Big Birthday Memory #18: Want a Feminist Son? Tips From a Veteran

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. This one appeared on BlogHer on January 19, 2011

Running Boys

“So Dan,” says I, “What would you think if the woman you wanted to marry decided to keep her name?”

“Well mom,” says he, “I don’t think I’d want to marry a woman who didn’t want to keep her name.”

He was around ten then (he’s 30 now), in the car with us, listening to his dad tease me, as he has for years, that he “wouldn’t have let me” have his name if I did want it.  Not a serious discussion of male oppression exactly, but humor teaches lessons too.

Someone asked me how we raised feminist sons.  I don’t have a checklist.  And if I were to respond seriously, I’d start with something really corny: teach them to respect people – all people.  The elevator man.  The bus driver.  Their best friend’s mom.  The guy at the candy counter.  Their friends.  Their parents’ friends. Their baby sitter.  They were Manhattan kids, but they were raised to think of the feelings of every person they met.  Of course, that meant all women, too.  That was an advantage.

Oh, and we respected the two of them right back.

In the families they knew, most of the moms worked as hard as the dads.  Since moms at home were an exception, they were used to two-income families.  The daughters of these moms, the girls they went to school with, wouldn’t put up with much nonsense, either.  That also helped.

We preferred offering choices over fiats.  Most boys go through a Playboy phase.  Call it curiosity.  When the magazines began to stack up behind the old-fashioned radiator in our bathroom, we didn’t seize them.  We talked about what it must have been like for the women in the pictures and how their parents might feel.  I may have said (of course I said) that it offended me, but if they wanted to keep buying Playboy, they’d have to pay for it from their allowance and keep them all put away.   Eventually the fever broke and the magazines disappeared.

Boys Hug

I also changed the endings of a lot of stories I read to them when they were really little.   No princess was given by her father to the guy who solved the riddle or won the quest in our versions. (I also had to change stories like Mr. Poppers Penguins because of terrible racial stereotypes, by the way)  We read Harriet the Spy and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great as well as Encyclopedia Brown and Superfudge.

Also, back then when it was new, we listened to Free to Be, You and Me  until the tape wore out.  When we did come across unpleasant images of women on TV or at a movie, we talked about them.Those movie moments were also “teachable moments.”  As any parent knows, those scenes can enable a dialogue that might otherwise be impossible, whether it’s about smoking and drugs, bullies, sex, or the partnership between women and men. They’re always popping up; not just in entertainment but also on the street, with family and friends, and in easy conversations.  We made the most of those, too.

I’ve sort of written things down here as I thought of them and now as I reread this, I realize how much I’ve focused on image and media.  I guess that’s because those sorts of opportunities were overt and therefore highly productive tools.

The modeling that went on at home was also critical of course.  We were nowhere near as exemplary as couples are now in their parenting and household equity.  It was the 70’s and 80s.  Even so, we were very aware of the issues we needed to pass on and both worked to do it. (For a more contemporary look , try The Feminist Breeder, who, in a consciously egalitarian marriage, describes her own thoughts on raising feminist boys.  or Penguin Unearthed as she offers her own perspective.)

Our boys, from when they were little, learned to cook, iron (that was our babysitter, not us), do their laundry and clean the kitchen.  They made their beds (mostly) and helped out at our parties.   Each has always had close friends who were girls, and later, women.  They still do.

Boys on Boat

As I conclude though,  I return too to the concept of respect.  If you are steeped in a respect for all people – not as a political habit but a deep, personal value, it’s a lot tougher to use your maleness to seize control of a household, a family or a workplace.

Finally, beyond all the values and logistical and modeling issues lies a fundamental fact.  A child who is well-loved and respected is far more likely to accept the values we choose to pass on, and that underlies everything else.


When Kids Grow Up: Their Landmark Birthdays and Mom’s Heart

Dan kidMy baby turned 30 on Saturday.  He’s a remarkable man and has been independent and away from home (across the country, actually) for a long time.  But he’s still my only youngest child.

It was a landmark for him, and he had a great day, I think, while I spent much of that day in a state of astonishing gratitude.

That face would be enough, right?  The amazing thing is that for every smile, grin, laugh, great story, amazing artwork, funny home-made Halloween costume (How many second-graders dress up as Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, after all?) there are a hundred more.  He’s a wealth of wonders.

I have so many friends who are close to his age, or younger, and I’ve often tried to describe what it feels like to see a beloved boy grow into a fine, honorable, creative, funny, loving and talented man.  But they’re worrying about preschool and OT and nannies and play dates and work-life balance and it sounds so far away – probably frighteningly so.

Cropped toast

So, as I have so often before, I’m telling you instead.
There are few honors more moving than noting a day like this with joy. Look at this photo – a moment of pure eloquence as a young man toasts his big brother at his wedding.  You can see how much they like each other; that’s a gift too.

I could tell many stories about the little boy up there and the man, too, but they are his stories to tell.  I’m here, rather, to tell you, and myself, one more time, about my own sense of the pure honor of being a parent and riding along as our kids find their way.  Through good times and bad, success and … not so much …. their presence is a blessing.

So.  Here I am, in adequately trying to tell people — who already know the wonders of parenthood — about someone they’ve never met.  Because, as he enters his 31st year, I’m just so glad I know him.

Happy birthday Dan.

Happy Mother’s Day

Jeanne Emerson It being Friday afternoon and almost Shabbat, I'm leaving a brief Mother's Day greeting now.  First, to say thank you to my kids for letting me be their mom and being such wonderful sons.  Then to my husband for being my partner in crime.

But I also need to talk about my own mother, whose standards were high, whose generosity to others was boundless and who had a huge influence on so many.  She was an art teacher – elementary school – and not a kid in our community would have been inside a museum if my mom hadn't taken them.  Since she grew up in the Depression and World War II, she was very much part of the Greatest Generation – in every way.

She treated everyone like someone worth meeting, and listening to, and people knew it.  All my friends wrote to me when she died with some personal remembrance.  I lost her when both boys were in college, and I remember thinking so many times how much I would have loved to be able to ask her about having adult kids.  How was she able to stay out of the middle of our lives when she had such a strong opinion about how we should be living them?  Why did she let me hang around with the high school bad boys – even let them sleep in our basement when they were fighting with their parents, without worrying what influence they might have had over us?  How did she feel as we got married?  Was she as nervous as I am now?

I do know though that, whatever her answers would be, and despite some daughterly issues, her faith in us, her encouragement, her belief that we needed careers and missions of our own all empowered us to become the women we are.  She was very private and there are many things I wish I knew, and others I wish I could have told her, but they were not the center of things – just things.

She was a great mom.  I miss her.  And I'm so grateful that I do.

Attachment Parents, Anxious Parents, Sanctimommies and Skinned Knees

This morning I helped to produce a conference on parenting and "over" parenting.  It was designed to help anxious young parents who are often under pressure to be "better" and more attentive than their peers.  They feed on each other and worry all the time, and in cases beyond my community (I don't see it here) they compete, sometimes with cruelty, to see who's the best.

If you're a "mommy blog" reader you'll see it all the time.  One of my favorites is Liz Gumbinner, proprietor of Mom-101.  She has a gentle, loving, yet often hilarious and almost always moving take on life as a parent.  She also has a keen-eyed abhorrance for what she calls " Sanctimommies."  She writes about them often, and their thoughtless comments and judgments.  No matter how much we detest what they do, which is more often judgmental than well-meaning, they can get to us.  They plant scary, painful doubts, especially when we are vulnerable.

I remember this torment so well.  You don't want your child to feel bad.  You don't want her to fall off the monkey bars.  You certainly don't want him to be sad because he lost a T-Ball game and didn't get a medal or got a lower grade than the kid who sits next to him and didn't get a sticker on his paper.  It's terrible.  I think what's worse though is over-compensating to preserve delicate feelings.  

And that's what much of this conference was aimed at.  Speakers told parents that kids needed some autonomy, needed their own territory.   That protecting them prevented them from learning how to solve problems and bounce back from the adversity that is part of life.  They also made an interesting point that I think is controversial but tough to contradict.  YES, moms and dads are both important, but dads have a different role.  And mothers too often, in their frequent role as gatekeepers between the kids and daddy, set standards that are too squishy, not allowing the dads to find their own way to deal with their children.

This does not mean there is no overlap – nurturing dad and outward-facing mom.  But both perspectives – female and male, have value.  Many times as our kids grew up, my husband and I stopped one another from going too far in one way or the other.  I wanted to send money to bail them out of a jam.  My husband would remind me that if we ran to the rescue we were telling them that we didn't think they could take care of themselves. "If they really need help", he'd say, "they'll ask for it."

Other times he'd go nuclear in the punishment department or refuse permission for something perfectly acceptable because he didn't think first.  That was my cue to step in and moderate things.  I often thought sadly of friends raising kids alone, without this valuable balance.

I guess this is just a meditation on parenting in the 21st Century.  It's painful to see wonderful parents whose instincts are sound and who love their kids get tangled up in these issues, and it was wonderful to watch the dialog today and the passions in the conversations that continued over lunch and will go forward in several after-sessions.  In fact, it was very Web 2.0.  The speakers may have set things off, but now they're working with one another, strengthening not only their families but also the community around them.

Mommy Wisdom Across the InterWeb

Cindy Josh 6 Flags June 1975
This week I took dinner over to a couple who just became parents of an infant son.  It had been a long time coming and it was very moving to sit in their living room and sense the peace and – to be honest – blessedness of their parenthood.  I started out "doing something nice" by taking dinner and of course got far more out of it myself.  Being in that room is a memory I will cherish.

I told them about all the parenting tips offered in virtual baby showers I'd been part of, and about all the other posts I'd done about my children and my life as a mother.  Then I kind of promised I'd send them the links.  I figured, though, that as long as I was pulling it all together I'd make a little package for anyone else looking for the kind of parenting advice that A) might be really good and B) you can ignore without hurting anyone's feelings.  So here they are — and as The Band wrote, "take what you need and leave the rest."

First of all, since you have a son, here's a Julie's gift: a blog list filled with wisdom — a virtual baby shower of advice and warnings about raising boys.   There's a list of "boy songs" too.  That's a bonus.  If you want to read my contribution, it's here.

And what about just plain good advice about being a mom?  That was the first shower, and it's full of funny and often very moving posts.  Here's mine.

This one's kind of funny, and will look like it's a million years away – but it's fun: what to do when a second kid shows up and makes everything crazy all over again.  I wrote for that one, too.

My favorite is the one whose subject was "memories of the first thirty days."  It was an emotional whopper; once I started I had trouble stopping.  Here's what I remember.

Finally, as you enter this amazing new life, a preview of what it's like when your kids are grown and gone.  They're from December of 2006 and this past Thanksgiving.  For some reason both struck a nerve with readers; it's an amazing adventure you've embarked upon – and it's glorious in all its phases.  I wish you half the joy I've known.

For My Friends with Young Children, or My Annual Post-Thanksgiving Meditation

Farm tight
Here's the thing.  My children live far away, one six hours to the west and the other, with his fiance, six hours to the east.  We've been together for Thanksgiving week – all of us – hanging out, cooking, touring around DC, running errands and just being — and being thankful.  It's always special when the whole family is together; it seemed so natural when the boys were little and now it's a treat.  I cooked a million meals with them banging around in the kitchen.  Now it's a precious thing when I make turkey meatloaf with my younger son.  I watch him, an accomplished cook, chop like a pro, listen as he reassures me that this new thing will taste great, laugh with him, trade recipes.  I rode around in cars, subways, buses with them all the time, and, along with their dad, dragged them into a million stores from grocery to toys to clothing to antiques.  Now it's the pleasure of serious shopping at Ikea with my older son and his fiance, getting to be around while they choose a sofa.  Seeing what a fine woman she is, watching them seamlessly making decisions together, measuring, taking photos, laughing, planning.  It feels great to see them launching themselves so well together and makes it OK that much of their life is lived far from us.  That's how it is.

I know though, that when kids are little, schlepping them in and out of car seats and strollers, keeping them occupied while you try to cook, keeping little hands out of the Ikea toy bins, mediating murderous sibling battles, keeping a home running while keeping kids in line – it's a lot.  I remember.  It doesn't matter whether you work outside your home or stay home with your family; either way there's so much to handle.  I kept thinking about that as I wandered around Washington with these adults who are also, forever, my children, reminding myself how long it would be before we would all do it together again.  Reminding myself that it's a credit to us that our kids are self-sufficient, productive and wonderfully decent, funny, loving men — and how blessed we are that they chose to come to us for the holiday — and that it's right, and good, that they have their own lives and homes and futures.

But though that's true, I wanted to tell you about this because it goes so fast.  All the cliches are true.  Turn around and they're grown.  That doesn't mean it isn't hard to keep things going now, it just means that those days will be gone, sooner than you think.

My youngest is approaching 30.  My oldest is getting married.  They have money market accounts and careers and fiances and plans and even some gray hairs.  They teach me more than I teach them (although that was always true.)  They are, like those of you reading this, grown ups, and my husband and I have our own rich and happy life together.  But it still can be, for those few moments of farewell at the end of each visit, desperately painful, on both sides.

As we drove to the airport last night, I (sort of) joked that I had to hook my iPod up to the car radio so that, when I was sad after leaving them off, I could blast Bruce, or Great Big Sea to make me feel a little better.  When we arrived at the departure entrance, I got out of the car to help unload the bags.  My son the chef was still in the front seat of the car. I was worried that a cop would throw me out of the parking place so I went toward the door to ask what he was doing.  He turned around.  "You iPod's all hooked up" he said, and reached out to give me a hug goodbye.


I’ve written often about the ways life changes as your kids grow up and become adults.  We are blessed that both of ours have brought us so much joy.  This public accomplishment is really just icing on the cake; moment by moment is where the real wonder comes.  Even so, how could I not post it here?

The man on the right is my older son Josh.  Speaking at E3! (The annual video game trade show in LA) On G4 TV.  About Fable II, a game he has been working on for a very long time.  How cool is that?



Well here they are.  My two boys some years ago, on a boat someplace in Germany.  This photo is probably 20 years old; it’s from one of many wonderful trips covering territory all the way from Israel to Hawaii.  Each was an adventure, enriched by the presence of these two little (and later bigger) boys, as were all our days. Most visitors to the baby shower know that I’m the sentimental one – not able ever to be as arch and irreverent as many of my sister bloggers.  SO CONSUMER ALERT — this is mostly a riff on the treat it is to watch your two kids grow, change, interact, fight, become real friends, care for one another and grow up to travel together and meet up to go to concerts.

When I was pregnant with my second son, I was afraid that I could never love another child.  The delight we felt with our first son was so complete that I wasn’t sure whether there was room in my heart for another.  That summer, as we awaited his brother’s arrival, I insisted that our son, my husband and I – go to the beach to have a last vacation with "just the three of us."  It was going to be tough to get used to dividing my time so I wanted one more golden moment with just one.

It was the year The Muppet Movie came out, and I remember sitting on the little deck outside the beach cabin we’d rented, my son in my lap, playing The Rainbow Song on the boom box we’d brought with us, just about overcome with emotion.  Listen to it – if it doesn’t get to you I don’t know what will.

"Some day we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreams and me."  So sentimental but absolutely perfect for my pregnant, hormonal self. 

And then he arrived – this little, amazing, intense infant, and as soon as I saw him I knew all the worry was for nothing.  Of course you can’t love an abstraction as much as a little blond sweetie who loves Kermit and Ernie and Bert — and you.  Once that abstraction arrives though, he’s as real and exciting and mysterious and loving as his big brother.  As each of their personalities emerged so did their differences, but each revealed a piece of them.   Each individual talent and temperment and allergy and grace reminded us of the unique treasure that each of them was to us.  So here are 10.5 thoughts on the question at hand – moving from one child to two:



Citylights_night_2When I was in high school this was one of the places I dreamed of coming:  San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore.  Far from my home in Pittsburgh, arty, intellectual and free.  Ironic then that all these years later I’m here, usually, to visit sons ten years older than I was when I set my sights on Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury. . . or San Francisco. 

One lives here; the other’s girlfriend lives here so he pretty much commutes here from Seattle.  It’s a perfect place to meet and spend the holidays.  We came out for Thanksgiving and are here again, this time since Christmas day.

It’s been lovely, if a bit stressful: a new girlfriend for our younger one – we had dinner with her – and the pressure that comes from wanting infrequent visits to go well.  At best we see one another every couple of months; both boys wish we lived closer which makes me feel good but it’s tough that we don’t — and have not much prospect of ever moving this direction. 

Now it’s our last day and the usual burgeoning lump in the throat has appeared.  Both boys have been genuinely happy to be with us and have ditched their calendars to spend the week with us.  I’m very grateful for their attention – they think I’m nuts and say of course they want to be with us.  For some reason this astonishes me.  We do have fun – jabbering about everything from Benazir Bhutto to series television.  Lots of laughter and the additional delight of seeing the boys and Josh’s friend Amy laughing and enjoying one another’s company.  But as the time comes to leave, board the plane and fly back to our DC lives, a determined sadness permeates even the happiest of moments.  I once interviewed Naomi Foner, mother to Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal and the woman who wrote Running on Empty, a film about children leaving home in a particularly profound and complete way.  "Parenthood is the only job" she told me, "where you measure success by how well you say goodbye." 

Manifestly, we’ve done that well.  Our boys are strong, self-sufficient, productive men who are friends to one another and love their parents.  They know we’re here but know too that they can take care of themselves.  In that way, we’d be defined as successful.  But.  But.  No matter how proud I am, how grateful for their strength and wisdom, humor and goodness, I miss them. 

They are the treasures of my days and will always be, and the physical distance that prevents an easy Sunday afternoon movie or Chinese dinner and makes every visit an event is always a painful reality. 

I’ll deal with it and so will they.  It’s the way things are – and it’s certainly better to want them more than we see them than to have them sigh with relief when we leave for the airport.  And whether we’re there or not, their lives are rich and often joyful.  And so, I tell myself, at least when I’m missing them, I know they’ve become the men I would have wished them to be – for their sakes, not ours.  And that’s a lot.  It doesn’t put them here next to me — but it does send with me a quiet peace amid the sadness.  That’s really all I can – or should – travel with.  The rest — working toward and achieving what they want from their lives and moving forward in the world — belongs, as it should, to them.

Happy New Year.


Breast Feeding, Facebook and How Could This STILL Be Going On?

My son is 32 years old.  The first two weeks of his life he lost a pound and a half.  I just didn’t seem to have enough milk and there was no one – no lactation consultant or nurse-practitioner or even another other mom to ask for help.  (This was Manhattan in the 70s; there was a lot of anti-natalism and many of my friends literally asked "Do you really want to be pregnant?"&nbsp) When I finally went to to the pediatrician he told me I had to supplement the nursing with formula. It felt like such a humiliating sign of maternal failure before I had even begun.  Soon after, the milk ran out altogether.

I wish I could describe the tears, the guilt, the sense that I’d damaged this lovely, lovely child for life.  I was, after all, hurting his development and immune system.  And bonding.  And who knew what else?

So when I read about the breast-feeding explosions on Facebook (and I have a Facebook page and admit I really like it, which makes it worse) or Delta Airlines, all these years later and still happening, I’m doubly sad.  These attitudes add to the stress that inhibits milk production and I know how stressful nursing can be, especially in the beginning.  I know the devastation when it fails.  I know the almost unanimous research about the advantage of breast-feeding these new little people, and I believe the "it takes a village" theory enough to feel that it’s everybody’s responsibility to help kids grow up healthy and secure.  That’s why I’m here among the nursing moms my kids’ ages.  They’re strong and inspired and right on the money.  The capacity to nourish an infant is a privilege and a right.  And natural.  And in no way anything but lovely.  I mourned for so long the loss of it for my own children. I still do.