Archive for July, 2009

I’m aware that the standard feminist position is to cast a jaded eye on medicine extending its authority over the female body. (In my academic life, I’ve spent hundreds of pages doing just this, with enough footnotes to sink the Queen Mary.) Versions of the birth control pill such as Seasonale (which allows for four periods per year) and Lybrel (which eliminates them entirely) represent further medicalization of women’s bodies. I agree with the assessment of the National Women’s Health Network: Women should have the option of menstrual suppression, but the drug companies need to knock off shaming women about their periods.

However, the standard birth control pill also offers some real health benefits beyond preventing unwanted pregnancy, which raises the question of whether menstrual suppression could confer additional benefits. Previous research has shown that the pill offers very substantial protection against the development of ovarian cancer. Now, a new study finds that women who have fewer periods, over a lifetime, are more likely to survive ovarian cancer:

Women whose menstrual periods start at a young age are less likely to survive ovarian cancer than their peers whose periods start later, new research shows. Similarly, women who have more menstrual cycles over their lifetime also have worse survival.

“Although we have relatively good knowledge about the influence of reproductive factors on the risk of developing ovarian cancer, knowledge is rather limited regarding the reproductive factors that may influence survival after diagnosis with this serious disease,” Dr. Cheryl L. Robbins said in a statement.

As reported in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention, Robbins’ group analyzed data from 410 women with ovarian cancer who were enrolled in the Cancer and Steroid Hormone study (1980 to 1982). During 9 years of follow-up, 212 women died.

Menstrual period onset before 12 years of age increased the risk of death by 51 percent relative to periods beginning at age 14 or older.

The results also indicate that patients with the highest number of lifetime menstrual cycles were 67 percent more likely to die during follow-up than were those with the lowest number of cycles.

The 15-year survival rates for women with the most lifetime menstrual cycles and those with the fewest were 33.3 and 56.7 percent, respectively.

(Source: Reuters)

To me, this raises questions about whether Seasonale and Lybrel might reduce the deadliness of ovarian cancer, and not just its likelihood of developing. This study didn’t look at menstrual suppression (I peeked at the original article, which isn’t freely available on the web). The researchers found no statistically significant relationship between use of oral contraception and survival. They thought this was surprising:

We were particularly puzzled by the lack of associations with parity or use of oral contraceptive in adjusted analyses because they accounted for the majority of anovulatory cycles in our cases. However, in unadjusted Kaplan-Meier survival analyses, oral contraceptive use was associated with improved survival, and although not statistically significant, it is noteworthy that HRs [hazard rations] for parity, oral contraceptive use, and breast-feeding were in the protective direction, as expected. It may be that power was limited to detect modest associations due to sample size. Alternatively, it is feasible that combined, the LOC [lifetime ovulatory cycles] component variables become statistically significant in the composite measure. Yet, another possibility is that age at menarche is driving the association between LOC and ovarian cancer survival, but because the HR of high LOC is greater than the HR of younger age at menarche, we find the synergistic explanation more compelling. Finally, we considered what effect additional survival data might have on the observed associations, and because of the lethality of this disease, we think it is unlikely that increasing follow-up would yield very different results from 15-year survival results.

(Cheryl L. Robbins, et al., “Influence of Reproductive Factors on Mortality after Epithelial Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis,” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 18, 2035, July 1, 2009)

So further research would be required to determine whether artificially stopping periods confers the same protection as late menarche and fewer lifetime menstrual cycles. It’s unlikely that many women in the study would have had a history of menstrual suppression, since the pills promoted for this purpose are still relatively new. (Of course, it’s long been possible to use regular birth control pills to stop periods, too, but it was never a common practice.)

Let’s posit, for the sake of argument, that future studies show that artifical suppresion of periods conferred better survival odds. Wouldn’t this be just one more step toward greater medicalization of women’s bodies? Not inevitably. There’s little reason to force women to get a prescription for the pill. Few drugs have been more closely scrutinized, by now. It’s safety profile is good enough that it could be an over-the-counter product. In Great Britain, the Lancet has called for the pill to be sold without prescription.

Here in the U.S., some ob/gyns might oppose an OTC pill. Birth control prescriptions are one of the main levers for getting women to show up for an annual exam. But by the same reasoning, you could make Tylenol and Advil prescription-only to ensure that everyone gets their check-ups.

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According to a Fox News Poll (via Salon’s War Room), a plurality of Americans think housewifery should, in fact, be Sarah Palin’s next job:

About a third of Americans think the best job for Palin is homemaker (32 percent), while nearly one in five see her as a television talk show host (17 percent). Vice president of the United States comes in third (14 percent), followed closely by college professor (10 percent), with president coming last (6 percent).

(More at Faux News.)

This is not just sexist but bizarre, given that Faux News has been one of Palin’s biggest cheerleaders. You’d think they’d want to build up her credentials instead of stereotyping her. As Alex Koppelman at War Room notes, the “housewife” option would never have been posed for a man. Seriously! Imagine asking whether Dick Cheney ought to become a househusband! Sure, lots of us would like to see him return to his underground cave – just as I fervently hope Palin will stay in Wasilla – but no one is suggesting Cheney ought to be baking cookies.

Also: WTF made Faux News offer the “college professor” option? And what makes 10 percent of American think Palin would be even remotely qualified? Attending five different colleges isn’t quite the equivalent of earning a Ph.D. What would she teach – public policy? She showed her policy chops in the Couric interview. Geography? History? Sports journalism?

Myself, I like the idea of the Palins starring in their own reality show, which Levi Johnston mentioned as a real possibility.

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This has been my kids second-favorite toy this summer, topped only by the decrepit typewriter they unearthed while we were in Berlin.


It’s the box from our beloved front-porch furniture. The kids have turned it into a house, of course. Two months later, the porch furniture is still wonderful, but the box has achieved a state of transcendent ugliness. Plus it blocks access to the back porch when we store it there to save it from the rain that’s been a daily feature lately.

My husband would like to send this box-house to recycling. I’m hoping it will die a natural death from the kids’ enthusiasm. Fat chance; my boys have a way with packing tape. We can be glad that neither has packed his brother inside and shipped him off to the South Pole.

BoxBarksPack kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

We can be even gladder that they’re entertained … and mostly in a non-malevolent key.


Scary kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

There’s actually solid scientific evidence that a box is the perfect educational toy for cats and kids. Witness Maru:

So I think we’re going to live with the eyesore a little longer. As long as the kids are happy, I can almost call that box beautiful.

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The other day, I found myself thinking that Sonia Sotomayor had been attacked more along racial than gender lines. I’m not sure where I got that idea, because watching this compilation corrected my impression. Her critics seem to have been admirably evenhanded in their bigotry.

(via Sociological Images and Racialicious)

I’d forgotten about G. Gordon Liddy. He’s too ignorant to realize that a woman of Sotomayor’s age likely doesn’t menstruate anymore, and even if she did – no matter how hormones might cloud her judgment – she’d still be clearer-headed that a dude who’s suffering severe testosterone poisoning, like poor Liddy.

Pat Buchanan? This affirmative-action pick was second in her class at Princeton Law. Dude, explain to me how affirmative action got her those grades! Myself, I don’t award extra credit points based on ethnicity, and I’m one of those evil women’s studies professors.

Also, Dennis Miller? Way to go, proving that when racism and sexism intersect, they have specific effects that can’t be predicted by adding up the two oppressions! Thanks for the object lesson in intersectionality! You are a gift to us women’s studies professors! Your “humor,” on the other hand? Totally predictable. Though you do look fetching with that flower clutched between your teeth. And as long as you hold it there, you can’t keep spouting inane and hateful comments.

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Hysperia sent me a link to this story by Louise Marie Roth at the Huff Post, detailing the latest case where a woman was forced to undergo a cesarean section:

In the case, New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services v. V.M. and B.G., the New Jersey appellate court found that V.M. and B.G. had abused and neglected their child, based on the fact that the mother, V.M., refused to consent to a cesarean section and behaved erratically while in labor. The mother gave birth vaginally without incident, and the baby was “in good medical condition.” Then she was never returned to her parents, and the judge in the case approved a plan to terminate their parental rights and give custody of the child to foster parents.

(Read the rest here for Roth’s full explanation of what’s wrong with forced cesareans.)

I agree with Roth that any forced or coerced cesarean – including this one – violates a person’s basic bodily integrity and right to informed consent. I’ve made this argument myself.

But here’s the thing. Roth fatally distorted the appellate court’s decision, as Kate Harding reports at Broadsheet. Harding quotes the appellate court’s reasoning:

The decision to undergo an invasive procedure such as a c-section belongs uniquely to the prospective mother after consultation with her physicians. To allow such a decision to factor into potential charges of abuse or neglect requires a prospective mother to subjugate her personal decision to a governmental agency’s statutory interpretation creating a scenario that was neither contemplated nor incorporated within the four corners of the relevant statutory language. Her decision on matters as critical as this invasive procedure must be made without interference or threat. V.M.’s decision to forego a c-section had no place in these proceedings.

Harding notes that the appellate court did uphold termination of V.M.’s parental rights, and that this would likely not have happened if her refusal of a c-section hadn’t already been framed as negligence and triggered scrutiny by the state. But once V.M. and B.G. were in the system, no court could ignore evidence of their unfitness. The couple failed to show up for a custody hearing, a psychologist was allegedly assaulted during a home visit, and another psychiatrist eventually found V.M. to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for which she refused medication. For these reasons, the appellate court ruled that the baby belonged in foster care. Harding is agnostic about whether the higher court decided correctly, and I agree that we don’t know enough to judge the case, ourselves.

But reporters and bloggers need to acknowledge that this case isn’t solely about forced cesareans. In our zeal to defend reproductive rights, it doesn’t help to fudge the facts. We can condemn the doctors and the lower court for violating V.M.’s basic right to bodily integrity and autonomy. At the same time, we can and should celebrate the appellate court’s clear judgment, which reaffirms that women enjoy those basic rights  – even when they’re pregnant.

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I know I swore off Palinology, so can we book this post as Shatner blogging?

posted with vodpod

(via Alas and Mudflats)

Or, as Jerry used to sing: “The sky was yellow and the sun was blue.”

Also, I don’t think I’m too naive, but if you happen to know what Cheechakos are, would you please let me know?

Here’s the transcript as provided by Mudflats:

And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show.  Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun.  And then the extremes.  In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?  And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving  and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins.  It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.  That is what we get to see every day.  Now what the rest of America gets to see along with us is in this last frontier there is hope and opportunity and there is country pride.

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I haven’t seen our bunnies since I returned from Germany. They’re probably pouting about the cage we put over my chard. So I got all excited when I heard a rustling sound while my husband and I were sitting on the front porch.

It wasn’t a bunny. It was a squirrel, having a big fight with this:


The pic is a little blurry, but yep, that’s Hershey’s chocolate syrup. I know it’s not from our recycling because I only go for the Special Dark syrup.

Here you can see the holes he’d already punctured in it.


He then scrambled up the silver maple tree with the bottle still in his mouth …


… and climbed higher, higher …


… until he dropped it!


He tried and failed at least once more before we gave him some privacy. Since I haven’t seen a Hershey’s bottle anyway near that tree, I hope he finally managed to tuck it into a high fork and gorge himself silly.

I’m also hoping chocolate isn’t lethal to squirrels; the Intertoobs tell me it’s not, but what do they know? I kinda like the little critters, even though they’re pesky rodents who tore up our last rainbow flag. My grandma used to feed them, and it was some of her best entertainment; there’s not much else to do when you’re 85 or 90, outliving most of your friends in a dying North Dakotan town where you only get two TV channels on a good day. I’d like to think of this squirrely chocolate treat as carrying on her tradition in some small way.

This nutty little guy is not the first squirrel on record for liking chocolate. Two years ago, a squirrel in Helsinki had his 15 minutes of fame for stealing Kinder Surprise Eggs (milk chocolate eggs with a toy inside them) from a supermarket. It was smart enough to unwrap the foil from the egg, eat the chocolate, and then abscond with the toy. Finnish authorities eventually banned the squirrel from the store, citing food safety concerns.

If that sounds paranoid, consider that Kinder Surprise Eggs are banned entirely in the U.S. – evidently because they violate a 1938 law that prohibits mixing confections and non-food items. I’m baffled at this; I don’t see any difference between the toys in Kinder Eggs and the trinkets that came in every Crackerjack box of my childhood. In fact, the Kinder toys are easier to isolate from the food because they’re always inside the chocolate egg and also enclosed in a yellow plastic egg! And what about fortune cookies??!

The chocoloate is really quite abysmal, but the toys are fun enough that during my early months in Germany, some other grad students and I used to buy Kinder Eggs just to see what toy we’d get. If your toy consisted of a bunch of tiny pieces that required assembly, you know you’d scored. My kids love them so much they soaked their dad for eight or ten of ‘em over the month we were in Berlin.

I’m sure there’s be a massive market for Kinder Eggs in the U.S. – if only our regulators weren’t quite so squirrely.

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I’ve long been skeptical of the whole concept of an “emotional affair” – the idea that a close, possibly flirtatious friendship constitutes betrayal of one’s marriage vows. But it just recently struck me, as I read this article at Redbook (via Rebecca Woolf at Girl’s Gone Child and figleaf), that emotional affairs are being constructed as women’s work.

Even the title of the Redbook story conveys the idea that women might be especially susceptible to this form of cheating: “Are You Having an Emotional Affair?” The second-person pronoun, aimed at the female reader, contrasts strikingly with a whole genre of women’s magazine articles that fall under the rubric of “how to know when your husband is having an affair.” You’d never see an article titled “Are You Having an Affair?” Presumably the reader would already know the answer to that question.

But the title question, as it’s phrased, evokes insecurity and self-doubt – and deliberately so, because the article’s first premise is that you could be having an emotional affair and not even know it. The author, Heather Johnson Durocher, starts off in a confessional register. She was flirting with a guy at work. Though they never so much as touched each other, she admits she was having an affair with him. Yet she was oblivious to the fact!

Our conversations turned to easy banter and later — I have a hard time admitting this even now — flirtation. Our e-mails, which could number several in one day, never included outright expressions of affection toward each other. Instead, our notes were mostly business peppered with friendly sparring. We shared a similar sense of humor. I felt that he got me.

I told myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I had to talk with this guy for work, after all. And couldn’t I have a friend who happened to be male? I also told my husband about him, even sharing when we’d meet for coffee or lunch (always scheduled with the intention of discussing business). My husband, busy with a demanding job, trusted me completely.

In the midst of working part-time and caring for a preschooler, a toddler, and, later, a new baby, e-mailing and talking with John felt like an innocent escape. I never would have said at the time that I was in a bad marriage — my husband and I got along well; we just didn’t have a lot of quality alone time together — and I had no intention of crossing any physical line. But I increasingly found myself sharing more and more of my hopes and dreams with John instead of just with my husband. I anticipated my regular interactions with John in a way that was all too consuming. And it was John — not my husband — who was beginning to fill a key emotional need in my life. I was, in fact, unknowingly cheating on my husband; I was having an emotional affair.

And you, too, dear reader, could be cheating on your husband! Are you sure you’re not? How sure are you? Do you ever flirt with a man other than your husband? Do you have any close male friends? Then you’d better read on, and be prepared to admit your own guilt.

The article continues by telling other women’s stories and quoting the usual “experts” that populate women’s magazines. Not one of these stories is told from the man’s perspective. Durocher never suggests that her colleague John might have found their friendship equally exciting. This exclusive focus on the women’s stories gives the impression that emotional affairs are something women engage in – but men don’t. And yet, just as with an actual, sexual affair, it takes two to tango – or two to talk. (Because by definition, that’s all an “emotional affair” is – talk: confidences, emails, shared jokes, compliments. If it crosses the line to being explicitly sexual, then it’s just a plain old-fashioned affair.)

Can you imagine an article like this appearing in, say, Maxim? I just searched Maxim’s website, as well as the combined website for GQ and Details, for “emotional affair” and got – predictably – no hits. I didn’t bother searching Playboy.

The idea that women are peculiarly susceptible to emotional affairs echoes the idea that women aren’t really interested in sex, anyway. It reinforces the stereotype that our real desire is for deep emotional relationships, and sex matters only as a means to that end. The “emotional affair” short-circuits the expected pattern by cutting straight to the emotional bond without the physical contact. Durocher says she had no intention of getting physical; a slightly flirtatious friendship provided what she was missing at home. None of the women in the article is portrayed as wanting to actually have sex with the men who’ve caught their fancy. But one story ends when the man, Bobby, wants to do more than hold hands with the woman, Toni. The implication is that men might be using the emotional connection to try to ignite a full-fledged affair.

Women are thus positioned as the gatekeepers of emotional affairs. It’s up to them to say no, to manage emotions, to resist temptation. This is tricky, though, because on the one hand, Durocher admits that she didn’t know she was cheating on her husband. On the other hand, she claims:

The signs of an emotional affair may be more subtle than those of a sexual affair, but they’re just as unmistakable.

So it’s up to the (female) reader to know those signs and retreat at the first sign of danger. All the onus is on her, while the man bears no responsibility. This is just an extension of women’s traditional duty to monitor the emotional health of their relationships, which every women’s mag from Cosmo to the Ladies’ Home Journal reinforces every month.

The concept of an “emotional affair” assumes that all opposite-sex friendships need to be closely policed as a threat to one’s marriage. It’s a throwback to an era when partners were expected not to have opposite sex friends. I thought that idea died around 1970. Apparently not.

The concept is also deeply heteronormative. It constructs heterosexual attraction as irresistible while erasing even the possibility of same-sex desire. And yet, we all know that people can cheat with a same-sex partner. Given the evidence that women’s sexuality may be more flexible (or at least our culture permits it to be more fluid than men’s), this would imply that nominally heterosexual women should also vigilantly police their friendships with other women. While I was in Berlin, I went out for drinks with two girlfriends of mine who both have a history of sexual experiences with other women. Should my husband have been worried?

As Lynn Gazis-Sax points out, this paranoid view means “you’re pretty much screwed if you’re bisexual, or a woman working in a male field who needs mentors.” I’d add that any workplace is a potential minefield. It might be safer for women to just retreat to their kitchens!

The very definition of an emotional affair further presumes that caring is a zero-sum game. Here, too, the Redbook article calls on women to manage and budget their emotions:

And even if you never so much as touch him, this emotional attachment has just as much potential as a sexual fling to damage your marriage. “We only have so much emotional energy; the more of it we spend outside of our marriage, the less we have inside our marriage,” says [psychotherapist M. Gary] Neuman. “And after a while, we simply do not have enough emotions and love and caring and time for both.”

I’m skeptical of this idea that our capacity for caring is limited. I’m not arguing here for polyamory or open relationships (that’s a separate issue). I’m just saying that if you take the idea of emotional scarcity seriously, any close friendship – no matter how asexual – becomes a form of cheating. Logically, this would imply that heterosexual women shouldn’t share their deepest thoughts and feelings with their platonic female friends; they should hold their friends at a certain distance. And ditto for men, though they don’t tend to talk feelings as much as women.

But I don’t see how emotionally isolating married people from all other sources of support is going to strengthen their relationship. This looks to me more like a recipe for emotional starvation and marital instability. It’s blindingly obvious that no single relationship, no matter how satisfying, can give us everything we need. I’m glad that my husband has friends, both male and female, in whom he can confide, because I don’t imagine that I should be his whole world. I’d consider it a sign of trouble if either of us resented the other’s friendships. These “experts” don’t seem to realize that friends can help us meet those needs that our partners leave unmet, as well as allowing us to vent and gain perspective. Or maybe they’d prefer that we go straight to a therapist instead of first turning to our friends for support whenever our relationship hits a snag. (The cynic in me wonders if the reason psychologists discovered “emotional affairs” was to help drum up business.)

Certainly a flirtation can become a run-up to an actual affair. The “sexually charged” emails mentioned by one of Durocher’s interviewees cross that line in my book, if they were explicitly sexual and not just lightly flirtatious. But wouldn’t men and women alike be better served by ditching the term emotional affair? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the real problem that every woman in the Redbook article shares – a moribund marriage – instead of stigmatizing behavior that’s primarily a symptom of her marital difficulties?

The flirtations Durocher describes do signal real trouble. They’re warnings that couples have drifted painfully far apart – that they’ve become mere roommates. And when a flirtation is a red flag for a troubled marriage, both participants in the flirting should take heed. How should they respond? Again, the article discusses only the wife’s side of the story:

[The experts] say it’s not imperative that you admit your affair to your husband — in fact, you may even hurt him needlessly by doing so—some women don’t feel like they can fully move on unless they come clean. After she cut things off with Bobby, Toni opted to tell her husband about the situation. “He was hurt that I’d been sharing personal thoughts with another man,” she says, “but he was mostly relieved that nothing physical had happened.” The couple is in the midst of trying to find a marital counselor, and Toni is hopeful she can rebuild her marriage.

First, if Toni hadn’t confessed, she might well have averted outright crisis. She’d held hands with Bobby one time over dinner, but she made a clean break when he wanted to go further, physically. Clearing her conscience came at the expense of breaking her husband’s trust in her. While the article notes that confessing may not be necessary, it doesn’t provide any examples of women who moved on without confessing. Its emotional impact comes from describing the emotional wreckage in the wake of confession or discovery. Indeed, because Durocher frames the article with her personal story of an “emotional affair,” the article’s entire structure encourages and celebrates confession as a route to redemption.

Secondly, notice that Toni is described as rebuilding her marriage on her own. While she unilaterally touched off a crisis with her confession, restoring trust will make demands on both partners. So will redressing the marriage’s underlying deficits. No way can she do all that alone.

Instead of clearing one’s conscience through confession, doesn’t it make more sense to skip straight to the article’s final recommendation – paying more attention to one’s partner and marriage? Trying to revitalize a dull or dying marriage is emotionally risky. But that seems to me a far more fruitful path to take (and a less hurtful one, to boot) than wallowing in a bad conscience about flirtatious emails or secret attractions. It would skip the guilt and stigma and address the real problem.

Then again, if Redbook couldn’t package and sell a guilty conscience, the whole notion of an emotional affair would dissolve into air. As would this article. As would the ad revenue that rolls in whenever magazines push women’s guilty-me buttons.

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Not literally – but the spirit of the TSA is flourishing abroad, just as paranoid as here but without the friendly smile you sometimes get from TSA employees.

Last month I wrote about how airport security in Brussels searched inside the waistband of my older son’s pants. I realize they’ve got to be thorough, but my goodness, the Bear is nine years old.

This week, on our way out of Europe, officials in Berlin decided we had a suspicious amount of electronics in our carry-ons. They informed us that they’d need to check several of our bags for explosives. And then they ordered both my husband and me to come with them.

We said, “Um, our kids are nine and six. You aren’t seriously suggesting we leave them here alone at the gate?”

Yes, they were.

My husband and I said, no. That won’t work. And we repeated it until finally the guard said huffily, “Well, if your husband can carry all the bags, then you can stay here.” By then the Bear was in tears.

Are we feeling safer yet?

Update  7/26/09: In comments, Sora points out that Southeast Asia, where she’s traveled extensively, wouldn’t treat kids this way. So maybe this sort of misbehavior is peculiar to the Western world.

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Plant butternut squash too close to my tomatoes, that is.

During the month I was in Germany, my butternut vines wound their way through several rows of tomato cages and out the other side. Look closely at the jungle below and you’ll see lots of large leaves that are clearly not tomato-esque.


The mondo vines then spawned a massive squash that’s hanging about three feet above ground. (Note also the blossom forming next to it – yikes!)


The butternut vines are also invading my chard cage (where the chard is not flourishing quite as hoped; I’d had to replant thanks to my rabbit friends).


As predicted, my summer squash is indeed under attack by squash vine borers, but I did harvest an oversized yellow squash, as big as my forearm, which is destined to become muffins and a frittata. I’m not sure, but I think that the damaged plant may have managed to re-root itself after the evil larvae severed the vine at its base. We sucked up one adult vine borer with the dust buster. I’m sure it’s only the vanguard. The picture shows a bit of the dead foliage.


The “summer squash seed mix” also produced a blobular fruit that looks suspiciously like a spaghetti squash. If anyone can ID it positively, let me know! It sure as sin doesn’t look anything like any summer squash I’ve seen.


That’s basil duking it out with the squash.

I’ve also got a couple of delicata squash, a nice mess of purple pole beans, lots of green tomatoes, and a few ripe Sungolds. My tomatoes are struggling a bit, with some yellowing/dying foliage that looks distressingly like early blight. (You can see it in the jungle photo at the top of the post.) My peppers are sulking, as per usual.

Apart from the tree growing out of the edge of the garden, we’ve got no real weed issues. That is, unless you consider my squash a weed, which might not be far off. Once again, yay for mulch!

But mostly, we’re just waiting for tomatoes to ripen. The ones my husband bought today – at the farmer’s market, no less – were downright crunchy.

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We’re trying to declutter the storage space in our Berlin apartment. My husband hauled out an old plastic crate where he’d stashed an old bath mat – and discovered the silly thing had liquidified.

We just spent the last half hour removing apparent oil drips from the linoleum. I’d provide a picture but I’m still feeling so greasy, I’d rather not touch my camera.

Don’t you think it’s a little freaky that in less than a decade, a petroleum-based rug can start decomposing and actually go all the way back to its origins? I’m not sure if this is heartening or alarming when it comes to the plastics in our landfills.

Ashes to ashes; oil to oil.

And man, am I glad my husband is so adept at climing ladders (this crate and other equally valuable items were stored on a platform above the entryway; they are all headed for the landfill tomorrow). It’s the best argument for marriage I can think of at the moment: I don’t care how sexes and genders combine, it’s just awfully useful if one of them isn’t a total klutz on a ladder. I’ll admit to being hopelessly girly, that way.

Oh, and if posting is light (both intellectually and numerically) over the next couple of days, it’s because I’m in transit back to Ohio. Tomorrow’s the packapalooza, and Thursday we fly home (Berlin-Frankfurt-Washington/Dulles-Columbus, if you’re the sort who likes to fret along with my mama until all the planes have safely landed).

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Following up on yesterday’s post on the romanticization of labor pain: The other evening, my sons were watching clips on YouTube, and suddenly I heard the sort of moans that made me wonder if they’d stumbled onto YouPorn instead. But no. They’d found a “Maulwurf” video illustrating how birth works. “Der kleine Maulwurf” – or “The Little Mole” – was an animated Czechoslovakian kids’ TV show with a big German following. But you don’t need to understand German or Czech to follow it, since the stories are wordless. Here’s “The Little Mole and Birth”:

It’s hard not to notice that the rabbits’ courting rituals perfectly follow human stereotypes. In the book version, the sexism is even more blatant. The male rabbit, Mümmel, has to offer gifts to the female, Mümmeline, and she first plays coy, “like lady rabbits are supposed to do.” I burst out laughing while reading it to the kids, and they got the message that this is pretty silly.

But you’ve got to love how the second and third baby bunnies come rolling out like bowling balls. Also, Mümmeline’s hairdo is wonderful; add a mustache and she could be a member of Three Dog Night. In the book, she’s got a wonderful 1970s perm. And the sun has bunny teeth.


By the way, the picture above depicts bunny sex. Just in case you were wondering.


Here’s the father-to-be panicking as labor begins. Note the vibrations emanating from Mümmeline’s belly.


The assortment of medical tools is a little less alarming in the book than in the video, where the forceps can be plainly seen.


An owl serves as a midwife, while the mole assists her. My kids figured out that the mole is using a crude stethoscope. Then the Tiger wanted to know if the opening is from Mümmeline’s butt, so that led into a good conversation about how babies actually do come out (which the Bear was a bit smug about already understanding) and a chance to discuss the correct names for all those parts. I’ve already explained this to the Tiger, who’s long been preoccupied with “how persons make persons,” but he’s a visual kid and I think he needed an illustration in order to get it.


And then – darn it! – the book echoes the same ideas about sacrificial motherhood that I criticized in my last post. The original text says:

“Look, the first baby bunny will be here in a moment. You can already see his little snoot!” the mole cried in excitement. But it didn’t go that fast. Before a child sees the light of day, his mother has to endure some pain. She loves her child all the more when it arrives.

This story is from the late 1990s, not the 1960s! And yet it’s totally stuck in the old paradigm of suffering as the root of good mothering! I cheated a little in translating it: “And she loves her baby very much when it’s finally there.” That’s the truth as I’ve known and lived it. I was grateful for my epidurals. I experienced pretty severe pain in early labor (starting off with contractions every three minutes). Neither the pain nor the blessed relief made any difference in how much I love my kids.

I do appreciate that the story doesn’t just omit the pain altogether. My kids were interested in how bad the pain is (“very bad”) and whether the baby feels it too (“probably, because it’s a tight squeeze”). The Bear opined that it’s harder with the first baby because it’s the first time everything gets stretched, and I said yep, that’s true. They didn’t need sugarcoating (though I did mention that I got help relieving the pain). Nor did they need to hear that my love for them arose out of suffering (which might well make them feel guilty). They just needed to hear the facts in a calm, reassuring tone.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say that the Maulwurf is the ideal vehicle for sex ed, but it’s awfully cute, and it sparked some good conversations about sex and birth. I don’t believe in having “The Talk.” I think it’s far better to discuss different aspects of sexuality and reproduction as they come up, following my kids’ questions and curiosity, and keeping the responses age-appropriate. So far, so good – although the Tiger may well believe that babies come rolling out like bowling balls.

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A few days ago, a friend of mine who’s expecting her first baby emailed me, wondering if she should plan for a “natural” birth or give in to the “temptation” of an epidural. I don’t know what she’ll decide (and honestly, both are reasonable choices, in my view), but I pointed out that she was using the language of moralistic judgment. She’s a very smart and reflective person, and yet the words she used already condemned one choice as illicit. It’s telling, I think, that these words are the available ones, particularly for educated women concerned about doing everything right.

Hard on the heels of our conversation comes this British professor of midwifery, Denis Walsh, who’s been getting lots of attention for claiming that experiencing labor pain makes you a better mother. Here’s how the Guardian laid out his position:

More women should endure the agony of labour because pain-relieving drugs, including epidural injections, carry serious medical risks, diminish childbirth as a rite of passage and undermine the mother’s bond with her child.

These claims from Dr Denis Walsh, one of the country’s most influential midwives, have prompted a furious reaction, with other experts saying he has exaggerated the risks of having an epidural. Official figures show that the number of mothers-to-be who receive an epidural, general or spinal anaesthetic has soared in recent years to 36.5%. [Note that these are British statistics; U.S. figures are likely higher.]

Walsh, a senior midwife and associate professor in midwifery at Nottingham University, argues that many women avoid experiencing the discomfort of childbirth because hospital maternity staff are too quick to offer an epidural or agree to a woman in labour’s request for a pain-killing injection in her back to ease her suffering.

“A large number of women want to avoid pain. Some just don’t fancy the pain [of childbirth]. More women should be prepared to withstand pain,” he told the Observer. “Pain in labour is a purposeful, useful thing, which has quite a number of benefits, such as preparing a mother for the responsibility of nurturing a newborn baby.” …

“Over recent decades there has been a loss of ‘rites of passage’ meaning to childbirth, so that pain and stress are viewed negatively,” said Walsh. Patients should be told that labour pain is a timeless component of the “rites of passage” transition to motherhood, he added.

While Walsh has found some support among feminist bloggers for challenging the medicalization of birth, he’s also been roundly criticized: Anna N. at Jezebel says he’s setting new mothers up for a lifetime of being judged. The bloggers at Broadsheet, to a woman, chose epidurals and have no regrets; the reject the idea that those who don’t suffer birth pangs (like, say, fathers!) will be better parents, and Amy Benfer suggests that Walsh’s position “smacks of sadism.” Figleaf points out that the curse of Genesis applied to Adam, too, yet men aren’t considered morally superior if they avoid “painful toil.” Dr. Amy Tuteur at The Skeptical OB notes that “the claim about endorphins and bonding is entirely fabricated; it was made up by Michel Odent.”

Yep. That’s all true. Tuteur’s reference to Odent is particularly telling, because he’s one of the fathers of  “natural” childbirth, along with Grantly Dick-Read and Fernand Lamaze. While female midwives picked up the idea of natural childbirth and ran with it, and many mothers enthusiastically embraced it, it was originally the brainchild of male physicians.

But the original promise of natural childbirth was not to create better mothers through suffering. Quite the contrary; it was to greatly reduce or eliminate pain. Dick-Read believed that labor pain was largely due to fear and tension. His theory relied heavily on what we’d now see as racist distinctions between “primitive”African women, who allegedly gave birth painlessly because of their closeness to nature, and “civilized” European women. The original Lamaze technique used Pavlovian conditioning to train women to relax and ideally eliminate pain. Ina Mae Gaskin, who’s probably America’s most famous midwife, redefined contractions as rushes and contended that women could learn to transmute the pain into productive effort. (I don’t know if she still makes the claim that women can achieve a pain-free birth through the power of their minds, but that’s what she originally contended in her book, Spiritual Midwifery.)

So Walsh’s position is actually much closer to Odent’s and quite far from Dick-Read and Lamaze. What changed between the early 1960s, when natural childbirth was first popularized, and today? Well, women no longer need to choose between consciousness and pain relief. Epidurals offer both, unlike Twilight Sleep or other opiate-based techniques. Culturally, motherhood has optional. We’ve mostly left Freudian mother-blaming behind us, but in its place has arisen a standard of intensive mothering that no woman can ever perfectly meet.

It’s ironic that the attempt to sell natural childbirth by equating pain with better mothering is occurring in Anglo-American discourse. Originally, it was American women who most vocally demanded better obstetric pain relief in the early 1900s, following the invention of Twilight Sleep. They were far more organized and vociferous than their counterparts in Germany, where the technique originated. Although strong religious objections against relieving labor pain persisted into the late 1800s in the United States, ether and chloroform had been commonly used since early in the post-Civil War era. British, women, too, embraced pain relief fairly zealously after Queen Victoria quelled the controversy over chloroform by choosing for her eight delivery in 1853, though working-class women remained more skeptical into the twentieth century.

The historical adoption of pain relief in labor both reflected and helped to constitute new ideals of motherhood as less about suffering and more about love. Motherhood became less identified with complete self-sacrifice and more compatible with legal and social personhood. Where backlash against this trend occurred – such as in Germany – it was often tangled up with militarism and bellicose nationalism. One German obstetrician who opposed pain relief in labor wrote in 1932 that “humanity must become tougher and more manly again. Learn to suffer without complaining.” He was one of many physicians who worried that women were becoming soft, sentimental, and degenerate, with dire consequences for national health and military fitness. The apparent contradiction of calling for laboring women to become “more manly” is a little less nonsensical in light of the demand for a virile military, which required virile mothers.

I’m not suggesting that women who reject pain relief are complicit with militarism. Not at all. But arguments equating suffering with good motherhood have a very regressive history. Those who would shame women for relieving their pain are part of that tradition.

Which brings me back to my friend, who’s expecting at the end of the summer. I don’t know what choices she’ll finally make. It would be equally bad if she felt pressured to choose an epidural; that happens, too, thanks to medicalization and our idolization of technology. I just hope that whatever she does, she’ll feel free of judgment.

(This post ought to have about 20 footnotes. Anyone who’s really curious can email me: sungold85 [at] gmail [dot] com, or start with Judith Walzer Leavitt’s groundbreaking study, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950. On Grantly Dick-Read and the genesis of natural childbirth, see Tess Cosslett, Women Writing Childbirth: Modern Discourses of Motherhood.)

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I’ll admit to being a fairly generous grader. If students turn in all their work and don’t massively screw up, they should be able to get a C or better from me. Earning an A is a little trickier, and I very occasionally get complaints about this. All in all, though, I’m sure I give higher grades than many of my colleagues in math, engineering, and the sciences.

Soon, though, we may all come under pressure to hand out A’s like candy at the homecoming parade – or at least pass students even if they don’t bother to show up. Earlier this week, my university’s president issued a memo informing us of cuts to higher ed in the new state budget. It included this little bombshell:

The state budget also implements Ohio’s new performance-based funding formula, which focuses on course completions and degrees awarded.

Course completions? Degrees awarded? Hey, these “outcomes” (as the bureaucrats like to say) are largely out of the university’s control. We already do lots of hand-holding. Students have access to free tutoring, writing assistance, and a Student Help Center (which a friend of mine does a fine job of managing). Faculty devote unreasonable amounts of time to advising. We field questions from parents, some of which are very legit (as when a student is struggling with physical or mental health issues), while others are just silly (your kid is old enough to buy his own textbooks!). Many of us email students who stop coming to class and reach out to students who seem troubled; we can’t play therapist but maybe we can listen and provide a helpful adult perspective.

At a certain point, though, students have to do their own part. They have to show up for class. They have to turn in their work on time. They have to study without a parent or instructor leaning over their shoulders.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t see how creating incentives to give away grades, course credits, and degrees is going to help students learn – or make Ohio more “competitive.”

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My Next Life As a Sand Cat

Yes, I’m that shallow. I’d like to be reincarnated as a sand cat just because they are utterly adorable.


I saw this cutie at the Berlin Zoo yesterday. The sand cats in the Columbus Zoo have been out of view for a couple of years while they try to mate, so I hadn’t seen one in ages.


On the other hand, on top of the apparent difficulty in mating, the usual feline butt-cleaning duties aren’t my idea of nirvana. This guy might just agree.


And then there’s the steady diet of rodents and lizards. Sand cats can get all the liquid they need from their prey when the desert is perfectly arid. But they can’t avoid an all-raw-meat, all-the-time diet. For me as a mostly-vegetarian, that’d be a dealbreaker.

Still, after three days of non-stop sightseeing with my kids and visiting relatives, sleeping in an underground burrow – no matter how sandy – sounds pretty grand. (Mind you, I’m not complaining; I’m grateful that I had enough energy for it. Compared with when I fell sick in January, this is huge progress.)

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Caroline of Loserdust has just put up the 20th Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy. I’m included (yay! thanks, Caroline) with my post, Twisting the Meaning of “Sex Class,” but since you’ve probably read that one, head on over to Caroline’s joint for a collection of feminist writing ranging from sex work to masturbation to women as agents of lust. Lots of yummy, smart stuff. Enjoy!

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Hint: One thing intersectionality is not? Silly.**

Here’s what intersectionality is good for. It reminds us that the same person can be both an oppressed person and an oppressor, depending on how you turn the prism. I might be oppressed as a woman, but if I refuse to pay my housecleaner a decent wage? I’m an oppressor. If I fail to teach my kids that same-sex love is just as groovy as hetero pairings? I’m an oppressor. If I reject the term “cisgendered” because I’d rather just see myself as the norm? I’m an oppressor.

So that’s the first area where intersectionality is useful: It reminds us that we aren’t the only people to face some sort of systematic disadvantage. I might not be on the front lines of other people’s struggles, but I can educate myself, try to be an ally, and at the very least try not to undermine them. I’ll surely fail, because we’re all caught in complicated webs of power/knowledge, we’re all shaped by our upbringing, and we often can’t see our own blind spots. But I’ll fail less egregiously than if I hadn’t tried.

Also, intersectionality points out how different oppressions don’t fit neatly into in separate little boxes. Apostate writes:

If and when my race and gender do “intersect” and I’m jointly oppressed under BOTH headers, I still look at them as separate offenses. He was both a racist AND a sexist to me. The two oppressions don’t somehow meld together to give a unique picture of oppression. There is simply more than one thing going on.

I’m sure this is true of her own experience, but I’m equally certain that it doesn’t describe everyone’s position. Often when two oppressions intersect, each changes the qualitative experience of the other. For example, a statement like “all women are harmed by rape” might seem unproblematic to a white woman. A black woman, however, might be leery of what the statement doesn’t mention – the racialized history of rape, which includes the lynchings of black men on threadbare suspicions of raping white women, and the myth of the black rapist – and how that history has harmed men she loves. Women of color have been directly victimized by rape, to be sure, but they’ve also been indirectly by the cynical use of “rape” as a pretext for harming the men of their community.

Apostate and the post she cites (by Suzie at Echidne of the Snakes) mention two substantitve reasons for doubting the usefulness of intersectionality. They are: the existence of individual circumstances, and the complexity of understanding multiple variables (or axes of oppression). These are legitimate and important concerns, but neither is fatal to intersectionality as concept or method.

First, Apostate and Suzie note that each individual experiences the intersection of oppressions in potentially unique ways. Patricia Hill Collins’ work on intersectionality actually addresses this point. Collins maps oppression onto three dimensions (which she borrows from Sandra Harding): 1) institutional (which includes government agencies, corporations, schools, churches, etc.), 2) symbolic (which is basically the realm of culture and language), and 3) individual (which asks how deeply each person internalizes oppressive ideas). Any of these dimensions can be sites of resistance as well as of oppression. At the individual level, a strong family member, teacher, or mentor can do a lot to mitigate the internalization of oppression.

But recognizing individual variation needn’t obscure the big patterns. Suzie worries that intersectionality, applied like a cookie cutter, can rob women of being seen as individuals living in very particular circumstances, with bad results for the delivery of essential services:

I agree that DV [domestic violence] counselors need to understand why some women don’t want to call the police. But if they assume all WOC [women of color] will be hesitant, they may deny them options or support. Also, some poor whites have little use for the police, and some poor white women don’t want to report abusers either. Ditto for some white immigrant women. Other variables include women of any race whose abusers work for, or have connections to, law enforcement, and WOC who live in areas where the police share their ethnicity. All in all, it seems like the best DV programs consider different options for different clients, without assuming one model works for white women and another for WOC.

(More from Suzie here.)

However, it’s quite possible to be aware of a general pattern of mistrust – or several general patterns, as Suzie outlines – without assuming blindly that the pattern holds true in every individual case. There will always be individual variations as well as stark outliers. Any social worker (or theorist!) worth her salt will be sensitive to those variations. The broad patterns that intersectional analysis identifies are only a starting point for further analysis or action; they’re not meant to be the end of the line.

The second objection is that analysis becomes impossible when you try to include multiple variables. It’s absolutely true that analysis becomes substantially more complex with the addition of each variable. The trick is to try to identify which dimensions are most relevant in a given set of circumstances. For sexual assault, race is definitely important, as I just noted; social class and/or sexual orientation might also be relevant. For instance, when I teach the introduction to women’s and gender studies, I make sure that race was highlighted (we’ve got a largely white student body, so they won’t always come up with this on their own) and then I let them raise other concerns. How does a poor versus affluent neighborhood affect one’s fear of rape? Who is “one” in that scenario – a resident of a poor area, or a well-heeled person passing through? How do heterosexual assumptions affect rape myths? Usually, their questions eventually explore enough different axes that they add up to an intersectional analysis. It will be imperfect, but it’ll be better-rounded than if we’d only stuck to their own personal perspective of whether to walk home alone from the library after midnight. The process is also iterative for me, as a teacher; in the months ahead, I’m hoping to do a more thorough job of drawing out (dis)ability and the special vulnerabilities of transpeople to sexualized violence.

Intersectionality is also important in my research. In my dissertation, race wasn’t a very important axis, because Germany was racially (though not ethnically) homogeneous in the 1920s, and race didn’t affect women’s experiences of childbirth. Religion and migratory status (usually, from countryside to city) mattered very crucially. The category of religion captured differences between Jewish women and others, though in many ways Jewish and Protestant women had more in common with each other than with Catholics. Exploring these different axes wasn’t just an expression of my commitment to feminist methodology. It was also the only way to write a social and cultural history of pregnancy that didn’t grossly overgeneralize or erase the experience of the most disadvantaged women. (That prismatic view also resulted in the monstrosity that no advisor encourages: a two-volume thesis. Gulp.)

So while I think that the concerns Apostate and Suzie raised about intersectionality are reasonable, they don’t invalidate intersectionality as a useful way to look at the world. Intersectionality certainly doesn’t render feminism powerless and infinitely splintered. Rather, it gives us a way to forge real alliances with other women; bonds that don’t depend on effacing our differences.

Really, the need to grapple with differences goes back to Audre Lorde’s classic formulation:

The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all people to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation and suspicion….these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

(Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” – no link, but if you google a phrase, you can find more in various Google Books.)

You might add: a single lens will never let you view the master’s house in its entirety. And so intersectionality offers a prism, which is dizzying and bewildering at times, but promises we can edge closer to truths, which will always be partial in all senses of the word.

** And Apostate, I absolutely don’t think you’re silly, but this is one time I disagreed with the more flippant part of your analysis, even while I appreciated your more considered points.

Update 7/15/09: While I was finishing up thie post, C.L. Minou posted some reflections on kyriarchy, oppression, and Bastille Day, which, um, intersects interestingly with my post. Plus she’s got a very cool animated image of a tesseract, which you don’t want to miss.

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Yesterday, while we adults tried to sort out some of the old junk still hanging around the Berlin apartment, the kids intercepted this gem and saved it from the dumpster.


It’s a “Reiseschreibmachine” – a portable manual typewriter that I bought in 1991 when I first arrived in Germany and was waiting for the first real Mac laptop to come out. It cost me 20 deutschmarks. (How strange that this is now a dead currency.) “Portable” is relative, since it weighs about 25 pounds. The keys jam and occasionally a letter comes unhinged altogether.

The Tiger calls it “some kind of computer.” He’s got no other category for it. But even though you can’t use it to connect to YouTube or play games, both kids are acting like it’s the best new toy, ever. They’ve spend the past 24 hours playing with it and fighting over it. Then we showed them this (non-Dutch speakers may fast-forward to about 1:15):

Or, if you want the original version of it, here’s the best performance I found (non-German speakers may want to skip the first minute):

Those of you who played in high-school band probably remember performing Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” This piece of his, “Typewriter,” is a little more obscure, but more amusing. I’m pretty sure the French horn part sucks, regardless.

And now my kids are trying to make music while typing “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

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Regular commenter Mark Faulkner pointed me to Judith Warner’s latest piece at the New York Times, Dangerous Resentments. Warner argues that

our country’s resentment, and even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women, is spiraling out of control.

But her evidence for this is mighty thin: one case of a professor-mother, Bridget Kevane, who was charged with child endangerment and had the book thrown at her:

The prosecutor pursued her child endangerment case ultra-zealously because she “said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their ‘heads are always in a book,’” Kevane writes. “I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education,” the prosecutor wrote to Kevane’s lawyer.

Now, I find the prosecutor’s remarks offensive, myself. My head is frequently in a book (or turned toward my computer) but if I’m with my kids, my ears are still tuned to them (right now they’re making happy playing noises) and my antennae are quivering. While I’ve known a couple of professors who really did inhabit a different universe, none of them spawned offspring. On the whole, intellectuals are not dry, detached, heartless creatures.

Americans do harbor an anti-intellectual streak. Perhaps women bear the brunt of this more than men. I’m not quite convinced of that, though. George W. Bush’s victories over Al Gore and John Kerry demonstrate our collective ambivalence toward intelligent men. Obama might represent a swing of the pendulum back toward valuing intellectuals – or he might be a fluke. After all, suspicion of “eggheads” goes back at least to Adlai Stevenson.

Besides, while female intellectuals face occasional overt prejudice, it’s much less pervasive and damaging than the biases against poor women and women of color. I for one would rather be seen as an absent-minded professor than as a welfare queen. Life in general and motherhood in particular are easier for women with my educational advantages than for most poor women of color. While I’ve had long spells of underemployment, I have a job and health insurance, my kids live in a safe neighborhood, and a very good public school is just a couple hundred feet from our front door. That doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate to point out sexism against privileged women, only that it needs to be contextualized and relativized, which Warner really doesn’t do.

At any rate, Warner can’t make her case with a single example: one prosecutor in Bozeman, Montana, who had a bad case of town-gown resentment. Kevane highlights the town-gown issue in her original essay at Brain, Child, and some of the commenters there also confirm that the university has tense relations with the town.

What’s really at stake here is a set of issues that all parents face: how much freedom and responsibility to give kids, how much we should restrict their lives in the name of “keeping them safe,” and how parents will be judged for their decisions. I say “parents,” but in reality it’s often mothers whose feet are held to the fire, as Kevane’s case shows.

Here’s what happened, in Bridget Kevane’s words:

Bozeman is a small town known for its quality of life, striking physical beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and great public schools. It is also known as a safe community. The mall is considered a family place where kids trick-or-treat in October to escape the cold, and groups of children meet friends, shop, eat and see movies. It is a popular activity both during the long Montana winters as well as the summer months.

The mall is a safe place. There are no signs posted at the mall saying that children cannot be left unattended. No child has ever been kidnapped or molested at the mall. And yet, I was charged as a criminal for dropping children there without my direct supervision.

My oldest daughter, Natalie, and her friend, were both twelve at the time, going into seventh grade. The girls, who had known each other since they were three years old, had attended a babysitting class sponsored by the local hospital for girls eleven and older. The class teaches CPR, infant care, responsible behavior and more. They both also had enough experience babysitting other people’s children that I trusted having them supervise the other kids at the mall—Ellie, eight, Matthew, seven, and my younger daughter, Olivia, who was three.

An outsider, or someone used to a bigger, more crowded way of living, might be shocked to know that I left children that young in the care of two twelve-year-olds. But these kids were a pack. They grew up together in a neighborhood full of children. They walk to and from their local schools together, play together, and frequently spend time at each other’s homes.

My husband and I are particularly good friends with two families that live near our home. We parents depend on each other for support and mutual child care as much as our children depend on each other for friendship. As our kids have grown older, an implicit agreement has formed among us: Our children will wander to each other’s homes, and it is our job to informally supervise them and keep each other aware of their whereabouts. As we all live within less than half a mile from each other, much time is spent going from one house to the other, to the park, or walking around the nearby university, where I am a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies.

So when the older girls asked if they could go to the mall that Saturday, I said yes, if they took the younger kids with them. On that particular day, I was exhausted. The children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest. …

The plan was for the kids to have lunch and walk around a bit. I told the older girls the rules. They could not leave the younger kids unsupervised. They could not make a ruckus. They had to behave. Olivia, the three-year-old, had to stay in her stroller. When I called my husband and the other mother to let them know the plan, there was no hesitation on their part. My husband was at his office down the street from the mall, less than five minutes away. I would be at home with my cell phone, and my daughter had her cell phone in case they wanted to be picked up early.

I dropped the group off at roughly one forty-five p.m. and said that I would pick them up at four for the barbeque we were going to that night. It was to be an afternoon activity, as simple as that.

About an hour later, my husband, who was home by then, received a call from the police telling me that we had to come down to the mall immediately. My first thought was that the kids had made a scene, that they had knocked something over, that they had run about recklessly. We jumped into the car.

When I walked into the mall, the children were all in an enclosed security office behind a glass wall, smiling, eating candy, and talking to a security guard and some Macy’s employees. I smiled and waved to them, relieved that everything appeared fine.

That feeling was quickly about to change.

As soon as we entered the office, I was confronted by two Bozeman city police officers. One told me that what I had done was completely unacceptable in his opinion and that he was going to arrest me for endangering the welfare of my children. I asked him if there was a mall age limit that I was not aware of. He told me to be quiet. I tried to explain to him that I had faith in my daughter’s skills and in the safety of the mall, and that I was not an endangering parent. As I tried to keep talking, desperate to clear up what was obviously nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, he warned me that if I “went crazy” on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night. He said he had called child services already. They would either arrive at the mall shortly or get his report and be visiting my home this week to check in.

My husband tried to reason with the officer, emphasizing that this was a first-time mistake and asking if we could be set free with a warning, some lesser charge. But the officer simply kept repeating that what I had done was a crime.

I’ve quoted at length because Warner’s column left me feeling pretty judgmental, but after I read Kevane’s essay, I felt much more sympathetic toward her. My own reaction mirrors the disparate tone of the comments at Brain, Child and at the New York Times. Most Brain, Child readers were basically sympathetic. Ditto at the Free Range Kids blog, which reprinted Kevane’s essay. At the New York Times, readers have roundly criticized Kevane’s mothering (and mostly dismissed the point Warner was purportedly trying to make about prejudice toward educated women), as did Jesse at Pandagon.

Kevane’s original essay makes clear that she’s still working through the deep shaming she experienced. However unwittingly, Warner just compounded it by presenting a much-condensed version of Kevane’s story and exposing her to a new round of shaming in the national spotlight (259 comments at the NTY and counting).

I do think Kevane made a couple of errors in judgment. One is that two twelve-year-olds don’t add up to double the babysitters; they add up to double the distraction. The other was to not realize that the mall would quadruple the distraction. At the mall, twelve-year-olds who are otherwise devoted big sisters quickly turn into flighty adolescents. Myself, I wouldn’t entrust a three-year-old with such a young sitter in public, because when the Tiger was three, he had this alarming tendency to run away. He wouldn’t have stayed in that stroller. Maybe Kevane’s little one is more docile, but there’s still a world of difference between a kid who’s still in a stroller and one who goes to grade school.

But here’s my confession: I’ve left my kids in the care of an eleven-year-old! I had a late Friday afternoon work commitment, and my husband got roped into an event that overlapped with mine. After trying a couple of older sitters, who were busy, I asked the sixth-grader two doors down to pick up my boys at school, bring them home, give them a snack, and play with them for an hour until my husband could come home. I was a little apprehensive but it worked fine. Our families are good friends, she’d done some prior “mother’s helper” work for me, she’s taken the Red Cross babysitting course, and my kids adore her. Our kids often form a little posse, much as Kevane describes. My town is a “safe” town, much like Kevane’s. Neither I nor my neighbors lock our back doors during the day, and some folks might think that’s pretty chancey, too.

Would I have sent our young neighbor to the mall with my kids? Heck no. Our mall is like a ghost town; more than half the stores are empty because the owners insist on charging crazy-high rents. Would I have asked her to mind my kids while she had a friend over? No, the conflict of interest would’ve been obvious. But I have sent them all to the playground together. Also, unlike Kevane, I wasn’t reachable by phone when I left our neighbor girl in charge. In an emergency, she could have reached her own mom by phone, but all four of us parents were at the university, a minimum of ten minutes away.

So I can’t totally condemn Kevane. I think everyone involved made some errors: the older girls, the other parents, the police, and the prosecutor. That doesn’t add up to a criminal offense.

Also, I’m just old enough to be a former eleven-year-old babysitter, myself. When my family spent time at our farm (we normally lived in town), I watched my sister, who’s eight years younger, while my parents and brother worked in fields. And by “watch,” I mean I tried to read a book while she played. (See, this nose-in-a-book thing runs deep.) There were no cell phones in 1975. I also babysat for pay at age eleven. It was just blocks from my house and I knew I could call my mom in a pinch, but I was in charge of two preschoolers, sometimes until well after midnight.

I think it’s perfectly okay to let a parent know when she (or he!) has overestimated her kids’ responsibility level. Kevane basically let the Macy’s staff fill the gaps, and that’s uncool and presumptuous. She could have sent the kids outside, or to the playground, which wouldn’t have been such a treat for the kids, but surely would have been the much smarter choice.

But criminal prosecution? Again, you really need to read her essay to get the full flavor of her experience. Also, where’s the outrage about her husband and the other mom agreeing to the situation? Why was only Kevane arrested, and not her husband, who after all picked up the phone when the cops called?

I tend to be overprotective of my kids. But what happens if parents’ decisions that depart from the most restrictive standards in the community become criminalized? We could keep our kids in a bubble, we could encase our kids in amber, and they’d be perfectly preserved. But keeping kids safe isn’t just a moment-to-moment concern. We also have to prepare them, slowly and systematically for life outside that shell. Navigating that tension is tricky. What happens if we haul every parent who makes a misstep into court?

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Dana Goldstein reports that women are twice as likely as men to depend on their partner for health insurance coverage. (Via figleaf.) That’s a big problem for women when a relationship ends, as she notes. Both widows and divorcees can find themselves suddenly uninsured.

From my own experience, I know it’s terrifying enough, worrying whether your spouse will survive a life-threatening illness. No one needs the added fear of becoming uninsured. And when women are uninsured, their dependent children often suffer the same fate. That’s exactly what would have befallen me and my kids, had my husband not survived.

Here’s another important point that Goldstein doesn’t cover: Being dependent on one’s partner for insurance creates a perverse incentive to stay in bad relationships. This does no favor to either partner. The insured person may feel an obligation, especially if his or her partner has had some health problems. The uninsured partner may feel trapped. I can understand staying together for the kids, if a relationship is otherwise dead. But for the insurance? Somehow this seems even more twisted and cruel than being stuck in a lousy job for the same reason.

Goldstein suggests expanding Medicaid coverage to the poor and letting partners who lose their insurance take part in health insurance exchanges, which should offer lower rates. But these are frustratingly incomplete solutions. They’re just a patchwork, even if they might be the best we can hope for, politically, at the moment. Lower-middle-class women, in particular, would be squeezed out, too rich for Medicaid but too poor to afford premiums without employer subsidies.

The simplest solution – which doesn’t require women to be either poor or well-paid – is a single-payer system. In a climate where the Democrats are waffling even on a “public option,” that may seem utopian. It’s the only route to full coverage and fairness, however. A public option may still be unaffordable for those with modest incomes, and adding a “mandate” to the system wouldn’t change that fact.

Ultimately, we have to decouple health care from employment status. We have to stop seeing it as a perq to be earned, and start regarding it as a human right.

Women are still more likely than men to interrupt paid work for family work, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. They’re also still clustered in lower-paying and part-time jobs, which are less likely to carry benefits. Separating insurance from employment is the only way to ensure full inclusion of women, as well as minorities, the very old, and the very young. For that matter, it’s the only way relatively privileged pale males won’t get left out in the cold when they become seriously ill. Right now, anyone who suffers serious illness is at risk of losing their jobs, and then losing their insurance. Even those who keep their coverage may find themselves woefully underinsured, resulting in bankruptcy or crippling debt. What’s more, the current recession has put more men out of work than women, and they don’t deserve to be uninsured or dependent on a partner anymore than women do.

Hmm. It turns out that the “feminist” argument for single-payer is good for everyone, not just women.

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