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Earlier this week on Good Morning America there was yet another story on the body image crisis affecting our pre-pubescent daughters.
We all know our society is hard on girls and women. It values thinness and “beauty” above all else, and propels our girls, at younger and younger ages, into understanding their worth as indiscriminate, sexually objectified things. Infant bikinis, thongs for tweens, sexually over-the-top pop stars…
In her Wall Street Journal article “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?” Jennifer Moses argues that the reason we mothers let our daughters “dress like prostitutes” is largely due to our own sexual regrets. She goes on to speculate that mothers who came of age in what she considers a post-feminist society were perhaps too free with their sexual experimenting.
As a part of the solution to this problem, she subtly advocates abstinence until marriage.
Can female desire come from a pharmaceutical company? Check out filmmaker Liz Canner’s documentary, Orgasm, Inc., and see what you think.
The film, which opened last week at Quad Cinema, explores the focus our culture places on pharmaceutical intervention for all that ails us — even on the most intimate and amorphous level: female arousal.
I wanted to piggyback on David Brooks’ Op-Ed in The New York Times earlier this week. In “Amy Chua Is a Wimp” he appraises Chua’s critique in her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” of the way Americans raise their children to be entitled. However, Brooks takes her to task for not respecting the cognitive learning children and adults bring to bear in their emotional and social lives.
Brooks outs a rarely validated reality: Living our emotional lives as they’re played out in the social arena is the most difficult, lifelong learning curve humans face.
The most important woman in my life is a woman I only met for a couple of minutes.
My sweet daughter Olivia is 14 now, and I’m still so madly in love with her that several times each day I wish I could inhale her. I often think about the young woman known in my household as Angel Cate, whose egg made this child possible, and I send up little agnostic prayers of gratitude to whatever force in the universe brought her life to sit forever next to ours.
I went off birth control when I was 24 and gave birth when I was 33. They never did diagnose why my body didn’t work, but I spent that decade of my life building to a crescendo of desperation in trying to figure it out and fix it and have it be over, so I could meet my baby. I wasn’t then, nor am I now, a woman who’s naturally drawn to children. But I always knew I wanted a shot at living out the clean love I fantasized a mother might feel toward her child.
When we began sliding into infertility treatment, the science was new and labor intensive. Every stage of it, as it unfolded in my body and my marriage, demanded a physical diligence and a consuming emotional preoccupation that I thought at times would take me down. It strung together mercilessly, making us not believe we were in our third year of trying, then our fourth … well surely it’ll happen this cycle … yet there we were in our eighth year, then approaching our tenth. I stopped counting surgeries and procedures after the seventh in vitro. And still, 104 times, my period came. Each month, more hope rinsing out of my body.
As my chances of conceiving continued to fade, I spent a couple of those years reluctantly contemplating the idea of donor eggs, and weighing my ambivalence about carrying another woman’s baby against never having the chance to carry one at all. I’d grown up in a family in which there were always stop orders being placed on what was thought of as love, so I’d learned early on that genetic connections guarantee nothing, but that understanding wasn’t enough to disconnect me from wondering if I could love a baby that wasn’t my own.
When my last in vitro failed, we decided we would try one more time with a donor, if we could find one we agreed on. Through a friend I found a psychologist who advertised for, and screened potential donors. She mailed us a chart of available women, each of them accompanied by the standard descriptive terms: height, ethnicity, eye color, IQ and so on. We selected three from that list and requested the full packet on each of those women, which would include a lengthy questionnaire, completed in the donor’s own handwriting, and Xeroxed photographs.
The afternoon the three packets arrived in the mail, I was home alone. I was scared to open the white 8 1/2 x 11 envelope they came in, because I felt like it contained the prognosis for my future, so I laid it on the table and sat next to it for a little while. When I was as ready as I was capable of being, I opened the first one. Before I could even engage in reading the woman’s questionnaire I was overcome by the fact that it was peppered with bubble exclamation points and “i”s dotted with smiley faces, and I became immediately uncomfortable. People from that stratosphere of perkiness make me edgy. I feel badly about this, but it’s true. The second packet stirred almost no reaction in me, and then I started to feel flat and numb — a sign my emotional rheostat was dimming off to protect me from the pain of what it would mean if I didn’t connect with the last donor profile laying on the table.
But when I opened Angel Cate’s packet and saw the warmth in her eyes, all my ambivalence fell away. I read her thoughtful responses to the questions about being an egg donor, and said to myself: I can do this with this woman.
My husband felt exactly the same.
I didn’t want to meet Angel Cate when the three of us were trying to conceive my daughter. We were in the same hospital at the same time, but after so many years of what felt to me like the loss of baby after baby, I was irrationally afraid that if we met her, and I did get pregnant, she would somehow be more inclined to take the infant back. I also felt protective of the positive reaction I’d had to seeing her on paper, and didn’t want anything to mess that up.
Instead, we passed along to her a gift, with a note containing feelings drawn all the way up from my toes. I knew if I were to get pregnant, I wasn’t opposed to having our child meet Angel Cate, if that’s what the child wanted, but I was certain I didn’t want to start out on that foot. When we learned the pregnancy had taken hold, we asked the psychologist to please share this miraculous news and our profound appreciation with Angel Cate, who then sent her congratulations back to us.
The pregnancy was a joy. A joy. But by noon on the day Olivia was due to be born, not having had any symptoms of labor yet, a part of me couldn’t help but go back to that dark psychological place we’d been living in for so long, and I asked my husband, “What if she’s not coming? What if all of this has been a dream, and we wake up and never meet her?”
Olivia was born a week later, and it didn’t at all feel like I was meeting her. It felt like I had known her my whole life.
When Olivia was 16 months old, we contacted the psychologist to see if Angel Cate, who had said she’d be open to a second donation, was willing to try again. She was. Once again we took drugs to coordinate our menstrual cycles, and once again we were in the same hospital in separate rooms.
During the surgery to have her eggs harvested, there was a glitch. The HCG injection that causes the release of the eggs had apparently shot blanks; the eggs weren’t retrievable, and the procedure was stopped. Afterward, the doctor gave her the choice to consider this the end, or to take a second injection of HCG and return in 36 hours to undergo another surgery. The chances of the eggs being viable had dropped significantly due to the inability to retrieve them at their ripest point, but she chose to do it again anyway, and this second time, I could not leave the hospital without meeting her.
While Angel Cate was in recovery, lying on a gurney and coming out from under the anesthesia, she’d given her permission for me to come in. I had no idea how to begin to tell her what she meant to us, and as I was hoping to say something to her to do her justice, she looked up at me with a calm smile and asked, “How’s your baby?”
My eyes had been full of tears before I’d even walked into the room, and the generosity she held out to me in her choice of those three words, and all that they revealed about this young woman, made them crest and fall. I told her she had given us an amazing little person and I handed her the silver box I’d gotten her with a lock of Olivia’s hair inside its velvet lining.
She thanked me and said she’d been happy to do it, and told me how sorry she was that the HCG hadn’t worked. I told her we had worked as hard to have a life as we would have to save a life, and that she had given us life. Then I kissed her on the cheek and said what you say to someone who has given you a gift you can never possibly repay: Thank you.
The three of us did conceive again, but I lost the baby. Shortly after the miscarriage, I wrote Olivia a fairy tale about Angel Cate, and my husband illustrated it. I wanted her to know that in this world such dimensions of humanity exist. They are out there; and they are in her. We read it to her at bedtime as often as we read Goodnight Moon.
Once upon a time,
in a kingdom deep, deep in the center of two hearts,
there lived a King and a Queen.
The kingdom was safe and warm,
with soft cool breezes,
and the King and Queen were quite happy there.
The only problem was that this kingdom was dimly lighted,
and the King and Queen longed for a brightness
to illuminate the land.
and each night
they dreamt of brightness,
but it did not come.
Now it just so happened
that there was a distant star
way above the kingdom.
And this star
was governed by a third heart,
the heart of Angel Cate.
One magical night,
after nine years of dreaming,
the synchronized pulsing
of the King and Queen’s hearts
propelled the dream
up into the sky.
As the beating of their hearts
Angel Cate’s heart
began to beat in exactly the same rhythm,
and it pulled their dream
all the way up to her star.
The sound of the hearts beating together
was so powerful
that the star began to sparkle.
Angel Cate reached into the
and sprinkled it onto the dream,
and floated it gently back down
to the King and Queen.
As soon as the stardust was
absorbed by the King and Queen,
the kingdom began to glow.
And from the love
in each of the three hearts,
of the King, the Queen, and Angel Cate,
a fourth heart
brighter than the King and Queen
began to beat.
This was the heart of
The Baby of Light.
And from that day forward,
the tempo of Olivia’s heart
set the sun
to wash golden over the day,
and the moon
to wash white over the night.
What began as my ambivalence about having another woman’s baby has alchemized into a purity of love for both Olivia and Angel Cate, and I realize the longer I love Olivia, the more indebted to Angel Cate I become.
My daughter has a capacity for empathy that blows me away. She is smart and true to herself, and she has a wicked sense of humor. The privilege of loving her has been my resurrection.
To this day, she will occasionally take her fairy tale off the book shelf and we’ll snuggle together and read it, just as we will occasionally go to the desk drawer and carefully take out Angel Cate’s packet and read her words, and touch the picture of her face.
This is our love story.
Last week was the 37th anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision.
It’s a time in our history when the emotional support of a woman’s right to choose is still uneasy and unsettled, and insurance coverage for abortion is an active battle fraught with contention.
In many ways politics have removed us from women’s personal experience.
In the Abortion Questionnaire of my Women’s Realities Study women are making clear the individualized seriousness with which they contemplated their decision to end a pregnancy. They also reveal how personal a decision it is to live with. The choice can be heartbreaking, but if we lived in a society without the ability to make that choice, imagine how much more heartbreak there would be. Here is a representative sample of the range of responses to the question:
What do you want others to understand about your experience of abortion?
- That women do not have abortions out of carelessness or because we enjoy them. We have them to get out of the trap that our own body sometimes sets us. If society valued women and children more, we might not feel as if motherhood would back us into a corner.
- That it was OK. I don’t regret it and it doesn’t haunt me. It helped me make some hard choices which have ultimately improved my life tremendously.
- It’s a horrible, degrading, stupid thing to do.
- I want others to realize that many women have had an abortion. I want people to realize that just because I support abortion, that just because I had an abortion, does not mean that I am proud of my decision. I want people to realize that they should not talk about abortion indiscriminately, because they don’t know who is in the room. Several times since then it has come up in conversation with people who do not know that I have had an abortion, and each time, I want to ask them, “How do you know I haven’t had one?” I don’t, of course…
- Birth control failures can happen, even to well-educated and well-off individuals. When they occur, pregnancy is a natural consequence. Ending a pregnancy is a very personal decision. Reasons for doing so are not something that can be fully understood by anyone but the woman involved. It is MY body and therefore I should decide what to do with it. I decided to have sex before marriage, and I decided how to deal with the consequences. Better to have two less babies in the world than to have three miserable people now. Being a mother is not all about raising children – it is about the emotional and physical bond that forms during pregnancy. I didn’t want that bond.
To that end, I am ashamed at myself when I think about the shame I felt going through the procedure. I should have held my head up high. It’s just so hard when you feel like everyone around you is judging you.
- That not everyone who has an abortion is an unwed teenager. That one out of every couple hundred pregnancies involves a chromosome abnormality and that no one takes lightly the decision to end a pregnancy.
- It is not something that any women I know take lightly or use as a form of birth control. It is a major tragic decision that no one wants to make, but some of us are forced to. I never thought I would be someone who had three abortions. I did not have sex until I was 18, I used birth control always except one weekend (yes it is true), I did not want to watch my child live in pain only to ultimately die a painful death from a severe heart defect, I also did not want my older daughter to watch her sister die, I did not want to bring a sick child into this world that would be in chronic pain and fight an illness for the rest of his life, I did not want my other children to loose their mother because I was off caring for a sick child all of the time. I made these choices out of careful thought and love. I do not regret my choices.
- It sucks! You never fully heal. It is so much better to go through the hassle of safe sex than to live with the feelings.
I went to confession about 25 years later and the priest, who was a very good man, asked me if I had ever thought of a name for the baby. And I said yes, I thought I would have named him Michael. He said that was the name he was thinking at that moment as well. This brought me some level of peace.
- Even if it is a choice we can make, it is an extremely difficult one. Seek the support you need.
- I am a bright, college-educated woman and found myself pregnant. It was an agonizing choice, but a choice that my mother helped me make.
And to remind us that this isn’t a always a decision women make alone, in my entire study of over 1,200 questions, the only question to receive 100% unanimity was this:
Q: If married or in a committed relationship, was your partner supportive of the abortion?
Living in a culture in which women can carry shame or feel vilified for having an abortion, it would serve us well to remember this is very often a decision made in concert with men. The silent partners of abortion.
When someone is desperate, they go to extremes. It’s a psychological survival tactic. Like when someone first hears a cancer diagnosis, and they pray to God, promising they’ll do anything if only the cancer would go away.
In both the individual and society, desperation is driven by fear. And fear and low self esteem make up the root system of discrimination. There are millions of Americans who were already fearful enough in their lives to have become discriminatory of gender, race and sexual orientation; and now those fears have been sharpened into a knife of hatred by our vulnerable economy.
If what someone has been relying on to feel better about themselves is a belief that they’re better than women, African Americans and homosexuals, what does that person do when their world turns upside down and an African American becomes their President? And women continue to want control over their reproductive rights? And gays want to live without bias?
Their desperation is driven outward into society.
When Republican leaders incite further fear in communities with these beliefs systems by inaccurately labeling Obama as totalitarian, as recently occurred for example with Rep. Nunes, they take great risks.
Consider the dynamic of the Weimar Republic. When people feel as though they are lesser, they crave a sense of belonging and leadership — at almost any cost. All they want is relief from whatever they feel is causing their oppression, and if they’re offered a sense of belonging in hatred and racism by leaders, their fear is legitimized and gains momentum.
When this happens, moderates must step in to help more rational heads prevail. They must offer leadership that’s driven by a desire to transform hate into a more productive force for both the individual and society.
Those who govern can promote healing or hate. It’s the psychological difference between pouring water or gasoline on a fire, and sometimes, these psychological fires become sociopolitical ones capable of extinguishing moderation.
Moderates: take care not to be complicit in having your party, as you once knew it, pulled out from under you. The hatred you’re helping foment won’t have an expiration date. It will be capable of lasting far beyond your short-term political use of it, and you may end up with bigger tea stains on the fabric of your country than you’re prepared for.
I can’t think of another figure on television who’s done more to encourage us as a culture to rise to the highest common denominator.
MacNeil and Lehrer come to mind, but they began as a team and their purview was and is limited to news, whereas Winfrey’s platform is broader and the choice of subject matter completely under her control.
It upsets me that people commonly speak and write about her with dismissal in their tone, as if she were merely something soft and fluffy for inconsequential women who watch daytime TV. One take on that perspective is that it’s an unconscious expression of our society’s sexism and racism. Who cares what women feel, let alone this Black woman?
Fortunately for us, one of the things Winfrey has worked on is expanding our understanding that everyone is someone of consequence — especially those who’ve felt the most marginalized. And she’s done this by simply letting those people tell their stories.
She’s created a human encyclopedia we can refer to to pull us out of our ignorance and into a place of empathy. Feel shame in believing no one would understand what it’s like to be incested? Here are 25 years of stories to help the public understand so you can feel supported in your healing. Hate that fag down the street? Here are 25 years of stories that will help you see him as your neighbor. Feel like you’re so impoverished and beaten down you can’t have hope? Here are 25 years of stories to guide you and keep you company as you put one foot in front of the other.
Winfrey respects her content and her viewers. How many network shows of any genre can truly say that? She doesn’t scream throughout her show, or pit people against each other for ratings, and she doesn’t dumb down. She lets her guests speak, and — here is what really sets her apart — she listens.
I first remember starting to appreciate Oprah when she did her series on race in the ’90s, bringing together in her studio angry members of communities affected by the LA race riots.
She continued to make affecting television, going on to produce her Random Acts of Kindness campaign; her Angel Network; her advocacy of children, especially those in danger; her championing of literacy; and her Pay It Forward challenge. She gave attention to international plights as well as domestic ones, and without preaching, encouraged viewers to be good citizens. In sharing her stage with experts she taught us how to take better care of our physical, mental, sexual and spiritual health; and in welcoming all kinds of families she made sure we saw love as their unifying feature. And at last, someone consistently used a public forum to give mothers and teachers the respect they’ve always been due.
This would have been enough to elevate television, but she went further and put her money and time where her mouth is. Even better, she challenged us to do the same, and we did.
We come from a history of disregarding feeling as frivolity, and prior to Oprah we hadn’t paid attention to its heft. She understood that our emotional lives inform every single thing we do.
We think emotion has nothing to do with intelligence, business, commerce, religion or politics. But it’s the foundation for all of it. It’s emotional life that drives the need for a sense of safety and that need dictates everything, whether it gets played out in a huge arena like war or a small one like making sure your kid’s shoes are tied. Emotional life is what creates a Bernie Madoff and it’s also what creates an Elie Wiesel. Winfrey improved our culture by validating the meaning of feeling and how it connects us to each other.
The reason for our dismissal of Winfrey is exactly why we should value her: since emotional life has historically been seen as the domain of females, she represents the voice of women. What we should be grateful to her for is having become undeniable proof of the figurative and literal power those voices contain.
I, for one, will really miss the Oprah show, but I have to say also I’m excited to see what she does next.
This is not for you if you’re one of those people who thinks about the upcoming holidays with your family and considers how very lucky you are to have each other.
This is for the people who think of the holidays with their families and consider opiates.
Just thinking about stories from my practice over the years, or from the women in my study, or my friends lives, they combine to form a stark landscape. No wonder so many of us find it hard to survive in it. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there behind the sheen of holiday joy and togetherness: physical, sexual and emotional abuse, cruelty, betrayal, neglect, humiliation, manipulation, undermining, withholding…
Many of us spend a good portion of our lives trying to effect the change we long for in our families, hoping that one day things will click and healthy love will be conveyed. And sometimes, it happens. But if we’ve gotten to the point where, despite our efforts, it feels like year after year we’re pouring our hope into a colander, those are feelings we need to respect.
The loss involved in unfastening ourselves from the fantasy of the family we may never have can be intense. But it may be worth it if we look over our lives to date. Step back and evaluate.
If we’ve tried over time to find resolution to whatever the tension is and our family won’t collaborate with us in getting there, or if our suffering consistently outweighs moments of harmony, we may want to detach either temporarily or permanently.
One of the most painful parts of feeling emotionally apart from our families is the sense of being alone in the world, especially during the holiday season when it seems like everyone else is caught up in the celebration of it all. But I can offer this assurance: you’re not alone. There’s a community of millions of others who feel similarly, whether they show it or choose to hide it.
If the healing we need can’t come from inside our families, then it’s more hopeful to put our time and energy into cultivating relationships elsewhere.
So if your fantasy of your family can’t be realized, create a new one for yourself. Fantasize about the kind of people you’d love to spend holiday time with, then try to build it out and actualize it. Bring new people into your life and deepen any existing relationships you want to. Contribute to the intimacies you choose rather than the ones you were born into.
Take love where you find it, love those who earn it, and build a family of friends you’d be happy to have pass you the gravy.
So let’s say it’s a random weekday morning and you’re getting ready for your day while the morning news is on. Your ears perk up when you hear a story on the “Top Ten Companies” to work for if you’re a mother or pregnant; and you think to yourself, “This is good news — how far we’ve come.”
You may think you’re awake, but not awake enough.
The realities lurking behind the myth that we live in a post-feminist society are exposed by historian Barbara Berg with eloquence, fine research and heartfelt passion in her new book, Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future.
Sexism exists in obvious forms, but she highlights how it also thrives underground. Taking the example above, for working women considering maternity leave, sexism stays alive in the subtext. Women are still being fired for getting pregnant, and getting demoted when they return from maternity leave.
“…Employees know they’re viewed as not serious enough if they take advantage of these policies” states one executive recruiter, a stance Berg backs up with personal stories of women who were demoted or lost their jobs after taking the leave they were guaranteed by their employers. “All over the country women report similar scenarios, and many of the offenders were among the thirty companies routinely designated by Working Mother magazine as the country’s “Best Companies to Work For.’”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The statistics and stories of reproductive rights and health care are a chilling embarrassment to our country. I can’t get the story of Regina McKnight out of my head:
“In May 2001 [in South Carolina], as McKnight grieved over the stillborn death of her third daughter, Mercedes, I’m sure she didn’t imagine she’d end up in prison. But she was soon put on trial for the death of her baby. After deliberating for fifteen minutes the jury reached a verdict. McKnight, a homeless, seasonal tobacco-farm worker with a tenth-grade education [in classes for the mentally impaired] and no criminal record, addicted to drugs after her mother was run over by a truck and killed, became the first woman in America convicted of murder for using cocaine while pregnant. She was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, reduced to twelve.”
Despite outcries of support for Ms. McKnight from highly regarded medical, public health and reproductive health professionals and organizations, the Supreme Court refused to review the case.
How can this exist in a post-feminist society, Berg asks?
Although she examines affluent and middle class women and girls, Sexism in America is especially admirable for her attention to the populations that truly need their voices amplified: the working poor; the unemployed poor; the completely marginalized women in prison; and, the most innocent of all, impoverished children on our own soil.
Her analysis covers the years under Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II as well as the beginning of the Obama administration. She tracks the effective organizing power of the extreme Right and explores post 9/11 fear and its effect on how we view gender roles. Violence against women and popular culture’s portrayals of women (which overlap in ways more gruesome than you might imagine) and many other topics — some regarding what our girls are exposed to — are brought into focus as they relate to the future for women and girls. And in her conclusion, she offers pages of resources and suggestions for women who want to be a part of this national dialogue toward equal rights, ranging from running for office to receiving email petition alerts.
Like Backlash, Sexism in America will galvanize us, but it’s an easier read and will appeal to more women because Berg writes with an ease that makes you feel as if you’re engaged in a discussion with her. I almost felt the presence of other women while reading her — as if I were part of a larger group, all of us dropping our jaws together.
It’s a tribute to her that in spite of all the madness she reveals I didn’t feel defeated. I felt energized. And eager to be a part of this third wave of feminism.