Sunday, June 26, 2011

First Fiddle

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore
Contemporary American Artist

When I was in junior high, a 5 x 7 reprint of this painting appeared on the back of a cereal box -- The Fine Arts, brought to you by Post Grape Nuts! I cut it out and propped it on our piano where it stayed for as long as I can remember, certainly until well after my high school years. Somewhere along the way, Gerry and I picked up a poster - sized copy, which is still looking good after twenty - odd years, framed and matted in our family room. That little girl has been an inspiration to me and many others for several decades now. She can do anything!

Now, for the third installment in my
Trilogy of Homebody Thoughts,
following Homebody Anybody
and Homebody Somebody

Not long after the last presidential election, my wise friend Etta sent me a "really great article," "The Momification of Michelle Obama", written by her "new favorite feminist Rebecca Traister." Etta explained that "it's an article about how the feminist movement has to keep on top of and point out when the culture keeps going back to what it always does, i.e. putting women into categories of 'Motherhood' OR 'Career-Women.' Why are women judging each other for what kind of a feminist they are or what kinds of choices they make? It is never that easy, and at least 70% of all women know that (30% are the self-righteous crazy women like Sarah Palin). My question is why do women have to make these choices, and when will it end? Given that life is unfair and the choice is unfair and I didn't really have a choice to do what I really set out to do, I have chosen to be happy within that parameter. Otherwise the only one that suffers is me. I think that it is still the culture we live in that restricts us . . . Michelle and Hillary have the brains and talent to be President but instead their husbands are."

Now that you have read Etta's preamble, click here if you have a couple of minutes to read Traister's article. Sure, it was written a couple of years ago, but it's just as relevant now as it was then. So relevant, in fact, that at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd say that it is a pretty accurate description of my own life, except that I didn't become successful in my profession before having my children, so I had less to walk away from.

I do find it odd of Traister to suggest that walking away from a meaningful career that provides extra but not not necessary income for the family is more difficult than it would be to give up working to make ends meet. I always thought it was the opposite -- if you are struggling to make ends meet, then you have more difficulty choosing to walk away than if the money is optional to the budget -- in which case, you have the good fortune of choosing how to spend your time, how to focus your energy. It's a luxury to make that choice. And if you can make it at all, why not make it in favor of your kids? Yes, it's wrong for Americans to obsess about Michelle Obama's clothes and household choices, but why shouldn't or wouldn't she pick parenting as her first choice these days? Her children need her, now more than ever.

I appreciate Traister's final observation:

"In certain critical ways, Michelle Obama will come to stand in more prominently than anyone could have imagined for the shortcomings of feminism as described by Linda Hirshman in her 2006 book Get to Work in which she argues that the weighting of domestic responsibilities toward the woman in a family handicaps her chances for professional and economic success. Obama has already said that one of the issues she plans to put front and center while in the White House is the impossible bind faced by working mothers. She knows the trade-offs and sacrifices all too well.

"And now, she is in the unenviable yet deeply happy position of being a history-maker whose own balancing act allowed her husband the space to make his political career zip forward, his books sing, his daughters healthy and beautiful, and his campaign succeed. In having done all this, Michelle Obama wrought for herself a life (temporarily, at least) of playing second fiddle. Then again, did she have a choice?"

I like this conclusion because I like to think that my own balancing act allowed my husband to "zip forward" and our children to "sing." On the other hand, why does Traister have to embrace the assumption that profession is first and home is second fiddle?

It's a struggle sometimes to enjoy being at home with people asking you all the time "when are you going back to work?" Sometimes I fear that I've spent the last twenty years trying to come up with a good explanation for my choices that won't make me sound lazy and unambitious.

Recent reading for further perspectives on this topic:

1. Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life
Edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant

2.Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace
by Ayelet Waldman

In conclusion, two heart-warming anecdotes:

My friend Karen recently said, "I'm happy 'at home' and enjoy being here for my family, but I know what you mean about the questions about ever going back to 'work.' I recently was at a doctor's office and he asked me what I did for a living. And I sighed and said, 'Oh, I'm a stay at home mom' for lack of a better term. And I liked his response, 'That IS work!' "

My younger sister, who works at a pre-school, likes to tell the story about the little student who asked her one day, "Miss Diane, do you work someplace?"



  1. Etta writes:
    I don't know why but I keep thinking of two things. One is that my dear daughter and I think that you live such a lovely life in a lovely home with lovely children clearly created by you and Gerry.

    The other thing is a story about how you changed my life. Do you remember when you came to visit me so that you could meet Bob? It was soon after we met. We went out to dinner and I was talking to you about how I couldn't understand how Bob could choose me and love me and want to marry me. And you very simply said, "Well, I know you and I understand why he does." And in that moment I believed what you said and I never questioned it again. All my fears were gone because I knew that you knew all my flaws and my strengths and I knew that you valued me so he could too. I wish I could do that same kind of thing for you right now.

  2. Just received a check for $500.

    Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them about how much you can make by taking paid surveys online...

    So I show them a video of myself getting paid over $500 for doing paid surveys to finally set the record straight.