In Defense of Single Mothers

Single mothers have always been picked on. Not only are they doing the hardest job in the world on their own, critics call these women morally bankrupt, their “choice” a disgrace to family values and they often times find a way to link single parents to rising rates of poverty and crime.

singlemom-300x221

But now we know that women have more earning power than ever (though we still have a long way to go)—more than men in some professions, and that many are postponing motherhood so that they can invest in themselves, establish a career, and offer a stable life for themselves and their children. And haven’t we finally killed that antiquated mindset that marriage is the ultimate end game for all women?

Apparently, no. A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that  most of the nation thinks single-parent households are detrimental to society.

Detrimental to society? Really? War is detrimental to society. The constant assault on women’s reproductive freedoms is detrimental to society. “The Bachelor” is detrimental to society. Loving, capable parents—one or two, gay or straight, multicultural or homogeneous—are about the best damn things our society has. We need to start supporting them in real, effective ways. Not pointing a finger of shame at them is a start. Offering affordable child care, not discriminating against working mothers, and offering them flexible job training and after-school programs for their kids are just a few others.

Studies like this always piss me off. The focus group is a tiny sliver of society (2,961 people in this case) but media attention makes these opinions speak for all of us (they don’t). And they’re hardly objective. This poll cites data that shows children who grow up in single-parent households have a greater likelihood to commit a crime or not go to college. Conduct the study a different way and you’ll see the reasons behind these trends are more directly linked to the lack of social welfare programs needed in certain low-wage, high-crime areas, the lack of adequate women’s health care and birth control, and the overall victimization and neglect of our most needy members of society.

Women become single parents for so many reasons. It’s the perfect family for some, a necessity for others. So let us cheer on the women who consciously, responsibly and excitedly choose to have children on their own—how lucky is that kid to be so wanted and loved? And let us support the women who find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy they choose to keep, and those who end a relationship for the betterment of themselves and their child. These women have a challenging road ahead and deserve the supportive Village that’s so often quoted as being necessary to raise a child, not the critical one that seems to turn its back if the baby doesn’t come from a happily married couple.

Links for Sexy Feminists: Girls in science, Catholics in birth control, and more …

Girls like science and technology: The suddenly kick-ass Girl Scouts of America released a studyshowing girls dig math, science, and technology but don’t see these lucrative fields as possible careers. We hope this means a new generation will see that programming computers is more lucrative than selling cookies. Though Thin Mints still rule.

Catholic bishops hate birth control: Of course, we already knew that, but now they’re threatening legal action against the Obama administration’s plan to make insurers cover contraception — even though this is a compromise after an earlier plan would have made religious institutions directly responsible for paying for their workers’ birth control. Sigh.

While we’re at it …: The Center for Reproductive Rights is launching an email campaign to urge the Obama administration to lift age restrictions on emergency contraception. Seriously, everyone: Why are we so into making people have unwanted kids?

Why do men love jailbait porn?: A fascinating analysis on Jezebel from Hugo Schwyzer.

Life and love after being part of the sex trade: Check out this deeply personal account at YourTango.

If you’re wondering why we shouldn’t let Chris Brown continue being a pop idol: Here are some good reasons, via Feministe, Hello Giggles, and others.

‘Thinking Gender’: WWII Sexism, Female Slave Owners and the Feminism in Salsa Dancing

ThinkingGender-233x300Salsa dancing in Taiwan. Sexism in the SS. Dowry deaths in India. Child activists in the abortion wars. Mayan women writing plays critical of the patriarchy. Female architects and textile makers. Female coal miners. Female slave owners before and during the Civil War.

All these subjects, and more, were part of the 22nd annual “Thinking Gender” conference, held at UCLA. Organized by the university’s Center for the Study of Women, the conference hosted more than 120 scholars (mostly female) from around the world. There were four sessions, each with five panels apiece. In short: A whole lot of gender relations talks to cover. Here are some of the highlights:

Gender Stereotypes

“Dirty Work: Women and Unexpected Labor.” The labor in question referred to everything from prison guards to coal miners, and this panel was well worth attending because it was both interesting and discomfiting. The first scholar to present in this panel was Shelly M. Cline, a history student from the University of Kansas. Her paper was on gender discrimination in the SS, particularly against women who guarded prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp. “The state asked them to do a man’s job, but didn’t offer them an equal partnership,” Cline said, going on to talk about how, as a result of being treated badly by their male colleagues, many of these women took out their frustrations on prisoners in increasingly terrible ways as a way to try to get respect from the men. (That is not to say, Cline added, that these women’s actions were any more brutal overall than their male colleagues’.) When WWII was over, and the Allies put these women on trial, they only won equality by being given punishments as severe as the men.

Cline’s work put an unsettlingly human face on these women who most would see as monsters. Of course, sexism in the workplace is never okay. But is oppression ever an excuse to oppress others weaker than you? And on a side topic, is brutality committed by women worse than that committed by men, since we are expected to be the gentler sex?

The questions raised by Cline’s work were also addressed in a paper by University of Houston history scholar Katie Smart. Smart explored the lives of women who owned slaves before and during the Civil War. Lots has been written about female slaveowners, and much of it paints these women as more compassionate than the males, Smart said. But when she did her own research, which included reading accounts from former slaves, Smart found this portrayal was a lie. “There was more hatred and violence than normal,” Smart said, adding that many women running plantations treated their slaves, particularly the women slaves, like cattle for breeding. Unlike enslaved men, enslaved women were also less likely to run away permanently, since they were unwilling to leave children and other family members behind on the plantation. And when they returned, they received severe punishment from their mistresses.

Reproductive Rights

The importance of female complicity in our own oppression was also touched on in a later session on reproductive rights. Jennifer L. Holland, a history scholar at University of Wisconsin, Madison presented a fascinating paper on the recruitment of children and teens by the anti-choice movement. According to Holland, one of the first anti-choice protests, held in 1967, encouraged women in the movement to bring their children to the march as tangible reminders of “abortion survivors.” Since then, anti-choice women, and their children, have become the face of the movement. One tactic for recruiting kids involved fetus dolls, which became a favored toy for little girls in the movement. For older kids, anti-choice teachers, school nurses and cafeteria ladies were known to carry around fetus models to show to high school girls who might consider abortion, Holland said. When pro-choice activists started fighting back against these tactics, the growing evangelical home schooling movement (where mothers are overwhelmingly the teachers) took children out of the possibly corrupting public school system altogether. As a result, Holland said, children are being trained as activists much younger.

Liberation In Unlikely Places.

The conference’s plenary session touched on lighter matters. I-Wen Chang, a dance scholar from UCLA, talked about salsa dancing, which is now incredibly popular in Taiwan. “Salsa breaks all the rules,” Chang said. How? Well, for these women, salsa steps are subversive, because they go against traditional Chinese ideas about how female bodies should move, Chang said. Apparently, swaying your hips is considered improper. Also, the male role in the dance is more egalitarian, so the dance is less about leading and more about partnering. But unfortunately, salsa is not quite the feminist boon to the Republic of China as one might hope. Chang added that men often partner each other, and this is seen as empowering and a way to bond socially, but that women aren’t allowed to do the same. Also, salsa clubs have become networking stations for the social elite. So, if a woman shows up at such a club without a male partner, that is a bad thing. But the men can happily show up stag and dance with each other.

Yvette Martinez-Vu, a theater scholar also from UCLA, spoke at the plenary about Mayan women in Chiapas, Mexico, and their attempts to educate and empower their fellow women through theater. A group called Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya does plays about domestic relationships in the Maya community, and those plays often highlight the sexist culture that keeps wives from making major family decisions, Martinez-Vu said, and encourages women to challenge their roles. They also offer practical solutions, such as computer and business classes, Martinez-Vu said.

The Evils of Gender Oppression

The challenges of female empowerment in a patriarchal society was a major theme at the conference. In the final session, I attended a panel where two scholars dealt with domestic violence against women in India. Roy Juhi, a global gender studies scholar at the State Unversity of New York, Buffalo, is a from Bihar, India. For her, the damage caused by India’s dowry system is personal as well as political. “I grew up with this,” she said. “A lot of my friends got married.” The dowry tradition, though officially illegal, requires the bride’s family to pay the groom’s family a certain amount (negotiated according to wealth and resources) upon marriage. Eighty percent of Indian marriages involve dowries, and far too often, the groom’s family feels cheated by this negotiation, and take out their anger on the bride, Juhi said. In the worst case scenario, they kill the bride and then claim it’s suicide. Juhi said there are as many as 2,400 dowry deaths a year, and most remain unprosecuted, because the laws protecting brides are full of loopholes favoring the perpetrators.

Even when this situation doesn’t end in murder, domestic violence is common. “Fifty-nine percent of married women in Bihar are exposed to domestic violence,” Juhi said, adding that it doesn’t help that Hindu tradition requires that women stay with their husbands no matter what. A subsequent paper, by Julia Kowalski of the University of Chicago, talked about that violence, but revealed a twist: while we often assume the abuser must be the husband, that is not always the case. Kowalski spoke of a case study where one young bride was being abused by her sister-in-law, who hit her under the pretext of training her to be a proper wife. The authorities working on the case decided that mediation was the way to resolve the problem, Kowalski said, a decision frowned upon by most domestic abuse experts who think this gives too much power to the abuser. However in this case, it helped, Kowalski said, adding that the complexities of interpersonal relationships should be taken into account when dealing wth problems such as domestic abuse.

Learning How To Date When You’re A Divorced Mother

DateShadows-300x199I’ll be upfront and say that this whole dating thing is really weird for me. I got married at 20 to my college boyfriend and split up 16 years later, now with two kids. The dating I did in my teens couldn’t really be called dating. And my marriage was a dysfunctional mess that started off with bad dynamics that only got worse. As my therapist reminded me, by the time I was 36 I needed to spend a lot of time learning about myself, the kind of life I wanted and what kind of partner I wanted to go with that. That’s been easier said than done.

Since the split I’ve made plenty of time for sex but not really for dating. I figured out pretty early on that I needed sex on a sort of maintenance level to offset the stresses of my job and raising two preteens. It took a while for me to open that door but once I did I had no problem finding willing partners, mostly men I’d already known. But in order to do so, they had to accept the the terms of my relationship: You take what little time I can squirrel away from work and kids, and you never meet my children.

About year two I started dating an old friend on the weekends that my kids were with their father. It was my first real experience dating a grownup. He is an accomplished man in his late forties, never married, no kids. There were gifts and trips and great dinners out. And also lots of plans (on his end) for what our lives would look like after my kids were in college. And lots of little jokes wondering how soon could we pack them away whenever I had to say no to some plans because of the kids. Now, even though I had set the rules and made it really clear I wasn’t looking to ever get remarried or have a stepparent situation with my kids, the fact that my kids didn’t figure into his plans for us (beyond getting them into good colleges far away) really bothered me. We would break up (messily) because I realized I didn’t love him the way he loved me and I thought it was unfair to keep him hanging on, but I know that his view of my kids—or lack thereof—has something to do with it.

I’ve recently started dating a man unlike anyone else I’ve ever gravitated to. At 50, he’s 11 years older than me. And he’s a quiet steady sort. He’ll never be the center of attention at a party and there won’t be extravagant gestures of affection. But he is both physically and verbally affectionate, as well as smart and funny, with a good steady job, and a very good clear sense of himself and what he wants. And he has a 10-year-old daughter he adores and co-parents with his ex. From our first date, he was head over heels for me. And I can’t front, I love having someone in love with me. That adoration is intoxicating. But I’ve also found that I just enjoy his company. We have a wonderfully comfortable time together. And then when we actually had sex, turns out the quiet guy is quite the freak in bed. And that’s a really good thing.

But he’s also a planner. Less than a month in and he’s already asked me if I’d ever consider co-habitating in a space that accommodated all the kids. He is a nester and wants more time with me than I can give him. Things have changed with my ex and now my kids are with me all the time. There are no free weekends to get away or stay snuggled up in bed together. But  instead of cutting and running away from new guy, I’m discussing the situation and talking to him about tempering his expectations. He says that he will take me however/whenever he can get me but I have a sneaking suspicion that this will become an unsustainable setup for one or both of us at some point. I keep cautioning him (and myself) to be in the moment, to enjoy the good feelings we’re giving each other and try to make too many plans. I’m just okay committing to going to see a play at the end of the month. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

I don’t know where this is all going. I don’t like not knowing but I also know this is the path my life must take and with each passing relationship I’m finding my voice and getting closer to where I need to be.

Lady-Friendly Sex Toy Stores Across the U.S.

sex_writing-291x300Move to a new city and you’ll have to find a new hair salon, dentist, gynecologist, massage therapist — and, more difficult than any of those, a great, classy, clean, comfortable place to buy your vibrators. As a public service, we compiled this list. Please let us know if there are more we should add — we can’t be everywhere at once!

Babeland (Seattle, Brooklyn, New York City)

Coco de Mer (Los Angeles)

The Pleasure Chest (Los Angeles)

Early to Bed (Chicago)

Eve’s Garden (New York City)

Forbidden Fruit (Austin, Texas)

Good Vibrations (San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, Calif.; Brookline, Mass.)

Grand Opening! (Boston)

Liberator (Atlanta)

Playthings (Miami)

The Pleasure Chest (Chicago)

Pleasures of the Heart (San Rafael, Calif.)

The Rubber Rose (San Diego)

Self Serve Toys (Albequerque, N.M.)

She Bop (Portland, Ore.)

Smitten Kitten (Minneapolis)

The Tool Shed (Milwaukee)

A Woman’s Touch (Madison, Wisc.)

Gay Marriage: A Personal Reconciling

gay-marriage-200x300Two years ago, I convinced my girlfriend at the time to read Dan Savage’s The Commitment.

I figured what was basically a treatise about passionately fighting for one’s right to wed, by a guy who was so formerly blasé about the idea of marrying his boyfriend of a decade, could convince her that gay marriage was the way of the future. A choice many queers were making, in just about every conceivable fashion (much like our straight counterparts). Besides, we lived in the most exciting city in the world, New York. We shared a love of all things artistic and we knew how to entertain ourselves (and each other) on a shoestring budget. How could our marriage be boring? It would be an adventure, just by the very nature of who we were and where we lived.

Or so I thought.

After she read the book, a switch was flipped. I don’t know if it was the book itself, per se, or if it was our relationship changing to the point where she could envision us sharing a life together. We were already sharing the same apartment, families, vacations, and money.

A short time later, on my birthday, she proposed. And in true egalitarian fashion, I returned the proposal on our anniversary a month later. We exchanged rings. We playfully called each other “wife” and told my family that our rings were not so much “engagement rings” as they were “rings of intention.” (To wit, my cousin’s husband affectionately declared that that is what “straight men should get from their fiancés.”)

But as our euphemisms vaguely suggested, we had no concrete plans, only “intentions.” We had made a deal: We decided we wouldn’t get married until I was finished with my master’s degree or New York state legalized same-sex marriage. Three months after we broke up, our beloved state did in fact do just that. For obvious reasons, it was a bittersweet victory.

On the one hand, I was thrilled for couples who could take that next step—or rather, leap—not only for themselves but for queer people everywhere. I knew this wasn’t the end of the battle, but clearly we had made some kind of progress. And then came the resentment. And the anger. And the pain. And the shock of having my life turned upside down, ushering in a new—and what I perceived as cold—world order.

Suddenly, 28 felt old. It felt left behind. I found myself keeping score, comparing the accomplishments of my 20-something counterparts to my own like never before. Suddenly, nothing I was doing or had done was good enough. With gay marriage, it seems, comes the immediate pressure every straight woman feels: Get married, or die alone.

The hilarious irony in all this is that when I was a teenager, I assumed I would settle down later in life (even before I realized I was gay), in my early to mid-30s perhaps. When I was 15 I guess I thought this sounded like the trajectory of a worldly person, someone who goes on crazy adventures before meeting the love of her life and buying that house in the country, maybe even contacting a sperm bank and preparing second-parent adoption papers. But in the reality of my situation, that trajectory no longer felt like something to desire.

I had had my adventures, I thought. And dammit, I was still having them—I took the plunge (finally!) to get my MFA, I changed jobs after several years’ worth of misery, I traveled, I had a lease on my own apartment in Manhattan. I had made amazing stuff happen—and the bulk of it with a loving, supportive partner by my side.

See, the problem was that I thought I had found someone who would be there through all the new and exciting pursuits as well as the day-in, day-out sometimes-drudgery of routine. I didn’t feel tied down, I felt wide open and released. I believed it was to the credit of our rock solid relationship—meanwhile, giving myself no credit whatsoever.

When our relationship ended, I even found myself using the term “divorce.” I mean, after all, that’s kind of what it was. There was the dividing of possessions and money owed and repaid. And of course, there was the emotional dividing as well.

It was the closest thing to marriage I have ever experienced. And with gay marriage, alas, comes gay divorce.

Even after all the heartache and struggle and therapy sessions, I would still do it all again. I still want to take that leap of faith. Keeping two people together, whether it’s two women or a man and woman or two men, is a monumental feat not to be taken lightly. And what I gained in those three years is invaluable, but I also gained something from our ending.

I realized I do take care of myself—and not just in typical adult manner (bill paying, food buying, appointment scheduling , etc.). I’m learning about my limits; when to reach out for help and when to take my own advice; how to bestow generosity but not to a fault; how to assuage my fears and doubts without any added reassurance. I may have even figured out how to forgive myself.

Because I’m a poet myself and because I think poetry can represent the truest form of expression, I’d like to share this excerpt from “This Deepening Takes Place Again” by Emily Kendal Frey. She writes: “If losing me / is the worst thing to happen, / your life is still a good life.”

Yes, it is.