Separate but Equal

Today, I want to tackle a thorny topic that I believe lies at the very heart of gender relations in our society. It is an issue that is wrestled with on many different fronts, from every possible angle, and continues to complicate the entire question of male versus female.

That question is: are men and women fundamentally the same, but have been polarized into different behaviors and tendencies by sexist social rules, or are they fundamentally different?

I consider myself a “feminist,” in that I believe we should all have equal opportunity and should be judged individually, rather than automatically be assumed to have the character traits and abilities stereotypically associated with the groups we were born into, be it race, gender, or anything else. A century ago, women couldn’t vote, hold many jobs, or expect the same pay for the same work. Many women fought very hard to change this, and I deeply respect their work.

Most people don’t want to return to the world as it was a century ago, and most are horrified by what’s going on in Afghanistan, for example, where girls are shot in the head for attending school. Yet, “feminist” remains a dirty word to many. Why?

Is it because feminists are assumed to hate men? I don’t feel that way at all. After all, I am a heterosexual married woman with one baby already and another on the way (not that homosexual, single, or childless women hate men). I’ve had countless male friends and rarely have a beef with any of them. I’m not saying that there have never been any feminists who hated men, but these are extremists who aren’t representative of the group at large… There are always extremists in every group whose beliefs don’t represent a general consensus.

Maybe it’s because some people feel that feminism intends to obliterate all gender differences, eradicate gender identity entirely and confuse all the ways in which men and women relate to one another.

It doesn’t make much sense, does it? How can a group be charged with both hating men as well as wanting to not recognize any differences between men and women at all? Yet these questions are relevant to how many women hope to achieve equal opportunity. Do we propose that we are all essentially the same, and should be treated as such? Or do we propose that men and women are different, but that those differences are all valid, necessary, and should be treated with equal respect?

The problem is, as we all learned in the civil rights struggle, that separate-but-equal rarely ends up being equal. In many ways, the civil rights struggle is more straightforward, because black men and white men are biologically the same apart from differences in melatonin production from evolving in different latitudes. Everything else is likely due to different economic opportunities, upbringing, social constructs, and individual differences.

But between men and women, we have hormonal differences, general biological differences, and, perhaps the most obvious, different biological roles in producing offspring. We also have massive social constructs and differences in upbringing that confuse the issue, making it very difficult to sort out what differences are natural, what differences are artificial, and what differences are natural but greatly exaggerated by social constructs.

The problem with recognizing differences is that so many of them have historically been used to rationalize short-changing women. For example, women who have worked hard and successfully completed higher education are passed over for jobs and promotions because employers don’t want to waste resources training employees just to have them get pregnant and quit, or at least be less available. Or people argue that women can’t be president and have their fingers on the nuclear bomb trigger button because, you know, hormones.

Or more insidiously, they are used to justify double standards. If men have a higher sex drive, then they can wildly indulge in all kinds of kinky sex with multiple partners and it’s just natural, whereas women are always expected to be in control of their sexuality (if their sexuality is recognized at all), or else be considered amoral sluts. Or, since women are considered naturally maternal, they are expected to always be perfect, patient, self-sacrificing mothers by default, whereas men who who show any interest in or have a sense of responsibility for, their kids are considered heroes.

The list is endless, and when so many differences have been used as justification for screwing women over, it’s no wonder that so many women want to deny that differences exist at all, or at least that those differences apply to them specifically.

Another problem with recognizing those difference is assuming they apply to everyone. But this is clearly untrue. For example, men are taller on average than women, but that doesn’t mean every man is taller than every woman.

Yet the flip side, where no differences are recognized, comes with a host of its own problems. First, since men historically had the advantage, most women claim to be more like the traditional blueprint of men. This will, by default, turn traditional male qualities into the desirable ideal, putting women at a disadvantage. For example, if you say women are physically stronger than men, then you are putting a high value on physical strength. In most cases, it won’t be true. But why place such a high value on it in the first place? Upper body strength is handy in some situations, but hardly a great measure of overall competence. If it were, we should be holding arm-wrestling contests to determine the next president, or just hand it over to a gorilla, who is stronger than any human.

Another problem with not recognizing differences is that women are made to suffer a huge burden for the differences that exist. When we, say, fight workplace discrimination by saying we never want to have children, what happens when we do? We have to have children for the species to survive (not all of us, of course, but at least some). We endure a great physical strain, facing many biological dangers and discomforts, in order to do so. This is beneficial and necessary for everyone, yet it gets turned into an individual burden that becomes “our problem” when we don’t collectively fight for accommodations of this fact.

A couple years ago, a bill was drafted that would allow pregnant working women to keep their jobs but would protect them from activities that were incompatible with their pregnant condition. They couldn’t be expected to lift heavy weights, for instance. So, women wanted to be able to maintain employment but as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, be protected temporarily from dangerous activities during their pregnancy. The bill failed. Not only that, but there wan an outcry against women demanding “special treatment,” or expecting accommodations for what was “a choice, not a disability.” People made vicious comments about how women wanted taxpayers to pay for them having “not kept their legs shut.”

So, is it fair that women shoulder the biological burden of pregnancy, which benefits everyone, and be forced into unemployment and federal assistance, where they will then undoubtedly be deemed slutty welfare mothers, suckling at the taxpayer tit? It is one of the many dangers of NOT recognizing biological differences.

Perhaps if we recognized and respected these differences as a society, we would have decent, federally-funded daycare, or other social services that benefit our society as a whole.

Whenever I hear another woman say (and I often do) that she’s not like other women, she’s different, it makes me cringe. She will typically say something like, “I don’t like shopping and gossiping like other women. I like sports and action movies.” It ends up being a reinforcement of all the tired stereotypes and becomes another vote that men are generally “better.” Maybe she would do better to realize that since she is a woman who doesn’t like shopping… All women aren’t therefor obsessed with shopping. We are all unique individuals.

Finally, I think the problem that comes from not recognizing gender differences is that it is ineffective. Because as long as women are held in lower esteem, anything associated with them will also be held in lower esteem. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Women can say they don’t like dresses and makeup, for example, but in Ancient Greece and Rome, men wore dresses, without stigma. Sure, they were called “togas,” but they were dresses. In the 18th century, European men wore makeup.

Similarly, some women pride themselves on not being able to cook, associating it with old stereotypes of domestic goddess duties. Yet Japanese sushi chefs and French chefs are held in very high esteem. How many mafia movies are out there with a scene of some tough guy preparing a giant bowl of pasta for his cronies?

My point is not that women should or shouldn’t wear dresses, or should or shouldn’t cook, but rather that if women are held to be less desirable than men, then anything associated with them is also deemed less desirable, even when the same activities are respected when men do them. So focusing on the minutiae is a dead-end, when we should instead be focusing on respecting women as a group.

How significant are the differences and how many of them are natural? I don’t have a clue. I do know that when I was pregnant, the first question everyone asked was whether I was having a boy or girl, and the conversation became very stereotypical once I answered. I know that when I carry around my infant girl, everyone comments immediately on how pretty she is, and how much trouble she will give me in high school. I’m not saying any of this is at all malicious, just that before my daughter has had a chance to develop herself as an individual, people have made already many assumptions about who she is.

I don’t propose that we try to eradicate differences, but instead make them less restrictive. If my daughter likes a pink shirt, she can have it. If she likes a toy train, she can also have it. Maybe we should be focusing more on opening up the entire human experience for everyone to enjoy, and let people be who they want to be.

We can legislate equal opportunity on paper, but it’s more difficult to change social expectations. I read about a disturbing psychological experience a few years back. In it, they videotaped employees in a shop and had people rate the competence of the employees. The same set and script was used in all of the clips, but some involved male employees, some female, and some had black employees. The script and set were always the same, but the audience have lower competence ratings to the female and black employees than the white male employees. And when the employees were black, the audience also rated the store as “dirtier” or “less tidy.”

I’m sure the audience thought they were being objective , yet they rated black and female employees differently, even when every other factor was kept consistent.

I believe our job, as a society, is to work at eradicating these underlying assumptions that place one group above another… To respect everyone individually while understanding that we do not stand alone in this world. We do not belong on opposing teams.

The Bluebeard of British Monarchs

Desport of Dreams
Despot of Dreams

On examining my eternal obsession with the wives of Henry VIII, I have concluded that part of the resonance of the saga, which continues to fascinate many people more than 500 years after it happened, is how it embodies so many of women’s worst fears.

There are many myths and terms for men’s fears of women. We have vagina dentata, the castration complex, the succubus… perhaps the witch. All of these represent the male fear of being undone by a female. I can’t think of any female equivalents for these terms, but certainly they are all played out in the Tudor saga, where it seems each of the major female archetypes are exploited by an evil king.

These nightmarish scenarios can play out in full, given women’s lower social power during the 16th century, as well as the fact that there was a sociopathic despot at the helm. If a more benevolent king were involved, the story would have turned out much differently. But in Henry VIII, we have a megalomaniac who not only acted murderously to satisfy his every whim, but also needed to feel godly and correct in his every intention, torturing anyone who disagree with him. He killed Catholics and Protestants alike, depending on his religious sensibilities of the moment. He executed 70-year-old Margaret Pole, who had never hurt hurt a fly and was emotionally the mother of Henry’s daughter Mary (since he had cast off her actual mother) because Margaret’s son had written some unflattering things about him in another country.

Henry routinely killed off his trusted advisors. He executed Thomas More, who was not only one of the most brilliant minds of his age and a loyal counselor to Henry, but who had also been a friend to Henry since they were teenagers, simply because More wouldn’t swear that the King’s authority was greater than God’s (and thus damn his own soul, given the mindset of the times). He brutally tortured and slowly burned at the stake a young woman named Anne Askew, against the laws of his own realm, for being too Protestant and failing to implicate others, which would have led to their arrest and undoubtedly their torture and execution (including the queen, at the time, who was nearly arrested herself). He suspended the law against executing the mentally ill in order to execute Lady Rochford. Many, many innocent people were killed during his reign. Some historians have speculated that perhaps mental or physical illness was responsible for Henry’s actions, but it’s difficult to tell in an age when monarchs held such unchecked, absolute power.

It was in this context that the stories of Henry VII’s wives played out. Each of them, I believe, represent different female archetypes–different strategies women used in an attempt to protect themselves, and each of which led to a dark end. Thus the stories become a nightmarish template of the feminine dilemma…. Horror stories for the female psyche of everything dangerous about being a woman, and the vulnerability lurking within every potential path.

Katherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife, the Good Wife. So good, in fact, that she was known as “Katherine the Good.” Daughter of the famous Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, she married Henry after the death of his older brother Arthur. She had briefly been married to Arthur, but received a Papal dispensation on that probably unconsummated union in order to marry Henry.

The Good Wife
The Good Wife

Katherine, by all accounts, deeply loved Henry throughout her entire life, even at the end when he treated her atrociously. She was entirely virtuous, supporting Henry at every turn and even hand sewing his shirts for sentimental reasons, She was also constantly pregnant, though sadly, only one child (Mary Tudor) survived past infancy.

Katherine held ongoing intellectual debates with the great minds of her day, including the Pope, and ruled the country competently when Henry was off battling the French. She even dutifully looked the other way when her husband had multiple affairs, never nagging or hassling him, even though the situation must’ve been extremely painful for a woman who loved her husband so deeply and who had suffered tremendously from the many deaths of their children. He may have been playing around, but she was the queen, after all. She though her place was secure and her daughter was the rightful heir, even though Henry had at least one illegitimate child (Henry Fitzroy) from his dalliances.

But it turns out that a lifetime of service and devotion would not be enough to keep her safe. After more than twenty years of marriage, once Katherine was thought to be beyond her childbearing years, Henry decided he wanted a new wife. Mistresses weren’t enough. He also wanted a son, declared himself “childless” (since daughters don’t count), and decided his position was God’s way of saying he was with the wrong woman (since Henry’s and God’s intentions must be the same).

So Henry decides his entire marriage is a sham, and his daughter is a bastard, based on the now-convenient fact that Katherine was technically married to his brother Arthur decades earlier. This matter goes all the way up to the Pope, who declares the marriage valid and insists that Katherine is, in fact, Henry’s legitimate wife.

Not to be deterred, Henry decides he had more authority than the pope, and makes everyone swear this is true, on pain of execution. He breaks England away from the church, effectively excommunicating the entire country. In 16th century terms, he has damned the souls of every citizen of England in his pursuit.

Katherine, despite loving her vicious husband to the end, is a pious, virtuous woman who does not agree that her entire life has been a sham, that she has been living in sin for over twenty years, that her daughter (then a princess and the rightful heir) is a bastard, and that she should turn her back on her faith. Because of her lack of cooperation, Henry subjects his loving and faithful wife to a series of humiliations, each more painful than the last. He demands she turn over her royal jewels, so they can instead adorn his mistress, he strips her of her title and winnows her household down until she is living in a relative state of poverty, he humiliates her good name across the continent by insisting she is lying about being a virgin when they met, and cruelest of all… He will not allow her to see their daughter Mary.

Katherine finds herself in the horrible position of either denying her daughter’s legitimacy and making her a bastard, or never seeing her again. Katherine, who in all likelihood believed the perils of the temporal world were relatively insignificant compared to the damnation of her eternal soul, died declaring the legitimacy of her marriage and her child. And when Katherine was dying, Henry still refused to allow Mary to visit her mother, despite the support Katherine had from the bulk of Europe, as well as from most English citizens at the time.

It’s an absolutely heartbreaking story, for mother and child alike. A further twist of cruelty continues to twist Katherine’s legacy, in that she is often portrayed as a much older, pious, unattractive woman… as though it’s only natural that young, vibrant Henry would tire of his wife’s charms, and that she should have graciously stepped down and lives out her days in a nunnery instead of being so obstinate. This view not only ignores the effects her acquiescence would have had on her daughter Mary, but also plays to an ancient, ugly double standard. For Katherine was only five years older than her husband, yet is often portrayed in film as a dour, older matriarch, as though her lack of sexual suitability somehow excuses Henry’s utter betrayal of his wife, his child, and his sacred oaths.

But if Katheine wasn’t sexy  enough for people to be entirely sympathetic, her supplanter was apparently too sexy.  Katherine’s heartbreaking story is alo a large part of why Henry’s new wife, Anne Boleyn, has been demonized, both by her contemporaries as well as the portrayals of her character written centuries later. She makes an easy target as the seductress and home wrecker. Even at her coronation, she was boo’ed by the English public, which had to be pretty risky behavior at the time. She was known as the “King’s whore.”

Caught between a rock and a hard place
Caught between a rock and a hard place

Anne Boleyn was a woman who, ironically, was at much at the mercy of the king’s whims as her rival Katherine–forced into a position of protecting her own life and her daughter’s future.

For context, it is important to note that Henry had an affair with Mary Boleyn, Anne’s older sister. After the affair, Mary was a bit of a joke in the English court. As we might predict, Mary was generally viewed as a slut, she became pregnant (historians disagree on whether the child was Henry’s or her husband’s), and suffered from such bouts of poverty that her baby sister Anne repeatedly took pity on her and sent her enough money to get by.

It seems to me that English mistresses didn’t enjoy the same perks that their French counterparts did. French kings had official mistresses, who were given considerable power and status. Diane de Poitiers, for example, had her own palace and properties, and sometimes even ran the country when the king was out of town. Mary Antoinette, when she was first at Versailles, refused to acknowledge the king’s mistress (Madame du Barry) and was nealy sent back to Austria, even though she was married to the dauphin and slated to become the next Queen of France. This gives you an idea of the kind of respect a French royal mistress could expect.

Not so in England, however, where a mistress was likely to be viewed as a whore, even when refusing the king’s attentions wasn’t much of an option. So when Anne Boleyn suddenly found her engagement to Henry Percy called off after evidently catching the king’s eye, she likely could envision her own bleak future playing out in her sister’s example, complete with a ruined reputation, a bastard child, dimmed marriage prospects, and possible poverty and ruin.

Instead of following in her sister’s tragic footsteps, Anne decided she would not sleep with the king unless she was his legal wife. Henry, used to having whatever he wanted on demand, seems to have been utterly inflamed by her refusal. Though he could’ve had his pick of many lovely ladies at court, his desire to possess the forbidden fruit consumed him to the point that he was willing to move heaven and earth to obtain it. Ultimately, he betrayed his family, excommunicated the entire country, and executed a number of good people in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. And then almost immediately grew tired of her.

Under other circumstances, Anne’s behavior would be considered exemplary. For centuries, women have been taught that holding onto their virtue is the quintessential key to a woman’s morality. Yet, in the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation in which Anne found herself, there was no easy escape. Either she ruined her good name and that of her entire family, or she contributed to the fall of a universally beloved queen, thus marking her as an alleged sexual predator for all time.

She chose the latter, and her portrayal as the fiendish home wrecker, scheming to entrap the king with her sexual wiles was secured for centuries to come. It may have worked out for her, had her child been a son, but she was unlucky enough to give birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. This she incurred the wrath of her vile husband, who began scouting for a replacement wife, and her days were numbered from that point on. After she miscarried a son, her fate was sealed. She was imprisoned in the tower, accused of witchcraft, adultery, and incest. Several innocent men, including her brother George, were tortured until they admitted adultery and were executed along with Anne. She was doomed, even though any historian worth their salt believes she was almost certainly innocent of the charges.

So Anne was beheaded. Her little daughter was left motherless and declared illegitimate, and would later be put in the tower and nearly executed because of her potential claim to the throne.

A detail that I find quite moving about this story, is that Anne dearly loved her daughter, though her daughter would be brought up in an atmosphere that demonized Anne, calling her a witch and a whore. Despite the danger that Elizabeth represented, Anne wanted to defy convention by breastfeeding her child (henry wouldn’t hear of it). Anne also spent much time and money adorning her daughter in precious silk dresses. She visited her whenever she could. Visiting ambassadors were embarrassed by the affection Anne showed her child, given the conventional distance and formality typical of the period. Anne even kept her baby daughter next to her whenever she could, sitting on a little satin pillow. It is clear that she dearly loved her baby.

All the more tragic, then, that Elizabeth was brought up to hate and be embarrassed by the mere mention of her murdered mother. Given Anne’s sordid reputation, Elizabeth did not want to be associated with her.

I like to think that maybe, deep down, the extremely intelligent Elizabeth felt a bond to her long lost mother. Perhaps Elizabeth, having witnessed the tragic end of one queen after another, senses that her mother had been dealt an unfair hand. A couple of touching stories suggest that Elizabeth may have felt some secret affection for her, despite her pragmatic choice to distance herself officially.

One occurred when Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower by her sister Mary. Coming off the barge to enter Traitor’s Gate, as her mother had done years easier, Elizabeth is said to have broken down, demanded to know where her mother had been kept, and asked to be kept in the same room. Elizabeth knew she was being imprisoned unfairly… Maybe she felt a kinship with her mother and longed to be as close to her as she could.

The other story is that upon Elizabeth’s death, they discovered a wristlet locket. The locket held two small portraits, facing each other. One was of Elizabeth, one of Anne. I like to believe that this wristlet betrayed the love Elizabeth never lost for her tragic mother, despite outward appearances.

And so here, in this historic tale, we have the nightmarish stories of two female archetypes that were nevertheless doomed. We have the good and virtuous wife, who came to a cruel end through no fault of her own. We have the chaste woman, who held onto her virginity despite a great deal of pressure to do otherwise, yet also came to a cruel end.

But the nightmare doesn’t stop there. It plays out, again and yet again, centuries later whenever these women are portrayed in films and books. Katherine becomes the aging, barren, stubborn nag. Anne becomes the plotting, manipulative whore-half of the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

A great example of this can be seen in the film “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which was popular a few years back. It is packed with historic inaccuracies, all seemingly constructed in order to blame Anne for the murders, cruelty, and tragedy that occurred. I could, and probably will, devote another posting to describing all of the ways in which his film subverts the truth in order to play to tired Madonna/whore typecasting and to lay the blame anywhere but where it obviously belongs, squarely at the feet of an egotistical, cruel, and despotic tyrant.

Further, there are many avid fans of Tudor history who declare themselves in “Team Katherine,” or alternatively, “Team Anne.” I find this very sad, because Katherine and Anne were both brilliant, spirited women who loved their daughters dearly and yet were locked in battle with one another though no fault of their own. They were relatively powerless in the hands of a dictator, yet history continues to demonize one or both of them instead of recognizing the cruelty of the man in charge. Henry routinely executed innocent people, former allies, and whomever the spirit moved him to extinguish throughout his entire reign, yet his victims often are still blamed, centuries later. It is a terrible dynamic that sets women against each other and plays out, again and again, in a million stories. Proof that horrible elements of the collective unconscious have yet to die.

The story continues to play out in the lives of Henry’s next four wives. But that is a tale for another day, another post.

An American Woman’s Quest for Heroes

Queen Elizabeth I in coronation robesToday, I’m going to pull a complete 180 in what is rapidly becoming a parenting blog, and discuss a little Tudor history. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s my blog, so I can engage in these kinds of inconsistent madcap shenanigans at whim.

For another, I am preparing to have the second of two daughters, and believe Tudor history is actually relevant to this fact, though it may not initially seem so.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by a website, as well as the free ebook the author has recently put out which discusses the various myths and interpretations of Henry VIII’s wives and the interpersonal dynamics that led to many dramatic events in England during the 16th century. My current interest is hardly surprising, given that I have been obsessed with these events since I was about eleven years old, particularly those involving Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. I have read countless books on the subject and made pilgrimages to Hampton Court to gawk at portraits and imagine the events that took place in its rooms five hundred years earlier.

Why, some might wonder, would I be so fixated on events that occurred I in a different country involving people who have been dead for over five centuries? It all started when I was a little girl, traveling in England over the summer. I had begun reading these little blue English books for children, called the “Ladybird” series, that all had a little ladybug on the cover (because they call ladybugs “ladybirds” in England).

The Ladybird series, unlike the Bugs Bunny cartoons and moralistic Little-Engine-That-Could offerings in America, were small history books with beautiful illustrations that explained historic events in language that children could understand.

Since I was already interested in history, I thought these books were pretty cool. But what was absolutely mind-blowing to my eleven-year old self, what utterly blew open the doors of my concept of reality, was the sudden explosion of information about famous women and all the amazing things they had done. Queen Boudicca had sacked Rome! Queen Elizabeth had been the greatest monarch in England’s history! Queen Victoria had ruled a massive empire for decades, commanding the most powerful Navy in the world!

These facts were utterly revolutionary at the time, because as a little American girl, I had really never learned much about any women of consequence. America can be an odd place to be a girl sometimes, rather paradoxical. On the one hand, we clearly enjoy more rights and legal protections than women in, say, Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. At least theoretically, we have equal legal status to men, and managed to secure the right to vote and have our own checking accounts earlier than women did in many other countries. While many could argue that an undercurrent of misogyny exists (see the “manospere”), it is at least considered gauche in most social circles to say we are collectively inferior to our male counterparts.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible to grow up in America believing that women have never had a significant impact on history. For example, we have yet to elect a female leader. We have no Margaret Thatchers, Indira Gandhis, Golda Meirs, Kim Campbells, or Enda Kennys.

But it isn’t just the apex of leadership at stake… We don’t have much either in the way of heroines, or even notorious women of influence. No Joan of Arc, Josephine Bonaparte, Lucretia Borgia, Wallis Simpson, Charlotte Corday, or Florence Nightingale.

We have female authors, but no one celebrated on the level of, say, Jane Austen or Mark Twain.

Sadly, I think celebrities and pop stars are the most famous women in our culture. We have the iconic Marilyn Monroe, with the famous image of her dress blowing up over a sidewalk grate and tragic young suicide. We have Britney Spears and Madonna. There’s nothing wrong with celebrity, of course, but it isn’t exactly a class of movers, shakers, or inventors.

What do little American girls learn in history class? Well, we have Betsy Ross, who sewed a flag (whoop-dee-do), Martha Washington, of whom we learn nothing apart from her marriage to George Washington, Mary Todd Lincoln, who is generally portrayed as a nagging lunatic, and Jackie Kennedy, best known for wearing a pink outfit and matching pillbox hat.

What are some other famous historic figures? There’s Pocahontas who, according to legend, saved John Smith’s life. There’s Eleanor Roosevelt, who we hear was a great woman but we don’t learn why. Helen Keller learned to communicate despite being blind and dead, thus overcoming great physical challenges. Amelia Earnhardt was good at flying planes and was lost mysteriously while doing so. These are women of great moral courage and accomplishment, yet their struggles and success remain within the personal sphere–they debatably are not the sort of accomplishments that have permanently shaped the political or economic landscape of our world.

Oprah Winfrey may be seen as the most powerful woman, given her media empire, yet she seems to be hated as often as she is respected, for reasons I have never been able to work out.

As far as women of more political substance… Harriet Tubman may be the female historical figure we learn the most about (and she truly was brave). And there’s always Susan B. Anthony, who we know was involved in the fight to get women the vote, though we rarely learn any details about her struggle.

It seems to me that when women are considered in a political context, they are usually associated with the women’s movement and feminism, which has long suffered a bad reputation in this country. In the UK, they at least learn about how women demanding the vote were force-fed in prisons, which highlights bravery and willingness to suffer in the name of one’s ideals. But here, the focus seems always to be on the most controversial attitudes of the feminist movement’s fringe members, thus characterizing the fight for equal opportunity in the collective unconscious as the product of man-hating extremists. This then taints the accomplishments of women like Susan B. Anthony, and many women make a point of distancing themselves from her brethren even when they would never dream of, say, giving up the right to vote, work, or wear trousers.

The result our lack of representation in the great American historical landscape is a sense that although we more or less have equal right, girls may still grow up with the impression that we have collectively had very little effect on things. So, to read about women who sacked Rome, or ruled nations, was an utter revelation for my eleven-year-old self.

Once I hit the Tudor chapters, it was a veritable wealth of female influence. You have Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the mighty Queen Isabella, in league with the Pope in battle with the King of England. On the other side, there is Anne Boleyn, a relatively obscure daughter of a semi-noble family. Her personal magnetism and maneuvering a ultimately led to the country’s break from Catholicism. There are an incredible number of female power players in the Tudor story, from Queen Mary Tudor and Queen Elizabeth to Mary, Queen of Scots and Lady Jane Grey.

How I wish American women had this kind of history to draw upon, this sense that we had held this kind of significance throughout our nation’s story. I wonder if anyone has ever investigated the psyche of Western European women versus American women, given that we have so relatively few heroines in our pantheon. Of course, it’s not that American women haven’t accomplished anything, but they don’t seem to be a large part of our cultural storytelling.

It seems the Tudors have become much more popular, though, in recent years. Films like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” based on Phillipa Gregory’s novels, and the series “The Tudors” have brought Tudor history into vogue. I have many problems with Gregory’s inaccurate, and I believe, extremely sexist interpretations of historic events, so it pains me that her books have gotten so popular. That, however, is a massive topic in and of itself, and one I won’t tackle until another day.

And in the future years to come, you can be sure that my daughters will learn about Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Queen Elizabeth, and many other women who have ruled nations, gave moving speeches on the eve of battles, and patronized the arts and world expeditions. They have done so much more than dance around in pointy bras, or had their white skirts blow up over subway grates.

Tales of the Sleep-Deprived Guardians

ImageToday’s public service post, in the interest of potentially making life a little easier for new parents, will focus on getting your child to *sleep through the night.*  The impending birth of my daughter’s baby sister (yay!) has put me in mind of that early period of newborn care…  those endless hours of hearing your child scream at the top of his or her lungs, nonstop, while you frantically try to figure out how to help… those sleepless nights where your baby wakes up every hour as your brain splinters from increasing exhaustion into delirium and utter desperation… the morbid dread upon hearing your infant’s piercing cry yet AGAIN, just as you were finally drifting off for a moment of rest…

I’m sure you’ve heard the jokes from other been-there, done-that parents: “Well, enjoy your sleep while you can!” (Chuckle, *snort*).  “You think pregnancy is hard? Just wait till the baby comes!” (Guffaw).

Or the well-intentioned advice: “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” This will be a phrase you become very familiar with, but the importance of which will not be made clear until after you experience the stress of infant care firsthand.  It would be difficult to overstate how stressful these early days can be.  Nothing prepares you.  I used to be one of those people who got annoyed when hearing an infant constantly cry on an airplane or in the grocery store.  I used to roll my eyes and naively think, “Why don’t the parents just DO something?”

Oh, how I regret that lack of sympathy now. Now, I understand that sometimes, babies just CRY.  They will scream and scream, and don’t seem care where they are or what you try to do about it.  And what is merely an annoying baby wail to outsiders is a heart-freezing, soul-curdling shriek for their parents.  We must be hardwired to respond primally to the distress signals of our own young, because the sound of your infant’s cry feels like shattered glass and leaves you absolutely frantic.

Similarly, you might think you’re ready for sleepless nights because you pulled some all-nighters to study or write a term paper in college. You got through it with a lot of coffee or Redbull, felt pretty drained by the time you actually got to rest, and then went on to fight the good fight.  But the occasional sleepless night is nothing in comparison to weeks and weeks on end, or even months, of never getting to sleep for a solid stretch of hours. You become shell shocked and nearly begin to hallucinate. The next time you hear a baby screaming in a public place, try to understand that the parents are probably humiliated, completely exhausted, and doing the very best they can at the moment. Just be glad you get to leave soon, whereas they will keep on hearing this for hours.

One small comfort when you are going through this phase is that other parents suddenly become People Who Understand.  I will never forget one morning, when the air was still crisp and sun wasn’t up yet, how my husband and I bundled our weary selves against the bracing air and took our six-week-old screaming infant outside in her stroller to walk around the block several times.  For some reason, the gliding along in the stroller would help our baby quiet down after half and hour or so, even when food, soothing, or anything else we tried wouldn’t work.  While out that morning, my husband and I heard a greeting, and we shifted our swollen, unfocused gaze over to see that a coworker of his, who happened to live nearby, was also outside that morning for a walk.  He looked us in the eyes, gave a slight, knowing smile, and said, “It gets easier.  It really does.” He has three children of his own, knew exactly what we were going through, and I think his kind words meant more to us at that moment than I could ever possibly express.

And it did get easier. We were extremely lucky, actually, because by two months in, our baby girl had reached that blessed place all new parents are hoping and praying for: she began *sleeping through the night.*  At first, it was only five or six-hour stretches, but after a couple more months, she mostly slept through the entire night, assaulting us with midnight scream attacks only occasionally.

I know this was extremely lucky, because as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I regularly attended a postpartum exercise class for new mommies after our daughter was born.  This was a group of exhausted women, the likes of which you have probably never seen.  We would do our exercises for an hour, amongst the staccato of randomly screaming infants whose mothers would break to take care of them, then sit in a circle of rocking-chairs afterwards to socialize and nurse our little ones.  Often the mothers were too exhausted to speak, and just sat rocking in a circle, glancing in solidarity toward other red-rimmed eyes and slumped shoulders.  Some of the women had eight-month old babies who had yet to ever sleep through the night… even after epic days of changing dozens of diapers and dealing with hours of nonstop screaming, these women had not had a proper night’s rest in OVER EIGHT MONTHS.  They were weary and desperate.

One day, a fellow mom asked me if my baby was letting me rest and I told her that my daughter had been sleeping through the night since month two, and the woman’s eyes widened, she popped a quick finger to her lips and sais, “SHH! Keep your voice down,” glancing quickly around her as though my words might incite a riot by inflaming the angry. sleep-deprived crowd that had reached a near breaking-point of madness though endless fatigue.

So I kept quiet, not wanting to boast of my good fortune under the circumstances.  This would not even represent a rock-bottom for some of these women. I know some parents who are still having problems getting a good night’s rest because their toddlers, even their three- or four-year-old children STILL are not sleeping through the night. One of my husband’s friends nearly lost his job because he was so exhausted from sporadic sleep, even though his son was five years old. My husband has other friends, from Australia, who also had problems with their children’s’ sleep, but parents in Australia can attend free child sleep training classes, which solved the issue for them and they are now doing just fine.

I didn’t want to say anything then, but now I would like to share my method with anyone reading this in hopes it will spare some new parents as much agony as possible.  I did have a secret, something that worked extremely well for me.  You see, when I found out I was pregnant the first time, I felt baffled and unprepared.  What did I know about raising a baby?  Since I had a lot of downtime from becoming increasingly immobile throughout pregnancy, I ended up doing a lot of reading about baby care and theories of child development.  I recommend this to any one similarly inclined… while there are many different theories out there, it is comforting to feel better armed with information, learn the logic behind it, and use whatever methods you find practical.

Out of everything I read, one of the most helpful bits of information was in Paula Druckerman’s book, “Bringing Up Baby.”  She is an American who moved to France and was thus exposed to European methods of baby-care. Some she approved of, some she rejected, but one of the most striking differences she found was that while American parents tend to deal with sleepless nights for a good year or so, most French babies sleep through the night by the end of the second month.

Fascinated by this difference, Druckerman made a point to ask many French parents as she could about how they managed such a feat,  The answer was unbelievably simple.  The theory, in a nutshell, is this: babies have to learn to sleep properly.  When they are newborns, they go through natural sleep cycles, in a regular rhythm, where they briefly wake up.  This distresses them and they cry for a minute… but then they fall back asleep.  If you let them cry for a minute without disturbing them, they will learn to sleep naturally through the night.  However, if you immediately pick them up and start feeding them, it disrupts their sleep patterns and it trains them to regularly wake up every couple of hours.

So, though American parents believe they are being sympathetic and responsible by immediately attending to their infant, it is actually harming the baby’s ability to naturally sleep through the night.  Please do not misunderstand this method–you are not supposed to let your baby cry in distress for hours on end, but if the baby stops after a minute or two, you are supposed to let the baby fall back asleep without arousing it into full alertness.

I used this method and it worked beautifully for me.  Whenever my baby cried, I would immediately wake up (as you do) and listen,  If she kept crying after a couple of minutes, I would get up and take care of her.  But usually, she would only cry for a minute and then drift right back off to sleep.  By the time she was two months old, she rarely woke up during the night at all. It was miraculous.   She would awaken the next morning in a good mood, and her father and I started getting the much-needed rest that is so essential for tired new parents.

I have one more piece of advice, and it is a little more unconventional. While I was taking the newborn care and breastfeeding classes offered by our hospital, they advised us repeatedly that breastfed infants need to be fed every couple of hours.  Breastmilk digests more quickly than formula and so breastfed infants need to be fed more often to stay nourished. This meant that we were supposed to wake up our baby EVERY TWO HOURS, or at the most, three, throughout the night for a feeding.  The importance of this was stressed many times.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that official stances on how to raise your children change all the time.  Each generation gets different advice, which is probably one reason why so many people end up arguing with their parents and in-laws over what to do with the baby. Sometimes the experts discover better methods or new information, but much of the advice you are hearing now will likely change in another ten years.  It’s good to know what the experts are saying and why they are saying it, but in the end, you have to make these decisions yourself and do whatever you think is best for your child.

That being said, it just didn’t make sense to me to wake up your sleeping child to feed it every couple of hours. What does that do to your child’s natural sleep patterns, not to mention your own sanity?  How would we have lasted so long as a species if babies would starve to death in the middle of the night after two hours of not eating, without ever making a peep?  Cavewomen didn’t have watches.

So, I decided to reject this advice.  I fed my baby regularly, on demand, throughout the day.  If she woke up crying for more than a minute, at any time of night, I would immediately offer to feed her and do so for as long as it took for her to feel better. But I did not wake her up from a full sleep to offer her food, and she turned out perfectly healthy and happy.

Obviously, if your child is dangerously thin or has other issues that make feedings particularly important, you should reject this advice and feed your baby as often as your doctor advises.  However, my baby is a very good sleeper and I strongly believe this is in part due to the fact that she was given the opportunity to sleep throughout the night without being regularly disturbed.

I really hope this advice will be useful to some of the new parents out there who are or will be struggling with these issues.  We have another little girl on the way soon and I fervently hope the gods don’t punish me for my hubris with an infant who never rests when the moon is out, because of course, it’s always possible that we just got lucky with our first daughter.  But I believe these methods proved very helpful and hope they will be just as successful with our second baby as they were with our first. Good luck, everyone!

Tales of the Mouse Bandit and Her Havoc-Wreaking Adventures

ImageToday has not been an easy parenting day.  It all started this morning, when I was awakened at the crack of dawn by a resounding *THUMP.*  

Before my foggy mind could even begin processing the potential source of the noisy bang, I suddenly found my nearly-19-month-old daughter crawling into bed, naked as a jaybird, carrying a computer keyboard, mouse, and tube of toothpaste. You see, she has recently figured out how to jailbreak her crib and pack & play, and has been wreaking havoc in the house before her father and I wake up and stop her.  It seems we are on a perpetual quest to childproof every drawer and cabinet, and then to place every potentially dangerous, messy, or expensive item in the house higher and higher out of reach (since she inevitably figures out how to break past childproof security). 

It further seems that no object is too mundane to fascinate our little girl, who loves nothing better than removing every towel from every cabinet, tearing any piece of paper she finds into little pieces, and seeing what kind of pretty patterns she can make on the rug with mommy’s makeup… meaning that any lapse of diligence on my part, such as a bathroom door left ominously open, means I will likely wake up to a house resembling an action movie wherein the bad guys have torn the place apart while seeking a billion-dollar microchip.  

She has also been removing her diaper lately, as well as all of her clothes. Last night we put her in one of those straightjacket-like footy sleep pajamas that zip up the front and have a snap that crosses the zipper way up under their neck, hoping to safeguard her diaper for the night… but alas, the the pajamas were crumpled in a pile on the floor next to the crib this morning, next to a dirty diaper, thankfully butter-side-down.  And when I grabbed all the nasty bedding out of her crib to throw in the wash, I discovered a rogue tube of toothpaste that she has been stashing and taking nips off of. 

You see, she has also recently developed a toothpaste addiction.  It all started when we found her passed out in the bathroom with blue foam smeared around her mouth and a half-empty tube of toothpaste twisted next to her on the floor.  I know you aren’t supposed to swallow that stuff–it says so right on the tube.  Well, she developed a incredible hunger for it and anytime a tube falls too close to the edge of the counter, she will snatch it and greedily start gulping down fluoride gel as fast as she can until we take the tube away, which of course leads to an enraged meltdown. 

So, this afternoon she got really sleepy and fussy, and passed out for an afternoon nap when I carried her to her crib.  A moment’s peace!  I quickly cleaned up and did a couple errands before laying down on the coach to take a nap myself.  It was nice to have the opportunity after the super-early start this morning and nonstop day of Putting Crap Back Where It Goes.    I must have drifted off for a mere 15 minutes when I heard her rounding the corner, naked as the day she was born. As I picked her up, I suddenly noticed the wavy stink lines emanating from her body, blurring all objects behind her…

It turns out she had gone number two, removed the diaper, and apparently used our carpeted staircase as one long roll of toilet paper.  It took me some time to locate the diaper, which she had expertly hidden in the cat tree.  I took her back to her new potty chair, hoping this would be the day she made the connection… because so far she no longer wants to wear diapers , but still has no idea there could be any alternative beyond squatting and doing your business on the carpet. This potty chair plays happy songs when you use it, much to her delight, but after playing with it for about ten minutes, she found that you could simply remove the potty bowl and keep tapping the sensor to get it to play the happy music, which is much easier. 

Sigh… I’m sure all of this curiosity and mischievousness is a sign that she is very clever, and she will make me very proud someday.  But for now… mamma could really use a time out.  



Whooping Cough Outbreak Linked to Fear of Vaccines

Infant suffering from whooping cough.
Infant suffering from whooping cough.

This just in… researchers have concluded that fears of vaccinations are largely responsible for the Whooping Cough (Pertussis) outbreaks in California children in 2010.   In 2010, California experienced its highest levels of the disease in over 60 years.  More than 9000 cases were reported, with over 800 hospitalizations, and at least 10 deaths.

Whooping cough is an extremely contagious upper-respiratory tract infection that causes violent coughing fits and can be fatal.  Researchers founds clusters of outbreaks, which logically follows from the highly contagious nature of the illness.

Within those clusters, unvaccinated children were two and a half times more likely to contract the disease.  Some children were exempt from receiving vaccinations because of compromised immune systems, or other legitimate medical circumstances. But a large portion of the children were not vaccinated because of parental fears of vaccinations, including the persistent myth that they are linked to autism.

Interestingly, researchers found that parents who refused vaccinations were more likely to be of a higher socioeconomic status. This seems consistent with current trends among the more educated, middle and upper-middle classes toward a “natural” lifestyle, including mediation, yoga, alternative medicine, vegetarianism/veganism, and natural childbirth.

As I have described in earlier posts, I am an ardent supporter of using natural methods in place of pharmaceuticals, when they are simply part of a healthy lifestyle (better diet and exercise in place of cholesterol-lowering drugs, for example).  Natural relaxation methods and chamomile tea are undoubtedly safer than Ambien.  Eating more produce and unrefined foods is fantastic, and vegetarianism, if following a balanced and well-planned diet, can a be very healthy style of eating.

Natural methods and lifestyle improvements are a wonderful way to maintain your health and help prevent the need for heavy-duty medical interventions.  However, there are situations that call for heavy-duty medical interventions… such as when your heart stops. If your heart stops, you need some well-trained professional to apply electrical currents to your chest to get it going again.  Sniffing a handful of burning sage is not going to cut it.  If your appendix is about to burst, you need a highly skilled surgeon to get it out of you before it kills you.  You don’t need to meditate.

Likewise, many infectious diseases used to decimate our populations before we invented vaccinations to stop them dead in their tracks (see my post “Vaccination Vacation” for more on this topic).  It baffles me that during a century in which we are lucky enough to spare ourselves so many of these horrors, people are inventing reasons to refuse the cure.

It further baffles me that the people most guilty of this reckless paranoia are more likely to be educated.  Shouldn’t better-educated people have more access to the scientific information with which to make the best decisions for their families?  Aren’t they in a better position to understand why vaccination is effective, instead of shrinking in fear because they are made  uncomfortable by not understanding a scientific process?  These are supposed to be the most informed members of our population, yet they are acting like a backwards group of hunter-gatherers with the plague who are refusing antibiotics because they are convinced the missionaries are witches.

But even more upsetting is the fact that the paranoia of the elite is endangering everyone else.  When this “higher class” of parent chooses to forego vaccinations, they contribute to disease epidemics, leaving everyone else at risk… and so the children of poorer backgrounds, who are less likely to have adequate medical coverage and to be properly hospitalized if they become ill, have a greater risk of dying because wealthier families are apparently choosing not to protect their children without any sound medical reason for doing so.  Yes, there are children whose immune systems are legitimately too compromised for them to receive vaccinations,  but the majority of children whose parents ignore the pleas of the entire medical community to vaccinate are greatly increasing the odds of serious disease outbreaks throughout the country. Everyone else is put at risk… and for what?  The vague, scientifically disproved notion that preventing polio, Pertussis, or typhoid will make your child autistic? The drastic logical leap that since some pharmaceuticals are unnecessary or can cause negative side effects, then all pharmaceutical drugs are bad in every case? Heartbreaking anecdotal stories of children who died, who also happened to have received vaccinations at some point, though there is no conclusive evidence that the vaccinations were responsible?

There are some who believe your personal rights end where someone else’s begins, and I believe that’s very relevant to vaccinations, which are a matter of public health as much as individual wellness.

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