Sunday, May 9, 2010

Diane Payne: Politics of Mothering

Because I’ve never married, for some reason, I feel like there are many people who view me as a guerrilla mother of sorts.  Long ago, when I was unemployed, I was probably lumped as one of those hippy welfare mothers who have their babies out in the backyard like the cows.  Now that I am gainfully employed, and my daughter is fifteen and quite normal, I still get the feeling people look at me differently for not dating, for not being more whatever is considered normal motherly.  I have a hunch people think I have remained single as a form of political activism.  I also realize very few people know me.

In many ways, Ania and I have it made.  It’s just the two of us and our dogs and cats.  No squabbling.  Yesterday she returned from a weekend trip to an amusement park in Branson, Missouri with a family friend and told me, “That was fun.  It was never quiet.  I liked it like that.” Normal trip with normal family, at least in what Ania envisions to be normal.

Years ago, I remember shopping with food stamps.  It wasn't the same as shopping with real money.  Every time I placed an item in the cart it felt like I was being scrutinized by the other shoppers.  Before I even get to the cashier and had to ask how much of my total was in food stamps, I’d feel like the other shoppers already knew I was using food stamps.   Those beholders of the real cash looked at the contents of my cart to see what their tax dollars were buying for me, and not without criticism.

I'm a rather healthy eater, but admittedly, I have my weaknesses.  Take ice cream.  For less than a buck, I could buy a half-gallon of the store’s brand of Neapolitan ice cream.   For a little less than three bucks, I could buy a tiny pint of some exotic flavored Ben and Jerry's ice cream.   If I hadn’t always been a food stamp recipient, or just happened to be one of those ridiculously cheap shoppers, I may not have ever tasted Ben and Jerry's.   Because I was using food stamps, I tended to feel guilty buying the good stuff, knowing those working folk were watching my cart as if I was picking their pockets in broad daylight.
In line, shoppers would tell me how surprised they were to learn that food stamps paid for ice cream.  "It's a shame," they’d say.

I had the feeling their day would improve if I would return the ice cream and make sure our cart was filled with only potatoes, beans, and rice; but even the poor deserve a treat.  I had a three-year-old daughter.  Tofu just didn't do it for us every day. Though it could have, I guess, if I wanted to be more conscientious.  Being conscientious all the time is just wearisome!

One day my daughter and I were shopping at the supposedly Bovine Growth Hormone-free supermarket, doing our part in conscientious consumerism.  After driving home across the hot desert, I discovered that the bag boy forgot to put one of my bags in the cart.  Oddly enough, it was the one with the BGH-free items.  The ice cream we were just going to dig into.

So back to the store we went for another dose of humility.  I explained about the missing bag and the clerk actually believed me.  To my amazement, the clerk also told me to grab a bag and get those items.  He gave me full rein of the store.  I wondered if this was a test and I was really under surveillance.  I didn't even need to return for his approval.  Such an honest clerk, I, the customer, believed.  Such a worthless clerk, his boss must have believed.   He probably saw me as a kindred spirit of sorts.  He, too, may have shopped with his mother while she dished out the food stamps.

By the time Ania was three, I started teaching in the public schools again.  Newt Gingrich was ready to eliminate all us welfare mothers and I wanted to remove myself before he had the joy of doing it to me.

When Ania was six, she was busy writing invitations to her Girl Power birthday party on Spice Girl stationery, and I noticed the words: "Wear something Spice Girls wear."  Then I remembered the last birthday party we went to, where I heard the parents talk about how happy they were that their children wore uniforms to school.

"Look at how kids dress today," one of the parents complained. It turned out that most of these parents went to parochial schools and maybe they figured because they wore those horrid uniforms, they were going to make sure their children wore them also. I attended public schools during the 1960s and '70s, and it seems to me that I wore the same things the kids are wearing today.

Deep down, I think uniforms are for parents, not for kids. Adults are always complaining that the children are too distracted by clothes, but I teach at a public school and think they're more distracted by tedious lessons and overcrowded classrooms than by what someone else is wearing.

Like the teenagers today, I remember wearing baggy bell-bottoms and flannel shirts, then listening to my parents whine, "How are you going to get a boyfriend dressed like that?" And when I wore hip-huggers and a halter-top that was held shut by two strings in the back, they'd scream, "Why do you want to go out looking like a hooker? You're never going to get a boyfriend looking like that!" In my parent's opinion, my clothes were supposed to be used as some kind of discreet mating call. But in my view, my clothes were for my girlfriends. We huddled in our bedrooms modeling them, swapping our clothes with each other.  It was a female thing. We didn't discuss clothes with boys, or expect them to comment on our attire. They may have responded to it, but not nearly as much as our girlfriends did.

I preferred the Spice Girls to all those Barney tapes we listened to for years while driving down the freeway. The lyrics aren't profound, but neither were The Monkees - the all-male group that catered to kids when I was young.

Some may have argued that the Spice Girls wore clothing that was too seductive, and write them off as not having the capacity to make a feminist statement of any quality, but I don't see why a seductive-looking woman can't also be a feminist. My daughter was only 6, and Girl Power seemed to be making a feminist impact on her.

We lived in an old adobe house out in the desert and for quite some time it was infested with mice.  One day, there was a dead mouse in the cupboard, and Ania swept it onto the dust pan chanting, "Girl power!" It helped that I bribed her with money, and assured her it was twice the money a boy would earn for doing such a nasty chore. I can't stand dead mice and I was more than happy to offer such a large sum that I didn't have to reach in there and sweep it out.

One day Ania came home from school and told me that her principal had gathered the entire K-2 school in the cafeteria to remind them not to wear any clothes that left the belly exposed. The funny thing is that my daughter's father is from India, and I wondered what would happen if I sent her to school in a sari. The only body part showing is the belly. Strange how our cultures respond so differently to the navel.

When Ania was eight, she started getting excited in pop music. I remember when she used her money to buy her first CD. , I not only helped her count out all her dollar bills and change at the music store, but I helped her find the latest CD she wanted. The one she could afford to buy after losing two teeth in one week and saving all those nickels and dimes.

It wasn't until we stopped at a friend's house, and she asked to play him our CD that I realized the CD had a parental advisory warning: explicit content. I quickly read the titles of the songs. The same way it's hard to judge a book by a cover, it's equally hard to judge the content of a song by the title, but, by the time I made it to the last title "Don't Pull Out On Me Yet," I started imagining what the lyrics would be, and felt my somewhat open mind closing rapidly.

Our friend, who is a musician, said it would probably be rated "R" if they had printed the lyrics. He shook his head, quietly wondering how this could be considered music, and why I'd let my daughter listen to it.

Back in those days, Ania didn't pay much attention to the meaning of the lyrics, so I didn't point out the significance of the words.  She'd be embarrassed if she knew what those three ladies were singing about, and it'd lessen her enthusiasm about her CD collection if she started worrying about the lyrics. Listening to the music that's advertised in all those teen magazines is what makes Ania feel a part of our culture.

At one point, Ania decided to make a tape that was a compilation of her favorite songs. After she had a sampling of Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Robyn, TLC, and the rest of her collection, I heard her add music from my pile: Aretha Franklin, Doc Watson, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Shocked and a variety of others. She labeled one side "Old Favorites" and the other "New Favorites." I think of this cassette when I fret over letting her buy a CD with a parental advisory. None of her other music has had a parental advisory, and since I was with Ania when she bought this one, I'm responsible for the purchase. I should have noticed the label at the store, not afterwards.

Throughout the years, Ania has become quite fashion-conscious.  Friends say it’s her act of rebellion to be the opposite of her mother who dresses like a slob and never wears make-up.  She’s making her statement, apparently, the same way I am by not putting effort into my looks.  When I remember Ania and the mice, I think about how squeamish she has become today.  Sometimes it’s maddening the way she screams when she sees a cockroach or worm.

The other morning, right after Ania left the house to wait for the bus, I sat down in the porch to enjoy a cup of coffee, and the phone rang. “Mom, you need to hurry!  There’s an injured cat lying next to the garbage!   You need to help it before the garbage men pick it up! Please!  Her head is bloody and she can’t move.”

This was not a pretty picture.  I made a loud grumble, then promised I’d go check on the cat.     Before I saw the injured cat, I realized why the other cat had left looking so downtrodden.  That gasping sound was horrid.  I started walking back home, not feeling up to this task.  Then I knew I could never face my daughter if I didn’t bring the cat to the vet. 

When I picked Ania up after school, she never mentioned the cat. “Anything you want to ask me?” I hinted.

“What’s for dinner tonight?”

“What about the cat?”

“Oh, the cat. How is it?”

I told her the cat was at that vet, and the vet had never called, so I didn’t know if the cat was on the road to recovery, which I seriously doubted, or dead.  “I felt sick listening to that poor cat struggle to breathe while kicking her legs around in that box as we drove to the vet.  It was awful!”

Ania laughed.  She loves it when something dreadful like this upsets me.  She continued laughing.  I wasn’t sure if this was a form of hysteria or purely pleasure.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. That weird, cyclic laughter.

I got a beer and returned to my chair in the porch, the same exact place I was sitting this morning when the phone rang.

Since Ania is in band, I go to all the football games.   Every game I take a book.  Every game someone sits next to me and asks, “Is that a book?” I close the book while a mother snuggles close to me and whispers, so her boys won’t hear, “Yesterday Julie came home wanting to know if Ania was an atheist.  She was truly worried.”

I say nothing. She looks confused, maybe hurt that I remain silent.

“She isn’t, is she?”

“I’ve never asked her.”

“Well, I went on to explain that her father’s a Muslim and they believe in a higher being, and you, well, you don’t go to church, but you know there’s a Creator, and Ania believes in a Supreme Being.  That’s right; isn’t it?”

“Her dad’s a Hindu and his wife is a Muslim.”

“Well, it’s all the same. They believe in a Higher Being.”

She seems disappointed her father was a Hindu. Too many gods, too many possibilities.

“Ania has a religion, right?”

“She hasn’t mentioned it if she does,” I admit.

“Oh,” she says before moving away.

Then another mother moves next to me and explains how the kids were discussing their mock elections held at school while they were at church on Wednesday night, and how upset one girl was when a Catholic admitted he voted for Kerry. “He supports abortion. I teach chastity.”

Chastity?  Sounds like something that may require a Chastity Belt.   “If people are so against abortion, why don’t they support the morning-after pill?” I ask.

“Isn’t that like contraception?"

“It is a form of contraception.”

“I support conception.”


After the game, Ania wants to know what we were talking about.  “The gum stuck on the bottom of my shoe, the fear you may be an atheist, and why one Catholic is voting for Bush, and another for Kerry, nothing too exciting.”

“You’ll miss not talking to these people.  I know you will.  No matter what you say.”

And in a weird way, she’s probably right.  Again. Still, I’ll continue to take my book to the games.

The other night I started off feeling like a somewhat decent parent by meeting my daughter’s flag line team and taking pictures of them in their fright night costumes before they did their half-time show at the football game.

“Can you take the pictures after half-time?” the captain asked.  “We’re almost out of time now.”

That made sense, so I agreed.

Then the girls gathered in a huddle.  I thought they were going to do one of those team chants that included a loud grunt before running on the field.  Instead they asked this other mother and me to join them.  The other mother walked up and joined hands.  I balked.

“I’m not really into hand-holding,” I said.  “I’ll come back later to take pictures.”

The girls seemed desperate that I joined them.  My daughter, Ania, was giving me the dirty eye, the look that both begs and threatens.  Reluctantly, I joined them.  First I was told I was holding hands wrong.  There was obviously a protocol about crossing my hands first, then connecting with the others.    To my surprise, this wasn’t a gathering to do a spirit chant but to pray to some spirit.  Ania stared at me the entire time, as did this other girl across from me.  I said nothing but felt plenty.

We live in the Bible Belt.  There is always at least one prayer before the game begins.  For that reason, I rarely come to the games until after they start, unless I’m working in the concession stands where I can only hear food orders.

I watched their half-time show, then decided to leave the camera with my daughter, and simply go home.  When I handed the camera to my daughter, I ranted.

“Did you know they were going to pray?” I asked. 

“We always do before half-time,” Ania explained.

“Why?  Don’t you think those pre-games prayer include you? Who are you praying to?  What were you asking for?  If someone had dropped a flag, does that mean God wasn’t listening?  Why weren’t you praying for God to stop genocide?  Praying for someone other than you girls?”

Ania looked horrified.  “Would you rather I stand here by myself because I don’t pray at school events?  Is that what you want?”

“That’s why they keep school and church separate, so people don’t have to feel left out or coerced.  What were you really praying for?”  I was relentless.

“Good luck.” Ania was close to tears.

“Bring that kind of prayer to a casino,” I said before stomping off, the epitome of irrational, lousy parent.

Unfortunately, during the third and fourth quarters, I didn’t cool off. I wanted to talk to my daughter about this prayer business after the game.

In tears, she screamed, “You’ve never taught me about prayer!  How am I supposed to know how to do it?”

Ouch.  She was absolutely right.  Her father is a Hindu.  I’m a nothing.  About the only thing I believe is that there really isn’t a heaven or hell, and in my nothingness, I always add, “but anything is possible.”  I tell Ania she’s more than welcome to go to church, but I’d rather not.

Guilt-ridden, I asked if her friends questioned her since I saw a couple watching us after half-time.  Ania has told me how her friends tell her at lunch that they pray her mother starts going to church.  I tend to make a nasty retort about how her Baptist friends aren’t even allowed to watch a movie if there’s a gay character. Remind her that the preachers in her friends’ churches think Hindus are sinners for praying to false gods. She told me her two friends wanted to know why I was so angry with the prayer. “I just told them you were mad. Then they didn’t ask again.”

I apologized for over-reacting and made a feeble explanation about how I felt only she could know what or why she wanted to pray, and praying for good luck was her business.  I understood why she prayed.  To not join in would mean ostracism.  No holding hands.  No huddle.

If I hadn’t been a holy roller during my teen years, I may not have reacted so vehemently.  Back then, prayer was legal in the public schools but I don’t remember it ever occurring, unless my Jesus Freak friends and I were rallying together outside praying for the war to end or whatever our cause for the day happened to be.  I was one of those people who addressed strangers walking downtown with the greeting:  “If you die tonight, do you know if you’ll go to heaven or hell?”  Most kept on walking.  Some cursed first. I spent my teen years being a zealot.  I operated purely on an emotional level, never intellectually.

At the football game, I felt like a zealot operating on both emotional and intellectual levels.  More disturbing, I felt like a creepy parent muddling through one more religious experience.  If Ania and the girls want to huddle to pray that they don’t drop the flag, that’s their business.  I was most upset that my daughter never felt comfortable telling me that she prayed at football games, upset that I am too tyrannical to discuss prayer, frustrated that I was trudging deeply in the world of being imperfect at something I honestly hope to do well at, knowing every error I make will be locked away in my daughter’s memory, ready to be used against me when I make my next fumble.

No wonder it was so much easier just being a rapid-fire zealot on an untouchable quest.  Back then I was certain I was right and simply plowed forward.

It’s not that easy anymore.  Now I have to own up to my words and listen to my daughter’s.

I suspect Ania has long realized that I’m different from her friends’ mothers, especially since most of them are married Baptist women who have spent their entire lives in this small town.   Yet, somehow, I think all mothers by nature are political activists.  We have to talk to our daughters about Gardasil, discuss the pros and cons, and let them make the decision if they want the vaccine.  We have to keep them informed about birth control and hope they remain celibate a long while.  We have to let them experiment with clothes, music, make-up, magazines, let them be a part of “their world”, not always stuck in “our world.”  We have to blend, assimilate, and acculturate.  It’s not that I’m politically active, it’s that I’m actively mothering all the time. I  make mistakes. I do some things right.  I’m just a mother trying the best I can. In some ways, I guess that’s politics.

Diane Payne teaches creative writing at University of Arkansas-Monticello, where she is also faculty advisor of the Foliate Oak literary magazine. She is the author of two novels, Burning Tulips and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary magazines, which most recently include Fiction International, The Rambler, Tea Party, and Arkansas Literary Forum.  This piece first appeared in Melusine's Fall 2009 issue.  

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