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On zen and the domestic arts

I spend most of my days doing housework. For the last 2 years, I’ve wrestled with what that means about my identity and value in the world. After my recent reality tv bender, I found that doing the dishes isn’t the worst thing on earth after all.

On girls, women and dads in picture books

Alright folks. The clock is ticking. J has been napping for an hour already and I have to see if I can get this sucker up in a half hour. Go!

So I’ve been relentlessly pursuing picture books featuring female characters with power and agency. Thank you so much to all of you who commented here and on facebook. I’ve compiled all of your recommendations into a list and have maxed out the number of holds I can place at the Berkeley Public Library.

Here’s what I’ve found so far: some of the recommendations wound up being books with girls in them. Not books about central girl characters doing things like being themselves, which might include riding bikes or playing with dolls or rolling in the mud (or all 3!), but simply books with a girl character, however minor. While that’s a start, I have to internally cringe a bit. Really? Can’t we set the bar a bit higher??

So after reading the first pile of books I placed on hold,  I’ve found that in books that do have a central girl character, they often go out of their way to show that “Mom could be an astronaut” (My Mom, Browne) or “She’s pretty cool, for a girl” (Meggie Moon, Baguley). As in, “Just in case you didn’t know already, this is an exception to the rule. Most moms don’t have exciting jobs and most girls aren’t cool, but once in a while…” Couldn’t we just say, “She’s pretty cool” and   show mom being an astronaut?

The other thing I’ve found is that when girl characters are uplifted, they often take a dig at the boys in the story–like the little girl who re-evaluates her baseball playing brother and his friends. “It doesn’t really look like that much fun after all” (Ladybug Girl, Somar and Davis). This dynamic doesn’t sit well with me either.

So here’s my revised mission: To find picture books for the 2-5 crowd with central girl or women characters who, simply by virtue of being themselves, expand our images of who women and girls are and what they do, and who don’t have to give anyone else a smackdown in order to do that. Any revised suggestions? My apologies if one of the books you’ve already recommended fits that bill. I can only check out so many books from Berkeley Public at one time.

I’ll keep you posted on what I find. For now, my favorites I’ve found so far are Zen Shorts

and Knuffle Bunny Free.
Neither book is a ringer in terms of my revised mission, but they both have good girl characters and are a pleasure to read. I also liked Ladybug Girl alot, if not for the dig on her brother, and J really likes Meggie Moon. Apparently he’s not offended by the boys who boss her around or begrudgingly admit to her coolness. Perhaps its because they build boats and ships and cars out of old junk. I have to hand it to him there.

I’ve been talking up this whole girl/women characters in picture books thing a lot lately, and had a notable chat with a dad I met at a toddler birthday party this weekend. He said something like, “Here’s the real challenge: find a book that has one of those girl characters you’re looking for and a dad who’s not an idiot.” He went on to talk about how the Dad characters in books he reads to his daughter are most often shown as detached and, essentially, stupid. And I’d been chewing on this conversation when Voila! I ran across this post on one of the blogs I read today.

Well hot damn. I believe that’s what they call serendipity.

On female characters in children's books

I read Puss In Boots to J for the umpteenth time this weekend (he really likes the windmill and the giant ogre). As he was pointing out the essentials to me — bunny rabbip, puss-uh-boots, Marquis, King and, of course, the giant ogre — I realized that every interesting character in the story with any agency or power was male (there is no reference to the gender of the bunny rabbips). The only female character in the book is a princess, and she is only mentioned in association with her beauty and her love for the Marquis. This is hardly a revelation–we live in a male dominated world, yadda yadda yadda. But it feels quite different now that I’m reading these stories to my soft, little, wide-eyed boy. He’s going to become a man (I hope) and while he’s on his way there, I want him to have some literary associations with power and influence that are decidedly female.

The more stories I read after that one, the more insidious the dominant male character seemed to become. There was Goodnight Gorilla, which I figured would be benign at least, since its an animal book. But the zookeeper is a ginger-mustached man. And while we could call her “zookeeper lady” as I have been doing when I read this to J, it’s pretty clear that the nightgown-clad woman in the story is the zookeeper’s wife.

Next up: J’s other latest favorite, New Red Bike. A bought this in an attempt to have more bicycle media in our house, as J is a wheel-lover and we wanted him to read about more than just tractors and fire trucks. So it certainly does feature this less often celebrated mode of wheeled transport, but guess who the bike riders are? Sam and Tom. And they wear their helmets and share, but I just really wish at least one of them was a girl…

The most glaring instance of a male-centered children’s book on J’s shelf is one I’ve had some issues with for a while: The Truck Book. Once I finally learned that this book isn’t really meant to be read per se, in the same way that an encyclopedia isn’t meant to be read, things were much better. But I still can’t get over the last page.
I mean, sure, I can live with the fact that there is a bell curve of behaviors associated with gender and that liking trucks a lot tends to fall more on the boy side. But can’t we dress up a girl as a builder or a farmer? Among other things, it would make this page of the book look a lot less like a toddler version of The Village People.

After all this, I took some time to sift through his bookshelf to find some stories that feature girls, women, a heroine. Here’s what I came up with:

This was depressing, since 1) female main characters (influential, powerful or not) were only in 2 books out of, say, 100 and 2) the female main characters I did find were a pig and a goat.

So I’m on a hunt, people. I need some toddler books that have human females featured in them. A girl riding a bike, perhaps. Or a woman firefighter or helicopter pilot. We could get really crazy and hope for a children’s book featuring a female land owner. Or crazier still, a book about the town veterinarian and her husband.

Please send me any recommendations you have. I’m determined to gift Jonah with a female book or two for his 2nd birthday this week! I’ll keep you posted on any sweet finds.

On priorities, the internet, and my jumpy, all-over-the-place brain

My latest challenge? Beginning and finishing a task. Between my toddler and the internet, I seem to be more distract-able than ever. How do you keep your focus with kids and the interweb and a million and one things seeking your attention?

The joy of crappy pictures

Ah, the sweet relief of humor about the trials and triumphs of parenting. There’s really nothing quite so confirming as having another witty mother accurately capture the daily drama of parenthood.  My latest love in this category is Parenting. Illustrated with Crappy Pictures. Is there anything quite so charming as the simplicity of the crappy drawing? First of all, it makes me feel better about my own artistic talents and it properly conveys the  “get ‘er done” mindset of the tired mama. As we all toil away in our little homes, slinging cheerios and wiping off grubby little hands, its nice to remember that WE are all doing very similar things–albeit in separate houses. [enter wish for communal living here].

It IS the longest shortest time!

In those newborn days, as I was beat about the head and shoulders with glassy-eyed smiles and it-all-goes-by-so-fast proclamations, I finally broke down and recorded my first video blog. I didn’t know what planet everyone else was living on, but it seemed like some of the slowest time I’d ever waded through in my life. I must admit that in the months since then, there are times when I’m looking at 3-month-old J pictures that my very own brain thinks it actually IS going by quickly. Here’s the shocker: BOTH things are true. Thanks to a link that was included in a comment on THIS VERY blog, I discovered The Longest Shortest Time. And with a title like that, I knew that this is my kind of gal.

On becoming a realist

I’m an idealist by nature. So when I started this blog, I thought I could crank out a video every other week at least. Sadly, this has not come to pass. And then today I realized: writing is FASTER.

So while I’d love to be a prolific video-blog maven, I’m gonna just give up the ghost and start writing too, because my video aspirations can’t keep up with all the thoughts I’ve been having and wanting to share.

1) J calls our strawberries babies, thanks to our neighbor Julie, who explained to him why we have to be very gentle with them. She had to explain this because he likes to scream “Syyybbbbiiiiiaaaa!” and pick the green strawberries with a flick of his chubby little wrist. Since hearing Julie’s explanation, he now puts his nose right up to the strawberry plants and says “Sybia. Baby. Pick.” But he doesn’t pick. Thank you, Julie. Here is one baby pinking up today.

2) Like every mother of a toddler in the known universe, I stop dead in my tracks for firetrucks, fed ex trucks, motorcycles, buses, back-hoes, garbage trucks… I never understood myself quite how amazing these things were until J prompted me to have another look by screaming WOA! WOAAAAAA! WWWOOOOOOAAAAAHH! Turns out, garbage trucks are completely incredible. This morning, gaping with J at those metal robot arms that reach out and grab the trashcans pretty much knocked my socks off. Amazing. It also turns out that garbage men everywhere know their rockstar status with kids. They wave at them as though they were Bono on-stage in an arena. They know their audience is completely hooked. Until now, I’ve never had any connection, good or bad, with garbage men. At most, I’ve thought, “What a bummer, they have to smell and touch garbage all day.” Since J’s recent garbage truck obsession, I’m realizing they’re some of the coolest people around. Think about it: they take away our smelly, rotten garbage. For that, they might be the single most useful and admirable people on the planet.

3) Hello design-friendly sippy cup.
I found it in a late-night online quest to find one that is easier to clean, since I’m pretty sick of trying to dig into the little rubbery nooks and crannies of our current sippy to clean out the mold starting there. We used it for the first time today and are hooked. But don’t bother getting the blue, slow flow cup lids. They seem to me to be identical to the clear ones that come with the clear, dye free cup. Aside from that, I’m a total convert.

4) I’ve been depressed this week. I think this is due to over-J-exposure and not enough sleep. We took a trip to Colorado for 3 weeks to stay with some friends who have a baby. It sounded like an exciting venture into communal living, which I’m always a big sucker for, and I wanted to check out Boulder to see if we might want to move there. While there were certainly good moments (many of which had to do with putting J in our friends’ chicken coop) the trip was something of a disaster. I’ve added more requirements to my “Things one must have in order for communal living to work” list. More on that later.Those 3 weeks of vacation/communal-living-experiment-gone-wrong took their toll. And after this last weekend alone with my 21-month-old whining, clutter creating machine, I’d really had it. I needed a break. And more sleep. So I resolved to go to sleep before 11, even though that meant giving up those precious do-whatever-I-want nighttime hours. I did it last night–asleep by 10:30–and I already feel better. This weekend, I’m planning to sleep at our neighbor’s house so I can wake up naturally (!) and then take a day to myself. Nothing like celebrating Father’s Day by letting A be a full-time father all day long. I’m excited. And grateful.

On intuition vs. experience

I thought I was ahead of the curve when I opted to read less how-to parenting advice and use my maternal instincts more. But for things like newborn sleep, toddler tantrums, my instincts have failed me royally. Turns out that in situations like these, nothing replaces the sage advice of a skilled expert.

Resources I mentioned
For baby sleep:
The Weissbluth sleep book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
Our post-partum doula, Denise Macko
For toddler tantrums:
Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD (rent it at a local video store or Netflix)

On "The Perfect Parent"

We’ve all seen the “perfect parent performance” before. Here’s why it drives me bonkers and how I’m trying to break the mold.

More food for thought:

“Modern Parenting: If we try to engineer perfect children…” by Katie Roiphe

“Mother Madness” by Erica Jong