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The Hour Past Midnight
The Hour Past Midnight (2009) is the English translation of Irandaam Jaamathin Kadai, originally published in Tamil . I was unfamiliar with the author, Tamil poet Salma, whose extraordinary life and struggle against subjugation have been chronicled in the eponymous film, Salma, which premiered at the Sundance festival this year. I borrowed the book from a neighbor who has been kind enough to open up her bookshelves to me. I am especially grateful, because this book, which seems to be a gift from the author herself to my neighbor, is apparently out of print. I am fortunate that I got to read a book that I would have otherwise been ignorant about, or would have been unavailable to me in any case.

The Hour Past Midnight is a women-centered novel set in a conservative Muslim business community in rural Tamil Nadu. Most of the men are away in Singapore, Sri Lanka, or even Saudi Arabia, visiting their home town every few years to marry, procreate, or marry again, bringing gold, sweets and imported Lux soaps. The girls are allowed to go to school until they hit puberty, at which point they are forced to stay indoors,  away from the eyes of men who are not family. They also graduate from wearing the traditional blouse and long skirt (paavaadai), to a paavaadai – daavani (a piece of cloth, much like a dupatta, which is draped over the blouse). The girls are now deemed ready for marriage, often to much older men, always arranged, often to maintain kinship or retain property within the  extended family. The daavani now gives way to the saree.

And so the story follows Rabia, Zohra, Rahima, Madina, Amina, Firdaus, Fatima, Nuramma, Khadija, Farida, Saura, Sherifa, Mumtaz, Nafiza, Sainu, Wahida, and a handful of men – their brothers, husbands, and sons, as they participate in the complex rituals of fasting, feasting, and praying in the holy month of Ramzaan. There are young girls, older girls of ‘marriageable’ age, young divorcees, young widows, young wives, young mothers, older mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.  The story follows the younger girls as they try to make sense of the often stifling world they live in, and hesitantly ask often forbidden questions; older girls as the begin to accept the rules of the community, or in some cases decide to flagrantly break them, and older women who perpetuate the subjugation.

The busy narrative weaves the lives of the women together , but the sheer number of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who is who and I often found myself flipping pages to see if Shainu was Mumtaz’s mother-in-law or Madina’s mother. A family tree at the beginning of the story would have been helpful.

Also, a little more detail on the year(s) in which the story is set would have provided more context to it. Salma does repeatedly mention the ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, but since the riots have a long and protracted history, the reader is left uncertain if the year is 1953, 1958, 1977, 1983 or as recent as 2006 (unlikely). The village setting is timeless, and rural life is often unencumbered by technology, and there are little clues in the every day lives of the people.

The story has a Tamil Muslim atmosphere, which is both unique and universal. I think that many can identify with Ismail who…

…knew his mother and Amina [his wife] didn’t get on. Most certainly this was not Amina’s fault but his mother’s. She could not endure it that Amina enjoyed the happiness she herself never experienced.

This bitterness and the resulting feud is neither Tamil nor Muslim, but perhaps Ismail’s realization is especially perceptive.

Some of the practices Salma describes are surprisingly familiar, and being Tamil myself, I can relate to Rabia, whose aunt tells her that…

A girl should not be lying down at lamp-lighting time.

My own mother has rebuked me thus on countless occasions.

The language is peculiar too. The translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, who has considerable experience in translating Tamil fiction into English, has tried to maintain the unique Tamil flavor, which I presume the original is brimming with. For instance, what may seem to some as an awkwardly constructed phase – “lamp-lighting” time, is actually the literal translation of “villaku ethra netram“, which in colloquial Tamil means “the time at which lamps are lit” – at dusk. But sometimes, I wondered if some of the meaning was not quite lost in translation. Take the many times characters begin their dialogue with “that is..”, as in…

That is, I want to ask you something…

That is, how many husbands can a woman have?

That is, I’ve decided to wear a davani from tomorrow…

“That is” is, again, a translation of “adhu vandhu” (I’m guessing), which is used as something of a filler in colloquial Tamil. Though there is no perfect translation, I am unsure if “that is” means anything to the non-Tamil reader. Also, consider this exchange:

“…See if I don’t find the same bridegroom for the two of you and see you both married.” Rahims teased Rabia.

“Go on, Periamma,” said [Rabia], covering her face shyly.

The “go on” here is not an invitation to continue the banter and the teasing. It is a literal translation of “ponga” which is used to politely and playfully ask someone to “just stop it”. Rabia is actually shyly asking her aunt to stop teasing her, and not go on with it. The novel is also peppered with a lot of Tamil words, which I didn’t have to stop to think about, but I can’t say the same for others. The book made me realize the thin line between maintaining the cultural tone and feel, and being unintelligible or even misleading.

I enjoyed the story. I particularly appreciated the characters, whom Salma paints as neither black or white, but a very human grey. Even as she highlights the suffocation that her women experience, some quietly protesting, others welcoming it and even imposing it on their kin, she portrays the community, the lives and marriage as the way they usually are – a mixed bag. Salma also examines how women come to have beliefs, especially those that are generally considered to be repressive, and perpetuate them to posterity.

I recommend the book to fellow Tamils and those interested in regional lives. I wish I get a chance to read the Tamil original.

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Race, in the end, was the most accurate predictor of an unwed mother’s parents’ response to her pregnancy; of society’s reaction to her plight; of where and how she would spend the months of her pregnancy; and most important, the most accurate predictor of what she would do with the “fatherless” child she bore, and of how being mother to such a child would affect the rest of her life.

– Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe Vs. Wade 

Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is certainly one of the books I enjoyed most in 2011. Fessler, an adoptee herself, writes movingly about these women, using first-person accounts in many cases, to construct a tapestry composed of many heart-rending stories. I am fairly sure that it was while reading this book that I came upon a reference to Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe Vs. Wade, and added it to my TBR pile.

Wake Up Little Susie, written by Rickie Solinger, is more a socio-political commentary, a history of unwed mothers and the social construction of unwed motherhood in America, focusing on race-specific distinctions during the post-war, pre-Roe Vs. Wade decades, from 1945 to 1965.

Illicit motherhood in the pre-war years

What was lost could not be regained; what was acquired could not be cast off.

While single mothers weren’t uncommon before World War II, social attitudes towards these women and their fatherless children were excessively punitive. The mother was considered morally deficient and permanently ruined – her marriageability was not restorable, her sin was not pardonable, and her shortcomings were not rehabilitable. She was condemned to spend the rest of her life as a fallen woman, bringing up her illegitimate child. Children were not separated from their mothers. Single mothers were expected to keep their children, irrespective of race. The child of sin was also tainted by its association with its mother and was generally considered undesirable and unsuitable for adoption.

In the post-war years, the American Family Ideal began to be increasingly emphasized. Under this family agenda, which romanticized a two-child family that included a mother and a father, unwed mothers were perceived as a threat to the integrity of the family. With the family imperative requiring children to complete a family, (white) babies were almost suddenly in great demand to make whole the normative family. Solinger conjectures that other related factors might have contributed to this clamor for babies – rising infertility, or increasing acknowledgement of infertility. Babies became market commodities.

In postwar society, which glorified couples, marriage, children, families, and conformity, this prospect [of a large number of ruined girls and women] would not have been a happy one.

Adoption of these babies offered a happy solution.

White girls

A white unwed mother in the post-war years usually had one of two options – she could try to obtain a therapeutic abortion, which required her to be declared psychologically unfit to be a mother, or, as was more common, disappear into a maternity home for the duration of her pregnancy. Few chose to endure pregnancy and childbirth alone or surrounded by disapproving family. A few kept their babies. After the war, psychological explanations became common to account for pregnancies that were the result of unhealthy non-marital relations that many women engaged in. An unwed mother was considered neurotic, often the result of an unhappy home environment, specifically because of mothers who were “insufficiently deferential wives”. However, her neuroticism was treatable as long as she followed the prescribed course of action: “casework treatment in a maternity home, relinquishment of baby for adoption, and rededication of the offending woman to the marriage market”. Her marriageability now restored, she could now the leave the home as a lady. Not only had she provided a baby to an eager childless couple, she was herself available to play the role of a wife and mother in a legitimate American family. (These were the expectations, but the reality was certainly much more difficult, and these birth mothers no doubt endured long-term psychological consequences).

Black girls

Most black families, on the other hand, accepted the pregnancy and the resulting child. In any case, most maternity homes did not welcome black girls, and there was hardly any demand for black babies in those early years. While a white unwed mother, the treatable neurotic, occupied a state of shame, Solinger writes, the black unwed mother was stereotyped as the wanton breeder, who was not as much shamed as she was blamed for rising welfare costs, population explosion, juvenile delinquency in inner cities and other social issues. The black single mother did not have a chance for redemption. Black illegitimate babies did not evoke any tenderness in the public either.

Black illegitimate babies, like their mothers, aroused the anger and racism of white, taxpaying public, while white illegitimate babies, if not their mothers, aroused the public’s compassion and their interest in seeing these children well placed.

Not only were black mothers regarded as unrestrained breeders, they were deemed calculated breeders, making a “career out of illegitimate childbearing”. Solinger writes that, “Despite the fact that by 1960, a growing percentage of white unwed mothers and their children required such aid, and despite the fact that most black women with illegitimate children did not receive ADC [Aid to Dependent Children], ADC was, in the public consciousness, a black-identified program…In addition, the most persistent charge against ADC was that these benefits were incentives for black women to have illegitimate children. In short, white politicians and taxpayers claimed that black women used their bodies in ways that were morally and fiscally destructive to the nation”.

Unwed mothers as aggressors against society

By the 1960s, the rate of illegitimate childbearing showed no sign of slowing down. Public discourse shifted to use new language to talk about black and white unwed motherhood. As in the previous years, the metaphors used were racially distinct and radically different. White girls were labelled the rebels, the sexual revolutionaries. However, not all of them were privileged co-eds, or revolutionaries, and were simply girls in trouble with little or no resources. Black girls, were the breeders, the population bomb, and many representatives of the public advocated birth control to be used to halt excess reproduction in them.

“Unacceptable” rates of black illegitimacy became a powerfully convincing explanation for unacceptable welfare expenditures, unacceptable demographic changes in the big cities of the United States, unacceptable levels of juvenile delinquency and poverty.

This is where the book leaves us, in the mid-1960s, with female reproductive activity linked to social problems. I spent a good part of the last six weeks on this insightful book. The Girls Who Went Away was from a white perspective, as far as I can remember, and it was refreshing to learn about the experiences of girls whose skin was colored differently. As with other works of non-fiction, I hope this book is historically accurate.

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I have a question for you. If you were looking to buy toothpaste for your toddler, a boy, and someone gave you toothpaste (perfectly good toothpaste) for free, would you take it? Would you behave differently if the tube was pink and had a picture of Dora on it?

My son brushes his teeth with (and secretly swallows) Dora toothpaste. There, I’ve said it. I didn’t buy the said toothpaste to necessarily make a point, but only because I got a really good deal on it. That said, I’ll admit that I did hesitate a tiny bit, and later felt that I could really be making a point. But this is toothpaste we are talking about, and our preference regarding dental cleaning supplies is privy only to a rather small group of people who might step into our bathroom. If I notice a great deal on a pretty Princess backpack, I will certainly pass.

When I was growing up, baby clothes were just baby clothes, not girl clothes or boy clothes. Babies then looked angelic, grumpy, and naughty, much as they do now, in a cute, genderless way. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, grew up in a different part of world and is a couple of decades my senior, but it does seem like she has similar memories of babies dressed in light-colored unisex clothing.

“…less than a century ago, all children wore frilly white dresses and unshorn hair until at least age three.”

Completely ignorant of what fashion-forward parents dressed their muffins and buttercups in, I first walked into the store to be visually assaulted by entire aisles of cotton candy colored apparel and accessories. As Sally Field remarks in Steel Magnolias.

“That sanctuary looks like it’s been hosed down with Pepto Bismol.”

For every four shelves of pink, there was one rather pitiful shelf of blues and browns, for the boys. I may be exaggerating a tiny bit, and there may have been red polka dotted dresses somewhere, but they were all pinked out. My son, I am confident, has not worn pink more than twice so far. When he was a baby, he was without exception taken for a girl, and we were advised that dressing him in pink would be equivalent to making him wear a sequined headband that spelled out GIRL in glittery capitals. Not that we found anything pink suitable for a boy. As the parent of a boy, I thought it unfair that girls had monopoly over pink. Orenstein, the mother of a girl, laments that girlhood has become entirely monochromatic.

I wanted my son to develop his own interests and refused to buy into stereotypes that boys like moving vehicles and not much else. By the time he turned one, he had twenty of them – pickup trucks, race cars, firetrucks, and dump trucks. All gifts. Turns out, he loves them. He also enjoys playing dress up, pretend playing with Kipper- his dog and friend (and a soft toy), pretend cooking, and playing with blocks. While I may choke up with parental pride at his being so well-rounded, I know very well that he will change when he starts school and sees what other boys do, don’t do, or are not supposed to do. I also know that this may well be a part of growing up and the pre-school news flash that boys and girls are different.

Orenstein is the author of Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a MotherHer long and agonizing quest to become a mother ends with the arrival of her daughter, Daisy. As Daisy grows from a baby to a preschooler, Orenstein begins to wonder about the kind of messages she is giving her daughter when she (Daisy) and her friends play (and identify) with Ariel and Cinderella, lounge in Disney Princess beanbags, and entertain in Disney Princess Summer Palace Slumber Bags or Bed Tents, which my Toys R Us flyer informs me are “Perfect for providing the royal treatment to visiting princesses”, and generally participate in contemporary girlie-girl culture.

She wonders…

…is the Princess Culture simply innocuous fun?

Is this all just a case of much ado over nothing? Calling them princess (and buying them  appropriately royal dresses and helmets and kneepads) is just our way of letting daughters know how special they are to us. Princesses are special. They can also be compassionate and inspiring. They can allow your child to cultivate imagination and construct a fantasy world (which all kids do anyway), filled with special creatures and special possessions.

…or does it pave the path to premature sexualization, emphasis on physical perfection, or worse?

Princesses are also exclusively privileged, perfectly proportioned, and have plenty of things. So, are we also teaching our girls to be snotty, obsessed with their looks and materialistic? Or, are we over-thinking it?

According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior.

A long time ago, marketers figured out that hypersegmenting the tot world and magnifying the differences between boys and girls would make a very good strategy to sell boy stuff and girl stuff. Which is why we have boy toys and girl toys (some of which are just pink versions of Lego). Now, while your daughter can get away playing with Thomas the train (most of the times), you might be warned that your son will be scarred for life if you get him a kitchen set. Not a tutu, just a kitchen set. Some feel that all this segmentation discourages cross-sex friendships in our little ones. And Orenstein worries that “if early experiences with mixed-sex play have a lifelong positive impact on kids’ behavior, aptitudes, and relationships, the segmentation of every possible childhood item by sex was more troubling than I had initially imagined”.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

– From Orenstein’s article in the New York Times, What’s Wrong With Cinderella?

What is wrong with Cinderella, anyway? “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything”, says Orenstein. Cinderella, Ty Girlz, American Girl, and Bratz do have a common denominator – they are all pretty. In fact, some are sizzlin’, know how dress to impress, and admit to being shopaholics (I once shopped for 12 hours straight!). Apart from promoting “shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”, does this also teach our daughters to value their appearance above everything else?

…is it even possible to escape total and complete immersion in this culture? And what does that entail?

In Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown argue that girls are given just two choices by marketers: they are “either for the boys or one of the boys”. A girlie-girl would obviously be for the boys. Being one of the boys is not necessarily a better model either because, Orenstein says, “it discourages friendship with other girls: a girl who is ‘one of the boys’ separates herself from her female peers, puts them down, is ashamed or scornful of anything associated with conventional femininity”. No parent will wish for their child to be different, punished for it  and unaccepted by peers. Moreover, consciously avoiding anything that smacks of the girlie-girl culture might inadvertantly send the message that there is something wrong about being female.

All our kids, boys and girls, need a childhood hero (or heroine). What choices can we offer our girls that are neither hyperfeminine, nor aggressive, and free of agenda? (The world of boys is another book, or three).

I love a book that raises questions. Unfortunately, when there are far too many questions and far too few answers, my ill-equipped mind gets into this unpleasant state of cognitive restlessness. While the book promises that “armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters’ lives”, I am no closer to understanding how I can help my child, or a hypothetical daughter, achieve that balance.

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Black history month may have come and gone, but April is still a good time to read Coming of Age in Mississippi: An Autobiography by civil rights activist, Anne Moody. Originally published in 1968, this unsentimental portrait of growing up in racist Mississippi is at once distressing and inspiring.

Moody’s story begins on a Mississippi plantation around 1944, with the almost four year old author watching her parents leave for the fields every morning. Her parents separate not long afterwards and her mother struggles to put a roof over their heads and a loaf of bread on the table, as she ekes out a meager living as a waitress or housekeeper. Frequently pregnant, or between pregnancies with her new boyfriend, Raymond, the author’s mother is often sad and emotionally unstable. Raymond’s family never accepts her mother, ostensibly on account of her being dark and their being a high yellow. As in much of the world, there are caste systems within caste systems and bubbles within bubbles.

Although always aware of the color differences between her own family and the whites they work for, Moody becomes cognizant of the implications of being black at about seven years of age.

…not only were they better than me because they were white but everything they owned and everything connected with them was better than what was available to me.

Moody begins paid work at nine years of age, sweeping porches and later graduating to babysitting and housekeeping. On the other hand, her step-father, an ex-soldier, struggles to find a regular source of income.

White businesses in town employed Negroes as janitors only, and there was never more than one janitor in any single business. The Negro man had a hard road to travel when looking for employment. A Negro woman, however, could always go out and earn a dollar a day because whites always needed a cook, a baby-sitter, or someone to do housecleaning.

While this meant that black women often had a more reliable source of income, being The Help meant that you had to deal with white prejudice (sometimes white friendliness too), subtle Klan threats, or with your white master’s advances.

I had never heard of a single affair in Centerville between a Negro man and a white woman. It was almost impossible for such an affair to take place. Negro men did not have access to white women. Whereas almost every  white man in town had a Negro woman in his kitchen or nursing his babies.

A straight ‘A’s student and eighth grade’s homecoming queen, Moody enters high school and learns how the daily life of blacks is fraught with danger as she hears about black men being killed for getting out of place. She experiences a new fear, “the fear of being killed just because I was black”. She resolves to stand up for her rights and leaves home at fifteen , “sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day”.

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmet Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders…. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.

Writing about her own feelings of anger at fellow blacks’ seeming apathy, and their real fear of white fury, and white animosity towards blacks,especially insubordinate blacks, Moody paints a picture of the desperate life in the 1960s, towns seething with passionate hatred and shaking with palpable terror.

Moody’s real involvement with the civil rights movement begins when she wins a basketball scholarship to the highly ranked Tougaloo College, and gets involved with various organizations involved in the movement, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Moody evolves from being a discontented high school student to a passionate and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and becomes what she calls a professional agitator, participating and leading demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins. Before she turns 23, she becomes a prominent agitator, gets arrested, gets blacklisted by the Klan and eventually becomes dispirited with what seems a hopeless battle. Towards the end of the book, she reaffirms her life’s mission knowing that she can never really leave the Movement.

Coming of Age in Mississippi  is not only the personal history of a civil rights activist, but a lesson in American History, a lesson in courage and persistence, and the story of how a people fought to make their dreams happen. “We shall overcome some day”, they said, and they did.

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To Have? Or to Have Not?

We all know infertility can be an ordeal, and many talented writers/artists who’ve had the misfortune to experience it have chronicled their arduous journies, such as Phoebe Potts in her memorable graphic memoir, Good Eggs. Infertility, like most other conditions, has many many dimensions, the least of which is the inability to have a child. Relationship dynamics is always affected, self-esteem often suffers, and much time and money are spent on what becomes an obsession. The moneyed invest in IVF and therapy, and endure much pain, and the non-moneyed speculate on whether money could have bought them a biological child and endure much pain.

Peggy Orenstein’s memoir Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother is a story of distress and longing, but it also describes Orenstein’s deep-rooted contradictions and confusion. The book’s rather long subtitle somewhat summarizes the struggle, but not her emotional anguish. The title also kills much of the suspense – you know there is a baby girl at the end of the story somewhere, unlike Good Eggs.

Orenstein’s woe partly stems from the way she identifies herself – a feminist, pro-choice, strongly attached to her career. As she watches many of her gifted friends settle down into full-time motherhood, she speaks of feeling scorn and pity, while at the same time envying them for their conviction. She also witnesses the exhaustion and resentment that working mothers stomach. Seeing her peers feeling either trapped or burned out (or both), she notices how “so many women were smitten with their children while begrudging everything their husbands did or didn’t do” and wonders if having a child precludes some semblance of a fulfilling career life:

Last time  checked, childlessness was only supposed to be a condition of career advancement for nuns.

Certain about her feminist identity, she struggles to reconcile her feminist self with motherhood and the resulting disarray to her life, and expresses her confusion, thus:

“I was clear about who I didn’t want to be like, but not who I did. So many people I knew – women and men – had tumbled into their lives without much thought defaulted into marriages, careers, and parenthood because that was what one was supposed to do. I wanted to live my life more consciously. But what did that mean? How could I guess what I might regret in twenty years?”

While some of us claim to not have any of this confusion or regrets, I know many (including me) whose twenties were plagued by self-doubt, and a burning desire to figure things out and carve out our own unique path. Her confusion speaks to me on many levels. Her story is unique in that, despite her strong ambivalence about motherhood, she tries so desperately to get pregnant.

Orenstein’s journey also has other painful twists. Much like Giuliana Rancic, she receives a breast cancer diagnosis at 35, as part of pre-conception tests. When she finally receives the green signal to try to conceive, she faces numerous setbacks and one too many miscarriages. Compounding the situation is her mounting desperation which almost jeopardizes her marriage to Academy Award winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki. Although, clearly the marriage is based on mutual respect and tenderness, Okazaki’s attitude sometimes seems puzzlingly cold. On one occasion, after losing yet another fetus/baby, Orenstein wretchedly tells her husband:

“I’m so sad. And I’m scared.

He shrugged. “You have to learn to roll with it, Peg.”

Orenstein rationalizes Okazaki’s seeming lack of sensitivity as due to his stoic Samurai side (Okazaki is Japanese-American). Okazaki does express his own  grief and apologizes later.

Orenstein’s state of minds throughout the memoir are (a) her single-minded pursuit to get knocked-up – not to become a mother, but to conceive, to get pregnant, as she admits on several occasions:

You don’t notice your motivation distorting, how conception rather than parenthood becomes the goal, how invested you become in its “achievement”

and (b) her eternal confusion about her own identity and desires. “How was it that despite my achievements, my education, my professed feminist politics, my self-worth had been reduced to whether or not I could produce a child?”, she ponders. Her confusion often results in dishonestly, both to herself and others as when she lets a well-intentioned person think she is quite keen about adopting a Japanese baby, when in fact she is not sure at all. She avoids, dissembles, and lies outright.

Orenstein, strongly pro-choice, is also at loss to explain her abject misery over her miscarriages. If what she lost was but a fetus, and not yet a life, why was she so distraught? Why did she feel a connection to her 6-week old fetus? And how did she feel it snap when the fetus stopped growing? She struggles to make sense of this loss of a being not legally living, but something potentially living, almost a child. Miscarriages are not that uncommon. And yet, she notes, the English language (and many others) do not offer women the tools or words to express and deal with their loss.

…there is no word in English for a miscarriage or aborted fetus. How better to bury a topic than to make it quite literally unspeakable?

Orenstein ventures that pregnancy begins much earlier now than half a century ago. While our mothers got their pregnancies confirmed a good month or so after they missed their period, these days First Response proudly announces that it can tell you six days before you’ve even missed your period. The pregnancy and the fetus/baby are more real – you can track the size of your child’s toe nails online and even listen to its vigorously pumping heart. You can even get an ultrasound picture. A miscarriage is that much harder when you’ve formed an attachment to this tiny kidney bean that you know intimately well.

The Japanese language, however, does have a word for the dead fetus.

In Japanese, it is mizuko, which is translated as “water child”…A mizuko lay somewhere along the continuum, in that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither.

Orenstein finds solace at a temple of Jizo, a beloved Bodhisattva, revered by the Japanese as the protector of dead children. There is something profoundly human and moving about a staunch feminist, hitherto questioning the parental decisions of fellow women, being completely defined by her longing for a child; and a fiercely pro-choice woman mourning the death of her 6-week old ‘baby’ and seeking to find calm by making offerings to strange Gods. We are all shaped by our life experiences. We live, wonder, and are affected.

Born into a Jewish family, Orenstein also discusses women in Judaism. She explains why menstruation is considered impure:

Death is considered impure in traditional Judaism and since menstruation represents the monthly loss of potential life, so is a woman having her period.

I now have some explanation for a practice my own culture has practiced. Whether I agree with it is another matter. Orenstein also speaks of her college sweetheart who defends Judaism’s attitude towards women:

It’s a distortion of American culture to think that the person who has the greatest influence on a child’s values and development is inferior to the one who brings in the money. Men may have imposed that ideology, but the women who didn’t glorify the domestic role contributed to it, too.

My own experience has been that women have glorified the domestic role, while at the same time insisting that this role is exclusively women’s and that men’s roles are unconditionally superior.

Orenstein’s story is graphically intimate, funny, deeply moving, and very, very engaging. I look forward to reading her other works.

Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother is my entry to the What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book  with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title.

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Time Thieves

Overheard:

Working father 1: She told us at the meeting that she was pregnant and was going to have to cut back on her work. We will be starting implementation shortly – such perfect timing.

Working father 2 (who recently hired the female employee in question): Oh. She didn’t mention this at the interview (only a few weeks ago). I don’t have the authority to hire more resources, so I guess it means I’ll have to log in some extra hours and get the work done.

Working father 1: Haha. She won’t be available for a few months.

Working father 2 (resignedly): Well. I don’t know. I guess I would have done the same if I were pregnant.

It is probably a fair statement to say that most working fathers don’t physically get pregnant. Women experience pregnancy and childbirth  differently than men, and working mothers certainly deal with this life-changing transition on an entirely different level. And because of (a) biology and (b) traditional expectations of men and women, most men do not have to struggle with life/career decisions such as (a) should I continue working? (b) how can I cut back on my work hours? In some cases, financial reasons make such decisions easy to make (and difficult to implement). But many mothers return to their positions full-time after the customary six  weeks off. I have wondered many many times, how working couples deal with work and family related responsibilities without getting burned out. Most other people I know sum this up in one of three ways:

  • “People do it all the time”
  • “I don’t know how they do it!”
  • “Why do these people have kids if they can’t care for them?”
I do hear working couples regularly talk about time scarcity (why, even stay-at-home mothers complain about it). So, I would imagine that if working mothers and fathers were provided with opportunities to manage their work hours so they get to spend more time at home, they would jump. Imagine my surprise when Arlie Hochschild says, most men and women prefer to spend more time at work if they can.

I’ve read Hochschild’s insightful report on two-career parents and how, in most cases, the woman takes on the second shift of housework and childcare. This book, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, provided me with more than just material for my term paper while at graduate school. It raised questions that were important, relevant and urgent even though the book was nearly twenty years old. And so I was eager and curious to read her analysis of family/work tensions in The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. This book is the result of a study Hochschild conducted at a Fortune 500 company, which goes by the fictional name Amerco, which was then named one of the ten most family-friendly workplaces in the US. Shadowing and interviewing professional men and women (and sometimes their families) at all levels – top and middle management to clerks and factory workers, she looked at if and how the family friendly policies were working (for the company and its employees). Amerco had been offering employees opportunities to manage work-hours by working part-time, flexible hours, flexible locations, or job-sharing with another employee. Hochschild discovered that:

Firstly, Amerco workers declared on survey after survey that they were strained to the limit. Second, the company offered them policies that would allow them to cut back. Third, almost no one cut back.

So, what was happening? One possible explanation was that even though these policies were being offered on paper, many supervisors were not willing to put them in practice. The workers who were interested in implementing such policies did not have the necessary clout, and those with authority were not interested. Even so, both men and women frequently put in more hours than they had to.

Why didn’t they cut back?

For both men and women, more so in the upper echelons of management, hours logged corresponded to commitment. In such a cultural climate, going part-time for a male professional (also for a female professional) indicated lack of ambition, and this could have serious implications in the long-term for one’s career prospects.

I am just as good as you

Women, in particular, reported feeling that their commitment to both realms, home and work, was being questioned when they chose to be working mothers. Being a working mother implied that the their home and children were being neglected (“It takes a lot more than paying the mortgage to make a house a home”). On the other hand, taking time off for childbirth and to attend to family needs implied that women could not prioritize work in the way men could. In the face of male resentment, many women put in more hours than they needed to because “shorter hours meant surrender”. Many organizations do offer “mommy tracks” that offers women the flexibility they sorely need. But the package comes with the assumption of no ambition. One woman employee called for ‘an honorable middle rank’:

We need to be told, “You may lose out on some money or a promotion down the road, but we still value you”.

Work is the new home

For both men and women, and especially the women, home was no longer the haven it was touted to be. As a female employee explained:

“My husband’s a great help watching our baby. But as far as doing housework or even taking the baby when I’m at home, no. He figures he works five days a week; he’s not going to come home and clean. But he doesn’t stop to think that I work seven days a week” [bold emphasis mine – note how the woman categorizes her husband’s fatherly activities as being a favor – a “help”]…

“…Bill, on his second shift at home, would nap and watch television instead of engaging the children. The more anxious the children were, or the messier the house was when she walked in the door, the more Linda felt she was simply returning to the task of making up for being gone. “

Overworked and under-rested, women often felt that they “only get relief from the ‘work’ of being  at home by going to the ‘home’ of work”. Hochschild speaks of research that shows that across social classes, fathers reported more “positive emotional states” at home, and mothers, at work. She conjectures that “because women are constantly on call to the needs of other family members, they are less able to relax at home in the way men do”.

Women in hurry use fast appliances, speedy services, and express foods to be “even more amazing”. Only, I know a few who look a tad more distressed than the impeccable Kelly Ripa.

Just a housewife? Devaluation of the work of raising children

Along the years, the notion of kinder, kuche, kirche as the woman’s domain has become less attractive and desirable. Hochschild writes that “the ‘male’ world of work seems more honorable and valuable  than the ‘female’ world of home and children”. She says:

The more women and men do what they do in exchange for money and the more their work in the public realm is valued and honored, the more, by definition, private life is devalued and its boundaries shrink. People generally have the urge to spend more time on what they value most and on what they are most valued for.

Women who do paid work, researchers have consistently found, feel less depressed, think better of themselves, and are more satisfied with life than women who don’t do paid work. One study reported that, paradoxically, women who work feel more valued at home than women who stay home.

There are no certificates, annual award dinners, plaques or other forms of recognition offered to mothers (or fathers) who stay at home. With the ‘home’ being a less-desirable alternative, it’s no wonder that fewer women are aspiring to be ‘homemakers’ and fewer men consider it a place to relax and unwind. Even when flexibility is offered by the employer, men and women chose not to opt for it as ‘flexibility’ often translates to ‘more responsibilities at home’.

Is parenting more challenging than work?

Despite extremely hectic work schedules, male and female workers reported feeling more in control at work, than at home with their children. Fathers, in particular, felt more confident that they would be able to “get the job done” at home, than at work. One workaholic male worker commented that “the job of raising three children is three times harder than a job at the factory”. Has parenting changed or are parents resource depleted? In traditional societies, extended families often participate in raising children. With relatives that share and care (and meddle), the task of parenting is distributed and seems less daunting. Modern nuclear families often receive little in the way of social support. Those that lack the financial resources to outsource help suffer even more. (And yet, there is evidence that some women find it easy and comfortable to be mothers. I read recently about how Bethany Frankel manages ‘fame with being a mom to her daughter’).

Weakening family ties

Currently the divorce rates in America (for first marriages) is around 40%. Rising divorce rates have certainly made the home far less secure. The workplace on the other hand offers social interaction, friendships, and a ‘shared’ experience, and is a whole new family. A job represents much more than a paycheck, it is “an emotional insurance policy on the uncertainties of family life”.

Did you have fun babysitting?

To be fair, men are increasingly willing to participate in household chores. Those that don’t pitch in voluntarily, grudgingly acknowledge the necessity of their contribution. However, cutting back is often not a real option for men. Hochschild writes about a male employee (one of only two) who availed the paternity leave (after coaxing an unwilling supervisor into it). While women looked up to him as a hero and cheered for him, male colleagues either chose to ignore it (“Were you on vacation?”) or playfully chided him for taking on un-masculine/undesirable tasks (“Did you have fun changing diapers?”). Undeniably, many men felt that he was setting up a bad example and that their own working wives would begin to pressure them to cut back and help out. Hochschild suggests that

In the modern family, however, “family man” has taken on negative overtones, designating a worker who isn’t a serious player. The term now tacitly but powerfully calls into question a worker’s masculinity.

Indeed, taking care of a child is often perceived as unmasculine, especially by other men. When my father stayed with us to help us take care of an infant while I worked full-time, one of his (male) friends made jabs, asking him “Are you going to be babysitting?”, implying that my father was giving up his current role, to take on an inferior, unsuitable, unmasculine role as a babysitter. The male employee in the story asked, “Isn’t there a thing as a Daddy or Father? Isn’t there a difference between ‘babysitter’ and ‘dads’?”.

Whoa!

Clearly there are no easy fixes to this deeply vicious cycle: more work, not enough time at home, tensions pile up at home, escape to work. Many of the factors that have contributed to these consequences are deeply ingrained in organizational and societal culture. Hochschild calls for a social movement to address the issue, but that really is the subject of another book. How do we even begin to clean this up? As parents continue to suffer, the children pay the real price.

The gender war has to stop! As long as people continue to make assumptions about what men and women are supposed to (or not supposed to do), productive and collaborative relationships cannot be forged, at home and at work. Each family model is fraught with its own challenges – the traditional family with the male breadwinner and female caregiver might still work for some, but clearly makes others unhappy. Even in dual career families, arrangements may differ, but it is essential for both partners to respect each other and to acknowledge each other’s contribution at home and at work (I sometimes feel that a good assessment of workload is to ask ‘how much leisure time do you get?’ In an ideal situation, both partners must have around the same leisure time).

Home and child related work is sometimes invisible and difficult to quantify – try and put a dollar value on it. Yet, it is real, unpredictable, challenging and even exhausting (and so very rewarding!). The home must be valued and so should it’s caretakers, male and female.

Organizations must foster a culture where family-friendly policies are not only offered on paper, but encouraged whenever possible. Family- friendly policies should not be considered ‘women’s issues’. Hours must not be the only benchmark of commitment and ambition. Workaholism must not be rewarded, efficient work should.

All easier said than done.

 I do not aspire to be a super woman. I cannot spend nine hours at work (and two hours commuting) and hope to make it up to my child in a protected half-hour pocket of Quality Time. And yet, if I must work, I cannot spend the same eleven hours with my child. I hope to be able to make the right choices, and to be an able parent and a serious employee, to take on what I can, and do really, ridiculously good work.

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A Widow’s Story

I spent these past two weeks on two books that are apparently in great demand at the local library (they are 2-week books, instead of the regular 4-week reading period). I went in to pick up Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and saw A Widow’s Story prominently placed on the 2-week shelf. And I picked that up as well (so what if I had three unread books waiting for me at home). I believe that one should not read books that one finds too hard to read, so hard that reading is no longer fun, that reading is a chore. And so I feel a little less guilty about not being to ever finish (or go beyond page 44) of Catch-22, after trying many many times. Sometimes, I just don’t get a book, and I let that be.

JCO’s book, I got. What I didn’t quite get is this review on NY times.

A Widow’s Story is precisely that, a fairly personal memoir of the time immediately following (and preceding) Joyce Carol Oates’ husband’s entirely unexpected death. JCO certainly rambles on quite a bit, but her ramblings are very readable – she describes her anguish and depression throughout the book, an emotion that certainly dominates the book. But this is a memoir of grief, so how can one say that this emotion was overused? Yes, there are other memoirs of grief that are witty, funny even, shorter, more to-the-point, but that doesn’t necessarily make one less or more readable than the other. Or one experience less or more painful than the other.

In high school, my favorite work of fiction was Jane Eyre. I was completely taken in by the dynamics between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, and played their conversations in my head many, many times. In one such scene, when Jane and a blind Edward have been re-united, Jane says to Edward:

“…I thought anger would be better than grief…”

And the statement immediately resonated with me. So, it was this passage from Jane Eyre I thought of, when I read JCO say:

“Better to be angry, than to be depressed.”

“I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilerating, such emotions [anger and rage] would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear.”

Very true.

The NY Times review takes issue with the fact that JCO doesn’t inform her readers about her impending engagement or second marriage (she does ‘hint’ about it in the very last page). And that the book doesn’t really talk  about the ‘dynamics’ of her first marriage or give the impression that JCO and Ray Smith were affectionate or close. In fact, JCO does delve quite a bit into aspects that Ray and she did not know about each other, and now never will. However, I do get the impression of a quiet intimacy, which may not sound exciting enough to some, but seems real enough to me.

Well. The book is about widowhood, and about Joyce Carol Oates as a widow, Ray Smith’s widow. I agree with her that details of her second marriage don’t really have a place in this memoir, and that the absence of this revelation does not make this work dishonest. Though, I admit, I think that JCO’s widowhood is hardly typical and might not reflect how other people feel or deal with their losses. For one, JCO has a lot of well-meaning friends, who not only send beautiful notes of sympathy (and rejected sympathy baskets), but do help her physically and mentally with the many death duties, driving her around, giving her legal advice, inviting her to dinners, and just being there for her. JCO also has a house, and a job, both of which, and especially the latter, help her through the days. And not many widows and widowers find love within a year of their loss. So, I think that JCO story is painful, but perhaps not typical.

JCO shares many of the condolence letters she received during the period. Many of these are very thoughtful and touching, though I’m not sure how much they help a grieving person. JCO herself relies a lot on the kindness and love of close friends, though she speaks of her

“Fear of draining friends’ capacity for sympathy”

Well, life goes on. Painful or not. And it’s time for me to move to a cheerful book or two. Or even one that makes me angry. But not sad. No, not sad.

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