Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Uneasy Relationship with Femininity

I've always known I wanted to be a parent someday. As a child, I felt loved and accepted by my mother, a single parent of three by the age of twenty. In my young adult years, I formulated strong notions of social equality and justice, firmly rooted in the basic principle that everybody is good and unique and deserving of happiness. I imagined my future self as a parent, carrying forward my mother’s legacy of unconditional love.  I would create an environment where my child is free to be themselves.  As a burgeoning feminist with a growing toolbox of gender theory, I also assumed that my progressive parenting would empower him or her to develop a full spectrum of masculine and feminine qualities.  

Nokomis at my wedding, doing her Diva pose.

None of this quite prepared me for my daughter Nokomis, and her persistent obsession with princesses as a small child. It started with a penchant for jewelry and pretty dresses. Her imaginative play became consumed by endless scenarios of princesses in need of rescue by brave princes, dilemmas always ending in swooning and marriage.

My instinctive reaction to all this was to challenge Nokomis. I asked, "What does a princess do?" Her response: "They twirl." "They twirl?" I replied. "Couldn't they also have magical powers or help people or save the day?" She would look at me with toddler exasperation as she asserted, "No. They just twirl." I was appalled and disgusted. How lame! How could Nokomis possibly think that simply being the passive object of a male gaze is a worthwhile pursuit? I wanted to discourage it, to keep her from limiting herself in this way. When she asked to wear a dress every day and play princess, I'd make a face and try to suggest other clothes and activities, to no avail.

At some point it hit me. By attempting to suppress the princess in Nokomis, I was the one restricting her potential. If I truly wanted her to be able to express all of her many facets, it would be hypocritical of me to deter some of them, including the traditionally feminine traits that historically have been compulsory. By doing so, I realized, I was essentially participating in the cultural devaluation of femininity that justifies sexism.

Seen in this light, the situation felt a lot less dire, and a lot more like a normal part of Nokomis's development as a human female. I learned to relax a little, and remember that regardless of where she "got it from" or whether it's "just a phase" to be waited out, this was a part of who she was at that moment. Through her princess play, Nokomis explored such concepts as the majesty of beauty, the magic of one's hopes and dreams, and the power of falling in love. She navigated feelings about attachment and separation when the little plastic princess couldn’t find her way home. It wasn’t helpful for me to impose my adult interpretations about the ideological implications of her play.

I ended up questioning a lot of the principles I held dearest, like the idea that the only healthy expressions of gender are the ones in the middle of the masculine/feminine continuum. By sticking to that principle, I had been violating another one: my belief that children have the right to be themselves. I rethought my beliefs about gender, and it was this compromise with myself that allowed me to grow, and form better, stronger principles.

At the same time, however, my job is to continue to challenge her to push the boundaries of the ideas she is (re)producing, by asking questions and suggesting alternate endings that defy the simplistic fairytale plots. It’s easy to get stuck in the same narratives we tell ourselves about love, life, and The Way Things Are. I can let her regurgitate the same narratives that surround her, or I can push her to write new ones. Either way, the most important lesson I can teach her is that she’ll never have all the right answers. If she can learn that, she’ll know all she needs to know.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Love motivates us more than fear.

Note: The essay below is my submission this year to the Great American Think Off, held every year in New York Mills, MN. This year's philosophical question up for debate is: Which motivates us more, love or fear? As I always do, I chose love.

I spent almost a decade of my life with an alcoholic man. I knew it early, but by the time it really sunk in, I was already in too deep. During that time, my life was on pause. As the partner (and later, wife) of an alcoholic, my role was clear, and it centered around him. I paid all of our bills. I bailed him out of jail, pawning our possessions to get the money. I helped him through treatment. I visited him in prison. I cleaned up his puke in the living room. I searched for empty bottles every night after work. I paid bar tabs in the middle of the night when he was belligerent and out of money. I called the cops on him, and called hospitals and jails when I didn’t know where he was. I lied to my family about how bad it was.

At the time, I did all this under the misperception that I was driven by love. Looking back now, I realize that I was stuck. I didn’t actually DO anything during that almost-decade of my life. I maintained, enabled, treaded water. I lived in a constant state of tension that can only be described as fear. I was always afraid he would start drinking, and when he did, I was afraid he would steal my money or get arrested. I was afraid to leave him, because I was afraid he would fall apart if I did. I felt like I was the one holding everything together, holding him together, and that if I didn’t stay exactly where I was, everything would collapse. Of course I cared for him, and I wanted him to get sober. I wanted it for his and my own happiness, but I can’t say that my decision to stay in the relationship despite the ongoing harm done to both of us was an act of love. It was an act of fear.

Fear paralyzes us; love moves us.

Six years in, I gave birth to my daughter. For the first several months of her life my husband didn’t drink, but I was afraid that he would. Eventually he did, and my fears magnified. I still had to go to work every day, and he was at home with our daughter. While away from home, I constantly worried about whether my husband was drinking. Was he feeding her and putting her down for naps at the right times? Was she safe? I worked close to home, and sometimes I would show up on my break just to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes I suspected he was drinking and couldn’t find the empty bottle to prove it. My daughter was always okay, but I would return to work no less afraid.

One day I came home to find my husband drunk and passed out on the bed. My one and a half year old daughter was standing in the middle of the living room in her diaper, alone. I will never forget the solemn, blank expression on her face. That was the last time my daughter was left in my husband’s custody, and I put her in daycare with money I didn’t think I had.

I wish I could say that was the day I left him for good, but that was still a few months away. What finally made me leave was falling in love with a woman I worked with. Though she didn’t end up being “the one,” my love for her helped me see new possibilities for myself. It made me realize how important it was to be happy, and that I could only control my own life.

This fact alone freed me from the fear that I was the only thing propping up my husband. Fear had kept me there, but leaving him was an act of love. Love for my daughter, who I knew needed stability and comfort to thrive. Love for myself, in my decision to reinstate myself as the steward of my own happiness. Love for my husband, even, who was not prevailing in his struggle with alcoholism, and perhaps needed the opportunity to find his own strength.

Fear is still present, and always will be. I’m afraid of failure, both in my relationships and in my expectations of myself. It doesn’t motivate me, however; it stagnates me. When I let myself become mired in fear, I cease to move. Love helps me find my way out, and keep moving forward.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Last night after my daughter went to bed, I was hanging out with my partner in our bedroom.  This is our daily routine; we retreat to the bedroom like clockwork after bedtime, and usually watch something (a movie or streaming tv show) on the laptop while lying in bed (I know, I know, this is a big no-no according to relationship gurus. Let's set that aside for the moment.).  After we watch our stories, we usually wind down by reading for a bit, and then we turn out the light. Often, instead of or before reading, one of us will interact with our phones (check email, Twitter, Facebook, play a game, etc).  Last night while I was doing just that, my husbutch leaned over and said teasingly to me: "My wife's a Facebook junkie."

My first reaction was pure defensiveness. I pulled back, and said something like: "You don't know that... That's rude... I don't judge your phone time..."  She didn't really respond, and we were still in uneasy silence when we went to sleep.

I was annoyed because I felt judged, and because I felt that she had no right to do so, given that her own attention is frequently attached to her phone as well.  This morning, however, I was still thinking about the exchange, and wondering where my defensiveness was really coming from.  Am I a Facebook junkie? More generally, am I addicted to technology?

I used to be in awe of my ex-girlfriend's sister, who would stay with us occasionally, because she frequently didn't take her phone with her when she left the house.  She would just leave the house without it (and without a purse or any other baggage -- nothing but keys), and not seem to give it a second thought.  She even left her phone turned off for hours at a time.  She was the only person I knew who didn't seem to need her phone or view it as an extension of herself. And while I often teased her incredulously -- how could you not have your phone?? -- I was deeply very jealous of this non-attachment. I knew that if I left the house without my phone, I would feel an underlying anxiety all day, of not knowing what's going on, not being connected.

Ironically, when I don't have my phone, or when I purposefully set it down or turn it off, I notice a lot. I notice other people on their phones as a default activity, from people on the bus to people standing in line. I notice kids talking to their parents, who reply with distant non-responses as they scroll or tap with their thumbs. I notice that everybody seems to have walls up, blocking out the world by occupying their ears, eyes, and fingers with technology. When I quit smoking, one of the hardest things for me was figuring out what to do with myself on break. I used to enjoy going out to smoke on break, partly just to get outside. Smoking was something I could DO outside. Without it, I wondered, what would I do outside? Stare into space? Watch people as they walk by? I found that I could just "be on my phone" during these times, and not feel weird. I was doing something.

Not only does being on the phone make me feel like I'm busy doing something; it also sends the signal to others that I'm not available for conversation or requests. Checking my Facebook feed makes me feel more connected to the truncated lives of the people I know or used to know, and also allows me to be alone in public, protected from the actual presence of strangers. I've been known to pretend to be having a conversation on my phone when in public, in order to avoid other people approaching me. I suspect I'm not the only one who does this.

Avoiding human contact with strangers is different than avoiding it at home with my partner and child, however. I want them both to know that I'm really there when I'm there, and if I'm staring at my phone, I'm not there. Being there means listening with my whole body (as I tell my daughter): making eye contact, being still and present. What would it look like if we all did that, all the time? I try to remember my life not too long ago before I owned a cell phone, and although I had less external distraction back then, I can't say that I was necessarily more present with everybody. There's more to being present than not fiddling with technology. It's about listening without judgment, without thinking about what I'll say next. It's being open to whatever or whoever is in front of me.

This is the heart of what I want in my heart. I feel like it's the answer to any question I have, whether it's about being a better parent, partner, employee, friend, or human. It feels both simple and impossible. Putting down the phone is certainly not the whole of it, but sometimes it's the least I can do.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Apologizing to my Diary

When I was young, I kept a diary. I started at age 11, and my first entries were exactly as you would expect: random, meandering thoughts on topics such as my friends, boys, my hair, what embarrassing thing happened that day.

OMG, This is the one!! 

I tried to write every other day or so, but I remember that sometimes there would be these long periods of time where I didn't write at all (maybe a couple of months), and I would always start the first entry after a time-lapse by saying something like "Sorry it's been so long since I've written..."

To whom was I apologizing?

To myself, I guess. But why? It wasn't something I had to do, or turn in to my teacher, and nobody else knew whether I had written in my diary that day or not. I think I felt like journaling was an act of connecting with myself, of reflecting and processing my life and thoughts, even the most seemingly trivial.

I wish I still had that diary, and the ones that followed. I continued to journal throughout my teenage years, and mostly I wrote about my insecurities. I worried about and analyzed the affections of the boys I dated or wanted to date. I lamented about my body size, and vowed and re-vowed to go on a diet the very next day. I wrote when I was high or drunk, and feeling either incredibly connected with the universe or like an alien.

By the time I was 19, I had five journals filled with my most personal and rambling thoughts. At that time, I entered into a relationship with an alcoholic man named Brian, what would turn into an eight year detour / life stagnation. We moved in together very shortly after we met, and I soon became worried that he would read my journals. I would hide them, but I quickly developed a deep mistrust of Brian, and a suspicion that I was losing my sense of separate self in that relationship. I felt like those journals represented a part of my brain, a part of me that nobody could touch or see, and I knew that if Brian happened upon my journals he would read them, probably out of some paranoid need to know my inner thoughts about him, but partly just to gain just a little more control over me.

Anyway, I couldn't take that chance. One day I took all five journals with me to the coffeeshop I worked at, and one by one I tore them up and threw them in the trash. There. Now nobody could ever read them, nobody could ever touch that part of me.

Now, of course, I wish I still had these journals, because I really did enjoy going back and reading them, seeing how I've changed, seeing how I haven't. Also, my daughter is only a couple years away from the age I first started journaling, and it would have been interesting to revisit this time in my young life, in order to better understand hers. Who knows, maybe I would have even let her read them.

This blog is a journal of sorts for me, but it doesn't feel easy anymore. I used to get out my journal on days I felt stressed or anxious and just write and write. Now I sit staring at a blank screen, dozens of unrealized blog titles lurking in the shadows, and I just don't know what to say anymore. I feel like it has to matter now. Even if nobody is reading this but me, I feel the pressure to say something deep, something witty, something new.

For now, I'd just like to make a commitment to myself to write more regularly. Something, anything. Sure, I'd love for it to be profound and thought-provoking, but maybe some days I'll just write about the cat. It's a habit I'd like to practice, and I'll do it for the same reasons I did it back then -- to stay connected to myself, and to get to know myself out a bit more.