So Much Mothering

I have been mothered by so many wonderful people. Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 82. And I have recently worked on a podcast where the first installment was about fathering. And I’ve been thinking of my academic mothers, one of whom I actually refer to as Doktor-Mutter. All these things have gotten me thinking about mothering.

Is mothering different from fathering, for instance? Does one need both? I think we tend to associate mothering with more nurturing and protecting, and fathering more with providing and preparing, but in my house parenting is pretty gender-neutral, and I certainly wouldn’t say one gender has the market cornered on any of these actions

Yet, there are certain people whom I think of when I think of being mothered. My mom associated mothering with warm bread and secret treats when I was feeling bad. Her job was to make me happy, and she did it well. When I had to leave school because I was sick, the car always veered toward the donut shop on the way home. When I was overwhelmed with school, she brought me a glass of milk and sat with me while I worked, helping where she could and offering moral support if she couldn’t. When I was sad, she made it her goal to cheer me up. She didn’t always get me, but she always loved me, and she made lots of things easier on me.

But in truth lots of women mothered me. My aunt, who recognized the moderately predictable drama of a “smartie” who wasn’t challenged enough in school, had a huge impact on me. Because of her, I parent both of my kids better than I would have. I had a tenth grade English teacher, who, when I was confused and anxious, helped me understand that mental health was just as important as physical health. It was a lot easier to learn that language at 15 than later, I can tell you.
I had professors whom I think of in very motherly terms. One, a Germanicist who taught me Old Saxon, Gothic, and Latin, also taught me how to teach people and how to be a woman in academia, especially a married woman with children. One was a nun–my Doktor-Mutter—who praised my creation of a child as much as my creation of a dissertation, who calmed my tears when I thought I had nothing to say, who bought me oil paints and told me to be creative if I wanted to find my scholarly voice again. She prayed for me even though I didn’t pray for myself, and she called herself a mother of my heart.
And these are just the biggies. I have also been mothered by men—by my husband, certainly, when no one else could have, and by a professor whom I didn’t even take classes with, but who, out of sheer generosity of spirit, coached me to interview for jobs and built me up when I was most insecure. I have been mothered by faculty mentors at my job and by friends who made my well-being a priority, and I even think I have been mothered, if briefly, by strangers who have only shared a few minutes in a shopping line or at the PTA or in a hospital room.
It seems to me, then, that it is incumbent upon me to do my part–to mother my children, my loved ones, my students, my colleagues, the world. Mothering is serious business. I have to pay that stuff forward and backward and sideways and diagonally. I must not seem ungrateful. I think of Angela Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood, who “has been too much loved ever to feel scared.” That’s some powerful mothering. We’ve got work to do.

(These images are of my mother, Marlene Turner Baker, Molly Weasley as played by Julie Walters, and a fox mama and adoring kit that I found on the internet a while back and now can’t find an attribution for. And Angela Carter’s amazing retelling of Little Red Riding Hood is called “In the Company of Wolves” and collected in her volume, The Bloody Chamber. The wonderful podcast I was referring to above is Steve Zelt’s introductory offering on fathering at A Small, Good Thing, available here: .)

Living · Reading · Teaching · Uncategorized

Ode on a Shortened Summer

The most glorious myth of academic life is the summer vacation. People who don’t teach sometimes assume the summers are one long, three-month margarita party. That’s never the case, of course, although some may start out that way.

Instead, those who work at state universities, at least in my experience, spend a significant chunk of summer doing the research or creative work they don’t have time to do during the school year. Then there’s the planning of next year’s courses. This year that was dramatic and demanding, as my school converted from a quarter system to a semester system, so even people who have been teaching the same things for some time had to reconceive their syllabus, reading lists, and teaching strategies.
There’s also a very real need to rest one’s head and do something different for a bit, so you can come back strong. I try to reserve time to read things I will never have occasion to teach. I wrote a beautiful list and made a stack of books at the beginning of summer. In addition to three more novels in my lovely, pulpy, mystery series, I intended to read twelve books, mostly fiction, one a re-read of a book I haven’t read since college (Kamouraska by Anne Hebert).
This year’s haul from Solvang. The Book Loft always has the best new fairy tales.
Looking at my list now, I only read four, started four more, and don’t know exactly what happened with the others. I never even pulled the mysteries off the shelf. I did, however, read a tall stack of new fairy tales I bought on a trip with my daughter, write a handful of blogs and a pitch for a children’s novel, and now I am plowing through three non-fiction books I just HAD to read before school starts.
I guess what I’m realizing that what’s valuable about summer for me is the ability to plan and then pitch the plan entirely.
From September to June everything has to be very carefully orchestrated. I keep list after list and plan and organize, so that all goes well in my classes and professional life. Summer is a welcome rest for my brain not just because I’m not prepping, teaching, or grading, but because I can afford to go unscripted for a while. It’s very liberating.
This summer, because we are shifting from quarters that ended in June to semesters that start in August, our summer is about seven weeks instead of eleven. And scripted or not, it has been jam-packed. We’ll be ready, because we must be, but we might all be starting out a little tired, which we usually don’t, I think.
I resisted this conversion for a long time. I voted against it. I grumbled when our vote was ignored, and we were simply told to convert. But now, staring down the barrel of my first week, I’m not worried. I’m glad I’ll have sixteen weeks instead of ten to get to know my students better. I’m glad to have more time to go deeper in the texts I teach and to assign more writing and more revision. I’m part of an academic family, so I’ll be glad to have more holidays match up and have some more time off in the winter. Mostly, though, I’m just always glad to go back. That’s the real perk of this job—not the summer break, but the fall return.

Never Trust a Vowel

Vowels are shifty things. I teach literature, and when people have trouble making out words in the text that they haven’t met before, I ask them to try and take them apart to see if they recognize the parts; then they can guess at the word’s meaning. I teach medieval lit, so sometimes students are looking at Middle English or another older form of English, but just as often, it’s a Modern English word that’s flummoxing them, and the rules don’t change.
My reasons for not trusting vowels are:1. Vowels can vary from language to language, so if we know the roots of words, we can see why the vowels are what they are. For instance, Latin “e” often corresponds to Greek “o” as in English “dentist” and “orthodontist.”

2. Vowels can vary to denote tense in English. Now if we invent a new word, we just slap an “-ed” on the end of it to make it past tense, but older forms of English had elaborate systems of vowel gradation, some of which we still have (“sing/sang,” “fly/flew,” etc.). So sometimes if a word has a funky vowel in it, you just aren’t familiar with its old past form.
3. Regional accents change the vowels mostly. Occasionally there will be a consonant difference, like the b/v variation in dialects of Spanish, but usually it’s vowels. The “You say potato; I say potato” song/joke/aphorism makes this pretty clear. It’s not potato/potaco (although I’d be willing to try a potaco). It’s all about the vowels.
So if you’re trying to deduce what a word means, there’s a process I advocate, and vowels figure absolutely last, the treacherous little buggers.
First, try and figure out the root word. Take off anything that looks suspiciously prefixey or suffixey, like “-ey” or “pre-.” Then look at the root in terms of the frame of consonants, not really looking at the vowels.  So if we’re trying to deduce, say, podiatrist, we’d first remove the “-ist“ which is a clearly a suffix. It indicates a person who does the thing at the beginning of the word (like artist or philanthropist). Next we cut off the “-iatr” from Greek iatros, meaning “doctor” (as in psychiatrist), and we are left with “pod.”
Pod. Pod. So how’s your Greek? English speakers are usually better guessing Latin than Greek because English borrowed so much from Latin directly, as well as from French, Italian, and Spanish. But Greek “pod” means ‘foot.’ In Latin it was “ped.” Never trust a vowel. English has more common words with ped-, like a bicycle pedal or a gas pedal, or different animals being bipedal or quadrupedal. But “pod,” not so much. Cephalopod. Arthropod. (These are literally head-footed things, like squids, and joint-footed things, like crabs or ladybugs. But we were talking about vowels.)
And now we’re done. But consider next time you have trouble understanding a person’s accent, just relaxing your head when it comes to hearing vowels. When you don’t recognize a word you read on the internet or in a newspaper, try it with different vowels, and see if you can figure it out. I think adopting a playful, puzzler’s attitude toward language is a recipe for easier understanding, less frustration, and maybe even compassion.

Mothering a Man

Have you ever noticed most fairy tale heroes and heroines have dead or missing parents? The obvious explanation for that is that kids need to forge their own identities in order really to mature.
Beauty doesn’t have a mom, and her dad actually gets in the way of her growing up. Cinderella’s mother is dead, and dad is MIA, so she has to negotiate the female authority in her household and to establish her mature, romantic relationship entirely on her own (once the godmother supplies the dress and shoes). Even Jack must leave his mom (no dad mentioned at all in most versions) and enter the giant’s realm without any guidance. In fact, he comes back and takes care of her; he’s translated from dependent to provider in a few pages.
Kids seem to need serious independence in order to mature and thrive.
But I’m rejecting that today, on the eve of my son’s 18thbirthday, and not feeling a bit guilty. Conflicted, maybe, but not guilty.
I moved out at seventeen. I moved in to a dorm for my freshman year of college, but I never moved back home. That was it. I had been working for a year, driving for nearly two, and I waved to my mom as she stood in the driveway in her bathrobe, and was gone.
Most kids don’t do that these days, especially in Los Angeles county. In fact, most of my kids’ friends don’t even drive. LA is a nightmare for traffic and hazards. My son doesn’t have a job yet. He’s not moving out. His independence is coming a bit later.
He is not alone. Many have noted the expanded adolescence. Laurence Steinberg’s The Age of Opportunity argues that adolescence is both starting earlier and lasting longer these days. Lots of kids aren’t moving out. They can’t afford it. And it’s not such a bad thing.
There’s a case for extended adolescence having neurological benefits. Their longer period of neuroelasticity is allowing them greater ability to learn later in life, both in terms of intellectual content (they have more spots in their brains to pin new information later on), and they have greater emotional understanding and impulse control.
However, there is a serious dearth of awesome stories about nineteen-year olds living with their folks.
Harry Potter doesn’t have parents, but he finds lots of surrogates. Percy Jackson has a mom, but he leaves for school like Harry, so she’s not solving any problems for him. Violet and Klaus (and Sunny!) Baudelaire are largely fending for themselves too, so our stories have not caught up to the culture.
I guess there’s nothing exciting about living in your childhood bedroom in to your early twenties. They can vote; they can be drafted; they can be arrested;they can smoke. But they’re not driving or working enough to support themselves. How do you parent them?
They’re legal, but dependent.
Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe 21 is the new 18, and 25 is the new 21, and we just chill and move on. But seriously, someone ought to write the thriller about the 19-year old who has tremendous adventures and still lives at home. We could use a script down here.
Here’s some further reading, if you’re interested:
Steinberg, Laurence. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. 2014.