So I keep noticing new things that are gone as the result of K.’s clandestine packing spree. I also learned that his friend Alec was here with him that day, because, you know, if you’re going to sneak into your former residence without telling the current occupants, you should definitely bring an uninvited guest. Apparently his excuse for dumping the contents of his dresser (that he didn’t want) on my desk and shoving random items in my dresser was that Alec was there and was waiting for him. Perhaps this also explains why he let the children’s lunch items mold all weekend…

I’m not really as bitter as I sound. Just crabby and acknowledging. I took the kids to a playdate with one of Thing One’s former playschool families today. The moms asked how it was going and I said okay, but that I was unsure how things would proceed. In response to learning that K.’s parenting time is 10%, they remarked that it seems men have a greater tendency to abdicate responsibility for their kids and wondered what was up with that. They told the story of Hedy’s best friend who has just lost her husband, who refused 50% parenting time and said magnanimously, “I’ll do thirty.”

K. worked with one of them, Angelina, at the playschool for their parent shift, and they always seemed to like each other. I can’t help wondering if she doesn’t feel a personal sense of puzzlement, or even disappointment.

Now we’re home and in the playroom. Thing Two is sleeping. As I was tidying up here, I noticed that the collage K. made for Thing One when he was an infant, at his first Christmas, is gone. It was a large-format plywood piece, maybe 2.5 x4′. He had created a timely and semi-political collage on it out of his magazines and said it was for Thing One.

I don’t know where it is now. But since there has been no question, or suggestion, or proposal that Thing One spend time wherever K. is living, at least not in the near future, I wonder what possessed him to take it away. I can’t help feeling that Thing One’s connection to his father is eroding through his father’s own volition.

When I was babysitting for some Parisian kids on the Île de Ré one summer, one thing made a huge impression on me. The little boy, Hugo, was about three, and whenever he pooped he would call for his daddy (his mother wasn’t there) to wipe him:

“Papa! Viens m’essuyer les fesses!” (trans.: Daddy, come wipe my bottom!”) he would howl.

And his father, Jean-Luc, would come trudging in and say in a resonant baritone, “Hugo, t’es pénible!” (“Hugo, you’re such a pain!” as he did the deed).

At the time, I never noticed how that was probably a cruel thing to say to a three-year-old, although I did surmise that perhaps Jean-Luc was having the same marital problems as Marc, his brother-in-law and my employer, was: Sylvie, the mère de famille, had not accompanied us to the island in order to have an affair with a friend of their family, Luc, back in Paris, and since Jean-Luc’s spouse was conspicuously absent, I suspected her of similar extracurriculars. This was particularly indicated by the odd camaraderie between Jean-Luc and Marc who, you’d have thought, might be experiencing some tensions stemming from the fact that the former’s sister was cheating on the latter; not so. They seemed the best of friends.

Anyway, it was the particular combination of frustration and tenderness (about a 70-30 split, I’d say) that impressed me about Jean-Luc’s predictable refrain, and I have thought of it since then every time someone I know acts like a whiny, whingeing little brat. Which is far too often, and it’s far too often an adult who makes me chant, internally, “_____, t’es PENIBLE!” — for the record, I have never said it to Things One or Two, despite the fact that Thing One does, indeed, make me wipe his bottom every time he poops.

So, in a life full of wanting to tell people how pénible they are, I’ve got to say that parenting has offered me the most numerous, and the richest, opportunities to be frustrated with my peers. Take our preschool co-op (yes, that again, but it’s a different person this time). I have been singing the praises (to myself) of the co-op, fully planning on rejoining with Thing Two six months from when Thing One leaves at the end of summer. It has, I’ve told myself, underscored the importance of community, given me a opportunity to learn to deal with other people, not to be hypersensitive, to model community values for the children, to not overreact (as is my wont) when people say or do things I disagree with, to allow our common belief in community and in basic values like sharing, kindness, exploration to bring us together and demonstrate to our children that we are happier, kinder, more reasonable people when we pool our efforts and resources. And I do believe that. I do.

Except that every time I manage to lull myself into complacency, somebody comes along and acts like a whining, whingeing brat, making me want to scream, “____, t’es PENIBLE!” right before bitch-slapping them into next Tuesday.

The current case isn’t even to do with me, except insofar as easily offended, passive aggressive folks attribute the actions of one spouse to another. K. was working his parent teaching shift at the co-op last Wednesday, and the child of one of the other workers (we’ll call her “Lark”) was having a rough day: as I heard it, hitting and pushing and generally acting out. Apparently he’s had some problems with that kind of thing, which is not uncommon, especially in the preverbal set, and Lark was plenty stressed by the time I got there with a change of clothes for Thing One and Thing Two in a carrier. The crowning moment was when Lark’s kid, “Pancho,” punched Thing Two in the face as she cheerfully exercised her new crawling/climbing skills; hardly desirable, but par for the course all in all. K. called this out (I was in the bathroom with Thing One, performing my stated duties) in a loud, angry voice that I thought could’ve been moderated, but then his voice often sounds crabbier and more unequivocal than he means it to, at least to me.

Anyway, I wasn’t party to the altercation, but apparently K. then said to Lark, “You know, I didn’t think of it at the time, but we should have let you guys go home and called for back-up, since if it was a child whose parent wasn’t here they would have been called.” And apparently that was The Last Straw for Lark, who left on the verge of tears. The third worker that day, “Nellie,” then informed K., “You were really rude to Lark. You hurt her feelings.”

I got this all secondhand in the car, so I can’t pass judgment on who said exactly what or in what tone of voice and whose feelings were justifiably bruised. But K. was sort of righteously indignant about the whole thing (his suggestion being protocol from the Parent Handbook), so I, in the interest of peace, strongly recommended that he call Lark and try to patch things up. He opted to send her a nice email saying he was sorry if he hurt her feelings, that he was only thinking of ways to handle the situation.

She hasn’t replied. And it’s been FIVE DAYS.

And not ONLY has she not replied, but she is refusing to make eye contact with me, has had her shift mysteriously switched to Tuesday, so that she’s no longer working with K. (coincidentally, Nellie is the person who manages the schedule), and is generally Refusing to Deal. Meanwhile, Nellie made a note in the Daily Journal (which is supposed to be about what went on with the kids) that there was a “conflict between shift workers,” which caused the president, Annalise, to query K., who told her the whole story. So now Annalise is trying to get in touch with Lark to find out if what Nellie says about K. is true.

Does this sound like middle school to you? BECAUSE IT DOES TO ME.

Now, again, I’m not going to advocate for K. being blameless, because I don’t know. I do feel fairly confident that he didn’t say anything overtly offensive and that he spoke with the best intentions. But the main issue is this: there are RULES, people. And the rules exist to force you to act like an adult even when you don’t want to, which is — in my opinion, anyway — a whole lot of what parenting is about.

In this case, the rules are simple: if someone has upset you or you have a problem with them, you have to discuss it within twenty-four hours. If you are not comfortable discussing it with the person involved (the handbook strongly implies that that kind of discomfort should be reserved for instances when the person has said they HATE you and are working on a VOODOO DOLL to silence you forever), you are allowed to speak to the president of the co-op and have him or her mediate.

You are not allowed to a)sulk, b)have your friends make accusations, recriminations, or aspersions, or c)evade responsibility for what is entirely your problem. You are especially not allowed to gossip about What a Hateful Person So-and-so is with another co-op member while refusing to acknowledge the problem to them. Why? Because it teaches your children a very harmful lesson. It teaches them to be whiny, whingeing, irresponsible, passive-aggressive LITTLE BITCHES (and I use that term in the unisex).

Apparently, Lark didn’t get the memo.

I guess she doesn’t realize how much she’s fucking with my world view. After all, because of this little incident, an incident that was probably the result of one person being insensitive and the other being oversensitive in an otherwise innocuous conversation, I am reconsidering the value of community. I don’t want to raise my kids with the deep criticism, distrust, and suspicion of strangers I secretly, in my uglier moments, harbor. But it’s hard to continually face situations like this without wanting to live in a fortress of your own making and avoid dealing with other people’s b.s. entirely.

I’m still sticking it out, for now. But if you hear I’ve moved to a walled compound in McMansionland and never talk to my neighbors, you’ll know the camel’s back finally broke.

Viz. the post below:

Me: “You were revolutionary and you didn’t even know it!”

Mom: “I knew it. People would say things on the street. ‘HEY GEORGE! Look at this white woman with a Jap!'”

Me: “Whoa.”

Mom: “In Midtown Terrace!”

Happy Loving Day.

Today is the 41st anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court overturned the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and caused anti-miscegenation laws across America to be struck down. The Loving decision got some attention early last month, when Mildred Loving died, but it’s worth commemorating today as the day when not only many couples (such as my parents, who were married in California in 1963 and moved to Virginia in 1970) were free to legally live in all fifty states without (legal) harassment.

It’s also worth remembering (because I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person) that overturning Loving was instrumental in destroying America’s eugenics sterilization programs, the kind Dr. Joseph DeJarnette was referring to when he wrote this 1938 poem:

Oh, why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey’s nest,
To increase our country’s burdens
When we should only breed the best?
Oh, you wise men take up the burden,
And make this you(r) loudest creed,
Sterilize the misfits promptly—
All are not fit to breed!
Then our race will be strengthened and bettered,
And our men and our women be blest,
Not apish, repulsive and foolish,
For the best will breed the best.[17]

Well, my family might be apish and repulsive, but we tend to have pretty high IQs. High enough to know that 1967 is really not all that long ago. And high enough to know that when the California Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to define marriage as between a man and a woman, they were basing their decision on legislation like this (and more particularly on Perez v. Sharp) that recognizes an important truth: that anti-miscegenation and anti-gay marriage laws are nothing more than a feeble attempt by the powerful and bigoted minority to get around the 14th Amendment — and that, if anyone is paying attention, it don’t play.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to re-read that marvelously repulsive poem up there, wonder at the depth of small-mindedness and hatred in the world, and vomit up my hash browns.

When I was a (precocious, bratty, alarmingly widely-read) child, I used to call my mother “Mommie Dearest” to irk her. I didn’t actually understand what the big deal was, probably because my notions of the obligations of motherhood were yet unformed and because I lacked the experience of widespread judgment, censure, and equally inappropriate approbation and opprobrium with which perfect strangers feel entitled to shower us on the basis of our motherhood. So that little barb, coming from me, wasn’t an indictment of my mother’s parenting skills, kindness, or commitment to her family; it was just a way to make my mom grit her teeth and cast her eyes heavenward.

Now I am an adult, and my husband is an avid reader of Vanity Fair, so I understand a little more about the alleged sins of Joan Crawford. And I have to regret my callow callousness a little bit. But I’m growing up, you know? I’m realizing the depth of my insensitivity, my total failure to appreciate the pressures and circumscription that even my mother, a relatively liberated mid ’70s West Coast mom, experienced. Unfortunately, I have also realized that there’s probably no way to make up for the grief I gave her.

In Salon today, Phyllis Chesler writes about motherhood, parenting, second- vs. third-wave feminism, and Rebecca Walker’s public recriminations of her mother, Alice. It’s a piece worth reading. But what stands out in it is this rebuttal to Rebecca Walker’s public decrying of her mother’s failure to fill the stay-at-home mom role amply occupied by her stepmother, Judy:

Yes, and Alice did all the things that women like Judy don’t want to do and can’t do: Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women’s rights. Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.

Chesler makes some important points about the fact that third-wave feminism may not always appreciate the oppression of motherhood and how it was applied to past generations of women. She describes the danger women risk when they try to do anything else but mother well. And she makes the revolutionary and yet entirely relevant, necessary observation that women are still measured by their success as mothers (and demonized for their failures at mothering):

However, great men are allowed every excess and failure; great women are never forgiven for making a single mistake. Great men are allowed their female mistresses, male lovers, wife-secretaries, binges — and they rarely see their children. Or they exploit and abuse them.

Are we conscious of how ingrained this kind of bias, this negative judgment, is in all of us? Is a writer like Rebecca Walker (whom Chesler damns with the faint praise of being “beautiful and talented in her own right” as opposed to Alice Walker’s “world-class talent”, and, having caught more than one essay, radio piece, etc. by the younger Walker, I have to agree) aware of the unfairness of the lens through which she views her own childhood? Did anyone ask how much time Obama was spending with his kids during this primary — the one where Hillary Clinton was accused of every sin of character in the book, not to mention “pimping out” Chelsea?

I doubt it. And that brings me back to what Chesler says, and what I said a few days ago: you can’t have it all. And you are crazy to even try. Sorry, kids — I know you were hoping that you could raise a beautiful family and have an organic garden and write thoughtful, above-average literary novels and go to your kid’s baseball games, but you can’t, or rather, you could, but who wants to write above-average literary novels? Nobody’s going to remember them in fifty years; above-average means that your date was polite and wearing a pressed shirt and could converse intelligently about current trends in the habits of the bourgeoisie (slow food, tap water vs. bottled water, David Sedaris, and anything else recently featured on NPR). Rebecca Walker is above-average. Rebecca Walker is making a living and has a following (probably of mostly white, upper middle class women too timid to question her assertions and regaled by the exoticism of her mixed-race ancestry and the fact that she named her kid after a Tibetan lama, but that’s another post).

But in love, as in literature, we’re not looking for above-average. “Good enough” is a phrase often tossed around as definitive in mothering, but not so in art. The date that’s adequately groomed and reasonably articulate is OK; we can survive on that, biding our time and confirming our assumptions about life until something sublime comes along, something that will sweep us off our feet and have us waking up, bleary-eyed and breathless, in Tahiti with a new and charming tattoo on our left palm — a tattoo we would never have considered getting, one that challenges our assumptions, one that transforms us.

Alice Walker is not above-average. Alice Walker will take you to Tahiti and to an unbelievable (and sometimes scary) tattoo artist.

In my own life, I’m a lot of things, impatient and stressed-out and caustic and supercilious being chief among them. But I’m usually not a liar. And I hope I’m not a coward. And I think I’m clear-sighted enough to say, again: No. You can’t have it all. Transformative art does not have a lot of respect for families, for stability, for parenting skills, for environmental quality, for regular and thoughtfully-planned meals. So if these things are important to you, make your choice — and that goes for men as well as women, because even if we still tend to blame women when the parenting isn’t up to snuff, men are no longer expected to supply nothing more than a dinnertime appetite and a paycheck.

And if you are lucky enough to be the child of a parent who maybe didn’t make nutritionally balanced meals and wasn’t around as much as you’d have liked, but who transformed this world and the people in it, think about this before you complain: think about how much bigger and more interesting your world is because of it. Think of how not getting the attention you wanted enriched you, even as it stung. Think of how your mother’s “failings” cannot be laid entirely at her door, but must be shared with your father and with every person in your life and in this world who expected the lion’s share of parenting to go to her.

Because the truth is that all our parents fail us, and none of them manages to always give us exactly what we need. And many, many children do not have the benefit of a mother who transformed the world. Many children, in fact, having nothing but human frailty to blame their parents’ failing on.

I blame the eighties.

Before the eighties, people, especially women, understood there were sacrifices to be made to support one’s lifestyle of choice. If you chose to live on a hippie commune and bake your own bread, you weren’t going to have a lot of new clothes or watch a lot of movies. If you chose to be a career woman, then you were going to be an emasculating ballbreaker with androgynous suits reminiscent of something that would have been standard-issue attire in an Eastern Bloc country; someone else would raise your kids, or you just wouldn’t have any. If you chose to be an artist, you would have to give yourself to your art with a single-minded dedication that precluded any consistently responsible engagement with civic duties, family, or relationship, and if you had a “life partner,” that person would either be another artist who didn’t mind if you disappeared into the studio for days on end or a long-suffering homefires-stoker who’d keep the scaloppine warm for you.

But somewhere around 1985, all of that changed. Suddenly, a career woman was supposed to also zip home in her Audi to scoop up a sniffling toddler and cuddle him on her massive shoulderpad. An artist was supposed to also get enough sleep and keep the house clean. Communes across America started selling their wares nationally, franchising, getting cable TV and materialist yardsticks for personal success. And as our mass media became ever more mass and ever more commodified, so did our ideas about lifestyles. Why buy one when you can buy two? You don’t have to settle. You can have it all!

Most particularly and most damagingly, you women can have it all, the TVs said. You do not have to choose between being successful at a career and being a good parent. You can get up, drop the kids off, go to Jazzercize ™, go to work, come home, relieve the nanny, whip up some tagliatelle with sun-dried tomatoes and arugula pesto, put the kids to bed with an intelligent, literate reading of some juvenile classics, and relax with your handsome spouse and a glass of Chardonnay. This is the eighties! You can do it!

As I recall, this was also the era when Barbie generated new personalities most frenetically: Workout Barbie, Western Barbie, Rocker Barbie, Career Girl Barbie (you know, the one with the suit and the briefcase). I’m every woman, Barbie crowed! And every woman was supposed to buy into the idea that all she needed was a different outfit and a phone booth to get changed in. The Baby Boomers (them again!) both propagated and suffered one of the biggest bullshit myths of the twentieth century, and not just (though most egregiously) for women, but for anyone trying an undertaking that involved sweat, effort, time, and its own unique culture or lifestyle (and that’s most of them):

the idea that You Don’t Have to Choose. You can DO BOTH.

And so in the nineties, when I came of age, we had women getting tenure or making huge deals on Wall Street while also trying to make organic mac and cheese for their toddlers and read The Atlantic and The New Yorker and check out all the most cutting-edge sushi bars with their loyal spouses who were also trying to wear three or four hats — men who had lucrative careers and were squash champions and squired their kids to music lessons and wrote speeches for their senators. And then everyone had to take vacations to The Hamptons or The Poconos and do some power playing with their kids while talking on their enormous car phones to the office.

I had a great view of this particular cultural turn, as I was in college in NYC, and a Barnard Babysitter, for most of this time. I helped grease the wheels of dozens of families on the Upper West Side as they went about their overprogrammed, overachieving business. I paid my way through college on the paychecks of these Power Couples who needed a literate babysitter to get their families from point A to point B with minimal collateral damage. And I saw my own future plans, and those of my peers, shaped by the expectation that we, too, would have successful lives like this: urban orgies of busyness, big paychecks and big expenditures and big culture and quick changes, in those phone booths, from Workout Barbie to Career Girl Barbie to UberMom and back again.

Now it’s the aughts and I’ve been a parent, in a city, with a full-time job, for nearly three years now. And I have my writerly ambitions, all of which are being wholesale neglected in favor of survival. And I can say, unequivocally, this one thing:

You can’t have it all. And you are crazy to even try.

Think about it, people. Those stereotypes — cookie-baking mom, tough-as-nails career woman, crazy reclusive artist, etc. — exist for a reason. The reason is they work. They create a lifestyle paradigm that fosters the life in question. They give excuses and built-in safety valves so that, when a person’s life is focused on success in a particular area, that person is allowed to fuck up or neglect other areas (oh, isn’t it charming that the crazy artist can’t remember to pay taxes, or even: oh, isn’t it cute that the career woman doesn’t know how to open a can, much less cook a meal). These stereotypes are protective. They function. They are not inclusive and hardly p.c., and I hope very much that none of my readers have so little imagination that they understand me to be saying that (for example) a woman can’t both make a home and be good at her job; of course she can. I’m proof of that myself. The issue is that people can’t try to be, to quote my hometown schlock rocker Art Alexakis, “everything to everyone.” Oh, you can do it for a while…

But it’s not so great for your mental health, not in the long term. There are costs to serving two masters (and I haven’t even made a token effort to “stay in shape” or “keep up my creative efforts”; if I were attempting that on top of everyone else, I promise you would be finding dead bodies on 60th ave., in a trail from my house to the bus stop). And you know how I know it’s not just me, but the truth, that the shining promises of “having it all” were a huge load of crap our parents sold us because they wanted to believe they hadn’t really failed at one or the other?

I’ll tell you: all those women I babysat for in college, those bright, successful, culturally literate, attractive women: they’re all on antidepressants. And perhaps some of them are no longer “succeeding” in their marriages or their parenting or their careers, which is sad, but unsurprising.

It’s taken a while, but I think we’re finally ready to not buy the myth. The question is whether we can create a new paradigm more interesting than the one that caused our mothers (and fathers) to create it.

To all those people who are wondering if Hillary Clinton staying in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is a good thing, I submit that it is. Here’s why.

Had either of the candidates clinched the nomination early, we might not be seeing one of the highest-profile Democrats in America in a thoughtful and specific (same-sex partnerships and immigration! love it!) interview with a prominent gay paper. I think it’s awesome that this drawn-out contest is forcing la Hillary, as current underdog, to take it to the streets and take some stands that require actual guts. And I think it’s a pity that Obama is continuing to duck and run from gay press and gay issues. But even if he’s the nominee, Clinton’s precedent won’t let him continue to do so…or so I hope.

(Thanks to NYCweboy for bringing it to my attention.)

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