Monthly Archives: May 2014

Mother’s Day Retort

face smushStop telling me I’m intuitive. Stop telling me I’m nurturing. Stop telling me I’m tireless. You don’t know that I’d do anything for my kids, that I’m selfless, patient, or affectionate. All you know is that I’m a mother and it’s Mother’s Day.

That’s the one day every year that people feel perfectly entitled—even obligated—to tell me who I am based on my sex. Sure, some would argue that it’s valid to ascribe these virtues to mothers. They’re not innate—goes the argument—they just arise naturally from the experience of carrying a child to term, giving birth, breastfeeding, and cutting up cream cheese sandwiches into animal shapes.

But still I have to object. There are simply too many counterexamples: women who hate being pregnant; women who can’t breastfeed; women who adopt; women who find early childcare teeth-grindingly boring; and, of course, men who take on the burdens of homework checking, hair braiding, and dinner. And what about all the patient and loving people who don’t have children?

So the idea that every mother, because she’s a mother, is patient and nurturing and selfless is really just a stereotype. And though it seems like a pleasant, harmless one, accepting it bears substantial costs. I can think of three right off the bat.

For one, it puts a heavy burden on mothers who don’t measure up. Since regular mothers are supposedly perfect, we imperfect mothers must be unusually, abnormally awful. Oh, sure, regular mothers are allowed a few cute imperfections like mismatching socks or serving chocolate pudding for breakfast or using Blues Clues to babysit their children while they shower. But I mean serious imperfections like regularly preferring to be by yourself than with your children and often preferring to be with one child than another; like thinking your kids are terrific only when they’re sound asleep. Like reserving the right to bring a novel to your kid’s baseball game or to take somebody else’s kid’s side in a dispute. And that’s just me, and that’s just for starters.

I’m actually ok with falling short of some standard-issue maternal virtues because I’m not convinced they are virtues. Focusing on your children to the exclusion of the rest of your world is not admirable; at the least, it’s bad parenting. On the other hand, I do want to be someone who can express love, show affection, and listen with an open heart (really, kids, I do).

Which brings me to the second cost of the mother stereotype: the cost to men. Men who exhibit the supposedly maternal virtues of warmth, openheartedness, and empathy are either ignored or treated like adorable freaks. Men who don’t are excused because they are men. I’m sorry, but if you can’t manage to hug your children and tell them out loud that you love them, you are not a boy-who-will-be-a-boy, you are not an average guy, you are a person who needs help. You should expect more of yourself—and so should we all.

Sex stereotypes let men off the hook and they let society off the hook, too. That’s the third cost: to our political will. As long as women are supposed to be naturally suited to raising children, we won’t expect men to pull equal weight. As long as women are supposed to have vast internal resources for raising children, we won’t demand more resources from our bosses or our government. Sex stereotypes support the status quo, and as far as I’m concerned, the status could stand considerable improvement.

It would be nice if we could claim superior virtues merely by virtue of having vaginas. But we can’t. Sorry, ladies. Buy one gender stereotype, buy them all. If you’re not content with your image as a nagging shopaholic who takes too long in the bathroom and doesn’t like sex, then you must not accept the assumption that you are a selfless and patient listener who can express her emotions and write legibly. It’s the price you pay for being judged not by your anatomy, but by your merits as a human being.


This essay just aired on WAMC’s the Roundtable (thank you, Sarah LaDuke!). You can listen to it here

Am I Still Jewish?

Bat Mitzvah KateLast week I mentioned an odd question I was asked by a Virginia gentleman.

“I know you were raised Jewish,” he said, “but are you still Jewish?”

Our conversation took a different direction, but the question lingered in my mind. Am I still Jewish? I have, after all, been distancing myself from Judaism for some time. I never really believed in God, but since I had children, my nonbelief has become something I consciously express—like a tune that had been banging around in my head, underneath my thoughts, until I’d finally heard it, and started to hum it aloud.

So: done with the God part. But a rabbi I met last year shruggingly informed me that there are plenty of atheists in her congregation. They still consider themselves Jews.

They’re in her congregation, though. They still practice. I am definitely out of practice. It’s been so long since synagogue and services have been a regular part of my life that when I do occasionally witness the ritual bowing to the ark and the tender undressing of the Torah scroll . . . I feel like I’m watching a movie set in an archaic and alien world.

Judaism—the religion—is over for me. But Jewishness is not so easy to discard.

VAMTCturkey_320x480I grew up in a little town called Broadway, in Rockingham County, Virginia, the “turkey capital of the world” (high school mascot: the Gobblers). We moved there when I was three, my father having been hired to teach at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, 12 miles south. In Broadway, being Jewish was one of the chief identifying characteristics of us Cohens, a name our neighbors often pronounced as if to indicate a pair of collaborating chickens.

We were different, and our Jewishness helped explain our difference to me and to my friends. It explained why we didn’t go to church, or attend the weekly religious classes my public school held in a trailer off school grounds (to make them . . . less unconstitutional). It explained why we had a candlelight dinner, with wine, every Friday night around 8, two hours or more after our neighbors had eaten. It even—somehow—explained why our walls were lined with books.

Our Jewishness helped explain me, and naturally I sometimes had to explain it. And represent it, as if I were a diplomat from a foreign land. My mom dutifully arrived at the elementary school every December, menorah in hand, to tell the Chanukah story. I often had to insist to astounded classmates that, no, honestly, we didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God—not even a little.  And I don’t know about my sisters, but my being Jewish was also mixed up in my head with the idea that I had to do well in school—extremely well—and also be especially kind to the nice Christians around me.

That part was vague and subconscious, but let me be clear: I was bat mitzvah; I wrote a book on the Holocaust; I had a Jewish wedding; I still make excellent challah.

In other words, it would take a great deal of effort, and possibly therapy, for me not to feel Jewish. All those old labels you stick on yourself (or find yourself stuck with) as a child—even when you try to scrape them off, they leave a gummy residue.

To be honest, though, I’m not trying to scrape off the label. I find it comforting, especially wherever I feel out of my element. I was comforted to think of myself as Jewish at Dartmouth, where lycra-clad blonds jogged by me on their way to the gym. I was comforted by it when I moved to Albany and set about trying to fit in with my husband’s family.

Would I have taken some rubbing alcohol to “Jewish” if it connoted a bunch of traits that didn’t really feel like me at all? If, instead of highly educated, food-obsessed, and politically liberal,  “Jewish” signified athletic, outdoorsy conservative?

Well, yes. I’d probably be down to the gummy residue by now.

Or would I be tanned from late-season skiing and a fan of Jeb Bush? Does “Jewish” still seem to suit so well because I have suited myself to it?

Oy. I have to think about that.