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Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Today at lunch, J and her little friend M, both 8 years old, were gleefully telling me how they had seen T “dancing and twirling” down the street to school the other day. They showed me how he had pirouetted “like a ballet dancer” and then giggling, remembered how some “big, strong boys” on skateboards who were going by on the other side of the street must have thought that T “looked like a girl”.

Wouldn’t that have been a good thing? I asked them. They stopped laughing and looked at me, confused.

Girls are great, right? I said. They tentatively nodded.

You two are girls. You’re pretty great. Aren’t you? Emphatic agreement.

Isn’t being a girl a good thing? Yes, yes, nodding heads.

So why is it a tease to be called a girl?
Silence.

Then a flurry of discussion.

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norah200x150 I have managed to read four chapters of A People’s History of the United States and it is a very interesting book, but I got sidetracked by Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man. It’s a journalistic account of one woman’s experiences in her eighteen months undercover as a man. I’d heard a blurb about it on the radio, when Norah was being interviewed about her latest book, an account of her investigations into three mental health institutions. What tweaked my interest was that Norah ended up being admitted into one of those institutions as a result of her time spent in drag.

That’s  a gross oversimplification of events, and there were probably a myriad of confounding reasons for Norah’s mental breakdown, but the interviewer suggested that it was the cognitive dissonance related to inhabiting a different gender that resulted in her psychiatric collapse, which made me try to imagine what it would have been like to act as someone else, convincingly, for such a long period of time.

I started reading the book to get a sense of who the author is and what her motives were, but soon found myself transfixed by her take on what it means to be male in the United States. I don’t know if men reading this book would agree with Norah’s conclusions, but it sure was interesting to read about Norah’s experiences and her interpretation of them. She spent time at stripper’s clubs, joined an all-male bowling league, lived in a monastery and worked in a high-pressure/low-pay sales job to try to get a feel for life as a man. She undertook the experiment thinking that she would gain freedom, gain power, and gain options as a man, but found that she was forced to lose more than she gained by giving up womanhood. I found it interesting to read about a woman’s take on what it’s really like in groups of men when women aren’t around, and it was also very interesting to read about the reactions she got when she eventually divulged her secret. How the men treated her when they thought she was “one of them”, and how they treated her after they found out she wasn’t.

In the end, it was a book about how trapped we all are to some degree by our gender roles, and it was a reminder for us to try hard to look beyond those roles to see the individuals within.

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On  my run today, while thinking on the discussions about gender bias and expectations, I heard this by Ani Difranco (from 32 Flavors).

And God help you if you are an ugly girl
Course too pretty is also your doom
Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
For the prettiest girl in the room
And God help you if you are a phoenix
And you dare to rise up from the ash
A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
While you are just flying past

Ani Difranco is quite an inspiring woman. She turned her back on the big record labels because they wouldn’t give her creative control, and founded her own record company, Righteous Records (now Righteous Babe Records) with just $50. I admire her for the way she believed in herself, and for her courage in living a life of her own choosing, critics be damned.

Those particular lyrics speak to me, because they’re about the way women in particular are judged, often by other women. It’s bad to be ugly, but it’s just as bad to be “too” pretty (or for that matter, too opinionated, too smart, too successful, even too “perfect”). Only somewhere in the middle are we safe, because that way we’re no threat. Can’t be calling attention to ourselves now, can we?

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A male friend of mind said to me that he understood what I was saying in my post about having lost my voice, but he disagreed about the whole gender thing. He thinks that it is just as common for men in our culture to change from feisty to meek as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood, and that we’re all taught to keep our opinions to ourselves in order to keep the peace.

I still think that it’s more acceptable in society, and probably in many families, for men to have dissenting opinions, and that it’s easier for men to be leaders without the fear of being called any number of the derogatory adjectives usually reserved for strong women that I bolded in my last post. He brought up Margaret Thatcher, and reminded me of some of the shark-like female lawyers that I’ve had a chance to meet recently.

I had to agree that there are examples of strong women in our culture, and that there are more of them in public positions than there were even fifty years ago, but I still think that there is a cultural bias regarding the expectations for behaviour based on gender. I think that even if a man was called a ballbreaker, he would take that as a compliment, because it conforms to the masculine stereotype of men as being powerful, whereas women would be more likely to feel shamed, because women are still “meant” to be kind, conciliatory, and gentle.

He says I’m full of s**t, and while that may have been the case a few decades ago, it isn’t true today.

Any opinions?

What has your experience been?

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Any closet Oprah magazine readers out there?

I had an “Aha!” moment today.

I was out for lunch with my parents, and conversation turned to my current situation. I said that in conflicts my overwhelming desire is always to opt out. That it always seems like less of a hassle to give in, forget about whatever it was, and concentrate on moving forward. I had my reasoning all sorted out, and even felt a measure of pride in my ability to transcend the pettiness of meaningless squabbles that ultimately wouldn’t matter to me when I was dead.

My mother said that she thought of me as a person who sticks up for what she believes in. You’ve always been pretty stubborn, she said.

I said, no, I’m actually a bit of a waffler.

She said, well maybe you waffle for a day or so, but you’ve always been so determined, so strong, such a fighter. You know what you believe in, and you stand your ground.

I thought, huh. Maybe when I was a kid. Which made me think back to myself as a pre-teen, and now that think about it, I remember that I was pretty scrappy. I was a loud mouth at the dinner table, I hogged all of the air time during group conversations, I held very strong opinions (sometimes based on not much more than blind conviction), and I never hesitated to stick up for kids being bullied. As a skinny ten-year old I threw rocks at a gang of older boys who were taunting another boy, and so frightened them with my flailing arms and red-faced, hoarse-voiced over-the-top shrieking that they turned and ran. That same year I was so frustrated with the relentless teasing of a different boy, who in retrospect I think simply admired me, that I punched him in the face. I also remember being so angry at someone once because of the way he was mocking my friend that I broke a bone in my hand by smashing my fist into his back.

Not the actions of an even-tempered, peace loving, let-bygones-be-bygones kind of kid. If one of my children punched someone else in the face,  I would make an immediate appointment with a well-trained child psychologist. I would be horrified by such an out of control reaction, because it’s pretty darn extreme.

And yet, here I am, 30 years later, thinking of myself as a peace at all costs kind of person.

Why is that?

Here’s the AHA! realization. Not really earth shattering to anyone else, but to me, in connection with myself, it’s a profound shift in my thinking.

I have internalized a feeling of shame about speaking out, about making my voice heard. Somehow, over the years since puberty, I’ve disowned the part of my identity that was willing to take an unpopular stand. Somewhere along the way I internalized the cultural messages that have effectively silenced women throughout time. I had no desire to be seen as pushy or as a loudmouth or as unfeminine or as a bitch or an emasculator or a ballbreaker so I sat down and shut up. Without realizing that I was doing it. To make things worse, I’ve managed to justify my actions, or lack of them, to myself all of these years. So much so that I am now in a situation in which every single person I talk to is basically telling me to GET A BACKBONE! and I am whiffling and waffling and on the verge of sweet-talking myself out of taking the stand that is very, very clearly the stand that I need to take.

I know what I have to do. I have to reclaim that lost bit of self. Go back and rescue that brave and foolhardy girl who knew what she believed in. I have to recognize the ongoing temptation to fold in on myself and when I feel myself going in that mental direction, realize that it’s just a sign that I need to do the opposite.

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There is never a resting place in the struggle for personal and political integrity. When anxiety is high, and resources appear scarce, some individuals and groups will always operate at the expense of others. But we can long for and work toward that unrealized world where the dignity and integrity of all women, all human beings, all life, are honored and respected. More to the point, we can live today according to the values that we wish would govern the world in the hypothetical future we are working for. To honor diversity, complexity, inclusiveness, and connection in our lives now is to widen the path for truth-telling for everyone.

~Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D (from The Dance of Deception)

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In lieu of any of the zillions of other things that she could have done with her afternoon, Junior Miss Twelve got into character. She took great pleasure in swooping around in her cape, vanquishing forces of doom and swiping drinks from her sister’s lemonade stand. I took special delight in her masked mania because I had just read Blue Milk’s post on Disney princesses, and by following her links and some of the discussions, had gone on a whirlwind tour of the princessification of the young girl nation that has many thinking parents concerned. I reflected on my budding teen daughter’s early years, trying to remember if she’d gone through a pink, frilly stage, but I have to say that I don’t think she did. The younger sister certainly had a love of all things pink that is just now starting to fade, but it never extended to a love of princesses.

I do remember being concerned about the girls being exposed to the objectification of women, and I did have an issue with the way women were portrayed in Disney cartoons. I also felt strongly that the majority of shows on television presented gender roles and relationships between the sexes in a highly simplified, rigid way. Commercials in particular bothered me, and I was concerned that if my children were exposed to this sort of stuff regularly that they would absorb it all as fact. It was one of the reasons that I ultimately made the decision to get rid of the TV. One less thing to worry about, one more way to help create a space in which those unique young imaginations could flourish with as few external images as possible. It made me sad when I saw three and four-year old children role-playing characters from TV shows when they could have been inventing their own characters, and I was pleased when my own TV-free kids did exactly that. It also saved me from having children begging for the latest toy, or the newest fashions. I had kids who, when asked what they wanted for Christmas, were unable to think of anything other than crayons.

Ditching the TV was one decision that I’ve never regretted. It probably isn’t the only reason that I have a superhero for a daughter, but I’m betting that it’s one of them.

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Violence against women is an ongoing social problem, and it was brought to mind again by the recent death of a 25-year old woman in my city who was bludgeoned to death by her partner. While reading last night, I came across a simple solution. Women should arrange to live with their mothers AND their partners. I doubt if the young woman above would have had a hammer to her head if her mom had been right there.

“Surveys estimate that between 20 and 50 percent of women in North America have been assaulted at some time by their partner, and crime data reveal that women are most likely to be killed by their own partners. With other women nearby who could provide protection a would-be perpetrator, whether husband or stranger, may think twice.”

Protection from aggressive males is one of the advantages of female bonding, according to The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live, a book written by Shelley E. Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA. She states that primate research has demonstrated that when strong female bonds are absent, males are often aggressive, even abusive, towards females. An example given is that although chimpanzees and bonobos are very closely related, male chimps take out their frustrations on females much more often than male bonobos in large part because bonds among female chimps are not as strong as they are among bonobos. She describes an encounter in Gelada baboons when the male head of a “harem” becomes too aggressive in his efforts to control the females:

“The male’s attempts to ride herd on his females when they stray too far from him often backfire. The luckless victim’s grooming partners invariably come to her aid. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they outface the male with outraged threats and furious barks of their own. The male will usually back off….”

…but if he persists,

“the male invariably ends up being chased around the mountainside by his irate females in an impressive display of female solidarity.”

Taylor then gives examples among human females. In Papua New Guinea, where domestic violence is rampant, such that a 1987 study found levels of wife beating as high as 97 percent in some areas, two communities stood out for their lack of abuse towards women. Taylor gives two reasons for this. The women in these communities have real social power, in that husbands are economically dependent on their wives, and the women have strong bonds with other women. This is an excerpt from the book in which anthropologist William Mitchell recounts his time in one of those communities:

“The women of a hamlet, or at least the one in which I lived, develop strong solidarity bonds. In the unlikely event that a couple becomes so angry during a quarrel that they begin to shout at each other, women of the hamlet, a few sometimes armed with large sticks, descend upon the house and stand around it until the woman joins them outside.”

This particular community also happened to be formed around a group of women related through maternal lines, in which men move from their own families to live with their wives’ families, further reducing the amount of power the men wield within the family structure.

The message is clear. Women risk potential physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their partners if they give up their female relationships. Abusers are often restrictive and controlling, and women should be very, very careful about allowing themselves to become isolated.

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If you want men and women to earn the same, then you have to start paying the same salary to social workers that you do to building contractors.”

~Susan Pinker

This is an exerpt from Dr. Pinker’s new book, titled The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap. I haven’t read it, it’s just been published, but I’ve read two reviews, and both times, these words jumped out at me.

Susan Pinker, a psychologist, sets out a carefully researched scientific discussion of how the brains of men and women are differently hardwired, so that in general ( she apparently is careful to mention that of course there are exceptions), many women opt out of top jobs even though they pursued education that qualified them to take them, because biology makes women more inclined to work with people and to want to see a positive outcome of their work in the community, results that may not be apparent in the corner office jobs.

She goes on to argue that “victim feminists” have been wasting their breath, stating that “In Western society, I really don’t think that outside forces are controlling us against our will.” She does blame patriarchy however, for setting up a work world in which traditionally male pursuits are more highly compensated than female ones. THAT I agree with, and THAT I think is where the debate should be.

Instead of trying to be just like men, women should feel pride in their biological uniqueness, and should help bring about a perspective change in our society, such that their particular contributions are valued, by women and by men. This might help mitigate the tremendous pressure young women of today feel in making no-win choices between having children and having a high-powered career.

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I felt incredible frustration when I read BlueMilk’s post on Mother’s Not Making the Best Role Models.Not towards the author, just the issue. I feel angry that the work I do (and believe me, it IS work) is by it’s very nature, nearly invisible. I know that what I do is important, but I wish that I didn’t feel the very real need to defend my life choices to a world that pays lip service to the idea of motherhood but undervalues and demeans the tasks related to the nurturing of children.

We pay day-care workers next to nothing, teachers have near impossible tasks and measly salaries, and stay-at-home-mothers? Pshaw. They may as well be swept under the rug. It is so bloody irritating to be expected to value my work for what it is, without expecting appreciation from the society in which we live. It’s unfair. It’s wrong. We were all children. Most of us are parents. Someone has to supervise and care for the youngest members of our society. They can’t be boxed up until they’re old enough to work at real jobs where they can contribute financially. Somehow, real value has to be attributed to the job of caring for children.

I just don’t know how to make that happen.

And it makes me mad.

By staying at home to raise my girls, I’m being a bad role model for them. It’s a no-win situation. I should have stayed at my job as a physician, and hired another person woman to care for them, because caring for them myself would be giving them the wrong message. Which implies that they have less value than my patients, and that the woman caring for them has less value than me. We will not be an egalitarian society until raising children is considered a real job, and given the respect it deserves.

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“Can women trade their careers for their families without sacrificing a few of their feminist values – the very values that inspired many of them to homeschool in the first place?

This was the one of the questions that author Maya Schenwar addressed in the winter issue of the feminist magazine Bitch. A good question, and one that I struggled with when I decided to prolong my “stay at home mothering job” in order to homeschool instead of going back to doctoring.

How to wield power in a society that values wage earners and money when I am working but earning nothing? How to maintain a sense of pride and dignity when the work I do is undervalued and demeaned? And a burning central question for a mother who cares deeply about raising her kids to respect every person for the individual that they are, how to teach my children about the equality of women when their mother appears to have “given up” power and independent earnings in order to do something that women have been relegated to doing for eons.

The truth of the matter is that I feel somewhat conflicted, still, after all these years, and I’m not sure what to tell the kids, especially the girls.

Yes, I do believe that what I am doing is valuable, and yes, I’m glad that I made the decision I did, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t been without tradeoffs. I definitely sacrificed my financial independence, and that’s been a harder pill to swallow than I expected it would be.

In the comments section of the article, one of the women mentioned in the article had this to say:

“I find unschooling to be very much in sync with my feminist ideals. My children are not sheltered from such things as racism, sexism and homophobia as the author elluded to(sic). They are indeed out in the real world seeing and experiencing these things first hand and learning how to deal with them and work for change. Unschooling is not just a way to educate children, unschooling is a way of life and one that meshes very well with feminism.”

I agree with that statement, but would contend that while unschooling and homeschooling can be an excellent way to steep children in whatever values parents hold dear, having the female parent opt for economic dependence (usually, although some very hardworking women manage to bring in money and homeschool) on a male partner in a society that continues to equate money with power may not be the most obvious way to promote feminism.

In a backward kind of way, though, it is. Isn’t free choice what equality is all about? Isn’t my choice to do what felt right with and for my children a function of my power as an individual? Again, yes, but some would argue that my choice was made within a patriarchal framework, and therefore not exactly free.

Tricky.

As I said earlier, I still struggle with this one, and I would be very interested in other opinions. Let me know what you think.

Here’s a plug for a blog that says it’s for alternative, feminist, homeschooling mamas. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to. Thanks to Challenging Assumptions for the original link.

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I Hope

When 11-year old L started grade 6 at school in September, she went through a several month period of fussing with her hair and worrying about her clothes.

I remember groaning inwardly, bracing for what I thought was the beginning of years of teen girl-hood, and mourning the loss of my little rough-and-tumble tomboy. Not so much sad to see her grow up as sad to see that she was starting to be self-conscious, and, truth be told, a bit worried that this strong, opinionated girl would have her edges honed off in the crucible of peer culture.

Here we are, though, 4 months into the school year, and she’s still the same kid. Still strong, smart, and funny. Not so into her hair anymore, much less concerned about her oufits, the only girl in her grade playing soccer with the boys at recess, and as loving and expressively affectionate as always. Her teacher says that “she can stand up for herself” and that she’s a vocal protector of the younger, weaker kids in her class.

I thought about this today, because of what I noticed while we were skating. L was wearing black hockey skates, and was actively, vociferously participating in our rough game of hockey when 4 girls exactly her age came onto the ice, wearing white figure skates and fashionable winter outerwear. L knows these girls, but I was pleased to see that their presence didn’t stop her from playing just as vigourously, or screaming just as loudly as she was doing before they got there.

So, a short letter to my girl (and all the other 11-year old girls in the world):

I hope you never have to feel angst over being who you are, or doing what you want. I hope you always feel strong enough to show your love for your family. I hope you’ll always stand up and say what you think, no matter who’s listening.

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Distorted Reality

Some amazing shots of before/after photoshopping. Just goes to show how they get the magazine models looking the way they do, and that those images are not a reflection of reality.

I’m not one for censoring the reading material that enters this house, but I’ve already told L that I don’t want to see Teen People ever crossing the threshold. The less she sees of those crazy-making magazines, the better.

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While not exactly on topic, this stream of consciousness essay was inspired by a recent post by Marjorie at 280 Main Street, and her mental reminder that “a feminist family still needs to eat”, as well as the interesting conversations going on over at blue milk.

How is that I ended up here?  At home all day long with my children? Well, home is a bit of a euphemism for in-the-van-at-the-park-at-the-museum-on-a-bike-ride-at-a-play-going-swimming-taking-one-of-them-to-knitting-getting-to-enjoy-a-lovely-cappucino-at-the-cafe-while-they-read-comics, but you know what I mean.

First, a bit of background. After I quit my 100 hour work weeks cold-turkey to stay home with my newborn daughter and toddler son, I went through quite a difficult patch. To say it was a huge adjustment would be making a massive understatement.  I won’t bore you with the grim details, except to say that after some deep soul searching, I realized that my being home was as much about me and what I wanted for myself as it was about the environment I wanted to  provide for my kids. I wanted to be a part of their growing up in a moment to moment way, I wanted to hear the tidbits that fell out of their mouths, I wanted to be a part of all of the little moments, I wanted to try to mold their interactions with each other, all of that. I didn’t want to miss even a microsecond of it.

Flashing forward a decade, the downside, of course, is that I really don’t miss a microsecond of it. And, to be honest, not every microsecond is really that interesting. Some of it is painfully, painfully boring. A lot of it is repetitive. It’s a never-ending loop that hardly varies with the seasons, and if looked at through a particular lens (read: a bitter/cynical/angry one) the job of stay-at-home parent doesn’t have much going for it. And in the beginning, I was a little bitter, angry and cynical. I wanted to be an integral part of my kids’ lives, sure, but I was upset about feeling like I was forced to give up my career in order to do so. Plus, I bridled at doing all of those domestic chores that seemed to be part of staying at home.

What turned it around for me was making a perspective shift. I had to remember that I was making a choice, and that doing tasks that have been for years delegated to women didn’t, by virtue of my doing them, make me any less of an independent woman. I had to remind myself that in choosing to stay home with my children when they were babies (and now, as they grow well past babyhood), I was no less a strong feminist than I would have been if I had chosen to continue working outside the home, especially if my choice to continue on with my career would have been made out of fear, out of a knee-jerk reflex to avoid doing anything that could be considered something a traditional woman would do. That bit was key, when I forced myself to honestly ask myself what I wanted, not just what I thought I should want. It’s tricky, growing up a smart, scrappy, the-world-is-your-oyster kind of girl, if that sense of being able to do whatever the boys can do leads to the pressure of having to do what the boys do so as not to disappoint.

I decided that yes, I was an intelligent, capable individual, and that I really did want to be at home with my kids. That these things were not mutually exclusive. That I could not rely on the rest of the world to see it that way. That I would have to put up with the fact that I would get very little overt respect for my work, that I would have to provide my own accolades, and that I would have to work hard to provide myself with the stimulation and socializing perks that go along with jobs outside the home. I have to admit that I did have times of feeling more than a little irked about the lack of respect I got, especially because I was used to striding down the corridors of a hospital with a stethescope dangling around my neck, but most days my attitude was damn it, I’m doing something incredibly valuable here people, and I know you can’t see it, but so what. I can’t wait for the world to see it my way, because my kids will be grown up by then.

Once I decided that I would not let my personhood be defined (by me or anyone else) by the tasks I performed, the next big step was in finding ways to make the day genuinely enjoyable. I don’t know about you, but for me, a lot of the taking care of babies and toddlers, though rewarding in a big picture kind of way, is downright stultifying in the moment, especially when it seems never-ending. So I made sure to do all of the things that made sense, like:

excercising, getting babysitting help, hanging out with other mothers, getting out of the house,

AND, I mentally committed to doing my very best. I decided to be as conscientious and thoughtful about the practical job of mothering (as opposed to the idea of mothering) as I had been about doctoring, and it was when I made that mental shift, when I began framing it as a job ( sure, a job with downsides and irritations, but a valuable, important job), when I began investing it with my attention in this way, when I valued it, that it became more interesting. I began waking up in the morning excited, and imbued with a sense of purpose. I was in charge. I could decide how to run things. That was also key. When I shifted out of passive victim mode, out of the poor me, stuck being a woman and it isn’t fair to getting over the unfairness of it (because it is unfair) and saying well, maybe it’s not fair, but I actually am glad to have the opportunity to have such an influence on my kids’s lives and owning my decision to do just the one job and not try to do it all, that my old personality came back.

I’m not saying that I didn’t have moments in which I sat weeping on the kitchen floor, or that I didn’t sometimes feel like I was going crazy, or that I never struggled with incredible feelings of frustration, because I did, and I’m sure that my rather vague language is of absolutely no practical use to a tired, bored young mother out there, I’m just saying that it was the mental shift that made it easier for me to make the practical changes I needed to make. I tried to let go of the worry. The fear that I was letting myself down, that I might never get a paying job outside the house ever again, that I was letting my valuable youth slip on by, that I would be forgotten, that my mind would disintegrate, that I would forget everything I had ever learned, that I would in some way, disappear. And I stopped dwelling on the negatives. The night-waking, the mess, the inconveniences, the diapers (although, really, what’s the big deal with diapers? I never found that bit to be too onerous).

I’m making the case that it is possible to be who you are AND be a mother. I didn’t step into a role, I just kept on being me. I am the exact same person I was before I had kids, except that I try harder to be patient, and I sometimes angst and worry about doing the right thing.

I was telling my 11-year old daughter today that I hope our world can work towards being able to see each person as an individual, not as a member of a stereotyped group lumped together based on age, gender, race or really anything. It would be nice if we as women could make decisions that felt right for us as people. It would be nice if the word “feminist” could one day be replaced with the word “humanist”. In fact, I’m beginning to think that my choice to spend some time as a stay-at-home mother, given all of the options available to me, while looking from the outside like a strike against womanhood, was actually a vote for personhood.

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