Tag Archives: men

200,000 Years of Mommy Madness

11 May

Motherhood!  You’d think we humans would have it figured out after 200,000 years as a species.  Apparently not.  While my mother certainly raised a perfect human specimen, thank you very much, TIME magazine’s latest cover (and the bemused, baffled, bewildered responses to it) indicates that questions about what it means to be a “good mom” are still feeding our cultural anxieties.

(Or should I say, they’re still breastfeeding our cultural anxieties?  But maybe that’s a bit much.)

The point is that TIME’s lead story on “attachment parenting,” Dr. Bill Sears, and his devotees liked the pictured mother and son in “Are You Mom Enough?” has already stirred up  controversy and brought moms and motherhood back into public discourse–if, indeed, these topics ever really left us.

In the United States today, the majority of women work.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2010, there were 123 million women in the civilian noninstitutional population, and of this number 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were in the labor force—that is, classified as either employed or unemployed.

Women’s labor force participation is significantly higher today than it was in the 1970s. Women’s labor force participation rate peaked at 60.0 percent in 1999, following several decades in which women increasingly participated in the labor market.

An even greater percentage of American mothers is working also.  Again from the BLS:

The labor force participation rate–the percent of the population working or looking for work–for all mothers with children under 18  was 70.6 percent in 2011.

Cool?  I tend to think so.  My mom worked full-time from the time I was seven or thereabouts (who can remember anything before the millennium anyway?  Didn’t Y2K wipe out all those records?), and I don’t think my sisters and I can complain about much from our childhoods.  Except maybe that our mother did indeed dress a bit like the working women in this old video that we still own on VHS out among the garage spiders somewhere (though I will add that you would never see her wearing loafers with a suit.  It was heels or bust).

And surprisingly for one of my rambling posts, this video is more than a trip down memory lane–watching it now, I wonder why it is that there isn’t a corresponding video called “My Daddy Comes Back” or something.  Is it really so much scarier for children when mommy goes to work than when dad does?  Or is it us, the grown-up video-makers and video-buyers and song-writers and blog-ramblers, that continue to perpetuate that baby’s going to cry only or especially when mom heads off to the office for the day?

Whatever came first, the chicken or the ovum, it certainly seems that working mothers are taking on the burden of this cultural anxiety.  As I understand it, “attachment parenting,” the subject of TIME’s lead story, is a method of child-rearing with the aim of creating a secure bond (or attachment) between parent and child.  Because of the emphasis breastfeeding as one method of fostering that bond, AP proponents especially stress the relationship between mother and child.  And “stress” may be exactly the right word.

Reading about AP theory, I followed a hyperlink trail to Judith Warner’s book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  In the book, Warner discusses the toll and burden that cultural expectations of mothers place on working and non-working moms alike:

Many women of the post-Baby Boom generation simply weren’t prepared to contemplate these kinds of choices.  They didn’t realize just how bad the incompatibility would be between the total freedom of their youth and the culture of total motherhood they’d encounter once they had children.

So while more women are working and more mothers are working women, the pressures that puts on modern women go largely unexplored.  As Warner says, parenthetically:

Happiness has never ranked high as a feminist political goal.

I’m hardly qualified to expound on my own theories of parenting (even if I had some, which I don’t), but as a woman who wants a career and may want children some day, I just want to ask: Shouldn’t it be?

The seeming impossibility of a woman “having it all” is a running joke on tv shows like 30 Rock (with Tina Fey’s career-oriented yet kind of baby-obsessed Liz Lemon).  Just last month the April 19 episode was titled “Murphy Brown Lied to Us.”

I guess I can’t be too surprised.  If the Venus of Willendorf is any indication, even people of the Upper Paleolithic had their own ideas about the feminine ideal.  And I can’t imagine it was any easier for women then.

* * *


How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

* * *

Verdict? The Gender Divide, by David Boultbee

18 Jul

In a world where women have taken the reins in business and politics, it’s men like Ryan Peters under the glass ceiling.  In an attempt to break back into power, the secretive, vaguely-sinister Ryan hatches a complicated plan to level the playing field between the genders once and for all—it’s not easy standing up against a four-hundred year old female executive in a job interview, after all, when you’re only forty.

In the tradition of other socially-conscious science fiction, Boultbee’s novel incorporates contemporary issues of gender disparities into a future world, without (thank god) getting too preachy.

Reading time: One to two weeks.  The Gender Divide is roughly 5,000 Kindle locations (258 physical pages), but the nature of the novel as a “thinking book” makes the story fairly dense.

Recommendation: Somewhere between “hard” and “soft” science fiction.  Descriptions of biological enhancements and Ryan Peters’s weaponized “nanites” are detailed and believable, but just as believable are the portrayals of social and psychological changes in a radically different world.

The Gender Divide is available as an ebook for $4.80, as well as in paperback for all you old-fashioned folks.

Meet the New Boss (review: The Gender Divide)

18 Jul

True or False?  Although women comprise more than 50% of America’s work force, only 12 of those women are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (as of 2009).

That’s an easy question to answer—for both us in anno domini 2012, and the denizens of David Boultbee’s world in The Gender Divide, where a pharmaceutical quirk has led to women living roughly four times as long as men.  In this America (or should I say Noram—a conglomerate of the United States, Canada, and Mexico), it’s women dominating politics and business, and men relegated to “beefcake” roles in Hollywood.

Of course, everyone knows that women tend to have longer life spans than the less-fair sex, and that an adolescent girl is already about a decade older than an adolescent boy in mental age—but compound that by 400 years and this is a different world.

Turnaround’s fair play, bitches.

Here’s how it happens: someone in research and development at a SoCal pharmaceutical company called Delphi, Inc. takes a hint from those obnoxious YAZ commercials and gets the idea that women might pay to get rid of that pesky “monthly curse.”  The solution is the aptly named Menssation, the drug that stops menstrual cycles once and for all.  Which is all good and well until, a couple decades later, Beverly Hills plastic surgeons start to go out of business because women just aren’t aging like they used to.

(All right, so maybe I’m taking liberties with the history—but logically, I’m sure this is how it happened.)

As it turns out, women aren’t dying either. Who knew the toll Mother Nature was taking with that PMS?  With longer lifespans comes greater life and job experience, longer resumes, and overall skyrocketing qualifications for all those positions of power denied in the past.  Goodbye, glass ceiling.  And the resistance?  Wait a generation, and they’ll all be dead.

Yet at the same time a nation of female executives, presidents, senators, and supervisors may seem strange to us, there’s no stopping the status quo.  Or, as put so elegantly into verse by The Who: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Ryan Peters isn’t having it.  An ex-military man with more than a couple secrets, Ryan is one of the few males with a similarly-enhanced lifespan—and he’s using it to fire the opening salvo in a gender war unlike any the suffragists or feminists of American history every imagined.  Unwilling to tip his hat to the new constitution, Ryan sacrifices forty years of his life to the sole purpose of being groomed for an executive position as Delphi’s Vice President of Security.  The goal?  Steal the DNA polymerase that would make it possible for men to increase their own allotment of years and take back control of their lives, careers, and futures.

Things haven’t changed so much, though, that his revolution might not be halted by that age-old derailer of plans—attraction.

The result is a novel with the appeal of both a unique concept and a cast of characters embroiled in the classic drama of a love triangle.  David Boultbee’s The Gender Divide is, first and foremost, an engaging story, but does an excellent job as well in following in the tradition of science fiction as a mirror—not for the future—but for the present.

On his website, Boultbee describes his influences as a writer thusly:

I’ve always loved to read. I can’t recall precisely when Science Fiction and Fantasy became my favorite genres. I’ve always read so much that I think it happened gradually.

Most of my favorite authors today are current authors but I can’t discount the influence that Robert Heinlein had on me. I fondly remember books like The Door Into Summer, Starship Troopers, Citizen of the Galaxy, Space Cadet, Starman Jones, Double Star, and Between Planets. These books shaped me as a person and as a writer. The following excerpt from Wikipedia accurately describes the significance of Heinlein’s work.

“Within the framework of his science fiction stories Heinlein repeatedly integrated recognizable social themes: The importance of individual liberty and self-reliance, the obligation individuals owe to their societies, the influence of organized religion on culture and government, and the tendency of society to repress non-conformist thought.”

Most modern authors incorporate many or all of these themes into their work as a matter of course. It is Heinlein’s legacy to the writers who follow him.

Boultbee’s social topic of choice is the gender divide of our own twenty-first century—by turning the tables on men and women, he forces readers to see the world they take for granted as the far-less-than-egalitarian place that it is.  In some cases this message was a little blatant and could have been woven in a bit less obviously, but overall the novel keeps from becoming overly-pedantic.

Now Reading: The Gender Divide, by David Boultbee

16 Jul

Personally, I wouldn’t mind living four times as long as men (for four times longer, period), but it’s become quite a problem in David Boultbee’s May 2009 novel The Gender Divide.

Ryan Peters is an anomaly. In a world where women live four times as long as men do, Ryan is one of a few men with a similar lifespan. This difference in lifespan has had profound consequences on the world balance of political, economic, and military power and has created a social Gender Divide that threatens to tear the world apart.

Determined to close this Gender Divide, Ryan will sacrifice anything to succeed. The Gender Divide has already cost him the one true love of his life and even though he has a second chance, he won’t let that stand in his way. He is even willing to give up his own life … and in a sense he already has.

Boultbee is a Toronto native with a fondness for Heinlein and his incorporation of social issues into science fiction.  From the official website, here’s the author’s commentary on the novel’s basic premise and concept:

A recurring idea in science fiction involves altering the menstrual cycles of women. It is one of those background items that is just there, much like computers and space travel.

While working at a biotech company, I quickly learned how interconnected all the systems in the body are. It is difficult to affect one part of the body without affecting other parts. That is why so many drugs have side effects.

I started wondering what would happen if there was an unusual side effect to stopping menstruation. Menstruation starts at a young age and runs for roughly forty years. During that time there is a lot of biological activity that is occurring. What happens if that all that energy is available elsewhere? What if women started living longer than men?

That was the early idea for the story. From there I began to wonder how this disparity in life span would impact world politics, economics, the military, and society. The balance of power would gradually shift from men to women, resulting in massive changes.

How The Gender Divide takes on society and abolishes PMS, the Scattering has yet to determine.  But until the next reviews go up, here’s a link to the first chapter of the novel, which Boultbee provides as an excerpt.

Who says men are funny?

17 Apr

Vanity Fair’s flame war between journalists Christopher Hitchens and Alessandra Stanley centered on the supposed gender gap in humor—their articles titled, respectively: “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” and “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”

The irreverent Hitchens, a proud member of the New Atheism “Unholy Trinity” (along with fellow horsemen of the apocalypse Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet), makes the expected argument that humor has its roots in natural selection.  Human males, lacking gaudy tail feathers and large antlers with which to battle other human males, rely on a sense of humor to attract a mate.  On the other hand, a human woman’s reproductive struggle is rather different—the dangers of childbirth requiring that, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “the female of the species must be deadlier than the male.”  Of course, Hitchens doesn’t miss the opportunity to use this as a launching point into a couple one-liners about religion—women being, in their biological solemnity, “the rank-and-file mainstay of religion… the official enemy of all humor.”

Stanley rebuts with a litany of contemporary female comedians (comediennes, to use the gender-specific nounage): Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, and so on—many of whom, she notes, do not fit the “hefty, dykey, or Jewish” boxes Hitchens attempts to place women humorists into.  Only briefly, however, does Stanley touch on Hitchens’ central, evolution-centric argument.  Addressing the nature versus nurture issue, she writes: “It’s a shame that Margaret Mead never made it to that tribe in Papua New Guinea where women tell the jokes, and men pretend to find them funny.”

And yet—that line may be the most compelling point in her entire article.  While Hitchens makes the assumption that men are compelled by nature to make women laugh for reproductive purposes, the truth may be that women are compelled to laugh by culture for their own survival (ask any women who’s felt a duty to giggle for a boorish date).  A follow-up article could easily read: Who says men are funny?

Even Hitchens notes that women aren’t funny because wit, as a sign of intelligence, threatens men attempting to assert their own comic dominance.  But this isn’t a reason for women not evolving humor in the first place—it’s a matter of gender and culture, not sex and nature.

It’s not socially acceptable for women to be funny—sarcasm’s fairly aggressive, and gibes can cut away at a man’s fragile ego (not having, as it is, plumes or horns).  If humor often reveals a subversive perspective, chipping away at established authority, funny women represent a threat.  As an example, Stanley cites the biblical case of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, eavesdropping on her husband and a visiting angel: when the angel tells Abe that his wife (age ninety-plus) will soon conceive a child, Sarah snickers at the tent flap; later, when she does give birth, she names her son the Hebrew word for laughter, Isaac.  That’s one point against Hitchens’ assertion that childbirth is no laughing matter for women.

Sex and gender aren’t synonymous.  If women aren’t funny, the problem isn’t an evolutionary predisposition to be a good audience—it’s a cultural injunction to be a good sport (Hitchens didn’t think Dorothy Parker funny either, by the way).  And that’s something that should make men nervous: perhaps their much-vaunted sense of humor doesn’t really exist, after all.