The following is a guest post by Kelly Hogaboom who writes and tweets with great wit and candour about rad stuff like feminism, non-punitive parenting, body image, cooking and sewing, life and love (and much else besides).
These days I’m a pretty hearty soul. I have a fair degree of equanimity that has been hard-won. Still, I’m only human. And as I pen this I’ve just returned from a lunch date with old family friends. I found myself, quite suddenly, stuck in a corner (literally and figuratively) while these old friends argued toward me about
If you’ve spent any time in the social wellbeing or social justice spheres you might have a more nuanced view than the mainstream media regarding: obesity (childhood and “regular”, ha), “healthy” food, and epicurean snobbery waged against the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. I hardly blame anyone who might read Michelle Alison’s piece, linked above, and find their belief system challenged – after all, most conventional wisdom out there is full of ableism, orthorexia, classism, adultism and mommy-shaming –
and more important to me, at root really, a profound lack of compassion and open-mindedness.
This conversation was no different. Within seconds I heard about “personal responsibility”, people who “sit around all day feeling bad about themselves and playing video games”, and the cheapness of whole grains – all this and more by a group of middle-class people eating a fifteen-dollar-a-plate meal of cheesy pizza, salads loaded with ranch dressing, and pop. I should note the video game comment was uttered by a man who misheard my mention of the [US] “Farm Bill”
as FarmVille – and who admitted he didn’t know what the Farm Bill is.
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t such tired, depressing, and well-trod ground.
Never lost on me is sameness of the script with which some of these parties speak. They will often cite a female ancestor who supposedly fed an entire family on just pennies and fed the neighborhood besides. They often require those the most marginalized or disadvantaged to eat and live a certain way, and be exposed to scrutiny and lectures they themselves do not practice nor endure. During one such conversation a friend of mine, a mother of one and an at-home wife to a man earning six figures, espoused the economy of beans and apples while slicing into the peanut butter pie made with full-fat organic ingredients and Gran Marnier (I shouldn’t have to tell you she underquoted the price of bulk beans and apples… because she doesn’t have to know those prices, naturally).
These conversations have thus far broken my heart but never more so than today, given I work quite regularly with recovering alcoholics and addicts and I see the hard work that goes into survival – and I hear the experiences of low-self worth they’ve often internalized. Many of those I work with got life’s start in the most profoundly disadvantaged circumstances (poverty, abuse of all horrific varieties, neglect from parent/carer, etc), and who today are working against many odds and in a temporary or semi-permanent state of Survival Mode – making the meetings that sustain them, shuffling court dates and problems with the law and job re-training, all while living on a fraction of what my partner earns and without an at-home partner (like myself) to soak those beans and slice those apples and knead that bread. (The confidentiality of this volunteer work is sacrosanct enough that, even writing off my home blog, the circumstances of my small-town dictates I don’t cite too many specifics.)
Suffice to say I am regularly exposed to and work hand-in-hand helping these individuals (I am a recovering alcoholic as well) – not all of whom can’t afford expensive food – and I see them as Human Beings doing their best – after all, longterm recovery from addiction and alcoholism is Personal Responsibility at a profoundly deep level. To think of the casual hate these people endure when standing in line with their packets of ten cent Top Ramen or with a bag of Arby’s for dinner just sucks.
Now, I’m not saying anyone at the table today was particularly hateful. It’s just, despite hearing these kinds of vitriolic arguments in public spaces and online I was still, somehow, caught off-guard to hear these thoughts echoed by my friends. I let myself get sucked into an argument I’ve in the past found deeply unproductive. Was it wrong I spoke up about my practice of compassion, and from my direct experiences working directly with those living on cheap food? No. Where I went wrong was to forget a lesson I’ve been served before: you cannot argue compassion into someone.
You cannot argue compassion into someone.
What can I do next time, besides committing this lesson to memory? Well, in my best self I would have retained a curiosity as to why these people felt so angry about those who “eat unhealthy”. I would have listened a bit more and been less quick to talk. Yes, I may think I know why these people said the same things I’ve heard so many times before, but today I didn’t ask questions but rather assumed The Usual Suspects: a buy-into the prevalent spiritual and emotional formations of Scarcity, the myth of the United States as a meritocracy, the desire to Other those less fortunate and therefore operate on a false sense of security, and perhaps the injudicious consumption of mainstream media with it’s obsessive and unproductive riverflow of War on Obesity rhetoric. Yeah, I might be most the way right about what I was hearing, but now I do not know if I was correct or incorrect – because I did not listen.
As an epilogue: I did end up feeling a bit better shortly after this lunch gone awry. Back in the car with just my own children I felt rattled for a moment as I turned over my engine. But sitting for a minute the deepest experience of gratitude washed over me, because I have a few assets: including my two children and the human beings they’ve evidenced themselves to be. They are, today, entirely generous, whip-smart, and so incredibly less likely than I to let others’ angst affect their values and their practice of love. It might sound like I’m veering into bragging about my parenting; I’m not. My children and their compassion aren’t supplied here to justify my performance as a mother – I am relating that they give me a great deal of hope. They are two human beings who evidence great intelligence, a desire for right speech, a commitment to friendship, and, often, a peace that passes human understanding.
Two human beings who, today, hug my drug-addict friends and my middle-class grouchy foodies – beings who all suffer in their own ways – with earnestness, deep affection, and a profound spiritual centeredness.
I might not always get it right. But I have some pretty good mentors to help me along.
I want to talk about fatigue.
I want to talk about the second and third shifts. The don’t-even-look-at-the-dishes-in-the-sink fatigue. The double-booked because it’s too hectic to look at the calendar and now I’ve had to let someone down busyness fatigue.
I want to talk about gear changing. The weary rousing of oneself from work mode to parent mode and back again. The feeling that a day, any old day, without any juggling acts would be some kind of bliss. A selfish, perfectly selfish, bliss.
I want to talk about bone tiredness: the I-don’t-have-time-for-the-gym which becomes I-don’t-have-the-energy-anymore-ask-me-tomorrow. I want to talk about the physical slowness, the inward curling and energy slumping that comes from mental fatigue.
I want to talk about emotional wear. The sense of hopelessness that comes with never having enough left to give. The guilt, of letters unwritten and phone calls un-made. The frustration that the work of relationship maintenance so readily eclipses its rewards, or feels like it will.
I want to talk about pacing and rocking and please please just sleep for crying out loud just sleep for fuck’s sake please just GO TO SLEEP.
I want to talk about the need to do writing and not having time for writing and not having energy left with which to make more time because the rewards of writing, the energising release and the pleasure have all been doled out. The stores are empty.
I want to talk about email in-box anxiety and bursting into tears over upended laundry baskets.
I want to talk about the fatigue of being fatigued. The wearing down of it. The hurt of coming up against one’s limitations and having to remember, always remember, that they are there. That illness is there at the edge of one’s capabilities, or near.
I want to talk about the work of wishing to be healthy. Of trying to think of shopping and cooking and eating well, of filling prescriptions on time and seeking recommendations and referrals and making appointments and dreaming of finding a yoga class and thinking as if there will ever be time.
I want to talk about the shame of even talking of doing too much when others do so much more. And about how maybe too many of us do so much that there can only be a deficit between doing and being.
I want to talk about all of that. But really, I’m too tired.
On aspirations: When I grow up I want to be man.
Okay, how come?
So I can go to work like Daddy. And drive a fire truck.
At the moment, do you want to be a boy or a girl?
I want to be a girl, because I want to play nicely with my friends.
On anatomy: Daddy doesn’t have a vulva. That’s funny.
On trains and relationships: James [the engine] is a little bit upset. He needs to go and talk to Thomas about something, and then he’ll feel better.
On careers: What is that lady [in the book] doing?
She’s a teacher. I’m a teacher too.
I could be a teacher when I grow up.
Do you want to be a teacher like mummy when you grow up?
No, I don’t think so! I want to be a Work Man.
Upon reading 10 000 Dresses: Bailey is sad because her mummy says: ‘you’re not a girl Bailey, you’re a boy!’ and they say ‘Go away!’. But I think she is a girl … ’cause she feels like a girl.
On pinkness: I like pink because E [girl at childcare] says it’s the best colour!
Upon seeing a big red tractor slashing grass: Mummy I am going to get a tractor. It will be small so I can put it inside. And it will be pink. I will cut the grass with it so Daddy doesn’t have to cut the grass.
On International Women’s Day: I’m wearing green and purple because it’s International Women’s Day today. That’s a day for girls and women like us. Do you want to wear green and purple too?
Okay! I will wear green and purple and PINK!
(And she did)
Purple, green and a splash of pink sparkles
I’m a good wife. We have a modern relationship – you know, equal and all that. I help out around the house all the time. I don’t mind emptying the dishwasher when I get home from work, that’s my main job. I iron my own work clothes, too. I know my grandmother never did that in her life, but I don’t feel that it makes me any less womanly. I’m secure in my womanhood, I can do a bit of ironing!
My husband works really hard doing everything at home so I don’t mind giving him a break. He works outside of the home too, but not so many hours as me of course. But still. I know he’s tired after work too. So when he’s had a really big day I put dinner on so he can relax for a bit. On the weekends if we’re having people over he usually wants to do a really big clean-up, so I help out. I mean, I don’t really see the point sometimes! It’s not like anyone’s really looking at how clean the toilet is. But I do it to keep him happy. He says that I just don’t see the dirt but to be really honest I think sometimes his standards are just too high. Men are always expecting things to be perfect when really, it’s not necessary. I mean, I guess some wives are really critical when things aren’t all neat and tidy but that’s not my style.
I baby-sit too, so he can get out of the house and get his hair cut or see friends. I’m really supportive of his interests. He plays squash on Tuesday nights so I make sure I’m home from work on time so he doesn’t miss out. On the weekends I love playing with my little girl. I even take her to the supermarket. A lot of people comment on how nice it is to see a mother out with her child, and we do have a lot of fun. You can make anything into a game, you know? My husband says that when our daughter has a tantrum at the supermarket people are really critical of him. Maybe they are but I wonder how much of it he’s imagining. He always thinks people are judging him, like one time when we went out together and I forgot to change our daughter’s top after she got tomato sauce all over it. He couldn’t stop talking about how everyone would be thinking he was hopeless because he couldn’t even dress his own kid in clean clothes. I mean, really, it wasn’t a big deal, and I was the one who dressed her anyway. Why would they assume it was his fault? Well I guess most husbands do most of the laundry but, still, that’s changing.
I’m a really hands on mother. I think it’s only fair that I change my share of nappies when I’m at home! Just the other day I overheard a guy saying to my husband, ‘Gee, you’re so lucky. I wish my wife would do that.’ It’s not like I’m patting myself on the back or anything – I mean, in this day and age you can’t just sit back and let the husband do everything anymore. Just between you and me, I do get a bit annoyed with some of my friends who treat their husbands like doormats. But then again, men have to stick up for themselves too. I mean, if a wife is used to having everything done for her, dinner on the table by six, that type of thing, of course she’s going to expect it. Men really need to take some responsibility for asking for more equality in relationships. Problem is too many of them are real control freaks; if their wives don’t make the bed just so, they get all snarky about it and their wives never want to do it again. Same with bathing the kids and stuff. I know a guy who kept telling his wife she was putting too much shampoo in their boy’s hair and so of course she just gave up. A woman can’t win that battle, better not to even try.
Sometimes my dad says to me that I do too much, ‘your mother never had to lift a finger around the house’, he says. I tell him that times have changed now. Dad never had a job or anything, he just spent his whole time looking after us kids and mum so these days with lots of husbands working everything’s changing. I think it’s great; men need to have a life too, they can’t just be stuck at home all the time.
I think having equality in our relationship is really good for us. It’s a good example for our daughter too. My husband and I show her how to do things like unpack the shopping, fold her clothes that type of thing. It’s important that she doesn’t grow up just expecting men to do all of that for her. We even bought her a toy vacuum cleaner. My mother-in-law was a bit upset about that! But I mean, really, it’s 2010. It’s time for her to get over it. If I’m okay with my daughter playing with a toy vacuum then everyone else should be too. It’s not going to make her any less of a woman when she grows up. In fact she’ll have better luck finding a husband if she’s ‘house trained’!
Actually my mother-in-law can cause a few problems for us. My husband always gets really antsy around Christmas when we have the whole family over. His mum likes it when he does the meal – gravy and everything – just like his dad used to before he passed away. I help out of course but I usually get kicked out of the kitchen pretty quickly after I burn the onions or something. It’s always such a big deal and usually someone’s in tears by the end of the day. Men are so emotional! They really do put too much pressure on themselves – it doesn’t have to be like in the Mens’ Weekly ‘Christmas special’ every time, you know what I mean?
But basically, we have a really good balance. I don’t look too closely at the credit card statement and he doesn’t nag me about the typical stuff like picking up wet towels – it’s all give and take and compromise, like all good partnerships should be. I’m really proud of my husband and how well he can balance everything going on. And he is such a devoted father, there’s nothing like a father’s love. My daughter and I would really be lost without him.
Inspired by this little piece of ‘news’.
A letter came from my mother today.
It’s been, approximately, eight years since I’ve received mail from her. This came via my childhood home, forwarded by my step-mum, who it should be said, gave me fair warning.
At first I was thrown by the improvement in her handwriting despite her increased age but then, I remembered: she drafts. She was always a prolific letter-writer and equally good at filling waste paper bins. One summer that I visited she embarked upon an autobiography and splurged most of a pay-cheque on a second-hand typewriter. I was excited because my mother was going to be a famous author – as I wanted to be – but my brother scoffed and was, of course, proved right. Her mood turned and she gave up after two days, the typewriter hefted out onto the pavement beside the bins in the caravan park they were calling home. I had read the first few pages of her failed memoir and had found it cloying and stilted compared with the novels I enjoyed. But I do recall the central theme which touched and unsettled me even then: the opening anecdote was something about a memory of shopping with her own mother and of coming to the realisation that no one, not even her mother, loved her. In the memory she was about five years old: I, the reader, was ten.
Two decades later and she has written to admonish me for not knowing her and yet, her words spill out all over my skin and under it and there is nothing of them I do not already know. A careful reining-in of impulse here, a sentence fragment there, an imperious judgment over the page and then finally a breaking free of the draft to add extra exclamation marks and to literally underline the evidence of her goodness in contrast to my own character … none of it, none of it, is unfamiliar. I don’t doubt that in the twenty-seven years since she left dwell huge gaps in knowledge and understanding. There is an unshared lifetime between us. But I recognise her syntax, I remember her posture as she keeps cigarette ash off the page, I see how she writes her Xs and Os just so. I know her.
She is written on me; she is writing on me.
The surprise tonight is that even after all I have learned and done, even though my rational brain tells me not to heed it, her criticism still smarts. I don’t want to write that I felt ‘crushed’ or ‘deflated’ or ‘wounded’ but nothing serves as a better descriptor. I have adapted to living without a mother’s love but that doesn’t mean I can live happily with her disdain.
Yet, this does not feel as bad as other times. Tonight I looked at my precious Bean all fresh and shiny from her shower, her blue eyes so wide and open, her hands grasping at my shirt, and I was reminded.
I write letters. I draft. I write of my daughter and to her, I wrote my genes into her, I write my stories onto her experience. And I have a certain syntax and a way of writing Xs and Os, and I don’t know what the end of the story will be, even if I do know very well what it won’t be.
But from here the plot only moves forward. From here, I write on.