Saturday, January 12, 2008

men, childbearing and feminism

Maybe men shouldn't read this.

My son is sitting in my lap, sleepy blue eyes blinking up at me. His oldest sister is passed out on my bed with her best friend, with whom she spent last night. My youngest is reading manga on the floor. The boyfriend, my son's father, is out playing croquet in a city park. I am writing an overdue paper that I got an extension on for my 19th century lit class. I've been trying to get done for a month. I've had to restart three times now, because it's all I can do to formulate thoughts; I get interrupted a lot. My son is better now, but he had health problems for awhile requiring a stay in the NICU and they were talking a second surgery in November. Both daughters are having full on sibling rivalry about his arrival, including lots of competition and, in one case a few weeks ago, a fist fight in the bathroom.

It's times like this that I hate knowing about feminism, hate even thinking about it.

If I suggested to the boyfriend that I could use some help here, because while I'm not traditionally working, I am finishing a Master's, and thinking deep(ish) thoughts is both necessary and difficult to do with a house full of people, he would stay home.

Of course, he'd be unhappy about it. As he told me, walking out of the door, it's not like he goes out much. I felt very whiny when I told him I don't mind that he gets out, which I don't. I do mind that I am stuck here, that I haven't left the house in weeks, that I couldn't leave him to babysit this many kids anyway (you have to be pretty versed with kids to be left alone with three preadolescents and a baby. And, frankly, I'm not comfortable leaving a guy home with this many kids. Call me sexist, if you like.) I mind that, despite all this blogging, it was all I could do to finish my classes last semester and that I am going into my dissertation, an intense period of writing, scared to death that it will be all I can do to produce a few pages. I normally write something like ten pages a week.

I mind because I feel like my mother. My mother who used to drag herself around the house, collapsing on chairs or locking herself in her room, screaming and crying about how she fucking hated to be a woman. I used to cling to the white-washed walls in the hall outside her bedroom door as I listened to her beg god to make her anything else, dead would be fine. We took cross-country drives where she bitched all the way home about how much she hated taking care of us, having had us. She was not happy until, a few years back, they removed her uterus and ovaries. The next time I saw her, she was like a woman transcended; eyes alight and glowing, hair clean and she stood up straight, looking me in the eye. Since then, she's been kinder, though she still criticizes me and my lifestyle frequently. She knows what ambition gets women.

What is it Madam Reisz says in the Awakening? I'll paraphrase it with 'you must have strong wings. There is nothing more depressing than the women limping back with their crushed wings.'

I wish my mother would do something for herself. She won't let me do anything for her, nor could I offer. What's between us is ugly at best and I am not eager to be tortured again.

As a feminist, I can look back on her depression and my own malaise and dissect it in terms of obligations, oppression and isolation; or myself and my brother, the expectations of family and the sheer amount of traveling overseas we did when I was tiny, respectively. (I think there's something even nastier in the family history, but I don't know for certain.) My mother did have outside contacts, as do I. My mother was the local president for the Right to Life chapter of Hunt County (in Texas), a frequent choir leader, conductor and arranger for churches (she left a BA program in music to work and support my father through school, getting her MRS instead) and student body Treasurer in college. (As an amusing side-note, I was not allowed to watch horror movies, but knew what aborted fetus looked like since I was ten.) My mother wrote constantly and painted, filling several filing boxes in the garage with a meticulously researched sci-fi trilogy she will never publish and paintings that, while not museum quality, were excellent portraiture. She sold a few. She had ambition.

So do I. I burn with it. I've never met anyone who burns like I do, who cannot sleep and grinds their teeth, making patterns of the bumps on the ceiling. I will. I will make something of myself.

Perhaps my mother burned, too.

Ambition is one of the reasons I've gotten even this far.

My son's asleep in the other room. The girls are sprawled out, shoes and all, on my bed. God, they're so pretty. Is there anything as beautiful as a sleeping child? My girls are so eager to grow up. They frighten me.

This is the best boyfriend I've ever had, better even than a lot of the girlfriends I've had, at least the ones I've introduced to my children. And yet, here I am, angry beyond words.

I have worked my ass off. Bootstraps? I didn't have any when I started. I was couch surfing when I got pregnant with my first child. Her father was an engineer something like thirteen years older than me, not that he cared for either the age difference or the baby. I was seventeen. He was thirty, as old as I am now. I cannot imagine being interested in a child, though I suppose I would not, after a year of being homeless, be what might traditionally be thought of as a child. I was staying at my grandmother's, but since she kicked me out promptly after the birth, it's clear to me that my arrangement with her was temporary, at best.

I have three children, each birth filling me with as much sorrow as joy, though more for the girls than the boys; I know what's waiting for them. I wouldn't give my children up for the world, because loving them has been both instructive and redeeming (I learned to love them before I learned to love me) but each child has resulted in at least two years of delay on my education. When my oldest was born, I was told my unmarried state would ruin her life and her chances (for a good marriage and therefore happiness.) When my middle child, also a girl, was born, I was told that my desire to go to school was going to result in her being badly socialized or deficient.

I was being a bad mother. I went anyway.

With this baby, people at school ask me how I do it. Ha. What else is there to do?

As a feminist, my knowledge only serves to remind me just how repressive some of these things are. Even though I know better, I still expect to be my children's only caregiver, to provide their support and to be home with them as much as I can, for fear of what might happen if I was not. I expect that their fathers will be useless, and that I will always be taking up the slack, and working, and going to school, and everything to everyone until I cannot take it any more, and then I will do it again. I've had as many as three jobs at a time while I've been going to school. God, sometimes I think I'm made of some kind of metal, the way I just keep trying. Keep going. Always and forever, keep going because you cannot afford to fail.

It's another form of woman as sacrifice, but it's an effective trap, because I'll die before I abandon them. Nobody has to shoot you down, all they have to do is refuse to help you. And wait.

In the feminist theory class I took last spring, one of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, single, childless and very keen young things bemoaned the rejection of feminism by the working class women and single mothers she had been researching for her end of semester project. Why, she wanted to know. Why would any woman reject feminism?

I held my tongue and I shouldn't have. I'm not sure I could have been polite.

This is the best person I've ever dated. If I had to blame my attraction to the childless on something, I might blame it on the fact that I've been taking care of someone since I can remember; standing in for my once small brother and getting my ass royally kicked by our parents when we were kids, caring for other homeless friends, even just in a transitory way by shoplifting to feed the starving ones. I've had children around since just after my eighteenth birthday. I envy them, sometimes. I have no idea what it's like to be a kid, or to be alone. One of these damn days, I'm gonna be old, everyone will leave and I'm going on a permanent vacation.

This is the best person I've ever dated, and I'm no doormat (trust me), but here I am, trying to concentrate, to finish that last paper. He is the nicest man I've ever met, and he walked out the door, thinking we were equal in responsibility because he works during the day and does one baby feeding in the morning and (if he feels like it, or if I insist) one at night. No one I've ever dated has done even that much. I feel like giving him a standing applause, and then I am ashamed that I would be impressed with so little. Feminism reminds me of privilege, of why I am ambitious and what ambition means. Feminism gives me hope for another future, another time when I will not struggle to do what anyone should get to do, to make something of myself. More importantly, feminism reminds me to work a little harder at it for my girls. I have armed them as best I can against our rape culture, our oppression, which has only made them 'troublesome', and after all this, I can only hope. Feminism reminds me to notice the small indicators in speech that attempt to keep me at home the way my mother stayed home (god preserve me from what she did to my brother and I, god grant I continue to be kind), though the boyfriend does not mean to use them. He does not think of himself that way. Feminism makes me feel like someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder, like two women in this body that is big enough for neither. It makes me feel insane because I know, I know, I know better. But this is a rock and that is a hard place and I have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

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