The 80% Mom

One thing you said haunts me still. When I asked about motherhood, you said that children don’t need as much as you gave. “Eighty percent is probably plenty.” I was shocked by your words. Did you regret having given so much of yourself? Now, those words seem like a gift. A way of offering me a model of motherhood, beyond even your own example.

I first read this about a year ago and it really struck home. It comes from an open letter by Karin Cook to her mom who had passed away from cancer many years before.

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The Buddy System for Working Moms

Madeleine Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Her intention was to point out that women as sisters should help each other succeed. Successful women have an especially high burden in this regard. To me, her comment seemed to be directed at individual women. A couple of things that I read/heard this week made me wonder if this should be directed at the structural and social arrangements that we have. In other words, we as women need to systematically seek each other out to be partners and help each other succeed in the workplace. I give you two very different examples to illustrate, one from a former professor and one from an officer in the Navy.

A personal essay by Kathy Weston appeared in Science recently. She is a science writer, who used to be a professor at University College London. After 20 years in her position, a Research Assessment Exercise deemed her contribution to the department to be inadequate. She left before she could be fired. Her career started off well enough, but her research projects became more modest and unambitious over the years. The causes included the competing attentions of family and her own self-doubt. One paragraph of the essay especially caught my attention.

Trying to run a lab full time with small children at home is very likely to result in a drop in research productivity or quality, and yet little allowance is made for those of us, mostly women, who find ourselves in this situation. I believe I could have run my lab very successfully if I had been permitted to job-share with a close female colleague, also with two young children. Between us, we could have covered all the bases, and perhaps as a team we would have retained our competitive edge and hence our enthusiasm. This just does not happen in the male-oriented world of science in which, traditionally, dogs are keen to dine on dogs rather than share the bone between them, so to speak.

And the part about collaborating with a female colleague is important. While sharing a lab with a male colleague certainly would be beneficial, he would not be feeling the same pull from home and pressure to perform at work.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sheena Sullen was the subject of an story on NPR this morning. She had enlisted in the Navy and was about to be deployed on a missile destroyer. Her fiance had already been deployed, so there was no one available to look after her two children, ages 14 and 8. Sullen made a call to her childhood friend, Jihan Sanders. After careful consideration, Sanders quit her job and moved into Sullen’s home in another state along with her own children, ages 12 and 9. It’s an incredible act of friendship– in both directions.

For Sanders, it is a privilege to be a temporary mother, as Sullen had been to her. “I never had a mother, so I didn’t know what it was like, even how to act like a girl,” Sanders says.

Sanders is helping Sullen at home, so Sullen can succeed at her job as a Naval officer. If Sullen could not have deployed, it would have been the end of her career.

What if women could have buddy systems that were not ad hoc? What if it became the norm for women to find other women to help them run households and research laboratories? This pairing up would have nothing to do with romantic relationships (and would probably be better if it didn’t). It would be more like a sister than a mate. I don’t want to suggest that Weston would still be professor if she had a buddy to share her lab. Her story could have done in any number of directions. But it would have helped, and it would probably help women, including me, would benefit from an arrangement like this.

And as a special bonus, that special place in hell would be a lot smaller.

What did Solomon know about motherhood anyways?

There is a famous story in the Hebrew Bible about how Solomon adjudicated a dispute between two women both claiming rights to a child. The story is intended to show how wise Solomon was.

1 Kings 3:16-28 (New International Version, ©2010)

A Wise Ruling

16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, “Pardon me, my lord. This woman and I live in the same house, and I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 “During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”

22 The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”

But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king.

23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’”

24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

26 The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”

But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”

27 Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

This story, and the interpretation of it, drives me nuts. It feels very unfair and imposes a very narrow view of how a mother should be have. It emphasized the self-sacrificing aspect of motherhood and makes this an expectation of all “good” mothers. Why is it not possible for a “real” mother to prefer that her child die than go to some one else? Someone who might not be a good mother, such as a child abuser or drug addict? At the same time, I would be very sympathetic to a mother who has been looking after a demanding, colicky baby and has become completely fed up with the situation. Long term sleep deprivation (I’m talking months here, not days or weeks) is a nasty thing. I could see King Solomon’s offer to divide the child in half being the last straw– “You want him? Fine. Take him.”

It would be more productive for all concerned to think of “mother” as a verb, and not just a noun. Mother, the noun, is like a job title. It’s static. Once you give birth, adopt, foster, or marry into a child, you are given this label. It does not say anything about how, or even if, you fulfill any of the duties of the position.

Mother, the verb, is an action that needs to be performed over and over. It’s a process that needs to be sustained on a daily basis. You do this by caring for and nurturing someone, by paying close attention to their emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs.
Some of us have a mother (the noun), who isn’t very good at mothering (the verb). Maybe they were too young or immature when they had us. Perhaps they may were struggling with their own demons of mental illness or addiction. Or they were in need of a mother themselves. For people like us, Mother’s Day can be awkward and bittersweet.

Some of us have people in our lives who are good at mothering, but aren’t necessarily mothers (the noun). We may have had a relative, teacher, or neighbor who looked after us when we needed it. Men can mother too. The stay-at-home dad in my family is proof of that.

So, what did Solomon know about motherhood anyways? Did he give birth to a child? Was he responsible for the care and feeding of a child on a daily basis? How many nights has King Solomon stayed up walking the floors with a baby who won’t stop crying? There is little historical evidence to answer these questions definitively. But it would be fair to answer in the negative. Raising children tended to be women’s work and not in the job description for a royal prince. (To be fair, not necessarily work for a royal princess or queen, either.)

So did Solomon get it right? We don’t know. But if Solomon were alive today and making judgments using the same categories, it’s more than likely that he wouldn’t have. It’s not as easy to be wise, when you’re not living in a narrative, people are not stereotypes, and categories are in flux.

Sendak’s Trilogy and The Secret Life of Children

A few months ago, we started reading Maurice Sendak’s books to Lentil. We’ve had “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen” for a while, but Lentil wasn’t ready to appreciate them yet. We had read certain books over and over again, and we were ready for something new. She loved them. The stories are not at all sensible or logical, and the art is beautiful. She looked at the pictures so closely and was so quiet while I was reading. The book jacket for “In the Night Kitchen” mentions that these books are part of trilogy, according to Sendak. Since Lentil liked these books so much, I decided to hunt down the third.

The local children’s book store had not heard of this, so I turned to the Internet. So the third book is “Outside Over There.” Most of the reviews on Amazon are positive, but a few parents were horrified by the book. The plot involves a young girl has to rescue her kidnapped baby sister from goblins (who look like babies) while their parents aren’t paying attention. In the reviews on Amazon, the parents felt that the book didn’t provide reasonable role-modeling of parents and might give their children nightmares; however, they did like the Wild Things and Night Kitchen. I found this odd, because parents are entirely absent from those books, and scary things happen in those books too (Max meets monsters and Mickey is baked in a cake.)

Although the three books don’t have the same characters, the books are a trilogy because they are thematically related. According to Sendak, the books are about

how children master various feelings — anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy — and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives

A recent article in the New York Times, Maurice Sendak’s Concerns, Beyond Where the Wild Things Are mentions that Sendak had relentless nightmares about kidnapping. Sendak is also haunted by a terrible sense of inadequacy, even now as he approaches his 81. Journalist Patricia Cohen wrote:

That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways.

As children mature, it is good and appropriate for them to separate from their parents and be able to function independently. The degree of separation and independence, of course, varies with age and the personality of the child. It is fiction to suggest that a parent can be present for every moment of a child’s life. I believe that children can have complex internal lives, right before our eyes at an age much younger age than we expect. Last month on This American Life, Episode 361 entitled “Fear of Sleep” was on sleep disorders, both medical and emotional. Act IV was about a boy, Seth Lind, who saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when he was six years old and had trouble falling asleep for the next two years. The horror movie particular affected him because the movie was told from the point of view of a young child. As part of the segment, Seth interviews his mother about that period of time. She had no idea that he was so tormented and recalled that he was a happy, go-lucky kid. Later in the segment, Seth is asked why he never talked to his parents about his fear of sleep. His answer was along the lines of: in the end, everyone goes to sleep and you have to deal with it on your own. At the risk of sounding cynical, I think there’s an essential truth there. We’re much better off giving children support, skills, and freedom, than attempting the impossible task of monitoring them 24/7.

Whither wet nurses?

Rita Arens’ post Whose Boobies? on BlogHer caught my interest. In this and other posts, she is honest about not being entirely successful at breastfeeding her child, because she had difficulty identifying breasts as anything, but sexual. In this post, she mentions misgivings that she and other women have about wet nurses and cross nursing (nursing some one else’s child). Some of the concerns that she cites are medical issues, cultural taboos, and intimacy concerns.

While I think these do play a part, to me the most significant factor that has changed is the family structure. In the current age, we think of the nuclear family as a good thing. The basic family unit is now mom, dad, and kids, with little extended family around. We live together, work together, and bond together in these units. A reliance on someone else for bonding or emotional sustenance is a kind of failure, especially for the mom. In the past, and in some places now, a child is raised by an extended family. A baby could be picked up and comforted by anyone. There were many hands– and many mammaries– to share the work. Extended families were the social safety net. These arrangements are what is denoted by the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”

In this analysis, milk banks are a little more acceptable than wet nurses, because only the nourishment is being transferred. Actually, it’s illegal in the US to sell breast milk, because trade in bodily fluids, such as blood, is prohibited. Hence, we have blood banks and milk banks. A volunteer blood donation program generally has higher quality blood (e.g. fewer pathogens) than programs where donors are compensated financially for their contributions. (Cue the image of the homeless person with the leaking bandage on his arm and a few dollars in his pocket.) Consequently, one certainly couldn’t make a living by selling breast milk. But what about providing wet nursing as a service?

While we’re at it, why are men allowed to donate sperm and receive financial compensation? Sounds like a double standard, I say. It’s far less medically risky and socially damaging to share breast milk than sperm. There are many children out there who are wondering who is their anonymous sperm donor dad.