Can I Really Call Myself A Housewife Anymore?

Sometime in 2016, I wrote a piece about identifying as a queer housewife. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, not by a long shot, but it was something I was feeling really intensely at the time and really wanted to talk about. The extremely simplified version is that I had, as a younger person, really wanted to stay home and raise babies and keep my house. When I grew up and became a feminist and realized I was a flaming queer… this didn’t seem like it was going to happen, so I set the dream aside. But having a baby FORCED me to stay home (in the same way it forces many parents, including many new moms and other birthing parents who aren’t ready, back into the workforce). And while I was forced to stay home, I fell in love with it, and came to identify with that word, housewife.

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The whole thing ended up sparking a bit of a debate about terms. Many people told me they preferred homemaker to housewife, as it was gender neutral and less derogatory. But the term “homemaker” has been tied up in a very particular brand of conservative Christianity, and benevolent sexism, for decades now. And besides, I wanted to be a housewife specifically because it was gendered work I was doing. Are there men who cook and clean and budget and organize? Absolutely. But my own housewifery made me feel connected to generations of women who cared for their families and homes. I couldn’t divorce it from that, and I found that I didn’t want to.

Anyways, I got paid for that article about being a housewife. I think I made seventy-five bucks.

***

This spring, my spouse and I made a rather huge change. Specifically, she cut her working hours, from four days a week to three days a week. This way, I could also work three days a week, and we would split childcare duties equally. With our toddler weaned, this seemed like the perfect setup for our little family. Now no one would be carrying the brunt of the kid-wrangling, we would both work, and both do childcare, and have one day off a week in common. In many ways, it was a dream come true for me.

I started freelance writing at the end of 2015 and very beginning of 2016, and I started really small. I was just bringing in enough money to take the edge off, the edge of living in poverty. I was really proud of my contribution, even though I try very hard not to assign value to myself based on money earned. For so long, I hadn’t been able to financially contribute to my family, and I had watched (and felt) us struggle to try to survive on one income.

Since then it has been a (more or less) uphill climb. But there is never enough time. I work nights. I get behind on projects. I get behind on the blog. And my work time always gets eaten away at, slowly but surely. My spouse and I may work the same number of hours… but one of us works outside the home (her) while the other works inside the home (me). When doctor’s appointments have to happen, it’s easier for EVERYONE to schedule them for my work days. And then I take part of the day off and scramble and it sucks. Often I work nights. Often I work too many nights in a row (because I don’t know when to give myself a break) and make myself sick. Often freelance payments come late which makes it feel like I’m working this hard for nothing.

The switch from two work days a week to three work days a week alleviated some of the pressure on me, but not all of it. And it also added more. The income I make long ago ceased being “extra” money. I am now responsible for a rather large chunk of our monthly budget. If I don’t work, we can’t pay our bills and buy our food, period.

And the switch also meant something else… it was the end of the housewife dream.

A lot of times, I am too tired to make dinner, so my spouse does it. The livingroom which I used to lovingly pick up on the daily… well there are dust on top of the toys left on the floor now. The exciting DIY projects are all left for… another day, someday, maybe one day. All of this is in the service of my career.

I’m not complaining exactly, but it’s like I accidentally morphed from a housewife into a career woman.

And here’s the thing. I’m not even sure how I feel about that. I love my job. I love the work I’m doing. I’m writing some really interesting and exciting things that I never would have dreamed of a few years ago. It’s just that some days, I would rather be making my own granola bars and tending my little garden, you know?

***

Not having the identity of housewife makes me feel a little bit like I’m floating. I no longer know what my roll is, I’m no longer entirely sure I fit my roll. The reality is, of course, that I desperately want to do both. I want to do more things than there can ever be time for. I want to make pie crust and write interesting and well researched pieces, and do creative projects with my toddler, and organize the pantry, and work on my novel. But I also want to be kind to myself and read books and watch Doctor Who. There isn’t enough time, and I’m getting frustrated, and I’m burning out. And I’m not the only one. Women (and other people, but largely women) are so often tasked with doing the impossible in not enough time, we are so often racing the clock, we are so often torn in a thousand directions and unable to feel anything but guilt.

I don’t have an answer.

But I do have an idea.

Stay tuned.

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Weaned (World Breastfeeding Week, Without Breastfeeding)

This is going to get emotional.

When I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I also knew that lots of people struggle with breastfeeding, and that I had basically no idea how it would go for me ahead of time. I wanted to believe that since breastfeeding is *natural* (I have feelings about that word, y’all) it would just work itself out. I wanted to believe that my body would know what to do! But I didn’t know for sure, and I didn’t know how it would shake out with work, and I didn’t know if I would love it or hate it. But I was determined to do my best. I told myself that I would breastfeed for a year, and then we’d check in and see what to do next.

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My body, the one that I wanted to believe would know what to do? Turned out it didn’t know how to give birth. I ended up being in and out of labor for a week, miserable and exhausted, and finally having a c-section. Then, we started trying to breastfeed. Latching was almost impossible, no matter how many times the lactation consultants showed me what to do, I couldn’t get my nipple into my child’s mouth without backup for almost two whole days. We kept trying. I was scared. I was scared the nurses would sneak him formula. I was scared he would actually need formula and that my body, the body that had failed at *natural* birth (there’s that word again) would also fail at breastfeeding. Then, somehow, me and the baby both started to figure it out. My milk came in, more milk than I had ever dreamed of. It turned out my body was really awesome at one thing: breastfeeding.

I loved it. I became obsessed. I wasn’t ready to try to process my feelings about the birth, so instead I just clung to the one part of motherhood that made me feel capable and whole, and that was feeding my kid. He was an enthusiastic eater, an I never once turned him down when he wanted a snack. Then, when he was three weeks or so, my gallbladder went completely bananas. In a hellish amount of pain (anyone who has had a gallbladder attack can tell you) I first headed to a nearby emergency room. After ten hours of medical neglect, milk streaming from my breasts like great waterfalls, I left that hospital against doctor’s orders to go feed my baby. When I had another attack, I headed to a different hospital, the same one I gave birth to him at, and this time I brought him with me. In excruciating pain, I nursed him in the waiting room. On a hospital bed in a tiny room in the ER, I took turns nursing him and letting my mother and wife bottle feed him, from my minuscule supply of pumped milk (remember, he was three of four weeks old). But when they took me upstairs to the surgical department, he was not allowed to go with me. And they put me on morphine, so my milk was no longer safe for him.

So for three days, I was in the hospital, with an alarm set on my phone for every three hours. When it went off, I would ring for a nurse and ask for a breast pump. They would bring it to me, and ask cheerfully if they should store my milk for me. And I would have to hold back my tears as I explained over and over again that no, every drop of my milk had to go down the drain. At his grandparents’ house, my kid finished my pumped supply, and then some donated milk as well, and I gave the ok for him to have formula. On the day he turned one month old, I had my gallbladder removed. The next day, I went home, and I had the ok to try to nurse him again. I was terrified it wouldn’t work. I was terrified he would not remember how, would prefer the bottle, that after all I would fail at this too and now I was going to have to figure out how to navigate the world of formula.

But by some miracle, it was easy. The only problem was that my oversupply had actually gotten worse, because I was so afraid of losing my supply, I had pumped more than I needed to.

We never had a problem with breastfeeding again. I lost my job, so I was home to feed him 24/7. At four months, he decided bottles were the actual devil, so we started occasionally giving him a sippy cup. At six months old, we started solid foods (via the baby lead weaning method) but if he decreased his nursing, I didn’t notice. On his first birthday we took him out for sushi and ice cream, and he ate all of it with enthusiasm, and then asked to nurse. The waitress wrote me a nice note about how I was doing the best thing for my baby.

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I didn’t dream of weaning him at one year. By that point, I was firmly in the “I’ll nurse him until he’s five, I don’t care” camp. He loved nursing, and I loved doing it. It helped me to feel useful, it helped me to feel connected to him, and it gave me much needed down time with an increasingly active toddler. He usually wanted to nurse more than I wanted to, and sometimes I complained about the frequency, but on the whole the pros outweighed the cons for me.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, when he was 19 months old, it suddenly stopped.

I still struggle to write about it. The details are that the whole family got the flu, and then he got his very first ear infection (which I also got). It hurt him to nurse, so he stopped doing it. Then he became terrified of my breasts and didn’t even want to see them. Everyone, from two lactation consultants to the nurses at the children’s hospital, told me the same thing. Most likely if he had been an enthusiastic nurser before, it was just a nursing strike, and he would come back to it as soon as he felt better. However, they all added, some children do self-wean at this age, and it’s perfectly safe and normal, and I should be ready for either outcome.

I was not ready for either outcome.

He never breastfed again.

When you wean a child, there is a huge hormonal shift that happens for the nursing parent. Typically, if you were intentionally weaning, you would try to do it slowly. But my child went from trying to nurse constantly on Friday (because he wasn’t feeling well) to not nursing at all on Saturday (because he couldn’t). My body was in shock. My hormones were out of wack. I was thrown headlong into a depression that was every bit as bad as postpartum depression, only now I had a toddler to take care of. The only positive to the experience was that it finally forced me into therapy. Slowly, my milk dried up. Slowly, the idea that he would never nurse again became normal.

I am not supposed to be sad about this. I am told over and over again that “at least you made it to 19 months, most people don’t do half that!” as though it were a contest. I am told that if he weaned then, he was ready, even though I know he weaned in sadness and anger and fear. I am told it is not about me. I am not supposed to be sad about a child weaning at 19 months, but I’m especially not supposed to be sad about it now, seven months later. It’s fine, he’s happy and healthy, we still cuddle and play and talk, he’s an amazing kid and I’m lucky to have him. Except I am sad about it. I am sad about it every single day.

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I am sad about it when I see my friends breastfeed their children. I am sad about it when they notice the look in my eye and apologize to me for feeding their babies in front of me. I am sad about it when he wakes up in the night crying and I feel helpless. And I am sad about it when he sees me change my shirt, and confidently says “oh! mama MILK!” because he still remembers. I cannot turn off this sadness.

***

It’s World Breastfeeding Week again, and I got invited to a march for breastfeeding awareness. Reading the invite I thought “oh, I am aware of breastfeeding.” I cycled through the familiar heartache, the pain that it ended the wrong way, followed by the self loathing and fear that I am somehow selfish for feeling this feeling. The invite specified that the event is for all, not just those who are currently breastfeeding. But I know I cannot go. I can’t handle being around that much awareness right now.

I was extremely luck that I got to breastfeed my kid for as long as I did. And it’s over. And I’m still sad about that, and goddamnit, I get to feel that.

So this is for all the parents who wanted to nurse but couldn’t. This is for all the parents who had to stop sooner than they wanted to. This is for all the parents who had to stop too soon. For everyone who had to switch to formula because of work, or supply, or sleep, or whatever… for everyone who feels messed up and messy about feeding babies… I see you.

If you are all for breastfeeding awareness, and your life is currently filled with breastfeeding images, and you aren’t breastfeeding anymore, I’m with you. If your heart is breaking wide open all over again, I’m with you. If you too are sitting at your computer, crying about the fucking concept of breastfeeding, and you think no one would ever understand this pain… I’m with you.

Maybe it’s true that we still need more breastfeeding awareness on a larger scale. But the rest of you will have to forgive those of us who are desperately trying to be a little less aware of it right now.

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Why I Really Am a “Mama Writer”

In the last few months, I’ve started to push myself to write about things other than, well, parenthood. There are a few reasons for this, one of them being the simple (but somehow hard to believe) truth that I’m a complex human being and I’m interested in lots and lots of things. Another was that I had been writing about parenting and parenthood at such a high volume that I pretty well burned myself out, and my life became a cyclical trap of writing about my parenting experiences almost as fast as I could, so that I could have just enough money to continue said parenting. Another is that I am not impervious to cultural pressures (again, I’m a human) and we as a culture just don’t hold a lot of respect for mama writers.

To be a mother and to write is already a bit of a challenge, and one you won’t find much support for in the world. Our culture’s attitudes about what motherhood should be (selfless, endlessly living, 24/7) aren’t exactly congruent with creative expressions. A mother’s time belongs to her children, and to take the time needed to write anything is to rob them of the precious time they are owed.

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Behold, my neglected first-born.

But to be a mother who writes about mothering is something else. Not only is this particular brand of mother selfish and horrible (just look at her poor children, cursed with a writer for a mother!) the writing itself is also the lowest of the low. Writing about parenting (but especially mothering) is considered to be of low importance and low quality both. I’ve experienced this, I’ve watched at parties as I answer the question “what do you do?” with “oh I’m a writer!” only to answer the question “what do you write about?” with “parenting, feminism, and queer issues” and watch peoples’ impressed expression turn to disinterest and even pity. I’ve had to essentially beg editors not to count me out just because the majority of my published work is about parenting and parenthood. I’ve dealt with even the most feminist of publications assuming that any writing about mothering is far too niche, and without substance. To announce that you are a mama writer (or worse, a mommy blogger) is like saying “I’m a writer, but not a real writer, not about anything that matters.” Writing about parenting (and again, particularly motherhood) is devalued at every single level. It is considered less creative, less work, and it fucking pays less than other writing. To identify as a person who writes about motherhood has been, frankly, demoralizing and discouraging.

And there are reasons for this devaluing! A lot of them come down to good old fashioned capitalism and sexism. Parenting is generally considered feminine labor, and it is generally unpaid, and therefore it is without value. This inability to assign a number value trickles into the way our culture assigns other types of value as well. Parenting just isn’t interesting, as far as our dominant culture is concerned. It’s on par with cleaning a toilet, only other people currently cleaning a toilet might have any interest in it, otherwise is is the unsightly work best left unseen.

(I’m simplifying, a little, here. Of course there is also the ever present force of benevolent sexism, which sanctifies motherhood in order to demand even more free labor from mothers and demean them in the rest of the world.)

Which brings me back to my own personal experience with parenting and parenting writing. I was burned out and exhausted and underpaid. I was under a lot of pressure to write more, and faster, and that pressure started to more and more often threaten my child’s privacy, which is something I closely guard to the best of my ability. So, I started writing about other things. I wrote about dinosaurs, and Harry Potter, and fine art, and it was honestly a relief. And as much as I told myself that it was just my own personal burn out, there was also the cultural pressure to be a “real” writer. I had watched colleagues ditch mama writing for other topics, watched their careers move faster than mine, watch the way they were valued more for their work that was about anything but raising up babies and kids.

Then, a funny thing happened.

Once I stopped forcing myself to write about parenting… once it wasn’t the only thing I was doing… I started to think about it differently. I stopped dreading it, I stopped resenting it, and I started to write parenting essays… for myself. Suddenly, I wanted to talk about motherhood and parenting and how we are trying to exist in the world with our babies. Because well, we do exist, don’t we?

On a macro level, it’s important to respect mothers who write and mothers who write about mothering. Just because capitalism is in love with devaluing us doesn’t mean it’s right, and it doesn’t mean we have to play along. Parenting happens to be a rich, complicated, and varied topic, and there is so much writing done about it that is high quality, creative, and beautiful. Furthermore, a lot of the writing that seems to be lower quality isn’t always because of lazy or incompetent writers… it’s because of a system that favors fast, emotional, sloppy, writing over everything else. The machine needs to crank it out and get eyes on it, and so it does. I’ve had thoughtful and nuanced pieces I’ve written chopped up and edited to become overblown, hyperbolic, and nearly unreadable. This is business, and this is how business gets done. But we don’t have to be complicit, we can choose not to follow their lead, we can give respect and take respect for the labor that we do (both parenting and writing).

On a teeny tiny personal level, I can’t help but think about how I became a writer. I wrote once that having a child made me into a writer, and that’s true in a purely technical sense. I gave birth, I lost my job, and four months later I got my first freelancing gig. I had an opportunity to write for money, and I desperately needed money, so I took it.

But there is something else. Something that ties me to the idea of giving respect to this work, something that makes me angry that I ever wanted to divorce myself from it for greater respect from the world.

I have always wanted to mother. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you, because we hadn’t been dating more than a month when I explained my intentions (which were to have a baby, and kind of soon). This isn’t something that all women feel, of course, but for me I was a little girl pretending to breastfeed a doll under a bush, and then I was a young woman angry that I would have to wait to become a parent. I was the type of person who read parenting blogs for literal years before I was a parent myself, and I even wrote two essays for Mutha Magazine before my wife and I started trying to conceive. Parenting wasn’t just something that I did, or something that I wanted to do, it was my dream.

Is it any wonder, then, that’s I’m a mama writer?

It wasn’t just that I started writing because I was broke (although it was also that). I started this blog while I was pregnant, because I found that I needed to write about pregnancy in a way I didn’t need to write before. Making new life made me reflective, it made me need to parse out the complexities of life, and it made me angry about injustice. It utterly and completely changed my relationship to the written word, and it gave me things to say that I never could have had before. So, I started writing about it.

First, I wrote here. Then, I starting taking $50 an essay for my thoughts on motherhood, in order to enable my family to afford the luxury of a terrible apartment. I’ve grown as a writer since then, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve written about a lot more than “just” mothering and parenting. But first and foremost, that is probably the kind of writer I am.

Even if it isn’t worth very much to the world.

Being a working class queer woman, I’m already used to not being worth very much to the world. I can deal with this. I can deal with being a mama writer in a world that assumes that means that I’m lazy and incompetent and somehow not “real.” Patriarchy’s gonna patriarchy, and the dismantling is slow and grueling work, and I’m doing it anyway.

What I cannot deal with, what actually hurts, is watching other mother writers sing right along with the patriarchal line about this work being meaningless. If someone doesn’t want to write about parenthood, obviously that is fine for them. But let us please be careful not to degrade each other for doing the work that our world considers less important. Us mama writers are getting plenty of shit already, we don’t need it from our colleagues as well.

 

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Capitalism Offers Solutions For Imaginary Problems: Baby Clothes Edition

This morning, when I observed my morning ritual of trying to drink the coffee faster while checking social media (I know, I know) I saw a video being shared about baby clothes. The video documents Vigga, a Danish company that rents out baby clothes in order to reduce waste. The owner of the company (also named Vigga) explains that when parents have a child, they are forced to participate in the “buy and throw away society” because babies grow so very quickly and constantly need new clothes. Renting out the clothes seems like a positive solution, and is presented as both eco-friendly and money saving. Notably, while I saw it shared by a handful of people on my personal feed, none of the people who I saw sharing it happen to be parents themselves.

I mean, obviously some parents do like it, because parents do use this company. If they didn’t, it would have already folded.

(FOLDED, clothes, get it????)

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But most of the parents I know would have no use for such a service, and it certainly wouldn’t save them any money. The reason is that while we’re all aware that our kids (especially the really young babies) only use clothing a handful of times, we’re not throwing them away when they’ve outgrown them, and most of us aren’t stashing them in the attic forever either. Instead, we pass them around our communities. In a weird coincidence, I learned about this company on the same morning that a piece I wrote on the joys of handed-down kids’ clothes went up. In that piece, I took for granted that swapping baby clothes was a practical solution that parents would engage in, and focused on the less obvious emotional elements of taking part in that kind of community.

But let’s please talk about the practical aspect for a quick minute.

Reusing baby clothes isn’t new. Once upon a time, mothers made most of their babies’ outfits by hand, and you can best believe that with successive children they weren’t about to sew new ones if the old ones would do. To my knowledge, this has always been the norm. In my own experience, I’ve spent very little on clothing for my kid. When I was pregnant, we received a mix of used clothes from folks with older babies, and new things from family members who went out and bought stuff because they really wanted to. During my pregnancy, we had very little money, and we purchased one onesie, which we found on clearance, because we happened to have three dollars and it was very cute. That’s it. The next time we bought clothes for him, it was because we wanted to, and it was at a thrift store. I believe he was three months old, and we spent about fifteen bucks on a bag of baby essentials in his current size.

15+3= $18 over a three month time period.

In contrast, after watching a more detailed BBC video, I learned that Vigga charges $55 per month for their service.

55×3= $165 over a three month period.

I don’t bring this up to shame anyone who finds a service like this attractive. I don’t bring it up to shame people who saw the video and thought “what a cool idea!” and his share. I bring it up because this is a perfect example of a thing that global capitalism does that ties into everything this blog is about. Because here is a place where communities have — and have always had — a perfectly good way of addressing the issue that babies, in fact, grow out of everything too damn fast. Communities are so good at addressing it that it in fact is functionally not really a problem. As long as parents are connected with other parents, as long as we’re willing to talk to each other and share resources, we’ve got the baby clothes issue pretty well handled. But of course, that isn’t profitable.

Capitalism is about placing profits over people, always. Capitalism pushes us to buy new clothes for our children when used ones will do just fine, and then it turns around and markets used clothing to us as “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” as long as we are willing to pay for it. It presents this as a solution to the problem of our constant purchasing and tossing of baby clothes, as though it were a new innovation to reuse things that aren’t worn out. In fact, what this is actually doing is attempting to replace the community with yet another monetary exchange.

Which both benefits from, and feeds into, nuclear isolation. It is saying “you don’t want to buy brand new clothes, because that would be wasteful. Don’t reach out to other parents though, instead pay $55 and this company will clothe your infant.” There is nothing innovative about that, it’s just a shift. The same way that childcare has been shifted out of our communities and packaged and sold to us (and no, I’m not shaming anyone who puts their kids in dare care, we all have to live in this world, you do what you have to) they are now trying to sell us the very idea of sharing.

I can hear the objections now. “Well, what if you don’t have any friends or family with older children from which to get clothes?” First of all, if that is the case for you, I’m extremely sorry. This level of isolation is, I believe, dangerous. It’s also constructed in order to keep you in a nuclear family unit that makes it easier to sell you shit, which is basically the thesis of my entire blog. Building communities is hard work, but it’s our only defense. But even if a hypothetical parent just logistically couldn’t find community to lean on for clothing in that way (let’s say you are the very first of your friend group to have a child, and you’re a stay-at-home-parent, and you don’t have the energy to try to meet anyone new right now, and you’re estranged from your family of origin) there would still be other, practical, “sustainable,” solutions. Buying the kid’s clothes at a thrift store and then donating them would probably be cheaper, and they could be donated at a shelter, thus helping a family in an even tighter spot. There are also mom2mom sales, which literally exist for this purpose.

If people are buying all of their infant’s clothes brand new, and then throwing them away, it is because they chose to do so. Maybe they chose to do so because they were comfortable enough financially to do so, and felt it gave them some sort of status. Maybe they chose to do so because they’d be too embarrassed to ask their friends and family for used clothing and no one in their circle has offered anything. Maybe they chose to do so because they enjoy hand picking each and every item of clothing. But ultimately, this is a choice that some people are making, and it’s a choice that is made because capitalism has sold us the idea that new is best, used is shameful.

A few points that are important to mention: Vigga is a clothing company, they make the clothes. Apparently they’re committed to using more eco-friendly methods of garment production, and so for them this is them shifting to a more eco-friendly distribution method as well. From that perspective (the perspective of the company trying to make a profit) it is a solution, and it’s a little bit better than the alternative. It is also possible that by highly systematizing clothes sharing, they’re getting more total wears out of a particular garment before it is discarded… but I feel like we can’t know that for sure (I’ve received hand-me-down clothing for my child that were literally older than I am). Also, because they make the clothes (and they’re cute as heck) what they’re selling isn’t just the idea of sharing clothing, it’s a particular aesthetic. This is high end, luxury baby wear, presented in a subscription box system that also implements reusing (which allows them to really use those buzzwords! SUSTAINABLE!). At it’s core, Vigga is a luxury product being sold to privileged parents who have chosen to opt out of community based clothing sharing because they are financially able to do so.

This is exactly the kind of “solution” capitalism loves.

Tiny Giant Happy Things, May Day

Yesterday was May Day, and it rained. May Day, as both the pagan holiday (also known as Beltaine) celebrating fertility and spring and International Workers’ Day, is pretty big deal around these parts. As a queer anarcho-socialist pagan household (to put the most accurate labels on us as possible) we cannot escape the weight or the joy of the first day of May. May Day is the height of spring, literally the very center of the season, and it throbs with potential and hope. And it is also filled with history, hung in the solemnness of those who died to make the world just a little bit safer and kinder and fairer.

Lots of years we have participated in an annual May Day bike ride in our city. Many of those years it was my first bike ride of the season, because I’m not a very dedicated cyclist and almost never ride in the winter. I remember the familiar burn in my legs, their confusion at being asked to do something they had almost forgotten about. One year a girl who had apparently just moved to our city found our gaggle of weirdos riding and just tagged along. She said “I was just singing old union songs to myself and thought I wouldn’t have anyone to celebrate with.”

The year the spouse and I fell in love, we battered and fried dandelion blossoms. Then we walked around our old neighborhood delivering them to friends and neighbors.

Oh, and I usually shave my head.

I rarely write about May Day, it’s such a busy, high energy, time of the year. I feel like I don’t have time to catch my breath and reflect. I feel like my head is spinning and then the holiday has passed and its not really relevent anymore. But today is only the second day of May, and my baby is outside playing with his Ma, and all the dishes from last night’s massive May Day meal are still in the sink. Today I can spare a moment to think about the wheel of the year and the march of time and the slow slow crawl of progress. Because if ever there was a day to challenge the nuclear family, the absurdity of the idea that we could live separate lives cut off from one and other in our separate and private homes, the stupidity of the notion that we could own our children, that day is May Day.

This May Day, like all May Days, I had more things I wanted to do than actually happened. We chose to stay on our block, which felt right, it felt like celebrating with our own community. These are the people we share with, the people who watch each other’s kids in a pinch, who will loan each other a cup of flour or help plant a garden or help you bring in a heavy box because you were stupid enough to think you could buy that ikea bookshelf and move it all by yourself (ahem). These are the people I am fighting isolation with right now.

So we made magic wands for the kids, and some neighbors had a May Pole in their yard, and we somehow managed to pull off a big dinner that included both fried dandelions and violet lemonade. I shaved off most of my hair. I baked a cake my favorite way, which is without a recipe or a measuring cup. Oh, and I built a bookshelf, because I just couldn’t stand hating my living room anymore. And all of our books were in piles on the floor since I impulsively decided to take the old (hated) bookshelf out to the back yard for a garden bed last week. The rain let up for enough of the day, and in the evening there was a small neighborhood bonfire.

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In three weeks the baby turns two years old.

So today I am sitting in a bright room, with the sunlight pushing through the clouds, thinking about the spring and the coming summer and the fallen heroes. There is a lot of hope in May Day, even the tragic kind of hope is still hope. Our clover seeds came in the mail, and the garden looks happy from all the rain, and I feel (for once) like maybe I’m doing my best and it’s good enough.

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Greetings!

I don’t do this a whole lot, but after my most recent post, the internet machine tells me I have quite a few more followers on this little old blog than I did previously. So hi, hello there, welcome. Pull up a chair!

I’m Katherine, and I’m a weird queer lady who some people say over thinks everything. But I think I think just enough. My interests include hating capitalism and loving cats. I have an about page if you need more vital information such as my cats’ middle names.

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I’m also a writer and artist trying desperately to make a living and support my little family. This blog does not pay. And most outlets that do pay for parenting related content are only interested in queer related content in a very limited capacity, and pay very low. Because of this, I now have a Patreon page, where readers can sign up to support my work. If you are able to support this blog financially, and you believe that I’m adding something valuable to the conversations around families and parenting, I am asking you to please consider it.

I’m glad you’re here, and I hope you enjoy.

Progressive Cisgender Parents Are Failing Our Kids

I perpetually have a draft or seven in my drafts folder about how progressive cisgender parents are failing transgender children. I feel deeply complicated about these drafts, and often have had trouble articulating them to the point of completion. I am not transgender, and this is not a blog about trans issues. I am not qualified to talk about what transness is, or isn’t, with any kind of authority.

Yet, this is, at least to some degree, a blog about parenting. And while I’m not a transgender person, what I am is a cisgender parent. So I am quite qualified to talk about being a cisgender parent, and to tell other cisgender parents that they are fucking up.

Cisgender parents: You are fucking up.

So of course, I had a draft about this idea (and a fairly recent one) percolating the other day, when I saw a New York Times op-ed titled “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s A Tomboy” floating around the internet. When I first saw the headline, I rolled my eyes.

NOTE: This blog post is over 3000 words long. If you want to read about why that New York Times piece is a fucking problem, I suggest you read this excellent piece first or even instead. If you only have the time/energy to read one piece about this issue today, don’t make it mine.

ANOTHER NOTE: I do not personally know the author of the NYT piece discussed here, but we are in some of the same professional networks, and I have read and enjoyed some of her other work.

“Well how do you know?” I whispered under my breath.

But, as a writer who writes for the internet, I know that writers almost never get to choose their own headlines. And I know that editors sometimes put rather ridiculous headlines on pieces for reasons of “search engine optimization” (basically, clickbait). And this particular piece of writing was being shared by feminists who I love and respect.

If you are one of those feminists that I love and respect who shared the article on social media, please know I am not singling you out here. It really was a wide variety of folks in multiple circles, and I am not doing that passive aggressive thing where one says “lots of people did X” when they really mean “my friend Betsy did X but I don’t want to name her.”

Anyway, because people I respected had shared the article, I figured maybe the headline was just crap and it was worth a read. So I read it.

***

Tomboys are great. I was raised by one, a fierce woman who knew very much that she was a woman, and also that she was better than everyone else at climbing trees. She was, in many ways, a paradox of society’s gendered expectations, and also of what we think of when we use the word “mother.” Growing up, she was a small and compact woman, who literally seemed to never stop moving during the day. When I was very young, she quit the army to be a stay at home mom, and that is how I remember her. She was an excellent mother who regularly helped us with fun craft projects and made cookies all the damn time. She was also an athletic woman who loved playing outside as much as she loved baking, flatly refused to learn how to put on make up, and loathed dresses.

As a child, my mother was forced to wear dresses to school, because that was the rule. When I picture the mother of my childhood, I see her in jeans and a tucked in flannel shirt. I remember her heartbreaking stories about being a teenage girl and having boys say “you’re not like a girl, you’re more like a buddy.” But she was a girl.

***

A few weeks ago, a heard a story that I hear over and over again. Someone’s young child, a boy, was doing something that didn’t align with the expectations of the gender assigned to him. Specifically this particular boy wanted to wear a dress, and also his mother’s shoes. And one of his parents — his father — was very upset and concerned by this behavior. He wasn’t sure his son should be allowed to do these things. And his other parent — his mother — felt that it was fine and was no big deal and was looking for was to reassure the nervous dad.

The responses, from other progressive parents, were very telling.

“Oh, my nephew was really into dresses when he was that age, then he grew out of it, it probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“A lot of little boys go through that phase, it’s nothing to worry about.”
“My son was really into pink for awhile. We were worried about it but we just let him do it, then one day he just suddenly stopped. So it’ll probably be fine!”

All of these responses have the noble goal of soothing the nervous dad so that the kid can go on doing what he wants to do, dressing the way he wants to dress and playing the way he wants to play. But all of these responses are also very troubling, particularly if we take two seconds to think about what words like “anything” and “nothing” and “fine” mean in this context.

What they are saying, though they won’t come right out and say it, is “I understand that you are worried that this could mean your child is gay or transgender, but don’t worry, he probably isn’t!” They are affirming homophobia and transphobia as right and good (because nobody wants their kid to turn out to be some kind of queer, right?) and assuring the parents that it’ll probably be fine. And bear in mind here, these are progressive parents. These are parents who, when pressed, would say that of course they would support a gay child or even a trans child and love them “no matter what.”

But situating straight as cisgender as a “fine” way for a child to be and queer and transgender as somehow dangerous is homophobic and transphobic. And if the kid turns out to be any kind of LGBTQIA, those subtle messages could make a child feel less safe and less able to come out. And sometimes, those messages are not subtle at all.

***

Four years ago (according to her tweets, there is no date on the piece), the author of that New York Times op-ed published another essay about her child. That piece is on parenting.com and bears the headline “My Daughter Wants To Be A Boy!” In her recent tweets, Davis has pointed out that we writers rarely write our own headlines, and she did not write that one. She seems to think that the problem with that earlier piece, and how it relates to her more recent piece (My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s A Tomboy) is the headline. But here are some quotes from that apparently four year old piece:

They told us at school that she gravitated toward the boys, and though she is quite small for her age, and not particularly hearty, they told us she could hold her own with the rowdy bunch of them.

And again, I thought, “How great is she?”

Well, okay, 90 percent of me said that. The other 10% thought, “uh-oh.” As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like “Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?” the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.

and

But there is something about having the only girl who won’t play princess, the only girl in the school who thinks and says she’s a boy, that has shaken me a bit. Dressing like a boy? Cool. Thinking you actually are a boy? Way more complicated.

and

And I’ve already endured the heartbreaking experience of having long-haired, pink-and-purple-clad girlie-girls look at my daughter and say, “Is that a boy or a girl?”

and

There’s really only one remaining objection to [redacted]’s proclivity: we have the loveliest assortment of hand-me-down dresses, ones that currently [redacted] refuses to wear but that I don’t want to waste. For this, though, I have clear-cut solutions. We wear dresses on Thursdays, and any time she wants to wear her tie, she has to wear a skirt, too. Which she does, as long as she can wear jeans underneath and, as always, her Spiderman shoes.

So no, the issue is not the crappy headline. The crappy headline, while crappy, is actually fairly accurate to the piece. Four years ago, Davis’ child (who she refers to by name in the piece, though I won’t republish a child’s name in that way) showed signs “both subtle and direct” that she wanted to be a boy. Davis was cool with her kid being a tomboy, but transgender was a step too far, it made her uncomfortable, it made her afraid. It made her so afraid that she was willing to force her child into a skirt and unhappiness. This piece is basically the very definition of a well-meaning parent — who sees herself as enlightened and accepting — being transphobic as hell. Davis’ child did not receive subtle hints that being a boy was not something available, it was direct. We wear dresses on Thursdays.

And if her recent NYT piece is any indication, Davis got her wish. Four years later, she happily states:

In fact, I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like. But my daughter had been attending the after-school program where this woman taught for six months.

“She’s a girl,” I said. The woman looked unconvinced. “Really. She’s a girl, and you can refer to her as a girl.”

and

But it has always just been a look, even if it came with a rejection of princesses (which also delighted me) and a willingness to play family with both boys and girls as long as she could be the dog or the police officer.

and

The message I want to send my daughter is this: You are an awesome girl for not giving in to pressure to be and look a certain way. I want her to be proud to be a girl.

And maybe Davis’ kid really is a girl, and really does feel like a girl now, even though four years ago that wasn’t exactly the case. For every transgender person who has said “this sounds exactly like me, once I was told I couldn’t be trans I shut up about it and just said what my parents wanted to hear” there is a cisgender person who has said “this sounds exactly like me, I thought I wanted to be a boy when I was very young, but I didn’t really.” And that’s fine, and I can’t know which camp this particular kid falls into.

But regardless, both of these pieces are a problem. And are instructive as to so much of what is wrong with progressive cisgender parents who center their own feelings about their children’s identity over and over again.

***

I’m already angry with how much time I’ve had to devote to Davis’ writing in this piece. I didn’t set out to write a take down of either her four year old essay or this week’s op-ed, I want to talk about something larger. But we have one more thing to cover, and it’s from this excellent article on medium by trans parent Chase Strangio:

“[T]he message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.” This is a timeless message that has been told to girls, boys and non-binary people in the United States always and has nothing to do with trans-ness. We question the “realness” of people’s gender all the time — especially people who are Black, other people of color, people with disabilities, all trans people. This is not happening to the author’s child because some people support trans kids, this is happening and has always happened because of white supremacy and patriarchy. The author’s issue is not with trans people or trans-ness, or it shouldn’t be, it is with enforcement of gender norms and the impulse to situate people outside of real girlhood or boyhood because of who they are or how they look or how they act. But connecting this to the affirmation of trans young people in their genders is reckless and dangerous and wrong. Trans youth are dying because society is telling them, telling us, that we are fake. Trans women and femmes of color are being murdered because the impulse is to believe that trans-ness is fraudulent, that our bodies are threats. A white young person being asked questions about her gender is not a new problem and it is not a problem that should be blamed on trans people or trans affirmative shifts in society or medicine.

This touches on something that I think is very important. Davis positions the questions about her child’s gender as something that is happening because of trans rights, but that is bullshit. And the most common defense of the article I have heard has been “I was also a tomboy who was called a boy as a child, and I relate to this.” And yes, girls who don’t conform to society’s idea of what a girl should be are often punished and ridiculed, and it’s crappy and mean and it shouldn’t happen. But it isn’t the fault of trans people or a result of trans kids getting a teeny tiny bit of respect from time to time.

And I think most people, at least to some degree, know that. Yet Davis is very clear on the point. And while she says she wants Trans kids to feel safe, she also pits that safety against what she really wants, which is a cisgender child. She states:

Somehow, as we have broadened our awareness of and support for gender nonconformity, we’ve narrowed what we think a boy or a girl can look like and do.

But if cisgender people who are 30, 40, or even 50 years old, are stating that they like the article precisely because they relate to the plight of a girl who is often asked if she is a boy, then that can’t be true. This isn’t happening because we, as a society, support gender nonconformity, this is happening because of the same boring old patriarchy that has always been there.

A quick return to Strangio’s piece:

We should question the impulse to situate a problem in relation to trans-ness when in fact it is a problem that exists because of systems of power that also hurt trans people. That piece could have — and should have — been written with no mention of trans-ness. But then it wouldn’t have been interesting to anyone. It is interesting because it offers a new lens to question the legitimacy of transness while just describing the basic realities of gender policing. And truthfully, pretty benign gender policing when it comes to what people of color, people in prison, homeless people, people with disabilities, trans people, are subjected to.

***

All of this language has consequences, not just for one child but in a general sense. It’s important to note that the NYT has a history of publishing transphobic crap by cisgender authors. And again, I am a cisgender woman and in no position to explain how that must feel for trans people. But I do know what I’ve seen since Davis’ op-ed.

Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have seized upon the article, and are using it to attack trans people on twitter. This is surprising to no one who has ever encountered TERF mythology before, and it is mythology. Yesterday I saw one woman claim that it is illegal in many places to do anything but supply puberty blockers to a child who shows any signs of being trans. When asked what places she was referring to, she dodged the question. But the idea that gender non-conforming children are being forced to transition is a huge part of the anti-trans mindset in this country, and it is dangerous and harmful.

Lisa Selin Davis should know that, and if she knows that, I find it to be very troubling that she still chose to publish this piece.

***

This is about cisgender parents, and cisgender parents who want to view themselves as progressive and affirming and accepting. I think Lisa Selin Davis wants to be those things, I think a lot of us do. And she isn’t the only one fucking it up. In fact, most of us are fucking it up, and to a certain degree that makes sense because parenting is hard as hell and gender is complicated.

But we need to stop this nonsense. We need to stop setting up being cisgender as “fine” and being transgender as some kind of failure that we’ll deal with and “love them no matter what.” We need to start out by supporting our kids no matter how they identify, and by keeping our nervous feelings about that to ourselves. We live in a deeply transphobic and cisnormative society, and it’s understandable that parents may have some complicated and confusing feelings about the possibility that something like gender could make our kids’ lives harder. But the only way to counter that is to actually counter it. If what really makes us nervous is that other people might make our kids’ lives harder if they aren’t cis, then we need to stop giving those “other people” a head start by doing it for them.

If we, the progressive cisgender parents of the world, are really as open and accepting and trans affirming as we say we are, then we have to start fucking acting like it. We have to make our homes the safest place in the world for trans children, and not just children we know for sure to be trans, but children who are still exploring. We need to stop wrestling our “daughters” into dresses they hate because somehow we imagine the fabric will be going to waste if it isn’t used to make our children miserable. We need to stop including the caveat “but some people might not like it!” every time we let our “sons” wear something pink. And we need to stop demanding that trans kids prove to us that they are trans fifty thousand times before we will believe them.

Because these stories are not uncommon. Again and again I hear from cisgender parents who have noticed that their child is operating outside of gender roles, or even straight up saying “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” And the parents stifle them, in direct or indirect ways. They keep on parroting “boys have penises and girls have vaginas” even though they know it’s more complicated than that, because they don’t want to “confuse” their kid. They wait to buy the dress their kid is begging for because “what if it’s just a phase?” They include with every single nail painting session the message that “some people don’t think this is ok.” Instead of positioning themselves as their kid’s biggest supporter, they are the first gender gatekeepers, the first people telling their child “it will be very hard to be what you want to be.” And then, when after years of that, the child seems to conform a little better, they breathe a sigh of relief. And even though they didn’t listen all the times the kid said something else, now that they are calling themselves the gender assigned at birth, cisgender parents are suddenly obsessed with “taking kids at their word” and they celebrate the fact that, phew, everything turned out fine.

If your kid says “hey I think I’m a boy” the answer is “great! if you say you are a boy I will call you a boy.” If your kid says “hey you know last week when I said I was boy, I realized I’m not actually a boy, I just thought I might be because some kids at school said only boys have short hair” the answer is also “great! if you say you are a girl I will call you a girl.” If your kid asks why they can’t be a boy with a vagina or a girl with a penis the answer is ACTUALLY YOU TOTALLY CAN. And if your kid asks if they can wear boys’ clothes and still be a girl, the answer to that is yes also.

And if you find yourself deeply relieved that the kid you once thought might be trans appears right now to be a cisgender tomboy, for the love of everything that is good, do not write about it for the New York Times

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