About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

#37 - ARGH!

No, that's not a reflection on #37 - Cherishing Our Daughters: How Parents Can Raise Girls to Become Strong and Loving Women, by Evelyn Bassoff (1998, The Putnam Group), which was OK if not perfect ... more a sense that the parenting, marriage, and family theme has run its course. If I were a grad student, the common themes found in popular books from this genre and era (the mid-1990s) would be a fascinating thesis topic. And like any grad student I've ever known, I'd probably get sick to death of the topic after a while. I'm there now after what, 3 or 4 books ... so it's probably a good thing I'm not a grad student anymore. You'll notice that the latest additions to my bookshelf are heavy on the entertaining, mass market fiction; I even went so far as to check out one of the adult-oriented offerings from Meg Cabot, a mostly-YA author Littlehazel's become fond of lately. And at this very moment, I'm halfway through an utterly predictable Maeve Binchy book and enjoying it thoroughly, TYVM.

All righty, then, where was I? Right, Cherishing Our Daughters. After seeing Mary Pipher's praise quoted on the cover, my hopes weren't too high, but this book was actually better than I expected. Essentially, the book is Bassoff's extended meditation on the ten parental "gifts" that are most critical to raising strong, loving daughters: maternal devotion, paternal care, "letting in" (i.e., allowing extended family members to love and support one's daughter, too), protectiveness, limit-setting, respect, wholeness, courage, roots, and wings. I found the "loving and letting in" chapter interesting, having just read The Shelter of Each Other. While Pipher's thoughts on extended family relationships seemed narrow and dictatorial, Bassoff's seem more balanced; she focuses mostly on the grandparent-granddaughter relationship, but acknowledges that there's room for other relatives and close friends to perform similar functions, and addresses the extra wrinkles that arise when there's a blended family and/or a stepparent in the picture.

I also enjoyed the chapters on protectiveness and limit-setting. So often, we hear "protectiveness" prefaced by "over"; by contrast, this book seems to place as much emphasis on teaching girls to be assertive, say no, and trust their gut instincts when something Just Doesn't Seem Right ... in other words, protecting themselves. Bassoff also acknowledges the risks of being too protective, quoting Ellen Goodman (as she does frequently throughout the book):
"But at some point in time, we must also begin to acknowledge the risks of protectiveness. Risks that come when children are taught to be afraid. Risks that come to a diverse society when kids grow up to be suspicious of 'others.' Without even knowing it and with the best intentions, we can stunt our children with our deep longing to keep them safe."
I wasn't thrilled with the end of the protectiveness chapter. This is one of several places throughout the book where Bassoff recounts a popular legend or fairy tale (in this case, that of Briar Rose, a/k/a Sleeping Beauty), and attempts to draw from it some lesson or other to inform our understanding of girls' development. In most cases, I found this approach clunky and out-of-place. The first paragraph of this thread is clear enough:
"[E]ven the most cherished child cannot be kept perfectly safe. Indeed, in one way the curse of the bad fairy represents the inevitable misfortunes that beset every child's life. Although we parents can mitigate the dangers that confront our daughters, we cannot eliminate them. Nor can we stop time and lock our daughters in eternal childhood to preserve their innocence."

Hear, hear; makes sense to me. Unfortunately, rather than stopping here while she's ahead, Bassoff goes on to suggest that the fairy's "curse" represents menstrual bleeding, talk about the feminist critique of the Briar Rose story as "a metaphor for a woman's unhealthy passivity -- the comatose existence that is expected to last until she is rescued by a man's sexual overtures," and so on ... all of which seemed digressive, like it belonged more to a high school junior English class than a book on parenting and female development.

My other main critique of Cherishing Our Daughters was that it contains just a bit too much gender essentialism for my taste. (If you haven't guessed yet, this is a sore spot of mine.) I appreciate the author's repeated emphasis on the importance of both parents' involvement in a girl's development; I recognize that fathers and mothers tend to interact differently with their children, and that this is generally a good thing. I don't, however, agree that "focus, determination, direction, assertiveness, ambition, [and] adventurousness" are primarly masculine qualities which only a father can transmit, any more than I think fathers are incapable of being patient, tender, or comforting. And frankly, though the rest of the "Father's Care" chapter is pretty rational and well-balanced, the comment about "When men are encouraged to be fathermen, and not 'Mr. Moms,' they are empowered -- and so are their daughters" seemed gratuitous. I'm not sure exactly what a "Mr. Mom" is in this context, but this argument would have been stronger had Bassoff just encouraged the reader to respect fathers' unique talents and styles, rather than suggesting it's unreasonable for them to pitch in with the scutwork more commonly done by moms. Some tasks of parenting are empowering, sure ... others are just plain unpleasant. They still need to get done.

In a similar vein, I was a bit cranky at Bassoff's insistence that the best mothers stay home, or at least work part-time, while their children are babies ... period, the end. Do we need longer, more generous parental leave policies in the U.S.? Absolutely. But she seems to place the blame and guilt sorely on the mother's shoulders, without recognizing that one single solution probably isn't best for everyone:
"The truth of the matter is that being a mother is the most important and most demanding of all vocations. At stake is the life and well-being of another human being. If children are to thrive, mothers must once again realize the importance and the joy of being present in their lives, just as the bright, capable women of past generations did. This does not mean that all women give up their personal ambitions and creative aspirations, although these might be realized before having children or put off until after the children need less in the way of daily care. It does not mean that all women forgo outside employment, although, for at least the first year after having a baby, part-time, rather than full-time, employment ought to be considered."

On the following page, she goes on to claim that mothers need to be with their children minute by minute and hour by hour during their early months and years in order to become attuned to the children's needs. OK, I'll grant that the book was published in 1998 and the "Mommy Wars" were still a-raging at the time, but devoting the first ten pages to a contentious, polarizing topic that could have consumed a whole book by itself may not have been the best move. As it was, I managed to keep reading and was pleased not to find Bassoff harping further on this issue later on ... but it did take me a few chapters to calm down and start reading with an open mind again.

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