Thursday, June 25, 2009
How can we reconcile that number with the staggering number of Father's Day stories about laid-off fathers becoming stay-at-home dads, or the rising visibility of caregiving fathers in our culture?
That's easy: We are now in the midst of an all-hands-on-deck economic emergency. Even employed parents feel under the gun at work, and many are facing furloughs, salary cuts, and benefits reductions. In that kind of situation, every able-bodied adult in every family needs to think about how he or she might contribute to the family's income, not to mention health care coverage.
That includes my family, by the way: I'm being laid off as senior editor of Greater Good magazine and my wife's employment situation has been rocky for awhile now. Am I going to go back to being a stay-at-home dad? I loved taking care of my son and would welcome the opportunity to do so again, but we as a unit can't afford voluntary stay-at-home parenthood. Not right now.
And so, based on that perspective, I have a prediction: Over the course of the next few years, we're going to see more involuntary stay-at-home dads--those created by layoffs--and fewer voluntary stay-at-home dads.
Here's the important thing: During the Great Depression, unemployment would destroy men. They were told that money was all they had to contribute to their families; if employment vanished, they saw themselves as worthless. They couldn't become "stay-at-home dads" because that role did not exist. Few mothers worked and fewer earned enough to support families. Today, most moms work and we can say to unemployed fathers: you still have value to your family, they need for you to see to their well-being.
That's a message that a decade's worth of voluntary stay-at-home dads can send to today's laid-off dads. That's something men need to hear right now, that they can play caregiving as well as breadwinning roles in their families.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
President Obama Speaks to Dads About Fatherhood: "Just because your own father wasn’t there for you, that’s not an excuse for you to be absent also -- it’s all the more reason for you to be present. There’s no rule that says that you have to repeat your father’s mistakes. Just the opposite -- you have an obligation to break the cycle and to learn from those mistakes, and to rise up where your own fathers fell short and to do better than they did with your own children."
Mother, May I? Helping Moms Back Off So That Dads can be Dads: "Negative gatekeeping by mothers -- grimaces or criticism when men try to change a diaper or feed or play with a baby -- can block out even fathers who believe they should be involved, says a 2008 study in the Journal of Family Psychology... Gatekeeping can be positive, too: When mothers encourage dads, the men tend to shoulder more child care."
A Father's Day Assessment of Recession-Era Dads: "By now, pretty much everyone, their brother, and their mother have weighed in on how the recession is—and isn't—shaking up gender relations here at home. Journalists and researchers alike have questioned whether the downturn might change the balance of power and responsibility for good. They've offered bold pronouncements: Yes. And, well, no. They've dug up real-life tales of men and women for whom layoffs have hit hard, trotting outsagas of lost men and bitter wives one day and forecasts of a revolution in parenthood the next. I've followed the research and soaked up the reporting. I've got just one more story to add to the pile: my own."
Devoted Dad key to reducing risky teen sex: "The more attentive the dad — and the more he knows about his teenage child's friends — the bigger the impact on the teen's sexual behavior, the researchers found. While an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s sexual activity, dads have twice the influence."
Links related to the release of my book, The Daddy Shift:
Daddy on Board: "I would like to say that there's this revolutionary movement of fathers who are going to take back fatherhood and change the face of public policy. But social change happens in stages, and I think where we're at is in the consciousness-raising stage... The logical way to close off this stage is to begin asking ourselves: How can we get public policies that will support our role as caregivers? How can we get paternity leave, which only one in 10 men have access to? How can we get flextime?"
Defining the Daddy Track: "The United States has never had a situation where so many mothers worked and so many fathers were capable of taking on caregiving work. People have a new image in their minds of what a good mother is and what a good father is, and that's a strength people are bringing into this economic crisis."
Why Working Mothers (Sometimes) Envy Stay-at-Home Dads: "Many career-oriented women marry men who become primary caregivers, and they are extremely happy with the arrangement. What’s their secret? In an age when gender roles are open to negotiation, the first trick, I found, is to identify what you want and find a partner who knows what he or she wants, bargain openly for roles as changes like parenthood loom, and clearly identify what strengths each partner brings to the table."
Father's Day Recommended Reading: "It's an empirical fact that fathers are comparatively rare in children's books — when economist David A. Anderson and psychologist Mykol Hamilton studied 200 children's books in 2005, they found that fathers appeared about half as often as mothers. Mothers were ten times more likely to be depicted taking care of babies than fathers and twice as likely to be seen nurturing older children. No surprise there, of course. Moms are still the ones most likely to be taking care of kids. But where does that leave families who don't fit the traditional mold? And how does that help parents who want to provide caring role models to their sons?"
Sunday, June 21, 2009
On the night Barak Obama was elected, he threw out this rhetorical question: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…
I’d like a chance to answer.
Yes, Mr. president, there are.
Let me start with a story and then some facts:
Just two days before my daughters and I were leaving on a 5 week trip to southeast Asia, I heard a call come into my home phone. It was a collect call. My heart froze; it was from my son, who was being held in county jail, no longer a juvenile but now an eighteen year old “adult.” I was frustrated and confused. I could barely find out what happened because the cops were so unhelpful and condescending in my attempt to check on his situation and well-being. I was told that after he tried to evade police, they “subdued” him. Subdued?! What the fuck does that mean? I asked if he is hurt in any way. The officer said, ‘I looked at his mug shot and his face seems fine. Just a bloody nose.’ I couldn’t even talk to my son about what happened because the phones were monitored.
Then there were the other questions: should we still go on our trip? should we change our plans? After much discussion, we departed leaving his mother and the rest of our community to handle the situation, which didn’t appear to be over any time soon.
We had been in Thailand for just a week. It was a few days after New Years. We were at the point of feeling a bit homesick, missing our homes in Berkeley and Oakland, when a person whom we met on the road said, wow, you people in Oakland are crazy.
Oscar Grant had been murdered by BART police, unarmed and face down on the ground. He was shot in the back. In the aftermath, the people in Oakland took to the streets. Not knowing anything abut the situation, we made our way to an internet café and watched the video of his murder and of the protests on the streets of our home. My kids and I were stunned. We looked at each other, angry, horrified. There was nothing to say really. Until Ella, my youngest asked, how old was he?
Twenty two, I said.
Why’d they shoot him?
I shook my head.
Why does this happen? she continued.
I didn’t know what to say. What answers should I give her?
I don’t know why this happens, I responded.
She looked straight at me and declared, that coulda been Dylan, that coulda been our brother.
I know, I said, I know.
Some facts from the Ella Baker Center:
Since that day when my daughters and I discussed Oscar Grant, I have been haunted by my desire to answer Ella’s question with more than a head shake, a hug, and some lame phrase of disbelief.
I want to be able to look straight back at her with something to say.
I want to risk being honest with her.
Ella, this is why it happens.
We have failed you and other young people from the beginning. It is not about one cop killing one unarmed young man; it’s about the years of failure that many young people, like perhaps Oscar Grant, face in our society, from schools to jobs, from media representations to the courts.
This isn’t one isolated incident; this is a pattern.
And with pattern, there is usually design.
Ella, it happens because there is a war going on.
I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true. Despite the “hope” and “change” we’ve been told will come from the top down like some liberal version of Reaganomics, if we just wait, the reality is that right now, right here on the streets of our cities, it is dangerous to be young. To be a teenager and a person of color can simply be deadly.
With the amount of consumer advertising budgets aimed at them, the pressure of social and gender conformity, and the economic stress of capitalist created desires, growing up is a constant battle.
As a young person, there is no room to test boundaries and make mistakes and challenge things that are given you. It’s a set-up. Community centers and after school programs close, so there’s no place to gather safely and legally; it’s prohibited to congregate on street corners and in parks past dark. We had to actually fight to get the local school playground open during the summer so that kids could play there during the day without get the cops called on them. It seems the only place safe to hang out is some shopping center, but you gotta have money to go there so you better hope you have job. Almost everything connected to youth culture, from skateboarding to the music you play, is seen as suspect, something to distrust, an excuse for adults to call the cops. Basically, for many young folks, they are guilty before they step out their door. And especially if that door is in East Oakland or Richmond.
Ella, it happens because young people are expected to be perfect.
If you are a teenager and/or a person of color, whatever you do, don’t fuck up. Don’t make a mistake. And don’t get caught. People wonder why there’s a “don’t snitch policy” in many working class neighborhoods and communities of color. Because getting caught up in the legal system is a nightmare. People know this. We live in a society in which mistakes are costly and if you the wrong class or color, those mistakes aren’t things you can simply learn from, but shackles that are extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive to free yourself from.
Here’s another story, an analogy.
I teach basic writing at the local community college. On the first day of classes, I sit for a minute in silence as they stare and wait for me to begin. But I wait. I wait for them to get uncomfortable, to shift in their chairs, to mumble something under their breaths about this crazy fool sitting in front of them. Then I say I’m just observing and thinking. I ask everyone to look around. What can we gather about our class? What do we see? After some playful remarks (usually about some cute girl across the room) someone will say, there ain’t that many white people in the class. Which is always the case.
And then I show them statistics from the school’s website.
For example: black students make up a quarter of the school population but more than half of the basic skills population. That success rates from basic skills instruction are dismally low. That the statistics of basic skills classes eerily mirror the statistics of the prison system.
That this the ghetto of the school.
This the reservation.
The interment camp.
How do they feel about this? Now, there is a different kinda silence in the classroom.
I try to be honest with my students. Because I believe with this knowledge comes the possibility of choice, comes determination, comes anger, perhaps action. It now is up to them individually and collectively to face these issues.
So I am trying to be honest with you, Ella.
Unfortunately, it is also your responsibility to face these issues. Someday soon it will be you out on the streets at night with your friends. It will be you riding public transportation home after some holiday celebration perhaps running a bit wild, perhaps getting into a little trouble. It will be you and your friends that will be seen only in relation to your age, your clothes and style, your color. It will be you or your friend’s facing the gun.
Ella, but it is also my responsibility to do something about it as well. To do my best to trust you. To be honest with you about the potential consequences you face. To love you unconditionally despite what the world around me says about teenagers and young people. To listen and believe and let go and support. To stand up for other young people who are dealing with these issues now. To not let things like Oscar Grant’s murder go unmourned. To remember the number of other people, both young and old, who might also raise their hands in response to Mr. President’s declaration. The doubters, the hell raisers, those trying to be honest in spite of the pressure to conform, to believe that everything for the most part is fine.
Ella, I wish I was there on that, albeit wonderful night, when President Barak Obama asked that question: Is there anyone out there who doubts…
And for you Ella, I hope I would have had the courage to raise my hand.
All statistics from The Ella Baker Center website http://www.ellabakercenter.org as well as the Berkeley City College http://vistawww.peralta.edu website. This article was also inspired by an article Cherrie Moraga wrote with the same quote.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
1. During the past fifteen years, the number of stay-at-home dads has:
A. Stayed the same
B. Increased only slightly
2. During the same period, the number of working moms has:
A. Plunged dramatically as more and more mothers "opt out" of the workforce
B. Decreased slightly
C. Jumped up and down
3. The fraction of wives who make more than their husbands is:
A. One tenth
B. One quarter
C. One third
D. Three fourths
4. In 2009, what number of Fortune 500 CEOs are women?
5. What percentage of American men have access to paid paternity leave?
6. Families with a stay-at-home dad:
A. Have lower than average incomes
B. Have higher incomes than families with a stay-at-home mom
C. Are overwhelmingly educated and affluent
D. Are predominantly European-American
7. Cross-national studies have found that widely available day care and early childhood education is correlated with:
A. Low father involvement
B. Emotionally disturbed children
C. High levels of sexual abuse
D. High father involvement
8. According to most studies, the attitudes of men and women towards work, family, and sex have:
A. Grown apart as people embrace more traditional gender roles
B. Grown together as more women go to work and more men spend time with families
C. Become more selfish and casual
D. Stayed the same
9. The "mommy wars" are:
A. Something that most moms have never heard of
B. A tool for undermining natural solidarity between parents
C. A fake conflict incited by newspaper and magazine headline writers
D. All of the above
10. Which ethnic group divides child care and housework most equitably when the dad lives with mom?
11. When men become fathers, their testosterone:
D. What testosterone?
12. Rebeldad is:
A. A bar in San Francisco's Noe Valley
B. An evangelical Christian men's magazine
C. The name of the next Ice Cube film
D. A blog for stay-at-home dads
1 - C, 2 - D, 3 - C, 4 - A, 5 - A, 6 - A, 7 - D, 8 - B, 9 - D, 10 - C, 11 - B, 12 - D
12-9 = You're a reverse-traditional genius
8-4 = Not too bad
3-0 = You need to watch less TV
Want to know my sources? Consider buying my book, The Daddy Shift, on which this quiz is based.
[This gimmick was inspired by Deborah Siegel, author of the very fine book, Sisterhood, Interrupted, and the forthcoming Man Enough.]
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
My newest collaboration with DadLabs.com...
Are you a princess parent? Does your baby girl have more princess paraphernalia than you can fit in your mini van? As a parent, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the inevitable onslaught of princess culture. In this episode of The Lab, Daddy Brad and Daddy Clay compare who is the bigger princess parent by adding up their daughters’ princess gear. From Disney games and Disney princess toys to princess costumes and unicorn stuffed animals, the two Dads compare who is the bigger Cinderella father. Author Jeremy Adam Smith discusses the impact that princess mania is having and the steps to maintain a healthy father daughter relationship.
In preparation for this episode, I chatted with a number of psychologists. "Many preschool girls go through a kind of princess phase," said Stephen Hinshaw, chair of the UC Berkeley psychology department and author of the new book, The Triple Bind. "At the 'right' time, this is not deleterious or promoting of narcissism. But if it becomes a preoccupation [i.e., an obsession], and if the 'princess treatment' begins to extend to the girl herself, and if it lasts beyond the 'normative' time, could be problematic." For a solid and interestingly neurotic feminist take on princess mania, see Peggy Orenstein's 2006 piece in New York Times Magazine.
Incidentally, today's USA Today mentions me and DadLabs and an all-star line-up of fatherhood researchers in a piece entitled, "New daditude: Today's fathers are hands-on, pressure off." It's well worth a read.
Thanks to Axel Hausemann for his camera and sound work here at DadLabs West!
One of the things I shared at the last event was a list of ways fathers (and others) can fight patriarchy.
And since I love lists here’s another. A list of things parent allies can do to support the parents in their communities. Feel free to add more things and I’ll include the entire list in the next issue of rad dad…Here it is:
- Give children attention; talk to them, not about them, in a regular voice.
- Don’t get upset if they don’t want to talk to you when you do.
- Develop a consistent relationship with the children in your life. Set up a weekly or monthly date with a child.
- Speak up for childcare issues in all areas of what you do. Don’t let it fall to the parent to have to ask about childcare, or if it is a child friendly event.
- In general, feel free to ask a parent or childcare giver if you can help out when you see them “multi-tasking” (code word for overwhelmed, freaking out, having a melt down), and of course be gracious if they say no thank you.
- Smile at parents.
- Remember parenting doesn’t equal mothering; ask fathers how they are feeling as well.
- If you are throwing a party, hosting a meeting, planning a running street protest, announce that it is or is not a child friendly event. And if for some reason the event is not, make sure you are prepared to help parents stay involved: child care, classes for older kids.
- Create a space for children in your home: have some books to read and a toy or two to share when some little one (or not so little) comes over.
- Look at the world from child’s height
- Know how to change a diaper
- If you’re dating a parent offer to chip in on childcare costs while on a date
- Call your own parents regularly: remember you were a child
- Take the initiative to invite parents to events or to just hang out, even if they decline…parents often feel isolated.
- Remember parenting doesn’t end with infancy; parents of older children need allies too.
- And of course buy yourself and parents alternative books and zines about parenting…yes shameless plug
Sunday, June 14, 2009
"The subhead of 'Mr. Big Gets Downsized' reads: 'What happens when the breadwinner is toast? Chris Noth plays Mr. Mom, while Milla Jovovich leaves him with the crumbs.' And so begins a role-reversal-ish photo shoot, in which the man is left at home to watch the rugrats while the woman is all business. Just like in The Hangover, it's supposedly instant comedy to see a man with a baby, as though men never parent and are as comfortable with kids as they are with, say, fainting goats."
When Opting Out isn't an Option: "Examining the lives of privileged women and their work-life choices is certainly much sexier and more controversial than telling the stories of the majority of working women in this country. After all, most women must balance work with caregiving. They don't have the option of opting out. Where's the debate in that?"
Helping Breadwinners When It Can't Wait: "In a nation where the vast majority of families now have no one at home to provide care, workers need paid time off from work to care for one another. Our current system of family and medical leave is unpaid, and even that is not inclusive and leaves out many of the hard-working families who need these benefits the most... It is patently unfair for some mothers and fathers to have to take unpaid leave or fear for their jobs to care for a newborn or take care of seriously ill children or parents—or even worse be unable to take that leave because their bosses just say no."
Two Senators Try to Give Working Parents Relief on Child Care Costs: "Under current tax law, many parents can get a tax credit for a portion of their child care costs. The problem is the portion is capped at $3,000. As MomsRising points out today, who pays $3,000 a year for good child care?"
Paternity Leave: "I have to admit, I also felt a little bit insecure about the whole idea of paternity leave. I think there's a lot to the notion that, in our culture, men derive a great deal of psychological satisfaction from going to work every day. Being out and about, running errands, with or without my son, in the middle of day made me feel a little bit strange and somewhat marginal... I'm not particularly proud of that, but there it is."
The next four links are related to the release of my book The Daddy Shift:
The Daddy Identity Crisis: "I wish we as a culture were better at rituals; it would be good to have a ritual of some kind that would mark this passage, from reliance on mom’s body to ramping up dad’s care. As things are in most families, I think it really comes down to Mom, at a certain point, being able to give the baby to her partner and then just… walk away."
Hands On Dads Handle Stress Better: "Job loss is traumatic. So is financial anxiety. But hands-on fathers who can juggle bath-time, playground jaunts and laundry duty are better equipped to deal with those than earlier generations of men, says the author of a new book on fatherhood."
Of fathers, mothers and parenting, and why I choose not to be completely useless: "Fathers are changing the nature of families. I don’t give fathers any particular credit for this. I just maintain that it is true. Fathers are stepping up, and as they do their partners are stepping aside and letting them in. I have watched these changes in my own life and in my own evolution as a father, and in families around me. The change isn’t universal. It is a work in progress."
No Child Left Behind = All Boys Left Behind: "I have great faith that having more men at home can help bring that critical masculine energy back into the nucleus of the family- there may be more sword fighting, squirt guns, and more hours of farting than flash cards. If boys can be empowered by men at home, ideally their ability to perform in school will increase. If more men are paying attention to how their sons are being taught and the obvious deficits they are facing, motivation will occur to take action and address their specific needs."
Friday, June 12, 2009
Some similarities, highly unscientific, are emerging from my equally unscientific literary survey sample. The guys who are writing books that manage to get onto my radar seem to be media types -- writers, aspiring writers, journalists, TV producers, etc. A number of them make a point of not ever having expected their lives to land them in stay-at-home-dadhood.
And, beginning with Neal Pollack's Alternadad, Philip Lerman's Dadditude, and David Eddie's Housebroken, they all present a narrative beginning in bachelorhood, or pre-pregnancy, that sets up the stark contrast between the upside-down world of reverse-traditional parenting with what came before (cad-ness, guy-ness, non-middle-class conformity-ness, overall bohemian-ness). Alternadad and Housebroken both portray classic male slobs going nowhere until they meet the woman of their dreams, the love of which brings out the inner father none of them thought they had.
Classic conversion stories. I once was lost, but now am found. Was riding a donkey on the road to Damascus a Jew, saw the light, fell off the donkey, and began writing epistles to the Christians of Asia Minor. For a marketable modern fatherhood memoir, you must begin with a fallen man, an incorrigible slob (Eddie), pothead (Pollack), or middle-aged hippie (Lerman), or a bumbling incompetent who finds his way (Michael Lewis' Home Game, though I've only heard the author on NPR). Only Lerman starts off fully embracing his new role and what comes with it.
And all of them, each and every one, according to the blurbs on the back covers, is "painfully funny," "leaves you chortling out loud," and is just "utterly hilarious" from start to finish. The stay-at-home dad book evidently comes with a laugh track.
I'm not sure what this means, whether it represents the conforming mold of publishing editors and marketing departments imposed from without, making fatherhood be as funny as possible, making caregiving dads into former cads, and adding the requisite dosage of guy-ness to every manuscript so as not to scare away the relatively small number of possible male readers.
After reading Philip Lerman's Dadditude, for example, and finding the author to be a pleasantly sincere, earnest, and reflective parent who willingly took on the role of stay-at-home father, I can't help but wonder who came up with the book's subtitle: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad. With a title like that, you'd think the book would describe the persistence of some elements of classical masculinity or machismo, or at least their transvaluation in the crucible of caregiving. Not so. It is a story of a middle-aged professional who quits a great job to spend time raising his son and writing about how much he loves him.
Which brings me back to David Eddie's Housebroken. It was published 10 years ago now, in that pre-Dot Bomb world that now seems as far away as Coleridge's Xanadu. In the style of most dad memoirs, it's unabashedly honest about gender expectations and stereotypes. "No man expects to end up a stay at home dad," Eddie claims early on, in a phrase that is reiterated on the book's back cover. He's ambitious. He works from home, he steals time away from the baby.
But he also really likes his job, and stands up for it. Towards the end of the book one finds a chapter titled "Towards a Possible Redefinition of Machismo," in which Eddie, already a non-conformist, takes a non-conformist and interesting approach to the masculinity of fatherhood:
[I]f any man reading this were to say, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into a nearby spittoon, "Househusband? Pushing a stroller, wearing an apron, collecting an allowance from his wife? What a wimp. What a wuss. Get a job. Be a man. You're embarrassing your entire gender," I would simply say, first of all, I've never been sexier or more attractive to women.
I wouldn't disagree. But that's the bone thrown to defensive guyish-ness, and it's comically effective. It's followed a few pages later by the following thoughtful paragraph:
We need to lose the old military models of masculinity, I think, in favor of a peacetime version which hearkens back to the old idea of a gentleman. Manhood should be about sincerity, passion, fidelity, and honor. A certain adherence to tradition, perhaps. One of the most manly men I know is probably my college roommate Charles. He's balding, heavy-set and prematurely gray, but he has one of the strongest, most masculine minds I know. A firm and fair-minded lawyer. I'm not sure I'd want him in my foxhole; but if I ran afoul of the law I'd want him to prepare my briefs.
Sincerity, passion, fidelity, and honor are all attractive qualities, but I'm not quite sure why they are exclusively masculine, or should be. And I'm not sure that these are "peacetime" as opposed to [Cold]wartime traits. They are, after all, the signal virtues of Knights Errant, chivalric figures of the Middle Ages who were occasional warriors for hire, when not romancing in the south of France.
What I take away from Housebroken is a fairly entertaining narrative of a reflective man who is utterly at peace with his situation. That's the significant thing here: Eddie isn't arguing about gender equality, equal pay for equal work, parental leave policies, government-sponsored day care, the evolution of capitalism, or other policies and abstractions. He is simply comfortable being a male primary caregiver and recounts his experiences. He himself is a sociological effect, an artifact of the complex changes Jeremy Adam Smith describes in The Daddy Shift. And he makes no apologies.
He hasn't jettisoned every trait that is typically masculine, but has preserved a mix of them and incorporated them into a new set of traits that is applied to a new set of tasks. Eddie has simply adapted, keeping his sense of vocational identity while committing to the role of full-time fatherhood.
The bottom line, probably, is that I derive most of whatever sense of machismo I have from my skills as a writer. I look at it like this: writers have always needed something to do in the afternoon to take their minds off writing. Hemingway had the bulls; Bukowski had the track; I change diapers and push a stroller around...
And some of us just blog.
David Eddie. "Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad". New York, Riverhead Books, 1999.
Monday, June 01, 2009
My mother has shared many words of wisdom over the years, and most of them deserve to be engraved in stone.
"Always buy a jacket with a hood," perhaps the most important advice ever shared between a Midwestern mother and child. "Don't lay out in the sun," was a needed corrective at a time of adolescent vanity. "Never get a credit card with an annual fee," became important as I entered the world of consumption, as did "You should help your wife as much as possible," as soon as I married a my breadwinning spouse.
But in addition to these bits of guidance from a successful and practical woman, there remains a residue of aphorisms that once made sense, but which now strike me as a collection of rules for travel a foreign country.
Why, for example, should I "look for pants with an elastic waste band," "never buy cotton shirts" or "go with carpeting" instead of wood floors? Why did I find myself asking salespeople, when looking over everything from a pair of socks to a Persian rug, "how hard is it to wash?"
In my early at 30s, at the age when men generally become adults, I realized what was going on. Sometime in my childhood my mother had passed a cultural event horizon, beyond which it was impossible to escape the gravity of convenience offered by a nebulae of polyester, drip-dry slacks, plastic slip covers for the furniture, a medium shag to the carpet to hold the dirt until it could be vacuumed every month or so (but no more than that), and certainly, under no circumstances, no cotton shirts, because those have to be ironed.
I had seen all the old film shorts and 50's infomercials praising the emancipation of the modern housewife from the drudgery of cooking and cleaning, thanks to modern science and consumer durables, leaving her free several hours each day to volunteer, spend time with the children, and relax in the tidy, paneled living room.
My mother had all the gadgets, and more, but I would not describe her emancipation as relaxing. She took the modernist promise of a liberation from labor and pursued it with a ruthless single-mindedness, in the context of a new set of synthetic fabrics, still more advanced electronics, and a full-time legal career. Mom did everything she could to eliminate the so-called Second Shift.
The result was a strange, bastard coupling of feminism with disposable consumer goods, the offspring of which came in a thousand shapes of plastic. Or paper: while everyone expects to eat off of paper plates at a Memorial Day or Fourth of July barbecue, our family used them nearly year-round -- and paper cups, too -- because it meant fewer dishes to clean. Fast food take-out, which we had at least once a week, was ideal because not only did someone else do the cooking, but it came in its own, disposable, packaging, meaning we didn't have to waste ours.
I could go on. When I began to wear cotton shirts in my 20s, my mother was horrified. Did I not know the labor that would be required to keep these clothes wearable? Was I really prepared to iron them? To this day she is baffled by my generation's rejection of the polyester revolution, embodied nowhere more fully than in the global domination of the GAP khaki aesthetic. A similar logic was applied to home repair, another enormous time-suck. When hundred-year old wainscoting began to fall from the front porch ceiling, it was replaced with plastic wainscoting -- "Just as good as the original!" -- on a house that was already completely sheathed in maintenance free, fiberglass siding.
Was this the "House of Tomorrow" trumpeted at the 1933 World's Fair, the Century of Progress? Had the time-saving devices and scientific wizardry behind them come to dictate the texture and look of the leisure time they allowed us? Did my mother's practical feminism require living in Plastic World?
The really ambitious, successful women I have known have all been ruthless with regards to one thing: their time. I can see why. For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in an old house with no washing machine. My mother packed the laundry into baskets and packed the baskets into the car every Saturday morning, and then drove a few miles to the nearest laundromat. I remember her returning hours later to carry the plastic baskets full of folded laundry -- my Evil Knievel shirts, my cowboy socks -- up the front steps from the driveway, then upstairs to my room.
So when the washer-dryer finally showed up, well into my mother's middle age, it was a belated redemption of the promise of those 50's infomercials. And much deserved.
But my mother is now so profoundly accustomed to cheating labor, to chipping and hacking away at the Second Shift with all the consumer aids at her disposal, that what began as her creative response to the burdens of a working mom in the 70s now persists as a set of habits and a settled outlook on life long after the nest has emptied.
So it is with the elastic waistband. The antithesis of the whale bone corset, it is the ultimate concession to feminine freedom, prêt à porter. It is one of the many creature comforts that Mom treats as the fruit of her labor. It will not be taken from her. And when I was at an age when the measure of my waistline rose and fell 3 inches with each meal, the elastic waste band was of some use to me, as well.
But now I prefer a belt.