Thursday, August 9, 2012

Food, Family and Feminism

It has been over three months since my last post. My new life is ever changing and at some times overwhelming. Slowly but surely I am settling in. The fresh gust of fresh air that my new job has provided has been welcome. I have traveled abroad twice since I began and I have worked late more days in the last 2 months than I have in the past 5 years. But in the end I feel that my hard work will pay off in something I cannot quite claim just yet...a mature career, professional respect, future opportunities? I am not sure where the road will lead just yet but thus far the journey has been thrilling.

Yet among all this excitement, I often think about this most special of my projects, The Table of Promise. I can't say that I have been eating so well. Thanks to stress and overworking I have thus far lost and gained 5 pounds at least once and I think I am beginning the process once again. I could stand to go back and reread my earlier posts when I managed balance in my life much better.

I still have the desire to add to the record of my thoughts here. One post in particular that I am been wanting to write is a reflection of food, family and feminism. I am not sure if it is my love of deliciousness or some deep seated feminine drive that leads me to cook for my family in the way that I do. I definitely feel a fulfillment of something elemental when I place a hot roast on a table filled with loved ones. My love of cooking is punctuated by more than just pride in a job well done but that somehow I have fulfilled a role that I have been born into being female. I understand that not every woman views her femininity this way. One could even make a case that I am old fashioned. I might argue otherwise.

Earlier this year, a young woman bared her breast to nurse her three year old son on the cover of Newsweek magazine (was it Time? I know you have heard about this already and clearly I wasn't fully paying attention). This image ran underneath the title 'Are You Mom Enough?'. Within days, battles erupted on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Moms of both the Attachment Parenting and the more traditional varieties duked it out in computer code to defend the way that they choose to raise their child. On many of the natural food blogs the topic of extended breastfeeding was raised and debated again and again that week.

Now please forgive my language, but I couldn't give a shit how long you breast feed your child. If you keep right on nursing until high school, that is the choice of you and your child. I see nursing as a two person relationship, the child and mom. As long as both parties are willing, go for it. But the article and the image got to me. Maybe I am not as much mom as the woman on the cover? I quit breastfeeding when my oldest was 7 months old after weeks of biting, bleeding, tears and endless pumping with a ten pound pump that I dragged around literally everywhere. By the time I put my hands up and said 'I can take no more' I was so sick of ice packs, breast milk and that horrible low pitched slurp-slurp noise that the pump made. But I nursed my own feeling of failure for months afterward because I was the one who broke off the relationship and not my baby. If breastfeeding is, as I believe, a two person relationship, why do we diminish the rights of mom to be the one to end things? Should mom continue to breastfeed as long as a child requires, asks or even demands? Is extended breast feeding the measure of a good mom? Nursing would have been easier for me had I not worked full time. After a bumpy start, Thing 1 and I were on a roll in the weeks before I returned to work. But a couple of late nights, a little stress and some missed pumpings and we derailed rather quickly to a place where my baby loved breastmilk, but not my breasts.

My feelings about working full time have always been a bit confused. I have never wavered in my decision to work. I derive alot of joy out of my career, but I continue to struggle on whether working makes me a better mother or a lousy one. On one hand, I do not look to my children to define my self worth. I do not enable my kids by doing too much for them just to keep busy. And I am setting a hard-working, dedicated and industrious model for them. However, I leave them every day in the hands of others, and sometimes when I am particularly stressed out I am not fully present even when I am with them. I like to joke that I work because we need the money, and for sure we cannot live in our current location without the support of two incomes, but I know I work because of ambition, drive and desire. Yet without my children, husband and friends my life literally would not be worth living. A job at the end of the day is simply some service in exchange for some payment. It is the people in one's life that gives the sunrise its color and joy to a measure of music.

So many of the real food blogs I have read regularly include posts about extended breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping and attachment parenting that I noticed right away that AP and 'Real Food' were just parts of the same movement. I too was turned onto real food mainly because of having children, being charged with feeding them and wanting to do the best job I could. But that wasn't the only reason real food appealed. I have also struggled with my weight, had a dysfunctional relationship with food and a fear of sucuumbing to the same cancer that took my junk food loving mother. Although while I fell in love with the ideals of Real Food, it never developed into some larger world view of Attachment Parenting. I never thought of my natural desire to comfort my children or to be kind to them as being all that radical or as a special 'type' of parenting. Although the debate about Attachment Parenting always seems to center on AP being an expression of kindness towards one's children. Is it really kindness that defines the Attachment style of parenting? Or is it extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby wearing that really set this style of parenting apart? For the record, I don't think any of those practices are all that strange or weird, and I don't think most people care as much as people think. What gets people riled up is the assertion that these practices make AP a kinder, more committed or somehow better style of parenting than the standard. Unfortunately by defining itself in terms of 'kindness', Attachment Parenting has inadvertently labeled the rest of the world's parents as unloving and neglectful. I don't think they meant to do that, but millions of moms have taken that message home. It ain't just me.

Even if I wanted to, I really can't fully practice Attachment Parenting. I work full time. And even though Dr Sears has some articles on his website about pumping at work, Dr Sears does in his books encourage mothers to stay home. The Newsweek article goes as far as saying that Dr Sears recommends parents borrowing money from their own parents in order for mom to be able stay home. I can't say that his is such a radical conclusion.
When I first started changing my family's diet from processed foods to more whole foods, things progressed nicely. We got rid of chicken nuggets and refined carbs. But I eventually hit a wall. I made bread once. It wasn't that much effort at once, but the schedule of stirring sourdough and all day rising was tough to accomplish every single day while working full time. I made pasta three times, even if I thought I was an artisan, my pasta wasn't exactly 'artisan quality'. I simply started running out of time and energy. Making absolutely everything from scratch was ALOT of work. I absolutely cannot do it all. There are not enough hours in the day. Maybe, just maybe, our culture and family unit evolved to require one parent out gathering while one parent tended to the little ones.

When the kids went to school last fall and I no longer had full time help at home I clung to the few 'real food' dinners that were super quick to make on a weeknight. Now that I have taken on a larger role in my career, I am happy to just pull out leftovers. Correction, I am THRILLED to take out leftovers. We order take-out more regularly. My once high ideals are high no more. And just like Dr Sears, I am starting to think that our feminist fore-mothers might have netted us some unintended consequences. Surely the feminist movement has made it possible for me to be a driven working mother, and to those strong women I owe much. But with moms AND dads all over the country working outside of the home, of course convenience, prepackaged and restaurant foods would rise to prominence. And with this comes unintended health issues. Could it be that women working outside the home is contributing to our current national health crisis? Is modern feminism and the working mother another vestige of our unhealthy modern society? Egads, did I really even just say that?

I don't think it is such a difficult leap to make. If we believe that the answer to our nation's health issues of diabetes and obesity, etc, are to eat more naturally, rest more and in general slow down, how exactly do we do that with so many families going full tilt working, schooling and activity-ing. Eventually to fully realize this more natural and connected ideal someone has got to stay home and do all the things that support the family unit. Since mama has the baby's milk in her breasts already, doesn't it make alot of sense that it ought to be her?

The thing that makes me the saddest is that while the feminist movement was originally a fight for women against a male dominated system, the fight increasingly looks internal to me. Female admissions to higher education now outpace male enrollment. In many major cities the average of women's salaries is higher than that of men, due in large part to the aforementioned higher education statistics. And even in my child's own preschool the 'boys will be boys' mentality is long gone, replaced with a strict behavioral standard that many active boys cannot hope to meet. I have seen it first hand, the little girls play quietly while the little boys are in time out for too much exuberance. I do not feel roadblocks from the men in my life. My husband is wildly supportive. Additionally, I prefer having a man for a boss and have built several great relationships that have furthered my career. The ones who have sized me up and down have always been other women. The 'I don't get special treatment and you shouldn't either' attitude has always come more from other women I have worked with. And forget it, if you choose to work 12 hour days on Wall Street, the other mommies on the playground are definitely talking about how you don't see your kids that much. When you leave that six-figure-salary job the women at work are all saying behind your back that you are going to hate being at home and that they are surprised that you couldn't balance it all. Who wins? No one. Who loses? Everyone.

I never felt the monstrous pressure to balance it all before I had children. I had my hubby and friends and I had my job. But our current environment of high parenting and nutrition ideals are directly at odds with the feminist ideals with which I was raised. My mother said ''You can do anything!!!" Make no mistake, she was talking about working. Though as I am working now in adulthood, I am coming to the conclusion that in my mother's great zeal to awaken my own vision for my bright future she forgot the second half of that sentence. "Dear Christa, you can do anything, but you cannot do everything."

Shouldn't gender equality be most about creating a world where we have the freedom and support to choose our path rather than endlessly debate the best way to eat and the best way to parent and the best way to steer one's career? Isn't it possible that there is a different answer for everyone? My gut says that there is such a thing as balance between one's family life and one's contributions to the world outside of the family. I just.....haven't found it.

The irony of this entire post is that most of it was written six weeks ago when I found myself with some extra travel time while also being hopped up on too much Illy coffee. When I landed back in the states I saw that several friends had facebook-shared an article from The Atlantic with the title 'Women Still Can't Have It All' Ms. Slaughter caught alot of guff for being elitist and whining about the problems of the upper classes. Meanwhile, I am not so sure she was so off the mark. Her article rang very very true to me and while I do have a demanding and somewhat high profile job (relatively speaking, in my industry) I am not changing the world yet I still can't seem to have it all either.


  1. I did a doubletake when I saw your post in my queue. In so many ways and like other posts of yours, I could've written this.

    Why? Because I also don't care if you breastfeed or sleep with your children or helicopter the hell out of them and I am increasingly annoyed at women and a society that is so divisive. I think this is a symptom of larger stuff gone wrong. I did breastfeed! I carried that damn moaning pump around for 2 years with my eldest and felt utter rejection when my 8 month old second child pushed away from nursing and grabbed a bottle. Then the women started in, "oooh, that's strange. He's too young not to nurse. That's really a shame. Yikes." Yes, I was made to feel like this single act was a premeditation into the juvenile detention center. And, mind you, those weren't working women who were lathering it on.

    Enter the working women. I work in a male dominated field and I work hard. I love having a job and an income and that I can speak at a professional conference and go home to my children who've had some basic needs like transportation and snack time met while I wasn't present. When they were little I told them, "you know how you love to play soccer and how you get better and better when you practice? Well, I have been practicing at work for a long time and now I am good at it and I like it very much." Yet, the women around me who are succeeding are childless or their children have grown and gone or they have stay at home husbands. I fret. And yes, the individuals who've given me the worst time during my career have not been men. So often, women don't support other women. I talk about this regularly. I also am determined to break this cycle and reach out to women and ask how I can help. Sometimes I think I am harder on them but only because I want them to be better but I am also very familiar with the HBS Heidi Roizen business case and now I thrust myself into conversations when women are being discussed. "She's so aggressive. She doesn't have an officer presence. She needs to learn to converse socially." And I ask, would you say the same if she wasn't a woman?? They wouldn't. It's proven over and over again.

    There are differences between men and women and I am at a place career wise where I am more and more conscience of this. Men are the ones who ask for more; more title, more responsibility, more money, more etc... And the women say, "thank you. I appreciate what you've done for me." It's costing us real money too.

    I love to cook. Yes, perhaps it's an aspect of my femininity but I don't care. It is the way I unwind. And guess what, without a daughter in the house, I have three boys who are becoming pretty comfortable in the kitchen. I want them to eat well so they'll be strong and healthy but I want that for me too. Did women going back to work cause us to eat badly? Certainly, it contributed to the rise of convenience foods but frankly, they had taken hold long before women went back to work. And we can change that but we've got to work together. In a similar way, I could blame the women's movement for the fall down in public education. Women were teachers and nurses and those professions got the best and the brightest but enter the movement and all of a sudden, women can be engineers and doctors and investment bankers. Yes, there are still good teachers but frankly, many women are selecting other professions.

    I can still have it all. But it is MY all. And that is very different from anyone else's all. I have made mistakes with my kids and I will make more and I tell them when I do. And other moms make mistakes too but those are their mistakes. It doesn't help for me to point it out or to judge whether it's about parenting or health care or immigration. And this alone is a reason to pull up a chair around the table - to use our food and our meals as place where we discuss and create dialogue and find common ground.

  2. Well said. Why do we keep piling on the guilt? Every mommy wants to do the best for their child. Why can't she make this decision on her own. Why do mommies seem to be the only ones who feel this guilt? Or do some daddies feel this as well?