Thursday, September 30, 2010

The triangle makes all the difference

I can remember playing on the playground on my 3rd grade picture day, thinking I would like to grow up to be a woman who wore dresses and skirts instead of pants.  I recall thinking a dress was the ultimate sign of femininity, and therefore the best choice for any woman who wanted to be thought of as a woman.  I had dreamy visions of the pioneer women marching across the prairies in their long skirts, and housewives tying aprons around their beautiful dresses and doing the dishes.

Now, I've been trained to think that dresses and skirts aren't always practical.  And by today's standards for dress, I would have to agree. Hemlines have risen considerably in the last thirty years, and I can't even begin to imagine how a woman could get down on the floor in her power pencil skirt and clean up the blocks her child flung across the room.  Perhaps it would be the getting up that would prove to be more tricky.  Having sat with a child on my lap in church in a  modest-length dress, I marvel at a woman's ability to keep that hemline from creeping too far up when a fidgety child looses patience with sitting and wants to stand on her lap.

And yet, I think my 3rd grade self was on to something. Dresses and skirts have been the symbol of womanhood for, well, ever.   In fact, it's such a mark of our gender, that we put a cute little triangle on our bathroom sign's stick person to designate the female from the male.  Women in pants has only crept into the standards in the last 50 years of our history.  I'm beginning to wonder if we've lost something when we threw out the dress and pulled on the pants.  I'm beginning to wonder if we've lost our sense of femininity and have forgotten what it means to be a woman.

A woman in a dress must be alert and careful with herself.  Knees must be touching, and ankles crossed, tucked in ever so neatly under her chair.  She must be aware of her hemline when she bends over, and she must wear shoes that accent the prettiness of her dress (even if it is a full-length, everyday, "working" dress).  But isn't that was being a woman is all about?  Isn't part of the calling to be alert and aware- not just with her attire, but her house, her children, her marriage? And she does it with grace and dignity, though she may be gritting her teeth because it's uncomfortable.

A woman dusting the baseboards, cooking dinner, or rinsing a soiled diaper while wearing a dress seems quaint.  But put that same woman in pants, and suddenly, she seems mundane.  There is nothing about her to set apart from the humdrum and dirt involved in her work.  Even in her raggedy dress, Cinderella was charming.  The dress serves as the reminder that it is a woman doing the tasks in her careful, loving manner, not a machine or robot doing what it has been trained to do.  The focus shifts from the work to the person.

I'm not saying that wearing pants is ungodly, or that no women should pants, ever.  I much prefer to rinse the soiled diapers while wearing my comfortable jeans than a dress.  But I do wonder how much we'd gain if we'd chuck the pants and opt for a sensible skirt or washable dress more often. Perhaps dusting could be womanly again.

She radiates tenderness!Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Of Family Dinner

Writes Caitlin Flanagan (told you I loved her!):

"Their [writers of family dinner advice] notions about the meal and its importance in family life are rooted in middle-class American assumptions about how and when parents and children ought to interact.  What they are loath to admit is that the great missing element of that kind of existence is not dinner gongs or lists of conversations starters.  It's a kind of family life in which expectations have not been raised, but radically lowered.

"It requires a mother who considers putting dinner on the table neither an exalted nor a menial task, and also a collection of family members whose worldly ambitions are low enough that they all happen to be hanging around the house at six-thirty.  For family life to mimic the postwar ideal that is our current fixation, we would need to revive the cultural traditions that created it: the one-income family, the middle-class tendency toward frugality, and the understanding that one's children's prospects won't include elite private colleges and stratospheric professional success, both of which may hinge on tremendous achievements in the world of extracurricular activities.

"If children are to have unstructured time, they need a mother at home; no one would advocate a new generation of latchkey children.  But she must be a certain kind of mother--one willing to divest her sense of purpose from her children's achievement.  She must be a woman willing to forgo the prestige of professional life in order to sit at home while her kids dream up new games out in the tree house and wait for her to call them in for a nourishing dinner.  She must be willing to endure the humiliation of forgoing a career and of raising tots bound for state college."

Taken from To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewife, "The Executive Child."

Friday, September 24, 2010

I have no need for friendship?

Caitlin Flanagan has become one of my favorite journalists in recent years, as she writes so well of the modern family and encourages her readers to question our current state of affairs.  One of the articles she wrote for The Atlantic, "Housewife Confidential," contrasts the modern day "at-home mother" with the "housewife" of years past.  (For the record, I identify more with the "housewife" than the "at-home mother," but that's another post.)

I've been bemoaning of the main differences the last couple of days (and nights) when I've been stuck alone with a fussy kid, in desperate need of a break and a friend.

She writes, "The kind of childhood that many of us remember so fondly—with hours of free time, and gangs of neighborhood kids meeting up after school—was possible partly because each block contained houses in which women were busy but close by, all too willing to push open a window and yell at the neighbor boy to get his fool bike out of the street."

There once was a time when women stayed home- with their babies, with their children- all hours of the day, rather than drop them at daycare or transport them to a different activity each night.  These women were there, in their houses, going about the work of the house.  While they may not have been making regular playdates with the children across town, I'm sure that they would have been available to lend a hand when a fellow housewife was at her wit's end with her own children.  If they were willing to discipline her child by yelling out their windows, they would have payed her a visit if she called in tears. Or at least sent their eldest daughter over as a mother's helper for the evening.

But now, when a mother has been left to tend to her house and child alone, and she feels the same anguish, she looks out the window, and realizes she's alone.  The town has emptied with everyone running to work, and she has no help.  How does she go about making friends, when she doesn't cart her children to different activities each day, and the only other adults she sees in a week beside her husband, are the members of her church who attend the same service on Sunday morning?  Or has loneliness just become part of the burden she must bear as a mother?

Flanagan's full article is here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Laundry woes

Lest you go thinking I'm that woman, rest assured.  I don't do laundry. Really.  I have stacks upon stacks of laundry overflowing onto the floor.  I can say it's because I really don't want to go down into my creepy basement, but really, it's just because I'm lazy and hate laundry.  So there it sits, until my husband realizes he has no matching socks or clean pants, and he takes a load or two down himself, which then makes me feel guilty that I haven't done it.  You'd think guilt would be the motivator to head down once a day with a load or two myself, but I'm a master excuse-maker, and probably just too lazy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Strong Woman

I came across this beautiful description of a strong woman while reading Michael Perry's Truck: A Love Story.  Notice her strength comes not from her ability to strap a man's shoes and win the bread- rather, it comes from making the bread and feeding it to her children.  A bit lengthy, but bear with me.

"I was raised by strong women.  Of course they could only do so much.

"I use the term raised  in the perpetual sense, because the work continues.  There is my mother, of course, sentenced to nature's most blessed curse, in which the female is expected to give of her body and blood in the rearing of a creature bound to bring trouble on the house.  Not to mention the heart.  A child is prayer and worry wrapped in a blanket.  Tax deductible, yes, but oh, the hidden costs.  You might describe my mom as the valedictorian homecoming queen who wound up a God-fearing homemade granola-slingling Florence Nightingale in a maxiskirt and construction boots stuck on a cow farm. 

"Over the years she has taken responsibility for for the care and feeding of legions of children--some conceived, some adopted, some fostered, some delivered by the county for the weekend, others for a lifetime.  She is slight of build, and (to use her phrase) just mortified by public attention (thus I write of her in the broadest terms), but I have watched three firefighters rush to her with an unconscious baby and then enclose her in a semicircle of hulking apprehension while she calmly gets the kid breathing again.  I have also seen her up to her elbow in the rear end of a sheep and giving rescue breaths to a newborn Holstein calf. (Mind you, not simultaneously.) 

"For forty years she has raised a constantly fluctuating passel of tots, drawing on her wits, fifty-pound bags of oatmeal, and a fistful of coupons the size of a bad UNO hand.  There were undoubtedly sleepless nights, but she never betrayed them."

Fear not, the next paragraph goes on to describe her inefficiencies and weirdness, including a strange hand tic and her inability to fold a basket of clothes without getting distracted.

I have reread that passage several times now, and the only thought I have is this: Would that I could be like her.