Sunday, May 08, 2016

Happy Mothers' Day. Echidne Thoughts.

1.  This video (in Finnish, but simple enough to follow without knowing the language) shows how one folds a bed sheet before putting it in a mangle.  The attached story notes that the tradition of the M-fold of the sheets is found only in some countries in Northern Europe.  The Finns have it, the Germans have it, but the Swedes do not have it.  I doubt that the custom is especially Lutheran, even though the article suggests that theory, because then the Swedes should have it, too.

My maternal grandmother taught me the M-fold.  When I moved abroad I assumed that any helper (the second person needed for the tugging) would know how to fold a sheet properly!  And none of them did. 

Cultural customs are odd.  People seem to believe that their cultural customs are the only natural way to do something!  Country-hopping of the kind I have done should kill that belief very quickly, and I thought it had done this for me.  But my assumptions about the M-fold tells me that I'm better at noticing some culture-dependent customs (about sexism, say) faster than other customs.

The point of this story is about knowledge, the way it is informally passed on by our parents, often by our mothers, and how we forget who passed the knowledge on.   Who taught you to cook?  Who taught you how to use the washing machine?  Who taught you to brush your teeth?

2.  Twitter has been debating Jill Stein's recent tweet.  She is the presidential candidate of the US Green Party, and this is the tweet* that has caused some debate:

 AMERICAblog suggests that Stein is saying Clinton is a bad mother.  Being called a bad mother would be fighting words on any Mommy blog, mostly because mothers are always held to the standard of pure perfection and nobody can win that game but everybody must look as if they could win it, given that the only good mother is a perfect mother! 

But I read the tweet differently.  Do the usual gender reversal and ask if we want a male president to reflect the values of being a father.  When I do that, my first question would be what the values of being a father are. 

In some cultures fathers are regarded as great if they don't desert their children, if they bring home a paycheck and if they discipline the children.  Throw in some weekend ball playing with the sons and you are good to go. 

Other fathers really do hands-on fathering, and some are single-parents for their children.  So how do we define the values of being a father?  And how do they relate to the job of a president?  Are we looking for the strict punitive dad figure?  The dad who gives the kids lots of pocket money?  The dad who plays with his kids but never forces them to brush their teeth?

I believe that reversal shows how difficult it is to define what the values of a good parent might be, and also how meaningless in some sense the whole question is. Presidents cannot parent a whole country, and we tend not to demand that from male presidents.  But a president who is also a woman?  Now that causes all sorts of hind-brain demands to bubble up, and many of them are contradictory and impossible to fulfill.

The reason, of course, is that we still have very few role models of women with power over others, other than as mothers or grandmothers, and that within the narrow walls of families.

3.  What do mothers want?  What do mothers need?  The latter is a popular topic on today's Twitter, the answers covering many important aspects of the dilemma of those US women who both do most of the hands-on parenting and also work full time outside the home:

We need better parental leave, a labor market which doesn't work on the pretend-model that every worker has support staff at home to take care of children, the sick and the elderly family members**.  We need better daycare and much more sharing of hands-on childcare by both parents.***

But globally the needs of mothers are even more urgent, more dire.  Mothers need to have some rights over their children in countries where custody goes almost automatically to fathers, women giving birth need to have better access to good medical care, women all over the world need more power to control their own fertility, the number and spacing of their children and, indeed, their own selves.  Young girls shouldn't have to become mothers so early that this endangers their lives.  And mothers should have the right to work in the labor market without needing someone else's permission for that.

* The context of the tweet:  It was preceded or followed by these tweets:


I still see it as problematic, because of the reversal:  Don't fathers have to solve disputes through negotiations and a commitment to international law and human rights?  Aren't fathers also healers who should join the rest of the industrial world and provide health care for everyone?  The problem lies in the choice of going with "mother" in the first place.  I get the appeal to do that, what with this being the Mothers' Day and all that.  But it's a bog you stepped into, Jill, and you contributed to what you lament:

**  This is especially true for women in lower-paid occupations where flexibility is rare and where employers schedule workers without concern for the havoc sudden shift changes might wreak on those workers who have small children.   And let's not even start talking about the dilemmas single-mothers have with all this.

But it is still also the major model the US labor markets employ, and one reason why women are less likely to be promoted:  They are seen as the support staff, not the workers with that support staff.

***  The needs of stay-at-home mothers (and fathers) are different.  Those include concrete help in easing the return to the labor force and more focus on how the stay-at-home parents' retirement incomes might ultimately end up lower. 

Note, by the way, that more equal sharing of hands-on childcare would also result in a different pattern of child custody after divorce:  If more fathers were the major carers of their children then more fathers would get custody in contested cases.  This aside is for the Fathers' Rights people.