Parent Interview- Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick

Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick is a family photographer turned photography coach for parents and the founder of Photosanity (http://photosanity.com). Alethea helps parents find joy, connection and delight in their day-to-day parenting experience through photography. 

Born and brought up in the UK, Alethea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two sons, Liam, age 8, and Jack, age 5. She has taught workshops at the Apple Store, Brooklyn Baby Expo, Brooklyn Babybites (now Mommybites) and online through Photosanity and other platforms. She has been interviewed on 1010WINS and featured in The Daily Mail, Cool Mom Picks, Apartment Therapy, Ask Moxie and Mom365.

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Dads, Family Culture, and a YouTube Parody

In the course I am teaching on Motherhood this semester, we recently talked about Others who Mother. These are folks that do what we traditionally think of as mothering in lieu of a mother, perhaps because she is employed or perhaps for other reasons. We talked about extended family, nannies, and dads. Yes, dads. 

As I've touched on previously, we have different concepts for what it means to do mothering or fathering in this society. Fathering is typically viewed as something a DNA test can prove on bad daytime show. Mothering is mystical, magical, and natural. It is of the heart and soul. It is nurturing and beautiful. Though for most moms, dads, kids, and anyone watching families knows, this dichotomous view of parenting is overly simple and doesn't reflect the experiences of most people. But it makes for great jokes. Enter The Holderness Famly.

I've seen this video pop up a few times recently on Facebook. It plays on this caricature of modern family life in a way that is laughably and painfully relatable for many.  I won't bother to describe it. Just watch it:

 

 

I don't have anything against this fun-loving, parody-making family. They are just trying to make a go of the whole digital media thing like a lot of folks. Perhaps they are portraying their and others experiences. Making light of such experiences and bringing them to the fore of popular media and culture gives us a chance to address them thoughtfully. 

In Erin M. Rehel's “When Dad Stays Home Too: Paternity Leave, Gender, and Parenting” in a February 2014 academic journal called  Gender & Society, she conducted research regarding the ways in which early patterns of baby care lead to long-term parenting roles played by parents. Rehel suggests that the culture of the family is established early on, and if dad is only given the opportunity to be a mother's helper and not have any actual responsibility with the baby and early duties associated with adapting to life with a baby, then this pattern will set up a family dynamic in which mom is responsible for the children (and likely most other household duties) and dad is simply her helper.  This little cute-sy, giggly video with an attractive middle class family doing their sing-songy thing perfectly exemplifies a culture that has developed to see dad as a helper, though perhaps an incompetent one. This seems like an inadequate assessment of half the human race of males who can drive cars, hold down jobs, and memorize 30 years of sports stats for their fave team; they are not incompetant. Not only is it inequitable for mom, it is an insult to dad. He is capable of loading a dishwasher and folding laundry. 

In my class we also read a bit of Sara Ruddiick's Maternal Thinking (1995) and a recent piece by Andrea Doucet ("Taking of the Maternal Lens" in 21st Century Mothering) in which she considers her experience parenting as an opportunity to admire and critique Ruddick's classic text. She recaps Ruddick's most salient points, including that "men can and do mother."  She discusses her own experience with co-parenting in which parents and especially other mothers looked at her husband at playdates and other such kid-centric activities with a “strange combination of suspicion and congratulatory amazement” (p171). She  says that instead of assuming men can, do and should "mother," that we should see them as "re-defining and reconfiguring fathering" (p182). In an attempt at being equal parents, many men are navigating this field. And though The Holderness clan is clinging to an outdated model (though still fairly dominant in mainstream culture), there's a whole generation of dads who want to be actual co-parents, to share in the tasks and the responsibility of parenting. These dads, according to Rehel's subjects, even feel they wouldn't have missed the opportunity to take paternity leave and be a part of the process of creating family and a family culture. Of course, her paper is a critique of family leave policies in the United States. Such policies and federal laws create a culture that suggests men are not capable parents and therefore do need to be at home to help a new family develop. It is the Canadian subjects, who received paid paternity leave (as do many other developed countries), who were the ones who had these positive experiences at home with baby and mom. Because they were actually at home with baby and mom longer than a day or two. Because taking leave for fathers became the norm through federal legislation in Canada, the culture changed too. Dads can forge their own way, and it can include successful wiping of bottoms as well as of kitchen cabinets, all without having to be told that they should do so. 

 

Parent Interview- Holly (Gnewikow) Spencer

Today I am launching a weekly feature of a parent on The Stay-at-Home Sociologist. These features are in the form of an interview. Initially I am going to focus on mothers, inspired by a course I am teaching this semester called Motherhood.  I am interested in learning more about the philosophies and inspirations of parents, how they manage and parent for concerns about society and social issues, and their personal stories.

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  Holly (Gnewikow) Spencer is originally from Danville, VA. She currently lives in Dickson, TN, with her husband, Jeremy, and two sons, Jude (11) and Liam (8). 

 

Biographical Information

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and German from Lipscomb University and a MS in Molecular Biology from University of Maryland, so naturally my husband Jeremy (with a degree in English) and I own a coffeehouse, café, and catering company (www.houseblendonline.com), because that makes sense, right?  I also do use my formal education as an adjunct biology professor at Lipscomb University. We have been so blessed to be able to build a business working together, doing something we love and being a part of the community we live in.  In our spare time, we love to travel, whenever and wherever, kids in tow!

 

Interview

What it is easiest about parenting?  Loving your children, no matter what.

What is most surprising about parenting?  How much more I have grown to love my kids as they have gotten older.  I try VERY hard not to lament the passing of ages, as each year my kids grow more into their true selves. It is fun and amazing to watch, and I can’t wait to see the people they become. 

What is hardest? Watching your children hurt.  Helping them learn hard life lessons when you would rather just make the bad things go away.

What keeps you up at night worrying about your kids?  I used to be a real worrier, but Jeremy helped me very early in our relationship to let that go.  To let go of things out of your control and know that God is in control through the good and the bad is very freeing.

What is your biggest challenge as a parent? Letting your children become their own people, not who you think they should be.  It’s hard when something comes naturally to you but not to them and vice versa.

What is your greatest triumph as a parent?  Potty training my first child, Jude, at 19 months.  I thought it was superior parenting—evidently it was just a large bladder and a little dehydration.  It took everything in me to get Liam trained by 2 ½!

Of what are you most proud with regard to parenting?  That my children love God and love other people.  This will always be my first goal.   I’m also proud when they are willing to take risks, especially ones I might not have been willing to take as a kid.

If you have a parenting philosophy or list of go-to guidelines for parenting, what are/would they be?

  • Stick to your guns. 
  • Let your yes be yes and your no be no, even when that’s not the easiest thing for the parents (this comes from having to enforce punishments that you threaten).
  • Truth –always.  My kids know they will always get in a lot more trouble for lying about it than for telling the truth about something they did wrong.  We always have tried to answer them truthfully as much as possible about everything. 
  • Manage your very different children in different ways. 
  • Do not be influenced by other parents around you (that’s peer pressure too!) unless it is people that you deem as mentors.
  • In that same vein, surround yourself with like-minded families/friends.  I credit our good friends as being great influences on my children.

How are you addressing social and political issues in your parenting? Especially in the election year and since, we have tried to discuss a lot of issues and why we feel certain ways, and why other people have strong opposing feelings.  It has provided a lot of good family discussion, although they might have been a little too opinionated and informed in school discussions.

What would you like to have help with as a parent? Laundry.  But I am teaching my kids to do that. 

What do you like about being a parent? What do you dislike? I love most everything, but I hate to see them worried and upset.

What is your fondest memory of your parent(s) or family as a child? I had a great childhood and despite things I disliked at the time, I tend to do a lot of things the way my parents did.  I love that my parents always treated me like I was important and capable and empowered me to do anything I wanted!

What motivates you as a parent? Raising self-sufficient children who still like me and will want to spend time with me when they are grown, and will actually want to take care of me in my old age.

Do you have a spiritual or religious belief/practice? If yes, do you incorporate it into your parenting? How?  Yes.  We are Christians and that is first and foremost in everything that we do.  We love because God loves us, we forgive because God forgives us.  If you boil everything down to the simplest command of Love God and treat others like you want to be treated, the world would be a much different place.  I’d like to live there.

What are your favorite things to do with your kids?  We love to play board games, and we relish that we can still beat them at most. We love to watch them play sports, and love to hike at our nearby state park. We love to travel—that is definitely our number one pastime.  Our motto is Work hard, play hard and we take it seriously. J

Are you married or partnered? How do you split parenting responsibilities? Married. 15 years. We just try to accomplish everything that must get done every day.  We text each other a lot when we are not together, but it’s a lot easier when you work together every day.  We do not have a “wait til your father gets home” mentality, but we do make the kids talk to both of us about anything that needs to be dealt with seriously.

How do you recharge yourself? I know it seems unusual for a parent, but I like to sleep 8 or 9 hours every night.  I know most of the world is exhausted all the time, but I am not. I’m tired at the end of the day so I go to bed and sleep well!  I wake up in the morning and I’m ready to take on the world again. 

What inspires you? Nature, Science, Art, Great food, People who are very good at what they do

What question do you wish you could ask your own mom/dad/parent/caregiver? I ask them things constantly.  And I am so thankful for that.  They probably wish I would quit asking.

What is a goal you want to achieve in the next 10 years? Send my kids to college with no student loans!

What was your life like before you had kids? It was great! We loved it, and we try to remind our kids that too! Yes, we will be sad when they grow up and move away (not too far!) but we love each other and love being together and we will send them postcards!

What do you wish you did differently when you were a new parent? Took more videos.  Took more naps when the kids napped!

 What's one thing you wish you did differently before you got married or had kids? Would have loved to live in a big city for a couple of years as a couple.  We love small town life, but we could have been city people too!

Favorite/least favorite/most interesting parent portrayed in literature/film/television? I HATE the portrayal of the bumbling, idiot father.  Jeremy and most dads I know are super-heroes in so many ways, and have so many gifts to share with their kids!  And they cook and they clean, and they help with homework and they juggle schedules.  I want my boys to grow up with that kind of example!

75 Things that Make a Mother

Today would have been my Mom's 77th birthday. On her 75th birthday, fearing, perhaps somehow knowing, that it would be her last birthday with us, I made the following list and titled it "75 Things that Make a Mother." 

It was a hard list to make. it took me a few weeks and in the midst I was 7 months pregnant, chasing two little ones and studying for my written comprehensive PhD exams on classical and contemporary sociological theory. There were evenings I added items to the list in spite of myself and in spite of her. Sometimes I was mad that she was so sick, but most of the time I was grieving and lost. Just truly lost. I didn't know what to do to help her. She had always been so capable of everything; she was self-sufficient in her child's eyes. I couldn't quite comprehend her needing me for anything. The only thing I could come up with that would be a loving gift was to just tell her so many of the wonderful things she did for me, and in spite of me and my antics, over the years. I think she liked it; she told me so. And in her final weeks she asked that it be handed out at her funeral, which it was. I was nervous about it, but it honestly provided a nice outlet for someone who is sort of an outgoing introvert. 

Anyway, she was pretty great. And I miss her. Here are some reasons why. Happy birthday, Mom. 

75 Things that Make a Mother

Waiting in the carpool line at school every morning and afternoon for 13 years. (Now that I do this everyday, I have a new respect for the patience necessary in such a task.)

"If you can read, you can cook." Though this mantra of my Mom's is one of my favorites, it has caused me at times to question whether or not I am, in fact, literate.

Letting your 19 year old get on a plane to spend a semester half-way around the world because you know it will be life-changing for her, even though it was heart breaking for her.

Making blueberry muffins at least once a week for breakfast because they were my favorite, and despite the fact she hates them.

Throwing up everyday for nine months when pregnant and not resenting the little beast that wreaked such havoc.

Being the consummate host whenever friends came over. My mom always had the best snacks and homemade brownies or cookies. She cooked a full and hearty breakfast for friends who slept over. She did so without ever being asked and did it every single time.

She even let me host a dinner party over the summer between high school and leaving for college with close friends. She cooked and prepped and did it all so I could have my first dinner party. I learned how to host and enjoy hosting great events with loved ones from her.

She made many costumes for me for Halloween. My favorite was Annie. She made the red dress with the white collar and even made a wig out of red yarn.

She never once made macaroni and cheese from a box. She always made her own.

She ironed my sheets. SHE IRONED MY SHEETS! Honestly, I'll probably never do that, but it's kind of amazing. I can't even fold sheets well. (Hers were folded perfectly in the linen closet, of course. Even the bottom sheet!)

Great family travel. San Francisco. New York. Chicago. Palm Springs. Mexico. Vienna. Salzburg. Vegas. Scottsdale. So influential on my own desires to see the world.

She taught me to care for others in the world. I rode around with her as a young child while she delivered meals on wheels to elderly people who needed help. When I was a teenager/young adult, I watched her manage a program for homeless people in our community at our church. She was amazing at it. (And Dad volunteered too.) These are just two examples of the myriad of ways she took care of those who couldn't take care of themselves. She always gives, and she gives extravagantly.

Organization. I recently cleaned out my closet at her house and came across all kinds of folders with her notes and articles kept about college preparation and schooling. She was always organized and prepared, therefore I never missed anything.

My mother is possibly the most thoughtful person who has ever existed. She remembers everything and takes care of it. If I said in passing in August that there was something I liked, I would get it as a gift for my birthday in November.

She always has everything together, on time, and well-packaged. She never missed an activity, event, or field trip. She was always there to support everything I did.

She combed my mangled mess of wild, thick hair, despite my screams and anger and cries. She patiently managed my wild messes, not just my hair, but others too.

"We're all trying to get to the same place." That was my Mom's way of dismissing and denouncing the often silly, dogmatic controversies among varying church doctrines and say that Christians all have the same goals and hopes of living good, lives as servants of God. My own views these days are probably a bit too ecumenical for her taste, but her acceptance of those around her in her corner of the world and desire to let little differences go always stuck with me.

I love pie crust. Just pie crust. When she baked a pie, she often baked just a crust for me to snack on.

She never forgets a birthday, holiday or special occasion. Throughout childhood, college and life, I have received cards or gifts for everything. She sends the grandkids gifts and cards for Halloween, Valentine's Day, Easter, everything.

She always sends things on time. She's never late. SHE"S NEVER LATE.

Homemade oatmeal cookies. For breakfast. "Because they're made with oatmeal and applesauce, and that's breakfast food."

Because instead of flipping out when she accidentally dropped her purse in a hotel toilet she laughed for ten minutes uncontrollably before she could tell us what happened.

In a world in which paying for services is standard and expected, there are some things she just doesn't do. One time I suggested something about getting a pedicure. She said she doesn't mind getting manicures, but she just can't get a pedicure because it feels rude to put your feet in someone else's face.

She loves the city. Preferably a big city. Lots of lights and beautiful places and fascinating people to watch. Don't ever wonder where my love of the urban originates.

She took me and my friends rolling (toilet papering) when we were too young to drive. She has always been somewhat embarrassed about it, but she kind of loved it too. She's a rule follower. Most of the time. :)

She took me to horrible concerts, like New Kids on the Block. ( I am sorry.)

She loves her grandchildren with true zeal.

She bought me things like wooden clogs and Birkenstocks and let me wear torn jeans I bought at goodwill even though she would have preferred that I wear heals and pearls all of the time. The good news, Mom, is that despite the fact that I still wear the Birks on a regular basis (the same two pair you bought for me 20 years ago), I know when I am suppose to wear heels and pearls, and I can do so flawlessly.

When we travelled, she always accompanied me to art museums. It wasn't her favorite way to spend time, but she did it because I liked it. (Though one time at the Guggenheim the special exhibit was an Armani retrospective, which she quite liked.)

All of the pencils in her pen and pencil holder are sharpened perfectly. Always. She's prepared for anything.

She made me take piano lessons even when I didn't really want to. And now it is one of the skills (though admittedly a bit rusty) that I value most.

She takes care of everyone in her life. She visits, writes, sends cards, and calls.

Everything in her home is perfectly appointed. Nothing stays broken longer than a day, stained longer than a minute, or dirty longer than a second. She takes pride in all she has and maintains things not because things are most important, but because she values the time and effort it took to acquire those things and she will honor that by taking care of them.

Sweet tea. REALLY SWEET TEA. With lots of lemon. Sweet nectar of the gods.

She can be rather stoic, but such a façade covers an interior that is deep and wide emotionally and is revealed in a thousand little acts of love and kindness on a daily basis.

She still uses little bowls I painted as a child and keeps pins in a pincushion I made in elementary school.

My parents trusted me. When I was in high school, they didn't keep a strict curfew on me as long as I called and let them know where I was and with whom I was spending time. I didn’t have the expected teenage rebellions and never really desired to do so, in large part because I was trusted by my parents instead of being looked at as a bad teenager who should be held in suspicion at all times. (And I was too type A and desirous to always be in charge to ever take a substance that might alter ability to boss people around.)

For years whenever I came home from college or New York, the first dish mom always cooked for me was captain crunch chicken and twice baked potatoes. It was my favorite as a kid and she must have kept making it until I was 30.

Mom continued to give me a stocking for many years after the truth of Santa was revealed, but she started stuffing it with things like fancy lotions and make up and gift cards.

Patience. With a cranky toddler turned cranky teenager who thought she knew it all.


Puts up with assertions like there's a great restaurant "just around the corner" with amazing food that's "really cheap."

She grew tomatoes and beautiful roses in our yard. Her care of her flowers and gardening appeared to be a nice hobby, but also made life beautiful around our home. I haven't yet acquired a green thumb, but I hope to do so soon.

Empathy. She was always empathetic to my concerns, even the wildly emotional ones as a teenager. She never made me feel silly. I could always see on her face that she hurt with me too.

Her love of her family. She would do anything for her siblings or other family members. She is always there for them too, and in the process setting a great example to me of how to love family.

She requested that I sit up straight. Good posture. I didn't like it at the time, but still I find myself catching myself slouching and I straighten right up, knowing it physically makes me feel better and portrays a confidence I might not always have but at least one for which I am trying.

Chocolate fudge at Christmas.


Exceptionally generous. She never hesitates to share with me or others.

Adoption dolls. Before there were Cabbage Patch Kids, there were adoption dolls. And she made them, sewed them and put them together herself, for me and for my friends. She made their clothes, painted on their eyes, braided their yarn hair. Amazing.

One time their was a spider on her windshield and she got on the highway and drove faster and faster to see how long it would take to lose its balance and fall off. I think it was 90+ miles an hour. I have no idea how this makes her a great mother, except that it's kind of hilarious/awesome. Oh, I wasn't in the car.

She put up with gross antics from me and Dad. Example: fish pudding.

She makes holidays special. Everything is beautiful, there are lots of great foods to munch on, and everything is thoughtfully and lovingly prepared.

Because she took me and my childhood best friend to see the Nutcracker every year. She got season tickets to plays/musicals at the performing arts center. She valued cultural events, and today so do I.

She (and Dad) went to all of the games at my high school that I attended. Even though I didn't play a sport, they wanted to be a part of what was going on in my life, socialize with the parents of my friends, and just be there. For some reason it never embarrassed me. I loved it, actually. I always felt comfortable with them around.

She thinks of and takes care of the things I just don't think to do. She sent the kids monogrammed Easter baskets this year. It would have never occurred to me to so, but they are so nice, the kids love them, and they'll have them for years to come.

Despite her inexperience with technology, she is using an Ipad and social media to keep up with her grandkids even though we are far away. She's willing to try new things for those she loves.

She taught me a love of farm fresh foods. She was always going to the farmers market and stopping at roadside farm stands to pick up local tomatoes, Tennessee strawberries, and fresh corn.

Family photos are everywhere in her house. More valuable than the art on the walls and a reminder of what is most important in life to her.

When she laughs, she laughs hard. I like her term for it: she "gets tickled." Because it is that kind of uncontrollable, tears in your eyes, can't compose yourself laughter. (Just not as loud as my version.)

Because she posts the following in her kitchen at Christmas: Three Wise Women would have...Asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be PEACE ON EARTH.

Because she is capable of change at any age. She never exercised a day in her life. Then when at 74 the doctor said she needs to workout multiple times a week in order to stay healthy, she joined a gym, drank protein drinks and bought sneakers for the first time in her life. (The first time she went to the gym, she wore flats on the treadmill.)

She always gets parking spots at the very front of a lot. It doesn't matter if it is Christmas Eve at a shopping mall at 4pm (though she would never save shopping for gifts until that late). My Dad and I refer to this as "the spirit of Phyllis" and we always hoped that it would be with us when searching for parking spots even if she was not. How does that make a good Mother? I don't know, but it never hurts to have someone with good luck on their side. DId I mention one time she opened her car door (no doubt in the front spot of a lot) and found a ROLL of pennies. Not just one lucky penny. A WHOLE ROLL OF 100.

She always made friends with the mothers of my friends and continues to maintain those friendships to this day.

Crème Brulee. A family favorite. She has the kitchen blowtorch and everything, and she always made it on special occasions. And when I moved out she bought a kitchen blowtorch for me. (Or was it for Todd? I forget. But she knew I needed Crème Brulee.)

She was always willing to learn something new. She took swim lessons when I took swim lessons. She took piano lessons when I took piano lessons. She proved that just because one grows older doesn't mean you can't try new things. (So, I'm thinking about taking tennis lessons sometime soon.)

She likes to watch the evening news and read the newspaper everyday. As a kid, it seemed boring. But as an adult, I look back and I see that such simple habits exhibited a care for what is happening locally and in the world around us, and it certainly influenced my love of current events.

Because when I was a little girl she took me to fancy little places like Miss Daisy's Tearoom for lunch. Just us.
 

She encouraged my interest in creative pursuits as a child: dance, piano, art. I look back and so value all of those experiences.

After a visit with me in New York, she called a few days later to say a package would be delivered to my office. It was a handbag I had seen while we out and about on her visit. She called the store, bought it, and had it delivered to my office. Just to be nice. Just for fun. What a great surprise and treat!

After my husband, she's always the first person I call with good news, like a raise at work. I know that no one in my life cheers me on after my successes quite like my parents.

When planning a baby dedication for our daughter, I asked Mom for a special thought or story about her Dad, from whom Anna's middle name came. She said her daddy was good and kind to everyone and that as a young child she thought he let the sun out each morning to shine in addition to tending to the animals on their farm. What a lovely image.

She remembers all of my friends from childhood and high school and inquires about them often. She also gives me updates on folks with whom I don't keep in touch.

Chocolate flourless cake with raspberry sauce. Another obsession of mine growing up. My mom would order one for me on my birthday or special occasions.

She was always up earliest and stayed up late too. Always busy and working on something to make life lovely for us. She never napped and rarely rested. She made her life about my life, and though I was oblivious as a child, I see it now.

She made me excited about getting older and not scared of it. She always said her 40s were her favorite years because she was confident and comfortable in her own skin, still young enough to do whatever she wanted, and I was at a really fun age. Because of this idea, I've never really feared turning 30 (Done. No big deal.) or 40 (Soon, folks. Soon.). What a gift to not think that the earlier years were the best. The best is yet to come.

I now carry my third child at the age of 37. My Mom was 37 when she gave birth to me. It's something I think about often, how in so many ways I forged my own way and in so many I am following in her footsteps. I am happy with who I am, and that is largely because of who she is, and how these 75--but, really, more like a million--little acts make a Mother. 

I Heart NY

I was cleaning up my dropbox folder this week and came across this short piece I wrote in 2010 about living in New York, on the anniversary of having lived there for ten years.  Attached was a bit from E.B. White's Here is New York.

 

There have been a million beautiful moments: late night walks, twinkly light views, fine wine, good friends, loud music, moments that made my heart sing in delight. There was a terrorist attack and a blackout. There has been real estate. There has been a baby born. There's been love and life and gain and loss.

New York is not just a place to live; it's a living thing with a pulse and a beat all its own. It's a character in the story of my life everyday. Either you love it or you hate it, but it always forces you to move, think, and act.

New York is for people who love people. For those of us that feel comforted by the sound of the footsteps of our neighbors above us. It's communal living. It's countless people giving you a seat on the subway when you are 6 months pregnant and it's giving someone the benefit of the doubt who doesn't. The big city functions like a mirror of your heart and soul. It shows you who you are: what your breaking points are and shows you your strength when you don't think you have any.

It's a 10-inch overnight snow in January and a 95 degree day in July. It's walks in the park and chasing the bus in the rain. It's a great dress from Saks and a cheap tank from H&M. It’s Saturday morning at the museum and Saturday night out dancing. It’s reading the Times over breakfast and talking politics with friends over lunch. It's drinks at the Plaza Hotel bar and late night burgers at a diner. It’s passing a movie star on the street and acting like you don’t see them and shooting the breeze with the guy at the bodega. It's local food from a land 7000 miles away. It’s playing pizza shop at the playground with your kid and chasing them as they scoot down the street on the way to preschool. It’s the best place to be young and free and the best place to settle down. I don’t know where I might live next, but New York will always be my home.

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 “Here is New York” 

 by E. B. White

 There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.

 

 

 

No good, horrible, very bad potential president

I was so excited for my seven-year-old to learn about the political process and election this year for the first time. We rarely watch live television, but we started watching morning show coverage of the candidates last year and discussing it over breakfast and on the way to school. He was so interested, had lots of questions, but eventually we had to turn it off and stop watching. 

I regularly use Common Sense Media to help me determine what shows and games are age-appropriate for my kids. I have a feeling if they had to rate Trump's speeches, he'd be for the 17+ age group. I don't let my kids watch R-rated movies, so I couldn't let them listen to Trump. It should go without saying that his discourse is wildly unpresidential. He has said Mexicans are rapists, proposed ejecting all Muslims from the country, made fun of people with disabilities, and much more. He stated, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters. It's incredible." It's not incredible, it's terrifying.

Lost and Found

The last day of school was a blast! The local ice cream shop sent a truck that parked outside of my son’s school. Parents and kids chatted, ate ice cream, and played. It was an idyllic end to the school year. 

And the next two days were hellish. Never in my life has there been a longer 48-hour period than the Thursday and Friday following the last day of school. My daughter’s preschool had already been out for over a week.  The urgent and angry grunts of the barely speaking toddler were wearing on us all. I had pictured lemonade stands and sprinklers. Instead it was them screaming about who would get to turn the hose on to fill the kiddie pool while the 19-month old pulled handfuls of poop out of his diaper. 

But this summer, it’s not really my problem. My husband is on primary caregiver duty. He worked to get his non-teaching requirements on campus out of the way during the school year so he could have a flexible summer to play with the kids while I study. We are both academics, but he is a few years ahead of me. I worked for years while he did a masters and PhD, then as he neared the end of his doctoral work, I went back to do a PhD. We had kids in the midst of it, knowing that though it pushed graduations off for both of us, we had the flexibility we wanted to co-parent our kids. He was, as we called it, the PCG (primary care giver) for our son as a baby and toddler. By the time our daughter came along, I was one year into my coursework and the oldest was in pre-school three days per week. We were able to make work and life happen by handing off kids and schedules, supplementing with a babysitter one day a week. It wasn’t always magical, but it was certainly valued, upon reflection if not always in real time. 

The two bigger kids were set to go to art camp a week after school was out. But my eldest woke up with a fever, sore throat, and no voice on the first day. He was so sad to miss it, especially since his sister could still go; she was sad to not go with him, the most fun part for her. I must confess, we were bummed that we had already paid the camp fee and that we wouldn’t have a quiet house for a few days—two kids at home instead of just one (that still takes naps). 

When he realized he couldn’t easily communicate, my otherwise very chatty seven-year-old boy became so quiet. He watched a lot of cartoons and rested on the couch. After a few of days, his fever lessened. His energy was returning, but not his voice. Without his voice for those days, his personality changed a bit. He softened. The effort it took to talk made it not worth it for him to express himself with whispered words no could hear unless they crossed the room to be right next to him. So he just started smiling a lot. He was always smiling at us. He was desperate to interact, but couldn’t use his default of words, so he smiled. He didn’t hiss. He wasn’t cranky despite feeling bad. He just kept smiling at us. When he did talk, he sat close and was so tender and gentle. The quiet of his voice seemed to lend to a development of a more calm demeanor those days. He read to his baby brother in a whisper. He shared kindly with his sister. At one moment I wondered if this is what he might be like as an adult, when all of the nervous energy of youth has been used up and you can see a little more of the core of a person. 

After a few more days, he was back to normal. His voice was back, along with his big and bossy personality. He was back to directing his sister and brother around and trying to bring us under his management too. But I saw that all of the antics simply are because they are boisterous children figuring life out and bumping into everything around them all of the time; not just physical bumping, but emotional, intellectual, and psychological too.  He actually isn’t that cranky while he is talking as I often perceive him to be. He isn’t trying to be disrespectful. He is trying to engage in a direct way. And he is smiling. Maybe it’s not so clear because there are so many loud words (screams!!) that fog my view of his sweet face. I am grateful he has big, loud words to use; it is a part of who he is as a person. I also am grateful for that opportunity to see his quiet side, the side that will still connect through sweet smiles even when the words aren’t there. 

 

My Work Starts at Home

 

(Originally published on July 6, 2016 by Write Where It Hurts)

 

Toward the end of the school year, my son began talking about a student who visited his class for science twice a week named Freddie. The first time he mentioned Freddie, he said that Freddie had recently joined his science group. He said, “Mom, Freddie writes and talks like my sister. He has a teacher who sits with him all during class. Sometimes he has BIG tantrums!” I could tell by his tone that he felt that Freddie deserved some graciousness and love, but also that he didn’t understand why a kid his age was on a social and academic level of that of his three-year-old sister. I asked him, “Does Freddie like to do science as much as you do?” He said, “Oh, yes! He loves the projects!” I followed up, “Are you enjoying being with him?” “Yes,” he said enthusiastically, “He’s a part of our group!” I finished up with, “That’s great. Freddie learns differently than you, but he loves to learn just as much as you do. It’s important to always include new kids and make sure that they feel welcome. Freddie learns in a different way and might struggle with some of the typical first grade work, so its important to make sure that he is still comfortable and that everyone is kind to him.” “OK,” my biggest little one said.

The family is the first agent of socialization. In sociology, we talk about agents of socialization—social institutions that greatly influence us over the course of our lives, such as family, schooling, work, religious bodies, etc. The earliest and often most influential because of that early influence is the family. Our children learn from parents. They learn rather or not to say please and thank you either because we enforce the practice with punitive measures or because we ourselves say please and thank you in kindness to others. They learn to brush their teeth because we require it of them, or because they see us do it and join us in the practice each morning and evening in the intimate space of our bathrooms of our homes, where one would only do something like brush teeth with someone with whom they are tightly knit. They also learn how to respond to people who are different than us. Are we kind and inclusive with people who look different than us? Do they have a physical difference or disability? Are they too thick or too thin? Are they a different nationality or speak a different language? Are their clothes dirty? Is their car rusted out and old? Are they educated or uneducated? Are they progressive or conservative? The first agent of socialization is the family. Do we want our children to be kind and accepting and loving to other children and people, or cold and insensitive to differences? Will our children be helpful or hurtful? Are we helpful or hurtful?

As I was reading Sojourner Truth’s famous speech recently, I was reminded of this interaction with my oldest child and the crucial role that parents play in changing our society to be an inclusive, just and loving one. Exiting a life of slavery and entering a role as an activist, Sojourner Truth spoke to a group of women’s rights activists in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” resonates today regarding our continuing issues in this country with race, gender and poverty. She suggests that that she is not treated like a real citizen or “woman” by society because of her role as a former slave and because of her race.

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Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner Truth:

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women of the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [Intellect, somebody whispers] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure-full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”

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Her words foreshadow what social theorists in the 1990s began referring to as intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept that suggests that social hierarchies such as race, gender, class, nationality should not be examined simply individually, but in the ways they mutually construct one another and how those layers of oppression interact. Patricia Hill Collins argues that very early on within families children are socialized into systems of power and hierarchy, making a transition to a life in a society of hierarchies based on social categories feel natural despite the fact that they are very much socially constructed. As we see these intersections of oppression in the lives and faces of our children’s classmates and friends, neighbors, colleagues, service people, etc., how can we speak to these, give them voice and teach our children to hear their stories, especially if our children function from a space of privilege?

As the most influential person in a child’s life, when parents are dismissive or unkind to people who are different for whatever reason, they are teaching their children, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, to participate in systems of hierarchy and oppression. Even in the seemingly most minor interactions with a salesperson or someone on the street to how I teach my children to interact and socialize with kids on the playground or at school, I find it to be my job to live what I learn and teach through the discipline of sociology. I want, I need to take this work home with me, to implement it. As an academic and a thoughtful parent, if I don’t use these tools at home, my writing and teaching make no sense. It is hard to be thoughtful each moment with children. It would be easier to put them in front of a screen or send them outside so I can finish my work. But this is my work. Molding minds to view life through a fresh lens, and so for me, as for all parents, my work in socialization with my children starts at home.

Doing the Everyday

Visiting Nashville and then New York in the summers is always so fun, but also bittersweet. So many people to love and long for, and even more who moved on to other cities whom I don't get to see even yearly. So many friends and family that I wish I could collect in one spot and with whom I would like to do the everyday. And then I am reminded that after three years in Florida just how grateful I am to have friends in my new home that I find myself missing while away, and to whom I look forward to going back, to do the everyday. So happy to have multiple villages, a lot of love, so much life lived, and so much more to go.

The Stay-at-Home Sociologist's Manifesto

·      I aim to make current and vital research on social issues accessible and elucidate their importance in the lives of parents, and everyone for that matter.

·      I aim to make intellectual discussion mainstream and necessary. There is more to people than booger-wiping (though adorable), sports following (though entertaining), and Kardashian-love/hating (I actually don’t really know much about these people, but they are everywhere). We live in a complicated world worthy of complicated engagement. Even if it's uncomfortable and difficult, even if we are tired and it's easier to watch Game of Thrones, parents should engage in this kind of dialogue and discourse if we want ourselves to be and our children to grow to be thoughtful people. (If we can give up wine and sushi for nine months and stop watching trashy tv in front of toddlers, we can think on tough topics in more than a superficial kind of way. Right?)

·      I aim to upturn the assumption that all people are not intellectual.  (Gramsci-influenced with a dash of Kristeva mixed in!)

·      I aim to continue the project of integrating the personal and the political. I should be able to rage against political issues and talk about my favorite cookie recipe in the same breath without being considered a lightweight. I like thinking! I like cookies! The two are not mutually exclusive. And because I talk about and eat delicious cookies does not mean my form of social/political/intellectual engagement is less than. It probably just means I am hungry.

·      I aim to raise thoughtful, kind children while engaging with the world in all of its terror and glory.

·      I aim to integrate substance and style.

·      I aim to be a great mother while great at other things. I won’t get it all right, but hopefully my earnestness, wit, and chocolate chip scones (With flax meal! I adapted an Alice Waters recipe and made it better. Perhaps the most controversial phrase to ever appear on these pages.) will cover over a multitude of ills.

·      I aim to finish this PhD through it all. (Good grief, I hope so.) 

 

Recognizably Human

I am immersed in my Orals Exam preparation in which I am reading and re-reading important and relevant texts in my chosen subfields within Sociology. Judith Butler’s work in social theory and philosophy is significant, seminal, and canonical. Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) basically changed the ways in which social theorists think about gender and sexuality.  Late last week I was  re-reading some of her work, including Undoing Gender (2004).

Speaking to a broader audience in Undoing Gender, Butler posits that recognition is what places us in society and confers status.  She suggests that some people in society are considered more human than others; they are recognizably human.

 In the introduction, Butler states:

The terms by which we are recognized as human are socially articulated and changeable. And sometimes the very terms that confer “humanness” on some individuals are those that deprive certain other individuals of the possibility of achieving that status, producing a differential between the human and the less-than-human. These norms have far-reaching consequences for how we understand the model of the human entitled to rights…Certain humans are recognized as less than human, and that form of qualified recognition does not lead to a viable life. Certain humans are not recognized as human at all, and that leads to yet another order of unlivable life…This means that to the extent that desire is implicated in social norms, it is bound up with the question of power and with the problem of who qualifies as the recognizably human and who does not… If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life, and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?” (2-3, Undoing Gender, 2004)

When others are thought of as less than—for gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, nationality, able-bodiedness, etc.—they are not being recognized as human. What does it mean to treat others as less than? Obviously, physically harming someone or applauding harm is treating them as less than. More insidious and more common is being dismissive of people and their experiences, especially when different from that of the (presumed) majority. This lack of recognition suggests to people that they are less than.

Saturday, June 11th, 2016. Here in Orlando. Fifty people killed at a popular gay club and over 50 more injured. This is just prior to the one-year anniversary of the terror attack on a black church in Charleston. There are hundreds (hundreds!) of violent, mass attacks in our nation each year, many on people who are treated and considered unrecognizably human in this country.

 

Who is recognizably human in this country? Who is not?

How do we as a society perpetuate narratives that deny recognition to certain people and populations? Who perpetuates those narratives? Why?

As kind and thoughtful people, how can we be part of solving this problem?

 

Grief Keeps Odd Hours

The kids slept in a bit today, and so did I. My husband awake, already working, and making breakfast.

“I decided to make blueberry muffins this morning!”

He’s the cook in our home. I like to cook, but it doesn’t seem to come naturally, or even with lots of practice, for me. But we’re lucky because he’s a flawless cook. I used to crave eating out, but his meals are so good, I tend to crave certain dishes he makes as much or more than favorite restaurant meals these days.  

When we were cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast, he asked, “What did you think of the muffins? I think the One Girl recipe is the best.”

“Me too.” I replied.  “Blueberry muffins are my favorite muffins.”

“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, they’ve always been my favorite muffin. Mom used to bake blueberry muffins probably once a week when I was a kid. She hated them, but she made them for me because I loved them so much.”

And there it was. Blueberry muffins on a Sunday morning open a cavern-like space beneath my breast bone. My heart beats faster. My breath gets short. Suddenly my head feels too heavy for my body, like watching a young baby try to hold its head up for the first time: she really wants to hold it up, but the weight and the concept feel like such a barrier that its easier to flop down on the shoulder of the person who holds you everyday.

I expected it today. A year ago I was waking up to a new world order. Not a political or social one, but a personal one. My Mom died in the earliest hour of June 5th, 2015. It had been a long and harrowing bout with emphysema. The final weeks were so hard. It was all hard,but that last week was heavy in a way the others were not. Regarding her final days, Dad always says, “It was bad. So, so bad.” As if those last days and life itself were acting out against us, a petulant child who was ruining everything .

Around Mother’s Day this year there was a piece circulating on Facebook from a 2014 New Yorker article by Ruth Margalit. I have read a lot in this grieving process, like C.S. Lewis, Joan Didion, and Helen Lawrence as well as psychological and self-help books, but no monograph spoke to me as much as this one article. She references her tour of grief literature and how it helped her through.  She quotes Roland Barthes, “…it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment.” She goes on to summarize that “grief keeps odd hours.”

The older I get, the more I realize written words soothe me in a way that conversation does not. People kept telling me to talk about it. I tried. Conversation is enlightening and connective, but written words wriggle their way into new and deeper tributaries to my consciousness, my soul. They reside and then do their work of revelatory clarity immediately followed by more questions about the next foggy bog down the path.  The words of others who have been through grief helped create a vocabulary and language for me in this new, unwieldy space. I’m learning the language.

But it is also words—symbols of meaning—that hold a rhetorical power over my grief and bring me to tears or to my knees at the oddest times. Blueberry muffins for breakfast. Overhearing someone at the playground talking to her mom while playing with her kids. My daughter asking me where Mimi is and what does she do all day. Psychologist and author Therese Rando, author of How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, says that grief is work. It is not a job to which I applied, but one in which the work done is necessary for emotional and psychological survival.

I probably will think of Mom every time I eat blueberry muffins. And the work eventually will be to mold that ache into a bittersweet memory and move through it carefully and thoughtfully. I think that’s the hope of this work. A year later, that’s what I want to do: only taste the pain of these surprise moments, but savor the beauty of the memories. 

 

Design Your Time

Though I have been calling myself The Stay-at-Home Sociologist jokingly with my spouse and friends for some time, I actually am not quite as "stay-at-home" as I have been the last three years as I am embarking on completion of my PhD. This fall I am taking my oral exams. Orals are exams one takes as a component of a PhD program. I completed the first stage, coursework, before moving from New York to Florida. I took my written exams on classical sociological theory (e.g., Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel) and contemporary sociological theory (e.g., Geertz, Butler, Foucault, Bourdieu) when I was eight months pregnant with my third child. Once I complete my oral exams, I'll then be what people call ABD (very unofficial term meaning "all but dissertation"). After that, I will be able to move on to dissertation research, planning and writing. I began my orals prep in earnest a couple of weeks ago, and I actually quite enjoy it. The opportunity to revisit the theories and ideas first explored in masters and PhD coursework feels exciting again, I'm sure in part because I did take some time away from it over the last few years. My areas of study (chosen by me and are, of course, my areas of interest that will be my areas of expertise when all of this over) are gender/sexuality, religion, and culture. 

My husband is an academic as well, in a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college. He has no official teaching commitments in the summer, but always does work toward his research and writing agenda. That said, he has worked very hard to hit a few of his benchmark tenure requirements early so he could be available to care for the kids this summer while I study. We also have grandparents visiting for a few weeks, which is immensely helpful with the childcare. 

My goal is to spend a minimum of four hours per day working. Some days I will have much more time (seven or eight hours). My exam date is scheduled for mid-October. My first week of preparation was spent finalizing the texts with which I need to know by working closely via email and text with the three professors who are my examiners. I searched online for ways in which to organize oneself in work, as I have a limited amount of time and can't afford to waste any of it. I came across an article from Fast Company by a Google work advisor who suggests doing a chart to Design your Time.  

There are a couple of key takeaways from the article. One is to create a design of your time (as opposed to "managing" it as if it is something that could spin out of control). The other is to say no to things that fall outside of your design. The article suggests dividing your work into four categories. All work must fall into those four categories. Here is mine:

My Design your Time diagram.

  You'll notice I have a second chart of quadrants that further divides my Study/Research time up as well. So far, this model is working really well for me. When I begin each day, I assess how much time I have that day and then conduct my tasks accordingly. Every task/project is moved forward each day. The hardest part is saying no to things outside of the quadrant. I feel so much more in control of my time and efforts with a plan to reference. Though I am in intensive orals prep this summer, I can also see this working for my teaching load for the fall and for taking care of the family and household. I plan to make designs for those arenas as well.

My 5% blog time is almost up, so I need to get started on the next task for the day. Happy working!