Here's a call out to Pasadenaadjacent (see my blog roll) for helping me find peace -- at last -- about my tragic childhood encounter with a thrift store sweater. Who can dwell on such a sad tale when the be-dazzled sweater girl creates not only gem sweaters, but sings about them as well. See her tribute song to make your day infinitely better: http://www.atom.com/funny_videos/leslie_gem_sweater/
In 1975, when I was ten years old, my mom threw everything she could carry into the trunk of our old Buick and drove my sisters and me from Montana to California. This was how she told my father that she wanted a divorce.
Divorce is hard on women. This is a well-known fact. Their incomes dip precariously and they are often thrust into lives of poverty. My mom had two years of college under her belt, and she had not worked for money in the previous fifteen years. Her options were limited, but she found a job working in the office of an insurance company and, after a few months living with my grandparents, she got a furnished two bedroom apartment with gold and orange shag carpet.
One day she took my sisters and me to a thrift store. She bought hangers and a black and white television. She also bought me a white button down sweater. It was acrylic and had gold buttons. I told her I didn't want it, but she bought it anyway. Good old Hester had her Scarlet A, and I had that sweater. It filled me with shame just to look at it. It had belonged to some one else, some other little girl, and I just knew that if I wore that sweater everyone would know that we were too poor to buy new clothes. I just knew that the real owner of that sweater would see me and tell everyone that I was wearing a used sweater. I think I wore that sweater one time. My mom made me. I was glad when it got too small and my mom brought it back to thrift store and I never had to look at it again.
How predictable is it to post what I'm thankful for on Thanksgiving? Very. I know. But so is eating turkey and stuffing and that doesn't stop me from pigging out on them once a year.
Of course, I am thankful beyond measure for the things that matter (family, friends, health, and home), but there are other things that have mattered a great deal to me this year, and now is the time to acknowledge them.
I am thankful for:
The bright, supportive colleagues who helped me improve my manuscript The Goddess Lounge.
My daughter's wonderful neurologist and our family's health insurance.
My sweet dog.
Susan Carrier's recipe for Nicoise Salad. (See her blog: Open Mouth, Insert Fork.)
The pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving had not only their own god to thank, but perhaps also the great Corn Mother. Native Americans from Mexico to Canada worshipped many versions of the corn mother, and they gave her many names: Green Corn Goddess, Sela, Iyatiki, White Buffalo Woman, and more. In each case, however, the corn mother gave the indigenous people the gift of harvested corn, thus freeing them from the unpredictability of a purely hunter-gatherer existence.
To communal tribes that privileged the group over the individual, the corn mother symbolized the importance of self sacrifice. In story after story, she gives her own life so that the people can have corn. The Keresan people say she planted bits of her own heart to establish the first corn fields. The Creek say she had the men of one village kill her and drag her body across the barren ground. Wherever her blood landed corn began to grow. The Penobscot people tell a similar tale, but in their version, she asks her husband to kill her and drag her body around so that corn can grow and feed her starving children.
From my modern eyes, I find these tales a little disturbing. They fall far too neatly into gendered ideas about women's heroism stemming from their literal self sacrifice. Then again, such tales surely taught Native Americans of both sexes that their existence was intended to serve something bigger than themselves. And if they hadn't believed that I wonder if they would have ever fed those pesky Europeans in the funny black hats.
In the November 17th issue of the New Yorker, Joan Acocello reviews the recent spate of books decrying helicopter parents. You know, those over-parenting parents that simultaneously coddle and over-schedule their children. The books all agree that helicopter parents are bad. They are blamed for creating a generation of over-programmed and over-dependent children that are somehow pathalogically incapable of caring for themselves.
For the moment, let's ignore the sexist underpinnings of this critique. (We all know that helicopter parents really means helicopter moms.) Let's ignore the historical context in which mothers are always put on trial when Americans think kids are growing up soft and dependent. (In the 1950s, clinging moms were blamed for homosexuality and juvenile delinquency.) Let's ignore the fact that women can't win. If they work too much they are accused of absentee parenting and if they are too present in their children lives they are accused of helicopter parenting.
Yes. Let's ignore all of these things and ask a more basic question: Is there really an overparenting crisis? And, if so, who is too blame?
Is there a crisis? Hmmm... Do I know parents who overschedule their children? Yes. Do I know parents who hover? That would be me. But are we really hurting our children? Get real. With a twenty-five percent high school drop out rate and a fifty percent college drop out rate, you're telling me that my embrace of Neosporin and family dinners is unraveling the fabric of Western Civilization? Go find some real social problems to get hysterical over.
And if there is such a crisis, what horrible fiend has forced this cancer upon us? Well, it sure as hell is not moms. As usual, we are too busy cleaning up other people's messes to come up with such a nefarious plot. But I can tell you this, I would certainly back off from my helicoptering ways if my children had homework that was developmentally appropriate. (See my last post.) I wouldn't be driving my daughter to choir practice if schools had the same meaningful arts programs that they had when I was a child. I would not be worrying about my ten-year-old's college options if a multi-billion dollar testing industry had not upped the ante by making test preparation a make or break college application requirement. Who wins when I am forced to overparent? It sure isn't me. I'm exhausted all ready. Think big. As the saying goes, follow the money.
In the meantime, back off. Every mom I know is doing the best she can. Does she sometimes do too much? Maybe. Does she sometimes strive too hard? It wouldn't surprise me. But since we're women and we can't win no matter what we do, we might as well keep out rotating our blades. Otherwise, we'll crash and burn and then where will everyone looking for a Bandaid or a hug be?
When I was in graduate school at UCLA, we had to pass a five hour qualifying exam to move from the Master's program to the Ph.D. program. At numerous much more prestigious east coast universities the equivalent to this exam lasted one hour. At numerous much less prestigious mid-Western universities this exam was rumored to last ten to twelve hours. My friends and I used to laugh at this. We understood that the tests were about pecking orders. They were about trying to convince people that you were as good as the Big Boys because you worked twice as hard.
It seems to me that the California educational standards do the same thing. Poor California, its schools having fallen to the near bottom of well-ranked public schools, has reacted like an insecure mid-Western university. It has enacted state "standards" that are among some of the most rigorous in the nation. Does this make the schools better? Not really. Does this improve education? Not so much. They are just about making a statement -- not educating children.
Let's talk about math. The state recently postponed its plan to make all eighth graders pass a statewide algebra test. No other state has such a test, just the District of Columbia, whose schools are even worse than those in California. Moreover, research cited by the California Faculty Association states that only 30% to 40% of eighth graders are developmentally ready to deal with algebra. So why push for it? Because it seems rigorous. It seems hard. It seems like we are making progress in education because it seems like we are getting more out of students. We aren't. We are failing students. We are asking things of them that they will be able to do ONE DAY, but that the vast majority of them will not be able to do in eighth grade.
What got me thinking about this? Seventh grade pre-algebra. It was the worst, hardest class I ever took. And now my seventh grader is taking it, and it's the worst, hardest class she's ever taken. She works so doggedly on her math, and she is hanging in there. But what will be the reward for this hard work? Eighth grade algebra A/B, which is, in fact two years of algebra squeezed into one so that ninth graders can go straight to geometry. I love my daughter. I think she is brilliant and wise. But she will not be able to squeeze two years of algebra into one. I know that. She is a smart, smart girl, but her brain is not ready for that challenge. It will be, in a few years. What is the purpose of pushing it? What is the point of forcing her and the roughly 60% to 70% of of students who will not be developmentally ready for algebra to fail?
Educational "standards" that are not pegged to the developmental milestones of children are cruel to all of us. They are cruel to the students they leave behind and to the parents who have to pick up the pieces. They are like broken shards of glass that everyone has to walk on except the person who dropped the vase.
I like to think of this blog as a virtual sort of spa day or night out with friends. We relax, we laugh, and we get a little perspective from the goddesses and wise women who've come before us. So exhale, slip off your shoes, and turn off the phone. It's time to Begin Again.