I’ve had a lot of thoughts this past winter (long, cold, insular winters are conducive to thoughts) on the topic of intensive mothering (long, cold, insular winters when one has three young children and is project managing a renovation and starting a new job are particularly conducive to thoughts on intensive mothering). This concept has been kicking around since 1996, when academic Sharon Hays wrote about it in her book, “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood” (accompanied by this amazingly dated picture):
What is intensive mothering? Here is a description pulled from the abstract to Hays’ paper: “an ideology that holds the individual mother primarily responsible for child rearing and dictates that the process is to be child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive” (emphasis mine).
Now, almost 20 years later, as my Facebook feed explodes with discussions about vaccines (populated mostly with commentary from women, natch), and as I see the endless stream of weird questions on this “Ladies with Babies” forum on Facebook filled with my cohort (mostly women in their 30s, educated, living in downtown Toronto, newish parents) – “Question: when to give my daughter eggs?” “Felix has a weird speckled rash and mostly runny, green poos that resemble a verdant forest on a Bon Iver album cover - thoughts?”, and after my ill-fated experience on the parent council at the Big Yam’s school, it is evident that intensive mothering is still a pernicious and pervasive ideology - one that is contributing to gendered labour inequities in the domestic sphere and hindering women’s progression in the workforce.
I think we all know intensive mothers. As progressive as I am, it is impossible for me not to fall into a certain trap when it comes to household domestic division of labour. Part of the problem is me – being an insane micro-manager and type A. I know of a few other relationships where the male counterparts in the couple fulfill the role of making sure that everyone is fed, clothed, and happy, but in the intensive mothering sense – which means enrolled in programs, eating organic food, dressed in the proper pediatric-approved shoes - that work still falls to the women. In the vast majority of my experiences and observations though, even if the guys do the laundry and the cooking, the thinking about the kids is disproportionately borne by the “mothers.”
In my own house, this manifests thus: the Dotytron is responsible for packing the Big Yam’s school lunch, but I still take a second look to make sure the Big Yam gets vegetables AND fruit, and I’m the one who manages the grocery list and notes which mini yogurts the Big Yam prefers. I don’t think the Dotytron has ever, in his going on five years as a parent, ever bought our children a stitch of clothing, or expended a nanosecond of time thinking about what season we’re going into and what the kids have to have in their wardrobes to be sartorially prepared. The Dotytron has never scheduled a doctor’s appointment or a specialist’s appointment for our kids. Jobs that he does do, have been assigned to him, by me. Yes, he does the cooking at the end of the day, but it’s from a recipe that I’ve laid out for him, with ingredients that I prepped (by waking up at 5:30am, most days), and from a weekly menu plan that I devised, with groceries that I planned for and stocked.
The bar for fathers is deplorably low. I’m reminded of this as I read through the proofs of my friend JJ’s forthcoming book on the topic of food and femininity. In the introduction, she states: "We demonstrate how the organic child ideal is informed by neoliberal notions of individual responsibility, positioning mothers as personally responsible for shielding their children from the risks of the industrial food system. At the same time, we argue that critics must not dismiss food-focused mothers as neoliberal dupes. Maternal discourse is constituted through neoliberal logics, but is embodied and enacted through food traditions that have deep roots within feminine and maternal identities."
Women are responsible. Do you ever hear of people judging and shaming middle and upper-middle class dads for feeding their kids Gerber baby food (the horror?!)? No. Women are the ones who are guilted and shamed. Just like when I’m at a family event with the kids and older women feel the need to tell me what I should be doing or how I should be raising my kids and what I’m doing wrong. It’s all on the mom, man. It really is. When it comes to “voting with your dollar” on the world you want your kids to inherit, it’s women making those consumer decisions.
It’s a lot of pressure being responsible for waging war on capitalism and the industrial complex on your own. I would LOVE to be a dad – where you get daps for carrying a diaper bag and being able to put your kids to bed. That would be awesome. If that’s all I had to do when I was home, and I didn’t have to spend any time negotiating “work-life balance” and making sure that I had a handle on 4 people’s lives (5, if you include the Dotytron), then I would be freaking Executive Director by now.
I love my partner, but sometimes he has to be reminded that I don’t exist to facilitate his life, which it can sometimes feel like. The pressures put on mothers and working mothers is indeed internalized externalized pressure – we are complicit in an ideology that serves to subjugate us. I could easily just not care. But, I do care and the general tenets of intensive parenting are valid. On the nights when I’m not home and the Dotytron has to pick up the Big Yam from his karate class (as an aside – the first time we watched him at karate class was worth the price of the class alone. It is ridiculously adorable how uncoordinated our eldest is), the Dotytron’s default dinner is a walk-in special (large pepperoni pizza). I don’t want my kids to eat pepperoni pizza and Habitant pea soup (which is what the Dotytron assures me would happen if I ever actually made good on my threat to give up on the menu planning and food prep) every night! That’s gross! What JJ’s research shows is that even when men are the “foodies” in a relationship, it tends to be reserved for the “special” cooking. The entertaining, fussy kind. The everyday cooking and the thinking about nutrition and the like fall on women, more often than not.
I don’t have any easy solution for this problem, but I know that I grew up in a house where my mother was a working mother who categorically did NOT practice intensive mothering. She was largely absent and preoccupied with running her own law firm. My stepdad, Big D, did all the grocery shopping and laundry and dotes on my mum. Cooking was largely hived off to the nannies my mum hired to look after us. I’ve never talked to my mum about it, but I don’t think she’s ever felt an iota of guilt (I’m so sure of this, that it’s why I’ve never talked to her about it - there just isn't a need to confirm what I already know). There are models in my life for an unabashedly career focused mother. I don’t necessarily want to be the mum my mother was, but I don’t think I have to shoulder the burden of the pressures of modern mothering myself. It’s nice to be able to give a form and language to the oppression of intensive mothering – to be able to name that which I am casting off.
It is difficult to be a socially conscious, environmentally driven, health-minded and reflexive person in society. It is extra hard when you’re doing all that, working, and trying to be and create that culture for your children. It’s exceptionally hard when you do all that, and you’re the kind of exacting, psycho, obsessive perfectionist like me. I don’t make it easy for myself, but I can choose to say no. I can choose to not let the state off the hook for collective social action. I can choose to ask for and be gracious in the face of help. I can choose not to do it alone. I’m not sure if the model to aspire to is intensive parenting instead of mothering, but I know that I don`t have to die on the sword of social consciousness on the battleground of my children.
Diversion – how was your weekend? I had a fantastic weekend, starting Thursday night with a lovely dinner in advance of Dr. Rei’s birthday at Sukho Thai. This resulted in the following hilarious exchange when we some Chinese guava candies were presented with our bill –
Me: “You should try one, they’re good, Benoit in my office has a bowl at his desk.”
Dr: “Did you say, Benoit???”
Dr: “Wow. Benoit, huh, hmm”
Dr: “Benoit… “
LOL! She was clearly very impressed with Benoit, based solely on his name, the way Jordan Peele’s character is so taken with a Continental breakfast offered at his hotel, because of its Continental-ness:
Then I had book club at my friend Judith’s gorgeous, detached, GIANT house close to Dufferin Grove park. A house on the corner of my street recently listed in the $900s. It had previously sold 2-3 years ago for $640-$700. The house is the same size as mine, but detached, and a corner lot with two parking spots. However, it is next to a rooming house and the back side is subsidized housing. It also faces a main street. The Dotytron has been very quick to quash my dreams of capitalizing on my unseemly willingness to invite chaos into our lives with big renovations and real estate speculation, so I don't think it's in the cards for us, given that I refuse to pay a million dollars FOR MY OWN HOUSE. Basically, if I'm buying a million dollar house, it's going to be for something that is not a detached version of what I'm living in. I definitely would want a significant space upgrade. Dotytron is insisting that Lil' Ugmo is the house they're going to wheel him out of when he's 99, so it is what it is. No real-life Monopoly for me.
J's house was so gorgeous though. It is giant, close to Dufferin Grove park, old and untouched but liveable. There are so many delicious details about it (servants stairs - which are not savory from a supporting-slavery ethical standpoint, but are a lovely architectural detail in a house), stained glass, dark beams on the ceilings.
Anyway, Thursday was a good night. Friday I came home to a Micelli Monday in full swing with Lolls and SMckay and baby Sheaslounge and my gaggle of adorable goofs and it was so nice. I love coming home to a full house. We made a delicious dinner and then hung out and it was delightful.
We watched the Amy Schumer Friday Night Lights spoof on football rape and about died laughing. It is incisive, and funny, and cogent:
Saturday was our usual errand morning - dropping off the Big Yam at Chinese School. Two weekends ago he had a recital that we missed because we had no idea and had made other plans (we are the worst). We felt EXTRA bad when I found out from my neighbour that during the Big Yam's class, a kid PROJECTILE VOMITED on the very last note of the song. It was classic! BEST POSSIBLE KID RECITAL OUTCOME! I saw the video - the kids went screaming off in every direction. It was chaos.
While the Big Yam is at Chinese school we do the grocery shopping and take the babies to a park where they give us multiple heart attacks. Quincess Leia is pretty good, Lindsay is fearless. I caught him mid-step about to go down the fireman pole, completely oblivious, just in the knick of time. He has no self preservation instincts. This makes both babies considerably more sure-footed than the Big Yam (who gives a hard no to anything remotely dangerous - see exhibit A, this photo from his first real roller coaster at Disney), but it also makes for a non-relaxing time at the playground:
Side eye to the MAX.
Quincess has been so sweet and loving lately, it's the best. He throws his arms behind him when he runs and frequently runs into a room, arms behind him, gives us a signature Quincess crinkle cut eyes (his expressions are all about his ability to manipulate and scrunch his eyes suggestively) look of mischief, and then turns on his heels and runs out. He is the sweetest little thing. I was standing in the kitchen the other day and he came up and flung his little arms around my legs and gave me a knee-height full body hug, and then ran away with his arms behind him. He's definitely a mama's boy, which is nice, since as far as Lindsay is concerned, the Dotytron is both baba AND mama (he uses both interchangeably to ask for the Dotytron, inquire about his whereabouts, request cuddles). He's a baba's boy like you wouldn't believe.
Ever since Momma D's birthday party, Joni's "Big Yellow Taxi" has been on heavy rotation. Lindsay's sweet little voice is the best thing.
This is my 4th baby. He is the sweetest little goofball. Look at him! Those eyebrows!? That round little noggin. He kills me.
The Big Yam is so funny and also filled with sweetness. He went to a friend's house the other day and his friend's mom relayed this exchange to me:
Big Yam, upon walking into their house, "Whoa. This house is really small. Hey, we have two cats too! Except one is dead."
Mom: "Oh no! What happened?"
Big Yam: "Um. He just went to the vet and died."
He has this hilarious friend at school, Frank, and the two of them just constantly make up ridiculous in-jokes and weird sayings. The newest consists of running around singing, "Have a jolly, jolly Christmas!" and then claiming, "Me and Frank made up that song." Also, there's this:
I'm not sure when "Mama Mia" gets employed and under what context, but as a "bit" it's so random, I love it.
We did an escape room with some of our high school buds on Saturday and then had dinner with them after. I can't believe it's been TWENTY YEARS since high school. I was looking around the table at dinner and was kind of floored. So much history there! So many experiences. I still don't feel a day older than I was then. I don't feel like I'm coming up on forty (!!!) at all.
Good friends, good times. Sunday was a visit my Poh Poh, Yummy Market, dinner with my mom day.
This weekend is another good one - dinner and a movie with JJ, the Discerning Coyote, et al tomorrow night, then a friend's birthday party on Saturday, then friends over on Sunday for dinner and more hangs involving cute kids and people I've known forever (girls from my cooking days).