I bought a pair of mom jeans.
Oh, it was an accident. I would never intentionally buy a pair of mom jeans, right? I mean, who would? But I'd forgotten my glasses at home. I'm waist-deep in middle age now and the world has become shimmery and soft around the edges, something I usually enjoy. The best I could do in the resale shop was make out the size on the tag. A size that used to be a single digit, but thanks to childbearing, a hysterectomy and menopause, is now a double digit no matter how much arugula I eat, how much Pilates I do, or how far I hike. My body is determined to make me an advertisement for the fact that I reproduced.
I've made peace with that.
(That's a lie)
Anyway, I went home and rinsed out the resale cooties. When I hung the jeans on the clothesline in the basement, I squinted at the label. NY… something. I put my glasses on.
Not Your Daughter's Jeans.
The ultimate in mom jeans. The jean designed for moms who fear their postpartum fat roll escaping a pair of low riders. The jean with a spandex panel designed to make your squishy bits look flat. I recalled how high up they came on me in the dressing room, clean up to my belly button. Okay, let's be honest, a bit higher.
I bought $6 mom jeans.
I'm okay with that.
(I am not okay with that.)
Over the next week, I spent some time explaining to my children that their actions matter.
Reminding my son to respond to his grandmother's text messages. Promptly. That respect for others is not optional.
Reminding my daughter that eye rolling is not okay. That it's dismissive and condescending.
Explaining fervently to them why referring to a probe on a comet as a "she" and saying she's "sexy as hell, but not easy" is the sort of off-handed, lazy sexism that women deal with as a matter of course. That sometimes a shirt covered in pin-up girls is just a shirt, and sometimes, contextually, it isn't.
Trying to explain to my daughter that sometimes as a feminist, you have to know when to stand down.
Explaining to my son that as a feminist, he will have to learn when to step up.
I told my daughter that she will deal with sexism. But that it shouldn't define her.
She rolled her eyes and told me to stop putting the weight of the feminist world on her shoulders.
It's there already, she just doesn't feel it yet. That's okay. She can carry it.
I told my son that if he wonders if something is sexist, turn the comment around and decide if it's something he'd say to a man. He told me to stop preaching at him already and wandered off. But I planted that seed. And I think he'll be the sort of man who will let it grow.
What do I know about sexism? What on earth could a stay-at-home mom know about sexism? I'm not rubbing elbows with men in the working world. Some would say women like me are the reason sexism still exists. Some would say that the fact that I chose motherhood over a career outside the home is the worst possible example of a feminist.
Actually, a lot of people would say that.
And frankly, a lot of people do.
When I was 16 my grandfather got me an interview at the local corner store. He'd known the owner for years and I needed a summer job. I'd grown up going to that corner store, spending my grandparents’ money on lunch meat, milk, bread and candy. The owner used to hand me my change and say, "Tell your Grandpa I said hello, young lady."
But I was no longer a little girl. My body had changed into something womanly and attractive, a predicament every teenage girl since the dawn of time has found herself in, the spanking-new outside at odds with the awkward, messy-haired child with the lazy eye inside. From the start, the interview had an unsettling tone, a flattering intensity I did not understand. The owner commented on my looks until I was beet red and failed to ask if I could use a register or do anything the job required. I remember sitting on my hands so they did not fly up to hide my face.
"You’re just so pretty, aren’t you, Dana? Too pretty to work here. I'm sorry, but it’s just not going to work. Tell your Grandpa I said hello." He ushered me out the door even as his eyes lingered, and as the door swung shut behind me I realized I had only as long as the walk home to decide what to do.
I remember wanting to rub my own face off. Wanting to scrub my shoulder where he’d embraced me and scour the hand he shook as he ushered me out the door. I felt like I'd done something wrong but wasn't certain exactly what it was. I wanted to discard this new, provocative body and burrow back into the one that was safe.
Instead of telling my grandfather what happened, I lied. I was too ashamed to tell him what had really happened.
"He said he doesn't have a position available. It’s okay." I avoided the store for the rest of the summer and I've always wondered if he suspected. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have told my grandfather everything. I should have trusted him.
It was my first big serving of what was to come in my new life as a woman. I didn't know how to digest it yet.
A college professor. In a law class, no less. He held me after class and told me if I met him at a hotel he'd give me an A. I remember that moment so clearly. An auditorium of 100 kids, dispersing loudly. A professor I'd never even spoken to before. And he ran one hand over my cheek and said,
"You know you’re just too pretty for the law. And I can give you some extra credit. You know."
But by that time, I'd learned. I had learned not so much to digest what I was being fed, but how to chew it up and spit it out. I smiled and mentioned that I spent my school breaks working as a PA for an attorney and said I'd run the idea for "extra credit" past him.
He became enraged. Said some terrible things. I walked away.
My boyfriend, now my husband, escorted me to my final in that class, because my bravery was a thin veneer. I didn't answer a single question on the test. Instead, I sat there trembling for thirty minutes, hating his eyes on me, then handed in a blank blue book.
I got an A+. I guess you could say I know a little something about sexism. But, if I'm honest, most of what I've learned about sexism comes from women.
"Oh, you're just a mom."
"Must be nice to not work."
"What do you do all day?"
“Oh, writing. That must be fun for you.”
Not my friends, mind you. It's always people who don't really know me. People who look at me
and dismiss me.
"She's a mom."
But never my friends. And it's interesting to me. Fascinating, really. Most of my friends, with few exceptions, chose not to have kids. I think it's interesting that we gravitated to each other.
Because that's not the norm, is it? It's not the norm for moms to be close friends with women who made another choice. It's not the norm for women to support other women. For the most part, you're talking about different armies.
The camps are usually very separated.
But I'm proud of the way we've joined forces, even if it's on a small scale. My friends and their marvelous lives. The travel, the hard work, the late nights, the struggles, the determination. I'm amazed at them. I’m proud to know them.
I hold them up, my friends. The ones who work, the ones who chose careers over family, the ones who have found the magical combination to do both. I hold them up as examples to my son and my daughter. "Look," I'll say, "Look at her! She's a scientist! She travels the world and holds her own in research! Or look at her! She's a project manager! A designer! An artist! Look at her! She's a manager AND a mother! Look at her! She reinvents herself like a phoenix. She refuses to spend her life being one thing!" I toss these women like stars into the night sky and hope they illuminate my children's dreams. I hide them in conversation like other mothers hide vegetables in food.
"Look," I say. "Look at what the world can be."
That's because I made a choice. A conscious one, years ago. I chose to be a mother. I took a long look at the world and decided motherhood was my chance to make the world a better place. It wasn't my default. It wasn't my only option. It was my choice. I'm playing a long game.
I'll be honest. Sometimes it feels like a sacrifice play.
Cue the soaring music.
(why is there not a sarcasm font?)
Because there are moments. Moments when I think I am both the best and the worst example. Moments when someone describes me dismissively as a "mom."
"She's just a mom. She can call in sick anytime."
"What do you do all day?"
"How can you be so stressed out?"
I try to dodge the constant salvos but, my God, do I get tired.
I don’t answer questions like that. If you think motherhood is making peanut butter sandwiches, nothing I say will change your mind. If you think being a writer and a mother is some sort of gilded cage, well…
The housewife stereotype is a tired one. In my naive mind, I guess I thought I could be an example of feminism, too. A woman who juggles writing and publishing and parenting and works at home on her own terms. I thought other feminists would recognize my uniform and see that we were in the same army, fighting the same war.
Boy, was I wrong.
Last week, someone in my profession offhandedly described an essay I wrote as “mom pub."
I thought about my comments to my son about sexism.
Don't say it to a woman if you wouldn't say it to a man.
A woman said that to me. The same logic applies. You wouldn't refer to the writing of a woman who had no kids as "childless pub." That would be offensive, right? Is there a “dad pub” genre out there? I don’t think so.
Mom pub? What, the actual fuck, is that?
"That's so cute that you write. Must keep you busy."
That's one of my other favorites. I like to lean forward and grasp the other woman's hand (it is always a woman who says this to me) and whisper,
"Oh, yes. And I must be kept busy at all costs, mustn't I?"
And make no mistake. No one has ever described something as "mom" and meant it as a compliment.
It's always an insult.
So, I hitch up my mom jeans and dodge comments like shells. I take a lot of direct hits. But I pick myself up, dust myself off, and link my arms with my working sisters and push forward. Because there are shining, wondrous women who know that we are fighting the same battle, in different ways. And even if we only gain a few meters of ground, that is ground my son and daughter won't have to fight for. Because on this battlefield, how my daughter treats other women when she is grown is no more or less important than how my son does.
And I placed my bet a long time ago. I'm betting on the future. I'm betting on them.
(Originally published 2014, Dana McSwain)