Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Effortless Perfection," meet "Flailing and Failing"

At nearby Duke University, they came up with the term "effortless perfection" to describe the pressure that college women feel to project an image of perfection AND make it look easy.

It's possible to keep up that charade for quite a while, if you are willing to work hard to pretend that it's easy. Women at Duke have found that this effort comes with the price of eating disorders, stress-related illnesses, anxiety and doubt. But even beyond those costs, the fact is that eventually, real life prevails. Imagine those unrealistic expectations rolling over to marriage and motherhood, and you have a recipe for serious disappointment brewing. As I say in Mojo Mom, a great deal of the shock of motherhood comes from the gap between expectation and reality rather then reality itself.

So let me share a corrective narrative. Lately my life as a Mom has been as far from "effortless perfection" as possible. Instead it's been about "flailing and failing." At times I have felt like I've done things in the most difficult way I possibly could, while obtaining terrible results. This is why Mojo Mom is a book about motherhood rather than a parenting guide!

Last Friday there was no school and my daughter had a friend spend the night, which was a lot of fun, but as soon as said friend put on her coat to go home the next morning my daughter declared "I'm bored!" Whew, no "long tail" of contentment from that activity, eh? After lunch we went to a neighborhood Halloween festival, which somehow just wasn't quite fun enough for her tastes. My daughter was cranky, tired, and hopped up on sugar by the end of the afternoon. And I was annoying even myself with the Mommy pronouncements coming out of my mouth. Pick up your coat...come on....come on now...I am leaving....bye...COME ON I REALLY MEAN IT NOW I AM SERIOUSLY MAD.

My daughter has also reached the age where I have suddenly become the most embarrassing person in the world, and I was surprised to feel that this opinion was really starting to work its way through my defenses. So on Saturday night I felt compelled to tell her later on that I didn't like feeling like the lamest person in the world. My ill-timed comment hit her the wrong way and she just got mad at herself. More Mom flailing and....thud, that one landed with a plop.

So by the end of the weekend I just felt like everything was a battle: getting up, mealtimes, bath, bedtime. When I finally made it to the post-bedtime finish line on Sunday night, I was really pissed off when I found out my husband had eaten all the chocolate ice cream. So I snapped at him, too. I was mad about the ice cream and also jealous that his Daddy-parenting style is really paying off now. (For a good perspective on this I recommend Anthony Wolf's book, It's Not Fair, Jeremy Spencer's Parents Let Him Stay Up All Night. Wolf explains the different sides of a child's personality, the Baby Self and the Mature Self. The Baby Self comes out more with the primary nurturer in a child's life. So while there is a lot to learn from my husband's parenting skills, I can also stop being surprised--and blaming myself--for the fact that my child's Baby Self likes to come to Mommy.)

But things gradually went back to normal on Monday. Our whole family needs structure and the school day is a good thing, especially after a 3-day weekend. My sense of humor returned. There was still no ice cream on Monday night so I broke into our Halloween candy stash. I discovered the candy I had bought a miraculous two weeks in advance had melted because I'd left it in the car for too long. How's that for punishing my attempt to plan ahead?

I could tell that I was starting to get my mojo back because instead of being upset, I just decided that a little bit of melted and refrozen chocolate never hurt anyone. With the holidays coming up, it's time to start taking the easier path whenever necessary. Holidays are tough on Moms, as we are called in to put out all sorts of last minute holiday "crises." It's important to realize that even if the kid's costume isn't perfect, or the turkey is dry, or the tinsel doesn't get hung up, it's more important to get through this stressful time with your sense of humor and compassion toward yourself intact than it is to project an illusion of perfection-- effortless or otherwise.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Daring Book for Girls--First impressions

You've probably heard about this year's surprise publishing phenomenon, The Dangerous Book for Boys. Ever since it was released last May, girls all over have been waiting for their OWN book.

It's blue, it's sparkly, and it's almost here! The Daring Book for Girls will be released next week. But if you heard a whoop coming from the Tiemann household last night, it was because my daughter got her hands on the advance copy that had arrived in the mail. We'd bought The Dangerous Book for Boys for her, which she perused with mild but unsustained interest. But once she saw the video for The Daring Book for Girls, which she insisted watching about 10 times, she was hooked. You, too, can try this at home:

We've just gotten started, but I wanted to share some of my first impressions.

I found The Dangerous Book for Boys nostalgic in a dated, Rudyard Kipling-esque way. It felt twee and British, which makes sense since it was written by British brothers. Luckily for us, The Daring Book for Girls is written by women after my own Mojo Mom heart, Andi Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. They are fantastic writers with strong feminist qualifications, in addition to being mothers of girls. We are in good hands. The nostalgic feeling of The Daring Book for Girls evokes is that of my own childhood, building forts, reading Judy Blume, playing outside with my friends.

Andi and Miriam are tasked with the impossible job of presenting the collective wisdom of girlhood. The topics are presented in rapid fire succession: rules of games, how to do a cartwheel and back walk-over, how to make a lemon-powered clock, introduction to the periodic table, bandana tying, math tricks, how to build a scooter, Queens of the Ancient is all interesting.

The book is clearly positioned as something that Moms will buy for their daughters, and in the video it's all about a Mom and her girl doing these activities together. It struck me that "back in the day" much of this knowledge was passed from girl to girl, older sisters either teaching little ones, or being spied upon by them.

I believe we have lost that, which is sad. Kids are in organized sports and activities and don't have as many unplanned hours to fill with activities like rubbing a peach pit into a ring.

I hope this book will re-inspire some of those relationships. I also noted a strong link with what I remembered learning as a Girl Scout. Even before I officially joined a troop, I had an old garage-sale copy of the Girl Scout Manual, circa 1975, that I loved to read. The Daring Book for Girls covers much of the same ground, even including six Daring Girl badges at the end of the book. I would encourage Andi and Miriam to think about pursuing that connection. The Girl Scouts are the world's largest organization dedicated to girls ages 5-17. It's easy to take them for granted, but having spent a week at a Girl Scout World Center in Pune India, I really came to appreciate how revolutionary the idea of a global girls' organization really is.

After Thanksgiving I'll be reporting back on what my daughter and I have learned from the book, whether the activities make it into her play with her friends, and I'll invite you to share your comments and favorite girlhood memories.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

What's on your kids' reading list after Harry Potter?

I know the Harry Potter phenomenon has run through the news cycle by now, but in our house we are still really feeling the effects of Life After Harry. What can my ravenous 8-year-old reader turn to next? We still like to read books aloud together in addition to her independent reading, so I am on the lookout for good books we can both enjoy.

Common Sense Media put out a very helpful list on this topic, featuring fantasy recommendations, with age-appropriateness guidelines, for 8 to 12 year olds.

In our house, my daughter is grooving on:

Multiple reads through The Spiderwick Chronicles. These are good to get from the library because they are rather expensive in hardcover for such short books.

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The first title is The Lightning Thief.

She also loves the trailer for the upcoming movie version of The Golden Compass. I think the film will be interesting for her. I read the His Dark Materials trilogy by myself this summer and recommend the first book for ages 10 and up, and the second and third books for ages 12 and up. Very theological, philosophical, intense. It reads as a grown up book to me that happens to feature kids as main characters.

We both really enjoyed The City of Ember, which from the cover I incorrectly thought was for an older audience. But it's very appropriate for 8 year olds, and is a simpler story and easier reading than Harry Potter. I give the Book of Ember 4 stars, The People of Sparks 3 stars, and The Prophet of Yonwood a big ????? I am halfway through it and not sure I'll even finish it. It is a very disappointing third volume "prequel" that doesn't do the series justice.

My daughter did read all the Harry Potter books but by the end I was really wishing she'd waited until she was 10 years old. The last couple were too intense. My comfort there is that I do believe that when reading, kids bring to it what they can understand.

Oldies but goodies: I have enjoyed reading the first two Little House on the Prairie books with her, but she's not that interested in more right now. The funny thing is that reading those books from a Mom's point of view you realize just how many times the Ingalls family narrowly avoids being maimed or killed. The prose is so matter of fact that it's not sensationalized, but the facts are there about how risky their pioneer lifestyle was.

I asked my daughter for her additional opinion on reading recommendations and she reminded me that she'd like to co-author a fantasy book with me. I got my start as a writer of young adult fiction with my book High Water so that's a distinct possibility. Stay tuned on that one!

What are the favorite books in your home? Books you enjoyed as a kid that you are sharing with your family? New books that you are surprised to like as much as your children do?

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Naked in Tokyo

There were a couple of ways to feel naked in Tokyo. There is the metaphorical nakedness that I felt as a 1 in a 1000 minority. The wordless stare of a toddler would occasionally remind me that it was clear that "You ain't from around here, are you?" (If you want to find white Westerners in Tokyo, I suggest visiting the Starbucks next to the Shiodome metro station.)

But we didn't settle for that kind of exposure. We went for the full monty of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari hot springs resort. It is like a cross between a theme park and a day spa. There are some areas where you wear a light robe called a yukata, but the best hot tubs are housed in female-only and male-only areas that require you to fully disrobe.

The first time we went there, about a year ago, we tried to take the bath towels in with us, and an attendant wagged her finger and pointed to tell us that we could only take the teeny washcloths. This time they had a sign up in English, with a cartoon picture of a blonde woman on it, saying not to bring in the big towels, so there must be a fair number of tourists visiting, probably ALL making the same mistake. (How I wish I had a photo of that sign, but of course cameras weren't allowed in the changing rooms.)

But on that day, my daughter and I were the only white people in the baths. Tokyo is so polite and urbanized that adults don't really look at you on the subway even when it's packed in. It was funny to think that we were now taking off our clothes and walking around among the same women.

We had a great time relaxing in the hot springs. It was freeing to be naked and not care, even though we stood out a bit. At least we knew how the bathing protocol worked--you have to change into robes, the get naked and wash off thoroughly before getting in the tubs. So we saw women of all ages and shapes. Most Japanese women are in healthy shape, but the development of a "meno-pot" (potbelly) after age 40 appears to be a reality rather than a myth.

In a way it was freeing to feel like there was no possible way we could ever manage to live up to a Japanese standard of looks, so why even worry about it? In my mind, this stood in stark contrast to the airbrushed and Photoshopped media images we are exposed to every day. We are conditioned to believe that the cover of Redbook might be reality, when the truth is that even a beautiful woman like Faith Hill in real life doesn't look like Faith Hill on a magazine cover. We are comparing ourselves to literally impossible images of beauty.

This all came together for me because the day we visited the hot springs, I saw the report about surgical postpartum "mommy makeovers." The New York Times headline asks, "Is the 'Mom Job' Really Necessary?" to which I answer HELL TO THE NO! Plastic surgery in general is bad enough. Bundling multiple procedures and marketing them as postpartum "packages" is unethical.

I appreciated this quote from the Times article:

"The message is that, after having children, women's bodies change for the worse," said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, a nonprofit group in Washington. If marketing could turn the postpregnancy body "into a socially unacceptable thing, think of how big your audience would be and how many surgeries you could sell them," she said.

I attended a Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium at UNC last month where the idea of women's fear of deflated saggy breasts after breastfeeding was addressed in several talks. I wasn't really aware of this myth, but it was mentioned in the context of many different groups of women, from teen Moms to an "upscale" Cookie Magazine article that showed unattractive water balloons as breast stand-ins. For the record, experts say that sagging breasts are a function of age, not breastfeeding experience.

At the same conference, UNC communication Professor Jane Brown gave a talk that referenced "terror management" research that ties in our discomfort with images of breastfeeing women with our fear of death. Apparently, breastfeeding reminds us of our "creatureliness" which pierces through our denial of our own mortality, leading us to feel very uncomfortable on a deep level. (I believe that this is the specific study Professor Brown referred to.)

How to tie all this together?

1. I think of the women I admire the most and realize that their looks have nothing to do with my true opinion of them.

2. We will get old and get saggy breasts IF WE ARE LUCKY. Time, attention, and money spent worrying about these natural processes are sucking essential energy away from the things we should really be concerned about.

3. I am turning 40 next year and part of me is relieved to move into a phase of life where my looks are not the primary quality I am judged on. I never looked like a beauty queen (except maybe for 5 minutes when I was 16) and it's a good feeling to know that I don't have to. I am more than happy to say farewell to the ingenue role. Bye bye, Dorothy. Bring on the Wicked Witch of the West!

4. We are Moms. Creatureliness--the utter messiness of real life--comes with the territory. I wish we would try to accept that in ourselves. If we don't, who else ever will?

Wish we could convene a discussion group in a naked hot spring....

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Back home, but not fully awake

I'm home, but walking around in a fog. This was my first day back at "work" but I put in the quotes because I never got to the work I needed to do for myself. Now, at 7:05 pm, I am sneaking in a quick blog post after dinner and before bedtime. That and a scan of my emails and phone messages is just about all I tick off my to-do list today

How would a productivity expert such as Julie Morgenstern or David Allen categorize a to-do list that includes so many "life" issues that there is no time left for "work?"

How do I categorize today's tasks like picking up a dead mole off the driveway with a shovel to throw it over the wall? Dropping off a neighbor's mis-delivered newspaper? Having lunch with my Dad and allowing it to stretch to an hour and a half because we hadn't seen each other in a month? Dealing with a school mini-crisis that couldn't wait?

While we were traveling, the days seemed so long, with a new city to explore and no responsibilities other than keeping the family entertained. I marveled at how much ground we could cover in eight hours. I feel like to get back to my own important projects, I need to somehow combine that away from household responsibilities mode with focused work.

I'll keep this short because I know I am rambling. I am tempted not to publish this but I might as well show you what a low mojo day looks like.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mom-friendly gestures in Japan

As I mentioned the other day, Japan is trying to encourage couples to have children. It has been heartening to see child-friendly signs here. Wouldn't it be great to see more "signs of encouragement" like this in the United States?

On the Kyoto subway: I had to snap this one quickly, but I hope you can see the mother-child symbol at the top left corner. The text says, "Kyoto City, symbol mark for creating an environment gentle in regard to pregnant women."

Venus Fort shopping center, Tokyo. The map and brochure lists family-friendly features.

Baby's Cafe in the Miraikan Science Museum, Tokyo. Note that the Baby's Cafe is not in the bathroom, but rather next to the regular cafe. What a concept!

These gestures seem so simple that it feels rather ludicrous to sit here posting pictures and cataloguing every effort I see that reaches out to moms and families with young kids. But I still feel the hunger to even be acknowledged in society, to be SEEN and RECOGNIZED rather than marginalized. I think that making an accommodation for Moms is as much an invitation to show up as it is a practical measure to help us make our way around. So, the fact is that these gestures do stand out to me, and here they are.

What's on your wish list for a tangible "sign of appreciation" for mothers?

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Travel in Japan is....

Some thoughts on life as an American family visiting Japan:

Travel in Japan is...

Three Dimensional. Urban-dwelling Japanese must have exquisite three-dimensional processing areas in their brains. In Tokyo, you can spend the better part of a day going around the whole city without ever walking on ground level. One day I went from the 13th floor of our hotel, to the elevated monorail, to the subway which landed in level B7 of the Shinjuku train station. B7 means 7 levels of basement--we took an elevator 4 floors up, then escalators 3 more floors up to reach the ground. I felt like a refugee from the City of Ember! Then we briefly crossed the ground level plaza to reach a skyscraper department store for browsing and shopping.

Confusing. After a week or so, it feels very isolating to not be able to speak the language. You realize that you CAN get by, but whole waves of information wash over you without touching you. Early one morning my husband was typing on his computer while I was half asleep and it really sounded like someone speaking Japanese--the cadence without the meaning.

My experience in has been that you can get where you want to go, if you don't mind getting lost along the way, and can generally get what you want if you don't mind receiving an approximation of what you intended to order. (This is especially true when it comes to food--you might get cold noodles when you thought you were getting hot soup, but at least it's not raw squid if that's not what you wanted.)

Ah yes, food, the final frontier. You realize how stupid you feel as an outsider when you don't know the proper way to eat something. We went to a nice Shabu Shabu restaurant and had to guess the polite way to cook the beef and vegetables in broth, serve it, drink the broth, etc. Imagine sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner without ever having seen a turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, or a fork, and that's about how I felt trying to navigate the Shabu Shabu dinner without looking like a total slob. I failed at that, but it was the good kind of failure where you don't let the fact that you look stupid stand in the way of trying something new.

Delightful. I hope all travel has as much potential for delight as this trip. We didn't always get along marvelously, but the highs won the day. Today we visited the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, which is impressive and historical--and, let's face it, pretty boring if you are an 8-year-old. But afterward Mojo Girl took off running with her new umbrella across the palace grounds, convinced she could fly. It was one of those moments you can't plan for, but can have the sense to sit back and enjoy.

I've learned a lot from my daughter on this trip, from her theories about the 5 chambers of her stomach, including one for dessert and one for "bravery food," to her instruction in how adults could become kids again if they only remembered how to think right. I think she had longed to drink up lots of attention since school began again, and this heaping serving of togetherness was just what she needed. A gift to all of us.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Women's rights and population issues

When reading The Japan Times last week I skipped by the headline "Population Woes Said Best Served by Aiding Women" because I am used to hearing that overpopulation issues can be humanely addressed by advocating for women's rights and opportunities. But my perceptive husband encouraged me to take a second look--in Japan, the population problem is one of an aging population and declining birthrate, resulting in negative population growth. So Japan is taking advice from France, whose government has programs in place to support working mothers, an effort that has achieved a turnaround in the nation's birthrate since the 1990's.

So here's the common sense conclusion of the day: if helping women is good for overpopulation and depopulation, isn't it good for everybody? We are settling for so little societal support as we make huge contributions in home life and the paid workforce. I am an impatient activist. Globally, “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production." We in the United States at least have the means and the voice to speak up and work harder to truly secure our own rights and work to help our sisters throughout the world.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970's, to us it may have felt briefly like feminism's job was almost done. But the more I learn, especially in the area of gender issues related to motherhood, the more I realize that our generation needs to pick up the ball and keep on running toward the goal of equality and human rights.

I lost touch with academic feminism in the 1990's. Many arguments about porn versus owning our sexuality pretty much flew over my head as I was working in another field. But now that I am a Mom in the real world, I see feminism and politics tied to key bread-and-butter economic and human rights issues for all women.

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Live from Japan, it's Mojo Mom....

If it seems like I've fallen off the face of the Earth, I've come close. My family traveled to Japan last week, and I assumed I'd have excellent internet connectivity in Tokyo. No such luck--the irony is that we could get online from our hotel but could not access Blogger well enough to post.

So frustrating. I feel like I abandoned my blog for a whole week.

We are now in Kyoto, just waking up to sunrise in the new city. We arrived by bullet train last night but were so tired from the massive schlepp on the subway with all our luggage that we just ate and went to sleep.

I will try to get caught up on some of our adventures and insights from our trip. I am in love with Japanese design. If obsessed with their stationery, so I go nuts in the massive crafts and office supply store Tokyu Hands. It's almost enough to get me to hand write a letter!

More later...I am glad to get my voice back online. I'll leave you with a photo from our hotel, which was on the island of Odaiba across the bay from downtown. You can see why the Hotel Nikko is billed as "Tokyo's Balcony."

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