Friday, May 21, 2010

Ayelet Waldman

It's hard for me to understand why so many women, who have achieved so many great things, refuse to call themselves feminists. From Lady Gaga, to Martha Stewart, to Oprah, some of the most influential, accomplished women of our time are completely opposed to this label. Their successes transcend typical "boys club" rules, yet they still want the world to know they are not a part of the feminist movement. Lady Gaga is a particularly difficult person for me to understand because she is so outspoken in so many right ways, yet she stereotypically identifies feminism negatively. I wish she could see she could help redefine the term as a positive instead of playing into the patriarchal notion that all feminists are “male hating bitches”.

I love boys. (edit: this used to read "Well, as long as they are feminists ;)" which isn't true, and I'll post about that later)

To me, as a woman, calling yourself a feminist should be redundant. Unfortunately, with women like Ann Coulter existing in the world, not all ladies want the same things. In fact, I've probably used my "blogistic" license with some of the women I've profiled. They may not want to be included in a feminist blog. Ayelet would definitely not fall into that category.

Waldman was a federal public defense attorney and is now a novelist who also publishes personal essays. In her first series, "The Mommy Track Mysteries", she mixes her legal expertise with her mothering experience. It was a year ago that I heard a story about her on NPR after the release of her memoir "Bad Mother". She actually just wrote a recent "3 books" article about Mother's Day reads. For all intents and purposes, Ayelet is the mother over at National Public Radio.  

Her interview came on while I was showering and I was so captivated that I stayed in the shower listening to her for the entire 40 minutes. Everything she was saying was so right on and it was completely refreshing to hear a woman speak so honestly about their feelings of frustration and irritation to criticism. 

Several years ago, Waldman was asked to do an essay for a compilation about motherhood and she was assigned to write about sexuality. She is incredibly open about her bi-polar disorder and freely admits that she can share too much information sometimes, but she was excited to write about this topic because it’s not something that is often discussed in the context of mothering. She ended up creating a huge controversy because her words were misconstrued and she was accused of loving her husband more than her children. Essentially, she was labeled a "bad" mother.

Of course this isn't true. However, she is in love with her husband, fellow . They have a wonderful relationship, and I think this is the key to understanding why people were so angry with her. The exact point of contention in the essay was the bit where she was talking about the idea of losing her husband and how unimaginable that would be because he is her only love/soul mate/life partner, and while losing one of her kids would, of course, be terrible, it’s harder for her to think about life without him. 

Listening to her talk about her children you know that she loves them very much. But who doesn't love their children? It's much more difficult to sustain a loving relationship with your spouse. I think that is mostly what people had a hard time relating to. It’s hard for women to hold onto personal things post-child birth. I would argue passion is one of the most challenging of these to keep.

Ayelet was attacking a very real problem with the state of motherhood in our society. Once you are a mother you are now first and foremost a mother. Sexuality is definitely something that is "supposed" to be canceled out of the equation. You need to be seen a certain way to be considered a good mother. You also need to put your children first in everything. While this is not necessarily wrong in theory, in practice it has been manipulated into something quite harmful. Waldman and Chabon are known for their love almost as much as they are known for their writing. Ayelet didn't replace her passion for her husband with her children after they were born, which is what many women seem to do. After she verbalized his importance to her, she was publicly assaulted.

Ayelet and her family.

What I like the most about Ayelet's perspective on motherhood is that it's her perspective. She is parenting her children in the way she and her partner see best. She also allows herself to experience her emotions in the way that is true to her actual experience. She speaks of her decision to have an abortion when she was pregnant with one of her and Michael's children. The fetus had a defect that could have turned out to be quite harmful to the child's development if she carried him to term. The choice to abort the pregnancy was detrimental to her emotional state and she needed to take time to heal. She does not qualify this as the only way to deal with an abortion or to make her choice to grieve standard for all women. In fact, she says that she had an abortion before she was with Chabon, and the experience was completely different. But after the second one, she was already a mother, the baby was already a part of the family, and she really felt a deep sense of loss. She seems to live as closely as possible to her true feelings and that is a quality that has become so rare. Such an admirable trait.

As women, from whatever mindset you are coming from, we are told that there is one way of doing things. Specifically, one way to be a mother. One proper way to parent. If you are going to do a good job raising your kids, it should look like everyone else, regardless of traditional or conservative sympathies. I’m not talking about to work or not to work. That dilemma has become dull and is moot when considering the realities of motherhood. What I am questioning is this idea that you have to put your children first in all circumstances. That these people, who need everything from you, inherently deserve everything from you. Ayelet says it best when she talks about her kids taking even the foam from her latte.

I grew up with a highly devoted mother. She didn’t have personal space. What little she did have was invaded by me daily. Looking back, I really think I acted that way because she was my mom. I had this sense of entitlement over her time, things, and being. Like I owned her somehow. She of course hated when I would take her make-up, clothes, or jewelry, but she was so giving that even if she got mad, I just felt like she was overreacting. Thinking about her driving us around to soccer, gymnastics, musicals; all of the activities that my sisters and I were involved with, makes me exhausted. And I know she didn’t like it. But she loved us and she wanted us to have opportunities. On a very real level, that’s the way it works. That is what being a “good” mom is all about. You must fully commit. Otherwise you are failing somehow. The system seems to be set up for failure. So why keep the system?

Ayelet’s husband, Michael, questions this as well. He discusses the roles of fathers and how they differ from those of mothers. Firstly, the smallest amount of effort from the father guarantees a certain amount of praise and admiration. You simply have to be around to be considered an active participant in your child’s life. This isn't something fathers have come up with.  It's what we as a society have decided.  Secondly, even when you are present, you don’t have to give as much as the mother does. A good example would be from my own life experience. I want to say and make it well known that my dad is amazing and I love him so much. Seriously, one of the best dad’s ever. That being said, I rarely got into his stuff without asking. And he has about 5 times more personal space in our house than my mom. Even though he fully supported all of our activities and came to all of our games and recitals, it was my mom that chauffeured us around daily. And I certainly didn’t have the same feelings of ownership over my dad like I did for my mom. He wasn’t a belonging, he was dad, and when dad needed space, dad got it. This certainly isn’t a unique experience.

What I have the most issue with, is the idea that giving up one’s sense of self to raise a family is noble. To enter into the motherhood club seems to be a choice that is full of constant critique and demands from multiple angles. Feminists are just as guilty of negatively critiquing mothers as those who judge them from an anti-choice, pro-Quiver full mindset. Because she speaks so openly and invites the criticism, Waldman has become a radical activist against “one size fits all motherhood”. She is clearly a good mom. But she is good to herself too. Her kids will be fine without overtaking 100% of her being. I don’t think my mom would say that we did that to her, but I bet she would agree we overtook a lot more of her than my dad.

Since I have the luxury of not yet having children, I can actually spend time thinking about whether or not I want them at all. This pondering in and of itself is met with a lot of criticism. I am constantly told that my biological clock will kick in, or that I’m too young, etc. etc. etc. But this seems like the perfect time for me to consider what I want. I still have a lot of “when I grow up” dreams and if parenting means implanting those dreams into other people that come out of me, it may not be the route to take. Comparing family life to single or couple life is fascinating. The outcomes can be so different but the positives and negatives to both seem to cancel each other out. Sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I mean look at Elena Kagan and the controversy surrounding her life choices. Here she is on the verge of becoming a Supreme Court Justice and “we” just can’t figure out why she hasn’t given birth or gotten married!

Obviously, I’m unable to predict what the future holds but if I express anything through this post, it’s that simple considerations can impact us just as much as the actual decisions we make. If I do have kids someday, I might consider becoming a modern day version of David Sedaris’ mother. She was pretty bad ass and produced some ridiculously awesome children. ;) Personally, my friend's Jenny and Leigh Ann have been great examples of rejecting the trend of letting motherhood just happen to us.  They are living out their lives with their children in mind but with great self purpose as well.  I will be proactive about maintaining my sense of self no matter what my life choices end up being, with or without children.  I want to live my life based on what it is that I am thinking and feeling and choosing.  Isn't that what we all want and deserve?  Ayelet is a great role model for maintaining our own self worth.  And she is doing great things for women and society as a whole while being an out and proud feminist!

1 comment:

  1. This is great!
    My mom and dad always told us that they got married to be with one another and that my sister and I were just blessings along the way. The always put each other first because they chose one another and had to work harder at making that relationship work than they did with being good parents.
    I plan on doing the same. If karl and I have kids, they will ALWAYS know that we love them and we will do everything for them, but Karl will always be my number one priority and I will be his. I believe the only way that you can really raise good kids is to be on the same page. So many people lose that. They lose that appreciation for one another because their time is consumed with trips to the park and changing dirty diapers. You have to work at your relationship EVEN HARDER once you have kids.

    This was an excellent post