September 18, 2012

NYC, 1974-1976, Nonsexist Childrearing in Action


Emma belonged to a Chelsea Manhattan playgroup for two years, from 1974 to 1976. She was 17 months when it began, 3 and ready for nursery school when it disbanded. Playgroup met 5 mornings a week in the basement of the Y on West 23rd Street. Parents had the option of coming 1 to 5 mornings. Scheduling was a nightmare that I had naively accepted. I kept the minutes of playgroup, and I wrote a paper about it for a social work class in group dynamics 20 years later.

I thought you might be amused by parenting, Manhattan style, 1974. How earnest and how absurd we were in so many ways. But we were absolutely committed to allowing our kids to be free to be you and me.

Ranging in age from 28 to 40, we all lived in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. With one exception, our playgroup child was our first child. At 28, I was the youngest mother, but the only one from a large family. We all were college educated, with serious careers before we had children. There was an editor of psychiatric books, a writer, a teacher, an artist, an art therapist, two social workers, one vocational counselor, two psychology graduate students, and  a psychiatric nurse.

Most of us were struggling with our decision to stay home with our children. Confirmed apartment dwellers, we saw little relationship between mothering and housework. All of us planned to remain in Manhattan. Dreading winter cooped up with newly mobile, newly negative toddlers in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work full-time during the life of the playgroup.

None of us had long-time friends who were staying at home to raise young children. We needed to build a new circle of friends; our friends from work no longer sufficed. We were not traditional wives and mothers. We desperately wanted intellectual colleagues fascinated with child development, determined to raise children without our own inhibitions and neuroses. All of us considered ourselves feminists, committed to nonsexist childrearing.



September 13, 2012

Confused Feminist Has a Baby, 1973


Dropping out of Columbia Law School in 1971 was a turning point in my life. After a year of soul-searching journal writing, I realized that I had been denying my emotional, nurturant, sensitive  nature, never considering careers like psychology or social work. Closer to my dad and having 5 younger brothers, I had raised myself as a Koch male, In the jargon of early consciousness-raising groups, I was male identified. I got very involved in the feminist movement in New York City and recognized the sexism of "thinking like a man."

I had always assumed that professional success was far more important to me than traditional motherhood. I had seen how my mother postponed her dreams until the youngest of her six children entered school. Instead of being a lawyer, as she had originally planned, she settled for high school teaching.

A few months later a good friend got pregnant, and I became intensely involved in her pregnancy. For the first time in my life,  I wanted to have a baby. I questioned my motives, wondering if I was merely postponing the inevitable return to grad school. I assured myself I would go back to work when the baby was a few months old. I got pregnant the first month we tried, and I loved being pregnant.  I was able to achieve my goal of natural childbirth. I felt terrific immediately after birth. Breastfeeding was easy.

Nothing prepared me for drowning in an overwhelming surge of love, tenderness, protectiveness the minute I looked into my new daughter's bright eager eyes. I had never believed in the myths of fulfilling motherhood, and yet mothering young children was the most fascinating, creative job of my life.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine I would love being  full-time mother from 1973 to 1988 and  my grandson's nanny from 20007 to 2009.

But if anything, I am more of a feminist than I was in 1971.

Confused Feminist in Love

I read the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan when I was a freshman in college.  Friedan did not raise my consciousness, but gave me more confidence in my ideas. I attended Fordham University, planning to become a college professor of political science. Fordham had just begun to admit women, and I was often the only girl in my political science class. Being the only girl and the best student in a class was heaven. I met John, my future first husband, in my junior year. It is a family joke that I was first attracted to him when I heard his SAT scores. John found my intellectuality and my femininity equally attractive, and for the first time reconciling the two seemed possible. Just to be sure, I insisted he read Simone DeBeauvoir's The Second Sex before I was willing to make love. What a self-righteous little prig I was ! But John contributed as much as I did to four daughters' academic and professional achievement.

John, a year behind me in college, planned to be a physics professor. (I was desperate to hide from my family that John was 9 months younger.) When I applied to grad schools, I looked for places equally strong in both physics and political science, figuring a year's separation would make us surer about marriage. If I had known myself better, I would have applied to grad schools in New York City. I went to Stanford University in California, 3000 miles away from my love. I hated grad school, was miserable without John, and left after two months. My parents were puzzled that I had given up an all-expenses paid PhD; I foolishly avoided my family for two months. I would not admit to myself that missing John, not hating graduate school, was my major motive. As a result of that delusion, I didn't return to graduate school until 16 years later.

I returned to New York,  got married, and slowly worked my way up in New York City book publishing. I was never wildly enthusiastic about editing social science and psychiatry books. It resembled grad school, abstract, intellectual, remote from people.  Why I went to law school was murky. The preceding spring at my brother  Richard's wedding, my brother Stephen said, "Mom thinks you should go to law school and make something of yourself." In a retirement interview, my mom told the editor of the high school paper that she would have gone to law school if she had had the opportunities open to women now. Whose ambitions were I trying to fulfill?

Confused Feminist As a Girl

Growing up with five younger brothers guaranteed I would be a feminist. My mother had five brothers as well.  For a good 16 years I was taller and stronger and smarter and better read. Looking at old pictures that show me towering over my brothers, I mourn lost opportunities for cutting them down to size:) I recall asking the nun preparing us for Holy Communion why the boys went up to the altar first. "Because they are closer to God since they can be priests," was her reply. At that moment I became a feminist. I confess I was less interested in solidarity with women than in besting men. I felt outraged when my brother could be an altar boy and I couldn't, even though my Latin was infinitely better.

Sixty years later, I still adore intellectual competition and debate with men.

My immediate neighborhood had no girls to play with, only boys, so I coped by becoming a tomboy, passionately interested in baseball. My brothers used to challenge their friends to ask me a baseball question I couldn't answer. My family always encouraged academic achievement. I was a shy intellectual in high school; my friends hung out at the high school newspaper and the debate club. None of us dated. I concluded that smart girls didn't attract men unless they deliberately played dumb, something I refused to do. Besides my ideal male was Jack Kennedy. Crushing on JFK was good for me. I immersed myself in politics and American history.

Although my mom started college when I did, she was in what my brother Stephen calls her creative phase when I was growing up. A full-time mother, she sewed most of my clothes, canned tomatoes, made hats, made sock monkeys when she wasn't taking care of six kids and incredibly active in her local church. My father was the brain; we minimized my mom's great intelligence. I didn't want to be my mom. Imagine my confusion when she graduated from college the same day I did, with a straight A average. She had become a feminist and 60s radical, fully committed to the civil rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War..