In the years leading up to Shane’s adoption, I used to say, “I want to be a parent, not a mother.” I had hoped that non-reproductive parenting would free me from predetermined expectations about the balance of caregiving labor and the self-negating emotional enmeshment that I didn’t want to replicate from my own childhood. I wasn’t reckoning on the internalized sexism of social workers, but thankfully that period is over, and my husband and I can try to raise our son to appreciate all gender roles without feeling bound by any.
I resonated with this post from last year by feminist blogger Melissa McEwan (Shakesville), “Childfree 101: The ‘Women Are Designed to Love’ Narrative”, where she challenges the common argument that childfree women (but never men!) are denying themselves some supreme opportunity to give love. Even in a perfectly egalitarian socioeconomic system, emotional labor is a finite resource, and being female shouldn’t mean that people are entitled to infinite amounts from us:
In this definition of womanhood, our value is determined largely or exclusively by what we give—primarily to children and spouses. If leniency is granted so that what we give to our work may be included, it is not the actual work product we generate that has attached value, but what we give to our employers, to our coworkers, to our clients or patients.
When women are viewed as designed to love and care, childfree women are hardly women at all. Only if our work can define us as an ersatz mother, e.g. Mother Theresa, might we be given reprieve from the harshest of judgments.
Women are held to a standard in which we have value only if we demonstrate a constant outpouring of love and care for other people, which is harmful in a number of ways, not least of which is that, if it is true (as I believe) that empathy and concern for other people is part of the human condition, it is only one part, not the whole.
And sometimes the way we find to express empathy and concern for other people is incompatible with parenting. Because we only have so much. Because women are not, in fact, built to be naught but endless fonts of care.
I think a lot about gender because I’m raising a boy in a sexist world. Now that Shane is verbal enough to engage me in imaginative play, I’m fascinated and pleased by his non-attachment to the categories that adults so anxiously defend. “I’m Mommy T-Rex, you’re Baby T-Rex,” he’ll tell me, and then he’ll switch us. Eddie the Teddy might be another bear’s daddy one day, his mommy the next. Shane’s self-chosen interests are what society typically calls masculine: robots, dinosaurs, building blocks, big trucks, loud machines, and rolling in the dirt. At the same time, he loves to try on my costume jewelry and make his own in art class, and his stuffed toys are more likely to kiss each other than to fight.
In hopes of delaying his fall from genderfluid innocence, last year we removed the YouTube and PBS Kids apps from his iPad. (Yes, he has his own, and it’s better than mine. Don’t judge, read the link below.) On his own, he picks sweet, sometimes educational games that cut across stereotypical lines: DinoTrux and the Big Button Box of fart sounds and ambulance sirens, but also pony hair salon, dollhouse, and baby animal care. We highly recommend Toca Boca, Fox & Sheep, and Sago Mini. Toca Boca proclaims on their home page: “Gender Neutral: No pink or blue aisles. Digital toys for all kids.” My PlayHome is a series of apps where you put a multiracial cast of characters through everyday activities in a school, a suburban home, and a quaint shopping district, though Shane was disappointed that he couldn’t put the girls’ clothes on the boys and vice versa. In Toca Life, on the other hand, hairstyles and clothes can be swapped freely by male, female, and gender-ambiguous characters.
By contrast, many picture books, especially the classic ones that he receives as gifts, are retrograde in their gender roles. Books about trains, trucks, robots, and other “boy” subjects, which happen to be Shane’s main interests right now, have few if any female characters. I’ve resorted to switching the pronouns in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site so that some trucks can be “she” or “they”. My headcanon on the modern Little Golden Book I’m a Monster Truck! is that the narrator is a butch lesbian who is dancing with her femme girlfriend. As other parenting bloggers have complained, the Lego mini-figures that come with the City (garbage trucks, ambulances, etc.) and Dino World sets are predominantly male. So the argument for meatspace versus virtual playthings is more complicated than you’d think.
Over at Medium, social media expert Alexandra Samuel makes the case “Why Kids’ Screen Time Is a Feminist Issue” in this blog post from May. One of her commenters also makes a good point that the attack on screen time is ableist: autistic and other easily overstimulated kids need an activity that’s a respite from intense face-to-face interaction. I’ve observed that Shane does seem to benefit from the cool-down time with his apps after a very active day at his Montessori school, which is a technology-free zone. Samuel writes:
When we fret about excess screen time as bad parenting, what we’re really talking about is bad mothering. After all, mothers still do more than three times as much routine child care as fathers do, and almost four times as much solo care, according to a 2011 study by Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan. When we worry that parents are shirking their duties by relying on an electronic babysitter, we’re really worrying that mothers are putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids’ needs.
It’s a worry that rears its head any time someone comes up with a technology that makes mothers’ lives easier. As mothers, we’re supposed to embrace — or at least nobly suffer through — all the challenges that parenting throws at us. We’re supposed to accept having little people at our heels while we’re trying to buy the groceries, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. We’re supposed to accept the exhaustion that comes from working a full day at the office and a second shift at home before falling into bed for an inevitably interrupted sleep. We’re supposed to accept the isolation that comes from raising children in a world that regards a crying child as a crime against restaurant patrons or airplane travellers.
The mother who hands her child a smartphone is taking the easy way out of these challenges. But since so much of parenting consists of situations in which there is no easy way out, I’m deeply grateful when somebody offers me a cheat…
…Just look at the prevailing attitude towards another innovation that gave mothers more autonomy: baby formula. We know that there are significant health benefits to breastfeeding, but that doesn’t begin to explain the horrified looks you attract when bottle-feeding in public. (The glares I got for bottle feeding my baby were good preparation for the glares I now get when I hand over my iPad.) As Cindy Sterns writes, “by deciding to formula feed, the woman exposes herself to the charge that she is a ‘poor mother’ who places her own needs, preferences or convenience over her baby’s welfare. By contrast, the ‘good mother’ is deemed to be one who prioritizes her child’s needs even (or perhaps especially) where this entails personal inconvenience or distress.”
When we shame women for adopting labor or sanity-saving innovations, we don’t limit ourselves to guilting them over the damage they’re doing to their kids: we also guilt them for what they’re doing to the earth itself. If disposable diapers emerged as one of the great symbols of environmental waste, that’s in keeping with the idea that women should be prepared to sacrifice themselves not only to the demands of motherhood, but of the greater good. The focus on “what you can do at home to save the earth,”Stacy Alaimo notes, “shifts the focus from patriarchal capitalism to the home and places the blame and responsibility, not on corporate polluters, scandalous lack of government controls, or waste-oriented capitalism but ultimately on homemakers, who had better use cloth diapers and keep those pots fully covered.”
Even before the advent of the contemporary environmental movement, saving women time took a backseat to saving men time, or to saving the earth. “Investment in labor-saving equipment for the farm took priority, partly because men made these decisions on their own,” writes Joy Parr, in her fascinating study of the differences between Canadian and American adoption of washing machines.
What’s really going on is an age-old problem: we don’t like innovations that make mothers’ lives easier.
This diaper-using, non-breastfeeding adoptive mother says, Amen.
In case you missed it, this May 31 New Yorker profile of the late Arnold Lobel made me feel even better about one of Shane’s favorite books. In “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love”, Colin Stokes discusses the enduring appeal of these gentle stories about the bond between two friends. Their situations are certainly not sexual or even romantic, since the youngest readers don’t usually care about such things, but instead center on the small crises and relationship glitches that make real drama for the pre-K set: wanting to play when your friend wants to be alone, or worrying that you look funny in your bathing suit. We don’t need sentimental conversations or tacked-on moral endings to know that Frog and Toad will stay together through it all.
[Lobel’s daughter] Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me…
…Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the AIDS crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”
When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. On the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”