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Mom, enough

Time, Martin Schoeller photo

The photo of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her 3-year old son, Aram, on the cover of the May 21 Time magazine seems to have inspired an almost endless amount of commentary about how we in the US feel about breastfeeding beyond the first or second year, children sleeping in the family bed, and (implicitly) the related questions of sex and desire. I hesitate to think what would have happened if the Time photographer had photographed her with her oldest son, Samuel, who she is also still breastfeeding–who was adopted from Ethiopia. Can you imagine? For all the hoopla about whether Grumet is thinking clearly about the effect on Aram of this kind of (over-)exposure in a sexualized pose, she’s clearly setting some limits on how her family is going to channel the national Id (Samuel wasn’t on the Today Show, either). She’s willing to be a provocation for a conversation about extended breastfeeding, but not adoption or race.

In spite of myself, I find I like Grumet. She may be a gun-owning, evangelical Christian, stay-at-home, transracially adopting mom who is trying to save children with an NGO, the epitome of the kind of people I think are engaged in a culture war against feminists, queer folk, working moms, those of us who believe that the state has an obligation to people, and the postcolonial and anti-racist account of how intercultural adoption is both potentially exploitative and definitely produces impure and hybrid families, but she won’t stay true to type. She’s smart, sexy, and often vaguely feminist. She celebrated “Ethiopian Christmas” on January 6. She blogs against racism and homophobia. She posts drink recipes, refers to her husband as a stud-muffin, and worries about people deciding to adopt because they were inspired by Angelina Jolie. She has an edge.

Interestingly, I don’t like Elisabeth Badinter nearly as much, the self-described feminist whose book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, recently translated from the French, argues against exactly the kind of mothering Grumet stands for. Badinter argues that French motherhood, long protected from the very US American idea that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally,” is under threat from a “new essentialism” that exalts breastfeeding, cloth diapers, and maternal instincts. Where French mothers have long been able to enjoy smoking, drinking, sex, and careers unencumbered by this kind of emmeshment with children and maternity, this standard is now endangered.

I’ve never personally wanted to breastfeed–I was horrified when our reprotech doctor suggested I consider taking hormones so I could breastfeed after my partner gave birth to our baby (what is the point of being a lesbian if not to divide that labor according to who wants to do it?). Still, what has struck me about breastfeeding since our son was born is how very difficult it is to do–that everything from hospital practice to obscenity statutes to workplace culture mitigates against it.  I’m sympathetic to Badinter’s complaints about what she calls “the ayatollahs of breastfeeding”–though I would pointedly rephrase that in a less racist way as “the fascists of breastfeeding.” But it seems to me that this perfectly emblematic of the double-bind of motherhood: you have to breastfeed whether you want to or not or you’re a jerk and a bad mother who is going to consign your child to a lifetime of bad health, obesity, and cancer, but you can’t because you have to work and will get chided for doing it in public because breasts make us think about sex especially when your child is older and breast pumps suck (in every way) and the only place you can pump is in the bathroom which is unsanitary and possibly so horrifying that your milk won’t even let down.

In fact, both “sides” of the Grumet vs. Badinter debate reek of the double-binds of maternity. Since the 1970s, declining real wages in the US have meant that for a steadily increasing percentage of the population, having a middle-class existence (or sometimes even bare survival) means having two adults in the workforce. While by 1980, the majority of mothers of preschoolers worked out of the home, the US American work place has not changed to accommodate mothers, or parents in general. In fact, US Americans on average are working more, not fewer, hours than we were in the 1970s. So we have a lot of small people who need full-time attention to manage basic safety and bodily functions, a society that benefits from the unpaid labor of parents–we do collectively have an investment in reproducing ourselves, after all–and what is our plan for who is going to watch the children? With a few interesting exceptions (see Madeleine Kunin on Oklahoma and California), we haven’t publicly subsidized daycare since World War II (when Roosevelt did), and daycare costs are astronomical–the not-great one down the street from me, the one with hardly any books costs more than my tuition, room, and board at a fancy private college did in the 1980s. And Jerry Brown is proposing to end subsidized daycare in California. We don’t even have federally mandated paid sick days. So, basically, the expectation is that it will all come out of mothers’ hides–in unpaid days off, jobs lost, not enough sleep. Or, mothers will work part-time or be underemployed while their children are young–which many have argued is the underlying cause of the drastic difference between men’s and women’s wages, to say nothing of the appalling rates of female poverty at all phases of the life cycle, but especially in old age, when all those years of not contributing to a pension or earning Social Security really bites you. And given that school gets out at 2 or 3, and half-days and school holidays are as common as dirt, have “young” children encompasses the entire period until they are old enough to look after themselves (which I think is actually 30; let me tell you about my 24-year old…).

Basically, we’ve privatized the reproduction problem. Increasingly, mothers are delaying childbearing until their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s, hoping to be established enough in a career or even a job to have some flexibility to have a child…which in turn has given us rising rates of infertility and impaired fertility. The other common “private” solution is the nanny, whose wages are lower (or more “competitive”) if she’s an undocumented immigrant who has left her children in her home country. We’ve not only privatized the problem, we’ve transnationalized it. Should it surprise us that our family policy resembles our corporate culture?

So while I agree on some level with Forbes guest blogger Helaine Olen about attachment parenting being the opposite of something one could do with a job, I also think we should be furious about the impossibility of combining work and children. I don’t think Badinter’s clarity and polemic on the subject gets us where we want to be. What I keep thinking about in all of this is early 20th century feminist advocates of the eight-hour day and an end to child labor. People like Jane Addams, who imagined eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for family and community. Not just parents but everyone has, or ought to have, an investment in leisure, in work and activism to build better communities. We need to find ways of saying “enough” to the demand that we work all the time, and begin to imagine a world where decent wages AND motherhood, health care, pensions, AND leisure, can coexist. That, it seems to me, is the core issue about the cultural politics of breastfeeding.

Happy mother’s day.

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Trayvon

Palm Beach Post photo

 

As the national debate about the shooting of Trayvon Martin ebbs, it strikes me that we in the U.S. are increasingly divided between those who see Trayvon as “somebody’s child,”  and those who see him as “not my child.” This is what Obama picked up on in his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” And what Newt Gingrich, keeper of the right-wing Id, understood when he contorted that to say that Obama only cared about were Black children. It matters that the shooting of this unarmed African American child took place in a gated community–the location of defensive white retreat, the longed-for home of Black flight. It’s happened hundreds and thousands of times before, a police officer or a white man who claimed he was threatened (or woman, probably, but somehow I can only remember men), and we are made to understand that he justifiably felt threatened enough to kill the boy because he was holding a wallet or boisterous or drunk. But for some reason,  this time it wasn’t ok (maybe, cynically, because Zimmerman was a white Cuban), and the voices of those who mourned were not drowned out. Trayvon Martin got a name, a little brother, parents in the popular media, and all sort of young men said, “I am Trayvon,” and parents who didn’t know him mourned.

Although all sorts of unarmed Black young men have been shot by police or civilians, like Ramarely Graham in the Bronx last month, killed in his bathroom in an incident that remains murky–police say he was fleeing them, surveillance video shows him walking calmly–it’s been a long time since the killing of Black mothers’ sons has attracted this kind of attention. In fact, the only think I can think to compare it to is the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who flirted with a white woman and was murdered in 1955 by local white vigilantes in Mississippi. His mother, like Trayvon’s, demanded that the world know that killing a Black mother’s son was a brutal, violent injustice that would not be quietly forgotten, and held a very public open casket funeral.  The event galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement.

It is telling how many right-wing bloggers have insisted that the larger issue in the Trayvon Martin shooting is single motherhood, or, in the alternative, how important it has been to the Justice for Trayvon movement to put his two divorced parents on stage together. Both sides seem to be tacitly acknowledging that his death signifies differently if he has two parents who are grieving together; that mothers alone raise dangerous, violent boys, while two parent families raise innocent children whose shooting could only be unjustified and racist. President Obama did much the same thing with his “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon” speech, being daddy-in-chief and casting Martin as a child who deserved protection. The problem with this move, as I’m sure virtually everyone in the Justice for Trayvon mobilization is only too aware, is that it casts Martin as worthy of protection only by virtue of enclosing him within our ideologies of innocent childhood.

I remember when I first understood the visceral fear that parents of children of color often feel: sometime in the first year of raising my daughter, born of Mexican parents, who came to me when she was 11. It wasn’t any one thing, it wasn’t even a particularly egregious thing, but one day the slow accretion of thoughtless, unhelpful, or damaging things that teachers, social workers, and other parents had done to my child reached a tipping point. I flinched when a strange white person came up to my child, tensed for problems. I didn’t when a person of color in some similar role approached her. My anxiety wasn’t always well-placed, but it was often enough that it became a habit, a strange racial dis-identification that made brown and black folks the people I trusted more quickly and easily. About a year after she came to me, I said that to an audience, and I was stunned as one after another, white mothers of non-white and mixed race children came up to me and said that they felt the same way.

I learned two things from this. One, it is a powerful experience for white people to see racism through the lens of loving a non-white child. Two, it is depressingly common that children of color are treated so harshly by the world that it can cut through the denial of people who want to believe differently.

Somebody’s Children

I recently published a book called Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. I chose that title for a nummber of reasons, but the main one was that I wanted to think about the mothers that often get discounted. When scholars and journalists and policy analysts write about adoption, they almost always ignore the birth mothers. When we talk about adoption from overseas, we refer to “orphans”; when we talk about kids in foster care, and why Black children should be adopted by white parents, we say they are “languishing,” waiting for an adoptive family. But the reality is, full orphans–those who have lost both parents–are quite rare, especially when you are speaking of infants and young children. When international aid agencies talk about millions of orphans, they mean those who have lost one parent. Almost all of the children who become available for adoption in or to the United States have parents or a parent. We just don’t want to talk about them.

There are exceptions, of course. Increasingly, adoptive parents groups talk about the “adoption triad” of birth mother, adopted child, and adoptive parents. Those of us who are adoptive parents inevitably have to answer questions about where the little people and grown children in our lives came from–questions that come from adoptees and from the world around us. It used to be that we were routinely counseled to lie to our children. But we’ve learned a lot from groups like Concerned United Birthparents, which beginning in the late 1970s gave voice to birthparents’ experiences of losing their children, often under considerable pressure to relinquish their babies. Organizations of adoptees challenging sealed adoption records, like the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association and Bastard Nation also challenged us to tell the truth.

But these movements focused predominently on the mostly young mothers who relinquished babies in the U.S. (think Juno). People don’t talk much about birth parents when we think about foster care (one major policy book about foster care and transracial adoption was entitled Nobody’s Children), and even less when we are considering transnational adoption. I wanted to write a book that took seriously the racial justice, feminist, and international politics contexts and questions that surround how birth parents–usually mothers–find themselves in situations where strangers are raising their children.

One of the places the title of the book came from is the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s a Wonderful Life gets tagged as a sentimental piece of Christmas, but it deserves more credit. These days, as the middle class continues to lose its footing as the central piece of its wealth–home ownership–gets transferred to big banks as foreclosure, the story of the Bailey Savings and Loan ought to get our attention as the careful piece of social analysis it is. It also tells a story about children and survival. In a scene that defines the film’s moral compass, young George Bailey, confronted with a moral dilemma about whether to respect adult authority even when it is wrong and will cause harm, runs to his father for advice. His father can’t talk to him then, though, as he is in a confrontation with big banker Mr. Potter. When George enters the room, he is privy to this bit of conversation:

HENRY POTTER: Have you put any real pressure on these people of yours to pay those mortgages?
PETER BAILEY: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.
POTTER: Then foreclose!
BAILEY: I can’t do that. These families have children.
POTTER: They’re not my children.
BAILEY: But they’re somebody’s children, Mr. Potter.

George leaves without asking his father his question, but learning the answer anyway: do the right thing by other people, and other people’s children even when authority tells you not to. It’s this lesson that allows George to grow into someone who could inherit the responsibility of running  the Savings and Loan, and, the movie tells us, in so doing he prevented Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville, a place of steep class divides, alcoholism, exploitation and despair.

I feel strongly about community-based banking (my money’s in a credit union), but I also like what the film says about the “somebodies” and their children whom Bailey is not going to kick out of their homes.

A lot of politics in recent years has taken place under the rubric of how some people–especially mothers–don’t count. Welfare mothers, crack mothers, single-mothers raising the underclass. From Newt Gingrich suggesting we take the children of welfare mothers and put them in orphanages to sociologist Charles Murray talking about how single mothers are responsible for the downfall of white people. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column on Murray that was, among other things, designed to refute economist Joseph Stiglitz and Occupy Wall Street’s objection to the the 1% number, and the contention that it has been obscenely enriched in recent years. Instead, he suggested that 70% of us are doing okay, but 30% are really a mess–unemployed, uneducated, criminal. They are (surprise, surprise) the children of single mothers and those mothers themselves. (Charles Pierce at Esquire wrote a truly funny rejoinder if you want better reading.)

Fifty-six years after It’s a Wonderful Life, banking and the children of the poor are still surprisingly entangled.

It might seem like a reach to link the politics of impoverished mothers and children and international banking. But after ten years of thinking about adoption, I suspect that watching what happens, rhetorically, to mothers who don’t count tells us a surprising amount about politics of all sorts: economic, international, gender, race, immigrant, queer. That’s why I wrote the book, and why I’m writing this blog. I’m interested in the “somebodies” who don’t have children, of course. But I also think that “somebody’s children” give us a really powerful and interesting lens for analysis.