“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
– Dorothy Parker”—(via thetinhouse)
Oh Mark. How I do enjoy our semi-yearly talks about modern Jewry. I appreciate your discussion of “thick” cultures and “thin” cultures. But, I do object to your labeling me and my irreligious-yet-technically-Jewish Bretheren as “liberal consumerists.”
If I were to talk about my thickest cultural and ethical affiliations, Jewishness is one of them. But I’d say feminism is just as thick, as is a commitment to education. I do, on a day-to-day basis, feel that these affiliations are thick enough for me. I am not an especially spiritual person. As my own mother says, “I have no talent for spirituality.” When I think about the texts that have meant the most to me and helped me navigate life, they are not faux Buddhist. They are Lorrie Moore short stories and Anne Lamott books.
I can only speak for myself, but the guilt I feel is not out of a sense of desire for a thicker Jewish identity. It’s more a knowledge that there aren’t that many Jews and we’re disappearing in the United States, and feeling complicit in that disappearance. I feel guilty because this would upset my grandmother, to whom I was very close, and it upsets women like Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner, who probably has good intentions. I feel guilt about the disappearance with my daughter in particular, because she looks just like her father, and she has his last name. Her Jewishness will not be obvious to the world in the way that mine is, because I look like a member of the tribe and have a Jewish name.
The comparison you make to Spanish and Black cultures is not quite right because their disappearance is not imminent in the same way. If I moved to Spain tomorrow, in a few generations my kids would be Spanish, and there are more Spaniards being created each day. Black culture is a closer comparison, but there are millions more black people in the United States than there are Jews.
That said, I do appreciate your specific suggestions about reading Jewish texts and talking about Judaism to my daughter (she’s not even a year old yet so we’ve got some time to figure this one out). We also live in New York City, where I’m pretty sure she will get exposure to a lot of Jewish people who will talk to her about Judaism and present fine examples of Jewish living.
Got to go. I hear her waking up from her nap now, and I need to bring her some organic wooden toys.
The Time Sesame Street was Interrupted by the "Miss Nude Galaxy" Pageant
Now that my Sesame Street piece has been published, I can post the funniest thing I discovered in my research. That time in 1973 when a local broadcast of Sesame Street was interrupted by the “Miss Nude Galaxy” pageant.
Here’s how it went down:
A weakening signal from Burlington, Vt., triggered an automatic switch that replaced the educational children’s show with whatever happened to be appearing on the local monitors in the studio. The local monitors were reshowing the Miss Nude Galaxy pageant held two weeks ago in Quebec. The showing was meant only for staff members, a station spokesman said.
"It was lousy timing," said Don DiCesare, assistant director of the station. "Machinery is machinery."
Unsurprisingly, the station was flooded with calls from angry moms furious that cookie monster was replaced with boobs. A different kind of nom nom nom, no?
Lauren Sandler—whose book about only children, One and Only, I reviewed for The New Republic—has been on the receiving end of some backlash after publishing a piece on the Atlantic’s website about women writers who had only one child. The essay is hobbled by the inflammatory headline: “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” I read the piece as a musing on Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, et. al, rather than an insistence that the best female writers are mothers of onlies. But other women writers who are mothers of multiple children, like Jane Smiley, Rebecca Mead and Zadie Smith disagreed. “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd,” Smith says in the comments to Sandler’s piece.
Indeed, that is absurd. And when the firestorms about pieces like this erupt, we miss the actual point that Sandler’s book makes, which is that more children need more resources (Smith makes this point, too, eventually). I’m nowhere near the caliber of writer as Smith or Smiley. And I can only speak for myself on the calculations that go into having more children when you already have one.
I’ve already written ad nauseam about my complicated pregnancy and so I won’t recap that in full here. The gist of it is that for most of my pregnancy I was out of commission as a writer. My family took a financial hit because I couldn’t earn money for a chunk of the year, and we only got by because my husband has a steady white collar job with health insurance.
After my daughter was born, I went back to work after 5 weeks. Freelancers don’t get maternity leave, and not only did we need the cash, but my feelings of worth as a writer are quite tied up in whether or not I’m earning money from my work. This has to do, in part, with knowing how vulnerable women are when they have to rely exclusively on their husbands for support (this is no comment on my marriage, which is strong. Merely a historical feeling that makes me uneasy. As my beloved Oma always said, “a woman should have her own money.”).
We currently have childcare 32 hours a week. That is what we can comfortably afford, and that is my writing time. Sometimes my parents come and pitch in on Fridays when I have a lot of work, because I am lucky to have retired folks who live nearby. I often work nights after my daughter goes to sleep, because I am also lucky to have a kid who is a regular sleeper. My husband is a wonderful partner and he takes my daughter fully in the mornings if I have a deadline. He can’t get home from work until after our daughter is asleep most nights so I have her in the evenings until she goes to sleep.
Before my daughter was born, I had a full time job and wrote a novel on top of that, without taking any time off for book leave. I would love to write another book, but I need to earn money, right now, to help pay for that 32 hours a week of child care. I can’t afford to spend time writing something that might not sell. I’m happy with that tradeoff, and I love the work I am doing right now. I guess I could write a novel in some of the time I spend with my daughter, or seeing friends, or watching TV, or running, but I don’t want to. We all make our choices.
I can’t (and won’t) tell you the calculations that go through my husband’s head when he’s thinking about whether we have a second child. But I can tell you some of what goes through my head. Can I give up another year of writing, if I get as sick as I did with my first pregnancy? Can we afford childcare for that 32 hours a week with a second child? Will those free hours I steal in the evenings to write disappear if we have another? Will I just be too tired to care about writing another book five years from now after we emerge from the exhausting fog of caring for small children? And that doesn’t even get into the expense of having kids once they’re in school, and what that means for our future, and for our ultimate potential retirement.
When, in the course of this conversation about parenting and creativity, people Tweet things like, “A lot of parent-writers write at 3am before going to a job, or after the kids are in bed. Choices, sacrifice,” it just ups the martyrdom stakes. I don’t doubt that some parents can function after waking up at 3 am, and that it’s worth it to them to do so. But I don’t know that that’s something we should all aspire to—it’s not something I aspire to, at least. I think both my parenting and my writing would suffer if I were burning myself out like that. This is becoming more than a woman’s problem, by the way—as it should be. I think creative men who are fathers also make these calculations.
I want to reiterate that these are high fucking class problems to have. We’re financially secure, we’re never worried about where our next meal is coming from, I can freelance and see a lot of my awesome kid because my husband has health insurance. I’m ridiculously privileged that I get to pursue a creative career in the first place. There are a lot of women writers who are a lot more talented than I am who don’t have that kind of security, who also want to have kids or already have them. But when we get lost in these pointless discussions of what is the “right” number of kids we lose sight of what this issue, ultimately, is really about.
It’s about money, and privilege. If we had all the money in the world, I would have another kid tomorrow. Maybe another two kids, I don’t know! But I’m glad Sandler’s book exists because it gives me a framework to think about these issues, and it’s given me license to think the thought—maybe I don’t want more kids because it would be too difficult to write and enjoy our life—without making me feel like a horrible mother and/or person.
The issue of how to find a “work-family balance” for working women continues to gain mainstream political traction, but that’s hardly the stuff of feminist manifestos.
Calling it “work-family balance” makes it sound all cutesy and like it’s just some frivolous personal empowerment thing. What it’s actually about is proper access to child care, less insane family leave laws, better access to health care so that families can start small businesses or pursue freelance careers. Obviously this isn’t just a feminist issue or a woman’s issue, but I’ll be damned if we shouldn’t be writing manifestos about it.
I wrote this series on prenatal depression for Slate. Here are parts 1and 2. This was in many ways the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on. Not because the actual writing was hard. But because it was such a painful and personal period, and I worried about perpetuating stereotypes that pregnant women are crazy or incompetent. I also worried about prejudice I would potentially face after outing myself as someone who has a history of depression (even in New York City where it seems like everyone is on antidepressants, this still exists). However, prenatal depression is so common, and it’s so under discussed, that I did feel like it was important to share my story, in a second wave 70s consciousness raising way, even!
I never read the comments when I write personal essay, because at this point in my writing career I know better. But some people close to me made the mistake of reading the comments and it hurt them. When they told me what the cruel commenters said, I did not get hurt. I got furious. I usually refuse to answer trolls at all—it generally devolves into an unproductive flame war—but I wanted to say something here about their comments on this issue. Part of why it’s still difficult for women to talk about being depressed during pregnancy is because of attitudes like these, and I’m going to address three of them:
1. Depression is all in your self-pitying head. Bootstraps, etc.
Depression, like many other diseases, is a complicated combination of environment, genes and biochemistry. Especially during pregnancy, there can be a hormonal component to depression, because you are truly getting a bananas amount of hormones that, especially if you’ve never been pregnant before, are new for your body. It’s not your fault if you get depressed, any more than it’s a diabetic’s fault for not being able to process insulin.
2. Women who are depressed shouldn’t have children.
This is the most infuriating one. Around 15 percent of people—not just women—have depression at some point in their lives. Should all those people get sterilized? Furthermore, depression can strike at any time. Many women who have prenatal depression have no history of depression. Should they be psychics and know ahead of time that pregnancy will trigger a depression? Should you, jerkface commenter, be in charge of forced abortions on these women? Sure, some depressed women are not great moms. Lots of NOT depressed people are also not great moms! The notion that depression is unmanagable, or periodic bouts of depression render a life not worth living, is galling.
3. You are a privileged white lady and your depression is just a pathetic rich lady whine.
It’s true that I’m a privileged white lady. I am incredibly lucky, and I make a point of saying this in the first part of the series. I was able to quit a new job that I was unable to do at the precise moment I took it on (I won’t get into the fact that, as a pregnant women at a job for less than 12 months, I had almost zero job protection. That’s an issue for another day). I also have a career that can easily be a freelance one. This was a tremendous blessing that I don’t want to downplay.
However, prenatal depression is MORE prevalent among underprivileged women than it is among privileged women like myself. I talk about this in the second part of the series. Among low income women, one study showed that depression in the second trimester is as high as 47 percent (the estimate for the general population is about 10-15 percent).
I also included an interview with a woman who was working as a nanny when her prenatal depression hit. Her husband was out of work at the time. They didn’t have health insurance. She ended up having to quit her job, too, because her level of depression rendered her unable to function. Sadly, there was much much less support for her than there was for me. She didn’t have the funds for a psychiatrist or psychologist, so she ended up getting counseling from her pastor. It helped, but it was not true medical care.
Anyway. I really hope that this series raises more awareness about this issue, which can be so devastating and isolating. I’ve been depressed pregnant and I’ve been depressed not pregnant. Depression at any time is a difficult, debilitating, scary thing. In my case, being depressed while pregnant was even more terrifying. I was so afraid that my unhappiness would hurt the baby in some way. Getting the help I needed helped quell those fears, and allowed me to actually enjoy my second (and with any luck, third!) trimesters, instead of having nine months of total misery. All women deserve that.
In an effort to make this tumblr less exclusively panda-related I am linking to this lovely essay by Marie Myung-Ok Lee about what her son’s profound disability has taught her about accepting and enjoying life as it is. This line, about the omnipresent Anne-Marie Slaughter having it all piece, made me laugh: “But the hidden heart of the article, I believe, is its hinting at that unspoken yearning for that perfect life that has been promised to us by … someone? Ads? TV? Ms. Magazine? Those ATHLETA catalogs?”