Sunday, April 24, 2016

brief report from the consumption ward

I went on a trip for work last week, and was away from Perdita overnight for the first time. I missed her and Berowne terribly, but at the same time it would have been restful (able to sleep ten hours a night, nothing to do after the conference ended for the day but lie about in a hotel bathtub with a book) if not for the fact that on the flight back I came down with my usual Deathly Travel Bronchitis and have now been miserably sick for eight days. But at least I got a lot of reading done during the trip, and since then while sitting up at night unable to sleep for the cough.

(I also had travel-related gas so bad that I experienced the worst audible public fart of my life, right in the middle of Powell's bookstore. I had only acquired five books at that point but had to flee, and for the next three days it was a toss-up over whether social anxiety or bibliophilia would win out in terms of daring to return. Sadly the anxiety did, which seems a huge waste. There is always the internet, I suppose.)

What I did manage to read while not occupied with flatulence:

Prophet's Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, by Sam Brower. Rampant child abuse in the name of religion is always a good time. Clear and horrifying.

Hell at the Breech, by Tom Franklin. Novel about the rural South at the end of the nineteenth century; it begins with a sackful of puppies being drowned and goes downhill in terms of brutality from there. Amazingly written, but so violent and upsetting that I almost put it down many times.

The Distance, by Helen Giltrow. A really bad thriller, and I don't have the faintest idea why I finished it.

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis, by Thomas Goetz. Appropriate reading as I hacked my way through my return flight. Fun popular history.

No Man's Nightingale, by Ruth Rendell. Good engrossing mystery.

On the Move: A Life, by Oliver Sacks. Jumps all over the place, to an extent that sometimes makes it difficult to follow chronologically, but Sacks' voice is so endearing that I was willing to forgive that. In one of those fun book coincidences, I had just read Bill Hayes' The Anatomist but had no idea that his partner Oliver was actually Oliver Sacks, until reading this book.

In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors, by Doug Stanton. SHARKS SO MANY SHARKS. I wanted more at the end of this book, about what happened to the men we'd come to know, and instead it ended very abruptly. Otherwise solidly written history about terrible things happening to people.

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. Just wonderful, as Tomalin's biographies are. I actually cried at the end, though the fact that Jane Austen dies isn't exactly a spoiler.

The Vicar of Bullhampton, by Anthony Trollope. When I started this, and the young lady is attempting to choose between her two suitors, one heroic and the other a rake, I actually felt for a moment that I couldn't read yet another Trollope book about that, and thought about putting it aside. But fortunately that turns out to not be the main plot, so I enjoyed this. (And the girl actually ends up with the rake, and the hero acts very non-heroically about it, so that was interesting.)

The Scold's Bridle, by Minette Walters. Mystery about disturbing people doing disturbing things. Oddly, more Ruth-Rendell-ish than the Ruth Rendell I read on the same trip.

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design, by Frank Wilczek. This was very challenging for me. Wilczek makes physics as accessible as he can, I think, but my brain just doesn't process physics the way it is able to comprehend biology or chemistry, so I struggled with this.

And now I need more tea and cough drops. May you all be feeling better than this.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

a lengthy rant about women's work

In today's installment, we will be returning to the topic of "Beatrice: Worst Mother Ever", in two parts.

Part 1: I am a member of a couple mom groups on Facebook, and I also have many friends on social media who are stay-at-home-moms. (I know some families who have stay-at-home dads, but I am not friends with the dads and therefore don't get their perspectives.) And while this is thankfully not the case for most of the SAHMs I know, I can sometimes be blindsided by the gender dynamic inequalities I see in these relationships (from a biased, one-sided, and on-social-media POV, I know), and am frequently blindsided by the assumption from both parties that the woman will give up her career (possibly temporarily, I know) the instant she has a baby, no matter how much investment or passion went into said career.

The most stunning example I ever saw of this was actually in person, when I attended a barbeque at a co-worker's house and met his pregnant wife. She was in her first year of working as a psychiatrist, after nearly a decade of the school and residency and internships associated with such a career. And, in the context of explaining why she and her husband had to give up their plans to either redecorate or move, she literally shrugged her career and its potential earnings off with, "But I'm a mom now." As if this should have been the most obvious thing ever to her female listener - that it doesn't matter how hard you've worked, how much passion for the subject you must have had, how far in student loan debt you might be, how badly you need the income... you're a mom now. That's your job now. Period.

For all I know she may be planning to go back to work once her kid is six, or ten, or whatever. But it continues to blow my mind. Like, was this pregnancy completely unplanned or unwanted? Or did you actually go to med school and do your residency and internship believing the whole time that this was just a backup plan in case you turned out to be barren? There have got to be easier backup plans! Geez!

More disclaimers, now:

Not everyone is passionate about the job they end up in. I know. The "excuse" to stay home which is a child is surely a huge relief to some women.

Childcare is so insanely expensive that many women have to stay home for a few years at least, because their incomes wouldn't cover the cost. Believe me, I know: I live in the state which has the most expensive daycare rates in the country. I know it's not always a choice.

If you do have the choice, and you like your job and love the feelings of independence and validation that come from earning your own living and having an identity outside of "wife and mother", it's still going to be gut-wrenching either way. Perdita is in daycare fifty hours a week. She has been in daycare since she was eleven weeks old (though when she started she was only there about half that time). And I don't take that lightly. I think about it a lot.

But neither do I take my own needs lightly, and I know that without my career and without my own income, I would fall to pieces emotionally and mentally. I knew that going into this; I was never under any illusion that I would be fulfilled as a SAHM, even if it were financially feasible for us, which it emphatically isn't. But if Berowne made four times what he does, I would still be working. Maybe not full-time? Maybe we'd have a nanny instead of a daycare that's a long drive from home? Who knows. But I do know I'd still want to go in on Monday morning and dive into my tables and fields and formulas, and get a paycheck all my own. I absolutely would.

This is my personal experience, and the part about needing my own income has a lot to do with control and trust issues. It's not a judgement on anyone else.

But I am judging (okay, questioning) situations in which one partner has a monopoly on the "I worked hard earning all day" argument, and it results in things like only one parent getting up at night every night for two straight years, or the working parent refusing to take the baby for ten minutes when he (usually he) gets home, or both partners just assuming that if it's financially feasible then of course the woman will stay home after the baby's born, no matter her relationship to her career. I judge the hell out of the idea that the only reason both parents should work is if they have to, financially. Like I said above, I have to, financially, but I also have to, emotionally. And that needs to count, because no one would ever question that it counts for a man.

The phrase "I don't feel like a real man" is used when a man loses his job and his income. The phrase "I don't feel like a real woman" is used when a woman is unable to have children. This is bullshit.

And so I am appalled when I see (through a social media filter, I know) couples - most of whom are younger than Berowne and me, for Christ's sake - treating the woman's education and career as a backup plan. As something she can and should just set aside for ten years, which if it's in an area like technology or medicine is not going to work out (and in any area a ten-year gap in the CV is a disaster).

Every family is allowed to have its own priorities. No one should have to wax defensive for eleven paragraphs about the fact that she values her career (I will not say I prioritize it, because that would imply that I would have gone back to work even if the only daycare we found for Perdita was the unaccredited one located in a car repair shop [this is actually a real thing near us]). No one should have to wax defensive over wanting to stay at home with her small children either (or needing to because the only available daycare was in a car repair shop). But the priorities need to be a) the family's priorities, not those of one partner; and b) not based on possibly-unconscious and usually-gendered assumptions that one partner's abilities outside of the home are less valuable or important than the other's; and c) even if those priorities are agreed upon totally equally and with the best of intentions, if they then lead to inequalities within the relationship, they need to be revised. I don't care who's earning money, who's working "harder" during the day (subjective as hell anyway): you are both equal parents to the child(ren) and equal partners to each other and you both need to F'ING ACT LIKE IT. If somebody is NOT f'ing acting like it, and his (usually his) excuse is that he is the breadwinner, that is a BULLSHIT EXCUSE and he is a BULLSHIT FELLOW.

This is why both partners working full-time is actually one of the things about my marriage for which I am really grateful: when we all get home, Berowne and I are both tired and hungry and have spent all day dealing with bosses and co-workers and projects we didn't design and responsibilities on which money or safety are riding, and no one gets to play the "well, I earned money today" card, and so the childcare (and cooking and cleaning) just gets divided in a very matter-of-fact way. Also we both had access to bathroom breaks and leisurely coffee-making of which stay-at-home parents can only dream, and no one's sick of dealing with Perdita. It works out very well.

Part 2: (remember, this is about me being a terrible mother?): home due to pink-eye on Friday, I managed to get locked out of the house by the toddler, who threw the deadbolt while I was out in the yard trying to convince the dog to poop. I didn't even have my phone with me. Thank God a neighbor was home, and the fire department found an unlocked upstairs window through which they could get in, and the cop who lectured me on my terrible parenting (not after the fact, but while we were still standing in the driveway while my terrified toddler screamed for me) probably had good reasons for being such a turd. In any event, everyone is all right and I have already been telling the story for laughs, but it was a horrifying twenty minutes.

The books I have read since last posting:

Broken Harbor, by Tana French. Not as good as her others, but I still stayed up until midnight three nights in a row to finish it, because "her others" set a high bar. Pretty disturbing, of course.

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy, by Bill Hayes. Good popular science / history, of the type I greatly enjoy. Very reminiscent of Mary Roach.

Half Empty, by David Rakoff. More essays, these ostensibly  about optimism but mostly just about Rakoff's personal experiences. I found him a more likeable voice in this one than I have in his other collections.

The Bones of Avalon, by Phil Rickman. Dr. John Dee, Elizabeth I's astrologer, goes looking for the remains of King Arthur. Overwrought prose and tedious plotting ensue. Not recommended.

Jackaby, by William Ritter. YA novel that's sort of a cross between Buffy and Libba Bray. Manages to have a spunky teenage heroine who is nonetheless sensible and good company, and some understatedly lovely writing. I will be reading the others in the series. 

I sincerely hope no one felt attacked by this post. It wasn't meant at all in that spirit. I just want everyone I know (or even merely encounter through FB mom groups) to feel validated and equal in their relationships, and sometimes what pops up through the ether makes me deeply depressed.

Full disclaimer (or Part 3): Berowne's occupation involves stretches between paying jobs, and on (I hope no more than) two or three occasions during said stretches I have played the "well, I earned money today" card, and he called me on the fact that that is a BULLSHIT EXCUSE as well he should have. My point: if your partner does this, it doesn't mean they're an irredeemably power-hungry jerk. But if you call them on it and nothing changes, that may be a different story.