Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor


Pavel Ševela / Wikimedia Commons

A dear friend of mind asked me and another mom to have a zoom happy hour relatively early in this whole Covid-19 disaster. I wanted to say yes and I wanted to say no. I felt bad for being that horrible thing, a parent who flakes on friends who don’t have kids. I decided to be honest and say, “everything is stretched so thin right now that nothing seems fun.”

It’s true. Right now, my partner and I are working in one-hour shifts: one of us takes the girls and the other works for an hour, then we swap.  Lather, rinse, repeat. If he or I want to do something else like go for a walk or do yoga or call a friend, that’s how we’ve spent our hour—a deal’s a deal and when everything’s gone to hell, no renegotiations allowed.

So, while I’ve seen folks find community and joy in things like Zoom happy hours and book clubs, I’ve realized very quickly how reduced my hours are and how carefully I have to shepherd my non-parenting hours.

I’ve described to someone else how my partner and I are doing as a kind of terrible stasis. He asked me one day how I was doing and my answer was, “shitty, but okay.” And that’s true most days, we are shitty but okay, which is a kind of terrible way to live, just not hot, in-crisis kind of terrible.

There’s an interesting thing happening in heterosexual couples right now, I think. Dads are experiencing something moms have long know, that feeling of parenting eating all parts of one’s identity.

I started this blog in part to document creative women’s efforts to resist having their whole identities consumed by that sneaky, socially-sanctioned boa constrictor: the role of the self-sacrificing mother. Of course, as with any major role change, there’s an identity shift that comes with entering motherhood, but for women who care deeply about their other roles and identities, keeping that snake at bay—only swallowing up to the toe or knee, say—is crucial to mental health and well-being.

Here’s another snake—Phyllis Schlafly.  If you don’t know about her, she’s the woman who made her name fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment for women. She made many specious arguments about what would happen if women’s equality was written into the constitution, and she won. She’s also back in the public view because of the new F/X show Mrs. America.

Blake and I are watching the show partly because it’s very entertaining and well-acted (with Cate Blanchett playing the villainous Schlafly) and partly because I regularly teach Schlafly’s anti-ERA arguments alongside Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. There’s a small moment in the show that has really stuck with me. One of the Stop-ERA activists tells Schlafly that she wouldn’t be comfortable talking to state legislators because as a stay-at-home mom, she only talks to three men: her husband, her son, and her priest.  That line suggests a tremendous kind of loneliness to me, a woman cut off from the world at large.  I suspect this does not represent the experience of stay-at-home moms today, but I find it does describe something like parenting during Covid-19.

Because I took a bunch of women’s literature classes and spend more time thinking about feminism than the average bear, Blake has asked me to fill him in on some of the historical details of the show. Describing The Feminine Mystique, I tried explaining “the problem that has no name,” which is what Friedan dubs the kind of malaise and depression experienced by her former classmates from Smith when she polled them about their adult lives. She describes the grind of caring for, cleaning, and feeding the children, and the thought “Is this all?” that haunts the women’s days.

Under quarantine, moms and dads alike have been thrust unwilling into this world. It’s lonely in here, as the character from Mrs. America suggests. In our house, the care and feeding of offspring crowds out time for adult socializing, meaningful work, intellectual stimulation. But, as I’ve read elsewhere, mothers are perhaps a little better prepared for this, and maybe this says something about the lack of social support for mothers even in normal times. After all, if one gives birth and stays home for any form of maternity leave, this is a relatively lonely and exhausting time. For many of us, it looks like pouring hot coffee down our throats between breast feedings and waiting for another adult to come home at the end of the day and break the monotony so that we can briefly reestablish other parts of our identities, so that we can avoid being totally swallowed up.  Women have found ways to network and connect, nonetheless. (This blog’s archive of artists’ stories is one such attempt.) I can’t quite tell how dads are doing with this. I suspect some of the thrashing we’re seeing from dads who are suddenly activists for parents has to do with how new the experience of fighting the boa constrictor is to most men. If this is so, then I hope we can do better when we’re all on the other side of this: that moms get to be more than moms, that men can be more acknowledged as parents. We’ll have to wait and see.

Oh, yeah, and let’s get the ERA.

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