To My Oldest Daughter on Her 13th Birthday, 4/4/86

Dearest Emma,
Happy 13th birthday.  This will be such an exciting year of change and growth for you that I particularly want us to keep in close touch with one another.  Both of us are undergoing major transitions, so I  hope we can understand and empathize with each other.  I asked Grandma what she wished she had said to me on my thirteenth birthday.  She didn’t have to think about her answer.  “Tell me everything.  
There’s nothing you could conceivably do or say that I don’t handle.   You don’t have to protect me from anything  you feel or do.”  I liked that.  I wished she had told me that when I was 13  What was left unsaid did far more lasting damage than anything that was said.  So that’s part of what I want to say to you as you blossom into womanhood.
I have lived 27 and 3/4 more years in the world than you have.  I will be delighted to share any of my experiences with you, well aware that you have to find your own path.  Sometimes I will forget and try to turn you into a newer, better me.  I want you to point out what I’m doing when I do that.  As you grow older, I identify more and more with you, so I will have to struggle not to force my old aspirations on you.  But I have tried very hard in the past to respect your individuality.
 You were a distinct, dynamic individual from the moment you were born.  I remember looking into  your gorgeous, alert, intelligent eyes the day you were born and wondering if you would be too much for me.  And sometimes you are.  I am trying very hard to grow up enough to be a good mother to you.  I have always loved  your spirited determination to be your own person, what Barbara Williams, your nursery school teacher, called “your considerable sense of self.”  I want you to continue to feel free to tell me when I am making an obvious mistake with you or a not so obvious one. Continue reading
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NYC, 1974-1976, Nonsexist Childrearing in Action


Emma belonged to a Chelsea Manhattan playgroup for two years, from 1974 to 1976. She was 17 months when it began, 3 and ready for nursery school when it disbanded. Playgroup met 5 mornings a week in the basement of the Y on West 23rd Street. Parents had the option of coming 1 to 5 mornings. Scheduling was a nightmare that I had naively accepted. I kept the minutes of playgroup, and I wrote a paper about it for a social work class in group dynamics 20 years later.

I thought you might be amused by parenting, Manhattan style, 1974. How earnest and how absurd we were in so many ways. But we were absolutely committed to allowing our kids to be free to be you and me.

Ranging in age from 28 to 40, we all lived in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. With one exception, our playgroup child was our first child. At 28, I was the youngest mother, but the only one from a large family. We all were college educated, with serious careers before we had children. There was an editor of psychiatric books, a writer, a teacher, an artist, an art therapist, two social workers, one vocational counselor, two psychology graduate students, and  a psychiatric nurse.

Most of us were struggling with our decision to stay home with our children. Confirmed apartment dwellers, we saw little relationship between mothering and housework. All of us planned to remain in Manhattan. Dreading winter cooped up with newly mobile, newly negative toddlers in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work full-time during the life of the playgroup.

None of us had long-time friends who were staying at home to raise young children. We needed to build a new circle of friends; our friends from work no longer sufficed. We were not traditional wives and mothers. We desperately wanted intellectual colleagues fascinated with child development, determined to raise children without our own inhibitions and neuroses. All of us considered ourselves feminists, committed to nonsexist childrearing.
Playgroup was supposed to give us time off. The first year the ratio was one mother to two children; the second year it was one to three. Many mother who weren’t on duty stayed anyway, particularly those with younger children. When we weren’t playing with our toddlers, we engaged in ongoing group therapy. All of us had been or were currently in therapy and could talk comfortably and knowledgeably about conflict, repression, projection, and denial. We endlessly analyzed our marriages, our families, our psychological makeups, our childrearing philosophies, and our children’s personalities.
Six of the 10 core members are now mental health professionals. Remarkably, none of our children are currently in jails, mental hospitals, or rehab centers. We were an extremely self-conscious group. The simplest decision was carefully scrutinized for its optimal effect on our children’s intellectual and emotional development. The latest child development books and theories were eagerly shared and discussed. Husbands’ participating in child care and housework was the norm. One couple was not married, and no one made anything of it. Everyone eagerly welcomed fathers’ participation.
No one wanted to push early academics on our kids. Creativity and exploration were the predominant values. No child was ever pressured to participate in any activity. If he didn’t want to draw, paste, paint, sing, snack, his autonomy was respected. We had reasonable expectations about toddlers’ capacity to share. A great deal of mess was tolerated, and children were not pressured to clean up. “No” was a word seldom heard–from adults

We were enlightened Manhattan intellectuals, very influenced by the ferment of the late 1960’s. All the children addressed all the adults by their first names. Zealous attempts to enforce good manners were frowned upon. By 24 months, all children knew and used the words, penis, testicles, vulva, vagina. Toilet training was a continuous show-and-tell entertainment. The potty was in a prominent place in the room. I vividly recall two-year-old Emma saying, “I see your penis, Michael. Would you like to see my vulva?”

 At any one time at least two mothers were pregnant or breastfeeding, and all the children’s questions were freely answered. My second daughter Michelle started attending playgroup when she was 1 week old. Playing with baby Michelle was a surefire activity. Surrounded by 2 year olds every day, Michelle developed prodigious social skills.

Most of us belonged to a babysitting cooperative as well. We were an amazing source of support to each other. When one of us had a baby, all the others turn turns bringing the new parents an elaborate evening meal. I have never again experienced such a caring community of parents, committed to mutual aid.

Such a playgroup probably possibly could not have existed in the two other places I raised children–Bangor, Maine, and Long Island. I know it could not exist now in Manhattan. I spend three days a week in the same housing development, cavorting with my grandson in the same playroom, the same playground. Now I talk to nannies, not parents. Understandably, parents discourage their nannies from starting playgroups and inviting people they don’t know well into their homes..

The Chelsea playgroup was one of the most fascinating, frustrating, turbulent, nurturing experiences of my life. After two years we were all very different people from the self-conscious, judgmental twits we were at the beginning. Comfortable in our mothering, we no longer had to criticize each other to bolster our wavering self-confidence. Watching very different children develop helped us to understand our own children’s unique personalities.

In many ways our children were freer from sexist stereotyping than their children are now.

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Duck and Cover, McCarthy, Assassinations, Vietnam, Jail

 I was born the day after Trinity, the first atom bomb test. From age 5, duck-and-cover, hide-under-our-desks drills in my Catholic school were as frequent as tests. I was terrified of nuclear war. We lived one mile away from an air force base. Whenever I heard planes, I ran out into the backyard and tried to  to determine if they were American or Russian, using my library book on aircraft identification. When I was 7, Stalin died. I asked my parents if this meant we would not be killed by atom bombs.

In 1954 I had a severe case of the measles, and my Grandma  came to help nurse me. Grandma had been a lifelong Democrat since she voted in the first election open to women. With loathing, she was listening to the Joseph McCarthy army hearings. My eyes hurt too much to read, so I listened obsessively. Hatred of McCarthy’s voice probably shaped my entire political development.

 In 1956, just turning eleven, I fell madly in love with Jack Kennedy as he made an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidential nomination. I was initially attracted by his Catholicism; ten minutes later I was smitten by his intelligence, wit, and charm. I was luckier than his other women. Loving Jack Kennedy was wonderful for me. From 1956 to 1963, I read everything I could about Kennedy, politics, American history.

What JFK believed in, I believed in. Gradually I moved to the left of his pragmatic liberalism. Certainly Kennedy was responsible for my decision to major in political science in college. Kennedy’s assassination during the  fall of my freshman year in college devastated me. I reacted as if someone in my family had died. I quickly transferred my political allegiance to Bobby Kennedy, who was the keynote speaker at my graduation from Fordham in 1967.

Planning to get Ph.D. in political science, I  attended Stanford University where resistance to the war was at its height. Almost every afternoon, David Harris, Joan Baez’s future husband who was later jailed, spoke out eloquently against the war. I was studying political science as a quantifiable science. I  knew Harris and the protests were the real political science, and I dropped out, throwing away my free ride to college professorship.

 After Stanford, I worked for Victor Riesel, the blind labor columnist. When he was exposing  waterfront racketeering. acid was thrown in his eyes. He was too proud to learn Braille, so he hired bright young political women to be his eyes, so he could write his daily colulmn. I skimmed  8 newspapers and 40 labor newspapers and read to him anything that might provide column ideas. The Internet equivalent was a constantly running ticker tape. All day, everyday  I read and discussed the assassinations, the riots, Vietnam. The shattering world was my job.

I had gone to bed very late the night Bobby Kennedy won the California primary. As the radio woke me up,  I didn’t understand what they were saying for several minutes. I thought they were talking about someone else. When I called my finace,  I was crying so hysterically he thought something had happened to my parents or brothers. RFK’s assassination was 10 days before my wedding. The day after I had a final dress fitting. I cried the entire time, not caring if I had a wedding dress of tears.

 I became a pacifist. Opposition to the Vietnam War right from the beginning was the catalyst. My husband Chris  applied for conscientious objector status and was willing to face jail rather than be inducted. We became very active in the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resister’s League, all pacifist organizations. I have mostly seen Washington behind a picket sign. Freezing, I stood in front of the White House I stood in front of the White House and shouted the name of a dead soldier during the March of Death.

My husband was turned down for Conscientious Objector Status, as most Catholics were, even though he appealed the decision up to the Presidential Appeal Board. We knew he was going to be jailed, probably for 3 years, for refusing induction. But  in 1969 the Selective Service instituted the  First Draft Lottery. The days of the year, represented by the numbers from 1 to 366 (including Leap Year Day), were written on slips of paper that were placed in capsules. The capsules were mixed in a shoebox and dumped into a deep glass jar. Capsules were drawn from the jar one at a time.

The first day number drawn was 257 (September 14), so all registrants with that birthday were assigned lottery number 1. Men of draft age (those born between 1944 and 1950) whose birthday fell on the corresponding day of the year would all be drafted at the same time. Only the first 195 birthdates drawn in the 1969 lottery were called to serve. The lottery night was among the worst of my life.  I arrived home from work when they had reached 50. As time when on and they didn’t call out Chris’s birthday, I was convinced he had been in the first five. His number was 339. He was spared jail.

For the first time since our marriage, we could plan for the future.

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Confused Feminist Has a Baby, 1973

Dropping out of Columbia Law School in 1971 was a turning point in my life. After a year of soul-searching journal writing, I realized that I had been denying my emotional, nurturant, sensitive  nature, never considering careers like psychology or social work. Closer to my dad and having 5 younger brothers, I had raised myself as a Koch male, In the jargon of early consciousness-raising groups, I was male identified. I got very involved in the feminist movement in New York City and recognized the sexism of “thinking like a man.”

I had always assumed that professional success was far more important to me than traditional motherhood. I had seen how my mother postponed her dreams until the youngest of her six children entered school. Instead of being a lawyer, as she had originally planned, she settled for high school teaching.

A few months later a good friend got pregnant, and I became intensely involved in her pregnancy. For the first time in my life,  I wanted to have a baby. I questioned my motives, wondering if I was merely postponing the inevitable return to grad school. I assured myself I would go back to work when the baby was a few months old. I got pregnant the first month we tried, and I loved being pregnant.  I was able to achieve my goal of natural childbirth. I felt terrific immediately after birth. Breastfeeding was easy.

Nothing prepared me for drowning in an overwhelming surge of love, tenderness, protectiveness the minute I looked into my new daughter’s bright eager eyes. I had never believed in the myths of fulfilling motherhood, and yet mothering young children was the most fascinating, creative job of my life.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine I would love being  full-time mother from 1973 to 1988 and  my grandson’s nanny from 20007 to 2009.

But if anything, I am more of a feminist than I was in 1971.

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Confused Feminist in Love

I read the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan when I was a freshman in college.  Friedan did not raise my consciousness, but gave me more confidence in my ideas. I attended Fordham University, planning to become a college professor of political science. Fordham had just begun to admit women, and I was often the only girl in my political science class. Being the only girl and the best student in a class was heaven. I met John, my future first husband, in my junior year. It is a family joke that I was first attracted to him when I heard his SAT scores. John found my intellectuality and my femininity equally attractive, and for the first time reconciling the two seemed possible. Just to be sure, I insisted he read Simone DeBeauvoir’s The Second Sex before I was willing to make love. What a self-righteous little prig I was ! But John contributed as much as I did to four daughters’ academic and professional achievement.

John, a year behind me in college, planned to be a physics professor. (I was desperate to hide from my family that John was 9 months younger.) When I applied to grad schools, I looked for places equally strong in both physics and political science, figuring a year’s separation would make us surer about marriage. If I had known myself better, I would have applied to grad schools in New York City. I went to Stanford University in California, 3000 miles away from my love. I hated grad school, was miserable without John, and left after two months. My parents were puzzled that I had given up an all-expenses paid PhD; I foolishly avoided my family for two months. I would not admit to myself that missing John, not hating graduate school, was my major motive. As a result of that delusion, I didn’t return to graduate school until 16 years later.

I returned to New York,  got married, and slowly worked my way up in New York City book publishing. I was never wildly enthusiastic about editing social science and psychiatry books. It resembled grad school, abstract, intellectual, remote from people.  Why I went to law school was murky. The preceding spring at my brother  Richard’s wedding, my brother Stephen said, “Mom thinks you should go to law school and make something of yourself.” In a retirement interview, my mom told the editor of the high school paper that she would have gone to law school if she had had the opportunities open to women now. Whose ambitions were I trying to fulfill?

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Confused Feminist As a Girl

Growing up with five younger brothers guaranteed I would be a feminist. My mother had five brothers as well.  For a good 16 years I was taller and stronger and smarter and better read. Looking at old pictures that show me towering over my brothers, I mourn lost opportunities for cutting them down to size:) I recall asking the nun preparing us for Holy Communion why the boys went up to the altar first. “Because they are closer to God since they can be priests,” was her reply. At that moment I became a feminist. I confess I was less interested in solidarity with women than in besting men. I felt outraged when my brother could be an altar boy and I couldn’t, even though my Latin was infinitely better.

Sixty years later, I still adore intellectual competition and debate with men.

My immediate neighborhood had no girls to play with, only boys, so I coped by becoming a tomboy, passionately interested in baseball. My brothers used to challenge their friends to ask me a baseball question I couldn’t answer. My family always encouraged academic achievement. I was a shy intellectual in high school; my friends hung out at the high school newspaper and the debate club. None of us dated. I concluded that smart girls didn’t attract men unless they deliberately played dumb, something I refused to do. Besides my ideal male was Jack Kennedy. Crushing on JFK was good for me. I immersed myself in politics and American history.

Although my mom started college when I did, she was in what my brother Stephen calls her creative phase when I was growing up. A full-time mother, she sewed most of my clothes, canned tomatoes, made hats, made sock monkeys when she wasn’t taking care of six kids and incredibly active in her local church. My father was the brain; we minimized my mom’s great intelligence. I didn’t want to be my mom. Imagine my confusion when she graduated from college the same day I did, with a straight A average. She had become a feminist and 60s radical, fully committed to the civil rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War..

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Why Are Mommy Wars Not Daddy Wars?

The raging mommy wars infuriate me. The energy and passion expended on attacking other women’s choices need to be directed at  American corporate capitalism.  Is feminism the unwitting tool of capitalism? Since mothers won the right and social approval to work full-time, wages have  stagnated, and the most mothers are forced to work whether or not they want to leave their infants and toddlers.
As an idealistic young feminist of the early 1970’s, I was dedicated to essential social change that both parents could care for their children. As the work week got shorter, that seemed a possible goal. We did not envision a world where mothers and fathers worked far longer hours than their own fathers had.
In my 1950s and 1960s working- class neighborhood , one salary suported much larger families.  Now working-class familes often are forced to work a double shift or several jobs. Husbands and wives barely have time together as one leaves for work as the other returns. According to US Census Bureau,  “Research shows that blue collar fathers have actually changed more in terms of their involvement in homemaking and child care than have middle class fathers (including professionals), when their wives are employed away from home. “
During the Clinton years, the US abolished Aid to Dependent Children, which enabled single mothers to take care of their young children. These mothers were viciously stereotyped as welfare cheats. Would you choose a minimum-wage job at  Walmart or as a home health aide without benefits  to taking care of your children?   No wonder poorer women are deeply suspecious of feminists. How does it help them when women increasingly become doctors and lawyers and corporate executives?
From 1968 , I was concerned  that feminists emphasized abortion over child care as the essential women’s choice issue. No members of my Redstocking radical feminist group were married or had children. A happily married woman was suspected of “false consciousness.” Not having children was perceived as more important than providing existing children with the excellent care they needed.  Because the US is one of the least child-family nations in the industrialized world, having a baby often seems like a personal disaster, and women have no choice but abortion.
 The US is one of the only countries in the world that provides no paid maternity leave. Pediatricians advocate breastfeeding for a year, but even professional women find themselves pumping in the toilet.  My daughter, the MBA, was cautioned against storing breastmilk in the company refrigerate because it was “toxic waste.” If you stand at a counter and don’t have an office, breastfeeding is impossible.
Would it require a  massive reshaping of the American economy to make it feasible for parents to stay home with their babies?  If we can outsource radiology jobs to China or India, we can figure out a way for parents to work partly in the office, partly at homeThe argument that taking any time off work would ruin career advancement is absurd, particularly in the Internet Age. Soldiers fighting World War II were absorbed back into the economy, given help with education and retraining, without being penalized for leaving their jobs for four or five years.
Why not a GI Bill for caregivers, whether of children, the disabled, or the aged? If raising young children was properly valued as an essential contribution to the nation’s future, parents need not suffer dire career consequences for working part-time or taking a childrearing break.
My mother, my friends’ mothers, my aunts returned to school and work when their  3, 4, 5, 6 children entered school. They were outstanding students who then had rewarding careers. Their gifts, experience, and skills were honored. Things had changed  by 1988 when I returned to social work and library school after staying home for 15 years, Women who had worked full-time since their children were born often did not validate what I had learned outside their  professional worlds. What I had learned before social work seemed to be considered cheating.
Among my daughters and their Ivy League professional friends, only one parent stayed at home full-time with their child for two years.  At baby showers, the possibility of taking longer than a maternity leave from work is not discussed.   A breast pump is the most appreciated gift.  The possibility of the baby’s father being the primary parent is never mentioned. These are affluent parents who could   afford to take a few years off if they lived more frugally. But they are terrified of destroying  their future careers. The more parents believe this, the more likely their belief will come true.
Early child care is almost entirely a women’s job. The nannies in my grandson’s playground are all women of color.  Everyone knows that a white woman taking care of a baby during the day must be his grandma. How many day care centers, nursery schools, kindergartens have male teachers? My daughters’ playgroups had helping daddies as well as helping mommies.  There were often several  stay-at-home fathers among the parents..We organized a babysitting cooperative; daddies were usually the evening babysitters.  My daughters loved it when their friends’ daddies babysit. “They are much more fun.”
I recently encountered a meetup group of stay-at-home fathers at the Children’s Center Library at 42 Street. Watching the men take creative, loving care of their babies and toddlers was one of the most fascinating, inspiring, lovely experiences I have had. I suspect if more fathers advocated for a better balance of work and child care, my daughters and their husbands would not face the same hard choices her father and I struggled with  in 1973.
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