Archive for August, 2007

Four-Question Interview: Feminist Author Confidential

I’m honored to have the second of my series of Four-Question Interviews be with author Deborah Siegel. Deborah is a Ph.D., writer and consultant specializing in women’s issues. She is the author of the new book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild and has written about women, sex, feminism, contemporary families, and popular culture for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Psychology Today, The Progressive, The Mothers Movement Online, and on her blog, Girl with Pen.

I was introduced to Deborah through Miriam Peskowitz, also an author I admire who is now becoming a colleague and friend. Another academic feminist now writing “on the outside,” Miriam is author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars and the forthcoming Daring Book for Girls, with Andrea Buchanan, with whom she also founded Mother Talk. (BTW, I got a sneak peek at the Daring Book when Miriam asked me to do a little story editing of her early chapter drafts — I can tell you it’s a must-read, soon-to-be-classic!)

Knowing this group of women is exciting, because they have much to say that matters, about many topics, including Having Enough. Deborah’s answers to my four questions blew me away — her candor, knowledge and insight made me stop and just breathe for a bit. I bet they do the same for you…

1. What does “having enough” mean to you?

Nothing says “retool” like a bout of bad depression. Depression was horrid (wouldn’t wish it on my enemies), but depression was also my teacher. Like marriage or childbirth does for some people, depression divided my life into a “before” and an “after.” Before, my goals were all about an end. After, everything became about the journey. Before, I could not have defined “having enough”; there was always something more to achieve. After, the most important goal in my life became to love well and be well loved.

Having enough, to me, means awakening to that boundless sense of compassion we are all capable of feeling—for ourselves, for others—and realizing that we are already, with all our human imperfections, enough.

2. What do you think about the concept of “having it all” in our culture?

It’s interesting to me how the lexicon around “having it all” keeps changing. In the 1980s, having it all meant shoulder pads, diapers, and the corner office. Then came “juggling,” the flipside of which, of course, was “dropping the ball.” There was also “balance,” which similarly implied its opposite: falling down.

Now we have “sequencing” (you can have it all, just not all at once!) and its still more recent correlative, “on ramping and off ramping” (a terminology which shifts the burden for making work and family work together to workplaces instead of individuals). Instead of talking about “work/life balance,” some now talk about “work + life fit” —a vast improvement, in my opinion. What I find most heartening, though, is the way we are finally beginning to widen the conversation about “having it all” to include men.

To me, having it all never seemed possible unless there was a partner—male, female, or hired—in the picture, doing their share to keep things going at home. I remember coming across a book once called Halving It All, which focuses on the ins and outs of shared parenting. I think that’s a very clever—and much-welcome—riff.

3. How do you define success?

Borrowing from a writer I admire, I would say that “success” means living in chapters and giving yourself fully to the chapter you are on. It means embracing the present, learning to cohabit with discomfort, and paying attention to your heart.

4. Can you describe a defining moment in your life when you had to choose between “having enough” or pushing for more? (And how did it turn out for you?)

I took an extended break during graduate school, when I was ABD (all-requirements-for-PhD-completed-but-for-the-dissertation, or, in layterms, all-but-done). I had hit a point where I just couldn’t push myself any further and needed a change of path.

I took a 6-month leave of absence as a precursor to a possibly more permanent leave, left the Midwest, moved to Manhattan, and gave myself full permission to be satisfied without completing the degree. That license liberated me. After six years of pushing myself toward a single goal that had lost its meaning once I knew that I didn’t want to go on the academic job market, I allowed myself free reign to reinvent.

The irony was this: Once I allowed myself to say “no, enough,” I was finally able to
choose “yes.” I finished my dissertation, graduated with my PhD, and went on to become a writer–my longtime dream.

How do you relate to Deborah’s answers? Have you had a “having enough” turning point?

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August 30, 2007 at 2:05 am 1 comment

Hindsight

Two occurrences this week confirm my feeling that my life right now is both right and enough. And, yet, both brought back some old and painful memories that reminded me how hard-won this feeling is.

First, I got a call from my former university employer, asking me if I wanted to come back to work part-time, temporarily, while they look for their second full-time replacement for the position I left when I became a mother. I left the position in large part because this particular academic department refuses to allow part-time or job-share work (an issue I write about in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the forthcoming, Mama, Ph.D.).

I loved the work and did it well, and the decision to leave it was painful and frustrating at the time. Now, I see that it was a blessing, but back then, just two long years ago (as time is before and after new motherhood), I wanted to “have it all” by working a part-time job while parenting. I thought that would do it. I thought it would give me “balance” and satisfaction professionally and personally.

Forgetting the fact that the part-time pay and commuting costs would barely pay for child care. And that the work (as a career couselor for graduate students) could be emotionally draining, and I’d need all that energy for this new little person. And that my tolerance for stress is low, and that my need to “be here” as a mother is high.

Getting the offer to return the other day, as it was, made it clear to me that I’m in the right place, at home working/writing and mothering. Doing the right work, and enough of it for now. And being here every day, as I personally feel the need to be, for my daughter. The offer renewed a bit of frustration as well, at both what I perceive as their lack of vision and my own wasted energy trying to change them.

But, none of that is enough to dwell on. I just decided to take the offer as a compliment, keep the door open because who knows, and go back to my computer and my non-stop talking child, knowing that my work-life may not always be in balance, but that it fits. I clearly made the right choice then and now, and I’ve kept the relationships in tact. It felt like jumping into a clean lake after a storm had muddied it for a time, hearing from him and responding with graciousness and detachment, in the positive sense of the word. It was a good feeling.

******************************

Now, the other occurrence this week took me farther back, to murkier waters — to college in fact, a time I’ve pretty much greyed out in my memory banks. A guy friend from the undergrad days emailed to say hello, as he found my profile on LinkedIn, which I had filled out months ago when assigned by an online magazine to write an article on this popular online business network and needed to see what it was all about.

I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone from college except my two freshman/sophomore roommates, a couple profs, and loosely with a couple women I worked with. For someone as deeply connected to others as I tend to be, this could be surprising. Except if you knew me in college you know I spent the entire four years in a seriously committed relationship with the so-wrong guy — a relationship that ended in a heartbreakingly shocking way for my young self a year after graduation, just before me and so-wrong guy were about to tie the knot. Thank God we didn’t, that it ended, I can say now. But, back then, a dozen years ago now, my young self was crushed and betrayed, and wanted nothing to do with anyone that was a part of that five years for quite some time.

Hearing from a former college friend, a guy I served as a resident advisor with who is now doing amazing work on an international scale, reminded me of all the real connections I forfeited during that time because I was focusing my energies elsewhere. My college connections would have been so different had I spent one day of those four years as an independent young woman, looking outside of my little bubble a bit more.

Now I can look back and clearly see that too-long college romance as my own need to fit in (on the East Coast, with the preppies, with the overachievers) and to follow my family’s footsteps (everyone married, and is still married to, their college sweetheart, except me), and my own fear of really being myself and on my own.

I have no regrets, mind you. That wasted energy (this is my mother’s phrase I keep using, by the way), that major heartbreak, and that long relationship taught me so much that led me to all the great things that came after it (after a long, dark year of recovery). I probably wouldn’t be in the perfectly fitting, satisfying and authentic marriage I’m in today had I not gone through all that. I wouldn’t have taken career and lifestyle risks I have taken, had the amazing experiences I’ve had. I wouldn’t be as strong as I know I am, as confident in who I am and what my values are.

And, yet, while the outcome is right, the memory is still painful, at this point more of my own stupidity than of the actual betrayal. The loss of so many opportunities during those pivotal years of my life reminds me mostly of my mistakes, my refusal to see or seek further at the time. I have long since forgiven myself, and other parties involved (although when so-wrong guy’s mother tried to get in touch with me via email a couple years back to make friendly, I promptly hit “delete” — no thank you!).

My seriousness then, about the relationship and overachieving in its context, did lead me to some positive developments in the future, I can see that — but at the sacrifice of real college friendships and perhaps more adventure and broader experience (which I had in my 20’s instead, I suppose).

In any case, I can’t get back that college time. I can’t make real connections with people who had much to teach me, who I was too preoccupied to really know. I can’t have been a better person, or a more enlightened one, at that time.

We’re all into our adult lives now, doing whatever our choices, circumstances, and attitudes have led us to do, with the people our lives have led us to be with. I wouldn’t want to go back and change anything, no way. I would keep it all the same because it brought me to where I am and who I am with now. But hindsight is a good reminder of how far I’ve come.

*********************

So, now, as I stare in the faces of these different pasts, I know I won’t go back to who I was then, either then. I won’t repeat the same mistakes, thankfully, but will learn from new ones instead. I know those pasts shaped my present, as my present is shaping my future.

I will go forward, proud of my war wounds, holding my head high, breathing easily because I am at this moment with the right partner, in the right job(s), living the right life for me. But never forgetting the times when I was not.

And that is enough.

August 27, 2007 at 9:05 pm 1 comment

Four-Question Interview: Downsizing Dad

Part of my vision for this blog is a series of “four-question interviews.” I’ve written four questions around the theme of Having Enough, and I’d like to get a variety of people to answer them, from authors and thinkers I admire to people I know in my personal sphere who have made life choices that seem in keeping with my mission here.

I’m proud to have my first interviewee come from within my family. My brother Jeff is 35 and a committed husband and dad to two sons, ages 4 and 9. He and his wife Gretchen are pros at thinking outside the box and making lemonade out of lemons. When they lost a child, born prematurely, between their two boys, they started a non-profit to help others with preemies. When their third-grader was struggling in school despite the fact that he was devouring 300-page books at home, they decided to home school, and now he’s thriving.

And, last year, when they moved into their dream house (a brand new five-bedroom home on the Chesapeake Bay) and realized it was more than they needed, not to mention more expensive and resource-sucking than they wanted, they sold it and downsized, big-time. Now the family of four lives in a 1,000-square-foot renovated farm house on a heaping acre-plus in suburban Maryland. They’re growing their own food, raising chickens and angora bunnies, and working toward a different dream — running a self-sustaining home farm business.

Jeff still works as marketing director at a company outside Washington, DC (another interesting “having enough” choice, as he describes below) and now spends his free time farming and learning about alternative energy options (including the corn stove they just bought, using their home-grown corn to heat the house and feed the chickens!). He also designed the Having Enough logo and my freelance business web site, by the way (how lucky am I?).

Here are my brother’s to-the-point answers to my Four Questions:

1) What does “having enough” mean to you?

Having enough time and financial flexibility to spend as much time as possible at home with my family.

2) What do you think about the concept of “having it all” in our culture?

I think that American consumerism (and the rest of the world following suit) is a major culprit in the problems that our society is currently facing and will continue to face in the future unless attitudes and actions change.

3) How do you define success?

Same as having enough – having enough time and financial flexibility to spend as much time as possible at home with my family.

4) Can you describe a defining moment in your life when you had to choose between “having enough” or pushing for more? (And how did it turn out for you?)

I recently received a promotion at work and after three months I went back to my previous position at my previous compensation – what good is status and money if you don’t get to watch your kids grow up? As far as how it turned out for me, it was the best thing that could have ever happened – I love my life and now I know for sure that climbing the corporate ladder is not for me.

Stay tuned for upcoming four-question interviews — next up, a feminist author fresh back from her latest book tour!

August 24, 2007 at 7:59 pm Leave a comment

Success Starts Here Now?

DH and I just watched the movie Peaceful Warrior, about a college athlete who gets injured and discovers a new way of looking at life. It’s very Buddhist, although not called that. A little Castenada and Karate Kid, too. It is basically about the lesson of living in the now, being in the moment, not attaching to an outcome, a future or a past, and missing your life. DH thought it a bit cliche, but I love this stuff, and never regret spending my moments remembering this lesson. (Perhaps I just need it more than he does!)

I spent a bit of time looking up Dan Millman, whose book the movie is based on. And, not surprisingly, he writes and speaks about success, among other topics. I’m going to see if my library has some of his books, as my curiosity is piqued.

Clearly, the movie tells us that success is not winning the gold medal, but being present and awake in our everyday lives, that the journey is the reward, and learning to appreciate the journey leads to more contentment than attaching to a specific outcome. Nick Nolte, who plays the gas station attendant/teacher called Socrates to Millman’s cocky, young athlete, speaks a phrase anyone who reads anything Buddhist knows well, “When we don’t get what we want, we suffer. When we get what we want, we still suffer.”

A good reminder for me, another permutation of which I also bookmarked in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, on my nightstand at the moment (for my probably tenth time reading it). Chodron writes about it brilliantly. We think we will be happy “if only…” — if only this were to happen, or that. If only we had this, or looked like that. Even those dedicated to some “higher path” can get stuck in this — if only we meditated every day, ate perfect food, never got upset, “turned swords into flowers” in our life, then we would be content, happy, successful.

Nope.

Perhaps DH sees the cliche in Peaceful Warrior because we hear these lessons spoken of often. But how much do we actually live them? How much can we actually be present in our lives, stop focusing on the past or future? It’s a hard task, and writers and teachers I like to listen to will tell us that even they have not perfected it. There’s no such thing in this life. That’s what makes it this life, and not death (see Chodron for more on this). We will never reach perfection here. So we may as well accept the suffering and enjoy the ride.

I saw a bumper sticker that plays on the “I’d rather be… sailing, golfing, etc” stickers and license plate frames. It said, “I’d rather be here now.” Be here now. The real secret of success? For Millman and Chodron, and many teachers of various faiths, I think it’s safe to say a good place to start.

August 19, 2007 at 6:47 am 2 comments

End-of-Summer Blues

I feel as if I’ve spent my life adjusting and un-adjusting to the academic schedule.

I grew up the child of academics, so our calendar was set to the school year since before I can remember. Then, of course, I went to school. For 18 years. Then I graduated from college and spent six years trying to become a “regular person” (as ole Bill Cosby used to say) and shake the feeling that I should be on vacation in July and over New Year’s. Couldn’t really do it, and went to grad school for four years (ah, sweet summer lull).

Then got a real job again, but at a university, so I still felt the ebb and flow of each quarter beginning and ending (but admittedly resented the fact that only we lowly university staff had to work when campus was clsoed!). Now, I’m married to a teacher. And, since I work at home, as mom, as writer, as partner-in-crime in said teacher-husband’s teacher side business, that school year schedule runs my life once again.

And, next week, summer is over. To say I’m mourning summer is a bit of an understatement. Especially because neither of us actually feels relaxed. A summer of intense work, for his business and mine. A summer of sleep deprivation, as darling toddler daughter is simply not the slumbering kind. A summer of health scares for various family members. A summer of too much money spent on dental bills, car repairs, and home improvements. A summer where we did not go to the beach as a family until a month in (and the beach is three miles down the road). What happened to our summer?!

Still, in keeping with the concept of redefining success, for me, the fact that I am on the academic calendar and mourning the end of summer vacation (while at the same time looking forward to getting some kind of routine again, if only to get organized enough to answer my emails regularly again) actually feels just right.

I used to joke that I would have to become and/or marry a teacher, because I wouldn’t understand a life with only two weeks vacation a year. And, it’s actually true. Of course, as an academic sort, I roll my eyes at people who think teachers and professors don’t work during the summers; any academic sort knows better than that.

But, no matter, even though we work, and even if some summers leave us at their close more tired than when they began, the fact that summer means something, and fall means new classes and schedules and outfits, is somehow wired into my personal definition of a life that fits. I’m tired, I’m disorganized, I’m grumpy and slightly terrified at the thought of taking care of our 18-month-old by myself all day again starting next week. But, at least I still had a summer to mourn. And I will next year, too.

(By the way, even if you’re not an academic sort, you can fight for more than the sorry two weeks vacation standard in the United States. Check out Take Back Your Time’s lobby for a three-week minimum vacation for all U.S. workers!)

Happy (or grumpy) summer’s end to you…

August 17, 2007 at 1:48 pm Leave a comment

Health Care for All CA Kids?

Did you know California could be the first state to guarantee health coverage for all children? Can you imagine it?

So many mothers and fathers are forced into taking or keeping undesirable jobs solely to ensure our kids have health insurance. Many people are shocked to hear that my teacher-husband’s former school district (and most school districts in San Diego) did not cover healthcare for kids (or spouses) of teachers (thankfully his current district does, although none of the teachers are confident it won’t be taken away at some point).

An unforgivable effect of a flawed system, leaving children and families without access to quality healthcare. An obvious obstacle to any family trying to find a balance and make ends meet. What would happen if all kids were guaranteed health coverage? Would “having enough” have a different definition?

Here are a couple factoids I just got from Moms Rising:

* Nearly 9 million children in the U.S. (that’s 12% of all children) do not have healthcare insurance. And in California, about 763,000 children in California are uninsured.

* While there are current state programs to provide health care coverage for some low-income children, these programs are not available for all kids, and employers are dropping coverage at an alarming rate. And as we all know, dollars just don’t stretch as far in California as they do elsewhere, so our definition of “low-income” might be different than in some other states.

And here’s where you can SIGN THE PETITION NOW to support this California legislation to cover all kids. The petition will be presented by Moms Rising to the Governor and California Legislature in a few weeks. If you’re so inclined, please sign, and spread the word!

Also, please share your thoughts or stories on how universal health coverage for children (or lack thereof) would or does affect your life.

August 9, 2007 at 3:28 am 2 comments

“No Gift” Birthday Parties

So, the New York Times Select ran an article July 27 about this “new trend” of no-gift birthday parties. Well, not really no-gift; the article is talking about birthday parties for toddlers and kids where guests are asked to donate to a certain charity in lieu of gifts for the birthday kid.

Because this is one of my “issues,” I cajoled a friend into cutting and pasting the article for me (she had linked it on her blog, but then it’s subscriber-only), but I can’t in good conscience reprint the article on my blog. If you have NYT Select, it’s called “Cake, but no Presents, Please” by Tina Kelley. If you don’t, I’ll summarize (and, of course, add my two cents).

Kelley talks about several facets of this “trend”:

1. How it is “the first hyper-parenting trend that does not reek of wanton excess.”

My first thought here is history. Any other late 60’s/early 70’s kids out there who recall ALL kids birthday parties being no-gift? Like, duh, we just played games and ate cake and maybe did a craft? Gifts came from family, not the kids in the neighborhood. This idea doesn’t seem “new” to me.

But, then I had the thought that perhaps this reporter was born in the 80’s (which made me feel old, but that’s another story). Isn’t that when the gift excess birthday party trend started? Or am I just from a different income bracket than most NYT Select readers?

And that leads to another set of issues, which she taps on…

2. That Miss Manners shuns this no-gift trend, because birthday gift-giving teaches children valuable lessons about giving and receiving.

This came up in a debate a few months back when I proposed the old version of “no-gift” birthday parties to the “natural parenting” playgroup we attend now and then. (See above description.) Some people really want to give and receive gifts. We talked about maybe self-made gifts, or very small gifts (like something from nature, a dress-up item, etc.). However, it seems the realities of dictating gifts still detract from some of the carefree fun that birthdays once were.

My friend (who I consider a fabulous mom) told me her son was invited to a party where they were supposed to bring one of their kid’s toys and do an exchange. Her kid was just a toddler and not in the mood to give away a toy (and perhaps too young for this particular “valuable lesson”), so she ended up buying one. Then, another party said to bring a book undr $8. Same friend couldn’t find a book she liked for less than $10 and found the whole thing a bit annoying. Another friend was going to a book donation birthday party (i.e., bring a book to donate) and she felt pressure to go buy a beautiful book rather than give one she or I already had.

The truth is, by trying to impose this lesson of charity, other lessons we may not want could be inadvertantly taught in the process. And can’t kids learn these valuable lessons from less gift-giving, just not every kiddie birthday party? (More on “lessons” ahead.)

Why is this getting so complicated?!

3. Kelley mentions a website called Birthdays Without Pressure.

I looked at it. I like it. It contains a million examples and lesson plans for parent educators. It actually makes me happy to see that people are organizing around a rant I’ve had since before I became a parent. A sad statement that they need to, but I suppose going in what I consider the right direction. Enough already. Back to basics, folks.

4. She talks about how the charity parties are becoming a competition in and of themselves.

“Kind of like rich people and their gala charity balls,” she writes. I can see it. Kelley also mentions goodie bags, like one party where kids went home with organic EcoBags filled with organic fruit leather and wooden toys. Again, it’s a lovely thought, but human nature (the web site claims this is not just an American, or even a solely upper class, trend) to then feel that you need to provide something on par. This is what prompted the Minnesota parents to start Birthdays Without Pressure, the goodie bags.

Another problem I see with these charity parties is that they still force parents to open their wallet for every kid’s party, this time with a dollar amount for all to see. I don’t want that, for me or from me. Here in California, most of us are house poor. Re-gifting is a savior and budgets are tight. Can’t birthday parties be one less thing we are constantly asked to spend money on?

Plus, these parties also dictate other people’s charity giving. (Isn’t our personal charitable giving supposed to be “from the heart” and all that, not dictated by Mrs. Johnson across the street? And what if it is a cause perhaps counter to someone’s values?) Parents in Kelley’s story talk about the “valuable lesson” of charity, but can’t that lesson be taught within a family? By, perhaps, volunteering time or choosing a charity to donate to at the holidays (that’s what we always did)?

That’s not to say I think we should never ask others to rally for important causes, quite the contrary — but making donation a part of every birthday party seems a bit of a trap, not to mention a somewhat skewed “lesson.” There is no choice involved there. Kelley didn’t go into all of these issues, but I think they are important in this conversation.

In short, I still fall back on the good old seventies townhouse-living birthday parties where kids came and played, and if they did a craft that was their take-home. It was fun. We got birthday cards from friends, presents from family only. I’d be happy to find a group of parents who wants to do this. Kids can make the cards, or parents can buy them (as it’s always been) and the party ends up actually enjoyable and “without pressure” as the Minnesota parenting groups calls it. Anything more becomes a controversy or a competition for many of us, and I think it spoils the fun.

Of course, this will only work if we can all agree, and that may well be impossible. Still, I have hope that our generation of parents can make real progress in the backward direction. Let’s learn from our predecessors. The Earth, the stuff, the relationships, everything needs some simplifying and good old-fashioned thought and care. Less is more and all that. Parties that are solely about gathering with people who care about one another and enjoy the company — what a concept. I swear, it’s fun!

Change isn’t easy, but clearly it happens. It happened in the 80’s and it can happen now. Check out Birthdays Without Pressure and throw in your two cents (no more, no less) here or there. Let’s have this conversation.

August 7, 2007 at 6:52 pm 16 comments

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To spark conversation about redefining success (as individuals, families and institutions) and to counter "never enough" messages currently circulating in our culture.

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Megan Pincus Kajitani: Writer, Editor, Former Academic Overachiever and Career Counselor, Mom, Wife, Feminist, Gen Xer, Californian who believes that change is possible View Megan Pincus Kajitani's profile on LinkedIn

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