Leaning In and Leaning Out

Feminism and the Mommy Wars: My own salvo.

I was re-reading my blog in a fit of narcissism the other night. That’s what I do now after the kids have gone to bed. At any rate, I read the post about Etsy and feminism. I think I’ve written other places as well about my disappointment with Second Wave Feminism. But that’s not going to stop me now.

You see, in my twenties, I swam in feminist theory. I read Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, the Freudian Feminists. I read Gloria Steinem before going to bed. I detected and dissected the latent misogyny of every pop-culture text: film, book, magazine, TV commercial and bumper sticker. I went to NOW meetings. I read Anais Nin for crying out loud. I was a fully anointed disciple of America’s Second Wave Feminism.

Even now, I have to admit that some of it still applies.
But. That’ a huge “but” coming now.

I got older. I got lonely and realized I did need a man. I needed a man because I was a healthy, heterosexual woman who didn’t like celibacy and didn’t like the idea of growing old alone. I wanted someone to talk to and to hold me and help me raise children. And no, I did not want to raise children alone. Some women could do that; I was smart enough to know I was not one of them. So, I got married when I found someone loving, smart, kind, hard-working and honest. I learned a lot about what was and wasn’t true about feminism then, but that’s for another post.

The most important turning point, though, was when I became a mom. And that, dear friends, changed everything.

The children we adopted had very special emotional needs. They are brilliant, robust children who have been abused by their families or origin, the government, social workers and foster care parents. They came to us broken and desperate. They were not cute little newborns who were going to sleep and nurse all day until I got my bearings straight. They were not blank slates upon which we could write our own values and expectations. They brought with them the very stark reality of what can happen helpless little people are traumatized and broken by big powerful grown-ups. The un-breaking is very hard stuff.

I lost jobs when my responsibilities to these vulnerable little creatures meant time off or unpaid breaks for business-hour phone calls. I quit writing on the blog. I just quit writing. My sewing took a huge hit. My life was social workers, transporting the children to DCF offices, in-home therapists, in-office therapists, all on top of cleaning, cooking, hugging, kissing boo-boos, drying tears, diffusing tantrums, soothing PTSD flashbacks and explaining the same hard facts of life that most adults don’t understand to a grade-schooler.

And I loved every minute of it. I love kissing boo-boos, teaching right from wrong, cuddling on Saturday mornings, giving snacks, making them eat vegetables, silly songs in the car, praising them for doing well, seeing them make friends, hearing them laugh, watching them sleep, kissing their noses. I even loved changing the little one’s diapers. Never got sick of it. (I should probably admit it only lasted about a year). I liked comforting their traumas, holding them when they were scared, making them feel loved, making them safe. I understood their rage and cried for their heartbreak.

It got to be a lot, I won’t lie. There were some very bad days and times I failed miserably. Any traumatized child is a lot to take, especially for those who’ve never been exposed to trauma. Navigating the landmine of parenting a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder is not for the faint of heart.  But I understood; it wasn’t always easy, but I hung in there. Even my oldest, who often wants to burn the ground I walk on, finally had someone who’d seen what he’d seen. I committed to fighting for their rights, fighting for their care, arguing with bureaucrats and winning the fight. And let me tell you right now, it was a fight. I’ve said it before: Google “DCF” … any state … read the stuff. Zombies would be easier than some agencies. I promise.

It was the hardest, most fulfilling job I ever had. And it was the most successful I’ve ever been. Ever. People who secretly shrieked in fear at the thought of me and motherhood in the same room admitted both their surprise and admiration. My frightened, shy, angry little children became happy, outgoing, smart little ones who can outshine anyone on their worst day.

Finally. I was doing something I loved: motherhood.

In the back of my mind, however, I felt like a failure. I failed as a feminist. I wasn’t earning money; I wasn’t in a prominent, highly paid position. I wasn’t even economically independent. I hadn’t broken any traditional barriers for women. In fact, I’d retreated into a traditionally female role. Surely I’d failed as a feminist?

Because isn’t a status-oriented, well-paid career more important than taking on a set of damaged, abused, neglected, lost little human beings and committing two decades of my life to loving them, teaching them, and nurturing them into strong, smart, honest and compassionate citizens? Isn’t that what feminism taught me? Taking on government bureaucrats, disturbed biological families and my children’s psychiatric problems with my husband, well, that’s not nearly as brave as breaking down a glass ceiling in the Fortune 500.

It must be so. Because it only matters if it pays, right? And motherhood doesn’t. As we all know, motherhood is a trap, a ghetto for women with limited ability and/or no ambition who are trapped in traditional gender roles, right? And if we haven’t, then we’ve failed as women and feminists because we didn’t “lean in.”

Right? … Really?

Is it really true that creating the legacy of helping women to become millionaires just like men is more valuable to our society than nurturing productive, conscientious, healthy adults out of children who might have otherwise sunken into poverty and mental illness? Is it really true that what matters as feminists is that we’re all “leaning in” to become more driven to adhere to a flawed set of values that dehumanizes everyone else? And is it really true that if choose to “lean in” to a more traditional and human-based goal, such as motherhood, then we didn’t really “lean in” at all?

In case you can’t tell, the more I thought about it, the more Sheryl Sandberg annoyed the crap out of me.

But that was just the beginning …

Sometimes I surf the cable looking for something a bit more adult than The Chica Show. So, on one chilly evening, I started scanning the channels when I hit upon a PBS documentary on Alice Walker: intellectual, feminist, artist. Yay, I thought. Yay. I’ve admired her work. I’m thinking I’m in my element as I grab my mocha and settle into the cozy part of the sofa.

That dear friends, is how even the idols of my young feminist womanhood, Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem, royally pissed me off.

As the PBS story unfolds, Alice Walker is estranged from her daughter. Ms. Walker is surprised, hurt, taken aback. Gloria Steinem cannot comprehend the estrangement; whenever the daughter and the mother were at her house, they cuddled on the bed together. For all of Ms. Steinem’s writings on better values, more equality, a better world, she just didn’t get it. And I didn’t understand how that was. After watching twenty minutes of this PBS documentary about people I didn’t even know, I got it so much it was slapping me in the face.

It seems, as one of Ms. Walker’s admirers puts it, that the daughter did not fully understand the sacrifices that she (the daughter) was expected to make for Alice Walker’s contributions to “the movement.” Those “contributions” being awards, fame, prominence and affluence.

As a mom, and a former child, I had some choice words. I don’t recall if I screamed them to the TV or not. I certainly do hope I did.

Once you have a child, you have a responsibility to their physical and mental well-being. Let me be clear: that child did not ask you to bring it into this world, you did. You did invite that child and he or she didn’t get the chance to RSVP. You drafted that child into your life with no choice, say so or opinion of its own. I had this argument with my mother often enough.

You lose the right to force that child into “sacrifices,” which end up being forms of neglect or abandonment (be it emotional or physical) for the sake of your own prominence and fame. Having your children make sacrifices so you can put food in their bellies, a roof over their heads and shoes on their precious little tootsies, that’s one thing. I’ve had to do it and I will again. And that one thing is not what seemed to be going on there.

As the story goes on, it also comes out that Ms. Walker is a “serial monogamist,” meaning that she has been in several relationships over the years. I’m not going to judge serial monogamy. I was all about serial monogamy. Before I was a mother. After that, it was all about their stability, their emotional bonds with their other parent. Whatever your ideas about relationships are, you ensure the emotional safety of your children, because they are more vulnerable; they bond more easily and the dissolution of those bonds hurts more deeply. I had hoped a Pulitzer Prize author would know that. It seemed I wasn’t right about that.

Some may argue that in Alice Walker’s time, there wasn’t much choice as far as pregnancy goes. That’s a hypothetical argument for our sake. I wasn’t there. I don’t know these people. In the same hypothetical vein: either way, a powerless little girl has absolutely no choice whatsoever, definitely less than anybody else in the picture. Even if a woman doesn’t have a choice about a pregnancy, the baby doesn’t deserve to pay the price. I don’t need to be there to know that.

There was something so truly heartbreaking about watching these pre-eminent feminists lament that Ms. Walker’s daughter may have preferred that her mom take care of her or offered some stability. It was awful to listen them blame a daughter for needing a mother’s presence. Later, I did read Rebecca Walker’s description of her childhood. It reinforced my own sense of what the documentary revealed: that she felt herself to be a distant second to the determined pursuit of a literary career. And all the feminists, intellectuals and colleagues the filmmakers interviewed saw absolutely nothing wrong with that.

It was that reaction of all the high-minded intellectuals and feminists that devalued the role of motherhood and the importance of child-rearing that infuriated me. Clearly, attaining the traditionally patriarchal goal of prominence was more important, because it was done in the name of “feminism.” And while we’re on it, where exactly was the social change in that?

The whole mess dealt the final blow to those last surviving bits of traditional feminism in me. It was “lean in” all over again. The “second wave” feminists and their heirs seem to have valued achieving the same prominence and affluence as the men who imposed the very sexist inequality we complained about. Maybe the “movement” started out wanting economic independence and equality for women, but it seems to me that message has become perverted into an expectation that as women, and feminists, if we aren’t out there busting our behinds — along with the behinds of a few or more innocent bystanders — for the same old Western, patriarchal values of status and acquisition, then we’re failures. May I add that these values have not served many thousands of others over the past, oh, say, millenia or two. The subtext of all of this is that it’s okay if you mess up your kids in the process.

Is that the best we can do? Strive to imitate the worst society has to offer? Fight to break barriers so we can propagate all the other injustices and inequalities on down the line? Did feminists really wage their fight so that women could engage in the same materialistic devaluation of human-based values that created a culture of economic disparity, child exploitation and corporate imperialism?

If that’s success as a woman and a feminist, color me a failure. I’d rather spend my time helping make better little human beings any day. Because, Gloria, that’s where my revolution within begins.

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