Thursday, January 24, 2013

Prettying up the Poop

When J and I were preparing to get married a few years ago, I spent an ungodly amount of time and energy thinking about the way that everything looked. I committed that common sin of thinking about the wedding instead of preparing for the marriage. Fortunately, it turned out mostly fine on the marriage front. I mean, I have every day to think about that. I probably spend too much time thinking about that. In any case, I spent all this time—as people in my cohort tend to do—thinking about table settings and escort-cards. I believed that if I chose the perfectly representative escort-cards, they would signify “Anneness” so much so that I’d hardly have to be physically present. I remember earnestly wanting to strike this balance between outdoor ease, casual refinement, and crafty, DIY elegance. You can imagine why I spent the week of the wedding popping Xanax and why J and I still have never looked at all our wedding photos. My aesthetic desires collided with pressures of time, budget, practicality, and reason. But at the time it felt so important...

And so as I approach all of the preparations for the birth of our first baby, I’m trying to force myself to remember this lesson: that there needs to be some sort balance between aesthetic desire and pragmatic need. But it’s more complicated than that. At this point I’ve spent far, far more time thinking about the baby—reading about the baby, journaling about the baby, talking to the baby—than I have spent thinking about the way child preparation and childrearing appear. Maybe I’m maturing...

But still, I backslide. Take, for example, my project of the last couple evenings: sewing cloth diaper wipes. [I suppose I should preface this whole discussion by noting that we plan to cloth diaper the wee one. If you’re grossed out by the idea of poop in our washing machine, best to skip to the next paragraph]. I decided that if we were going to devote time to cloth diapering, we might as well cloth wipe as well. So I went to the fabric store on Monday and bought a few yards of cheap flannel, cut it up, and began stitching around the perimeter of each wipe to prevent fraying in the wash. This was supposed to be a grossly utilitarian product. These wipes will become, of course, poop-stained before too long. And yet...well, I couldn’t just leave it at that. So I found myself changing the thread and bobbin every few wipes. I told myself that I was doing this to stave off the boredom of sewing squares of fabric, but as my pile began to resemble a rainbow, I knew I had deceived myself. This was intentional. I knew what I was doing. I wanted my damned diaper wipes to look just right. How nuts is that?

And then there was the matter of the crib bumper. Bumpers are no longer, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011, recommended. They have been potentially, loosely linked to SIDS and suffocation. I found this out in the middle of my bumper-sewing weekend a couple months ago. Any reasonable, sane person would have received this news with glee and thought to herself, “great, one thing off my list.” But not I. Instead, I almost mourned the news and then decided that as I was nearly finished with them, I might as well complete the job. I used the same logic when I put them in the crib last week: I might as well see what they look like. Frankly, I’m worried what this logic might turn into: I might as well see what they look like during the day and remove them each night for sleeping. [I have to admit, by the way, that I’m a little confused about the suffocation threat for a baby who cannot even roll over, but why go there?]. In any case, here again aesthetic desire trumped practicality...and maybe even medical science.

There’s also the list of 22 more things that I want to make or finish before he arrives. Instead of getting shorter, the list keeps growing and growing. Sometimes I think about just breaking down and buying some of the things instead of running a continuous one-woman-sweat-shop in my off-hours. But somehow each time I search etsy or amazon, I get this queasy sensation in my stomach and feel like I’m doing wrong by my child, that lump of flesh and bones who will, in all likelihood, never notice my efforts, at least not for half a dozen years. And so I’m left to reason that I’m doing all of this inane stuff not for the baby, but for myself, in order to continue to tell myself a particular story about myself, one that is just now translated into the setting of childrearing. It’s the wedding all over again.

But that explanation feels somehow insufficient. I think it feels so because on some core level, I believe in the therapeutic benefits of carefully constructed environs. Our home, of course, is truly modest. Our decor is, to say the least, humble. Our rooms are not the spaces of design magazines or interior blogs. I often look at them and fantasize about what I would do with $5000 or even $500. As simple as they are, though, they convey a certain feeling of comfort to me each evening when I get home and each morning when I wake up. I see their flaws, of course, but I also take pleasure in their small triumphs. This is, I know, one of the most elementary facts of homemaking. I’m not breaking any new ground here. But nonetheless, this simple lesson feels urgent in the context of child preparation. I neither want to abandon the commitment I’ve made to my own aesthetic environment nor do I want my child to inhabit a space that feels wrong or haphazard.

I don’t kid myself that what’s happening here is anything but a kind of bourgeois rejection of the accoutrements of mainstream child-rearing in favor of a different, but no less culturally-constructed, aesthetic.** I don’t want plastic in my house. I don’t want battery-operated flashing lights in my living room. I don’t wants chemicals and crap littering my spaces. I don’t want that stuff because somehow it feels like a violation of the environment that I’ve spent so much time cultivating. It may be wasted time, but it’s time nonetheless. The question is why don't I balk at wooden dollhouses, felted balls, rough-hewn play kitchens, homemade mobiles.

Everyone seems to suggest that once the baby arrives, I’ll no longer have the luxury of having these boxing matches in my brain. That may be so. But it doesn’t seem totally wrong to try to establish some sort of organizing principle for myself in terms of the aesthetics of child rearing here in the middle of Kentucky. Any advice?

**This starts to get at a much larger question/problem that’s been kicking around in my head for the last half dozen years about embedded class and cultural implications and assumptions of aestheticized childrearing on mommy blogs. A problem that I’ll surely inhabit in coming months and years...

Friday, January 18, 2013


For the first time in fourteen or fifteen years of teaching, I’m doing it with someone else. That someone else also shares my house, my dog, and the baby currently crowding out my internal organs. J and I have talked for a few years about wanting to teach together, but this semester, we’ve finally taken the plunge, and I wanted to be sure to leave a record for myself about how this has worked and what it feels like on most days.

We’re teaching a class on the Civil War and the American imagination. It looks a lot like a course I would teach without J and it also looks a lot like a course he would teach without me. We’re reading novels, poems, autobiographies, and other primary sources. We’re also looking at movies, engravings, and photographs.

So far we’ve met four times as a class, twice to talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and twice to talk about Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. The class is lively; all of the 23 students have been vocal and they actually talk to one another, instead of just to us. We’ve already contended with the rebel flag, “southern pride,” Uncle Tom, hardcore reenactors, and the general seepage of white supremacy in the South. We’re not moving in chronological order, which has J crawling out of his skin, but me feeling liberated from historiographical norms.

In just four classes, I’ve already had a chance to observe just how gendered our individual styles can be. After the first class, J observed that I seem to be “obsessed” with conveying my own authority. Damn straight. He also observed that I needed larger clothes to cloak my whale-like form from our students. Recovering from the punch to his midsection, he conceded that he has male privileges in the classroom. He doesn’t have to think about how his body is on display nor does he have to convey authority in order to forestall critiques of female intellectual incompetence.

It was during our meeting on Tuesday when I watched—during a particularly heated conversation about racial violence—as he knitted his brow and repeated, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know what to say about that.” He then dramatically fell back into his seat, whipped off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and loudly whispered (his choice mode of sounding smart and urgent), “I just don’t know how to respond to that.” It was, of course, all for effect. He did know how to respond, but he could recur to this rhetorical ploy because he is not liable to be considered an airhead or insufficiently mature. If I were to try it, I can only imagine the titters of students, “Does she know anything?” He can exercise a full range of approaches: the fool, the doubter, the dunce, the devil’s advocate. I, on the other hand, do indeed feel the need—but perhaps not the obsession—to convey authority.

I’ve also noticed that male students pose questions directly to Josh, but that’s an issue for another day....

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holiday Scenes 2012

We’re back in Kentucky and have begun another semester of teaching and writing. Our holiday travels were long and refreshing; we drove to Michigan and then flew to California for J’s Dad’s 70th birthday celebration. Homer enjoyed two uninterrupted weeks of pleasure with his pal Lucy in Traverse City. I flirted with various unfinished projects and finally put the final stitches in a pair of felt elephants (doesn’t every child need felt elephants on the bookshelf?) and a hooded sweater for a friend’s boy born Monday morning. We walked the beach and stared at the unending Pacific. J and Homer traipsed through the northern snow and we decorated cookies late one night in December. Now we’re settling in for ten more weeks until the little man makes his appearance.