Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Value of Message Boards

Several of my good friends and I frequent a few message boards, mostly dealing ones dealing with pregnancy and motherhood. While I was a bit skeptical of message boards when I began visiting them, I have since found them to be a great resource for information about all kinds of issues of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. That said, I've been contemplating message boards from an academic standpoint as of late. What I find most fascinating about message boards is the relationship that women who've never met and most likely will never meet cultivate with other women. I, for example, have frequently chatted with a much younger soon-to-be single mother who lives in another part of the world. We literally nothing in common except that our children are due the same week. Our conversations center primarily on pregnancy, but we've also discussed more personal things. I've found it really helpful to be able to talk to other women who are experiencing or have experienced what I am experiencing. I'm fascinated by two other things: the gendered nature of these message boards (almost entirely women) and the way women can be almost immediately ostracize for expressing a slightly unconventional opinion.

I think the gendered nature is easy enough to explain: these particular message boards are sponsored by a site that is designed by and for women, dealing with topics ranging from pregnancy, weight loss, motherhood, and make-overs. The ostracization of certain women is more intriguing to me. First I want to say that in most cases I've found these boards to be incredibly supportive. I also want to say that as someone who teaches writing, I am always acutely aware of my audience, so I consciously take care to ask questions or post responses in the least offensive way possible. I see the boards as a resource, not as a place for me to express my political or religious views. Not all women, however, feel that way. I'm amazed at the way some women are treated when searching for information about circumcision, adoption, genetic testing, unplanned pregnancies, and unmedicated births, for example. In these threads the boards almost always become hostile, with women, who couldn't identify one another in a police line-up but have developed "virtual" relationships none-the-less, saying the most hurtful and negative things to one another.

Does the virtual community allow our sense of what is and what isn't appropriate to say to one another to break down somewhat? Do we think that it is ok to say exactly what we think to people we have no risk of running into? I'm a big advocate of speaking one's mind, but not at the risk of hurting someone's feelings. Is the message board message (like email) so easy to post that we are less likely to consider tone and audience? What is it about the message board that enables (or perhaps empowers) us to share our opinions with no holds barred, in ways that we might not even share with our closest friends? I'm beginning to wonder if the anonymity of the message board is the answer to all of my questions. Why is it ok to express my dislike of someone who is ostensibly a perfect stranger when I must make polite small talk with perfect strangers I see every day? Even as I continue to visit my favorite board, I wonder if the advent of the message board is one more thing eroding the always tenuous barriers between what is and what isn't appropriate to say to one another.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Getting Back into the Groove

I've determined that this week will be about getting back into the groove of things. I've been out of the groove of working, reading, and writing for about 3 weeks now, give or take. I made lots of progress at the beginning of the month, and then we visited family for a week and a half. I spent last week trying to get organized to teach, filing articles, and rearranging our office/nursery in anticipation of the baby's impending arrival. I now need to get some serious work done. I'm trying to figure out how to rework the introduction to my proposal, and that isn't going so well. My biggest problem with revising is introductions; I know this about myself, but I don't necessarily know how to correct it. Despite what I tell my own students about not getting too invested in their work in its early stages, I do that very thing. I become attached to things, and revising becomes more about completely starting over than making any sort of changes to the original text. I'm hoping I can make enough sense of my committee's comments to actually revise rather than rewrite, but I have serious misgivings about that.

I am also establishing a new groove for myself. I've been thinking about my most recent entries, and I feel like I wrote about myself, motherhood, and my work as someone who was experiencing an "identity crisis." While I don't think I am experiencing an identity crisis, I am curious and even a bit nervous about how motherhood will change me. I believe most of the changes will be for the good. But I don't want to fall into the trap of viewing myself as someone who loses herself because she's become a mother--I'm familiar with that mentality, having witnessed several friends and family members go through it. I've never understood how one loses one's self, nor do I comprehend the need to "find one's self." How precisely does one lose one's self? I mean, I would have to know absolutely nothing about myself to lose myself. And if I lost myself, where would I begin looking for myself? I already have a firm grasp on who I am, and I believe that motherhood will help me become a better version of my current self.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Teaching, Writing, Memory Loss, and Motherhood

After nearly 6 weeks of freedom, I get back to teaching next week. While I'm really happy about the course I'm teaching, I'm feeling a bit nervous about trying to finish my proposal (I still need to rework the intro) and teaching full-time while 7 months pregnant. Luckily I'm team-teaching a course with my advisor, which I'm very excited about. It's a senior-level course, which we designed together. I will be teaching some of my favorite works with one of my favorite people. In terms of timing this couldn't have worked out better! She has lots of other responsibilities during the first part of the semester, so I'll be able to cover for her. And she'll be able to cover for me during the second part of the semester. But pregnancy seems to be affecting my brain. The other night I literally could not remember which way to turn the hot water knob to adjust the temperature in the shower. How ridiculous is that! And of course, I started crying because I had to call C in to help me. I wailed something to the effect of "I'm a doctoral student and I can't remember how to work the water!" I know I'm blessed with a great partner because he fixed it without laughing or saying anything. Days later, I find the episode somewhat amusing, but I'm still a bit disconcerted.

So now on top of everything else, I find myself worrying about how I'm going to manage to keep it together intellectually for the next 2 months. I have a lot I want to get done before our little one makes an appearance. When I sit down with a book or at my computer, I know find myself staring off into space wondering "Where should we hang the mobile?" Or "What should the baby wear home from the hospital?" Suddenly I realize that I'm going to be a mother. Obviously I've known that, but now as all things baby slowly seem to absorb my thoughts, I realize I AM GOING TO BE A MOM. I'm equally thrilled and wary. I wanted this for so long--we planned for over two years before we started trying. We are at the best point in our lives to date to have a child. We have a great relationship, we have supportive friends, and we are emotionally ready. I know all that. I'm not worried about what kind of mother I'll be or what kind of father C will be. I'm not worried about our life changing drastically. I am so excited to meet this brand new little person and to help him/her grow and learn. I am, however, a bit worried about what kind of person I'll be after the birth. How will I change? Will I still know me? My advisor recently said that at some point when she was pregnant (coincidentally, she was at the same point in her graduate work that I am) something in her brain clicked and she felt like she started thinking like a mom. That surprised her. She gave voice to a lot of the anxiety I am feeling now. I feel as though I've been accepted into some highly exclusive sisterhood that I don't necessarily merit belonging to and that I didn't know I was asked to join. Other moms now talk to me as though I know what they are saying. And I have to say, despite all the research I've done, I don't really know the difference between attachment parenting and regular parenting. I can't recite the differences between this or that brand of bottles. I find myself wondering when will that "something" click in my brain.

I have to confess that in true academic fashion I've never believed that motherhood was instinctual--at least not for most people. I also don't believe motherhood is the most fulfilling experience I will have in my life. I believe that I will have many fulfilling experiences and that being a mother will likely be among the most fulfilling. I also don't believe that being a mother makes me anymore of a "woman" or a better person or more understanding, empathic, sensitive, etc. I believe that I will have to work at being a good mother. But after talking to many moms, both academic and non-academic, I find myself wondering if I've over-intellectualized motherhood. Will it, in fact, come naturally? And if it does, what will that say about me? Will I still be me after it is all said and done? Or will I only be someone's mom?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Family, Space, and Privacy--or the Lack Thereof

As usual issues of space and privacy are never very far from my mind, especially after returning from a 9 day visit to our families. C and I are in an unusual position regarding our families; our parents, my brother, his brother and his family, and his sister all live in the same town, while we live about 1200 miles away. Needless to say this makes trips "home" difficult. (On a side note, I put "home" in quotations because while ostensibly that wonderful east coast city is where we both grew up and ideally where we'd like to return some day, after living away for 8 plus years, it feels less and less like "home." If I were, however, to express that feeling to our families I would have a lot of explaining to do.)

Last summer, after 5 years of marriage, we thought we solved the problem of going back and forth between families almost every day by planning a trip that was long enough for us to spend 5 consecutive days with each family. It worked surprisingly well, although it did have a few hitches. This trip we tried the same approach, but since C's dad is battling lung cancer, there were added complications. C was expected to be with his family everyday, even days we had arranged to stay with my family. In the end, I felt we didn't spend enough time with my family together--and we spent a lot of time traveling back and forth between families. So while I could vent about this, I would rather write about the lack of space and privacy that comes with a family visit.

In the typical 19th-century home, several generations lived under one roof, and each generation/family was afforded their own space, to some degree. Generations shared communal spaces such as the kitchen, dining room, and parlor--incidentally, it only now occurs to me that communal spaces are also typically seen as feminine spaces. Married daughters living with their parents had their own private spaces within their parents home, and the same was true for married sons living with their parents. Of course, my generalizations apply primarily to middle and upper-class families. I can rattle off a list of novels where this model applies--Iola Leroy, Contending Forces, and Little Women all come to mind. In The American Woman's Home (c. 1869), Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe even discuss the importance of the guest quarters in the typical American home, going so far as to diagram them and to discuss precisely how far they should be from the family rooms to ensure everyone's privacy and health.

This respect or relative respect of privacy fascinates me, especially in light of my own familial circumstances. When C and I go to visit family, we are afforded no such privacy. With his family, we have to displace someone else in order to have a place to sleep, and with my family, we sleep in the office, which grants us a bit more privacy at night but not during the day. I'm not sure where I'm going with this, especially in light of sociological and architectural differences between the 19th and 21st centuries. I could just chalk it all up to the advent of the nuclear family and the suburban home, but I think there is more to it than that. I've been pondering the changes in how people view privacy for a long time, and I believe key things have happened in the last 100 years or so that have dramatically changed our perceptions of privacy. Privacy, at least in my experience, is highly valued, but not often given or respected. I have often theorized that the tabloid nature of our culture makes privacy difficult to come by, but then, that doesn't explain why privacy is no longer valued among family members. Perhaps the architectural divisions that typically exist between families does have something do to with it. Since we rarely live with our parents beyond our college years, do they feel they have a right to know things about us that previous generations would never have known? Is therapy and the need to discuss everything ad nauseum to blame? Or are our families just particularly nosy? And here's the question that has been bothering me the most: will I be like our mothers and demand to know everything about my child?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Almost home

Just a quick post to remind myself that I haven't fallen off the face of the earth--visiting family for a week and a half often makes me feel as though I have. Thankfully I will be in my own space tomorrow. Space is very important to me; I don't function well when I'm out of my own environment too long or when I can't dictate daily goings-on. That seems odd considering how much I like to travel, but then, when C and I travel, we're in charge of things. Even as an adult, I'm not in charge of things when we visit our parents. That said, I'm ready to be home so I can get back to work or at least get back to contemplating work.

Monday, August 07, 2006


My meeting went with my advisor went really, really well. She offered some constructive comments on my chapter descriptions, but overall, she was pleased with my ideas. She told me I have a very workable and original dissertation. Now I just need to finish the proposal so I can get some work done before the baby arrives. Her theory (as a once dissertating new mother) is that if I have something done before I am forced to take a baby hiatus from work that I will be able to return to work fairly quickly (as in 2 to 3 months!) since I will be able to remember what I was thinking. I agree with her, and I have to say that right now I am very past the proposal. I've already written one complete draft which no one on my committee was happy with--heck I wasn't even happy with it. I viewed as part of the process though, and it got me to my current idea.

And now my productive mood will be interrupted by a 9 day visit to see family. I am, of course, taking work with me, but I am not fooling myself. I'll be lucky to get the three books I'm taking read let alone any actual writing done. C will be much more successful when it comes to working. He can work anywhere because he has this uncanny ability to completely shut out the outside world. He forgets to eat, to drink, even to sleep when he's working; he even forgets about me occasionally, which is a topic for another post. But I am easily distracted. I may just lock myself in a room to read and tell our families that I have to get my proposal finished!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Tired, but still writing

So I've entered the phase of writing when I am so interested in what I'm doing that I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about my work. It happens rarely, I admit, and when it does happen, it is equally exciting and annoying. To be honest, I'd rather sleep and have brilliant epiphanies when I'm meant to be working. I haven't been sleeping all that well recently, so I've actually been able to work out quite a few problems with my proposal in the middle of the night. In fact, I worked out so many that I am finally able to present a complete (although rough) chapter outline, with descriptions, to my advisor later today. I'm feeling particularly proud of how much work I've gotten done this week. I'd feel prouder if my productive mood wasn't going to be interrupted by a week and a half long visit to see family. . .

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Shout out

I also want to give a shout out to a few of my good friends who are collaborating on a blog--expect odd, compelling things from these strange, beautiful men. Check out their blog, The Rhetorical Situation,

Essentialized Womanhood

I woke up this morning and miraculously had the fifth chapter of my diss figured out, so this will be a short post. The wonderful Megs (check out her blog at observed that it is most often women who openly offer their opinions on other women's bodies and pregnancy. I have to say that I agree with that. I do thing pregnancy is clearly gendered (although C is as involved as a man could be, down to experiencing pyschosomatic morning sickness and cravings) and most of the troubling comments I've received have been made by women who have children. So are we (and yep, I'm including myself in this since I have no idea how I will behave post-pregnancy) essentializing womanhood, not just as a sex but as a culture? Do women with children believe the way they experienced pregnancy, childbirth, etc. is the only way to experience it? If that is true, I find that really troubling, not only from a theoretical standpoint (hey, I am an academic!), but also from an individual standpoint.

I also feel compelled to differentiate between my ideas of public and private and the concepts as they relate to my research, but that's for another post.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Public and Private

After reading several of the comments to this post, I want to add a preface. I don't mean the following post to suggest that I resent being asked questions about my pregnancy. I typically enjoy questions and I am generally welcoming of advice--after all, I haven't done this before. That said, what I do find troublesome is the judgment that often comes after I answer a question or respond to advice.

No surprise, I've been thinking a lot about the public and the private and the intersections of the two. As a pregnant woman, I am beginning to feel like I exist in the interstitial spaces I write about. In the past 6 months, I've never been asked so many personal questions by friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers in my life.

Aside from my stint in the blogging world, most people know me as a fairly private person. I prefer to keep things to myself. When C & I discovered I was pregnant, we agreed only to tell our closest friends and family for at least the first trimester. By the time I was well into the 2nd trimester, I had discovered there is no casual way to tell people I ostensibly work with but rarely see that I was pregnant; in fact, quite a few people in my department still don't know I'm pregnant. I finally just decided to let it filter through the grapevine, which moves surprisingly fast in an academic setting. I was on campus for a meeting last week, and as it is summer and I'm working primarily from home, I had not been on campus in several weeks. Since I had last made regular appearances on campus, I have, well, blossomed, you could say. Several people--and not just anyone mind you, but the heads of the department--stopped and outright stared. One person, whom I respect immensely, essentially cornered me in the bathroom and asked me if I knew I looked so pregnant. Had it been anyone else, I would have been offended, but as I know this person to have an irreverent sense of humor, I laughed and answered that tends to happen at 6 months along. I digress. . .

The public nature of pregnancy has interested me since long before I got pregnant, but I'm really intrigued by it now that I am pregnant. Everyone from close friends and family to perfect strangers in the grocery store seem to think it is acceptable to offer me unsolicited advice on every topic. Now, I have to confess that I have been known to offer a fair amount of unsolicited advice myself, but I try to limit it to those I know well and to topics I know they aren't especially sensitive about. So the question I've been pondering of late and the one leaving me feeling as though all pregnant women exist in interstitality is why do people feel compelled to comment on every aspect of pregnancy? I am all for helpful advice and kind words, but I feel like the moment I became pregnant people began to believe that my brain stopped working. My mother constantly tells me not to do certain things: "Don't lift anything too heavy; make sure C does that for you!" Because I am unable to determine on my own what is too heavy for me to lift. C's mother says "Why are you planning to do it that way? This way worked for us, and all my children turned out fine." Because we are incapable of making our own decisions regarding childcare. Once a lovely woman in the grocery story adamantly reminded me not to eat unpasturized cheeses. Because I am unable to read a package of feta cheese to determine if it was made with pasturized milk. Most recently people have begun offering their advice on our decision to have an unmedicated birth. It seems like everyone I know has an opinion on this, and most of them aren't particularly supportive. In fact, some of the responses have been so unsupportive that I have decided not to talk about it with anyone--and here I go and blog about it. See, I'm constantly breaking my own division between public and private.

So what is it about being pregnant that makes a woman fair game for a certain amount of criticism and scorn, as well as a healthy dose of good wishes and happy thoughts, both from those she love and those she has never seen before in her life? Is it because, for the first ever, I'm physically displaying my personal life? I mean there's no denying I'm pregnant unless I want to try to convince people I've been eating too much ice cream, which I'm tempted to do. Now let me say I am enjoying pregnancy; I actually like the changes my body is going through, and I am reveling in the personality of this little one (heck I already know that s/he rocks out to Sarah Maclachlan and Sheryl Crow and relaxes when read Goodnight Moon.) But I'm less fond of everyone sharing their thoughts on my body and C's and my decisions about everything from childbirth to childrearing. I find myself negotiating the public realm that pregnancy seems to be with a great deal of trepidation, hesitation, and wariness. I'm no longer excited when people ask me questions about my health or my decisions because I've come to learn that most people are more than just politely interested; they see my pregnancy as a time to share their views about pregnancy in general. As someone who is usually all about exchanging ideas and learning from others, I'm beginning to wish everyone would keep their views about my body to themselves.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

3 pages and counting!

I finally forced myself to sit down today and just write. Much to my surprise I wrote 3 pages (handwritten--I'm still old school when it comes to first drafts) in about an hour. I am now well on my way to having my second chapter mapped out. With any luck I will actually have something to show my advisor when we meet on Friday. After a long summer of writer's block, I am finally making progress!