Category Archives: Mama w/ Pen

MAMA W/PEN: Work, Life, and Repentance

Note: This post originally here on, a new site offering “a Jewish twist on parenting, everything a Jewish family could need for raising Jewish children–including crafts, recipes, activities, Hebrew and Jewish names for babies…and advice from Mayim Bialik.”  We reprint it today, a few days later, in honor of Labor Day!

Sept 1, 2011

For those not in the know (and until yesterday, I counted myself among you), today marks the first day of a new month on the Jewish calendar: Elul.

The morning begins like any other: our toddler twins wake up screaming, I change diapers, prepare breakfast, play with them, get them dressed, call my parents so that they’ll Skype with them while I shower and give me time to actually wash my hair.  As I get the computer ready and open the door to the bedroom, wherein our linen closet lies, to find a towel, I realize that this morning is not like all others.  It’s the first of Elul.

I enter the bedroom and find my husband Marco wrapped in the tallis my parents bought him for our wedding, and my father’s tefillin (phylacteries).  Two Judaic reference books lay open on our bed, illuminated by the glow of his iPad, which is on.  It’s his first time laying tefillin, and he’s trying to follow the rules.

I’ve come in to hustle him into the shower—I need to get ready before the babysitter arrives so I can start my workday on time, he needs to shower first and get out the door!  But seeing him dressed in the regalia of full Judaic manhood stops me in my tracks.

“Oh—I’m sorry,” I murmur, slightly embarrassed that I’ve walked in on him this way.

He looks up from the texts.  I notice a YouTube video streaming on the iPad: How to Lay Tefillin. “This is going to take some time,” he says.

I restore his privacy by closing the door.

In the Hebrew calendar, Elul is the twelfth month of the year.  In Jewish tradition, it’s a month of repentance and preparation for the biggest holidays of the year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The word “Elul” is similar to the root of the verb “search” in Aramaic.  According to the Talmud, the Hebrew word “Elul” is an acronym for “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” which means “I am to my Beloved as my Beloved is to me” – a line often recited at Jewish weddings.  In this case, the Beloved is G-d.  Put it all together and during this month of Elul, we’re supposed to search our hearts and draw close to G-d in preparation for the big holidays, on which we are judged and atone.

I’m moved by Marco’s embrace of the rituals.  Just one Elul ago, he dipped in the Upper West Side mikvah in the presence of three rabbis and officially became a Jew.  His becoming a Jew is the most romantic thing I’ve ever encountered, on so many levels.  He did it so that we could raise our boos as Jews and he would know what to do.

But on this particular morning, this first morning of Elul, I’m cranky.  Either I didn’t get enough sleep, or the sleep I got was interrupted, I’m not sure.  After Marco emerges from the bedroom, I’m still compulsively pestering him to hurry.  I can’t seem to stop myself, even though I’m aware, now, that this day is special for him.  But it’s also now become stressful for him: Since the time spent on davening conflicted with his getting ready for work, he’s made himself late.  He already feels rushed so he lashes out at me, a rare occurrence.  I breathe tightly and murmur “f*ck you too,” under my breath.

“F*ck you too,” echoes a sweet little voice.  Baby Girl.   My crankiness breaks and I walk into the bathroom, where Marco is now showering, to share.

My Beloved and I share a chuckle.  We remind ourselves how careful we have to be with our words around here these days.

And how careful, I’m reminded, we should be with each others’ hearts, too.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“I know,” he says.

He tells me how Baby Boy had spotted him from the hallway when he was busy donning the tallis and tefillin, and laughed.  “I think he thought it was funny,” Marco says.

“He’s not used to seeing you that way,” I say.  “Or maybe he thought it was Hallowe’en.”

Frankly, I can relate.  I’m not used to seeing my mod, handsome Puerto Rican husband wrapped in the accoutrements of a traditional Jew.  When he first told me he was interested in learning how to lay tefillin, I rolled my eyes.  We’re not Orthodox; we don’t keep kosher; Marco grew up Roman Catholic, for Chrissake.

But seeing him there this morning, hands and head bound by the leather straps my great grandfather, an immigrant from Russia, gave to my father when he was bar mitzvahed at thirteen, I’m humbled by the extent to which Marco’s conversion has prompted my own remedial education as a Jew.  What I’m learning is not knowledge, per se, but practice.  We’ve started playing a recording of the bedtime sh’ma for the babies before they fall asleep.  We light candles and eat challah, which Baby Girl affectionately calls “agah”, on Shabbat.  We observe all the holidays—even the minor ones with names I used to mix up, like Tisha Ba’av and Tubishvat.   To the extent that we can, we’re creating a life lived in sync with the Jewish seasons.  It’s given our life beautiful new grounding amidst the swirl of potty training, jobs, earthquakes, and hurricanes too.

Later this morning, Marco leaves for work.  The boos Skype quickly with my parents and I get my shower.  I feel repentant.  Even if I don’t get to shampoo.

K’tiva VaHatima Tova, a todos.  And Marco: may the search find you, and your heart, renewed.

MAMA W/PEN: Updates from My New Gig

A number of folks chided me for not including a link to the opEd when I wrote about process of writing that oped here last month for  Er, whoops.  So here it is!  Bachmann, Palin and a New Season for Sexism.

And while I’m on it, it’s been a quite a week for a number of OpEd Project alums who are also writing opEds:

*Tera Hunter, a historian at Princeton this spring, ran an opEd in the New York Times this week “Putting an Antebellum Myth about Slavery to Rest

*Meg Urry, an astrophysicist at Yale, published an opEd this week in CNN Opinion, “Heavenly Discoveries, Earthly Interventions

A ton of GWP readers–and bloggers–are prime candidates for writing opEds.  You can read about the kinds of things The OpEd Project does with universities and nonprofits.  If you’re interested in bringing a seminar (or one of our longer programs) to your campus or organization, please email me at deborah[at]theopedproject[dot]org.  I’d love to work with you.

MAMA W/PEN: A Day and a Half in the Life of an Op-Ed

Say yesI wasn’t planning on spending a day and a half turning around an op-ed.  But when editors from certain venues call, I jump.  Some opportunities are just too good to turn down.

Colleagues—especially, often, academics—sometimes ask me how it’s possible to turn something around with the speed that today’s media requires.  So I thought I’d break it down, blow by blow, in an effort to demystify the process and show how it is possible to hop on the news when you’re ready with expertise—even on a day when you have other things planned.  I hope this helps!

(A note of gratitude: I could not have made this happen had my babysitter not been flexible and able to stay that extra hour.  Thank you, Erica.  This one’s for you.)

Day 1

1:01pm – I check my email before walking into a restaurant where I’m slated to meet a colleague for lunch.  There’s an email from an editor from national news outlet, inviting me to write—quickly!—an opinion piece of 500-700 words on a general topic she suggests.  I haven’t written for this outlet before.  I know what this opportunity means.  I get fired up, order a Caesar salad with egg, then email the editor to say that I could file a draft by end of day tomorrow and ask whether that would work.  That time frame feels realistic, given what else I have slated for that day (specifically, this lunch, a short meeting, a hospital visit, and a babysitter to relieve at 6pm).

1:40pm – I receive a second email from the editor.  It’s a hot topic and they’d really like to run it tomorrow morning.  Could I file it today?  I tell her I can get it to her later tonight.  The editor asks for my approach, my thesis.  I tell her I’ll get back to her with it soon.

2:15pm – I walk my colleague back to her office, have a brief meeting while there concerning other topics, then read a number of online articles related to the op-ed topic from my colleague’s office.  I formulate my angle.  It’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about before receiving this particular invitation today, and it doesn’t take me long to know where I stand.

4:10pm – I email the editor a paragraph and some bullet points.

4:12pm – The editor emails back to say “great.”

4:30pm – I call the babysitter, realizing that I’m not going to make it to the hospital to visit my friend and make it home at 6pm.  She says she can stay a little late.  I race to the subway and go visit the friend, 30 weeks pregnant and on bedrest, picking up Haagen Dags and chocolate bars on my way.

4:50pm – One block from the hospital, I email a savvy colleague my angle to ask if she’s seen any other articles on the overall topic I should read.  She sends me a helpful link.

4:55pm – I visit with my friend.  We commiserate about bedrest (I was on bedrest when pregnant too).

5:45pm – I outline the piece on the subway home.

7:00pm – I arrive home, late for the babysitter, and apologize profusely.  I read Goodnight Moon to my toddler twins and begin easing them into sleep.

7:30pm – Toddlers are out.  I get to work fleshing out a full draft, consuming half a bag of Oreos to stay awake (all the while reminding myself: I really must learn to like coffee one day).

10:30pm – I send the completed draft to a trusted reader, whose opinion I deeply respect.  While awaiting her feedback, I insert links.  She sends her feedback, with tweaks, swiftly.  She likes it.  I breathe a sigh of relief.

10:45pm – I incorporate my reader’s feedback and send the draft to two more readers who I know are still awake, then incorporate their feedback as well.

11:00pm – I send the draft to editor, thank her for this opportunity, and tell her how energizing it was to write.

Day 2

9:05am – I email to confirm that the editor has received draft.  The editor thanks me for the quick turnaround.  She’s just sitting down to her desk and will have edits for me soon.  She asks about my availability this morning to make changes.  I tell her I’m available!

9:30am – I reluctantly cancel plans to meet an old friend in the city for a writing date long-scheduled for today.   I don’t want to be on the subway when editor responds, in case there are questions we need to resolve by phone.  I wipe my slate clean for as much as the day as I can.

9:45am – The editor and I chat via phone about the need to flesh out some details here and there.  She braces me for heaps of edits, reassuring me that they are “garden variety”.  I tell the editor I love to be edited (because honestly, I do) and I promise not to panic when I see her revision.

10:00am – I leave the toddlers with my husband, who happens to off for the day (holiday weekend) and therefore available for the handoff to the babysitter in an hour.  I’m ready to go.

10:30am – Astonishing breaking news has hit.  I email the editor to check in.  She explains that she’s been diverted by the breaking news but is now returning to my piece.

11:27am – The first round of edits come in, with a gracious note to please tweak and adjust or push back as necessary.

11:33am – I email the editor that the edits all make sense (which they do), thank her for her thoughtfulness, and set about filling in the gaps.

12:42pm – I send the editor the revised draft, with all holes filled but one.  I call her to make sure the revise works.  She asks that I address the remaining hole.

1:35pm – After a second search, I email the editor that there is very little out there I can access today that would help fill said hole.  She emails back ok.  I make sure she has my bio.   I tell her I’m going to be away from my computer, in a meeting, until 4:15pm but reachable via cell and email anytime.

2:00pm – I enter the meeting, checking email every 10 minutes or so (oh, the obsession!)

2:24pm – I start getting antsy, as I haven’t heard from the editor and know that she wanted the piece to go live as early as possible.

2:50pm – She emails back that she’s been diverted again due to the breaking news story from the morning and will let me know where we stand when she can.

2:51pm – I start wondering whether the piece will indeed go up today, or whether it might be killed, and start brainstorming alternate outlets.  I’m invested.

3:19 – Editor kindly reassures me it will go up today; it’s just a normal upended day, due to the breaking news.  The piece now goes to the Standards and Practices desk, and she may have more questions after that.

5:10pm – The editor emails that the piece has cleared the Standards and Practices reviewer.  She asks me to eyeball the final changes that she made, based on the S&P review.

5:23pm – I make the case for the reinsertion of some links that were taken out during the last edit but approve all else.  The links go back in.

5:59pm – The op-ed goes live.  I send the url to my network, tweet, and race home to the babysitter.

7:00pm – Once the twins are down, I network the piece around a bit more.  The negative comments start pouring in, as do the Facebook “recommends.”  It’s Shabbat, and my husband and I try hard not to check the site every five minutes…but it’s hard.  My op-ed is the lead opinion piece and makes it to the homepage.

And so it goes – a day and a half in the life of an op-ed.

MAMA W/PEN: Do Women Shy Away from “Clout”?

This post is crossposted at She Writes.

This month I was a nominee in Babble’s Moms with Clout contest.  In the end, Sausage Mama won, not me.  But the whole enchilada got me thinking: What is “clout”?  And why do so many women have trouble owning theirs?

My dictionary defines clout as “power and influence.”  Synonyms include “pull,” “authority,” “sway,” and “weight.”  In the public sphere, traditionally, clout has been gendered male.  To an overwhelming degree, it still is.  (See the depressing stats here.) Women, however, are mixing it up.  At social networks like She Writes, where authors promote one another and not just ourselves, at game-changing initiatives like The OpEd Project, where established thought leaders help fellow female experts embrace their expertise and get heard, “clout” is being redefined as something more communally achieved.  But even in the push for collaborative clout, and particularly among women, the tension between the one and the many remains.

I know this tension personally.  I experienced it this past month as I emailed my friends to ask for their vote, then opted against posting the request at She Writes or at my group blog,Girl w/Pen.  It just didn’t seem Girl w/Pen-y (or She Writes-y) to promote myself just for the sake of winning an iPad 2 (the prize).  I meticulously checked to see if any other of the 30+ nominees were She Writes members, so that I could shout us out collectively, as my colleagues in leadership at She Writes and I agreed that that would be the right way to do it.  But since they weren’t, I let it go.

In the end, I mildly regretted not saying something about it in the forums available to me—forums, heck, I’ve helped create.  I admit: I wanted that iPad!  I would have put it to good use, downloading e-books and apps and learning about the new forms all our books might take as I work toward my new project (The Pink and Blue Diaries).  But as early as day 2 or 3 of the contest, I quickly learned that I didn’t want it that bad.  Just as I couldn’t bring myself to harass my non-She Writes friends and followers more than once (ok, twice), I felt that promoting myself here for commercial gain would compromise the spirit of the community.  It felt like a conflict of interest, you know?

And that, exactly, is the problem.  Not just my problem, but women’s more generally I fear.  Are women collaborative, at times, to a fault?  In putting the community above ourselves, are we losing out on opportunities to enhance not merely our pocketbooks but our careers?  After all, winning a contest like this one is not just about winning an iPad.  To say you’ve won a contest breeds…clout.

And why should we care about clout?  Love it or hate it, fact is if you want to be a successful writer these days, clout matters.  It’s no longer the merit of our work but the reach of our platform that gets us the goodies.  Clout has been a social media buzzword for “influencer” or “community leader” for a while, but interestingly, now it’s also a website, complete with metrics and scores. measures “overall online influence” through an algorithm that determines exactly how much influence someone has over their social networks.  In a Klout score, numbers mean nothing; “true” influence means more.  (Come on, you know you want to, so go for it: check your Klout score here.) Will publishers start looking up our clout scores, like they look up our previous book’s sales in Book Scan?  Who knows.

In the meantime, I am not alone in my hesitation.  But nor do I necessarily think that’s a good thing.  In an article for a Canadian parenting site, top blogger Ann Douglas explores the dark–or rather, the ambivalent side–of making the top “mommyblogger” lists, while Catherine Connors of Her Bad Mother notes in a post at her own blog that top blogger and clout lists can be a source of bad feeling in the mom community, leaving those not listed feeling badly.  “I think, to that extent, they’re a little problematic,” Connors says, then adds: “I think it’s interesting that we worry about…whether feelings get hurt and the community spirit gets undermined—when this kind of discussion would be pretty much unthinkable in almost any other sphere.  Does anyone talk about Forbes business rankings making men feel bad?”

Um, no.

And that brings me back to my main concern: I was flattered to be nominated in Babble’s “Moms with Clout” contest.  In the end, I couldn’t do what it takes.  I find it interesting—and problematic—that I am so comfortable writing this post after the contest is over, revealing my ambivalence, but wasn’t comfortable asking for your vote.  Either I am being too ladylike, or simply not woman enough.

Attention GWPenners in the NYC Area: Join me, She Writes, and The OpEd Project for a joint Happy Hour in Manhattan on Sat. April 16! And for a break from all that clout-making and clout-sharing, come recharge at the mini-retreat I’m leading for writing mamas with Christina Baker Kline on May 21 in Brooklyn.

MAMA W/PEN: Lifelong Feminist/Midlife Mama Asks Whether We’re All Too Isolated to Fight the Pink-v.-Blue Battle in the World Outside Our Homes

Ask me five years ago and I’d have told you I’d be first in line to challenge gender stereotypes if ever I had kids myself.  I minored in feminist cultural studies!  I believe boys and girls are made, not just born!  But sixteen months into parenting my boy/girl twins, I’m starting to wonder how I’ll ever ensure that my boy grows up sensitive and my girl stays, as one of my favorite organizations has trained me to say, strong, brave, and bold.

It’s an unfortunate moment for complacency.  Children are boxed into hyper-gendered categories at ages younger than ever before.  Just last month, Disney infiltrated the delivery room.  New research shows that girls as young as three are internalizing the thin ideal.  As blogger Pigtail Pals reports, a study by Dr. Jennifer Harriger, published in 2010 finds that preschoolers are attributing stereotypes to others because of their weight.  The news is distressing.  Gender-aware parents can cleanse our daughters’ bedrooms of pale pink and defend a love for Tinkerbelle in our sons, yet the clutch of our pink-vs.-blue culture seems only to tighten its hold.  Why, we’re all asking, is this so?

There’s ample proof that since the utopian hope of “Free to Be You and Me” in the 1970s, as a culture we’ve slid backwards. As Peggy Orenstein documents so thoroughly and well in Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie Girl Culture (reviewed here this week by Elline!), things are far worse than they were when we grew up.  The hyper-marketing of gendered purchases target kids at an increasingly vulnerable age, and it’s enough to make any parent tired.

We can blame Disney and we can fight the princesses, but perhaps two additional reasons that a generation of parents raised on feminism feels like we’re losing the war is that 1) we’re confused and 2) we’re alone.

We’re confused by “science.” Fighting gender-based discrimination has morphed into dealing with science, which carries boldfaced authority—and many feminist scientists themselves are now fighting this fight too.  Sometimes I wonder about the effects.  Have Gen X parents grown convinced of children’s innate gender sensibilities?  Decades of media stories hawking the latest in neuroscience have emphasized the nature side of the nurture debate that second-wave feminism famously upstaged.  Have the things we’ve heard about gender affected a new generation’s parenting behavior?  “The more we parents hear about hard-wiring and biological programming, the less we bother tempering our pink or blue fantasies, and start attributing every skill or deficit to innate sex differences,” suggests neuroscientist Lise Eliot in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, (which argues, by the way, that social expectations—not biological differences—have the upper hand in shaping who our children become.)  Sensational, whiplash-inducing headlines tell us gender is inborn—no, wait, made—no, born.  Unless you’re steeped in this research, it’s often hard to know what’s what anymore.

But our biggest problem, I fear, is that when it comes to resisting the hyper-genderfication of childhood, we’re largely fighting it alone.

Over the past sixteen months, as my babies have progressed from a crawl to a walk and now to words, it’s slowly dawned on me how much the premise of my previous book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, applies to my new situation: As parents, and especially as new parents, we don’t always feel plugged into a movement to change the larger culture in which we raise our kids.  Instead, we’re left to focus on ourselves—in this case, our familial microcosms—on our own.

To be sure, there’s a burgeoning movement out there. I’m a huge fan of initiatives like SPARK and the Geena Davis Institute and efforts to redefine girly like Pigtail Pals and of course the longstanding work of Girls Inc.  I voraciously consume every new book by educators like Lyn Mikel Brown to learn what we can do to resist (See Packaging Girlhood, Packaging Boyhood, and also the resource page at the wonderful Peggy Orenstein’s site.) But these initiatives aren’t as mainstreamed as they might be.  I can control my growing babies’ media consumption and control what comes in the house, but control only goes so far.  I fear that as a new mother, I’m long on feminist parenting ideals, short on ways to make them stick in the world outside my home.

I hear that change feels more possible once your kids hit kindergarten.  My friends there tell me that they feel successful in their attempts to provide a larger context in which it’s natural for their girl to love Star Wars and their boy to take ballet.  They feel effective.  They feel their actions span far.

In the meantime, we mothers of babes continue our preparations for the good fight by lining our children’s bookshelves with The Sissy Duckling and No I Will NOT Wear a Dress and painting our nurseries sage.  But short of a massive and visible movement—you know, like the political ones we see right now on tv—sometimes I worry.  Are we all just focusing on the equivalent of wardrobes and walls?

What do YOU think?  Do you see a new generation of parents taking on the battle against the hyper-genderfication of childhood in spades?  Is there a movement?  Or are we all basically out here on our own?  If you have strong thoughts on this either way, for a writing/blogging/thinking project I’m working on (The Pink and Blue Diaries), I’d love to hear from you.  Please email me at

MAMA W/PEN: How the Choices of Our Generation Are Shaped By the Last*

This is the fifth and final in a series this week from Girlw/Pen writers on Stephanie Coontz‘s new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, which is a biography of Betty Friedan’s iconic book.

I’m obsessed, you could say, with second-wave feminism’s legacy.   Questions like “How has feminism’s past shaped its future?” and “Why are battles begun 40 years ago so damn difficult, still, to win?” keep me up at night.  So when I first heard that Stephanie Coontz—a pre-eminent social historian, and one tremendously adept at translating feminist research for popular audiences via the New York Times op-ed page no less—was writing a cultural history of The Feminine Mystique, I nearly peed in my pants.

Foremost on my mind was the question I hoped would be addressed: “What’s the relevance of The Feminine Mystique—book and concept—today?” Coontz’s book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, did not let me down.  But I’m finding that in the wake of finishing it, I’m more than a little depressed.

As ever, the personal is political.  And vise versa.  I can’t help but read this social history through personal history—my own.  Last week, after a year and a half of equally shared parenting with both of us working part-time from home, my paid hours were cut back and my husband Marco, who got an unexpected offer, went back to a full-time, on-site job.  Overnight, I became Primary Parent, Emergency Contact, and Master Coordinator for our beloved 15-month old twins.  I wrote—bitterly, I now confess—about the first day of the new arrangement at my other blog.  The source of my knee-jerk bitterness?  Though still a working woman, I feared being swallowed by the feminine mystique.  Is this feminism unfinished, or undone?

The feminine mystique.  I’m here to report that its ghost is alive and kicking in the psyches of a generation whose mothers knocked down doors so that we could walk through them. I won’t go so far as to say we’re haunted the way children of Holocaust survivors are (Betty Friedan wrote about the home as a “comfortable concentration camp”–she also, of course, and as Coontz expertly rehearses, wrote SO much more), but let’s just say that the term “feminine mystique” conjures up a vortex that women like me—highly educated, high-earning potential—dread.

Granted, to cut back momentarily (and temporarily) on paid work is not exactly the same as embracing the feminine mystique, but mentally it’s a slippery slope. I think back to Charlotte from Sex and the City at the very moment she quits her job at the art gallery to stay home: “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!” she doth protest–too much.  That first shakey day at home, I spewed the opposite: “I didn’t sign up for this.”

After whining to my mother and counting my many blessings–battling the feminine mystique mirage in my head is a luxury compared to the real and punishing demons many single women with kids, for instance, face–I  came to my senses and realized that not much in my life had changed from the one day to this next.  Except that it had.  Because I had this revelation: it only took one day as Primary Parent for me to realize how tenuous the so-called battle lines between “Stay-at-Homes” and “Working Moms” really are.  At one point or another, we are each other.  And the reason for our resentment-filled (and highly media-fueled, let’s face it) fighting, apparently, is that we are largely unsatisfied ourselves.

As Coontz notes in the final chapter (“Women, Men, Marriage, and Work Today: Is the Feminine Mystique Dead?”), a chapter in which I found myself underlining every other word, wives who work paid jobs and those who don’t say they’d like to switch roles (according to a study conducted 10 years ago that is).  “In 2000 25% of the wives who worked full-time said they would prefer to be homemakers.  On the other hand, 40 percent of all wives without paying jobs said they would rather be employed.”  Those who work wish they could be working less—and that applies to men as well as women.

Why are so many men and women with families unhappy with their lot?

Because the job of feminism is far from done. Blinded, now, by the workforce ideal that “defines the ideal employee—male or female—as having no familial or caregiving obligations that compete with work” (some call it, as Coontz points out, the “career mystique”), our culture replaced one mystique with the next.  And no one, so far, has had the power to take this new mystique down.

The moment for Career Mystique warriors has come.  They are out there already, rattling our collective cage. Conversations at places like Role/Reboot and Daddy Dialectic and The Council on Contemporary Families and work+life fit and Viva la Feminista and Pundit Mom and The Motherlode lead us in the charge.  And in the meantime, books like The Feminine Mystique remain relevant—all the more so—because their missions remain incomplete.

*Title inspired by the last line of Lisa Belkin’s recent post, “New Fears of Flying” over at The Motherlode.

MAMA W/PEN: A Monkey Wrench in the Nature/Nurture Debate?

The other week, Science Daily and then The New York Times reported on the growing evidence of a biological basis for gender-specific play in humans.  I’ve been watching my 15 month old b/g twins for signs of gender and while I’m thoroughly convinced by the science that shows differences in the way boys and girls develop fine and gross motor coordination at this age, I hate where the larger thread of cliché-ridden thinking—boys do this, girls do that—commonly goes.

I also find it confusing.

Haven’t our feminist foremothers, and now my own generation, been working tirelessly at leveling the playing field so that things between the sexes could be fair? What good is all that talk about equity and equality if we’re all just programmed gender bots from the start?

According to a new study appearing in the journal Current Biology, scientists at Harvard University and Bates College have reported some of the first evidence that young, wild chimpanzees “may tend to play differently depending on their sex, just as human children around the world do.”  Biology, it seems, has a larger role to play in the gendering of childhood than we’d known—or cared to admit.  While the evidence is called “suggestive,” it’s based on 14 years of data gathered on chimpanzee behavior at the Kibale National Park in Uganda and is being heralded as proof of “the first known sex difference in a wild animal’s choice of playthings.”  This work adds to a growing body of evidence that human children are most likely born with their own ideas of how they want to behave, rather than simply mirroring other girls who play with dolls and boys who play with trucks.

In one swoop, the news reifies what some of us might wish to think of as retired gender codes of yore and scrambles feminist expectation.

So what, precisely, did the researchers find?  Young female chimpanzees were treating sticks as dolls, carrying them around and treating them like infants until they had offspring of their own.  They slept with the sticks.  Some built the sticks a nest.  Some even played a chimp version of the “airplane game,” lying on their backs with their “offspring” balanced across their upraised hands.  The young males?  Not so much.

Previously, toy selection among humans was thought to be due largely to socialization.  Researchers have recorded robust sex differences in children’s toy play around the world, yet there’s been remarkable cross-cultural consistency in the choices boys and girls tend to make. The prior thinking was that this behavioral difference was due to the influence of peers, parents, and others in modeling gender-specific behavior.  If you’re a girl and you see your mother, sister, and best girlfriend cuddling and making nest for sticks, chances are you will too.

But not so, according to the new evidence.  Adult chimps use sticks for foraging or fighting. So the young females’ behavior in the Kibale National Park, it seemed, was not learned.  Once the female chimps bore their first offspring, they stopped carrying sticks.  The new findings clearly link juvenile play to adult behavior, since female chimpanzees, not males, carry infants more than 99 percent of the time.

Parlay the assumption to humans and you end up with the speculation that girls are biologically programmed to play with dolls.

Pretty convincing.  But here’s the catch: researchers hadn’t seen anything like this in other chimpanzee communities outside the Kibale National Park, which raises the possibility that the Kibale chimps were copying a local behavioral tradition.  “[T]his may be a lovely case of biological and social influences being intertwined,” one of the researchers said.

If you ask me, the conclusion that girls are doll-wielding gender bots seems a little premature.  There’s a lot we simply don’t know.

(I’ve started to gather thoughts about the gendering of childhood and how it’s playing out in my own petrie dish at the Tumblr I created called The Pink and Blue Diaries.  Come visit if interested!  I’m still mostly just checking the whole Tumblr thing out.)

MAMA W/PEN: Five Signs Say She’s BACK

When Baby X and Baby Y turned one a few weeks ago, something changed in my brain. A window opened just a crack, enough to let in the crisp air that tells me a change of seasons has transpired. I started tweeting. I refreshed my Google Reader to incorporate my new focus on all things writerly and She Writes-y. I started playing around with a Tumblr (not really public yet, but maybe soon!). And last Friday night, I went on a date with myself—my first since my twins were born.

Give a girl some moules frites, a glass of Shiraz, a notebook as a companion, and later in the evening, an old friend and a book party with some fabulous feminists (Gloria Steinem! Eve Ensler! Shelby Knox!) and suddenly she remembers who she is: A thinker. A writer. Ah yes, that.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking lo these past twelve months. It’s that my brain has been, as they say, differently occupied. Taking care of twins in their first year of life, along with a new start up that’s all about (did I mention?!) supporting women who write, takes a lot of brain cells. It made sense that parts of me went on hold to grow new things. It’s all necessary and right and true. But here’s how I know that the sleeping parts of me are once again alive and kicking:

1. When last week’s snarky New York Magazine cover story about a generation of women who naively “woke up” from the pill to find themselves too old to reproduce, I plugged back in to good ole gut-busting outrage. (See Jill at Femiste’s most excellent response, “Oops! I Forgot to Have Babies”).  And I also started compiling news round ups at She Writes, to merge my worlds–like this one, today.

2. I made a batch of Tollhouse cookies on the weekend just for kicks. I used to make them all the time (those who know me know that I have a penchant for cookie dough). I hadn’t made them in, like, a year.

3. I’m following TEDWomen via the shiny new TweetDeck app on my iPhone. My buddy Courtney Martin is there, and so is dear friend Jacki Zehner, and I’m feeling vicariously hooked in to the thought leading femme-o-sphere.

4. In the space between things, I finished a second draft of a personal essay for an anthology. The essay is called “Genderfication Starts Here” and is about, guess what, the first year of raising boy/girl twins.

5. I’m moisturizing again. And taking baths on the weekend with my favorite lavender gel. And lighting candles. And browsing Levenger catalogues before falling asleep. All things I did NONE of lo this past year.

I’m curious to hear. When a part of YOU goes on mental hiatus for a while and then resurfaces, what are the signs to yourself that you’ve returned?

Photo cred: Tayari Jones

Mama w/Pen: Is Social Expectation Destiny for a New Generation of Parents?

Last week baby name expert Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of Beyond Ava & Aiden, published a piece at The Daily Beast about how more and more parents are choosing gender-neutral boys’ names, reflecting a different ideal of masculinity (Boy Baby Names: Gender Neutral Trend, from Cullen to Cameron).  I’m quoted at the end:

“Among my generation of parents, our nontraditional boys’ names—vaguely androgynous, nonmacho, or just plain unique—reflect our own desire to raise sons who will be as comfortable pushing dolls in strollers as pushing trucks,” said Deborah Siegel, Ph.D., author of Sisterhood, Interrupted and founding partner of SheWrites….“But what I wonder is this: Will a boy by a different name really be that much more sweet?”

It got me thinking.  Offspring of a generation that believed boys and girls were made, not just born, I know better.  But the nature/nurture debate rages on.  And sometimes I wonder whether social expectation has replaced biology as destiny.

I mean, if social expectation, and not biology, shapes who children become, does that somehow put an unfair burden on us to create the self-confident, athletic, truck-loving girls and sensitive, doll-hugging boys we were raised to achieve?

Clearly, I’m in a bit of a knot about it all.  Probably just because I just haven’t had much sleep.

Would love to hear what YOU think.

MAMA W/PEN: The Gender of Halloween, Redux

Well, my little dragon v. bee dilemma got nothin’ on this adorable, brave, and wonderfully-supported-by-his-mama five-year-old little boy from Kansas City who decided he wanted to be Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween.  Heartfelt kudos to that mama, who defended his — and her — choice at her blog, Nerdy Apple Bottom, and on CNN. The photo she took of her soon went viral, generating at least a million hits and more than 26,000 comments. Tara Parker-Pope wrote about it all yesterday in the NYTimes (“When Boys Dress Like Girls”).

Some spot-on, fierce words from the boy’s mama, to the moms who gave her — and him — trouble:

If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, O.K., I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.

Back off indeed.