Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Motherscribe Interview Series: the 12th interview...

My 12th interview is with Kalynne who lives in Alabama. She is 47, married with 9 children. She works outside the home. She has a blog called The Philosopher Mom.

What does the word feminist mean to you? Has the meaning changed over time? It has changed. When I first encountered it, growing up in the 70s, the connotation was radical, bitter, combative, deliberately ugly. But in grad school ten years later, my dissertation topic led me into feminist philosophy. There I discovered a tremendous spectrum: some of it radical, bitter, etc., but some of it thoughtful and reflective, some of it clean and sharp. Now when I think “feminist,” I think of the best of what I found in my research: women and men placing incommensurate value on the particular genius of women, as genius OF WOMEN. People like Nell Noddings, Martha Nussbaum, and (to my mind, the grande dame of feminism) Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. To anyone interested in the question of feminism and its relevance, I can’t recommend her book FEMINISM IS NOT THE STORY OF MY LIFE strongly enough…keeping in mind it was written by the founder of Emory University’s Women’s Studies program.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? Yes, as specified above.

Would others consider you a feminist? Depends on whom you mean by “others.” The high-profile, public, politically-oriented feminists would perish the thought, I’m sure.

If you are a feminist, do you feel comfortable owning that title in your everyday life? On the academic side, yes. On the social side, not without explanation.

What are some images that come to mind when you think of the women’s movement? “Ms.” magazine, bra burnings, angry women yelling and waving those distorted “NOW” signs with the big O in the middle. Unlike academic feminism, generally (there are exceptions), the “women’s movement” strikes me as parochial to the point of fascism – “If you don’t agree with us, you’re misogynist.”

What was the greatest gift of the women’s movement? It’s pretty well established that the dominant – though largely implicit – conception of women throughout western history was as objects for the convenience and gratification of men. Especially in its efforts to shatter the glass employment ceiling, the women’s movement helped to replace this conception with one of women as autonomous human beings, as intrinsically valuable as men.

What was the greatest failure of the women’s movement? Pushing the conception change too far. It wasn’t enough for women to be as intrinsically valuable as men; what I think of as “the women’s movement” insists on women being virtually indistinguishable from men…especially in terms of sexual freedom. Paradoxically – and tragically – the effect of this has been to return women to the status of objects for the gratification of men. Fox-Genovese (among others) has demonstrated that widespread access to contraception and abortion didn’t really liberate women from the “burden” of childbearing so much as it liberated MEN from having to accept responsibility for their sexual activity. They were free to use women as inflatable dolls, with pregnancy on the level of a “manufacturer’s defect” – after all, with contraception and abortion so easy to get, it was the woman’s own fault if she got pregnant, and so she could be left alone to deal with it.

I think this view of sexual freedom is more divisive among women than the stay-at-home/work-outside-the-home dichotomy. Women who reject the notion that sexual freedom is good for women make protesting objectification harder for those who embrace it. I also think that this goes a long way toward explaining why some feminists – Diana Tietjen Meyers is a prime example -- deny that women ever freely choose to be wives and mothers (they argue it’s the product of societal brainwashing).

How old are your children? 20, 18, 17, 15, 14, 12, 10, 10 and 6.

What do you want to do differently with your children than what you received from your parents? I want them to know – and see, every day – how much they are loved by both of us. I want them to have a firm moral and religious foundation; they are free, and in fact, encouraged to question and investigate, but this can’t be done productively without a point of departure. Most of all, I want them to be raised in a joyful home.

What would you like to carry on that your parents established with you? Regular, sacrosanct time for each other. My parents had this when Dad got home from work: they would go into their bedroom for 15-20 minutes to reconnect with each other before calling the kids to dinner.

Did your mother work outside the home? She did, after I got to high school (when my youngest brothers were in 3rd or 4th grade).

How did that affect you growing up? It made it easier for me to cut school, being able to return to an empty house. It didn’t have any noticeable effect on our relationship with our mother, but that was probably because we didn’t perceive her as being particularly interested or involved in our lives when she was home all day, either.

What impression did that leave with you about women working outside the home? I thought it was something women might do if they were bored. In our suburban neighborhood, most of the moms stayed home until the kids were well into school, then they worked, usually part-time, more as a social outlet than from necessity.

Was your mother a homemaker? For 14 or 15 years.

How did that affect you growing up? I could not begin to fathom what she did with her day. All I knew of it was that she watched General Hospital religiously, and that there would more often than not be a basket or two of clean clothes waiting for us to put them away when we got home.

Did your father respect your mother? Yes.

Did your mother respect your father? In her own way, I’m sure she did…but this was not as much as we kids thought she should.

Who were your earliest female role models other than your mother? While I remember being jealous of some of my friends’ mothers – the ones who threw elaborate birthday parties, served as Girl Scout leaders or Room Mothers, who did their daughters’ hair and took them shopping – I didn’t think of them as role models. My role models came from books: Amelia Earhart, Clara Barton, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (from the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series – I read all of them, women first); Anne of Green Gables, Caddie Woodlawn, Jo March, Scarlett O’Hara, Nancy Drew….

What did you dream of being when you were a child? A professional baseball player; an actress and a writer. When I was young, I assumed I’d be married with children (lots of them, after I read the Galbraith original CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN). But by the time I hit adolescence, I had settled on a career in classical music, and the family assumption just sort of faded out.

What do you yearn for? Sisters!! I was the only girl, the oldest of four children. I wanted a big sister. I wanted a little sister. I also wanted a piano.

Was getting married/partnered a conscious goal or focus early on in your adulthood? Not in the slightest.

Is there an event(s) that affected you in childhood/adolescence that impacted your identity in a positive or negative way? I adored my paternal grandmother and identified closely with her. My dad’s parents were from Georgia, and though growing up I’d never lived further south than Chicago, I considered myself a Southerner like my grandparents (I even refused to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in chorus, as a matter of principle). One summer when Grandma was visiting (I was maybe 10 or 11), my mother started yelling at her for some reason, which made Grandma cry and ask my dad to take her to the train station. I don’t remember being particularly close to my mother before then, but this incident provoked a deliberate dissociation.

What do you wish your mother had told you about marriage, life, anything…that you didn’t hear from her? I wish she’d told me it brought her some joy.

What role did your father play in your childhood? He was as close to perfect as a flesh-and-blood dad could be. Not only did he do things with us (and with evident enjoyment), but he taught us many crucial things by example – to admit the possibility of being wrong, to apologize, to forgive, to think before speaking, to be considerate of others’ feelings, to laugh at oneself. As I grew into mature adulthood, I’ve come to recognize his example of marital commitment, also.

What was your relationship like with your father? With the exception of the Snark Years (ages 12-16), I think it’s always been good.

Have you ever dieted? The keener question is whether I’ve ever NOT been dieting.

Are you happy and/or comfortable with your weight? Not now. I have been, though, in the not-too-distant past.

Would you describe yourself as someone with “body issues?” If so, when do you remember this starting? What do you attribute it to? I wouldn’t, because to me it seems normal, right? It started with puberty, I think; I didn’t develop early, but I once I started, I developed (shall we say?) fully. I didn’t appreciate this one bit – I didn’t like the attention it drew from the boys, I didn’t like the way it made me look fat, and I didn’t like the way it upset my balance. I wanted to dance ballet, and big boobs were a disqualification.

How do you feel about aging? It’s annoying! Reading glasses, blunted hearing, creaky joints – ugh. Menopause, on the other hand, has its advantages.

How do you feel about plastic surgery? I admit disapproving of it being done for vanity’s sake – especially breast augmentation. But this may be a product of my own background experiences. I do recognize there can be justifiable reasons: for example, abdomoplasty to remove the overhang of loose skin after losing large amounts of weight -- I could see myself doing this.

How do you feel about the sexualizing of young women in our society? It’s ineffably deplorable. Tragic. Not only are the young women being cheated, but they’re being conditioned not to recognize it. Young men are being cheated also, prevented from seeing young women for the precious beings they are, instead of objects to be consumed. A giant kudos to corporations acting to counteract this sexualization, such as Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.”

Why did you decide to be a stay-at-home mom? (This is from my recollection of 16 years’ of SAHM-hood). Wanting to give my children the best nurturing environment I could. This isn’t to say it’s always the mom, but in my case I thought it was. And because I wanted to be with them. Finally, because there were so many of them, it wouldn’t have been economically or logistically feasible to arrange child care.

Do you consider it a job? Do you feel that you are valued? Absolutely, and I did feel valued.

Do you feel supported by your partner? Yes.

Do you feel supported by other women? Yes.

What do you love about being a SAHM? Not having “gaps” in my connection with my children’s lives, and having that quantity of quality time for them.

Is there a dark side of being a SAHM? There were times that I was frustrated not being able to do’s an intellectual drive as strong as any physical one. I also needed space with greater frequency; I’m an introvert, in that my emotional batteries recharge by being alone. Fortunately, my husband recognizes this, and he’s always tried to arrange for me to have regular breaks. I think there can also be a tendency to identify too much with one’s children, to live their lives as though they were one’s own. I recognize a stretch of my own SAHM-hood that was regrettably devoted to controlling the details of my eldest daughter’s soccer career…and she was only 11.

What was your career before you had children? I was a graduate student in philosophy. I finished my masters and doctorate over eight years, while having and homeschooling with my children.

Has it been hard to let go of that identity? Or you still identify with that role? As I wrote in the acknowledgements of my doctoral dissertation, “One of the magnificent things about philosophy is its ability to operate on whatever is placed in front of it. In my case, this is the everyday life and long-term plans of a wife and mother of many.” Once I got my Ph.D., I did make sure to put the nomenclature behind my signature whenever it was conceivably excusable. So I guess I’d have to answer this question, “yes.”

If you had a choice to return to work, would you? I did – miraculously, given the job market in collegiate liberal arts! – and I did (though the decision required a gentle nudge – and strenuous situational management – from my husband).

What do you do for a living? I teach philosophy at a major research-extensive university in the SoutheastCollege.

What do you love about being a working mom? The chance to develop my particular talents and use them to make a contribution to the world. I also love watching the reactions of people who know me professionally to learning that I have nine children.

What are the challenges of being a working mom? Because I’m a “tunnel-visionary,” I tend to be consumed by whatever is in front of me at the moment – home, family or work (or blog) – to the detriment of the others. In particular, it’s very difficult not to get sucked into the mindset of an academic professional: publish or perish, race the tenure clock, etc. I just can’t go there; I did, unwittingly, this past fall, and I found myself resenting my family and regretting the decision I made to have one during/after grad school. Thank God I came to my senses shortly thereafter.

If you had a choice to be at home with your children, would you? I have made that choice. I was home with them (in fact, homeschooling them) for 16 years; since returning to work, I’ve tried to arrange my schedule to be home most of the time they are. In fact, I just recently requested to shift to a part-time teaching schedule so I could be home all of the time they are, plus three extra days for taking care of errands, appointments, etc. There are days I’d like to quit and just stay home again, believe me! But I would miss being part of the academic world.

Was the decision an economic one (e.g., your family requires two incomes)? No.

Do you beat yourself up for not spending enough time with your kids? Not at the moment. But last semester, I taught a 175% load (seven sections of classes, where four constitutes full-time for non-tenure track)…and several of my kids had issues of varying kinds and degrees. I do think at least some of these could have been avoided or lessened had I not been working so much.

Do you feel supported by your partner? Most definitely.

Do you feel supported by other women? By my SAHM and working mom friends, yes. By other professional women, not so much. (I should specify: I feel supported by the administrative staff, but not by the other faculty, either men or women – though there are individual exceptions, of course.) A couple of years ago, I attended a panel discussion by my university’s Women’s Initiative Center on the difficulty women faculty have combining career and family. The focus was exclusively on faculty women who THEN want to go on to add a family to their lives. When I asked about support for women with families who THEN try to jump-start a faculty career, I got blank stares from one end of the table to the other before one of the panelists changed the subject.

Do you see evidence of “The Mommy Wars” in your everyday life? I do not, though I’m aware of them. My friend Charmaine Crouse Yoest wrote a very good book on the subject,
MOTHER IN THE MIDDLE, with a fabulously ingenious solution called “radical motherhood.” Y’all should check it out!

Do you feel valued in your workplace? A year ago, I would have said yes unequivocally. But last semester was brutally enlightening, so I can’t now. I will say I feel valued by my students.

Do you feel valued at home? By my husband and the younger kids, yes. The teens? Rarely. But I think that’s an unfortunately typical feature of the teenaged psychological landscape.

Do you believe a happy, fulfilled mom is a better mom whether her choice is to work outside the home or to stay at home with her children? Of course, but I’d take this statement in moderation. I worry that there’s a natural tendency to justify selfishness on grounds like this, when moms and children are better served by learning to find happiness and fulfillment in making life more pleasant for the others, even if that means subordinating one’s own preferences.

Did your mother or another caretaker talk to you about sex and what to expect? I got logistical instruction from my mother, after she discovered I’d found and begun reading EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK. (I’ve since wondered whether the book was in the house precisely to serve as this kind of conversation starter.)

How was your first sexual experience? It was not only unpleasant, but it is one of my most profound regrets…which is really quite remarkable: I’d never been told to wait (being raised in an agnostic, liberated moral environment), so I was entirely unprepared for the overwhelmingly miserable guilt that followed immediately. I kept looking in the mirror, expecting to see horns, or boils, or some physical manifestation of the wrongness. Even now, 30 years later, I’m struck by how acute and intense was this feeling of wrongness, which could not be attributed to anything I’d been taught or conditioned to believe.

Is marriage liberating or inhibiting sexually? It is absolutely -- and uniquely -- liberating. I believe sex is body language for free, total, mutual self-gift, which just is the essence of marriage. That’s why I’m so strongly opposed to sex outside of marriage – and why I think I intuitively recoiled from it that first time: fundamentally, it’s a lie.

What makes you feel sexy? My unreserved and irrevocable love for my husband, and his for me.

What would make your sex life better? More sleep. And getting the teenagers out of the house.

How has having children changed the relationship with your partner? We have to strategize instead of flying by the seat of our pants.

Do you have dates with your partner? Yes! These are indispensable. Even if it’s just a matter of walking around the block or running to McDonalds to share a milkshake (as it often was, in the early and financially strained years of our marriage), this is quite possibly the most important piece of advice we give to young marrieds.

Do you have personal “ME” time scheduled every week/every day?Yes, though I prefer to frame it as “me and God” time, to prevent it from hardening into polished, “entitled” self-absorption.

How do you combat stress? Pray, run or swim, call a good friend, sleep.

Do you get out regularly with girlfriends? Not so much as I’d like. Three houses ago, we had a group of moms who went away for an annual January weekend at Rehobeth beach (one of the gals’ in-laws had a summer house). It is one of my most cherished memories.

Has it been challenging to retain a separate sense of self from your role as mother & wife? Oh, I could write several pages on this topic, given that “self” is a highly charged philosophical concept that I’ve been working with for a couple of years. The short answer is no…because my self is in fact inseparable from these (and other) roles. I mean, think about it: what is the role of mother, or of wife, if not a particular self in relation to particular husband and particular children? No one is ever “just” a wife or mother, as if it’s a generic. And no one is “just” a self, as though it’s a paper doll in her skivvies waiting for roles to be added onto it.

What do you do to facilitate that? Does your partner help make that happen? I think about self-hood, consciously and deliberately, on a regular basis. And I don’t think you need to have a graduate degree in philosophy to do this. (In fact, it might be easier if you don’t!)

Do you help create personal space for your partner? Yes.

Does your partner share in household tasks? Yes.

Are you happy and/or fulfilled with your life? Why? Absolutely! In my case, fulfillment is a direct result of my faith, knowing that God has a plan for me in particular, and knowing that no plan could be better. All I have to do is cooperate (which is easier intended than done, I’ll have to admit, but the effort is worth its weight in peace of mind).

How did you think your life would be when you got married? How do you feel now? I thought I’d have much more control over it! I’ve learned some really difficult but life-preserving lessons about what I can and can’t do for my family. For example, I can teach my kids about right and wrong, but I can’t make their choices for them. And I can’t preserve my furniture from scratches and stains.

Can women do it all? Honey, NOBODY but God can do it all.

Thank you, Kalynne.

The Motherscribe Interviews are closed for comments. For more about Kalynne, please find her at The Philosopher Mom.

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