Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thank you, Carrie Brownstein

When I was in middle school, I was on the theater sports (or improv comedy) team. I was really proud of it, and I accounted myself pretty funny and quick on the draw. I didn't make it onto the team till 8th grade. But there was a girl named Leann who I personally thought was hilarious. She was good enough to make it onto the team while she was only in 7th grade. Leann had a sharp comedic mind, both for improv and scripted material. I remember being in awe of her quipping prowess, and I remember looking forward to seeing her in more humorous roles throughout high school.

But then, Leann left drama. She took the class freshman year, but she also made it onto the cheerleading team. And, for whatever reason, she didn't want to do drama and cheerleading at the same time.

Maybe now I have a better idea of why. I've linked to this wildly depressing article once before in my blog, but didn't really say much about it. Gosh, it is hard for me to convey how much that article depressed me. Growing up in a household of five sisters, I know that women can be funny. I have been friends with women over the years who could crack me up like none other. Jenny Frodsham comes to mind. Lauren Bost is a hoot. I can't think of Andrea Peacock without smiling.

In my life, I have definitely been aware of the dearth of female humorists. And I've been aware that too often, women in comedy have lots of raunchy, over-the-line material, as if to negate their femininity/womanhood. I really enjoy many of the Saturday Night Live Best of DVDs, but I threw away my Molly Shannon one--every other skit was something that for me personally, was just too vulgar.

So, after reading about why female comedians struggle so much with being attractive or being funny, I have got to bow down to Carrie Brownstein, who in my opinion is a comedy goddess.

Portlandia, which Carrie co-writes and stars in, is a really great show, especially if you love poking fun at hipsters. It's usually pretty clean, which is not normal for American TV and to me, means that the comedy is more fresh and creative (and when there is occasional crude content, it's usually confined to one sketch, so it's easy to skip it. Very convenient for Nick and I). I love Fred Armisen, don't get me wrong--but there are plenty of funny men to be had. A woman as versatile and funny as Carrie is not so easy to find.

First of all, it's not like Carrie has spent her whole career striving to become a comic actress. Maybe that's what makes her so unique? She has bounced around being a rocker and a writer--for NPR, no less. And she still does music. She's not tied down to comedy, and isn't beholden to trends in humor.

The Atlantic article discusses women like Phyllis Diller, Tina Fey, and Roseanne Barr, and the unflattering comedy personas/appearances they take upon themselves to be successful in their craft. Carrie is hilarious as a variety of characters--some of them are unflattering, sure. There must be hundreds of different wigs that appear in Portlandia, both for Fred and for Carrie. Many of the wigs are humorously unattractive. Many of them are super cool (like her rocker hair with the thick bangs and the awesome shape, and this particular one in Season 1 Ep. 5 with an asymmetrical cut and a big, gorgeous braid coming down on one side...ohhhhh man. Almost made me grow my currently short asymmetrical hair out).

But Carrie also looks like her normal, beautiful self in many of the sketches. She wears hip clothes that fit her well. She wears stylish makeup that complements her features. She looks like a pretty girl that any guy would be happy to go out with. And she acts like one as well. One of her main characters on the show is just...herself. She's not doing anything strange or obnoxious or awkward or uptight. She's a fun, normal Portland resident who gets involved in some amusing misadventures.

Truth be told, I feel like I still haven't even properly analyzed the comic chemistry of Portlandia. There are other sketch comedy shows in the world, but to have one like this, where a male and female comedy pair are so evenly matched! Where the woman isn't pigeonholed into any particular role! Where screen time and humor balance are truly even between the woman and the man. It is revolutionary, and almost every time I watch it I say to Nick, "How are they so funny?! How do they do it?!" And I am asking those questions in earnest.

Maybe it's because she reminds me so powerfully of my friend Jana, but when I watch Carrie Brownstein, I just feel she is the champion of normal, attractive, hilarious women. In her, I see all of my super funny female friends. In her, I see a future where women can bring down the house with both laughs and looks.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch some Portlandia.

Please, sex object culture

If there's anything that warms my heart, it's a TED talk.

I saw this video last week when a friend posted it, and Caroline Heldman's words set my mind working. Yes, the sexual object culture is a poison. Caroline had some really constructive ideas about how to keep this poison away from yourself and others. But I think there is more to it.

Caroline says, "We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environment. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved. What if women started to view their bodies as tools to master their environment? As tools to get you from one place to the next? As these amazing vehicles for moving you through the world in a new way?"

How can that happen? What can make women feel that way about their bodies? Even if we manage to successfully teach young girls this, what can adult women do about the poisonous sex object culture? In many ways, natural birth and breastfeeding can act as an antidote.

If you set out to have a natural birth and start reading about it, you will quickly discover that the most important requirement is faith in your body. Faith that your body can do this. As Caroline points out, it is not easy for women to have faith in their bodies. Everything we are taught from the time we are baby girls being handled more gently than baby boys tells us that our bodies are fragile, dysfunctional, and only (not) good (enough) for one thing: sex.

Sadly, the standard obstetric care in this country shovels food into women's gaping, insatiable insecurity, making the monster grow even bigger. Even when women do something miraculous like grow a baby or produce streams of magical milk, male-minded/trained OBs and pediatricians usually introduce doubt after doubt about the capabilities of the female body. You won't go into labor. Some women don't make enough milk. You're not progressing. You need to supplement. Your pelvis isn't big enough. You need to be induced. You need to pump. You need an epidural. You need pitocin. You need an episiotomy. You need a c-section. Even when women's bodies are at their most powerful, women are still made to feel that their bodies are projects to improve on. And OBs certainly are taught that their bodies/medical instruments are tools to master the environment of a woman's body.

Contrary to standard obstetrics, natural birth preparation/achievement teaches a woman exactly what Caroline wants women to know. That their bodies are tools for mastering their environment. That their bodies are tools for moving them from one place (maidenhood) to a new place (motherhood). That their bodies are the amazing vehicles which will move them through the world in a new, nurturing, life-sustaining way. WOMEN'S BODIES. Not a doctor. Not a fetal monitor. Not forceps or a vacuum or a surgical knife. Not a bottle or formula. I can tell you that nothing has made me feel more powerful as a woman than pushing out two over 9lb babies on my own steam, and then watching them grow and thrive on my own milk.  I still remember a woman I nannied for talking about how having 3 amazing natural births impacted her professionally. Whenever she met with a challenge in her high-stakes Washington job--especially when she was clashing with a man over something--she would think, I have had three natural childbirths. I can do anything! My word, how I want that experience for every woman.

Natural, engaged motherhood also counteracts some of the other poisonous side effects of sex object culture. I don't really have time to engage in habitual body monitoring because I'm engaged in habitual child monitoring. I get myself ready for the day, but when I'm out in the world with my kids, my concentration is on them--not on how I'm perceived physically by others. And let me tell you--it is way more pleasant to focus on your toddler running exuberantly around his favorite play ground than it is to worry about bags under your eyes, or zits, or love handles, or saddlebags, or breast size, or bingo arms, or whatever other crappy, self-critical thing it is you worry about.

Depressed cognitive functioning is also zapped by motherhood. Popular wisdom will basically tell you that motherhood makes you stupid, and women joke about babies sucking their brains dry. But the lovely book The Mommy Brain by Katherine Ellison shares a great deal of research to the contrary. Motherhood amps up women's cognitive functioning. Ellison shares studies with titles like, "Pregnancy May Confer a Selective Cognitive Advantage." She quotes researchers who talk about the reorganization of the brain that happens with motherhood that puts women at their most mentally efficient. She talks about the evolutionary need for motherhood to put women at their smartest.

As far as I can tell, most all of the negative impacts of the sex object culture are things that you experience when you are too focused on yourself.  Heldman talks about women who are high self-objectifiers...does that come along with being a high self-obsesser? If motherhood does anything, it gets you eating selfless pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It helps get you out of your own head and away from your own self-criticism, and into helping another soul grow and thrive every day.

Is motherhood a 100% antidote for the poison of sex object culture? Sadly, no. Mothers can certainly fall prey to body shame, lower self-esteem, etc. Let's be honest--there aren't exactly any newly postpartum models featured in magazines, glorying in their stretch marks, loose skin, and slightly rounded bellies (side note: it is truly a fantasy of mine for there to be gorgeous images of the postpartum body available in the world at large. We appreciate the beauty of the pregnant body. Why not postpartum, goshdarnit?!) And I do think it's important to exercise, eat well, and try to achieve a body size that you're happy with after you have a baby. But at least for me, motherhood has given me a different motivation for wanting my body to be fit and strong. Going through pregnancy and  natural birth have shown me that my body is not just a project with sex being the end goal. My body is a tool--my tool--for creating life, bringing that life into the world, and nourishing that life once it's in the world.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Thank you, Elizabeth Pantley

If you saw a stranger weeping in a coffee shop--I'm talking uncontrollable body-wracking sobs, crying as if the world is ending--would you try to comfort them? Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn't. We live in a private, mind-your-own-beeswax kind of culture. What if the stranger kept sobbing the whole time you were there, even crying so hard that they vomited right there in front of you? Then would you try to comfort them?

What if it wasn't a stranger, but an acquaintance?

What if it wasn't an acquaintance, but a close friend?

What if it wasn't a close friend, but your sister?

What if it wasn't your sister, but your own child?

I think by now, most people would have answered yes, especially if the setting was still a coffee shop. And I think most people would continue to answer yes if the setting turned to their own home. If a guest at a casual party was weeping, surely you as the host would try to find out what was wrong. If a house guest staying for a few days--be it family or friend--was unstoppably sobbing in the middle of the night, you would probably see if there was anything at all you could do to help. Since they're staying at your house, surely you would feel responsible for their comfort and happiness, at least during that short time that they were staying with you.

Incredibly, though most everyone I know would say, "Yes, of course I would comfort a weeping sister/friend/house guest/stranger," there are many, many parents who could not honestly say the same thing about their own child. It's been a little while, but yes, I am talking about crying-it-out again.

For a while, I kind of forgot about crying-it-out. For the past 8 months or so, I've been in a good sleep phase with my children, and so I haven't really been having conversations about sleep with other moms. I haven't had the opportunity to be told, "Well gosh, sorry you're having sleep problems. I did cry-it-out, and my kid is just an angel at night!"

But I was reminded of the CIO camp because my poor sister recently found out that she's been accidentally recommending a cruel sleep "expert" (How could she accidentally recommend it? Well, some trusted friends mentioned it, perhaps not quite remembering some of the harsher sleep advice given in the book). This sleep expert promotes letting babies cry so hard they vomit. And then you're not supposed to take them out of bed, because that teaches them that vomiting will get you to pick them up (and babies are all just trying to manipulate their parents). You're just supposed to wipe up the vomit and keep standing there, shushing them.

Wow. WOW. Seriously, wow. I feel like vomiting when I think about that. I sure hope Nick doesn't just stand there beside me saying, "Shh, shh, shh."

How did we get to the point, as a culture, that crying-it-out is so widespread? How did we get to the point that even doctors, who should be aware of the physiological and psychological harm that crying-it-out does, recommend CIO to parents? How did we get to the point that gentle, loving, otherwise Christ-like parents are so sanguine about sobbing babies? (I have some personal ideas about how, involving epidurals, formula, crib manufacturers, the AAP, and awful, unrealistic ideas about infant sleep. Not quite gonna get to all those, sorry).

It is extremely difficult for me to fathom the abhorrent practice of CIO or "sleep training" (as if your child is a dog...) with babies under the age of one year. Oh, and good luck breastfeeding and doing CIO at the same time. When Luke was still a baby, I used to have a small pool of acceptance for other parents letting toddlers/young children cry it out. "When they're older, they're tough enough to do it," I thought. "When they're older, what else can you do? Once they're weaned and too big to rock? Surely every kid will come to a point where you just have to let them cry-it-out."

Thank heavens I was wrong. Thank heavens for Elizabeth Pantley.

Elizabeth Pantley's book The No-Cry Sleep Solution was tremendously helpful to Nick and I when we wanted to make changes about bed time for Luke. It made all the difference. It made a difference to read about how long it takes to make positive, lasting changes in bed time and sleep habits. It made a difference to get a variety of ideas about better sleep. But the most important thing was the sense of validation I got while reading it, the sense that I don't have to let my child cry himself to sleep. That is not the only option.

Letting your child cry to sleep is only one option. And it is the worst one. In her book, Elizabeth Pantley enumerates some reasons why it is not only cruel, but ineffective. I like this excerpt from her website as well:

“Cry it out'

Advocates of this method make it sound so easy: A few nights of crying, and your baby will be sleeping all night, every night. If only it were so simple! My research has shown that very few parents experience this effortless success. Many deal with weeks of crying for hours each night (for baby and parent, in many instances.) Some have babies who cry so violently that they vomit. Some parents find that the nighttime crying affects their babies' daytime personalities — making them clingy and fussy. Many find that any setback (teething, sickness, missing a nap) sends them back to their night waking problems, and they find they must let their babies cry it out over and over again. Many (if not all) parents who resort to letting their babies cry it out do so because they believe that it is the only way they will get their babies to sleep through the night." (emphasis mine).

I could tell you everything that we've done to help Luke and Renée sleep as well as they currently do, but it wouldn't really matter, because maybe those things wouldn't work for you or your children. That's okay, because there are dozens and dozens of possible ways to help your child sleep long and deeply at night that don't involve neglecting and tormenting your child and making bedtime a thing of anguish and fear.

In fact, believe it or not, bedtime can be just the opposite. Yes, I used to have a small pool of acceptance for other parents letting toddlers/young children cry it out. But that pool has evaporated in the blazing warmth of bedtime with toddler Luke. The only thing that all of the countless no-cry options have in common is time. They all take time. Time to integrate effectively into bedtime, and continued time as part of a sleep routine every night. No, I do not put Luke into bed and walk out of the room. I do stay with him, laying on the floor beside his bed until he falls asleep or until he is sleepy and relaxed enough not to mind me leaving the room. It usually takes between 10 and 20 minutes for that to happen when we're at home. When we're travelling, then it can take between 20 and 30 minutes. And typically, every one of those minutes is so powerfully sweet it almost causes me physical pain.

Sometimes, Luke is quiet while he winds down, and we both just lay there in the dark, listening to the CD of rain and thunder sounds that we play in his room as white noise. Sometimes, Luke will ask to hold my hand, and puts each of his chubby fingers between mine until he dozes off. Sometimes, he sings little snatches of songs, or recites portions of books without particularly addressing me. I dearly love to hear the workings of his bright, developing mind as he sorts through the day. But the best, most tender times are when Luke talks to me. Nick often puts Luke to bed as well, and we love reporting to each other on what he's said. He'll talk about his imaginings or memories. I've mentioned before that I have a knack for remembering exact quotes, and I recently decided to start writing down Luke's words. So, I share these bedtime conversation notes:

12/26/2012: when I was putting Luke to bed down in our room at Nick's family's, he slid off the bed onto my chest to cuddle. He laid there for a few long moments and we were both quiet. Then he said,
"What did you think about, mom?"
I wasn't sure what to tell him, because I was feeling kind of frustrated with some things. Before I could answer, he said,
"Did you think about--Gravedigger?"
Me: "Do you miss him?"
Him: "Yes."
A couple moments.
"What did you think about, mom?"
I paused, and started to say something but he said,
"Did you think about, so many food and so many people?" Pause. "Five four oh six. Two comes after one."
I told him I was thinking about how I could be nicer to Dada. We were quiet for a minute, then he crawled back onto his bed. Quiet. Then,
"What did you think about, mom?"
"Did you think about, one two three four five?"
He fell asleep soon after that.

12/28/2012: earlier today in the car, Nick and I were reading Ether 3. We paused to talk to Luke about faith, and how Jesus has a body and showed himself to the Bro. of Jared because he had faith. Then tonight, when I was putting Luke to bed, after I told him about Jesus and the storm, then Luke asked, "should we talk about Jesus and the BrotherofJared?"
I didn't understand him at first and asked him to repeat it. He did. I was so touched and so surprised that he remembered what we talked about so briefly in the car during scripture study, and that he wanted to know more about it and that he knew he could ask more about it. Even though my throat hurt, I told him the story. I love him so much.

Here's the thing. I know that bedtime can be a gargantuan struggle. I know what it's like to be sleep-deprived. When Luke was younger, bedtime seemed more utilitarian; nice for cuddling when things went well, but mostly something to get through. But I do not begrudge Luke a single moment that I have spent rocking him, singing to him, nursing him, bouncing with him on a yoga ball, talking with him, or just laying with him until he falls asleep. Now that he is old enough to express himself and make even more lasting impressions of the world, I feel even more strongly about making the effort for positive bedtime. I feel even more strongly against cry-it-out. Not only is it a dark, negative experience, it deprives you and your child of bright, positive experiences. There are so many sweet moments that I would have missed if I wasn't putting Luke to bed. There are so many chances I've had to tell Luke stories about the Savior while he relaxes. Sometimes when he's holding my hand while he falls asleep, I just want to cry because I know that the days of doing this at bedtime will be over so soon. Every moment I spend with him at bedtime is worth it. There is nothing I could be doing during that 20 minutes every day--no article I could be reading, show I could be watching, Facebook status I could be skimming, game I could be playing, book I could be savoring, blog entry I could be writing--that is more worthwhile than the deep quality time I get with my sweet, sleepy little boy. Even as a busy law student, Nick feels the same way, and he spends just as much time as I do (if not more) helping our children get to sleep in loving, gentle ways.

Yes, bedtime can be horrible. It can be really hard to find the right routines, daytime and nighttime, that your child needs so that they can fall asleep easily at night and sleep well. You may have to change naptimes, bedtimes, meal times, snack times, outing times. It can be a heck of a lot of work, and Nick and I have certainly put in that work with Luke. It was a long, crazy journey trying to get good sleep for him. Nothing makes you feel more like screaming and crying than parental sleep deprivation. It took reading Elizabeth Pantley's book and studying the scriptures and recent General Conferences for guidance about sleep for us to both approach bedtime with calm, patience and peace instead of serious anxiety.

I know that I will probably have bedtime struggles with Renée as she reaches different milestones. I know that I will have to figure out new bedtime solutions when the kids share rooms. I know that as a parent, sleep is a sacrifice I have to make sometimes and that I have many frustrated, sleep-deprived days of insanity ahead of me in my child-rearing years. But neglecting my child and leaving them alone, in the dark, to cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry, will NEVER be the answer. It is abuse. It is neglect. It is wrong. Parents should search, ponder, and pray for any solution other than cry-it-out. There is no excuse for doing it to any child at any age. If you've done it before because you didn't know of anything better, then it is not too late to change.

If you wouldn't do it to your sister or house guest or a perfect stranger, why would you do it to your own child?