Between Quality and Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about clocks lately, in part because my son had to make a model of Tock the Dog from The Phantom Tollbooth for school, and in part because I have had many days lately where I feel like I’m running out of time. Or just running. Until I have no choice but to be horizontal.

This week I told my son a bedtime story about clocks. Here is how it went:

Once upon a time, there was a boy who had two clocks in his room. One had numbers on it and it helped him see what time it was. The other had no numbers on it and it helped him see the moments and experiences he’d had without a concern for time. He spent a moment each day thinking about what these two clocks meant to him, including which one made him feel happier. He realized at the end of the day that it was the moments clock that mattered and made him happier, because when his mommy’s tired eyes looked lovingly at him while she rubbed his back, it didn’t matter whether the moment lasted three seconds or three minutes. It happened, and that’s all that mattered. At the end of the day, a moment of love was infinitely better than hours of anything else. Plus, having his mommy stare at him for three minutes would just seem creepy.  

Now, lest you think I crafted this story in order to assuage any guilt at my increased absence from home life because of a busy work schedule, remember that this is a boy who understands metacognition and metacommunication as they are happening better than most eleven-year-olds. If he knew I was trying to explain away something he saw as a problem, he’d call me on it. And he didn’t call me on it. He knows I don’t feel guilty. He knows that he benefits from me finding my work rewarding, and yes, sometimes he wishes I was around more. But this wasn’t about guilt.

He knows me. That’s the beauty of eleven-year-olds. They still like bedtime stories, but they start to have grown-up eyes and hearts and brains.

If I were to create a word cloud of all of my college and grad school family sociology research notes from the 1990s, I suspect the biggest words in the cloud would be “quality time.” So many research articles and public debates about the benefits of quality time for parents whose paid work lives decreased their quantity of time with kids crossed my desk. A lot of it was about helping households with parents in the paid workforce manage work and family responsibilities in a way that didn’t make the problem any worse. Or add guilt to a situation that they couldn’t control. At the time I was reading these articles, I was heading into a profession that would allow me the privilege of affording child care and some control over the content and hours of my paid work. But the impetus for the research was to point out that structural forces were at play that, for parents at all income levels but maybe especially low income parents, time was limited. This needed to be shown in order to combat arguments that parents were doing a bad job. And when I was reading them, I figured that the other impetus for the research was to redefine the ways we measured “doing a good job” for parents.

The reports said, in a nutshell: It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a bunch of hours each day to spend with your children. What matters is that the time you spend is high quality. Stop feeling guilty about having to go to work.

Well, guess what? Recent research shows us that parents are actually spending more time with their kids than when I took all those feverish notes twenty years ago, across all income groups. But here’s the most interesting part: the story told in this new research is that more time means parents are doing a better job. “Doing a good job” is still measured in numbers. Not in moments. So, in light of past research suggesting that moments may matter more than time, parents ended up adding time. And researchers who’ve uncovered this are assuring parents not to feel guilty because the amount of time is increasing.

Might this be a troubling outcome? What if we didn’t use the clock with numbers on it to evaluate our parenting? What if we used the moments clock? The one without numbers.

Of course I recognize the need for clocks. I love being on time. I also want to acknowledge that eleven-year-olds can struggle with the moment v. time thing, evidenced this morning by my son’s failure to catch his school bus because he got wrapped up in the moment of playing with his new phone rather than looking at the clock. 7:43 a.m. is not a moment. It’s when he has to be at the corner to catch the bus. The driver will not wait for a boy having a moment with his distractable phone.

At the end of the day, here’s what matters: I don’t remember how long memorable moments take. I remember them as moments. When I look back on this troubled time in our world, I will remember looking into my son’s eyes with sadness about some local tragedies, extended family struggles, horrific deaths in the world, seemingly insurmountable conflicts between groups, culture wars. I won’t remember how long we will have looked at each other. But I will remember the moment of shared sadness and shared compassion that can never be measured with time. It doesn’t matter that we have talked about what to make of our own and the world’s sadness for two hours. It matters that we talked about sadness.

And, at the end of the day, I still do not feel guilty. Not for a moment.

Between Kidding and Adulting

This week, due in part to some challenges in the lives of those I love, I have gained a deeper understanding of the contemporary use of the word adult as a verb. As in, adulting is hard. Or, I have to adult now. Or, I don’t want to adult today. Or, I really should have adulted in that conversation with that person who has the mentality of a six-year-old but was really patronizing like an old chauvinist hardware store worker at a store that I no longer want to patronize (Look here, missy, you need a flange nut, not a hex nut, unless you want to fumble with a bunch of slippery washers).

In some people’s minds and on various social media locations, the concept of adulting has replaced the phrase, “I have to be a grown up.” It seems to me that adulting means that one must take on the perceived roles and responsibilities that someone who would be classified as an adult in our society would take on. Like paying for stuff, looking after small people, and wearing clothes. This is one of those things that looks easy to grasp on the surface, but is really pretty complex when you unpack it. And I’m speaking as someone whose daily interactions are with college students — a life stage that complicates the boundary between kid and adult in fascinating ways.

I want to play with the word kid in the same way that I’m seeing the word adult being played with. As both noun and verb. Of course, kid-as-a-verb already has a meaning (besides the “goat giving birth=kidding” meaning). Case in point: “You look old. Just kidding!” This originated, or so etymologists guess, with the idea of “making a child or goat out of someone.” To kid is to joke, tease, humorously say something that you hope makes people laugh. To kid is to hopefully lighten the mood, especially after you’ve said something that you want to make sure people know wasn’t serious. This all makes a lot of sense to me. But I think we ought to add a new definition to the verb form of kid, just like we are doing with adult.  I offer that kidding is acting like a child, making oneself into a child. “I am kidding” means “I am acting like a kid,” just like “I am adulting” means “I am acting like an adult.”

If we accept these multiple definitions for kid-as-a-verb, we can put them together and say things like “When adulting is hard, kidding helps. When kidding is hard, adulting helps.” This offers a new definition of kid-as-a-verb, and makes for fun word play. And perhaps could even serve as a therapeutic mantra when we have some challenges in our daily lives. Sometimes when adulting is hard, kidding-as-joking helps, and sometimes kidding-as-acting-like-a-child helps. You either lighten the mood with a joke or you go play on some monkey bars. Both of these seem like a good idea for stressed-out grown-ups to do from time to time. And now that I’m the parent of a middle-schooler, I can see ways that encouraging kids to adult a little bit more than they’re used to may not be a bad idea.

Of course, both kid and adult as nouns are constructed identities. I know this not only because I know plenty of adults who act like kids, and some kids who act like adults, but also because the categories of kid and adult keep changing across time and space. It used to be that being an adult in the geographic regions to which I am accustomed started at a certain age. Let’s say in the late teenage years for lots of people. And this included marriage and financial independence. Add a few decades, a recession, some pop culture influence, changing connections between sexuality and marriage and childbearing, and heightened focus on childhood as a protected category, and boom! Adulthood starts around age 35 now. Or at least the financial independence part does (says the grown-up who finished paying her student loans at age 35).

We also know that the definitions of the noun-versions of kid and adult are subject to revision because of some other fun terms that have emerged in our term-addicted mediascape vernacular that serve to blend the two: Rejuvenile. Kidult. Babyman. Adultescent. Justin Bieber. The question is, do these terms make the boundary between kid and adult more or less solid? Calling someone a kidult not only suggests they blend characteristics of both, it also perpetuates the distinctions between them. To blend characteristics requires believing the characteristics of both are real and attached to one or the other identity. Like when I use my work computer at home — I’m blending the worlds, but calling it my work computer reinforces the idea that work is somehow not home. Fun with boundary theory!

I would argue that the verb forms of both adult and kid have malleable definitions, too, thus adding to the constructed nature of both. One person’s adulting is another person’s kidding.  But using kidding and adulting as verbs to point out that one must enter into another set of age-related expectations also perpetuates the differences between the categories, just like the noun versions do.

Are you confused yet?

The transformation of these terms into verbs does something interesting sociologically. It attaches a role to a status. A dynamic set of actions to an identity. Kinetic energy to potential energy. It also calls attention to the fact that even the noun forms of the words have movable definitions. Nothing is solid about the categories of adult and kid. But at the same time, using the terms as verbs reinforces that these categories are somehow real and able to be referenced with others who share a common understanding.

But I wonder if we actually have a common understanding of these words anymore.

As I continue to ponder, I may try a new turn of phrase in my everyday interactions. Like “Hey hardware store guy, don’t talk to me like I’m six. Just adulting.”


Between the Pink Aisle and the Blue Aisle

No more pink and blue toy aisles based on customer demand, says Target.

But is this a good idea or a bad idea?  My inclination is to say it’s a good idea, not just because I like Target since it’s a good Minnesota-based company, but because anytime there is one less degree of prescribed roles put forth by a for-profit entity, I get along better with my left-leaning colleagues, I get great fodder for discussion of how our values and roles are socially constructed, and I sleep better at night. That’s just me. Even though I believe that biology matters, a point made most clear to me when I was pregnant and lactated and figured out that I am a mammal, I’ve been writing to toy companies for years asking them to please show more girls playing with engineering toys and please show more boys playing with nurturing toys in their advertisements. I do this because the availability of roles offered in kids’ marketing materials has an effect on kids’ future aspirations. What kids (and parents) see has an effect on what they (and their parents) think they may do. As most clickbait articles say, “Science says so.” If kids don’t see it, or see themselves in it, figuring out future adult life outside of “it” can be pretty tough. And since we know there is more variation in aspirations, bodies, and many other characteristics within genders than between them, messing with the dichotomy of boy and girl is not only interesting, it reflects the reality of children’s lives.

And now, evidently, it’s good business practice.

The imagined chaos that might ensue from Target’s decision has folks offering input all across the land of social media. Images of boys in princess costumes, girls with swords rescuing the boy-princesses, tearful parents, and baby dolls next to robots fill the minds of parents and gender-watchers. Some people find these images to be horrifying. Others are giddy with happiness. In both cases, people’s conceptions of whether girlland and boyland have militarized borders or blurry boundaries are being messed with.

And you know that anytime people’s conceptions of borders and roles are being messed with, a sociologist gets her wings.

Perhaps we are wondering about something that is really not a big change, though, even though people from both ends of our political binary could find this change to be positive. After all, toy packaging itself has yet to become gender neutral. Nonetheless, I suspect an important continued step for those parents who keep wishing they could attend a Bernie Sanders rally is to affirm Target’s move and work hard to try to remove the dichotomized imagery on toy packaging in addition to the aisles (in one store) where the toys are displayed. I suppose an important consideration for those parents who found parts of last weeks’ Republican debates smart and useful is that one could be happy that gendered signage was removed from the store, because: a) that means the values associated with gender role assignment are left up to families more than before, which right-leaning folks have used for other arguments like sex education; and b) it’s still all about capitalism, since the toy companies are quite savvy about marketing to kids for profit and removing the gendered display allows for the products to speak for themselves, perhaps even more strongly than before. These considerations may or may not work in your mind, but it’s fun to play with a positive spin from the socially-constructed binary of U.S. based liberal and conservative politics in order to show where even those lines are blurred.  (Note to self: write letter to Target to suggest replacing gendered aisle signage with “Republican Underwear” and “Democrat Underwear” signs in the now gender-mixed undergarment section).

This summer I went to a great exhibit in Copenhagen on children’s toy, furniture, and clothing design in Nordic countries. Among the displays of Lego and high chairs and Finnish maternity packages were kids’ pajamas with horizontal stripes and bright colors from the Swedish company named Polarn O. Pyret. The marketing and manufacturing of these intentionally unisex pajamas (still around today, with a handful of stores in the U.S.) began in the 1970s, and the primary aim was to use natural fabrics in garments that allowed free movement in colors that any boy or girl would want to wear. Fast forward to affluent Americans’ love of Swedish-American kids’ clothes, and you can see that the idea has stuck, even though the store I have in mind is very clearly divided into sections of boy stripes (Blue! Orange! Green!) and girl stripes (Pink! Purple! Light pink! Light purple!). Sometimes I like to tell shoppers in that store about the history of the Swedish pajama company that was likely the inspiration for the kids’ striped PJ craze, which was started by a traveling salesman named Nils whose first stint as company head pre-pajamas included illegally selling German condoms in Sweden in the early 1900s, brief imprisonment, and then adding baby items to the list of the reimagined company’s manufactured items. But then I usually get kicked out of the store.

So all of you striped kiddo PJ fans out there can rest assured that the idea could have begun with the illegal sales of birth control by a traveling Swedish salesman who needed a new product to make money after he went to prison (maybe from the families whose condoms didn’t work and now they needed pajamas for all their unplanned kids).

Why this story matters is that the idea of gender neutral anything for kids has, for a long time, been about allowing freedom, exploration, and movement regardless of gender. Gender is useful, to be sure (less work to navigate in polite conversation), but it is limiting (more work for people not experiencing the gender binary in polite conversation), and it seems to limit from an earlier and earlier age.

This is why my son’s path through toy aisles began looking more like the letter L than the letter S starting around age 4. Just before kindergarten, he walked straight for the blue aisle, turned right, and that was that. Swords, trains, Lego spaceships. Before that he’d go in every aisle, snaking back and forth and looking at toys and games without assigning them (at least out loud) as suitable or unsuitable for his own play plans. He had his preferences, which were gendered from earlier than age 4, but the shopping and looking for the wider array of toys was not stifled when he was a toddler. Dolls, toy guns, pirate ships, kid-sized kitchens. And it didn’t matter to him if there were girls or boys in the aisles. He didn’t see that he was “polluting” the girl aisle with his little boy body, and he didn’t see girls looking at swords as “cootie-inducing.” But that didn’t last, and it rarely does for kids. Now that he’s starting sixth grade, we will see the creative forms of pollution that he’ll be exposed to beyond the toy aisle. I say this with confidence, since his comment after visiting the boys bathroom during middle school orientation was, “Hey Mommy, were there boogers on the girls’ bathroom mirror, too?”

One of the most vivid memories of my sixth grade year was when my mom took me to the local JCPenney department store to buy a training bra. The path we navigated amidst the fluorescent lighting in the store started with the entry doors, then shifted towards the right where the Wranglers and plaid shirts for the farmer boys were, down the dimly lit stairs, around a corner past the dance tights, and then to a wall where the postcard-sized plastic packages of folded white training bras hung like little flower petals ready to be plucked.

I didn’t grow up in a unisex horizontal children’s pajamas culture, so for me the separation of the training bra section from the Wranglers was not only more comfortable, it was crucial. This was a private matter for girls, and doggone-it, it’s okay if we had to go to the dark basement to get there. I didn’t want to see my boy classmates when I shopped for the device that would socialize my breasts into submission.

But wouldn’t it be nice if the discussion and perusing of training bras by growing bodies was something that didn’t carry with it the feelings of shame and secrecy that are more likely to be found in a basement? What if they were next to the Wranglers, front and center, hung with pride like little folded flags ready to be displayed proudly?  What if it was the case that boys learned about girls and girls learned about boys, and they didn’t feel that that entering these dichotomized spaces constituted gender polluting?  What if boys and girls and all the in betweens could go anywhere in the store and ask questions, try things on, and get what they need without the baggage of wondering whether they’re supposed to buy this thing or that thing? If that happened, I see the only harm being that kids would feel better about themselves. The grownups wouldn’t, but that doesn’t matter as much to me.

Now, I’m not proposing that boys should go out and buy training bras. Nor am I proposing that bras are absolutely necessary, given that they are really torture devices whose only worthy quality is the amazing feeling of relief in the evening when they are taken off (see? even a sociologist can admit physiological effects). But I am proposing that removing one more degree of signage and direction from the spaces where children explore and shop and wonder about themselves and their futures may actually offer our kiddos some of the most important relief they’ll ever get to feel.

Between Sko and Skole (Shoe and School)

The Danish word for shoe is sko & the Danish word for school is skole. These words are related insofar as they contain similar letters, but what matters for this post is that I am utterly fascinated with both as locations of cross-cultural analysis of people’s use of objects and spaces. Indulge me as I take a stab, after returning from a stint of consulting work on kids and education in Denmark (along with some shoe shopping), at cultural understanding using foot fashion and education as my sites for some casual sociological investigation.

I spend what may be an inappropriate amount of time looking at people’s shoes (sko), especially in less familiar places. Inappropriate because the looking can make me a bit judgy or jealous or fixated on consumption or miss my stop on the Copenhagen Metro because I’ve been looking down for seven stops in a row. But this looking is nonetheless useful, partly because I find shoes to be interesting markers of gender, culture, class, age, and ability to predict weather patterns. And partly because of my own feet. When I was a kid, doctors told me that my feet were in so much trouble that I may grow up not being able to walk. I had to wear special built-up ugly shoes that were never quite normal looking enough for my desire to fit in on the school playground, even despite my addition of shoelaces with cartoon balloons on them in the third grade. And so, my adult overconsumption of nice shoes, and fascination with others’ footwear, may just be me compensating for a childhood of self-consciousness in school and shoe ugliness.

When I work overseas, I find myself not only looking at people’s shoes (“Those New Balance shoes on the hip European teenagers are a slightly different style than the ones found on American endurance athletes and 50-year-old men with wide feet”), but also wondering if it is at all possible to make comparisons across cultures about anything, given that I have not actually walked a mile in a Danish person’s shoes. And I only know the language well enough to read “The Little Red Hen” to kids in Danish, not to translate Kierkegaard (“Ikke mig?” gryntede den eksistentialisitiske gris. “Not I?” grunted the existentialist pig). But the comparisons kept popping into my head as I looked down at the array of footwear on the streets of Copenhagen.

Here is what I tentatively noticed about Danish shoes:

  1. What I saw in Denmark a few years ago is what I see in the U.S. today, with regard for popularity of certain styles. Having worked in Denmark a few times over the last few years, I come back to the U.S. and keep an eye out for how long it takes the fashion there to reach the shores of Eastern Washington. Turns out, about two years. This means the boots I bought will look great in Walla Walla in 2017.
  2. Every other pair of shoes is black. Black tennis shoes. Black heels. Black loafers. Black boots. All appropriate for bike riding, by the way. This may be an urban thing, but when you live in a country dedicated practically and politically to the good of the collective, and where standing out as an individual is frowned upon (just look up “Jante Law”), it makes sense that a relatively uniform color palette is present in footwear.
  3. No sandals until it’s at least 75 degrees. This may also be an urban thing, but it’s probably more about the weather. Bare feet among the grown-up urbanites seem to be taboo until the sun comes out for that one day that locals affectionately refer to as “Danish Summer — The Best Day of the Year.”  I had to buy black boots in June because it was 55 degrees and raining. But hey, new black boots. To be unveiled in Walla Walla in 2017, when they’ll be in style here.

In addition to the shoe thing, I spend what I believe to be a perfectly appropriate amount of time thinking about schools. Appropriate because schools are important. Also appropriate because I have a kid in a school. I went to school. I teach in a school. My parents and my husband’s parents worked in schools. I’ve done consulting work for schools. I teach a class about how schools are sociologically interesting. In a celebrity academic death match, I could totally “school” someone if the category was “schools.” But, as anyone reading this who is a K-12 classroom teacher would tell me, I should learn more. Walk a mile in a teacher’s shoes…

In an effort to learn more, my fascination led me to some consulting work that allowed me to visit Danish schools (skoler), talk to Danish teachers and pedagogues (this term refers to education professionals who work more with the social and emotional well-being of kids, often in preschools and afterschool programs, both of which a majority of Danish children attend), and interact with Danish schoolchildren.

But given my tentativeness about the aforementioned shoe claims, how can I make claims about something as important as schools (not that shoes aren’t important — they’re very important — I wear shoes every day!)?  About how Danish schools, for example, are better or worse than American schools?  For that matter, how can I make claims about *all* schools in each respective country given the vast variety even within national borders? Sociology is about comparisons, but sometimes we create problems when we make the categories we’re comparing a bit more real than they actually are. For vocab nerds, this is called reification. And it’s a more subjective process than pointing out differences between cross-national New Balance shoes. But you can’t take the sociologist out of the girl, so…

Here is what I noticed about Danish schools:

  1. What I see in Denmark today is what I saw in the U.S. a few years ago, with regard for national revisions to how schools and their corresponding professions operate.  Recent nationwide Danish education reform (The National Reform Programme), now a year old, was the subject of much conversation and controversy among education professionals with whom I spoke. The reform means changed mandates from the state regarding teachers’ roles, more time at school for kids, and more collaboration between teachers and pedagogues to promote holistic and child-centered learning, all in an effort to improve children’s academic success and enhance collaboration across different education professions. Opinions on this depended on people’s position in the system, but everyone’s reaction was intimately related to the fact that change is difficult, and autonomy in work is important for job satisfaction. Much of this sounds familiar: Politicians saying reform is better to compete internationally. Teachers saying they are disrespected. Pedagogues saying they’ve got to take on new tasks that they’re not trained for. Administrators saying that the overall picture is better for kids even with the bumps of the last year. And kids saying it’s hard to be in school until 3 p.m.
  2. Every other child has blond hair, and the continued preservation and promotion of Danish culture in governmental policy (the new government saw a huge increase in parliamentary seats among the Danish People’s Party, which is decidedly anti-immigration), means that schools in Denmark are still, and will likely still be, quite homogeneous. This is despite the fact that there is more variation in quality of school and affluence of surrounding neighborhood than many are aware of.  As someone who lives in a community where bilingual education is present given the racial-ethnic make-up of our community, it was fascinating to hear Danish education professionals discuss how the lowering of the age at which kids learn English (now 1st grade) was touted as necessary by some researchers and politicians for effective brain development and language acquisition, but the same argument was never made when Turkish children started entering Danish schools. This is a country with the challenge of a small increasingly multicultural society that is trying to preserve its long heritage while upping its status on a global educational scale.
  3.  No shoes required on the playground, even if it’s 55 degrees. Smart scholars who’ve written lots about Scandinavian childhoods portray images of freedom, independence, and play as necessary ingredients for a good childhood. This is how democracy works — the kids create their own democracies first, without hovering adults.  Add to that a society with universal health care and a pretty large safety net, and people are also less concerned with safety rules, fear of unlikely dangers, and kidnapping.  All of this helps explain the fact that I saw a third grade child on a school playground, during school, swing from the monkey bars and run around with no shoes on, with no teacher watching, and with no fear or concern that he’d get in trouble.

If only I could have been that Danish kid wearing no shoes on the playground when I was in third grade.  He didn’t have to worry about feeling self-conscious. He doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. Or what other kids think.  But then again, because I had to wear weird shoes, I grew enamored with the lifelong quest for keen observation of objects and spaces, and a thirst for understanding the complexities of oversimplified renditions of difference.

Between Now and Then

Below is the Baccalaureate Address I gave at Whitman College. With advice for students, and perhaps for us all.

It’s time for celebration! It’s time for family and friends! It’s time to fit in as many fun activities as we can before we leave!  It’s time to give a speech that I’ve been told cannot last more than ten minutes!

It’s time…to graduate!

When we think of time, it is easy to think of special events such as graduations because they occur infrequently, they signify change in a life stage, they bring people together from different time zones, and they contain numerous schedules and timetables for the accompanying festivities. Sociologists think of time in terms of how it has been constructed as meaningful in varying cultural and historical settings, and in terms of how it is used to signify boundaries in our social lives. For example, as Phyllis Moen suggests in her book It’s About Time: Couples and Careers, in order to figure out ways to accommodate our changing work and family roles in contemporary U.S. society, we must first look at how taken-for-granted rules about work time and non-work time are enacted – how time is part of the infrastructure and culture of our work and family lives. What is a work day? What is a holiday? Can I spend time checking personal email at work if I do so surreptitiously on my smartphone? How does our understanding of work matter if we have discretion over our time or need to punch a clock? And, as many people may wonder, is there really such a thing as a weekend when I am accessible by email 24/7?

One of my favorite sociologists, Eviatar Zerubavel, has said that we live our lives in “social territories” along a continuum that consists of different kinds of time – namely, we live in public time and private time. I will add that we define certain times of day as more about close friendships or intimate relationships, others more about formal tasks. Some of us may use time set aside for spiritual growth, community involvement, or taking care of our bodies. Some of us take on a little too much and end up sacrificing activities or trying to do too many things in the same time period. We multitask within our social territories.

How we understand the use of time depends on what activities, people, and spaces we think are attached to certain times.  For students, if you want to participate in a sociology exercise, think back to your few years here at Whitman and count the number of instances where you have been speaking, dressing, and socializing differently depending on whether you were in my class at 11 a.m. on a Monday in Maxey Hall or in an off-campus apartment at 11 p.m. on a Friday. This example signifies that how we organize time parallels how we organize what we do, the people we are with, and the locations of both.  We use time to signify territories of our selves. Territories that are sometimes separate, and that sometimes overlap.

Life transitions do not move in a linear way. Anyone who is a parent here knows this, especially if they can think of stories when their children grew and then regressed and then grew and then regressed, sometimes in the timespan of a couple weeks. For the students here, this weekend may feel like a big transition with a huge directional arrow pointing from the past toward the future. But the way life actually works is that we always circle back and the directional arrow is not necessarily one that points from the past to the future in a straight line. We use the memories of who we were to construct who we are.  Our present selves are always made up of what we perceive has already shaped us.  Norwegian family scholar Marianne Gullestad has said that certainly what actually happens to us as children affects our adult lives, but our subjective understandings of our childhoods as adults have tremendous power in shaping how we act and think in our adult lives. How we think about what happened may affect how we grow just as much as what actually happened does. We go and grow through life transitions always building on our past selves, never completely starting over, and rarely in a straight line.

For students, you have spent these last four years using images of your future selves to have crafted what you opted to do here at Whitman.  Your present experience as students has been impacted and inspired by your vision of your future selves.

So what does this all mean? If we think about the word “then,” it is really not just about the past. It is also about the future. “When you were little, what were you like then?” reads just as easily as “Think about the future…what will you be like then?”  During a weekend like this, it is easy to think about how time flies – the “now” quickly becomes the “then.”  But it is also easy to see how this life stage transition signifies a jumping off point for present “now” becoming future “then.”  If now and then were on a continuum, I do not see a straight line. I see multiple axes, three dimensions, circles, satellites, and the location of “now” and “then” in multiple simultaneous places.

Anaïs Nin said, “We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

I am so grateful to have been part of your lives, dear students, for these last few years. I hope you agree with me when I say that it is a gift to be part of the layers, cells, and constellations that make up Whitman College. Looking at you now, during this celebratory time, makes me very happy. I wish the world for you. As time goes by, I will think of you and how you’ve been these last few years. I’ll imagine where you’ll go in the future.

And while I thank you now, I’ll see you then.

Between Mother and Other

For this post, I offer the wisdom and idiocy that I have realized as a result of my entry into motherhood over a decade ago.  The “between” part of this post lies in the fact that everything listed below occurs as a set of paradoxical experiences that happen simultaneously. To be a mother is to be between everything.

A paradox of motherhood is that it is simultaneously celebrated as sacred and often attacked as the cause of bad things.

Matching mother-daughter outfits are simultaneously underrated and overrated.

Celebrating motherhood simultaneously makes us think about fatherhood as part of the caregiving experience while treating it as a totally different experience from motherhood.

Mother’s Day makes me simultaneously happy to be the center of attention and stressed that I can never think of the right way to attend to myself.

Motherhood is simultaneously about teaching our children that we need to build community at the same time we end up breaking down any possibility of a community of mothers and families because of inequalities and prejudices surrounding race, class, physical ability, mental health, and sexual orientation.

Motherhood is simultaneously thirsting for physical contact with my child no matter how big or dirt-ridden he is, and trying to stay clean and uninjured.

Working mothers must simultaneously prove effectiveness for multiple audiences, often with competing needs, and sometimes at the same time.

Mothers who have the ability to stay at home with kids are simultaneously labeled as “stay-at-home” while they are most often out in the world advocating on behalf of their children and modeling patience and logic and love so that their children will enact that same patience, logic, and love in their own adult lives and communities.

My representation of motherhood as a sociology professor simultaneously reinforces that having children is the default for women, and that we ought to strive to uncover how default paths serve to lessen the value of alternatives.

Motherhood is a location that is simultaneously filled with complete confidence in what feels right and a lack of confidence that we’ve done the right thing.

Motherhood is simultaneously feeling the most valued for selflessly meeting the needs of the next generation, while living in a world where value is attributed primarily in terms of self-interested economic gain.

The celebration of caregiving by mothers simultaneously makes visible the efforts of all mothers, and renders invisible the efforts of other caregivers who are not mothers, and of mothers who must leave their own children to care for other mothers’ children.

Messages that mothers get to take care of themselves simultaneously offer good ideas to create balance, yet often define the ultimate goal of self-care as meeting the needs of others.

The innovations of reproductive science have simultaneously made motherhood possible for many who otherwise would not have been able to conceive, carry, or care for children at the same time other scientific innovations have made us wonder whether technology is the right tool to use in our raising of children.

Celebrating motherhood for those of us mothers who have miscarried what would have been our other children is simultaneously painful and wonderful.

Being a mother makes me feel like a superhero and a villain simultaneously.

Having a child allows us to teach and learn simultaneously.

Mother’s Day simultaneously asks us to feel special at the same time we are part of a very large demographic.

Motherhood simultaneously has made me feel like a slow old mammal whose primary function is the provision of milk and a high-functioning brainiac who can process complex thoughts and emotions.

Motherhood has made me feel simultaneously ugly and beautiful as a result of housing, in my body, a giant baby for 41 weeks who forever changed the topography of my midsection, and of bringing into my world an additional person who complements my outfits.

Making a list of motherhood paradoxes simultaneously calls attention to the complexity of motherhood and essentializes it to be a category that can be written about as if it were monolithic.

Having a child is simultaneously everything.

Between Band Camper and Bad Counselor

A recent issue of a sociology magazine noted that among the topics least desired by sociologists to undergo sociological research was band camps, which, necessarily, made me want to write about them. Also included among the unpopular topics was “small yippy dogs,” but I have no experience with this topic and find small yippy dogs to be among God’s least useful creatures, just ahead of cats and mosquitoes.

Leave it to sociologists to craft a study asking people what they should and should not study. I suspect next will come an analysis of the inequalities between the types of people who study the unpopular topics and those who study the ones that get lots of votes.

I write this, then, for the unpopular underdog. Which leads me to my experience with band camp…

I went to band camp (well, really, it was a more well-rounded music camp)  in high school, and then, just after graduating from the college that hosted the camp, I served as the “Dean of Girls” for that year’s camp. These two times, at Band Camp, were strikingly different.

The first time was when I went as a camper just before my senior year in high school. And let me tell you, up until that point, I hated camps with a passion. Put a bunch of people in one geographic location away from the usual rules and norms of everyday life, add hormones and popularity contests and forced Bible study, mix and stir, and out comes miserable Michelle.

Anyway, this camp was different. I went with a good friend who was my roommate during the camp and a great clarinetist.  It was held at a darn good college 100 miles from home that had a well-deserved reputation for excellent music programs. Plus, my parents and older brothers went there, so I’m sure I was chomping at the bit to see what all the fuss was about that was recounted in their Nostalgic Tales of College that I had heard at the dinner table since birth.

When I arrived, I noticed the alpha campers with their in-depth understanding of hemidemisemiquavers (those are 64th notes) and correct embouchures, walking around telling people, often in falsetto voice to show off, that this was their fourth time at band camp. But I noticed more people like me — nerdy, a bit envious of what I was sure was immense talent among everyone except me, and filled with colorful rubber bands on my braces to distract people from looking at my face acne.

Turns out, it was wonderful. I sang. I learned to play the harp. I learned stuff that helped me understand why playing the oboe was so excruciating (with and without braces). I made friends who showed up again when we started our first year at that college a year later.  I gained some good cultural capital by navigating the cafeteria, interacting with college professors, living in a dorm, and budgeting my money so I could buy the perfect college sweatshirt as a souvenir.

After high school, I went to that college and I sang in their choirs and I befriended other music nerds and we sang in the hallways with our falsetto voices and we held contests to see if we could recognize different time signatures in Peter Gabriel songs. And then, in my senior year, I was asked to serve not just as a counselor for this camp, but as the Dean of Girls — the counselor who oversaw the other counselors in the girls’ sections of the dorm.

Important point: I had never served as a camp counselor before this.  And I received no training. Clearly my musical prowess as demonstrated in my collegiate music activities revealed, to the camp leadership, that I would be able to handle a hundred high school kids with bad embouchures, braces, acne, hormones, and egos. And that I would be able to handle the counselors who were handling the hundred high school kids. Important point #2: I have never served as a camp counselor since this.

I won’t go into too many details, but you’ll be able to paint the picture well if I offer you these key phrases that represent the week: tie-dye gone wrong, yelling (while channeling my best awkward authoritarian voice) at the counselor who was supposed to prevent two high school lovebirds from participating in a midnight make-out excursion, and countless tears in my dorm room over the realization that I should never have a job where I need to discipline young people or yell at colleagues who didn’t do their jobs right. I realized this after juxtaposing the camp leadership position with my experience serving as the alto section leader in my college choir — helping my fellow singers with the songs, not worrying about whether they were following school rules. Needless to say, the camper and counselor experiences varied greatly. I went from happy and comfortable and confident to angry and sheepish and unnecessarily authoritarian to deal with kids who were doing things that I had only dreamed of doing when I was a camper.

And so, I teach college students about the value of cultural capital in my sociology classes, and I sing and play piano when I can. I tried the oboe again and learned that I still find it excruciating. I wish I could play a harp again someday. I don’t spend much time disciplining students, for fear that my inner unnecessarily authoritarian voice will come out again. I tried my hand at administration, which I see as the grown-up version of Dean of Girls, counselor of the counselors, and didn’t particularly enjoy it.

In a weird way, I see teaching as the happy middle ground between student and administrator, between camper and band camp dean. I get to facilitate the building of community, teach and learn the content with eager people, and leave the disciplinary stuff to people far better equipped than I. Like when I was alto section leader.

I’m grateful for these two times, at band camp, because they showed me that I’m at my best when I am in a community of fellow awkward people making music, rather than trying to corral the chorale of the unruly.