Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Motherhood = Feminism = Activism

As a feminist, I struggled with my disappointment when I had to consider my child could be a girl. I didn't necessarily want a boy, but I had some indiscernible reluctance toward raising a girl. It wasn't apparent to me why I felt that way and I felt extremely guilty. How can I, a feminist, an advocate for the equality of women, not want a girl child?

In reality, it wasn't that I didn't want a girl. I just felt some reluctance to raising a girl; not the child herself. This became clear immediately when I saw her on the screen during my sonogram. It was love at first sight. I was in awe of her and even more in awe that in a few short months I'd be able to hold and cuddle and talk to her. I immediately realized that my reluctance wasn't to her, it was to my own ability to raise her.

On the surface, I knew that raising any child (but even more so a female child) was going to be more difficult as a feminist parent because of the societal pressures and reactions. It is the societal opposition that was indeed the problem and NOT my style of parenting or that she is a girl. So, why still the reluctance to raising a girl?

I had started to formulate an answer to that question as I read an article for my domestic violence class, but the devastating answer came when I opened the door at the domestic violence center for a walk-in at about quarter to five one evening. The woman was of East Asian decent and well dressed as if she had just come from an office job. Other than this crude purely observatory description, I know nothing about her; not even her name. I asked her how I could help her and she opened her mouth a couple of times in an attempt to speak and then took a deep breathe in. As she exhaled, she began to cry as if something inside of her broke. Her tears released in a flood of mixed emotions that she had been working so hard to contain. I asked her if she wanted to talk to someone and she shook her head yes. After helping her to a chair and trying to assure her that we would help, I went and found a counselor to help her.

The whole encounter was less than 3 minutes long but it has stayed with me since. My heart was heavy and something inside me was sad and furious. It made me think about how every week on Tuesday (when I intern at the DV center), I see at least one walk-in (usually at the crisis stage) and numerous women coming for appointments or support groups (usually in the escape or rebuilding stages). I don't know the stories of any of the women but I do know that every one of them is a woman who has been subjected to violence in her own home by someone she loves and is supposed to love her. (Home, how easily we associate home with safety and comfort and relief. How easily someone took that away)

I fought back tears that day as I got on the train. The reality hit that I had no way to be sure my daughter would be safe. My mother couldn't (or wouldn't) keep me safe. At times, I haven't been able to keep myself safe. How can I keep her safe? And then, the answer was clear. This is it. This is the source of my reluctance.

I'm sure that many will say that this is just paranoia. I'm a victim, so, of course, I only think this can happen because of my experiences with domestic and sexual violence. I study violence against women, advocate for victims of violence, and belong to anti-violence organizations. I must be obsessed with violence, consumed with an abnormal, exaggerated, and unnecessary fear that bad things happen to women and girls.

Sure, that's it. I'm just paranoid! Why didn't I think of that? This fear is unrealistic, I don't really have anything to worry about. I should just feel better now that I know the problem is just me. Thank you society for letting me know it's me, not the violent offenders or societal reinforcements, that is the problem. WHAT A CROCK!

The facts: women are nearly 10 times more likely than men to be harmed by someone they know. They are more likely than men to be harmed in their own home. The types of violence that are more prevalent against women are horrific, life altering and intimate; domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence (rape, assault, harassment and trafficking), women's bodies used as battlefields of war (DR of Congo, comfort women), violent traditional practices (genital mutilation, body alterations, infanticide). There is no arena in which women can feel that the odds of being safe are in their favor.

Then their are the institutional/societal/structural practices and ideologies that provide the environment that is conductive to violence: discrimination, xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, deviance, hierarchy. This is the big picture. This is where it all stems from. This is the source of the problem and the direction of my advocacy, activism and feminism.
Without going into the long explanation of how society factors not only cause but encourage violence, and without providing the research and statistical basis of this theory (we'll save that for future posts & more detailed writings) I'd like to address how this relates to parenting, particularly mothering, and feminism. It is not only important for us to prepare our children to navigate and survive in this world but to parent them in such a was as to evolve humanity as a species.

Feminism, in its simplest definition, is the belief in the equality of men and women. But, Feminism is not just a belief. It is an ideology, a practice, a study, a movement, a revolution, a culture and a lifestyle. True feminism requires more than idle discourse. It requires an aspect of activism to radically change these societal factors to encourage an environment that is not hostile to our daughters, our children of color, our poor, our gay sons, our transgendered, our elders, our marginalized, our "others."

It is necessary as a parent to lead by example. To show our children what their efforts can do to change this world and not simply tell them that they have this potential. We must become their inspiration, their mentors by modeling the behavior we want them to learn. We must use our feminism and our activism as vital tools of parenting to raise children that can think critically about the world and are not afraid to challenge the dominant power structures in the name of justice and equality. We must parent in such a way as to produce adults that are open minded and see all people as deserving of respect and a peaceful living. We must parent to raise children that do not feel that the needs and desires of one person, not even their own, are more important than meeting the needs and desires of another.

So, if I am to be a mother, I must also be a feminist. The former is reliant on the latter. One cannot successfully be a mother without also being a feminist. And, one cannot successfully be a feminist without being an activist. Feminism must be my ideology, my practice, my study, my movement, my revolution, my culture and my lifestyle.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

No Y chromosomes in this womb

It's a girl.

Since I was 3 months pregnant, people have been asking me:

-- "What are you having?"
-- "Um a BABY. I didn't get knocked up by a poodle."

Of course, after that exchange, I get some disgusted response where I'm called a smart ass.

There are also those that assume I want a girl and try to convince me so. Truthfully, I don't want a girl. I don't want a boy either. I want a baby and that's exactly what I've got.

Eventually, as people realized I was getting closer to the time I would actually be able to know if indeed I was having either/or, the question became: "Are you going to find out the gender?" or "Do you know the gender yet?" Most of the time, I'd just gently correct them and say "No, we don't know the SEX yet, but yes we will find out." Other times, I was my usual smart ass self. "Babies don't have a gender, but we will be finding out the sex." If I was in a particularly bad mood, I'd say, "What difference does it make?"

After asserting several times to people that indeed it didn't matter to us what the sex of the child is, I would often get questioned about why I chose to find out in the first place. "If it doesn't matter then why find out?" Of course, they think they have me at this point. I have 3 reasons for wanting to find out the sex of my baby:

1. My partner wanted to know. He has a little girl and was hoping to have a boy this go 'round. His daughter also really wanted a little brother. I could have let him find out but that would have drove me crazy. Especially since he's the type that likes to joke around and he'd certainly taunt me with his knowledge.

2. I'm curious (read: nosy). Hence the reason him knowing and me not knowing would have drove me up a wall.

3. I wanted to be able to prepare myself to some small degree for how to approach parenting this child.

Granted, I believe that boys and girls can do the same things and should be allowed the same privileges, opportunities, and support. That's not the aspect of parenting I'm talking about. I'm talking about preparing my child for the pressures of society. Society treats children differently based on their sex and I need to prepare my child for that. I need to prepare myself for it. How would handle it if my little boy says he was called a sissy? How would I handle my little girl coming home and telling me someone called her fat or ugly? How about when they want to do something not usually associated with their gender and face resistance? These are all concerns of mine and having this pre-birth opportunity to prepare myself is critical to me.

I don't care about what color to paint the nursery or what color clothes to buy. Those things are irrelevant. I'm concerned about the challenges my child will face as a result of this social construct we call gender. I'm concerned about my own emotional reaction to those challenges and my ability to response intellectually and NOT emotionally.

Why do we feel the need to gender children? Why do so many confuse gender with sex?

There is this idea that the dominant culture is the yard stick against which we must all be measured. We have made strides toward (although have not by far conquered) the acceptance of ethnic, racial and religious differences. But, gender/sex stereotype seem to cross all boundaries. It is easy for us to believe that it is OK for one to be of a religion that differs from the dominant Christian culture we live in. It is much more difficult to believe that little girls aren't fragile and dainty or that women are not emotional because of our hormones, but because of the way we were socialized.

Socialization is such an unconscious process that most people cannot accept that its results are not natural/biological/innate. It baffles people that I intend to intentionally socialize my child in such a way that she will be aware of and capable of taking advantage of all options available to her. She will be conscious of society's idea of "appropriate" gender and sex roles, aware that she is not bound by these so called "appropriate" roles, and equipped to handle the backlash she will undoubtedly recieve when she goes against them.

So, this battle with people about buying my child pink or blue gifts isn't really about pink or blue; it's about realizing that the rainbow is not a dichotomy, nor is my child's gender. I have no doubt that she will have some pink in her wordrobe, but she will also have an array of other choices. I don't feel the need to bombard her with society's idea of what's appropriate for a girl child. I don't think she should only have dolls and kitchen sets to play with. She'll have Tonka trucks and a chemistry set, and a basketball too.

As much as she's been kicking lately, I think we should give her room a soccer theme. Maybe she'll play professional soccer someday. It would justify all these kicks to the bladder (and the resulting trips to the bathroom). I could say it was just practice.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Thou shalt not feel guilty (about hating your pregnancy)

Since I found out I was pregnant, there has a been a constant battle between my feminism and my pending motherhood. I have wanted to be a parent for some time now but infertility had stood in our way. I had resolved to the fact that I may never have a child and decided that my activism, education and love of my partner were enough for me. This is not to say that I didn't still long for a child, but that I didn't feel incomplete without one. I felt my life had purpose and meaning already and I was quite content.

Just before my final semester of college, I found out I was pregnant. I was thrilled and so was my partner, O'Neil. We were both taken by surprise but this was only the beginning of the surprises for me. O'Neil already has a daughter from his previous marriage. This is my first pregnancy. I was terribly sick in the first trimester and felt I had lost control of my body. This was the first test of my feminist beliefs and it would eventually change my outlook on both feminism and motherhood. I am an extremely independent person. Morning sickness forced me to have to rely on others. I couldn't cook for myself and often I just couldn't get my body to do what I wanted it to. I had indeed lost control. I felt guilty at the twinges of resentment I was starting to feel toward my child. I battled with feeling like a bad mother because I hated what this pregnancy was doing to me. I had to examine my feelings and try to make sense of them.

It took a lot of reflection to come to the conclusion that I wasn't wrong for hating the effects pregnancy had on my body. I also took to affectionately calling my growing embryo a leech or parasite and described the early months of pregnancy as having a stomach bug that lasted 10 weeks. I stopped feeling guilty for being miserable. I realized that being a parent, but particularly being a mother, meant that there were sacrifices and struggles that came with it. The biggest and most important realization that came after that was that I didn't have to like it and that I wasn't wrong to complain about it.

Every part of my life has been a struggle and although I hated parts of that struggle, it has made me who I am and I don't regret having to struggle. Struggling has made me appreciate everything more. So, while pregnancy is a great struggle, a struggle I do not particularly like, it does not reflect on how I feel about the child resulting from it.

This realization came in part by my examination of the societal influences on women's views of motherhood. We are taught that if we do not love and enjoy all parts of motherhood that we are in turn "bad" mothers. I had to confront these feelings within myself, and very often with those around me, that made me feel as if my disgust with the ill effects of pregnancy made me a "bad" mother. I decided that my ability to be a good mother was not incumbent upon my being a masochist. I don't have to enjoy and love the pangs pregnancy to enjoy and love my child, nor do I have to grin and bear it just because society makes us believe that to complain about the negatives of motherhood means that we are less than adequate parents.

While I have resolved this issue within myself, it is still a challenge with those I encounter outside my exclusive circle of feminist friends. My partner, although light years ahead of many men, still responds to my pregnancy complaints with "well, you're pregnant" as if that is supposed to erase the aching back, random vomiting, stretching and pulling, hemorrhoids and the many other discomforts of pregnancy. Or, now that I'm further along, when I'm waiting on a table and the baby kicks me in the bladder and a woman at the table looks at me as if my briefly contorted face was a direct insult to my child.

Oh, and let's not forget those that have questioned my desire to finish my last semester at college and to continue working as long as I possibly can. People actually tell me I won't make it. The best is when I tell people that I want a drug-free birth and they insist I'll be screaming for drugs by the time I'm in labor. Ah and there is my insistence on none of my shower gifts coming from Walmart or that nothing be pink. "Well then what do you want me to get her blue?" Yes, because pink and blue are the only two colors in the spectrum. Oh but these last for are topics for future posts. With all this outrage, can't you see the need for a blog?