that I think one’s corduroy pants should be pink.

To be totally honest, though, I also buy my daughter boys’ clothes because I want to be able to re-use them, should I have a son. And as a feminist, and a person fiercely devoted to gender-identity freedom, it’s hard for me to accept that I wouldn’t put a baby son in a dress. Why not, really? How is it different from putting my daughter in brown work boots designed for little male feet? Somehow, to me, it is. That bothers me, but I’m not going to wrap my son in lace just to confront my own issues. As much as I dislike our society’s rigid gender expectations, and as much as I flout them myself, it’s much harder for men and boys to do so, and I’m not going to make that decision for any son I might have. If he asks me, at any point, to wear a dress, you can believe that I will happily oblige. I just won’t be leading the campaign, as troubling as that is to me sometimes (since I will essentially be dictating his ultimate gender performance for him, making it not an issue of choice at all).

As my daughter grows, I get sad about her frilly little outfits. To think that I may not have another daughter to wear them again, and knowing that I won’t put them on a son who doesn’t request them, makes me very sad. And it’s probably not because I love them more than I love her other clothes. It’s probably because I hardly ever put her in the girly stuff. Just as I find it easier to go about my day in a more unisex garb, I want the same freedom for her. Yes, I have a blast when I’m all tarted up, and I love to see her that way, too. But it’s not real life. It’s not the daily experience for a woman who has things she must DO. I probably could run a marathon in high heels, but I wouldn’t want to do so. So the dresses inevitably stay on their hangers, and then get packed away for some Maybe Later child. It’s hard, but I recognize it’s a product of the choices I make. As a feminist, i believe that a woman (or a man) should be able to wear WHATEVER she (or he) likes, whenever, wherever. It is because I believe in my absolute equality and power that I can wear pink lip gloss one day and a man’s shirt the next and not feel any different–even if I have been called “sir” a few times. I intend that freedom for my daughter, and I hope I embrace it for my son, too. As a parent I strive to put my ideals into practice, even as it challenges me sometimes. I put the dresses aside for my daughter, and may pull them out for my son. Who knows? On any given day, I just want all of us to be comfortable–in our clothes, and most definitely in our skin.

Jenny lives in Los Angeles with her small family of humans and large family of animals.  Although an attorney by trade, lately Jenny is taking time to smell the bread rising, and to watch her daughter grow.

WFPP Guest Post: The Family Poster

In this entry to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer, we see that sometimes the little moments and the big moments are the same thing.

When Susannah told me this story, of making her preschooler’s “family poster” and realizing it’ll be the first time he’ll really be vulnerable to homophobic bigotry — or “simple” ignorant schoolyard teasing — for having two moms, I asked her to share it with us for the Primer, because it so encapsulates the fear and the hope and the determination we so often feel when raising our children “different” in a kyriarchal world. She so touchingly makes the point that the best thing we can send our children off into the world with is love — and the knowledge that love matters most of all.

The Family Poster

Dearest little one,

Last Thursday when I dropped you off at school the parent helper handed me a blank white poster board. She said to fill it with pictures as a way to help you tell your classmates about your family. We took it home that day and talked about how big our family is – those people we were born to and those people we have chosen as our own. Our family is spread fairly wide – Nana and Grandpa Rollie in Los Angeles; Uncle Jay, Aunt Shekar, and baby Karolina in Pittsburgh. Closer to home are Grandma, Uncle Randy, Auntie Shane, Auntie Shae, Aunt Tori, Aunt Cyndi, Sarah, Tonya, Gram, and all of my aunts, uncles and cousins.

“Jerome? And Lucia?”
“Yes, baby. Jerome and Lucia are part of our family too. So are Julia, Sonja and Asher.”
“Yeah. (pause) Who else?”
“Grandpa Angelo. We should put a picture of him on the poster too, shouldn’t we?” You never met your grandpa as he died before you were born, but your grandma talks with you about him all of the time.
“And mama?”
“Yes, mama too.”

When we got home we went about our merry way and forgot about the family poster that had sparked a half hour of discussion. I worked through the week to find a fun group of pictures that gives an idea of who your family is. Tonight after you fell asleep I gathered them all together to assemble on the poster board. It wasn’t until I started to lay down the pictures and saw all of the faces that it struck me – this is when the teasing could start for you. You, my love, are blessed with two moms.

I knew the day would come when we’d face this (and I hate our society for making it an “issue” needing to be faced) but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. You will be four years old next week and I am thinking of you sharing about your family with your preschool class. Will someone tell you that you can’t have two moms? What will your teacher say? How many kids will ask you where the picture is of your dad? What will your response be to that? We’ve talked about how there are kids who live with grandparents, aunts, uncles, a mom, a dad, the possibilities are endless. You know the story of how mama and I wanted a baby and Uncle Randy agreed to be our donor. Every so often you ask to hear the “Uncle Randy story” but at nearly four you will not have the words to explain this to your class. You may not even feel the need to explain it.

My belief is that if any questions do come up Teacher Amy will do a wonderful job of supporting you in saying that yes, you do have a mommy and a mama. You do not have a daddy. She will talk about how families look different but that what matters is love. You, Keagan, are SURROUNDED by love. You were born of a love so great that we could never have imagined today. You pushed your way into a world already filled with a family who loved you.

At the same time, you arrived into a society in which many people have strong ideas about who “should” and “should not” be defined as family, marry, love each other. These definitions leave our family out, acting as the proverbial circular peg trying to fit into a square box. Perhaps that act of trying to fit in is the problem. Sometimes it makes more sense to help send a message so big (Um, hello world, wake up and smell the fair-trade, shade-grown organic coffee. EMBRACE diversity! EMBRACE love!) that it would cause that little square box to implode and a new definition to blossom like a phoenix rising from steaming ash.

Love ties together a family – the people who you love, and the people who love you. Your family is made of those people who build you up rather than tear you down, support you at all times, these are the people with whom you feel safe. A blood connection may or may not exist. There is no room in this definition for placing boundaries on love through things like gender, sex, class, race, ethnicity, color, (dis)ability, religion. If you can walk away knowing that when someone questions your definition of family, then I’ve done something right. A family is love. Period. And you, Keagan, are my family, my heart.

I love you up to the moon and back,

Mommy

Susannah lives in the American Pacific Northwest, where her just-turned-four-year-old is blessed with a large, loving family, including, yes, two mothers.

WFPP Guest Post: Before I was a Mother, I was a Woman . . .

The Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer is back, with a piece from Zoey of Good Goog about what it means to her to be a woman and a mother.

Zoey discusses her journey from career-driven no-kids-no-thank-you woman to mostly at-home mother, and the things she has given up, as well as gained, along the way. She touches on issues of economic independence (and the risks of the lack thereof), the intersection of privileges and hardships, the blessings of flexible work options, and the notion of sacrifice in motherhood, and ultimately explains how she has continued, “even” in motherhood, to be a woman — to be herself.

Before I was a Mother, I was a Woman . . .

Seriously. I wasn’t always a mother.

Once upon a time, I was a woman and I was quite probably one of the most ambitious people you’d be likely to meet. And I wore really high heels and had impractical handbags. Because I loved it and because I could. I wasn’t ambitious in the conventional way – I didn’t care about earning money (although it did help with the accessories). But I wanted to have enough impact to change something in a big way – to leave something behind and say – look! I left my mark. Maybe it was because I was completely invisible in High School. But I doubt it, some people are just born that way. And although I hadn’t admitted it to anyone I was considering a move into politics because I’d grown tired of banging my head against a brick wall trying to change something from the bottom up. What was I interested in changing? Healthcare and the treatment of mental illness/drug and alcohol addiction but that is a very long story.

If you’d asked me back then what I thought about a woman staying at home while her partner works and living off one income I would have told you that the very idea made me physically ill. Because it’s such a risk to take a gamble that your relationship is going to work out. Because if it doesn’t you have sacrificed however many years of experience in the workforce, have no money of your own and are essentially left stranded to fend for yourself. It’s not about trusting someone, or believing in your relationship: it’s about not placing your future in someone else’s hands. And only a stupid person would do that. Is it becoming obvious that my parents had 6 marriages between them? Full disclosure – I may have a few broken home issues.

Also if you’d asked me back then if I wanted to have children I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, because I knew that if I was to have children I would want to put certain dreams of mine aside for a time. And I liked the freedom of selfishness. I didn’t believe that I was capable of being a ‘do-it-all’ supermum. If I was going to be a mother, I was going to want to be a mother in the home and not miss out on anything. Are you seeing a problem with this scenario? Eventually I realised that while further study and career aspirations don’t have an expiration date, having children does (at least for a woman) and I swallowed my fears about leaving the workforce and did just that. I rationalised that if I ever wanted to go back to work my husband could be a stay at home dad for awhile.

And then she was born and everything was different. Not overnight of course. For the first few days it was surreal. I remember thinking she was beautiful but not quite being able to relate to the idea that she was mine and it was permanent. Within a month I had completely abandoned the idea of going back to work full-time because I loved being at home with her and found that to be more fulfilling than any job could be. In the interest of modesty I would like to say that I got lucky and I was given the opportunity to work part-time from home. But the truth is I am really good at my job and I was lucky that my boss was able to see the value in being flexible. I was also fortunate enough to be born in a country where public education doesn’t end with High School, to have a mother who worked three different jobs to keep us afloat and to not have the kind of obstacles thrown in front of me that indigenous Australians face every single day. Not to mention my phone phobia which had led me to an occupation well suited to at home work.

But how could a woman like myself be happy at home? Had I abandoned the woman for the mother? Surprisingly, no. I am the kind of person who will not do things by half-measures. I embraced being home with my little one and wore her most of the time. I persisted with breastfeeding despite difficulties and didn’t pursue any hard and fast rules – I just followed my instinct. She slept with us most of the time too. Along the way, I found out that I didn’t feel stifled by this because by being true to who I was as a mother, was also being true to who I was as a woman. Suddenly, outside of my usual career-focused environment I was able to rediscover all my creative interests that I’d also put on hold – like writing and photography and even home renovation and I was more myself than I had been in a long while. I will stop working entirely next year and it doesn’t scare me anymore.

I would still like to leave my mark in some way. And while it might be tempting to think that the difference I will make is in the lives of my children, I hope not. Because I want to avoid influencing them as much as possible and just be excited to find out who they are. I still miss my high heels, and my handbags, and spending hours on my own. As my children get older I will actively return to my formerly ambitious self because it’s important to me that they see me the way I see myself. And I am nothing if not driven.

This week I had my first night away from my (now) 18 month old and she had her first sleepover. She was beside herself with excitement when I came back and spent the next day holding on to me for dear life, not really willing to let me out of her sight and giving me cuddles so fierce that her little body shook with force of it. And that’s when I know that nothing I’ve given up feels like a sacrifice. Not because I don’t miss the things that I surrendered, but because they are overshadowed by everything I’ve been given.

Zoey is a (mostly) at home mother of one, and no matter how many people look at her like she’s just weird, she’s still planning to have four more children. Professionally she works part-time as a proposal writer, which somehow evolved out of managing a drug rehabilitation centre for dual diagnosis women and their young children.

WFPP Guest Post: Be still my feminist mama heart

This piece, by professional feminist and writer-mama Veronica, was originally posted at her personal blog Viva La Feminista. I requested to cross-post it here as part of the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer because it’s such a perfect glimpse into a feminist parenting moment.

It’s not so much that her six year old daughter spontaneously comes out with an astute feminist observation — as Veronica points out, much of that comes from her own innate personality, which we as parents can encourage but do not create — but rather the way that Veronica handles it, by affirming the reality of what her daughter sees. Kyriarchy is a virus: it perpetuates itself by getting inside us, obscuring our observations, normalizing a male-centric (among other things) world. One of the most feminist acts a parent can do then is say “Yes, you are really seeing what you you’re seeing. The emperor really has no clothes” — or in this case, the “writers awards” really have no women — “and you are right to point it out.

Be still my feminist mama heart… My daughter and the Emmys

It’s Sunday and homework is all done (actually, she didn’t have any since she won Star Student of the Week. *gloating*), the kid is in her PJs, teeth have been brushed and tomorrow’s clothes are picked up. Yup, it’s a rare night when it’s 8 pm and not much is left to do in our household. We’re curled up in a heap on the couch flipping between the 2009 Emmy Awards and Sunday Night Football.

Our precocious daughter watches men and women pick up separate acting awards. Then one of the writing award nominations are being announced. “So, is this the men’s writing awards?” “Um, no mija. Just the writing awards. But GOOD observation!”

As much as I feel that I am raising her in what I would call a feminist manner, I wouldn’t say that I point out all of life’s injustices like say an awards category where there are only men or only white women. That is for much later in life when I feel like she could handle such a conversation. Only at the age of 6 she makes that observation herself.

This is the same girl who around the age of 2 or 3 let it be known that it’s OK for the baby rubber ducky to have two mommies and at the age of 4 stated that restrooms with sinks and soap dispensers too high for her to reach were bad because little kids couldn’t reach them on their own and that is just unfair. Seriously? You think I taught her that last one? Last month we were in a restroom when she took a step back from the sink and proudly told me that “Mom, now this is a good  kid sink!” Two years later she’s still on the look out for kid-friendly rest room sinks.

I tweeted her Emmy comment and got a lot of retweets. A sign that others not only agreed with her, but a sign to her that she’s seeing it right. She’s got the right lens on her two perfect eyes.

I will always say first and foremost, she was born with an innate sense of fairness. I merely support her and guide her in that fairness. Yes, she takes it too literal in that she believes a 6-year-old deserves the exact same amount of dinner and dessert as her 34-year-old mother. But on the whole she’s usually dead on.

What I find is feminist in this mothering moment is that I knew exactly what she was talking about. I didn’t need to rewind the DVR to see that yes, it was an all dude category. And I affirmed her observation and stressed that it was a GOOD one. I didn’t ignore her, I didn’t make excuses and I didn’t wave her off as being silly.

I affirmed her voice.

And I think that is one of the most feminist things I can do for her as I help her find her way in this world.

Veronica is a professional feminist, mom to a spunky 6-year-old woman-child, and a writer. She’s paid for two of those jobs and working on getting paid for the third. Because really, we should at least be earning a pension for all the shoes we unknot!