Tag Archives: Parenting

In Dwarf News

22 Jul

 

John Oliver kicked off the month with an excellent report about the complexities of gene editing. (See above.) Unlike most reporters of these issues, he manages in few words to explain precisely why ridding the world of genetic mutations like deafness and dwarfism should not be the solution to the problem of society’s hang-ups about bodily differences.

Meanwhile, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which I have referred to as The Best Book of the 21st Century, has been adapted into a documentary out this week in the U.S.

In less wonderful news, a Silicon Valley paper has uncovered an Amazon proposal for a newly patented robot that throws warehouse products into bins. The hypothetical item referred to 17 times in the illustrations that the robot could throw is a dwarf. Little People of America is not amused. Kudos to reporter Ethan Baron for shedding light on an issue few would more than laugh at.

 
 

 

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Frozen Sperm & the Slippery Idea of Increased Risk

21 Aug

Hanging bodies(Image by Gillie Rhodes used under CC 2.0 via)
 
As long as people do not want to have children, or certain types of children, they will search for a way to avoid it. In a recent CNN report on reasons why a small but growing number young men have been freezing their sperm, achondroplasia was listed as one of the conditions the risk for which is associated with advanced paternal age. While the report cites single studies finding an increased risk for various conditions and disorders, many studies over the past two decades have linked achondroplasia to advanced paternal age. (Perhaps Mick Jagger should educate himself, if he hasn’t already.)

Most people with achondroplastic dwarfism are born to non-achondroplastic parents like mine. (“Are you parents little, too?” is one of the most common questions I get from strangers.) Most of us grew up told that our genetic mutation could not be traced to any known source. That is now changing, as news networks repeat the link to advanced paternal age.

My father was 28-years-old when I was born, hardly what we in the West think of when we envision advanced paternal age. All but one of my friends with achondroplasia have parents that were roughly the same age as my own when they were born: that is, late 20s or early 30s. And the majority of my friends with achondroplasia are first-borns.

Anecdotal evidence is often rife with bias, so I cannot officially dispute the researchers’ findings. Perhaps my friends and I are simply exceptions to the rule just like every smoker can name someone who beat the odds and puffed their way to age 95. But my personal experience easily invalidates any argument that men who freeze their sperm in their 20s or 30s are on a clear path to avoiding fathering a child with achondroplasia.

Bioethicists are divided on whether or not to advise men to freeze their sperm to avoid various conditions. Regardless of the answer, men should hear that the statistics on achondroplasia and age risk imbuing them with an inflated sense of control. One could say most forms of genetic counseling do.    

 

 

White Woman Sues Spermbank for Accidentally Giving Her Black Donor’s Sperm

5 Oct

Unity in Diversity(Image by Fady Habib used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Man, we can’t go two months without some couple making headlines over a baby they didn’t plan for. An Ohio woman named Jennifer Cramblett is suing a spermbank for impregnating her with the contents of a vial different from the one she selected. The mix-up resulted when a clerk misread Vial 330 as “380.” Her lawsuit reads:

On August 21, 2012, Jennifer gave birth to Payton, a beautiful, obviously mixed race, baby girl. Jennifer bonded with Payton easily, and she and [her partner] Amanda love her very much. Even so, Jennifer lives each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton’s future. Jennifer admits that she was raised around stereotypical attitudes about people other than those in her all-white environment. Family members, one uncle in particular, speaks openly and derisively about persons of color. She did not know African Americans until her college days at the University of Akron.

Because of this background and upbringing, Jennifer acknowledges her limited cultural competency relative to African Americans, and steep learning curve, particularly in small, homogeneous, Uniontown, which she regards as too racially intolerant.

As just one example, getting a young daughter’s hair cut is not particularly stressful for most mothers, but to Jennifer it is not a routine matter, because Payton has hair typical of an African American girl. To get a decent cut, Jennifer must travel to a black neighborhood, far from where she lives, where she is obviously different in appearance, and not overtly welcome.

One of Jennifer’s biggest fears is the life experiences Payton will undergo, not only in her all-white community, but in her all-white, and often unconsciously insensitive, family. Despite her family’s attempts to accept her homosexuality, they have not been capable of truly embracing Jennifer for who she is. They do not converse with her about her gender preference, and encourage her not to “look different,” signaling their disapproval of her lesbianism.

Though compelled to repress her individuality amongst family members, Payton’s differences are irrepressible, and Jennifer does not want Payton to feel stigmatized or unrecognized due simply to the circumstances of her birth. Jennifer’s stress and anxiety intensify when she envisions Payton entering an all-white school. Ironically, Jennifer and Amanda moved to Uniontown from racially diverse Akron, because the schools were better and to be closer to family. Jennifer is well aware of the child psychology research and literature correlating intolerance and racism with reduced academic and psychological well-being of biracial children.

Family planning is so endlessly complicated that any law-abiding individual seeking privacy deserves it. But Cramblett is going public with her pursuit of compensation for emotional distress and therein invites judgment. John Culhane writes at Slate that this sort of blunder is bound to happen in the free market of assisted reproductive technology. Julie Bindel at The Guardian warns of a creeping let’s-get-a-designer-baby approach to parenting among those using IVF. “Just remember,” she writes. “If the child you end up with does not exactly fit your ideal requirements, you can’t give it back – and nor should you even suggest that something bad has happened to you.”

Do parents have the right to be guaranteed certain kinds of children? Those pursuing parenthood via sperm donors, egg donors, or adoption have much more freedom to decide against certain kinds of children than those using nothing but their own biology. The application for becoming an egg donor in New York contains over one hundred invasive questions about family and medical history, as well as education, favorite sports, artistic talents and “additional characteristics” such as “cleft chin, full lips, big eyes, or high cheekbones.” Applicants are required to submit three photos “that shows [sic] your face and/or body type clearly.”

I understand why such questions are asked. Many if not most parents already know such things about those involved in producing their child, so why shouldn’t the IVF parents be allowed to know? If my partner and I were to join their ranks, what sort of donor profile would seem most appealing to us? Deciding upon something inherently entails deciding against something else. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see this tick-the-box approach to baby-making as eugenic. How many parents would accept my eggs, with their 50% chance of passing on achondroplasia? How many would sue if someone accidentally got them without asking for them?

Parents seeking to adopt children here in Germany are asked what kind of children they would and would not like to have before they look at profiles. For example, do you mind if your children look extremely different from you? What about physical disabilities? Mental disabilities? Drug addiction? In an interview with a family whose two children were adopted, I was told that the agencies encourage prospective parents to be utterly frank about their fears and prejudices – that an insistence along the lines of, “We can handle anything!” will sound suspiciously naïve.

Such brutal honesty strikes me as reassuringly well-informed, perhaps the result of infamously ideological parents like Josephine Baker or Jim Jones, who flaunted their rainbow families at the expense of the children’s individuality. Reading Cramblett’s descriptions of her relatives’ hurtful reactions to her sexuality, I can sympathize with the feeling that battling one kind of bigotry can be hard enough. Everyone deserves to live free from the unnecessary pain of bigotry. But if we’re going to be suing someone, wouldn’t it be more logical to file complaints against those who make her daughter feel stigmatized and unrecognized? Surely they’re the ones causing “emotional distress.”

While the spermbank does appear to have erred out of negligence and may be at fault, would awarding Cramblett for “emotional distress” not set a precedent and open the door for endless lawsuits over the births of minority children parents did not explicitly wish for? My parents had a 1 in 40,000 chance of producing a child with achondroplasia, as does anyone reading this. (That is, unless you already have achondroplasia.) Should doctors warn every prospective parent of those odds? Should they warn us of the chance for racial atavism? If homosexuality proves to be genetically determined, will parents have a right to sue doctors who fail to remind them of the risk? The very idea of being financially “compensated” for emotional distress is often silly to those of us who know from firsthand experience how vastly unreliable life can be.

Legal decisions aside, my primary hope is that Cramblett and her partner will explain the lawsuit to her daughter in a way that does not cause her to feel any more conflicted about her extraordinary appearance than her relatives’ racist views already do.

 

 

Would You Give Up A Disabled Baby, And If So, Why?

10 Aug

Youri(Image by Naoya Fujii used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Tonight 60 Minutes will feature the very first interview with the Australian couple that has attracted international scorn ever since the Thai woman they hired to be their surrogate mother publicly accused them of adopting one of the twins she gave birth to while refusing Baby Gammy, the one with Down Syndrome. Hiring a surrogate mother who lives abroad is both legal and unregulated in Australia, with none of the criminal background checks or counseling that are required for domestic surrogacy arrangements.

The Digital Age has seen the rise of prospective parents independently seeking out surrogate mothers online without any oversight, as well as a rise in “re-homing,” wherein adoptive parents join Facebook or Yahoo groups to seek out new parents for a child they’ve decided is harder to handle than they had thought. A disturbing Reuters report last fall profiled a couple who handed over a girl with medical problems they had adopted from Liberia to a new family they had found online, only to later discover that the new parents were known sex offenders.

Yet while black market adoption may be on the rise thanks to the Internet, the history of people rejecting only certain kinds of children is depressingly long. Only 2% of all babies born are disabled, yet half of the children up for adoption in the United States are disabled. Half of them are also black. Chad Goller-Sojourner told NPR this year that prior to his adoption by a white family, he was passed over by more than one black couple for being “too dark.”

I am deeply grateful that my parents did not put me up for adoption, like so many parents of dwarfs before them. Being rejected by your own parents simply for your body feels like a rejection of your very life. But I will not start chanting that parents should never ever make adoption plans for their children until we admit that not everyone is capable of being the sort of parent certain children need. The skills required for accepting your child’s skin color or body shape are not the same skills required for accepting a lifetime of waiver agreements about the deadly risks of invasive surgery. In the real world, some marriages do break down and some parents do become abusive and some parents do murder their half-grown children when they try and fail to cope with their child’s disability. I know a good number of people who are great at working independently but terrible at caregiving. In Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon profiles a British woman who eventually relinquished custody of her severely disabled daughter to a foster mother, telling the NHS, “I’m not the right mother for this child.” Such honest humility requires some degree of bravery and, as Solomon points out, honors the skills of the foster mother and all parents who keep their commitments to disabled children.

Do some parents give up too easily? Absolutely. But are some children better off far away from their parents? Evidently. Because no two parents are alike, what is best for the child is best decided on a case-by-case basis. The Australian case sounds dreadful, but I’m withholding judgment until the parents have had their say. And as long as there is reproduction, there will always be parents who put their children up for adoption or terminate pregnancies, and society must thus ensure that the means for doing so are absolutely safe and heavily regulated.

But we cannot deny that too many parents end up failing to support certain kinds of children because the society they live in fails to support such kinds of people. Parents can usually see through the B.S. of those who urge them to stand by their kids no matter what and who also regularly make disparaging remarks about scars, fat, or dark skin, and openly wince at the idea of looking like a freak, a wimp, or a pussy. We won’t ever lower the disturbing number of prospective parents who would reject a child with an extra finger or toe until we as a society confront what would cause a parent to think that having an extra finger or toe is too horrific to endure.

During a discussion in college about the individual’s right to make their own medical decisions, I was shocked to hear a bunch of my friends insist that they would rather die than lose the ability to walk. Is it possible to attach such extreme shame to a hypothetical situation for yourself without attaching shame to the situation of others who live that way every day?

When I told one of my fiftysomething mentors about how upset I was by the incident, she smiled and said, “Well, that’s something young people are certainly more likely to say than anyone else.”

A fortysomething friend piped up, “Yeah, that is a very young person thing to say. I swore when I was young that I’d shoot myself if I ever went bald and yet here we are!”

Indeed, while the strains of physical pain and special accommodations and repeated doctor’s appointments are very real, perfection is not. And no matter how far technology advances, the belief that we can guarantee ourselves “normal” children is delusional. After all, unlike Baby Gammy and I, 85% of all disabled people were not born disabled. That’s something to bear in mind when heading to the obstetrician’s or the adoption agency.  

 

 

CPS: The Sticky Business of Not Minding Your Own Business

20 Jul

(Via)

 

A South Carolina woman was arrested earlier this month for allegedly letting her 9 year-old daughter play alone in the park while she went to work at McDonald’s. The mother had given her daughter a cell phone for safety’s sake, but a concerned stranger’s call to Child Protective Services led to the mother’s incarceration and loss of custody. Bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum are outraged over what they are calling a case of helicopter parenting gone mad. On Twitter, stories of “When I was a kid…” abound.

I wholeheartedly share their shock and dismay. (Seriously, couldn’t CPS have merely talked to the mother and helped her find a friend or a caregiver whose home could be a base for the girl during mom’s eight-hour shift?) But I am concerned about the mounting vitriol aimed at those whose job it is to protect the child. I grew up among social workers. And these bloggers, while rightfully critical, are failing to acknowledge that the mind-your-own-damn-business mentality they advocate is exactly what prevails in societies where everyone looks the other way when a child is neglected or abused.

Of course there are terrible social workers out there, just as there are those to be found in any profession who should really be working elsewhere. More importantly, it is dangerous to pretend that institutionalized xenophobia does not exist. A 2012 report revealed ableism appears to be a tremendous problem at CPS, with many disabled parents living in fear of being declared incompetent by social workers with a poor understanding of their abilities. In the South Carolina case, it seems reasonable to postulate that two of the American South’s most infamous cultural institutions—classism and authoritarianism—are what led to a cruel and unusual punishment doled out for what was, at best, a misdemeanor by a working mother.

But while attention to this case is warranted, news outlets tell real-life tales of wrongly accused parents to such an extent that one would assume most actions by CPS are unjustified. The media bias tends toward parents because parents are legally allowed to talk publicly about their children. Were a social worker to attempt to tell his side of story, he would be breaking the law. And children and families grateful to CPS for repairing broken homes rarely head to their local news station to rehash their past personal struggles.

We must acknowledge and condemn every instance of misconduct by social workers, just as we must acknowledge and condemn every case of medical malpractice, and of police brutality. But unlike doctors or police officers, social workers do not enjoy a wealth of Hollywood blockbusters and TV shows glamorizing what they do. Most portrayals in film and on television are fiercely unflattering: from the soulless bureaucrat too obsessed with rules to know love when she sees it, to the more sinister instrument of a government conspiracy to threaten political dissidents by taking away what they hold most dear. These stereotypes invariably evoke sympathy for the devastated parents and children, who wish those heartless busy-bodies would just learn to stay out of other people’s business. Rarely are social workers featured fighting the good fight.

And yet, that’s what they are there to do. Not to get a thrill from ripping crying kids away from their distraught parents, but to listen to every member of the family until they understand the source and extent of the problem. While pop culture promotes individual therapy as a path to wellness on par with yoga or meditation, the idea of family therapy tends to be seen as an outrageous invasion of privacy imposed by some glaring ice queen who is just waiting for the parents to slip up. Yet adept social workers know that the parents of neglected children sometimes have significant learning disabilities or were the victims of abuse themselves. When funding allows, parenting courses are available for those who have a hard time remembering how often diapers need to be changed, or that there are often alternatives to screaming and spanking. Adept social workers also know that neglected children are often overly forgiving of an abusive loved one, just as victims of domestic violence often are. And adept social workers know that children are far more likely to be abused, molested, or kidnapped by a member of their family than by a stranger. As with women, the most dangerous place for a child is their own home.

When I was an 11 year-old on Long Island, there was a report that a girl my age named Katie Beers had been kidnapped from a local arcade where I’d attended birthday parties. The perpetrator turned out to be a friend of the family, who kept her locked in his basement for 17 days. When he broke down and confessed to police, Beers was not returned to her mother, but placed in a foster home. I clearly remember the mother’s tearful face plastered across the headlines: “I just got her back and now they’re taking her away from me!” CPS investigators had discovered that, prior to the kidnapping, Beers’s mother had left her for years in the care of her godparents, where she was treated “like a slave” and repeatedly raped by her godfather. Beers writes today that she was ultimately relieved to be placed in foster care and that, had she not been taken out of her home, she never would have graduated high school, let alone college.

When it comes to the legal rights of the child versus the rights of the parent, the court of public opinion will always be fueled by vitriol. Family court, of course, should transcend this, putting reason and research first and foremost. CPS is undoubtedly rife with problems, many due to its miserable lack of funding. But we as a society will never put forth a sincere effort to endow social workers with enough funding to do their job well until we truly value what they do in the first place.

 

* Please note that while my sympathy for the social worker’s perspective is inspired by what I’ve learned from those I know, the views and conclusions expressed here are mine and mine alone.

 

 

Will Dove’s New “Selfie” Film Redefine Beauty?

26 Jan

 

In another installment of its positive body image campaign, Dove has released an 8-minute documentary called Selfie that premiered last week as the Sundance Film Festival.  For those of you who can’t watch it, the film can be summed up thusly:

***

Mothers with their teenage daughters talk about their insecurities about their own bodies.  One girl reveals that her mother’s urging her to wear cosmetics makes her uneasy. 

Cut to a high school gym, where a professional photographer addresses female students, telling them, “I’m here to talk to you about beauty.  You have the power to change and redefine what beauty is!  … The power is at our fingertips.  We can take selfies.”

Cut to her workshop about self-portraiture. “I’m going to ask you to take a risk that could change the way that people define beauty.  What if we find a way when you guys are taking your selfies to actually incorporate the things about us that we don’t like?” The girls list what they hate about themselves: braces, glasses, round faces, rosy cheeks. 

The photographer points out that mothers often pass on their own insecurities to their daughters, to which one girl vociferously agrees.  The girls then are given an assignment to teach their mothers how to take selfies, because “Your mom can redefine beauty just like you can.”

A touching montage of mothers and daughters learning to embrace their least favorite features plays, culminating in an exhibit of the selfies, where visitors leave Post-Its complimenting the girls on their looks.  The girls then smile at how good the compliments made them feel.  The mothers declare that social media is redefining beauty by putting the creativity in the girls’ hands.    

***

I absolutely love the way the film takes mothers to task, especially in light of this week’s report that parents are googling “Is my daughter ugly?” three times more often than they are posing the question about their sons.  We cannot teach our young women that they should not obsess over their looks if we don’t believe it ourselves.

I also like Dove’s idea of promoting the anti-duckface selfie, the least-favorite-traits selfie.  This film will do some good.  But does it truly redefine beauty for everyone?  Does it include everyone?

What about a girl with muscle spatisticity?  What about a girl with the physical markers of Down Syndrome?  What about a girl with scars, burns or chronic skin discoloration?  And, perhaps most importantly, what about that girl who is silently—obsessively—counting and comparing the compliments on her selfie to the compliments on others’ selfies?  Hierarchies survive through feelings of competitiveness.  What about the girl who ends up with the fewest or the least glowing compliments?  Does the project teach these girls how to deal with that, or does it leave them to their own devices?

This is not criticism for the sake of cynicism, but for the sake of empiricism.  The Love Your Body movement has been around for over 30 years, yet eating disorders are on the rise and our mainstream standards of “beauty” have not deviated from tradition at all.  (Go ahead and google “beauty” right now in an image search and see how diverse the results are.) 

As with so many Love Your Body projects, the girls in the video are not beautiful under the sociological definition of “super-normal” (strange and considered exotic), but they are far from the sociological definition of “abnormal” (strange and considered repulsive).  Everything they hate about their bodies—cheeks, glasses, eyebrows, braces—still falls smack in the middle of healthy human appearance.  It’s the equivalent of adults in the middle-middle class and lower-middle class discussing how “poor” they feel for not having made it into the top 1%.  Such insecurities are valid, but repeatedly restricting the discussion to those who only just barely challenge society’s definitions of “success” or “beauty” is safe to the point of almost seeming scared of rocking the boat too hard.

This is not to say that girls with more abnormal looks deserve more sympathy than those closer to average.  On the contrary, in my experience low self-esteem does not correlate to appearance.  I know many women who, being a few pounds overweight, are far less happy with themselves than other women with severe and rare deformities.  Perhaps parents are more dedicated to boosting self-esteem when their daughters more noticeably deviate from the norm. 

Or perhaps being excluded from the game from the get-go helps a girl to see how dumb the rules are to begin with.  Returning to the analogy of class, researchers have found that wealthier parents often have a harder time handling severely disabled children because they upset their need to be in control (“He breaks things!”), whereas parents living below the poverty line are more accepting of life’s unreliability (“Eh, there’s nothing in this house that wasn’t broken long ago!”)  Similarly, girls and the parents of girls whose looks could possibly near the standard of super-normal beauty may be more likely to spend time, money and anxiety trying to reach it than those who give up trying to wow the crowds and instead laugh at the delusional nature of it all.

Either way, I don’t think the Selfie project would be hurt one bit by a truly diverse sample of beauty.  (Let’s get some felfies in there, while we’re at it.)  Rather than monologuing about our own individual fears and demanding strangers allay them with compliments, we need a dialogue between the girl on the far end of the spectrum who’s been trashed for her looks and whoever it was who gave in to the temptation to trash her.  We need a dialogue between those who want to meet an elite standard of beauty and the type of people who support that standard.  We need a dialogue between the ugliest person you can imagine and your reasons for deciding they’re ugly.

That would redefine a lot.

 

 

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The Best Book of 2013 (and the 21st Century)

30 Dec

 

“Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.”

So begins Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a book that profiles families with children who are profoundly different from their parents – deaf, gay, autistic, short-statured, schizophrenic, transgender, intellectually disabled (Down Syndrome), multiply disabled, born out of rape, prodigious, and criminal. With every story, Solomon ends up returning to the same question: What is family? And in asking this, he demands, again and again, What is love?

He conjectures that true love is 30% knowledge of who someone is, 30% percent acceptance of who they are, and 30% projection of who they are. Projection is as indispensable as the other elements, but it is by far the most problematic. Love is threatened when it relies more on projection than anything else. When driven by a fear of being alone, projection can dangerously blind us to others’ faults: “You like the same bands I do?! You must be so deep!” When driven by a fear of being burdened, it can dangerously fuel our least empathic feelings: “I can’t handle taking care of a freak!” It would seem that our best hope for filling our lives with true love is to be better informed. If so, Solomon’s book is an ideal source of information.

He writes poignantly of his own mother’s difficulty accepting his homosexuality. In the West today, we are just as quick to judge parents who seem to hurt their children as we are to judge children who seem to hurt their parents. But in examining his mother, Solomon wisely observes that “she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy.” Who among us does not tend toward such self-righteousness?

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t pride themselves on something they believe they do better than their parents did, an improvement they would like to pass on. Even my friends who take little interest in children tend to talk about their hypothetical progeny as projects: e.g. “My kids will never/always… ” And with projects come projection. The children in Solomon’s book, himself included, are dynamite to that projection.

While he is determined to understand his mother’s feelings that caused him so much pain, he is unwavering in his assertion that homophobia, ableism and all other irrational fears have no place in the future of a healthy society. He calls the forces that inspire current legislation limiting the rights of minorities a “crisis in empathy.” And he practices what he preaches – his determination to empathize with the United States’ most marginalized families is utterly humbling. He does it not only for the sake of compassion, but for the sake of practicality. We’ve already tried condemning and isolating the kinds of people who make us uneasy. On a grand scale, it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

When I described the book to friends – many themselves minorities – several winced at the idea of rape victims and schizophrenic people. “Sounds like a fun book!” they sighed. Such reactions are hardly unknown to Solomon, who notes, “One’s own identity, replete with problems though it may be, usually looks more tenable than someone else’s identity.” Indeed, my own gut reaction is to glare at anyone who dares to compare the experience of having a child with dwarfism to the experience of having a child who grows up to murder students at Columbine High School. But gut reactions tend to be more hurtful than helpful. “At the mention of dwarfs,” Solomon writes, “[some of my] friends burst into laughter.” Fear always conquers by dividing us, and for this reason I adore  Solomon’s ferocious intersectionality. It is rare but contagious.

He profiles several different families in each chapter, which is admirable because it is comprehensive. However, at times it can feel like overkill. I might have preferred three families per chapter rather than seven or eight. The medium isn’t conducive to such a large cast because it’s difficult to keep the characters from blending together if you can’t physically see their faces or hear their voices. I thus found his videos series a source of clarification, not mere supplement.

But Solomon is an exquisite writer. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the disabilities and social issues he examines, but it’s too often bogged down in language that comes off as dry or downright dreary. It’s not easy to push through 770 pages of the most marginalized lives imaginable, but Solomon’s writing is as poetic as it is sensitive. He is never too meek make assertions and yet, unlike countless journalists, he manages to do so without ever ignoring the agency of those he describes. True empathy never condescends because it transcends fear.

I am, of course, a biased critic. It was 32 years ago this month that my parents got the news that I had dwarfism. And they did everything right – the best any two human beings could when faced with a rare diagnosis that traditionally brought on social isolation. (As Solomon documents, mothers of dwarfs in olden days were often thought to have caused the condition by being lecherous.)

What my parents did perhaps best of all is something all the great parents of the world do – to make me feel so unconditionally loved that I always felt free to discuss with them what might have been done better. Sometimes my critiques are correct and sometimes they’re flat-out wrong. But the freedom to examine what you need to change about yourself in order to be a tolerable person and what you have the right to protect about yourself in order to be a happy person should be a freedom granted to every member of every family. On both sides of the parent/child relationship, or any relationship, “love is made more acute when it requires exertion.”

In a just world, no one should have to be any more grateful to their parents for accepting them than anyone else should have to be. As I’ve written before, caregiving is freakin’ hard, and our gratitude to those who raised us deepens when we consider that, as a whole, they have been more accommodating and respectful of their children than any of their historical predecessors. Solomon points out, “A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them.”  But despite how far we have come since then, we have yet to reach an acceptable rate of justice for all. 

Solomon points out that 1 in 4 participants in a recent survey said they would choose abortion if their pregnancy tested positive for dwarfism.  At least half the children up for adoption in the United States have disabilities of some kind.  Crisis in empathy indeed.

Individuals who cannot parent a child profoundly different from themselves should not be forced to. Likewise, society’s hang-ups about difference should not encourage parents to flee from it.  Considering the current statistics, Solomon’s book is as necessary as it is beautiful.

 

 

The Parents and the Childfree Are Ignoring A Very Important Group

11 Aug

Hay que reorganizar los cuidados

(Image by gaelx used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Now I’m going to ask you something that you officially don’t have to answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway…”

I was in the middle of a job interview, and the résumé splayed out on the table betrayed my age. I knew exactly what was coming.

“Do you have kids?” the interviewer asked.

“No,” I smiled, remembering that German law protected me from having to tell him if and when I ever planned to.

“Good,” he smiled back, glancing to the side as if afraid of being overheard. “Because I hate to say it, but employees with kids will not be able to do this job.”

It was clear to me he wasn’t being sexist or anti-family – just honest. The job in question involved shifts at all hours of the day that would change from week to week. There wasn’t any room for developing a schedule of any regularity, or for excusing oneself repeatedly during flu season. And it wasn’t the only profession I’d heard of that demanded flexibility while offering none back. This year has seen study after study reveal that childless women are heavily favored in academia and the corporate world, while men in any field face miserable stigma if they dare prioritize paternal commitments over professional ones. Parents have it so hard.

But then again, so do childless employees. Yet another study out this year revealed that middle class childless women in the public service sector face stigma and sometimes even harassment in the work place for defying traditional gender expectations. In these jobs, working moms are sometimes accommodated more readily than single ladies, leading Amanda Marcotte to complain at Slate of “women missing dates, exercise classes, and social outings in order to cover for the mothers they work with.” In New York magazine, feminist Ann Friedman argued:

Many corporations now strive for a veneer of family friendliness, so it’s not likely a woman will get the stink-eye for leaving early to catch her kid’s soccer game. Which is a feminist victory. But if a childless employee cops to the fact that she’s ducking out for a yoga class? It’s seen as downright indulgent and may even show up on a performance review.

If you’ve ever waded into the debate between childfree adults and parents, online or off, you know they tend to be rather resentful of one another. I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate to both. At this time last year I wrote about the depths of the pain self-righteous parents can inflict on others. But for every supercilious mother I’ve witnessed flaunting her offspring like Olympic gold medals, I’ve also seen huffy child-freers rolling their eyes the moment a toddler enters their field of vision, having no qualms with letting everyone know that the mere existence of a child in their presence is an assault on their personal freedom. Which brings new meaning to the word “childish.”

It’s a shame because the childfree movement has many excellent points to make about society and gender bias. Summing it all up to the inherent undesirability of children is the worst possible political tactic because no one who believes in human rights can write off an entire group of people who have no choice about belonging to that group. Would we tolerate anyone saying, “I can’t stand the elderly”? Or “There is no way I am ever going to learn to like mentally disabled people”?  And anyone who trashes someone else’s reproductive decisions in order to justify their own will never, ever convince the skeptics they need on their side. They’ll just come off as intolerant and judgmental.

And while mothers hit a wall if they insist that theirs is the hardest job in the world, I don’t think we’re going to get very far arguing that employees should have just as much right to leave work early to make it to yoga class as they do to make it to their kid’s soccer game. In the choice between work versus yoga, nothing but my own happiness is riding on the decision. Because it’s me-time. In the choice between work versus my nephew’s soccer game, someone else’s happiness is also at stake. Because it’s caregiving.

This is not to say that single people have less important lives than those with children. Nor do I intend to suggest that parenting is the hardest job in the world. (As mother and feminist Jessica Valenti pointed out in Why Have Kids?, can anyone say with a straight face that being a parent is harder than being a firefighter or an oncologist?) But those who dedicate a large chunk of their time to others in need of care should always be accommodated more readily than those who don’t. Because helping others in need—whether it’s your kids, your parents, your friend’s kids, or anyone you know who is dependent due to age, disability or illness—is work in itself. It’s often a labor of love, but it’s labor nonetheless. And usually it increases your need for me-time, while leaving you with even less time for it.

As a childless woman, I have occasionally been an unpaid caregiver and frequently the one in need of care. I’ve taken time off from work to babysit my neighbors’ toddler, to bring my nephews to the pediatrician, to pick up a friend’s daughter from kindergarten, to help organize a funeral and sort through an estate. And my parents, relatives, husband and friends have taken time off from work in order to take me to physical therapy, to check-ups and procedures, to be at my bedside before and after surgery. The ideal family-friendly workplace would accommodate any employee’s need to help someone in regular need of assistance.

And maybe if we extend the value of good parenting to the value of good caregiving, we’ll be able to have more discussions about how freakin’ hard it can be. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.  And some are naturally better at caregiving than others, regardless of gender.

But why is taking time off for your child’s recital more generous than taking time off for a date with a friend? Isn’t a childless peer just as valuable as a family member? Of course, but let’s not fool ourselves. Sitting through an entire school recital is a lot less fun than fine dining. (Hence the rule at Springfield Elementary: “No leaving after your kid’s part is done.”) And helping a friend through a typical young adult “crisis” like a breakup will never require the same sort of patience, empathy and thick skin that you need for helping someone through serious illness, severe injury, death or divorce. Commiserating, while still noble in its intentions, is simply saying, “I’ve been there!” and swapping sob stories within the boundaries of our comfort zone. Empathizing is forcing ourselves to stretch our imaginations and open our hearts to someone whose experience frustrates us, or maybe even scares us, because it is essentially different from our own experience. Because empathizing is so much harder, it is undeniably more noble.

Young, childless, upper/middle class adults like me will probably always be seen as the most self-indulgent because our stage in life is the least likely to involve illness or dependency. But those who volunteer after work to play with underprivileged children or tutor illiterate adults or regularly call their lonely relatives demonstrate that social segregation is in part a choice.

This is not to guilt everyone into feeling that our lives are meaningless unless we start volunteering. But we should be honest, not touchy, if our lifestyles are in fact more self-centered than others’. This year, unlike years past, I find myself only occasionally dedicating my time to someone else. My husband has been the giver, exerting himself to maintain the work-life balance constantly threatened by the pressures of his job and my medical needs. And for that he deserves accommodation from his employers, and both gratitude and admiration from me.

 

 

Wear Whatever You Want – We Can Handle It!

2 Sep

(Via)

 

This family portrait of a father and son in a small town—deep in the province and deeply religious—in Southern Germany has been traveling around the world.  When his five year-old boy expressed a love for dresses but found himself alone on the playground, Nils Pickert writes in Emma magazine that the only way to make sure his son knew that he supported him 100% was to be a role model of self-confidence and don a skirt himself.

“Yeah, I’m one of those fathers who believes in liberation when it comes to parenting,” he writes.  “I am not one of those academic dads who ruminates and lectures about equality between the sexes, and then, the moment a child arrives, slips back into the old comfortable gender roles: He does his own thing by having a career, she takes care of the rest.”

When he switched to a new kindergarten, the teasing got to be too much and the author’s son stopped wearing dresses to pre-school.  But he turned to his father and asked, wide-eyed, “Papa, when are you going to wear a skirt again?”  So Dad made sure to keep wearing his skirt out in public.  He writes, “I’m very grateful to the woman who stared at us on the street until she walked into a lamppost.  My son roared with laughter.  And the next day, he fished a dress out of his closet again.”

I don’t have much to add to this story besides the smile it brought to my face.  And a hope that someday these two will be models for a poster that will take its place in history alongside Rosie the Riveter.

 

 

 

When It Comes To A Boy In A Dress, The Question Is: What’s Wrong With Us?

12 Aug

When I was about 10 years-old, a friend of mine with achondroplasia was being teased at her school for being so short.  After being shunned at lunchtime repeatedly—“No freaks at this table!”—her mother finally called her local chapter of Little People of America, which sent a spokesman into the school to give a presentation.  After he read Thinking Big to the class, explaining thoroughly in an age-appropriate manner why my friend looked the way she did, one of the biggest bullies raised his hand.  “So, you mean, she’s little because she’s a dwarf?” he asked.

The spokesman offered to let my friend answer the question herself and she replied, “Yes.”

The boy who had teased her so much suddenly had tears in his eyes.  It later came out that his new baby brother had just been diagnosed with dwarfism.  He had had no idea until that moment that his brother was going to grow up to look just like the girl he’d targeted. 

To anyone who insists, “He couldn’t have known,” he could have.  We could have let him know.  What is school for, if not the pursuit of knowledge?  With the exception of women, all minorities risk marginalization not only by others’ lack of empathy but by the lack of visibility automatically brought on by their lower numbers.  Any place that prides itself on learning should pride itself on learning about other perspectives, other identities, other behaviors, no matter how rare.

So “What’s Wrong With A Boy Who Wears A Dress?” asks The New York Times magazine on its cover this week.  Despite that the flippant headline sacrifices sensitivity for saleability, at least it’s shedding light on the subject.  I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest:

 


When asked why he likes regularly wearing his wife’s nightgowns, one man shrugged, “It’s comfy.”

The Times article has its flaws.  When discussing how boys who wear dresses turn out later in life, the article stuffs them into three overly simplistic boxes: a) gay, b) heterosexual, and c) transsexual.  Such labels do not encompass all the ways and reasons people of various gender identities and sexualities wear dresses into adulthood.  As one friend observed, “The path of least resistance for so many is to wear dresses in secret.  By using these limiting categories, the article implies that and also does nothing to change that.”  The use of the categories also implies that these individuals owe us a clear-cut, sex-based explanation for their behavior, which is itself a symptom of narrow mindedness.  No one demands a woman explain why she likes wearing jeans.

And yet the article also keeps its subjects silent.  While documenting the struggles of both conservative and liberal parents, the author would have been wise to include the perspective of adults who wore or wear dresses.  In the absence of their agency, their nervous parents are essentially speaking for them.  (Rule Number One in Battling Intolerance: Never, ever let a minority’s agency be ignored.)

But for all these errors, the article concludes with those who ultimately support their sons as best they can.  One dad heard that his five year-old was being taunted in kindergarten for wearing pink socks, so he bought himself a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear in solidarity.  The kindergarten teacher jumped in, too, opening up a class discussion about the history of gender rules and shocking the kids with the information that girls were once not allowed to wear pants. 

Whenever reports on “different” children list the anxieties parents have about their kids not being accepted, the message often starts to get muddled.  Sometimes the article is clear that we as members of society need to get over our hysterical hang-ups and start accepting these children as they are so that they and their parents no longer have to worry what we and our own children will say.  Too often, however, the article spends so much time quoting the parents’ fears that the source of the problem starts to sound more and more like the child’s disruptive identity, not others’ clumsy reactions to his identity.  And that’s wrong.

Whenever a child is made fun of for being himself, it’s our problem, not his.  Biologists can say what they want about a fear of difference being an evolutionary adaptation, but our culture values differences two ways, either as “abnormal” (i.e., strange and pitiful) or “super-normal” (strange and admirable).  The Beatles’ mop-tops were abnormal to parents of the time (“They look like girls!”), and super-normal to their teenage children.  In the nature vs. nurture debate, we need to stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture,” because changing the environment a child grows up in means changing the behaviors of more than just one set of parents.  Mine never once told my younger brother, “Only sissies cry,” but his little league coach told the team just that.

This is our culture and we are the ones shaping it as the creators and consumers.  By making and watching films and TV shows that state what’s “gay,” “wimpy,” “ugly,” “freaky,” or “gross.”  By stating, “Guys just don’t do that,” or letting such remarks go unchallenged.  By repeating traditional views of minorities—e.g. the dwarfs of Snow White and Lord of the Rings—and failing to provide more realistic portrayals with greater frequency.  As adults, we bear so much responsibility for shaping the world the younger generation is trying to navigate.   (As this German Dad proved so well.)

Since the Sixties, many parents and teachers and educational programs have embraced books that promote understanding of ethnic diversity such as People and of disability such as I Have A Sister: My Sister Is Deaf to broaden our children’s perspective and nurture empathy toward people they do not encounter every day.  Yet books like My Princess Boy or The Boy In The Dress have yet to break into the standard curriculum.  There seems to be an unspoken assumption that such books are primarily for the boys they’re about.  (Buy them only after your son starts actively asking for a tiara.)  But everyone should be reading them, for the same reason everyone should be reading Thinking Big.  By waiting to address the idea of free gender expression until a little boy gets bullied, we are cultivating the assumption that the problem never existed until that little boy came along.  The problem was always there.  

Critics have argued The Boy In the Dress is unsuitable for any boy in real life who feels the like the protagonist because any school he attends in real life is far less likely to rally around him so enthusiastically.  But that’s exactly why this book needs to be read and discussed and picked apart by school classes around the world, not just by boys alone in their bedrooms. 

As a teacher, babysitter and relative, I encourage the little boys in my life to play dress-up, house or princess with their female playmates because I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it’s any different from encouraging the girls to get down and dirty in the mud with their brothers.  Sure it’s radical—just as my mother’s wearing jeans to school 42 years ago was radical—and the last thing I want to do is turn a child into something he’s not.  But as with a girl, I want him to feel that every option is open to him, despite any hang-ups tradition has about it.  And if it becomes evident that he truly has no interest in anything soft or sparkly, I at least want to do my best to ensure that he never, ever makes fun of any boys who feel otherwise.

 

 

When You Gonna Start Makin’ Babies?

22 Jul

Gotcha by Clint McMahon(Image by Clint McMahon used under CC license via)

 

A while back, tucked inside one of my longer posts was a link to a conversation Rosie O’Donnell had in February with comedienne Chelsea Handler on her show in which she discussed her phobia of dwarfs.  Driven by Handler’s insistence that sex with a dwarf would be “child abuse,” the conversation devolved into musing about how dwarf women give birth:

O’Donnell: When a little person has a normal-sized person, I don’t understand how that happens.

Handler: That I don’t understand!

O’Donnell: I don’t get it.  How come the little person isn’t dead when the normal-sized baby comes out?

Handler: Sometimes two smalls make a tall.

O’Donnell: But how does it come out?

Handler: I don’t know.  I think anything can come out of that.

For your information, Chelsea, when it comes to achondroplasia—the most common type of dwarfism—“two smalls” have the exact same chance of having a “tall” (25%) as they do of having a child with two achondroplastic, homozygous genes, which is always fatal.  (The baby is usually stillborn or dies within the first few weeks after birth.)

O’Donnell has since apologized for talking about her phobia of dwarfs, though Little People of America have rightly said she missed the point.  Many have said that as an openly gay woman, she should know better when discussing prejudice, but I was more surprised by her callousness in light of her being an adoptive parent.  And I notice my (hyper-)sensitivity to that issue seems to grow every time I encounter it.

And of course I seem to be encountering it everywhere nowadays.  “When ya gonna start makin’ babies?”  Almost all of us in our late twenties and thirties are used to being asked this regularly.  I’ve been told I should take it as a compliment, since it’s rarely asked of couples who would make terrible parents.  Yet I’ve been amazed at how intrusive the questions and comments can be, how often something as personal as parenthood is treated like small talk.  It’s understandable as more of my peers become parents; the prospect of making humans is daunting and people need to vent about it.  Those who don’t want children while living in a baby-obsessed world feel the need to vent back.  All this venting results both in community-building and in tactless comments that knock those outside of the community. 

One of my friends who miscarried was told by a stranger, “Well, it wasn’t a real baby.”  A friend who adopted a girl from South Korea was told by a fellow church member, “Her eyes aren’t that bad.”  A friend who had a C-section was told she must not feel as close to her child as women who give birth “naturally.”  Childfree friends have been told that their lives will be never be “complete” until they’ve had children.  A biology professor who had two foster daughters was asked if he was worried they would inherit their imprisoned father’s criminal tendencies because “that stuff’s in the genes, y’know.”  I’ve been told it’s selfish to want a child with achondroplasia, it’s selfish to want a child without achondroplasia, it’s selfish to allow my child to inherit my achondroplasia, it’s selfish to play God with genetics, it’s selfish to want to biologically reproduce what with the world population exploding, and it’s selfish to worry about any of this because it’s not like I’m infertile.  All of these comments were well-intentioned. 

Usually people are simply thinking out loud when they say such things.  It is important to remember that no one can be expected to know exactly what to say in unusual circumstances, lest I end up lecturing as if I’ve never inadvertently offended anyone.  Almost all of us have good intentions, but many are unaware of how quickly we redirect conversations back to our own experiences, how easily we forget to prioritize listening over interrogating, empathy over curiosity, respect over Thank-God-that’s-not-me! complacency.   

Hereditary conditions, finances, disabilities, infertility, relationships and emotions ensure that having children is not a universal experience.  There is no right way for everyone and any opinion that can in any way be construed as a judgment can cut someone deep because babies and bodies are entangled in supremely visceral feelings.  It’s no coincidence that Roe v. Wade was argued based on the right to privacy: Something as sensitive, as complicated and as profoundly emotional as your reproductive choices should be volunteered at your discretion. 

That said, parenthood is all about making decisions that will inexorably affect someone else’s life, not just your own, and this is why it is such a hot-button issue.  Our reproductive decisions, more than any other decisions, are the intersection of personal freedoms and social responsibility.  As the daughter of a social worker who worked for Child Protective Services, I have firm beliefs about right and wrong when it comes to parenting.  As someone whose genes make the prospect of parenthood unusually complicated, I’ve begun to see how judgmental those beliefs can come off when the presentation is sloppy. 

As an avid reader of Offbeat Families, I know that sharing knowledge and experiences can help others in so many ways.  But as someone who feels very ambivalent about offering up my not-yet-existent children’s potential situation as conversation fodder, I’ve become less trustful of many of my most well-meaning friends and family members.  Questions about my situation so quickly transform into lectures about their situation.  (I’ve also noticed that the more nervous someone is, the more they lecture.)  Besides making me more guarded about my personal experience, it has also taught me to stop myself from making snap judgments about others’ reproductive choices.  When dealing with anyone else’s family planning, I have been humbly learning to: 

 1)      Fight the urge and try not to ask others about their reproductive choices, especially in the context of small talk.  Let them volunteer it.  Go ahead and volunteer your own stories, but don’t press the other person if they do not respond in kind.  We can never assume what’s lurking under there. 

 2)      Beware of talking about the decisions you made in a way that inadvertently hurts those who must make different decisions.  This is also very tricky, but if you are convinced water birth is the only way you can imagine doing it or you are proudly childfree or you know exactly how to make sure it’s a girl, be aware that people in different financial or medical situations may not have these options at all.    

 3)      When someone does want to share something you have little experience with (e.g. adoption, stillbirth, staying childfree, etc.), prioritize listening and learning over immediately finding something to compare it to.  Relativizing struggles can be helpful and I’ve gotten some great feedback from friends, but my guard goes up when someone without achondroplasia tells me right away they know what I should do because they know someone whose baby has diabetes, they took a college class on bio-ethics, or they heard something like it on the news.

4)      Only offer your ethical opinion if the person makes it perfectly clear they want to hear it.  Every society bears the responsibility of taking a legal stance on complex reproductive issues: prenatal testing, genetic counseling, birth control, abortion, sterilization, drug testing, assisted reproductive technology, the life of the mother vs. the life of the fetus, custody, adoption, foster care, etc.  We are all compelled as citizens to be aware of the laws concerning these issues.  And we all have our own opinions about them.  But anyone directly affected by them is likely to have heard it before and to have been thinking about it longer than we have.  I’ve been thinking about the effects my dwarfism may have on my kids since I was fourteen.

5)      Don’t gossip about others’ decisions behind their backs.  It makes your listeners aware how they will be talked about when it’s their turn to decide about having children.  There is a fine but crucial line between trying to understand situations that are new to you and using someone’s situation to tell an interesting story.

6)      Do try to actively listen when invited to, saying truly supportive things, as one or two particularly fantastic friends of mine have, such as: “I can only begin to imagine what I’d do in that situation.”  “Let me know if you don’t want to answer this question…”  “On a much smaller level, it sounds a tiny bit like what I felt when…”   “No matter what you decide, I know you’ll be great at it because…”  “I’m always here to listen if you ever need to spill, as long as it helps.”

Of course, in listing here what I have learned not to do, I can only hope that my own past SNAFUs have been minimal.  Insensitivity, by definition, is the disconnect between intention and effect.  Embarrassed apologies to anyone whose toes I stepped on while stomping through my own bigfooted opinions.

 

 

Cross-posted on August 27, 2012 at Offbeatfamilies.com

Today’s Princesses: Teaching Them “That Self-Absorption Is The Same As Self-Confidence”

10 Mar

When I was growing up, I had a hard time remembering that McDonald’s and Disney were not the same company.  I still have a hard time remembering that.  Both aggressively market products few can spend their entire lives resisting because their advertising budgets are unrivaled and because they have mastered the recipes for broad appeal.  Both are aggressively exported to other countries, representing all that is optimistic, colorful, unsubtle and indulgent about America.  Both are harmless in small doses but unhealthy when they attain the monopoly on a child’s life they’ve been aiming for.

I’ve just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.  Like Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, Orenstein examines a corner of our culture that does not take constructive criticism well.  It is because of the magnitude of the pink princess deluge driven by Disney and their ilk combined with their defensive refusal to admit any fault or responsibility—“It’s what every girl wants!”—that her work deserves such a warm welcome.

For any of her failures to perfectly repair the girlie-girl culture in 200 pages, Orenstein offers several impeccable articulations of the problems.  Princess packages are problematic when they impose rote scripts and must-have shopping lists, stifling rather than encouraging creativity.  Sexualization is problematic when the implied goal is not to attain pleasure but to please a man in exchange for being approved of as pretty.  Social networking online is problematic when “the self becomes a brand to be marketed to others rather than developed from within.”  And the Muppets are problematic when, for all their ingenuity, they still can’t come up with more than two female Muppets.  I think I’m going to end up quoting her a lot.

The New York Times praised her book while emphasizing that it is little cause for alarm seeing as most girls outgrow the pink princess phase.  As a former Snow White wannabe, I know this can be true, but I had kick-ass feminists in my life to help me along the way, including a dad who sewed my costumes.  I hesitate to agree with the Times’s assertion that “most” move on.   Orenstein provides depressing figures on the rise of female eating disorders, the recent drop in computer science degrees, the persistent problem of young women equating “feeling good” with “looking hot.”  Even as I tend to surround myself with self-confident, intellectual women who define themselves as much more than their prettiness and their purchases, I regularly encounter those who fit into Orenstein’s figures.  They are the ones whose fathers only gave them credit cards, never engaging them in intellectual discussion, and who now avoid debate like an ugly outfit.  They are the ones who know that appearing pretty means non-threatening, so self-confidence is tossed out for coyness, self-assertion is abandoned for pouting, and wit is relinquished for fawning giggles in the presence of men.  They are the ones who torture themselves over their looks—“I’m so ugly! I’m so fat!”—in order to land a man and then keep him from cheating, spending more of their day unhappy than any other people I know.  They are the ones who have not left the princess phase because they do not know how to. 

Too often criticism of the princess culture is misconstrued as bitter resentment by those who just don’t have what it takes to wow the guys or woo the pageant judges.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is sincere concern inspired by the hard evidence of the very real dangers that motivates critics like Orenstein:

There is… ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy.  And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.  They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners wear condoms. 

Depression, eating disorders, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy are nothing to sneeze at.  Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Houston found women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who don’t.  A Rutgers University study found they are also more likely to be in a relationship and their partners report more satisfaction with their sex lives.  Isn’t that the happily ever after every parent wants for their daughter?      

Sometimes Orenstein’s feminist alternatives to the pink princesses sound soft compared to the roar of her reprimands.  Focusing only on the (admittedly daunting) price of the dolls, she misses a major opportunity to understand the educational, multi-cultural brilliance of the American Girl history series.  Disney’s The Princess and The Frog promotes independence, battles lookism and exemplifies egalitarian romance in all the ways Beauty and the Beast failed to, yet Orenstein’s review of the film was as weak as its box office performance.  Princess Fiona of Shrek is bad-ass and the third film in the series parodies princesses better than anything else it takes a jab at.  However, I wonder how necessary any model of romance—feminist or traditional—is for the preschool set.

Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the pre-pubescent girls and the post-pubescent ladies in books and toy stores, and on the screen.  Sparkles and daisies are innocuous. Unrealistic beauty standards and boy-crazy storylines are not.  The original Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite were not the cleverest female role models, but they acted their age and thus appropriately for their target audience.  Their cadres of friends were coed.  They regularly outwitted male villains—proving that girls’ problems aren’t limited to cat fights—and the reward was always a happier world, either more colorful or fruit-filled.  Like Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite demonstrated that to be cute is to be round and childlike, not dangerously busty-yet-skinny like Barbie and the Disney Princesses.  But both Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have since been redesigned to at least suggest adolescence:     

 

Characters that were not invented first and foremost to sell dolls and costumes are usually a safer bet.  Lilo and her sister Nani of Lilo and Stitch are two of the best female characters in cinema history, let alone the Disney canon.  Meanwhile, Pippi Longstocking is worshipped in Northern Europe by boys and girls alike.  Indeed, wouldn’t a more pro-active welcoming of boys into the princess culture dilute a lot of its sexism?  How about dads reading The American Girls to their sons as often as moms read Harry Potter to their daughters?  Orenstein does recognize the potential for that revolution, citing a Creighton University study that showed half of boys aged 5 to 13 chose to play with “girls’ toys” as often as “boys’ toys,” but only after they were promised that their fathers wouldn’t find out about it.

Like the families relying on fast-food several times a week, many parents find it difficult to resist the pink marketers’ schemes and the peer pressure foisted upon their daughters in play groups.  There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink.  But just as we have demanded healthier Happy Meals and more farmers’ markets, we should demand more varied toys, activities and role models for our children, refusing any monochrome model of girlhood.