Go, Katie, go!

Because I’ve been out of the country for a month, I was forced to forgo my tabloid addiction. Upon returning to the USA, I was absolutely thrilled to see on the covers of both US Weekly and People that Katie Holmes has left Tom Cruise.

Holmes secured a divorce settlement from the great and powerful Cruise with full custody just 11 days after filing.

Wow. That’s a 180 from the experience of Cruise’s second wife, Nicole Kidman, who basically lost her kids after her split from Cruise to her husband and his passion for Scientology. Tabloids report that Holmes was well aware of Kidman’s situation and did everything in her power to prevent that fate from becoming her own.

Look, I know it’s the tabloids. I know I have no clue what is going on in the real lives of these people. But, if you read Reel Girl, you know I’m obsessed with gender representation in the fantasy world and how the fantasy world creates the real world and the real one creates the fantasy one, back and forth, on and on. The tabloids are one place where reality and fantasy blur and intersect, creating and perpetuating our cultural mythology. There is no denying how powerful and influential these narratives become, especially when it comes to gender roles.

Pre-Tom, I was a Katie Holmes fan. I loved “Dawson’s Creek.” I also loved a movie Holmes was in called “Go.”

I was freaked out, along with much of celebrity obsessed America, reading about Cruise’s courtship of Holmes, how he supposedly created a list if appropriate wives– all about 15 years younger than he, less famous, and with an “innocent” persona, like Kerri Russel. After Cruise chose Holmes, she started hanging out with Cruise’s BFF couple, Posh and Becks, and underwent a metamorphosis, cutting her hair into a chic bop and becoming a fashion icon.

Holmes’s career stalled. Supposedly, she dropped out of films because Cruise didn’t approve of the sexy roles. All I can remember that she’s been in since her marriage is a stupid comedy co-starring Queen Latifah.

One of the details that disturbed me the most post-engagement was the way  Cruise always referred to his wife as “Kate.” He was quoted as saying something like “Kate is a grown up name.” I was relieved to see that Katie Holmes never complied, changing her name/ identity to Kate Cruise. That choice gave me a shred of hope for her.

My reliable sources of US and People tell me that Holmes was carefully plotting her escape for some time. Before filing for divorce, she fired her security team, changed her cell, and got herself an apartment in New York City.

Tabloids report that a major reason for the split was that Holmes did not want daughter Suri brought up in the church of Scientology. Besides not being a fan of Scientology schools, Holmes did not approve of how the church advocated treating kids like adults: no bedtime, giving them whatever they want. Maybe I’m being naive, but this picture in US Weekly of Suri not getting a puppy she was obviously dying for, seems to show Holmes is, in fact, taking control.

Reading the stories, I feel the same relief when I read about Ellen leaving Tiger or Sandra Bullock leaving Jesse James. The women got away. They got away! To me, these stories are heroic, and I’m grateful for the narrative, instead of the more dominant myth of standing by your man. These women are not victims.

After Kidman split from Cruise, her career soared. She became known as one of our best actresses, winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Virgina Woolf (America’s admiration for her skill aided by the fact that Kidman dared to sport an unattractive prosthetic nose.)

I am rooting for the same acclaim to come to Holmes now. I can’t wait to see what she will do.

Obama is back, people!

He’s back, people!

First, President Obama made the amazing and inspiring move last week to finally support gay marriage. Have you see the latest New Yorker cover?

Is this beautiful or what? How could anyone not feel happy looking at this image?

The whole idea that gay marriage is “anti-family” or threatens “traditional” marriage is such an inane, warped, self-defeating argument.

“Traditional” marriage was, of course, created as a financial contract to control the means of reproduction, that is, women. When women had no social, political, or financial power, when they were not allowed to own property and only valued for how many children they could bear, marriage existed to legalize and ritualize the transfer of ownership of women from father to husband.

Remnants of those ancient roles of womanhood are actually still prevalent in marriage ceremonies. Brides initially wore white to symbolize their sexual purity. The question about “Does anyone know why the marriage should not take place?” was also asked in order to determine if the bride was a virgin.

If I hadn’t lived in San Francisco and witnessed gays fight for the right to marry, I doubt I would be married today. I thought marriage was an antiquated and sexist institution, and I wanted no part of it. But then I moved here, worked in talk radio, and watched gays struggle to gain the right. I’d never even thought of marriage “a right.” Almost the opposite. Marriage was something I was expected– and not much interested– in doing. But here, it became redefined for me as something romantic, vital, and exciting; something worth fighting for and possibly even doing myself.

I actually wrote about all this for The Chronicle back in 2000, the year before I met my husband. Prop 22 was on the ballot in California, an initiative to restrict marriage to only opposite-sex couples. At the same time, Fox was broadcasting “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” What crazy hypocrisy. Here was a show where women’s worth was measured by how well they conformed to limited ideals of beauty while male worth was measured by wallet size. That kind of union was not only legal but worth celebrating?

Prop 22 passed that year. “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire” became one of the highest rated shows and ushered in an era of “reality TV” that is still dominating the networks. Oh, and the millionaire, Rick Rockwell, turned out to have a restraining order for domestic violence against him. But he was heterosexual, so it’s all good, right?

The fight for gay marriage has been the best thing that has happened to the institution in years, maybe ever. It’s so clear that if marriage is going to survive and thrive in this culture, to appeal to the next generation, it must continue to evolve, as it always has. Allowing gays to marry does just that; it shatters the antiquated sex stereotypes, the part of marriage that reduced human beings to property, while retaining what is best about marriage: the love, public commitment, romance, and vows. Legalizing gay marriage is good for families and good for America. That’s why when Obama came out in support of it, I sent him money as did many Americans. Now the president is getting criticized because that decision may have been “political?” Of course his decisions are political. He’s the president.

Then yesterday, President Obama spoke at Barnard, not Columbia, his alma mater, but the women’s college. His choice to speak at Barnard communicates that he values women. Was that a calculated, political decision as well? I hope so. The president ought to be sending a clear message to women that he cares about getting our votes.

Obama’s whole speech was great, but I especially love the part where he told the Barnard women why the imaginary world matters:

“Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one.”

People often act like the imaginary world is not important or separate from the “real” wold. But the narratives that we surround ourselves shape our psyches, inspire our actions, and create our community. If you ever doubt the power of a story to drive human behavior, look at the most popular historical novel of all time, the Bible, and how that narrative has led to the creation of politics, art, architecture, cities,  jobs, wars, governments, marriages, and on and on and on.

If you haven’t read Obama’s whole speech, here it is.

Does an internet addicted mom create internet addicted kids?

Over the winter holidays this year, my household bumped up to the next level with technology. By January I had my first smart phone ever (an iphone) an ipad (I am in love) our first flat screen TV and a new computer (our former one was seven years old.) The upgrade was a long time coming, and I don’t regret it. But I have been seriously challenged trying to stay away from my new toys. The new technology combined with my passion for blogging and my whole community of cool, amazing women on Facebook means I can literally spend hours on various screens.

So here are the problems:

(1) I’m writing a book. Writing books is hard. Especially when there are kids around. I’ll take any opportunity to stop writing (“I need to RSVP to that kid’s party right now!”) and then I get STUCK by some email, lured onto Facebook, lured onto my blog. Then I don’t write. I feel shitty. Like an addict, seriously.

(2) My kids want screen time. The more time I spend on the screen, the more time my kids want on the screen. More and more as a mom, I am realizing what I say means close to nothing. What I do, that’s a whole different thing. My kids really pay attention to what I do, and if I am obsessed with something, they are as well. Screen time is now the biggest thing we fight over in my house.  My kids want to look up things on the internet, they want to buy apps for my iphone. This includes my two year old, because she sees her sisters begging and repeats what they say. Talking to my kids, yelling at my kids, giving my kids consequences did not change their behavior. You know what did? I stopped using the computer around them. I stopped taking out my iphone and checking my email. They stopped asking. This weekend we hung out in the backyard and made fairyhouses and looked for bugs. We practiced bik eriding. We read a lot. My kids did tons of fantasy play with each other.

Normally, I hop on the computer when I don’t think they’re looking. When they’re really engaged in something else so I don’t think they’ll notice. But they do notice. And when I’m on, I’m always only half present to them, and when they want my attention, I often feel annoyed. I don’t at all think I need to available to my kids in all my free weekend moments. But for now, I’m trying reading a book or doing chores when they’re around and I think they’re occupied. It’s really for my own sake. I’m sick of the arguments about screens. So far, the whole family is much happier. It’s been four days…

Small talk

I know making small talk with a two year old is hard. Toddlers can be shy, are easily distracted, and might even burst into tears if you say the wrong thing. It’s not easy to break the ice. But please: if you meet a little girl on the street, in a store, on the playground,  try to think of something, anything to say rather than commenting on her hair, dress, shoes, eyes etc.

My two year old just started preschool, and by the time I’ve kissed her good bye and left in her in the classroom, she’s gotten about 10 compliments on her appearance. Of course, she’s adorable. All little kids are. But remember, their little brains are getting wired up. Kids love attention, to be smiled at, and to connect– these are exactly the kinds of interactions that make their brains grow. When they learn, this young, that so many responses are based on how they look, it affects them for life.

For alternative ice breakers try “Hi, you seem happy today! What’s going on? (or sad or angry)” or “Is that your kitty? (or bunny, dog) What’s her name?” Talk about the weather, seriously. Ask if they come here often. If you must say something to a little girl about how she looks, balance it out with other topics that have nothing to do with her appearance (meaning don’t talk about how she looks unless this is going to be a long interaction.)

When people tell your daughter how pretty she is, don’t repeat the compliment to her (as in “She loves this dress. It’s her favorite.”) Don’t make her say thank you. Gently deflect the topic. No matter what other people say, you’re the parent whose opinion matters most to her at this age. Do tell your daughters they are beautiful “on the inside and the outside.” It’s something that should be said by you and that she feels confident about. It’s the proportion of looks based comments, the constant repetition of them, and how they form the basis for social interaction that’s damaging.

My daughter and my mortgage

What do you teach your kids about money?

I know lots of parents do allowance but that hasn’t worked so well in our family. There was anxiety about lost money, skipped payments, fights over what the money should be used for. It didn’t seem like a great way to introduce financial life to my kids.

So I switched strategies and my new plan seems to be working well. I just try to talk to my kids about money without attaching emotion to the topic, without getting into any big issues of rich or poor, without even focusing much on values like saving or spending. I am basically teaching them about money the same way I teach them about new words or the solar system.

My oldest kid is eight and I’ve taught her about our mortgage. She can read the monthly statement. She knows how much we owe on the house, how much we pay every month, how much of that goes to the down payment and how much goes to the bank, though she doesn’t understand what interest is. She loves to open up the statement and as far as I can tell, she doesn’t equate the house or the money we owe with anxiety or status or anything much at all.

My hope for my daughters is that they grow up financially literate and comfortable talking about money, that its natural for them to do so and not scary, that they are able to talk about money with bosses, business partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands or whomever.

Maybe in a year or so, I’ll attempt allowance again.

Why would a feminist be good at housework?

Not only do I hate housework, I’m horrible at it. Mess doesn’t bother me in some basic way it annoys other people. If I see something on the floor, I feel no strong need to pick it up.

But here’s the problem: I live with four other people in a house that fits us only if we are super organized. Our home is a Victorian built in 1911 with tiny, flat closets and no garage. Basically, zero storage space. So, though I may be missing the gene that makes you like everything in its proper place, as previously posted, I don’t like to yell at my kids and I don’t like to waste time. The antidote, I’ve slowly come to realize, is keeping life organized.

I’ve been getting lots of help in this area from a fascinating book called Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. I bought this book years ago, not because I was interested at all in keeping house. I’d read about it on Salon and was intrigued that the author was a philosophy professor, Harvard Law grad and was also obsessed by housekeeping. Why would someone so smart care so much about housekeeping? But the book was just too huge– over 8oo pages. I only read her intro and decided this woman wasn’t just obsessed, she had OCD. Whatever I was missing, she had too much of. Clearly, a smart woman cared this much about housekeeping only because she was crazy. I stopped reading.

This all happened when I was single and lived blissfully alone in a one bedroom flat I rented. But now, I need help.

Last week, after repeated letters from the library, I finally set out to search for my kids overdue books. That’s when I came across Mendelson’s book on the shelf, covered with dust (which she wouldn’t like) ten years since I’d opened it. I’ve had it near me ever since. Quite simply, this book is saving my life. Or rather, it’s helping to give me my life back. Mendelson’s housekeeping isn’t about wasting time, it’s about saving it.  Because God knows, I don’t have hours to spend looking for my kids’ books. Who does? Or, maybe more importantly, I don’t have the energy to waste being pissed off at my kids while I’m looking. Instead, I need to conserve crucial resources (time and energy) by designating a shelf in the house where we keep the library books. I need to make sure we keep up with putting them there. Duh.

I’ll admit, I was a little worried I was so into this read. Had getting married and having kids messed up my brain? Had I developed OCD? If I did in fact do what Mendelson recommended, would I ever do anything but clean and organize? I wanted to know: What has this woman done since she wrote this massive book besides clean house? I googled her. Since 1999, Mendelson has written and published three more books– all novels. She also teaches and lectures. That sold me–  keeping house allows you to accomplish more, not less.

Not only that, something else in Mendelson’s book changed the way I think about housekeeping into something that actually inspires me. She writes that making a home a home is not about decor or furnishings. She thinks we spend too much money on all that. Nor is making a home about Martha Stewart type knick-knacks, in some nostalgic quest to make an old fashioned, homey home. Mendelson writes:

“Ironically, people are led into the error of playing house instead of keeping house by a genuine desire for home and its comforts. Nostalgia means literally, homesickness.

“What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do in your home. Whether you live alone, with a spouse, parents and ten children, it is your housekeeping that keeps your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can more be yourself than anywhere else.”

I get what she is saying– a home that functions well, that relaxes and restores you and your family, is not about presenting a perfect, finished product. What makes a home a home is the continual process of caring for it.

Yelling or consequences: what’s your parenting MO?

To yell or not to yell?

It takes so much mental preparation for me to get through a school morning without yelling at my kids. I’ve posted before about the steps I’ve got to go through to ensure a calm, happy morning. Basically the process involves: going to bed early (me! not only them) being super-organized (coffee prepared night before, all their clothing out including shoes and socks, backpacks all packed up and on hooks by the door etc.) And still, with all that, when they groan about getting up, complain about the way I do their hair, want to change outfits, refuse to eat breakfast, and tease each other, I struggle not to yell.

And why not yell? Most of us don’t spank– can’t we yell for God’s sake? Don’t they deserve it? Need it, even? And why is sending them off to their rooms, or some other “consequence,” a better choice anyway? Isn’t that banishment just as humiliating as being shouted at?

But here is what I have realized– I can’t yell because yelling is bad for me. If I calmly enforce the consequences, especially an automatic one that I’ve already figured out,  I stay calm. I stay OK. On the other hand, when I yell at my kids, I feel horrible. Yelling stresses my whole body out, even if it’s road rage directed at a stranger. Yelling, especially at a child, doesn’t feel right.

Why does it feel so awful? Part of the reason, I think, is because it’s using emotions to punish kids. When you yell at your kids, you’re basically telling them, teaching them (which I think I read somewhere but never really ‘got’ until recently) “I can have an even bigger tantrum than you can!” Yelling makes my emotions whip around wildly, totally dependent on my kids’ behavior. Anything they do has the potential to throw me into an tailspin.

Before I had kids, I always heard people say, about the whole parenthood thing: you stop putting yourself first. But the more I get used to being a mother, the more I realize, for me, it’s the exact opposite. For the first time in my life, I’ve got to put myself first or everyone suffers. Whatever that requires– from getting rest to eating well to negotiating a good income for myself, I need to constantly figure it out and just do it.  No excuses. It’s like when they tell you on airplanes, your best chance of avoiding disaster and saving lives is to put on your own mask, then help your child. That philosophy, generally, seems to steer me in the right direction when I get confused about which way to turn in this whole parenting labyrinth.

So instead of yelling, I send my kids to their room a lot. My husband and I also “write them down” throughout the day for positives or negatives. Every night, stars are awarded based on the lists that may be cashed in for toys when accumulated to various amounts. Its a huge pain in the ass, and I feel stupid doing it. But, at least for now, it seems to be working for everyone.

Let me know what you think, if you yell or don’t, and what substitutes you’ve come up with that preserve your emotional equilibrium.

Did Reality TV save Taylor Armstrong?

After Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, committed suicide this week, the internet was ablaze, pointing the finger at Reality TV, wanting to know: Did it kill Russell Armstrong?

Today on Salon.com TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes:

It’s time to get real about reality TV. As your parents may have warned you, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. People are getting hurt.

Armstrong, the estranged husband of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, commited suicide on Monday. Friends have said the show changed him, that the pressure of having his marital strains examined on national TV and the financial stress of keeping up with much wealthier cast members all contributed to his emotional collapse.

Seitz calls Reality TV a blood sport and likens it to a modern day gladiator’s arena. His analogy is brilliant, and I’m no fan of the trainwreck that is reality TV. But I also find it disturbing that so much media commentary focuses on the aberration of Armstrong’s behavior becoming so public. What about his behavior? Is the tragedy here that Russell’s violent past, his “marital strains,” became known? Or is it that Russell couldn’t or wouldn’t get the help he needed to treat his sickness?

Violence against women is epidemic but far too invisible. Most survivors are so mired in shame, they don’t talk about the abuse to their friends, family, or the media. Until more survivors choose to speak up, as I wrote about for Salon in 2002, the public, including our legislators, will remain apathetic about taking any real steps to stop the violence. And of course, as long as survivors stay hidden, so do the perpetrators.

Here are some scary statistics about how common and how secret violence against women is (from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence):

One in four women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.

85% of domestic violence victims are women.

Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.

Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.

On average, more than three women are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day.

Domestic violence is one of the most chronically under reported crimes.

Only approximately one-quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes, and one-half of all stalkings perpetuated against females by intimate partners are reported to the police.

Taylor Armstrong bucked the statistics. She said she was abused, she said so publicly, and she left her husband. Two weeks after she left Radar online reported Russell had two restraining orders against him and had pleaded guilt to battery in 1997.

Historically, the time when women are most vulnerable to more violence is when they leave their abusive partners. Did being on Reality TV– the exposure, money, fame, and power, that came with it– help to make Taylor one of the rare women to speak out? Because she was not invisible but exposed, was she, on some level, more protected against further violence than the millions of other women? As the stats above cite, three women are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day.

Obviously, I have no idea what was going on in Russell Armstrong’s head or in Taylor’s. Obviously this is all sad on many levels, but Reality TV’s role in bringing public awareness to the ‘private’ issue of domestic violence is not the tragedy in this story.