Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Real O'Clock: The Feminine Mystique

Every now and then here at the Grey Skies World Headquarters, we like to take it down a notch, from our usual wine-guzzling, Walking Dead-watching, geek con-going ways and get Real. If this were a rock concert, now would be the part where I sit atop a stool, mic in hand, spotlight on, and croon "Every Rose Has A Thorn" while swaying gently, like my depth and emotion are far too sincere to be contained by sitting still.

Get out your lighters (or cell phone screens), because it's about to get Real O'Clock all up in here.

Thanks to the magic of technology, I've actually spent the last three months reading books in addition to parenting two kids, one of whom requires my help for even the simplest of things like eating, moving from place to place, falling asleep, and holding his head up. We're working on all of that. I'm all about teaching my kids independence. For example, this year we let our 3 1/2-year old, the Juban Princeling, do his own taxes.

I read Tina Fey's hilarious and thoughtful autobiography, Bossy Pants, as well as a surprisingly excellent but completely depressing book called Soft Apocalypse by William McIntosh. (Don't read it if you have a weak stomach or are prone to nightmares or worry about the end of the world.)

My husband read The Feminine Mystique a few years ago because he's awesome, and thought that as a stay at home mom I would enjoy reading it myself. Because somehow in my 36-year old feminist life I haven't read it yet. I didn't take that many women's studies classes in college - maybe two. But I've never read that most famous of Second Wave manifestos, The Feminine Mystique.

And I don't think I will.

I started reading it a few weeks ago, but could not make it through chapter 2.

Here's why.

1. It's too relevant to my life.
Reading about mothers who share peanut butter sandwiches with their kids, or feel like they are on their feet running around all day yet accomplish very little, hit home for me in a hard way. On days that I don't write, or meet up with friends, or have a date night with my husband, it's easy to feel like I'm spinning my wheels, like my days are a carousel of dishes, bottles, diapers, dropping off, picking up, calming, soothing, and bathing. Thanks to our society's perpetual finger-wagging at mothers no matter what we do, I have days when I never stop beating myself up: if my kids are asleep, or away, I feel like I should be taking full advantage of that time to clean, or write, or run errands. When they are awake and home I feel like I should devote 100% of my attention to them. I want them to be independent, but I worry they get bored. I want them to be entertained and educated, but I worry they get overstimulated. I want to spend time playing with them, but I want them to learn how to keep themselves entertained. 

In other words, sometimes "mom" isn't enough for me. Clearly our Second Wave Feminist foremothers knew that.

2. It's too irrelevant to my life.
All that said, I do write, and I do have friends, and I do have date nights with my husband. I have a rich, full life outside my children. I am lucky enough to live in a privileged position where the choice to stay home is exactly that - my choice. Far too many mothers I know of either have to work to make ends meet, or have to stay home because of the high cost of child care - not all of us live near parents or siblings or friends who are able to watch our kids all day.

Unlike the women in The Feminine Mystique, I never felt forced to marry and have children. I never felt the strain of having to choose between having a career versus having a family. I went into stay at home motherhood with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I walked into, and knowing that it was 100% my choice. For every moment that I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, there are ten more where I cannot imagine life without my children and experience a depth of joy I didn't know was possible.

And had my husband been the type of man who clings to traditional gender roles and expected me to stay home to raise our children, or forced me to go back to work for the money, or did not do his share of the chores and child care when he's home, or did not respect my opinions and value conversations with me on issues both large and small, this would not be possible. 

The husband - then still just my boyfriend - and I,
Washington, DC, April 2004

3. I can appreciate the book and its impact without reading it.
I'm a writer and a reader, but I've never read Moby Dick and I probably never will. I've also never read many other books considered classics. I do not think this makes me either a bad reader or a bad writer. 

I'm a geek who doesn't play video games or read comic books.

I'm a Yankees fan who does not watch every single game. (Anymore.)

My husband is a good father without ever having babysat.

And I'm a feminist who never read The Feminine Mystique. I just don't think the reading of it, or not, should define my commitment to the cause of women's rights. 

I am not an unthinking woman who feels some nebulous oppression in her life but can't articulate why. My eyes are open. My mind is curious. My life is my own, made up of careful choices and a lot of luck, and I would not have things any other way.

Every day, whether consciously or like chatter in the background of my mind, I know I owe my plethora of choices to the fearless pioneers that came before me and dared to stand up and speak up for women's equality. I'm never not aware of this. And I'm never not grateful.

4. It feels too much like work, and I have other things to read.
I've never been much into non-fiction anyway. The little bit I read has to be entertaining and has to make me nod vigorously in agreement while I read it. Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? by my friend Claire Mysko was one of those books; so was Pema Chodron's The Wisdom of No Escape, and Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. When I tried to read The Feminine Mystique, I just couldn't relate enough, even trying to read it in the context of the middle class housewives of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Feminist from birth. (That's not my mom holding me.)

My self-esteem is healthy enough that I refuse to allow myself to be pigeon-holed, either as a mother or as a wife or as any of my other many identities. 

I'm glad my husband read the book, because I think it helped him understand how stay at home motherhood by itself would never be fulfilling for me. But he already knew that. He's always encouraged me to go back to work, or not, or go back to school, or not, or write, or not, as I wish. Before our children were even conceived he told me, "Your happiness is not a luxury." He's never taken me - or my happiness, or quest for fulfillment - for granted, or diminished or disrespected my desire for something more from life. 

He's kind of really wonderful that way.

I love being a mother. I love my children. I also love many other things that make me happy. And the fact that I acknowledge these things, actively pursue non-motherly forms of happiness, and my children see it? That's pretty damn feminist right there.

What books do you know you should read, but probably never will?


Tori said...

Coincidentally, I have also never read The Feminine Mystique. I used to own a copy. Now it is no more.

Add to that Watership Down (I am still holding out to teach my 12th grade English teacher a lesson) and all of Dickens save A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist.

There are people who would like me to read Eat, Pray, Love.

Meanwhile, I'm going through young adult fiction as fast as it's being published (well, my favorite authors anyway).

Meredith L. said...

I also have zero plans to read Eat, Pray, Love. We're such rebels together!

Emily Schleiger said...

I was a women studies minor and never read this either. It still is on my list, but I think I will wait until my kids are older before I read it. I am honestly a little scared that if I read it I will get super depressed and angry and say, "F---this shizzle, I'm outta here.". Even though I've read all kinds of feminist stuff, and even though I, like you, have the luxury of choice to stay home, supportive husband, etc....in my mind this one puts me over the edge. Did you ever read "The Yellow Wallpaper"? I think I imagine Fem Mystique as that depressing.