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The F Word: Nevertheless, She Parented

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Welcome to The F Word, where we, Skillcrush staffers Lauren Lang and special guest Maren Vernon, discuss issues that impact all of us—both in and out of the workplace. We know that, for us, coming to understand the f-word (in this case, feminism), and how important it is in the scope of our lives, didn’t happen overnight. We hope you’ll join us once a month as we meet to discuss power, identity, and the changes we want to see in the world.

Lauren: Maren, welcome to the F-Word! It’s so great to be with you today chatting about the joys of feminist parenting—and specifically, motherhood.

Maren: Thanks, Lauren! I have my cup of coffee in hand. I’ve taken a deep breath. And I’m ready to jump in.

Lauren: With three kids (all girls) between us, you and I have some insight into what being a mom is really like. And man, it’s tough. I’m constantly running interference against mean kids at school, media messaging that disrespects women in any number of ways, and the little microaggressions that fly under the radar and become tiny, but growing, insecurities in my daughter’s spirit.

On the heels of Oprah’s AMAZING Golden Globes speech where she envisions a “new day on the horizon” where “nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again,” this is the future parents also aspire to. But it can seem like an insurmountable task to shield our kids from the reality of the world in 2018. Where do we start?

Maren: I’m starting to think I should have brought wine to calm my nerves when I think of everything they are facing… But Oprah’s speech!

My gals are still young and just starting in school but my kids are not only girls but girls of color, and finding the line between preparing them and not scaring them is something my husband and I talk about a lot. I can tell you that an early way I’m trying to raise them to feel they can do anything and ignore the haters is through stories and good role modeling.

I used to work in publishing, so books will always be important in my house. I like to look for picture books—since that is the stage we are in—with strong, and ideally diverse, female characters using their smarts and creativity to problem solve, lead, or demonstrate kindness. I could name books all day but Pocket Full of Colors (about Mary Blair), Drum Dream Girl;I Am Truly; She Persisted; Ada Twist, Scientist; and Rosie Revere, Engineer spring to mind as particularly great examples.

Of course my struggle is that I want them to feel independent and in control of the course their life takes, buuuuuut I also need them to listen when I say, “Come on, dude, that is not a great idea.” So we find ways to negotiate and I let them take the lead when appropriate. Just yesterday my oldest snuck business cards out of my office to give to friends so they could get their moms to schedule playdates with me. I caught her with the cards as she headed into school, but I appreciated her pluck and determination and I let her move forward with her plan. How have you started introducing The F Word in your household?

Lauren: Okay, business cards? Genius.

I wholeheartedly agree with you about choosing media with strong depictions of women. My daughter loves the Rebel Girls book series, which features small vignettes and beautiful illustrations of notable women and girls throughout history who have exhibited strength and determination (including the women featured in Hidden Figures, which she loved). We talk openly about these women’s struggles and the discrimination they’ve worked to overcome—based on gender, yes, but also race or ethnicity or religion or age or ability or sexual orientation. These books have been a great resource both for empowering my daughter and also spurring deep discussions about her own privilege.

So media is important… BUT I agree that the best opportunity to introduce feminism—both to girls and to boys—is to teach the concept by example and model what feminism looks like. It looks like empowering and respecting our children, expecting them to respect others, and empowering them to speak up when they feel unsafe. It looks like mothers who have agency and confidence and it looks like fathers who understand consent and who listen. It looks like the world that Her Majesty Queen Oprah says that we want for our children.

And it benefits us as mothers to find what that looks like too, because SOCIETY HAS NOT GOTTEN THE MEMO. There is so much pressure on mothers to do everything right and to have perfectly behaved and brilliant children at all times, and to never, ever lose our patience. And so, feminist motherhood is just as much about how we as women consciously choose to construct ourselves as parents, by bucking those impossible standards and finding what works for us.
Maren, there are so, so many ways to “fail” as a mother, to the extent that—SPOILER ALERT!—there is literally no way to “succeed.” So let’s get specific: What criticism do you face about your role as a parent?

Maren: I find external criticism most often comes in comments along the lines of, “Working and mothering and side hustles… You should give yourself a break. You are trying to do too much.” The implication is: You should focus more on being a mother.

Usually the things I love to do—that make me feel fulfilled outside of being a parent—are the first things I’m expected to cut out. Then that just leaves me grumpy and resentful. Does that make me a better parent? No.

I need the side hustle or the part-time job that keeps me intellectually curious. I have fun doing art projects with my kids or exploring the science museum, but I also need challenges and positive stress and to learn new things. (Let me take a moment to acknowledge my privilege that I even have some choices to make, and also to say that just like I don’t want to be judged for my choice, I’m not going to judge another’s path. I’m just acknowledging that wouldn’t be living as my authentic self.)

I started learning to code (with Skillcrush!) when my first was about a year old. I’d suffered from some postpartum depression and was generally feeling down about my abilities and intellect because parenting was a lot harder than I expected, and despite all the reading and prep, I didn’t feel like some things came as easy to me (and social media was NOT helping). I’m not lying when I say that learning to code gave me my confidence back. Maybe my kid didn’t sleep through the night last night and refused to eat the ten different foods I prepared but, hey! I got that image to float beside some text! I am good at something! It was the outlet and challenge I needed to get my mojo back. And you know what? When I felt better about myself, I know I became a mom who was more fun to be around. Losing your identity is no joke.

What criticisms have you faced as a parent, Lauren, and how have you dealt with it?

Lauren: There is SO much here that resonates with my experience, particularly in the idea that I have a right to make a choice to be a multidimensional human being whose existence is not fulfilled entirely by my child—and the notion that this choice is actually a positive thing for her to witness. THE HORROR: a mother who is also a person with interests and talents and—gasp—ambitions!

If I reveal myself to be stressed or anxious about ANYTHING in my life, you’re right—I receive unsolicited advice that the first thing to go should be what makes me happy. The message is clear: My career is a luxury, and any mission I value outside of motherhood is somehow deeply unfair to my daughter—even when, ironically, that mission is to create a world in which she is empowered and free.

So how have I dealt with it? I keep doing what brings me deep satisfaction. I try to tune out the noise and follow my true north. And in doing so, I show my child the best possible person I can be. I try my best, and sometimes I’m a shitty mom. (And sometimes I’m a shitty employee and sometimes I’m a shitty spouse and sometimes I’m shitty at keeping my shit together.)
But I think I’m okay with that. Perfection is for Beyonce, and she has help.
And speaking of support, what roles do you think male partners have in all this? Heterosexual coupling puts vastly differently expectations for how mothers and fathers interact with their children: a mom who takes her kid to the park is like the default while the dad who does the same is OMG THE BEST DAD EVER. Or a dad who slightly raises his voice to his kids is giving some “tough love” while a mom who does the same is a horrible person who should have her kids taken away. What do we take from this double standard?

Maren: I’m incredibly lucky to have a husband doesn’t expect me to fall in lockstep with gender roles, but at the moment he is the primary breadwinner and I am the lead parent. So by default I am expected to know what is going on with their schools and their friends and to volunteer for all the things and get the laundry done and have food in the house. And those efforts feel rarely acknowledged.

But just because I am the lead parent doesn’t change the fact that sometimes I want to spend an hour coding, rather than at the park with my children. And the fact that, when I think about doing something for me or for my career, I almost immediately consider it to be selfish—is problematic. I’m criticizing myself before anyone else has the chance to.

Lauren: YES. I think a lot of it comes down to the concept of “emotional labor,” right? This idea that women have to shoulder so much of the unseen knowledge and work to keep everything running smoothly—and a lot of that is learned behavior.

One way I’ve experimented with lessening the burden of all there is to do is just by…dropping some of it. (#badmomconfessions)

I’ve stopped monitoring whether there’s milk in the fridge or whether library books are in the backpack on library day at school. Practicing personal responsibility should come at an early age…and picking up a young able-bodied person’s dishes and transporting them to the dishwasher for her? Or picking out the perfect birthday gift for my husband’s mother, when he’s known her 20 years longer than I have? Nope! Ain’t nobody got time for that.

And it’s not that I would never do any of these things—I often have. I love my family. But it’s been a long unwinding of the expectation that I will, just because my ovaries make it so.

Maren: Are we long lost twins?! My anal-retentive nature will probably never let me forget how much toilet paper is in the house at any given time, but the house chores are gender neutral and everyone can pitch in in some way shape or form, big or little. Don’t like the chore I’ve offered you? Pitch me a compromise! My husband and I definitely do that. Never too early to practice those job skills, right?

Lauren: HA! Totally. Okay, Maren, last question! And this is a fun one. :)
What is, to you, the absolute best part of being a parent? What did you never anticipate about having these little people in your life that has been delightful and surprising? For me, it’s been experiencing my daughter’s wicked sense of humor, which grows sharper and drier by the day. She’s only seven, and I can’t believe what she comes up with as it is—not to mention in 20 years when she has her own HBO stand-up special.

Maren: I love that! I think what has been fun for me is seeing the things they create out of seemingly nothing. It really is true that some buttons and a cardboard tube and some pencils and a mismatched sock can suddenly entertain them for an hour and is ten times more fun than anything I’d buy. I really just need to step back and get out of their way and let them have agency over the project (that includes letting them sort out their differences because I can’t always be there to fight their battles). It is so fascinating to watch how their minds work, and I’m often inspired by new ideas or challenged by them to step outside my comfort zone.

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