Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who Else Would I Be Wearing?

It’s Award Season! Today we are combining the #365FeministSelfie with Award Season. The #365FeministSelfie is all about showing women as they are, no filter, no primping, no perfection, and perhaps no makeup. Pretty much the complete opposite of the Award Season Red Carpet drama-rama. So we’re asking you, everyday mama,

Who are YOU wearing?

As for the Moo Cow, I think the real question is: who else would I be wearing??

We really wanna know, #WhoAreYOUWearingMom? Tweet it, share it on Instagram, or, if you're a blogger, link up your own post -- feel free to copy the graphic at the top of this post. The linkup will be open until Sunday night. This Award Season, let's celebrate real mom fashion!

Monday, January 27, 2014

His Perfect Mommy Is Just a Myth

Welcome back to The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on Facebook, G+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub.

And don’t forget to read what my co-founders Lauren, Jessica, Sarah and Stephanie have to say about this month’s book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. Links to their posts are below.

There were some amazing essays in The Good Mother MythIn particular, I enjoyed (and wept while reading) powerful works by Kimberly M ("Failure to Launch"), Shannon Drury ("The Peculiar Curse of Mentally Ill Motherhood") and Shay Stewart-Bouley ("The Invisible Mother").

The truth is, however, I am not all that susceptible to the myth of the good mother -- the one whose "kids have always slept through the night," who "holds down a fulfilling job while still finding time to join the PTA, run the school's book fair, and attend every soccer game," whose "house is absolutely spotless" as editor Avital Norman Nathman writes in the introduction -- even though I know many women are confused and chastened by this picture of perfection that is, like Holden Caulfield's golden ring, always just out of reach.

The crafty, DIY, Pinterest-perfect mommy movement (myth or otherwise) does not faze me because it is not how I judge my own mothering. My goal is to do my best to raise a confident, compassionate contributor to society, to guide Henry to become his whole self, whatever that may look like. If the past is any predictor, my best will likely be sufficient. Not perfect. But good enough. That this "good enough" will unquestionably exclude homemade Valentine's Day Patties is, at least to my definition of a good mother, irrelevant.

For me, the relevant question is way more existential than whether I am a good mother, and it has preceded Henry's birth by decades: Am I a good person? What will I do of real consequence in this world? More recently, I have added a third question: How do I become a person worthy of my son's affection and esteem?

In my moments of insecurity and fatigue, while I'm basking in the unconditional, untainted love only a two-year-old can have for his mamma, I project into the future, flailing around for steady ground in a world where my son doesn't like the person I am. I am fairly certain he will always love me, as sons do their mothers. But I am difficult; that I know it, that I try not to be so does not alter the essential truth. There are many reasons why adult Henry might not like me.

And like me or not, he will inevitably come to learn, slowly or in fits and starts, how very flawed I am. If anything will make a bad mother out of me, it's that I so love the perfection I see reflected in his adoring brown eyes, I will hate to let it go. And what better way to ensure he dislikes me than to obfuscate my true nature, ugly as it might sometimes be?

What saddens me, then, is the prospect of the unavoidable day my son realizes his perfect mommy is just a myth.


Please be sure to read this week's posts by my Brilliant Book Club co-founders:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Brilliant Fiction You Might Have Missed

The Moo Cow is shredding the bunny slope in Oregon this week, so I thought I would leave you with a fiction complement to the non-fiction list I wrote a couple of weeks ago.

But then I got my ski-pants all in a bunch because there is so much good fiction out there. And I didn't want to write a useless list with no insight. "You should all read Memoirs of a Geisha!" Um, no. Yes, but... no.

Instead, I pulled out a diverse group of perhaps lesser-known works that I hope will inspire you! Let me know what you think and if you have others to add.

1. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Yes, that Neil Gaiman, of graphic novel series Sandman and film Coraline (among others) fame. This clever comedy of errors about the end of the world had me laughing and reading lines out loud to my husband the entire time. (NB: It's not a graphic novel.)


2. Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. The gripping story of the daughter of a South African anti-apartheid activist. A fitting way to celebrate the life of the great Nelson Mandela.

3. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I know, I know. Anglophile. Guilty as charged. But I simply swooned for this story of doomed love in the midst of World War I. I have a soft spot for historical fiction, what can I say?

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Set in Kerala, India in the 1960s, Roy's book peels away layers of a high-caste family's life to unveil a tragedy. Heartbreaking, and probably more so today for me, since much of the book centers around two young twins.

5. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. Most people have read or seen McEwan's Atonement, which is definitely on my list of favorites. I also loved Saturday, a great British post-9/11 novel. But fewer may know his earlier novel about the interplay of competition and genius between two friends. The ending left me with goosebumps. Brilliant.

6. The Silent Duchess (La Lunga Vita di Marianna Ucria) by Dacia Maraini. I only read this book in Italian, so I can't vouch for the translation, but it was incredible. The story follows an 18th-century Sicilian Duchess who is deaf and mute following a mysterious childhood trauma. Maraini is one of Italy's most well known writers and feminists.

7. The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong by L. Tam Holland. Full disclosure, this book was written by a friend, and I probably would not have picked up a YA novel without that being the case. Nonetheless, I truly loved this witty and well written story of a teen who goes in search of his family history. The strangest thing, though, was relating with both the 'kids' and the 'parents' in the story. I guess that's what happens when you reach the "sandwich" stage and are both a child and a parent. (For more on that topic, read this beautiful post by Brian Sorrell at Dadding Full Time.)

8. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. I loved this complex story of life in the Himalayas contrasted with the life of a new immigrant in New York. The novel deals with the issue of class in these two starkly different places and shows the consequences of small decisions. Years after reading it, I still think about certain scenes when I see overworked busboys.

And speaking of books, don't forget: The Brilliant Book Club is back on Monday, January 27 with our thoughts on The Good Mother Myth (Avital Norman Nathan ed.). Check back here or on our Facebook or Google+ pages.

The links included in this post lead to my Amazon affiliate account. Buying a book via one of the links means I get a teensy, tiny percentage that will not help at all with sending my child to college. But I thank you anyway. I was not compensated for recommending these books in any other way. All opinions are my own.

Old books image courtesy of Paul // FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Struggle of Working Mothers Begins With Pregnancy

Enough of my self-involved whining ("Isn't that what blogging is, a little?" asked Rayne) about why artisanal mayonnaise is driving me out and what I'm going to miss about Brooklyn. Today I am hosting a guest post from my IRL friend Caitlin, whose first child is scheduled to arrive around Valentine's Day. 

I'm fascinated seeing how gender inequities (inherent and institutional) begin to dawn on pregnant women -- myself included -- as their bellies grow. I really loved Caitlin's essay because it encapsulates this burgeoning realization so beautifully. So without further ado... 

My mother recently reminded me how, when I was a child, I told her I wanted to become a veterinarian (given my love of animals) but I said I also needed to become a hairdresser. Becoming a hairdresser would allow me to work from home while taking care of the babies. My mother explained to me that I could just be a vet if I wanted, but I wondered: who then would take care of my future, imaginary children and how would this work? In my formative years, my mother stayed at home and cared for me and my sibling full-time. The conversation with my mother never resolved how “the working mother with children” scenario would play out.

As an adult (who did not become a vet or a hairdresser), I’m learning from watching my peers navigate the maddening maze of working motherhood. And being pregnant for the first time, I’m learning increasingly more from my own personal experience. 

The struggle of working mothers begins with pregnancy; the battle to keep your head above water and your career and health from unhinging starts as early as the first trimester. Men or the otherwise not pregnant partner do not experience this struggle in the same way and the snowball effect towards workplace and economic inequality ripens.

I’ve heard tales of women who thrive physically and mentally during pregnancy; they glow, feel their best and most energetic. Almost all of the women I know have not had this experience, including myself. My pregnancy began with daily, day-long nausea that lasted over three months. As trimesters marched on, intense fatigue settled in, exacerbated by poor sleep from frequent urination at night and a very active baby in utero. Fatigue, lack of sleep, and poor immunity during pregnancy gave way to my catching bad colds back-to-back. Being pregnant, it took longer to heal and the intense coughing caused some other concerns, leading to even more doctor appointments.

Concurrently, pregnant women like me need to buy new clothes, undergarments, and sometimes shoes that will fit their ever-changing bodies, and readjust their diets for pregnancy needs. These are just a few of the lifestyle changes that take time and effort in addition to the usual and timely baby and birth preparations: securing leave from work, finding a good obstetrician, taking childbirth classes, obtaining all the necessary baby items, preparing the home, finding a pediatrician, and securing day care or a nanny. Prospective mothers often play a central role in all of these activities during pregnancy due to a combination of biology and desire. And they do it all on less sleep and with less energy in the bank.

Given the need for extra time for some of these tasks; the need for more rest; becoming sick more frequently and intensely; and increasing numbers of doctor appointments, I have used my sick and vacation days to take time off of work. But I take days off with a heavy heart, knowing that I’m spending down time that would otherwise be spent for my “maternity leave.”

Of course, “maternity leave” does not actually exist in most workplaces in the U.S. I’ve accrued sick and some vacation days from working for several years within a bureaucracy, and I’ll use almost all of this accrued time to take paid leave for several weeks, despite the fact that I will neither be on vacation nor necessarily sick. I’ll then opt for unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It took several (sometimes very frustrating) conversations and time during work hours to figure out what my real options were for leave and I received differing, confusing information along the way.

In the end, I’ll cobble together a plan for which different parts need different approvals from different managers. I’m still not clear how my doctor should complete the FMLA paperwork indicating that the birth of and care for my newborn constitutes a “serious medical condition,” a key term in FMLA. Again, given the paucity of leave options for fathers and partners, most if not all of this is an experience singular to pregnant women.

Knowing that many women have zero, minimal or only unpaid leave options, I feel fortunate to be able to take what is considered in the U.S. a substantial leave of over four months with some pay. However, I’m wary of coming back to work having used my annual right to FMLA and much of my sick time when I don’t know what my, my family’s or future baby’s health will be. Even with all things going well, babies can become frequently sick during their first year of life and my husband and I will need enough sick days to account for this.

I’m also going without three months of salary before my husband and I take on the biggest line item expense we will have to date: day care. Throughout the pregnancy, I’ve researched day cares (I visited about a dozen during lunch time at work so as not to use vacation or sick time) and have been disheartened by the staff ratio of four babies to one adult, and costs between $1,600 and $2,200 a month. Because day care wait lists in our city can average 9-18 months for infants, we’re on nine wait lists, many of which require a fee ranging from $25 to $300.

Along with the cost and underwhelming quality of some of the day care programs, there lingers the uncertainty that my childhood-self wondered about -- who actually will take care of the baby if I work?

And yet I know that I’m fortunate to have a manager at work who supports my wish to take what is considered a longer leave than usual and is genuinely excited about my pregnancy; to have a husband who attends each doctor appointment and pulls more than his fair share of weight at home; to have a husband who is willing to explore his taking unpaid leave to care for the baby to the extent we can financially afford it given my unpaid leave; and to be in a situation where both my husband and I are employed. 

But all of us are constrained by the rules and policies limiting paid leave, the length of leave, adequate sick time, and access to affordable, available, high-quality day care.

I can’t help but feel that this burden falls on the pregnant woman, the mother. I understand that the joys of having a child and the miracle of birth will likely suspend for a moment this sense that women and children are being short-changed and the systems are built to encourage me back into the home full-time, or at least to limit my career options. My sixth sense as a child that combining professionalism and mothering in America wasn't quite right was on target. What I was taught to believe and the reality for women did not and still does not add up.

I hope for our future baby, the conversation will be remarkably different.

Do you agree the struggle of working mothers begins with pregnancy?

Photos courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Suburban Moo Cow? Not Exactly

In August 2012, three months after we moved to Brooklyn from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I walked past a chalkboard sign in front of a store in my neighborhood.

Since then, Truman Capote's words have been my motto, whispered under my breath whenever I find myself dragging a stroller up three flights of subway stairs or plunking quarters into a broken laundry machine in the basement of my rancid building:

I live in Brooklyn by choice. I can leave.

I have lived in the five boroughs for over 13 years. I love the buzz of the metropolis; I thrive on its energy. My love is for the urban landscape is not theoretical. I grew up in the suburbs and bristled at its tunnel vision. I went to college in the middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire, where I was routinely afraid of the woods and allergic to everything.

I fit here.

Before Henry, Rayne and I sucked the marrow out of New York's hearty bones. We went to all the hot restaurants, saw all the great Broadway shows, had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, ran countless races in Central Park and brunched our little hearts out.

The perceived costs of living in New York -- lack of personal space, crazy cab drivers, chaotic sidewalks filled with self-important people, crowded grocery stores, pollution of every kind, fear of getting hit by an agro driver on your bike, distance from real nature -- were, for me, obliterated by the aforementioned benefits. It wasn't even close.

Space or Place?

In New York (and increasingly so in Brooklyn), space and location both come at an exorbitant premium. And when you have a family, location -- and therefore school district -- becomes an even greater concern.

Some New Yorkers can afford neither space nor location; the very lucky ones can choose both. When we moved to Brooklyn, we had the funds to choose one. We prioritized space over location, as we had always done, assuming we would cross the school bridge when we came to it.

This choice turned out to be a mistake.

We live in a beautiful apartment in the wrong neighborhood and, more importantly, in the wrong location of that neighborhood. Our spacious loft is in a loud, polluted, post-industrial area of gentrifying Brooklyn. We are far from convenient public transportation; "the dining scene is still catching up to the real-estate boom," according to a recent New Yorker article; there are few stores that I care to frequent within reasonable walking distance.

Artisanal Mayonnaise Is Not Enough

What is more, our life is radically different than it once was. Parenting is a transformative experience, and nowhere is that clearer than how you spend your time. Going out requires a level of planning previously unimaginable as well as significantly more money for babysitters, money we don't really have now that I don't work full-time.

Without the restaurants, brunch, shows and convenience of a central location, what is left?

I don't care about micro-brewed beer, handmade scarves or artisanal mayonnaise -- things Brooklyn seems to specialize in these days. I don't like rummaging around the Brooklyn Flea. I don't dress funky or smoke organic cigarettes. I am not an artist or a hipster. I am a part-time writer, true, but not one who sits in a coffee shop with a MacBook. Nor am I a skinny, stay-at-home mom who makes her own nut milk and runs marathons while six-months pregnant with her third child. (Think I'm exaggerating?)

The truth is, I don't fit here anymore.

How do other young families in our neighborhood do it? They, too, live in Brooklyn by choice. How do they continue to drag their laundry down the street and carry their strollers to third-floor walk-up apartments? How do they stay sane? Why aren't I as cool?

I imagine the benefits -- the hyper-local economy, the international Brooklyn brand, the quirky bike shops -- continue to outweigh the costs for people who choose to remain.

But for me, artisanal mayonnaise is not enough. The costs outweigh the benefits. By a lot.

A Compromise

We discussed another city altogether, but Rayne's finance career limits our options, and my family is in the New York metro area. Moving elsewhere just didn't make sense.

We discussed the real suburbs, but I truly believe my soul would shrivel and die there. A lot of people are happy in the suburbs. I'm not judging; I just know myself too well.

For now, we have found a compromise. We are moving to Riverdale, a quasi-suburban, upscale neighborhood in the northwest Bronx.

We bought a house -- a small but honest-to-goodness, single-family detached house -- with a yard for my son, my grill-deprived husband and my poor, put-upon pup, who has despised Brooklyn -- with its noise and utter lack of dog runs -- from the moment we set foot here.

The local public elementary school is very good. I fell in love with and signed Henry up for a reasonably affordable pre-school program in September with very little drama. We have a car and a driveway, but within a 10-to-15-minute radius on foot are a small shopping center with the essentials, a gym, a dog run and a park with a playground.

The commute is much better for me, since I work in Connecticut, and is also better for Rayne, oddly. My fear of moving to the suburbs and never ever seeing him will not be realized in Riverdale.

Why All the Angst?

I can hear your confusion. Why all the angst? I will still be a New York City resident. In fact, my address will be BRONX, yo. I will still send Henry to his Italian preschool in Manhattan once a week; we are keeping our doctors.

So I haven't quite figured out why this perfectly logical decision has been so gut-wrenching for me, while simultaneously feeling so right.

Perhaps it is because I had been so sure Brooklyn was the answer. How could I have been so terribly, terribly wrong?

Then again, it's not the first time a five-pound-seven-ounce little boy has rocked my world, nor will it be the last.

So, what do you think?

NB: Facebook is being a cotton-headed ninny muggins. Please consider joining me on G+, Twitter or Pinterest and subscribing via email in the box in the sidebar that says "Get the Moo Cow in your Inbox."

Mayonnaise Jar image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Five Things I Will Miss About Brooklyn

Wait, wait. Go back to that title again? Things I "will" miss about Brooklyn? Not things I "would" miss about Brooklyn if I were hypothetically leaving?

That's right. The Moo Cow family is abandoning BK for greener pastures, quite literally.

If you have been following along in the last year and a half or if you know me at all in real life, the answer to your inevitable question is:

Yes, I have a half million complex, interrelated thoughts swimming around my bovine noggin. 

So, let us take this whole thing in pieces. Part 1: Things I will miss about Brooklyn.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Moo Cow's Top Ten Non-Fiction Reads

Everyone is all about resolutions this time of year, right? Well, I'm here to help. Here are my top ten non-fiction books to put on your resolution list immediately, in no particular order.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Get Your Gosh Darn Resolution On: Practical Ideas for 2014

Happy 2014!

For a long time, I had very concrete, attainable resolutions. Actionable items. Practice yoga. Read more fiction. Start writing for public consumption. Done, done and done. I never resolved to "lose weight" or "be healthier" or "be nicer" (although trying out that last one wouldn't kill me, now, would it?).

But for the past couple of years, I have not been able to come up with anything worth saying out loud. After Henry, my whole life seemed out of proportion with my earlier goals. What was I going to resolve to do? Not kill my newborn? Get more sleep?