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Mother’s Day

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Happy Mother’s Day to all birth mothers, adoptive mothers, stepmothers, foster mothers, and especially to everyone else who does the supportive and nurturing work traditionally associated with mothers: fathers, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and those for whose relationship there is no formal title. In my own extended family we have lots of the traditional kind of mother raising children she gave birth to–and we have adoptive mothers, birth mothers who are thinking today of children someone else is raising, stepmothers, single fathers and grandparents raising children, and probably others whose status I don’t know. (It’s a BIG family.)

Every child should have at least one “mother” in the best sense of the word, and children benefit from having as many people as possible who provide that care. Flowers and candy are very nice, but the real tribute is to pass on to a child–any child–the care, nurturing, and support you received. If it wasn’t there for you, change the pattern. (My greatest respect to those who do that!) If you don’t know how to give what you were never given, you can still help others to do so. Remember the starfish story: “I made a difference to that one.”

This is my twenty-second Mother’s Day without my mother. For much of my life, I took care of her more than she took care of me–emotionally most of the time, and physically in the last years, when she lived with us. I don’t think I miss her particularly as “mother,” because that element wasn’t very strong, but I miss her as a person a great deal.

Parenting is the most interesting, challenging, and rewarding thing I have ever done. Could the little girl or the teen that I was have seen this life, she would have said, “Yes, that! That’s what I want!” I always wanted to be a parent, and almost from the beginning, adoption was part of the plan.

From a young age, even when I was outside playing cowboys with my brother and the other neighborhood boys, I usually had a doll “child” along. But as far as I can remember, I never played that I was pregnant by putting a pillow under my clothes (some other girls did) and never played that I was giving birth. Sometimes I explicitly “adopted” my “child,” and sometimes it just kind of appeared. Sometimes my doll-child had a disability.

I had been aware of adoption at least since I was 6; my mother told me then that a little girl we knew was adopted, but I don’t remember whether I already knew the word at that time or not. When I was in the early grades (in the mid-’50s), my brother’s best friend’s parents adopted two younger children from Korea.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were two of my childhood heroes, and as I learned more about their real lives, I wanted a family like they had: adopted children from various ethnic backgrounds, some with disabilities. Through my high school years, when I dreamed of what my adult life might be like, one of the scenarios was that I was a single mother with a house full of adopted children. That was not a typical future envisioned by teenage girls of the early 1960s!

I married young, and the plan was that we would, after a couple of years, have a child and then adopt another. But he changed his mind about having children. It wasn’t what ended our marriage, but it was one factor.

Fast forward: It’s 1980, I’m 33, Jonathan and I are talking about our future. We’re sitting at the Perkins just off 94 around 25th, and he says to me, “Have you ever thought about adopting?”

And then, as he and I say, things got totally out of control. Today we have been parents for more than 35 years, and our children, all from Korea, are almost-36, 35, 32, and 28. They are doing well in their individual lives, and all of our relationships, child-parent and sibling-sibling, are good ones.

I am the most fortunate of humans.

[Adapted in part from earlier writings.]

Is Gender Binary?

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[Recently I was a bit surprised when a friend said that she does not believe that gender is a spectrum, a scale, a continuum–I don’t remember what word she used, but it came down to believing that gender is binary. Then the conversation turned, and I didn’t get a chance to say my piece. So this is it.]

Please note: None of the following implies judgment of, and certainly not criticism of or disbelief in, anyone else’s experience. It is my experience and observation, and nothing more.

I don’t understand–or to use a science fiction word, “grok”–gender as the word is generally meant today.

I intellectually understand that body dysmorphia, the feeling that one’s body is somehow not “right” for one, exists. Some of those feelings require only minor adjustments: a change of hair color, contacts to change eye color, laser surgery to do away with glasses, tattoos to make intrinsic statements or commitments. (I always “felt” that I was a redhead, and so I made myself for much of my adult life. Then I found a braid of hair from my 3-year-old self, saved by my mother, and discovered that I did start out with red-blond hair.)

Some people go further: they have voluntary amputations of limbs, or blind themselves, to match what they feel that they are. I don’t see an essential difference between them and people who, for example, have their breasts or penis removed to match what they feel they are.

I don’t pretend to an understanding any deeper than “I acknowledge that dysmorphia exists.” Most of my life–even as a teen–I have been reasonably comfortable in a body has never once conformed to whatever society’s ideal was at the moment. I am taller than most women. In fact, before the average man started getting taller and I started age-shrinking, I was taller than the average American man. I was the tallest girl in my class from first grade through high-school graduation, and taller than many–most, in the early grades–of the boys. I have a waist-to-hip ratio more similar to the average man than the average woman. I have a quadriceps angle more similar to men’s (and apparently athletic women’s, which I am decidedly not). I have my father’s short torso and long legs, his sloping shoulders, his bad knees. It’s my body. I like it, I am comfortable in it, but I can imagine it being otherwise without feeling any distress or even strangeness. Because I grew up with a brother less than 11 months younger, I often thought, what would I be like as a boy? Despite all that, I know that body dysmorphia exists.

But gender? As I said, I don’t “grok,” I don’t understand, I don’t “get” gender. I don’t grasp what “gender” is, other than what the society we live in tells us it is.

I have no intrinsic sense of having gender. I don’t “feel” like a woman–nor like a man, nor like any identifiable other label. I feel like, well, me. Sometimes my behavior, dress, words, match what this society says is “female/girl/woman” and sometimes what this society says is “male/boy/man.” When I take a quiz based on gender, or someone says, “Women are/do this and men are/do that,” I am as likely to get one result as the other. So for now, I think gender must be a continuum, because I find myself wandering along it.

BUT–look at all the things I mentioned as criteria: all come down to “this society (or some part of it) says.” Apart from genitalia and secondary sex characteristics (which are NOT binary, but that’s another discussion), for virtually everything that this society says is “male/masculine” or female/feminine,” we can find some other society, in some time and place, that says otherwise (whether the opposite, or something that goes off in another direction). Most societies do construct gender in some way, but not all of them are binary, and not all of them match ours. So for now I think “gender” as we usually talk about it is entirely societally constructed.

Why is gender so important? Why do societies find it necessary to impose gender expectations, and often to punish–even up to death–those who transgress them? I think that at its most basic, it comes down to sexual reproduction. We humans cannot continue (as science stands now) without some form of sexual reproduction, and that requires male and female at a biological level. It further requires that male and female be identifiable to each other. The drive to continue the species demands it.

But outside of reproduction, what purpose do gender markers serve? What reason is there to expect, much less require, them of people? What if people just indicated their readiness to reproduce and their binary sex by a hat, or a button, or a hair color? Everyone, whether they wanted to reproduce or had reproduced or intended to someday reproduce or hadn’t decided or definitely didn’t want to, would have clothes, hair, makeup, behavior, roles, everything, that suited themselves, and just add the reproduction signal when they wanted to.

Because what other purpose does gender serve?

 

 

 

 

Shooting the Dog

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I have on occasion made reference to my dad “shooting the dog.” I find that–at least after the circumstances are explained–whether people are shocked at this divides pretty much along age lines: the older the person, the less strange/odd/shocking they find this.

First and most significant, the dog was my dad’s. Tippy liked my brother (Dennis, 11 months younger than I) and me, and our mother, well enough, but even though it was Dennis’s job to feed him, Tippy was definitely Dad’s dog.

This was in Orange County, California, in the 1950s. We lived in a tract house, but we were on the end of a cul-de-sac, on 1/3 acre. To one side on “the Circle,” as we called it, we had a neighbor, but on the other side about 1/3 of the diameter of the Circle was undeveloped. It was probably railroad land, because the tracks ran along it, and along our property. Beyond, there were (when we first moved there and for a few years after) orange groves. So it had a rural character to an extent.

At that time and place, a dog that bit people three times had to be put down. Tippy had two bites reported. If he was reported a third time, animal control would take him away and euthanize him.

So my dad shot him. He did it out at the end of our property, one shot, and he buried him under a tree there. He probably cried, but we weren’t there to see.

Here’s the thing: Tippy was his dog, so it was his responsibility. Better that Tippy die quickly, accompanied by his person, than be taken off to some scary facility to be killed by strangers. But also, my father felt the responsibility for training Tippy, and the training failed.

Some younger people, particularly city people, are horrified at this story. Older people, or particularly people with some rural background, understand it. They might or might not have made the same choice, but they understand.

There’s no great moral here. But if you wanted to know what kind of person my dad was, at his core, this is probably my best story.

Reflections on Parenting

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Someone famous once said that “life is what happens to you while you’re doing something else.” That’s the one that keeps biting me on the butt. I tried very hard, for example, to live in the moment with my kids, experiencing who they are at each stage. I’ve tried to live in consciousness of Emerson’s words: “The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing,
and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away.” But still I found myself frequently wishing for the kids to move on, out of needing to be changed and fed and tended constantly, out of needing to be watched constantly, out of needing homework help every night and transportation everywhere and clothes bought and washed and put away, out of needing me-me-me.

And they did move on, in a heartbeat, in a blink, faster than I could have imagined when I was mired in their constant needs. Each one of their days brought me the gift of who they were that day, and if I didn’t see it as a gift, I lost it. But Emerson has words for that, too, and if I had to state my philosophy of life, I’d choose this–indeed, my LJ, Blunders and Absurdities, was named from it (just as this blog is named for an Emerson quote):

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; Forget them as soon as you can.

“Tomorrow is a new day; Begin it well and serenely And with too high a spirit To be encumbered with your old nonsense.

“This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, To waste a moment on yesterdays.”

One Story among So Many

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She was 15 years old. She lived in a small Midwestern town, in a Catholic family, in the days before Roe v. Wade. The only sex education she ever had was what she saw on the farm or overheard from other girls. When she had her first period, a couple or three years before, she had no idea what it was and thought she was dying; when she turned to an older girl for help, she learned what it meant and how to take care of it.

When the cute older guy at school asked her out, she was flattered. When he said, “This is what people do on dates,” she went along. When she didn’t get her next period, she was terrified, because she had overheard those other girls.

She couldn’t tell her parents. The boy never spoke to her after that first date. She had nowhere to go.

I don’t know who told her about someone in town who took care of this problem for unmarried women (and, I’m sure, for some married women whose health or finances couldn’t withstand another child). She didn’t tell anyone about her problem, but that name undoubtedly was whispered among the girls and young women of the town, as such names were in small towns and big cities throughout the country. Fortunately, this name belonged to a real doctor. And so she had a safe, but highly illegal, abortion.

She never, in her whole life, told anyone this story–except me. She’s gone now. Everyone who knew her then is gone. I’m not sure there is no one who will judge her, if they read this story. But I kept this confidence for nearly forty years, and I have revealed it because she didn’t die from a hemorrhage or sepsis, and she wasn’t made infertile, and she didn’t have her future destroyed. Later she married and had children. She always felt guilt, but she never felt regret, for the abortion. She said to me, “What else could I have done? What would have become of me?”

I answered, “You did what you had to do, Mom.”

The Dark Wanderer with the Gypsy Eyes

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This is a poem from my mother’s commonplace book. She didn’t mention the author, and I have never found anything online. She never said that she wrote it herself, but I don’t recall that she said she didn’t.

If he came back again, what would you do?
He made no promise to be gone forever,
And in the soft wet earth along the river,
There are your sandal prints, betraying you.
You made another choice, and it was wise:
The man with the wide hands and sober voice
Who does not know you wept, making the choice,
For the dark wanderer with the gypsy eyes.
You must not walk the river path again.
Even the willows know you and could tell
The lie that you have lived so long and well.
For though your house is tall in the white lane
And your heart quiet now and your arms true–
If he came back again, what would you do?

The man with the gypsy eyes, who might come back, was my father. They had their first date in June 1940, when he was 19 and she was 18. He first proposed in August 1941. Throughout the war years, apparently the course of true love did not run smooth: they were on again, off again; he was traveling around from job to job (because of rheumatic fever in childhood, he was turned down for every branch of the service); at one point she was engaged, or semi-engaged, to a solid man from a fairly well-to-do family. This poem certainly spoke to her of the life she might have and her unease about whether she could be happy in it.

She chose to wait for the wanderer from the working-class family, or he came back in time; my parents were married in August 1945. The course of the marriage didn’t run any smoother than the courtship, but if they couldn’t live harmoniously together, they couldn’t live contentedly apart, either. With one small hiatus, they were together till his death in 1986.

(Previously published in my LiveJournal.)

Serious Literature and Me

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The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to read “serious literature”–nongenre fiction. I find it full of people whose problems seem to me ones that could be easily solved by a bit of rationality, a soupçon of imagination or thinking outside whatever box society or they themselves have put them in, and application of the maxim “It’s not all about you.”

I have always been interested in psychology, and quite good at it in an amateur way, but I would be a terrible therapist. After two or three sessions, all my professional knowledge probably could not keep me from slapping the client upside the head, and, like Cher’s character in Moonstruck, shouting, “Snap out of it!” Here’s your problem, here’s what you can do about it, now go and do it or not, but don’t come back to me.

Or maybe not. I’m usually able not to do that to my friends and acquaintances who confide in me. And they do confide. When I was 14, my boyfriend said, “If everyone was a body part, you’d be a shoulder”–because everyone, even my mother, leaned on me and cried on me. (My mother told me when I was an adult, regarding this, “You were always such a certain little thing.”) I have a strong component of what some women complain is a male characteristic: tell me a problem and I immediately start trying to solve it. I try to control that since becoming aware that some people just want to be listened to, but for myself I have usually not told people my problems unless I would welcome their suggestions.

My spouse and I are far from perfect people and we have flaws and problems like most, but we often agree that people make things unnecessarily hard on themselves, and others, by failure to use the three tools listed in my first paragraph (rationality, imagination, it’s not all about you, repeat as needed). We humans are puny little creatures, and the universe has so many ways to make us suffer, to kill us–why do we do it to each other?

So when I try to read nongenre fiction, I often want to throw the book across the room–the reading equivalent of Cher’s slap–by the third chapter. Yes, these books often reveal the human condition, near-universal truths about us puny creatures, and that’s why I can’t read them. At least with real humans, should the right situation arise, I can say some kinder version of “Snap out of it!”

 

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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