Review of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

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Whew! This is one long book! (Although it’s not as bad as it seems–out of 960 pages, the last 259 are acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and the index.) The hardest thing about reading a book this size was trying to get it in a comfortable position. I considered buying the Nook Book but it was $19.99, so I borrowed the print edition from the library. (The hardbound book’s price is $37.50.)

The author, Andrew Solomon, worked on this book for ten years–and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed, almost too much so. I can’t even imagine the amount of thought and effort that went into it.

The best–and worst–part of the book is all the anecdotes from the interviews he conducted. They helped to put a human face on what he was writing about and kept the book from being too scholarly. But at times it was hard to keep track of all the family members and their unique experiences; they sort of blurred together after awhile.

I loved the first chapter, which was basically an introduction. It contained so many thought-provoking comments I just had to copy many of them into my journal. The author states his thesis clearly and gives the reader a perspective that makes sense of the rest of the book. This was helpful because when I saw the chapter headings, I couldn’t help but wonder what made him think that all these disparate topics would have a common thread.

Those chapter headings are: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender. The first six make sense, since they are all usually seen as disabilities of one kind or another. But the last four seem to be anomalies and it’s to the author’s credit that he’s able to present his premise convincingly in all of them (with varying degrees of success).

I won’t dissect each topic here, but I will make a couple of comments. Some of the chapters were real eye-openers; I hadn’t realized the obstacles that some families face when trying to raise autistic or severely handicapped, for instance. The chapter on prodigies was my least favorite chapter because the author chose to write only about musical prodigies and the examples got to be pretty repetitive.

I was also surprised that he didn’t choose homosexuality as a topic (transgender is not the same thing!). That could be because he writes about his own homosexuality in the first and last chapters, but he doesn’t go into much detail about how various families deal with a child’s homosexuality. I would have liked to have read about that.

For the most part, Solomon presents a good mix of the experiences of fathers and mothers, but even so he seems to imply that the mother has more influence on how well a child transitions into successful adulthood. Although I don’t deny the importance of mother-child relationships, I thought the view that mothers are largely responsible for raising well-adjusted children had been largely discredited. Apparently not.

I also objected to his use of dialect when writing about families that were less educated and poor. He especially did this in the chapter on crime, making it seem like it is only the disadvantaged who have a problem with crime. Plenty of middle-to-upper-class people commit crimes; they just rarely pay the same penalties for their actions as lower class people do.

Far From the Tree is important because of what it says about families. It illustrates how different parents deal with their children’s differences and how those children respond to their treatment. The main thing I took away from this book was a greater sensitivity for what some parents go through in their attempts to love and raise their children. It certainly made me count my blessings.

Don’t let the length of this book deter you. It’s well worth the time and effort.

Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?

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Shulamith Firestone died sometime last week at the age of 67. She had been a recluse for years, which is one reason why no one found her body for several days. (Her sister confirmed that she died of natural causes.) The feminist community took notice, but the average person could have cared less. And that’s a pity.

Why should we care? What connection could she possibly have to our lives today?

Those of us who are Baby Boomers might remember her name in connection with the Women’s Liberation Movement. She helped to create several radical feminist groups in the late ’60s and was outspoken in her criticisms, not only of the patriarchy, but also of the political left, which she felt didn’t do enough (if anything) to liberate women.

But it was her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970 when she was only 25, that earned her a primary place in feminist history. And it was also her book—or rather, the reception the book received—that drove her to withdraw from public life in the years following its publication.

To say that Dialectic created a firestorm is an understatement. Even many feminists felt that Firestorm had gone too far in her denunciation of family life and her assertion that women are enslaved by their biology. She felt that women should be released from the burden of reproduction by the use of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and artificial wombs.

Besides being one of the first feminist theories of politics, Dialectic also set the tone for how the general public perceived the feminist movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it helped to make feminism the dirty word it is to many people today. The book calls for a complete obliteration of gender differences and traditional patriarchal society (what many would now call “family values”). She wrote that pregnancy was barbaric and that as long as the traditional family existed, women would never be liberated.

It was strong stuff then and is even more so now. Most people have forgotten the woman who put forth these ideas, but they haven’t forgotten that feminism appeared to approve of them. They fail to make the distinction between radical feminists, which Firestone most certainly was, and mainstream feminists (as typified by the National Organization for Feminists, or NOW).

I’m a pretty traditional woman. I believe in marriage (although I don’t think it has to be restricted to male-female unions) and families. I think there is such a thing as a maternal instinct and that mothers tend to occupy themselves more with the care of their offspring than fathers do (or perhaps just in a different way). But I also believe that women are penalized in this society merely because they can have children, let alone if they actually have them.

A lot of people still think that feminists are anti-family, that they put down stay-at-home moms, or moms period. (Not to mention are bitter, man-hating lesbians.) But the vast majority of feminists get married (or enter into committed, long-term relationships) and have babies, work in and out of the home, and struggle with the same issues as non-feminists.

The difference is, feminists are also aware of the wrongs that are done to females in this society and are willing to fight to right them. Firestone recognized the problem, and, even if we don’t agree with them, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize her sincere attempt to formulate solutions.

She saw what a lot of people are unwilling to see: This society is not woman-friendly, especially when it comes to reproductive issues. However, the answer is not to give up on having babies. The answer is to take charge of our own bodies. We don’t need artificial wombs; we just need for (male) law-makers to keep their hands off the ones we have.

 

The Making of a Mother

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In less than a month my youngest daughter is about to become a mother for the first time. Like most new mothers-to-be, she has a lot of concerns and questions. Many of them are about her baby: What are babies like? How do you care for them? What will her baby look like? What if she’s a difficult baby? Even more, at this point, are about labor and delivery. My daughter has done a lot of reading, but of course nothing really prepares you for the real thing.

But there’s one question that’s not addressed very often and that is: how will I know how to be a mother?

I try to reassure her that she’ll do fine, that she just needs to trust her instincts and get her cues from the baby, but the truth is, it takes a lifetime to learn how to be a mother. I’m 59 years old and I still don’t get it right. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the process of becoming a mother it’s that it only just begins when the baby is born.

The new mother is only on the brink; she doesn’t really have a clue what she’s in for. And I’m not talking about all the sleepless nights and demanding days. I’m talking about the changes that she will go through as she learns how to adapt to her new identity.

Because that’s what it really happening: you don’t just produce a new person when you have a baby, you become a new person. It’s like you give birth to two people: your baby, and yourself.

There are tons of books out there about child development, but not so many about the mother’s development. Everyone takes it for granted that a woman’s maternal feelings will bloom as soon as she sees her new baby. And while it’s true that a woman will feel different, she may not know exactly what it is that she is feeling. It’s not a given that she’ll be overcome with joy. She might also be hit with a huge sense of responsibility which scares the hell out of her. Or/and she may not feel anything at all except relief that her ordeal is finally over.

I can’t predict how my daughter will feel when she meets her baby for the first time. She’s a very wanted baby, so I don’t think she’ll feel dismay. But my daughter is also a worrier, and she might be overwhelmed by this tectonic shift in her life. And as the days unfold, she’s sure to wonder if she’s cut out to be a mother. She might even feel panicky about the fact that there’s no going back to the person she was before.

It’ll take some time before she’ll begin to feel comfortable as a mother. But she needs to know that it’s a continuing process.  There are tests along the way, but no final test to prove that you finally “get” it. In fact, there’s no guarantee that you will feel successful as a mother. Women tend to judge their worth as mothers on what kind of persons their children turn out to be. But there’s no magic formula for turning out perfect children.

When I had my first child, I was bound and determined to do everything right by her. I certainly wasn’t going to make the mistakes my own mother had made. And maybe I did avoid my mother’s mistakes (for the most part). I just made my own mistakes.

Probably the most important lesson a woman needs to learn about being a mother is that she is not, and never will be, perfect. And her children won’t be perfect either. We’re all flawed human beings trying to help each other to grow into the best persons we can be.

What I mean by that is: mothers are not the only ones doing the teaching. The process also works in reverse: our children teach us what we need to know to become better human beings. We just need to be willing students.

Don’t expect to learn to be a mother overnight. And definitely don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Just be patient and willing to roll with the punches. Life will teach you what you need to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What to Expect” Books Giveaway! Get Yours Free!

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What to Expect Cover Almost thirty years ago a young mother-to-be, frustrated by her search for a good basic guide for pregnancy, decided to write her own. With the help of her mother and her sister, Heidi Murkoff wrote What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Originally published in 1984, and now in its fourth edition, the book consistently tops the New York Times Best Seller list in the paperback advice category, is one of USA Today’s “25 Most Influential Books” of the past 25 years and has been described as “the bible of American pregnancy.” According to USA Today, 93 percent of all expectant mothers who read a pregnancy guide read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are now over a dozen books in the “What to Expect” series, covering everything from what to eat while pregnant to the preschool years. I’m excited to announce that WhatToExpect.com has generously donated two copies each of What to Expect While You’re Expecting, What to Expect: The First Year and What to Expect: The Second Year for Femagination’s first giveaway!

All you have to do to qualify for the giveaway is leave a comment telling me the following: 1) Any thoughts or suggestions you have about Femagination; 2) Which of the books you prefer; and 3) Why you want the book. You must also leave some kind of contact information so that I can get back to you.

The giveaway comment period will last until September 30, 2011. Shortly after that I will announce the winners and send out the books, free of charge. All your information will be held strictly confidential.

What’s Wrong with Getting Married?

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I just spent two full days on a road trip with my oldest daughter. We got along great most of the time. The only time we came close to arguing is when we were talking about people having children without getting married. She’s convinced that I’m critical of women who have children “out of wedlock.” Which is ludicrous because when she had her first child she didn’t marry the father and I have always supported her decision and even thought that she was wise to handle it that way. But that was mainly because she had no interest in being in a relationship with the baby’s father.

Now she’s pregnant with her second child, but this time she’s with the guy that she intends to marry—eventually. They’re (he is) apparently not ready yet, and that worries me. When is he going to be ready? Will he ever be ready? Or will he just be content with being involved with her without making that final commitment?

She said that her dad (my ex) has never said anything about them not being married. But she’s not exactly being fair to me. I’m not critical of them not getting married because I think it’s immoral or bad for society. I did say that I thought celebrities who don’t get married help to perpetrate the idea that marriage is an optional, even obsolete, institution and I don’t think it is. But I realize that you can be married without that sense of commitment and not married and have it. I hate that when celebrities get married—maybe when anyone gets married—people ask themselves, “I wonder how long it’ll last?” Instead of thinking, “Isn’t it wonderful that they want to spend their lives together?” How did we get so cynical about marriage?

It’s funny how gay people are fighting for the right to get married while straight people are eschewing it. I think marriage is important because of what it symbolizes: that you’re committed to one another and plan to make a life together. I know I tend to think that people who don’t get married aren’t willing to make that commitment and that’s not necessarily true. But if they are committed, why don’t they formalize that commitment and announce it to the world?

People blame marriage for causing bad relationships when it’s people who cause bad relationships. When a marriage fails, it’s not because the couple got married. It’s because people change. Or they realize that they don’t have what it takes to stay married to this person, which of course is something they should have realized long before they considered marrying him or her. But I don’t think it’s right to blame marriage per se for making people unhappy with each other. It’s not marriage that’s the problem; it’s that people see it differently than they used to.

Some people are against marriage because they’ve been burned before. My daughter’s boyfriend (intended? significant other?) is one of those people. He married once before and it was a disaster. But that’s obviously because he married the wrong person. Now he’s supposedly with the right person and he’s dragging his feet.

Part of my reaction is on behalf of my daughter. She deserves to be with someone who loves her so much he wants everyone to know that he’s totally committed to her. I tend to see marriage as “proof” that you can’t live without each other.

I guess part of my “problem” is that I’m almost 60 and “I just don’t understand” the younger generation. But I came of age in the era of free love and distrust of anything that smacked of the Establishment. Plus I’m a feminist. It could be that I’ve gotten more conservative in my old age. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

Marriage just seems like a logical step to take when you’re ready to make a life-long commitment to another person. If you’re not ready to do that, then for God’s sake, don’t get married. But even I’m not clueless enough not to realize that getting married doesn’t ensure that you’re going to stay together forever. And that getting married before you’re ready will almost guarantee that you won’t.

The fact that I’ve been married four times could mean that I really, really believe in the institution of marriage. Or it could mean that I just don’t learn from my mistakes. But the thing is, I don’t see a marriage that ends as a failure. I see it as a good try. At least I feel like mine have always been the result of my commitment to that particular person at that moment in time. The fact that my first three marriages didn’t last doesn’t mean that I failed at marriage. If anything, it means that t took me a while that it was okay to not be married.

In between my marriages, I actually enjoyed myself. By the time my third marriage ended, I had come to prefer my own company to that of a man I couldn’t completely count on when the going got tough. If I hadn’t found a man like that, I wouldn’t have married a fourth time.

The only negative I can see about marriage is that if it doesn’t work out between you and your spouse, you have to go through the legal machinery of getting a divorce. But anytime you’ve mingled your life with another’s you’re going to have entanglements that won’t be so easy to get out of. I’d rather risk having to get divorced if things go wrong than to not risk banking my entire life on another person.

Genderless Child-Rearing II

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Almost two years ago I wrote a post about genderless child-rearing which introduced a Swedish child named Pop who didn’t even know what sex s/he (it?) is. Now that s/he’s almost two years older I wonder how that’s turning out for him/her. Of course, s/he still hasn’t started school yet. That’s when it will really get difficult to maintain the pose that this child is genderless.

Yes, I wrote “the pose.” I could as easily have written “the fiction.” Because I think that’s all genderless child-rearing will ever be: a social experiment where one’s own child is the guinea pig.

Now there’s a new family in the news, this one from Toronto, Canada, which has decided to raise  its newest child gender-free. See the video below:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

 

 

89% of over 52,000 people who responded to a poll about this story thought that genderless child-rearing is a terrible idea. That doesn’t surprise the expert who was interviewed on the show because “most of us are conventional and like to put things in a box.” But is that the only reason we think children should be raised according to their genitalia?

You’d think a feminist would be all for this idea. After all, the most radical among us have argued that gender is nothing but a social construct. The logical conclusion of this belief is that a child who is raised gender-neutral will eventually pick his or her own gender identification. That’s what baby Storm’s parents believe. They got the idea to keep Storm’s sex a secret from the way their older children are responding to their parents’ willingness to let them decide what they like to do, wear, and play with. Their oldest son sometimes wear dresses. The youngest is often mistaken for a girl. The kids don’t seem to mind.

I might be a feminist, but I’m uncomfortable with this. Just because we often go too far in shaping gender identity (forcing trucks and baseball on boys and dolls and dance lessons on girls, for instance) doesn’t mean that knowing which sex you are is not an important part of your development. I think it’s enough to teach our boys that they can be  nurturing and our girls that they can be aggressive. To blot from our vocabulary the phrase, “Little boys/girls don’t do that.”

At the same time, I recognize that it’s awfully easy to slip into gender-imprinting behavior. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to. And the fiction won’t be sustainable once children hit puberty.

The real problem is that in our attempts to teach our children to identify with their sex, we teach them to dislike the opposite one. The worst epithet that males can hurl at each other is, “You’re such a girl.” Girls are taught that boys are smelly and dirty and loud  and that they in turn have to be fragrant, clean and quiet. If we could somehow convey to our children that the opposite sex is just as important, interesting and acceptable as they are, we’d go a long way toward erasing sexual discrimination.

In a way it’s easier to raise a child without gender than it is to teach our boys and girls that the opposite sex is not some kind of alien condition that they cannot possible relate to.

Let’s raise our kids to respect and enjoy each other no matter what sex they are. We need to prevent them from thinking that one sex is better than the other. If our kids ask, “What does it mean to be a boy/girl?” we can tell them that there’s very little difference between the sexes, except for their role in reproduction.

We don’t need to obliterate gender identity; we just need to expand it.