Tag Archives: language

Word of the Year: Tone, Or, On the Ease of Moving Between States

tone noun \ˈtōn\
9 a : the state of a living body or of any of its organs or parts in which the functions are healthy and performed with due vigor

b : normal tension or responsiveness to stimuli; specifically : muscular tonus
10 a : healthy elasticity : resiliency
b : general character, quality, or trend
c : frame of mind : mood

- Miriam Webster Dictionary

Around this time in the Gregorian calendar, many people pick a word — a single word — they wish to invoke, experience, or focus on for the coming year. I’m normally not a meme sort of person, but today, for this year, a word came to me. It’s a word that came up for me again and again in 2011.

I have a strong body, capable of birthing 8 and 10lb babies, of carrying my children in my arms and on my back, of giving massage as deep or as light as needed, of lifting and bending and dancing and loving. And I have a strong mind, capable of surviving infancy and toddlerhood and (as my friends call it) The Fucking Fours, of crafting words into shapes beautiful, touching, and persuasive in turn, of thinking deeply and broadly, of feeling deeper and acutely, of dreaming and laughing and dancing and loving.

But what I lack — no, what I have capacity and the desire to develop further — is the ability to move between these states. My mind is capable of so much focus, on a single feeling or an idea, and of so much breadth, so many feelings and ideas, but is not yet skilled at taking each in turn in a way that leaves me with tangible accomplishments (posts, submissions, lists, emails and obligations responded to promptly). My body is capable of so much strength, in a single feat and a long day’s endurance, and of so much relaxing, the deep, heavy stillness of sleep and meditation and doneness, but is not yet skilled at living in the vibrant space of readiness for each moment’s task, at organized and sensible transitions from relaxation to effort and back again.

Tone is the middle path, the ability to dance from one path to another as called for, the function of all muscles (in body and mind) working in harmony so no one bears excessive strain, the state of neither clinging too tightly nor allowing unbalancing slack. Tone is the goal and the way one gets there. Tone is harmonious, joyful, pleasant to experience — and with its efficiency can move mountains, change minds, and fix so many ills.

I long for so many things — excellence in parenting, in writing, in activism and intellect and academics, in body and music and my many professions, in housekeeping and homesteading, community and family — and I want them all right now, no waiting or work required. 2012 will not be the year all my dreams become real, not with an infant and a (soon to be) five year old, for this is the year of surviving, of thriving in small ways, of gummy grins and growing teeth and scooting-crawling-walking, of milk and foods and beginning of sibling boundaries, of fully living in each moment and then letting it go to allow for living in and loving the next. 2012 will not bring me “balance”, that elusive perfect mix (as if life were a recipe: 1/3 work and 1/3 family and 1/3 fun, stir and bake and eat a slice a day); but, I hope, I will dance and rest and live this year in vibrancy, moving ever more easily between this moment, and this, and this.

A linguistic lack

I have a Thing about language, about communication, about fluency and ideas and the sheer joy of playing with words. I also am, shall we say, particular about having the right tools — right words, right punctuation, right sound and meaning and implications. So it bothers me when I discover a seeming lack in my toolbox, an idea for which, as far as I can tell, there is no word.

A friend and I were talking today about pregnancy, and the “making” of babies (that is not so much making as allowing to make themselves out of and using one’s self and substance), and the devaluing of the work of pregnancy, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of a word for the type of work it is.

Because it is work — perhaps the most elemental form of production around. It is draining, exhausting, and oh so challenging. It pervades (invades) every moment of one’s life for months, whether we are aware of its effects or not. Everyone who goes through it, every time, feels differently, but none are unaffected, and at the end the world is changed. A new person is born, or there is a gaping, grieving hole where a baby belonged. Either way, work has been done.

But it’s not the sort of work you clock into (though obstetricians are far too amenable to helping us clock out early), or set your mind to (though bookstores have shelves upon shelves dedicated to the idea that we can), or in any active, willful way do. And yet, forced pregnancies aside (by which I include any pregnancy without full and authentic choice, if not in the conception than in the continuation), it is chosen work, not work without agency. Not involuntary, not undirected (though that too), not passive (to the contrary!). Not unimportant, not insignificant, and not necessarily easy. Undervalued (though over-sentimentalized), unnamed, and thus unrecognized.

Grow gets closer, but it is the fetus who grows in us, and our bodies stretch to accommodate. To grow as in garden ascribes too much control of the result to the manure-applier (both in pregnancy and in gardening) — and besides, it is our bodies that passes the raw materials to the being inside; we only feed ourselves, and trust our bodies to feed the fetus. (And feed it they will, near regardless of what we eat; not enough dietary calcium? No problem, we walk around with a skeleton full; we’ll scrape some off there to pass to our parasites.)

Pregnancy is, in the imperfect language of metaphor, parachuting (and how strange that the most ready comparable activity is one utterly frivolous, to the inescapable seriousness of reproduction). We jump (or are pushed, and oh does that first moment determine the entire experience), and then, simply by continuing to be, we do. It is so very active, voluntary and willed into beginning at the best of times, and once begun, merely (as merely as can be, heading to an inevitable impact) a matter of survival, of daily, inescapable grind. It is not like anything else, yet not dissimilar to so many other endeavors — but without the right word, making those connections is so much harder.

I need this word.

A question of pronouns: two conversations on gender

“Some of the kids from the apartments behind us kept calling the Boychick ‘she’ today,” his teacher tells me as we all walk back to the light rail, in various states of exhaustion and overexcitement after a long day of feasting, protesting, and — apparently — gender policing.

I seek out the blond curls of my firstborn, his bright red “girly” blouse now covered by his bright red “boyish” coat. My tired-tight shoulders tense further in anticipation of too-long-passed events about which I now can do nothing, and make a noise for the teacher to continue his story.

“It was really upsetting him; he told them to stop, but they didn’t. I told one of them ‘some boys have long hair’, and he thought for a second” — here his voice fills with humor — “and he said, ‘well some boys do, but not with such a pretty face.’”

We both laugh, the conversation continues past my — yes, pretty — child’s eccentric relationship with gender performance and the discomfort it regularly provokes in his peers, and we continue home.


“I heard some kids were calling you ‘she’ at the party yesterday,” I ask, so-carefully-light in tone, as I set his oatmeal in front of him.


Sullen or distracted? How do you tell in a four (and a half, he would insist on adding) year old? I persist, lightly, lightly.

“Your teacher said you didn’t like it.”

Not distracted now, but agitated: “Yeah, I told them to stop calling me that, but they wouldn’t. They should have asked before calling me she!”

What is this? Echoes of our conversations on namecalling (“always ask someone if you can call them a name first, and only do it if they say it’s ok”), or something new?

“You wanted them to ask before calling you she?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t. They should have asked.” Really worked up now, oatmeal forgotten.

“But your teacher got them to stop, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he did.” Calming again. Picks up his spoon, takes a bite. So do I. Then:

“Would you have minded if they called you she if they asked first?”

“They could have called me she if they asked first, but they didn’t ask.”


We munch oatmeal while part of my mind wonders if talking with all four year olds feels so much like a scratchy record, skipping to repeat imperfectly but ceaselessly. Probably, another part responds.

The rest tries to count how many times I’ve asked this, to guess how many times I’ll ask again and whether the answer will ever change.

“Do you want me to call you she or he?”

A pause.

“He. They could have called me she if they asked. But I want you to call me he.”

“Ok.” I stand, pick up my empty bowl, bend over to kiss his still-chewing head. “Well, it’s good to know.”

It is.

Moo! Or, Men Call Me Things, Too

I have a new post up at Global Comment, on #mencallmethings as an example of the exclusion of motherhood from mainstream feminism:

C*nt. Bitch. Whore.

Likely you’ve read these and other epithets, and related threats, flying around the internet recently. If you’re not a woman or a feminist-minded blogger, you might not be used to seeing them quite so often, but rather than dealing with them each on her own, women and perceived-women writers have been talking about them publicly, culminating in a cathartic (and often triggering) sharing on Twitter under the hashtag #mencallmethings. As with many other moments in feminist activism, however, the protest has been as revealing about who is welcome and centered in feminist circles as it has been about the abuse and harassment all such writers, centered or not, receive.

Go read the rest, so the following makes sense!

Naturally, I’ve already been accused of indulging in grudge wank, engaging in Oppression Olympics, and coopting a movement that’s not really about what I’m trying to make it about.1

Originally, when the editor at Global Comment commissioned the piece2, I had envisioned it as part of a larger conversation about the exclusion of mothers and mother-feminism, with #mencallmethings coming so close on the heels of a similar exclusion in NY Magazine. Of course, then life intervened3, and I can’t expect anyone to engage with what I meant to write only with what I did. And while I stand by what I wrote, of course it is just a piece of a bigger story.

So because this is my blog and I get to do things like say “And another thing!” here are some Another Thing!s:

  • This sorta should go without saying, but pointing out exclusion does not imply accusing intent. I doubt any of the article authors sat down and said to themselves “Let’s see how much I can marginalize mothers today!” No, the point is, we’re too often simply not thought about, unless the topic is maternity leave or pumping laws. The commentary around #mencallmethings wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time it happens; it wasn’t particularly egregious, it was just there when I had time and inclination to write about this topic.
  • Pointing out exclusion should not be seen as whining what about meeeee?? Because frankly, since more size = more trolls, I’m kinda fine not being a big, oft-linked blogger. Though it’s always thrilling to see my name in print, what I really want is to see my life reflected — or at least acknowledged.
  • Pointing out exclusion is not engaging in Oppression Olympics; I don’t think it matters whether mothers have it any worse than other women, I think we have it different, and that by itself is important. And, mothers are hardly the only group frequently excluded this way, which is why I draw parallels with women of color, trans women, women with disabilities, etc — and, of course, all the lived combinations thereof.
  • Finally, while again I don’t think this is a matter of intent4, framing the conversation as what men do rather than what we experience doesn’t leave space for the lived realities of not just women with children but trans women, gender-queer and nonbinary people, and others, who also experience gendered marginalization and, yes, abuse and harassment from other women. This framing — not an active choice, simply the unintended consequence of privileged habits — is why I speak up when mothers are erased from feminist discussion, because it won’t change until we are not seen as a particular case, a subgroup, not quite really a part of feminism, but women, full stop.

And — a reward, for those of you who made it this far! — here is an excellent example of how to include mothers in social justice discourse (and an important piece in its own right on mental health and the problems with compulsory “treatment”.). See? It doesn’t take much.

  1. Really? I thought it was about what women — including, shockingly enough, mothers — experience, but whatever.
  2. I think to stop me filling up her chat box with my rantings.
  3. Going on day 6 of vertigo, Occupy Portland and Occupy Wallstreet dismantlings, The Man working overtime, and — yay having a preschooler — yet another Cold of DOOM. Frankly, I’m pretty damn chuffed just having finished the piece at all, especially without phrases like “and, um, stuff!”
  4. At Sady’s admission, she spent all of 30 seconds or something coming up with the hashtag, and didn’t expect it to grow as it did, and many people both participating and not pointed out that “men call me things” doesn’t mean women don’t also.

Writings on a baby’s body

On sisters and siblings

I made the mistake early in my pregnancy of asking the Boychick if he wanted a brother or a sister, meaning did he want one-of-the-above. But he heard me, paused for a moment, and announced “A sister!” I laughed, and tried again after explaining that we didn’t get to choose, but he was undeterred. From then on, he was adamant that a sister he would have.

And then came the baby, vulva first. (The line that ran through my head at the birth, which we weren’t expecting to be breech, was “I don’t think scalps have mucus membranes.”) We explained again, as we had throughout the pregnancy, that we were making a guess about her gender, based on her genitals, and we wouldn’t know if she was a girl until she told us, just like we didn’t know he was a boy until he told us1. He was fine with this (it helps, I think, that he has an openly trans man in his life, so he’s familiar with vulva-but-not-a-girl) — as long as we were clear that she was his sister. “Sibling” just would not do.

So sister she is. And she she is, for the moment, as long as English insists on gendered pronouns. Oh, I could refer to her online as ze or s/he, but the truth is, we don’t do that in person, and it seems overly pretentious to do it online alone.

On pronouns and provisional assignments

Which, of course, begs the question: why is she she? Why do we, The Man and I, advocates of gender diverse parenting that we are, assign gender at all, no matter how provisionally? I’ve been asked this before, even been attacked because of it, and had my “commitment” to the “cause” be questioned.

Not, please note, by anyone with children of their own.

Because here’s the thing: this parenting gig? It’s fucking hard. It’s hard intrinsically, one of the most physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging activities one can engage in in life, and certainly the one with the longest haul and hardest hurdles to “quitting”. And my society, my dear, pressures-all-(privileged)-women-to-be-mothers-but-forget-about-actually-supporting-them society, makes it so, so much harder.

All parents are attacked for their choices by somebody2; any parent making a choice outside of the “mainstream” gets attacked even more viciously, by even more people; and the more marginalized a parent is, the more the attacks come not “just” in words3 but in tangible, terrifying ways.

Nearly every time I write about gender diverse/gender “neutral” parenting, I have a queer parent or a trans parent or a parent on public assistance or a parent dependent on the goodwill of their disapproving family tell me that they would be so much more radical/subversive/gender-diverse in their choices if they weren’t afraid they would lose custody of their children.

They have reason to be afraid.

I’m reasonably protected from the most catastrophic of the consequences, apparently living in a socially-condoned heterocentric, white, middle-class relationship — but even I still have so much shit to deal with, with my finite mental/emotional resources, that there’s only so much I can do. There are only so many choices I can make that take me out of the mainstream and into even-deeper public scrutiny, and still, y’know, survive.4 So I make the ones I do, the ones I can, the ones I am willing to defend in the face of the worst of the judgment.

(Just for not enforcing gender roles with my children, I am called a cunt and a dyke and a fucking crazy bitch and told I should have my children removed. There are all too real consequences for stepping out of kyriarchy’s line, before it even comes to the level of custody issues. It is not only unreasonable but actively harmful, a means of perpetuating kyriarchy and oppression, to demand that parents, already attacked on all sides, do all the work raising children radical. Society has to help make it reasonably safe for us to do so, as well.)

Vulva Baby or the Girlchick?

Girlchick seems the obvious blog moniker for this new child of mine, doesn’t it? We have a child with a penis, the eponymous Boychick, who was given that name years before his gender was self-declared, and now we have a child with a vulva. And I tried it on, used it in a post, tweeted it a handful of times — but it never sat right with me.

I look at this child, and I don’t see “girl”. I see a baby, as her brother was once a baby; nothing screamed “boy” about him, the occasional acquaintance’s comments to the contrary, and nothing announces “girl” about her. She is very much not her brother: she spits up less, and farts more; she is happier to be in a carrier when awake, but more often prefers facing to the side instead of towards me; her elimination signals are clearer, and she wakes more frequently at night; her hair is redder, her eyes less goopy, her scalp more bumpy, her digits shorter. And she has a vulva. What about this makes her a “girl”, if we are to avoid essentializing gender to genitalia?

When strangers ask me “Boy or girl?”5, I’m apt to answer “she’s a she”, because saying “girl” just doesn’t feel right, or honest, or accurate; this answers the question they really need to know6, which is what language to use to talk about this adorable being. But it seems nearly obscene to that heavily put a gender on an infant this young; can’t she just be a baby for a little while, before we start telling her what role to play?

Resolving the conflict

That may seem like a contradiction, this use of “she”, this (mostly) avoidance of “girl”. But one is about survival in a society antagonistic to non-gendering; the other is saying “this far and no farther”. I cannot stop all damage from being done to this perfect child of mine, but I will do what I can to minimize it. I won’t pretend that she’ll be unaffected by others’ perceptions of her, but I will help her be aware of them; I won’t tell her what her gender is, but I will tell her what her society thinks her gender should be; I won’t subject her to every strangers’ disapproval of alternative pronouns, but I will tell her she can choose another if she likes; I will tell her she has a vulva, but I won’t tell her she has to stay that way. And I will tell her I will always, always, always love her, whoever she turns out to be.

  1. He started declaring “I’m a boy!” around a year ago, at 3.5 years.
  2. No, really — that is the point of the “mommy wars”: there is no winning. It truly does not matter which “side” you fall on, because there’s the mass media, telling you how much the “other” side thinks you’re ruining your children/going to hell/Doin It Rong. Fun! Only, not.
  3. As though the psychoemotional toll of verbal abuse isn’t itself a problem?
  4. For someone with a set of mood disorder diagnoses that is the most lethal of those tracked, this is not hyperbole.
  5. Or, the strangest comment I’ve received yet: “I’m sorry, I can’t tell from here, is that a boy or a girl?” Like you could know if she weren’t inside the wrap?
  6. Yes, need, until English eliminates the need for gendered pronouns.