A Uniform Double Standard

Eldest attends a school with a uniform, and I love it.  In September, October, May and June, he’s in khaki shorts and a navy blue polo shirt.  Easy and casual.  From November to April, he wears grey slacks, a belt, a white shirt and a school tie.  There’s a navy blazer, too, for special days.  Easy and crisp.

The uniform does everything it’s supposed to do: he looks good in it, it takes the thinking out of what to wear, it makes the kids look as crisp as can be expected for teen boys, it demarcates the school day as a time of work, it makes laundry easier and I don’t have to shop as often.

I love it.  For the boys.

The girls in the middle and upper school have to wear skirts and knee socks and, frankly, I don’t think anyone over the age of 10 should be in knee socks and a skirt.  It’s ridiculous.  The uniform, which is supposed to take how you look out of the equation, becomes about how to pull off a skirt and knee socks without looking ridiculous.  I would not want to appear in public in one.  Skirts, especially knee-length or shorter skirts, require a certain demure disposition that I have no time for.  Skirts require a level of prim and proper that makes the freedom of pants look all the more appealing.  I’d be happier to see all the students in pants all the time.  (It’s telling that when I looked for illustrations for this post, my search turned up more sexualized images of girls in uniform than I care to mention.)

So, while I love the freedom that the uniform gives me as the parent of a boy, I hate the way that a uniform skirt limits the freedom of the girls who have to wear it.

A uniform double standard.

woman-213723_1280

On Selfies and Motherhood

IMG_20150623_141413

Until Nathalie brought it up, I had never given much thought to the selfie. Largely because I don’t see very many, with my kids too young to selfie and me too old to know people who do. In theory, I don’t see much wrong with a selfie, or even a load of them, although in practice wouldn’t it get dull fairly fast?

As for me? No, I don’t selfie. It hadn’t occurred to me to, but because I gave it some thought because of this blog, I can now illustrate more reasons why not.

Remember the foster kittens I mentioned?  Well, the last one was finally released from the vet yesterday and he returned to my house. I assumed the reunion with his siblings would be a happy one.  Then, as I was about to sit down to dinner with the kids (husband works nights), I heard myself say, “I smell cat poo.”

Frozen, I sniffed again. “I think it’s on you.”  I pointed to middle son, seated at the table.

“I don’t have cat poo on me,” he said, as if I were ridiculous.

My eyes scanned down until I saw the blobs and smears on his shirt. I helped him take it off and went upstairs to the toilet to scrape, wash, soak (and silently cuss).  I was drying my hands when middle son walked up the stairs, swinging his pants.

“What are you doing?”

“My pants smell like poo, so I took them off.”

“Stop swinging them then! You could be flinging the poo everywhere.”

“They just smell like poo,” he said patiently, “they don’t have poo on them.”

But of course they did, all across the middle section. I scraped, washed and soaked that up too, then searched for the cats. I caught the culprit, and cleaned her up. What could cause such strange behaviour? Perhaps her brother’s return stressed her?

I finally return to stiff risotto and soggy salad but before I sit, the boys point to the couch: “There’s poo there too.” What? I walk tentatively over. It’s everywhere! All over my iPad case, the floor and who knows where else? Stop moving! I cry. The two youngest have stepped in it and trekking it around.

One is sent hobbling on his heels to the bathroom; I carry the other. I run the bath, and quarantine all the kittens in the bathroom. I go back to the kitchen and start cleaning all the disgustingness. My youngest is three; I thought I was done with this nonsense.  By now, to avert contamination, my eldest is basically standing on his chair.

The doorbell rings. Seriously?  I hate solicitations anyway, but never more than now. I am so going to send the person away, or maybe we can just pretend we’re not here.  Except all the lights are on and she can see me through the window in the door.

Arg! It’s the Toronto Environmental Alliance, and I actually want to support them and have done for years. I tell her that I have to clean up cat poo and it’s everywhere and can she please come back in 10 minutes. I go back to cleaning up the cat crap in the kitchen and then notice I am getting dripped on. I look up.  O.M.G.

I run upstairs and my youngest is bailing water out of the bathtub onto the floor and the flood is leaking through to the kitchen below.  I freak out, just as effectively as I have every other time he’s done it. Only his size prevents me from flushing him down the toilet.

Cut! I could continue, but why bother. You get the picture.  There’s not a word of a lie, and it’s only a bit more outrageous than many a night around here.

Why would I selfie this??

And yet…

Anyone who’s into it could tell you that parenthood is equal parts gore and glory, and they trade places with schizophrenic alacrity.

For today I took my youngest to the beach, in search for his brothers who were spending the day there with their school.  It should come as a surprise to no one that I could not find them, but all was not lost, not at all. My baby has been asking me for days to go to the beach, and we were finally here. Just us two. Instead of trailing along for his brothers’ events, my youngest took centre stage. We played at the beach, and I gave him the best that I have: my full attention.

It was gorgeous outside and in, and I took quite a few pics of him with my phone to record it.

And then: I took a selfie.

IMG_20150623_142133Lopsided pony tail, wisps of hair flying with the wild wind, sporting gold rimmed sunglasses found in the car and almost certainly bought by my husband from the thrift store along with 15 others as a joke three Christmas dinners ago.  Retro is in again, and I think I could actually look pretty cool in those shades if only my face were 40% bigger.

I had a sense of what I looked like, but I took the selfie (and some selfies with my little son) anyway.  I took it because on that beach I had survived the day before and was still standing there in the sand, in the present – truly, madly, deeply. I took it because there was no one else to take it, and that wasn’t good enough. I took it because when my son looks at pictures of this stunning day, I want him to know that I was there too, that I looked at all the rocks he showed me, that we dug for pirate treasure together, and that I gave him my sweater when the windblown sand stung his skin.

I took the selfie because I was satisfied, and I wanted to remember it.

What We Leave Out of Photos

I’m of the old school that believes photographs should flatter the subject.  This makes it extraordinarily difficult for me to really get the aesthetic of Eldest’s THOUSANDS of selfies of his nostrils.  And when I say “get” what I really mean is “not totally hate.”

I will probably go to my grave without ever taking a selfie from below with my nostrils as the main subject, but then again, I can count on one hand the number of selfies I have ever taken.  I am the family photographer, so I am usually behind the lens.  I guess that means that one of the most significant things that gets left out of my photos is myself.

I just have no urge to photograph myself from arm’s length (or a selfie stick’s length).  I like to photograph others, and I like them to look right into the lens, and I really like to capture their best and brightest smiles.  The kind that light up the whole face.  I like to leave out noise and logos and often, even, setting, because what I want to remember is the face and the smile.

I don’t think I have more than a dozen photos of my kids crying, and I don’t think many of those were taken on purpose.  I’m not a documentary photographer.  I want to reminisce on good times in the moments with the photo albums.  That doesn’t mean I am whitewashing.  It means I have no need of the memory of sadness or anger or humiliation.  They don’t belong in a photograph album.

I have a few of them sleeping, because that’s the most tender and most vulnerable moment you can capture, and I need to see those baby faces in sleep for ever, but I will not allow others to photograph them sleeping.  A group of tourists tried to do that to my boys on the top of a roofless double decker bus in London, when they’d passed out with jet lag, and I got angry.  You cannot take photographs without permission, and sleeping children (and husbands) can’t give that.

Permission is something that I never leave out of my photographs.  I ask permission to keep the images of sleep, and now, I ask my kids’ permission to post to facebook.

On facebook at the moment, my profile picture is of the Library Lion from the New York Public Library, because I was there and I wanted to show off and I wanted to celebrate being away from my children and I wanted to honour the iconic lion.  Not all honourable motives, but the photo of the lion is flattering, even if it is shot from below.

nypl

 

One thing you will never see as my profile picture is a picture of my children.  They are not me, and I am not them.  I love them will all of my being, but they do not stand for who I am.  They are their own persons.  And I am mine.  I may often be missing from our family albums, but I don’t leave myself out of my profile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Self and the Selfie

"Try and get my dark side, man." image via @garywhitta

“Try and get my dark side, man.” image via @garywhitta

The month of June has been devoted to photography here at 4mothers, and this week, we are turning the camera on ourselves to ask “How has social media affected how we portray ourselves in pictures?”

Do you selfie?  Even Darth Vader’s doing it, with a lightsaber selfie stick, no less.  (That would wreak some serious havoc with the light meter.  Just sayin.’)

Do you substitute selfie, putting up pictures of your kids, your food or your work space instead of a picture of yourself?

Is your profile picture a picture of you or of something that represents you or is it something altogether different?

Are your social media photos heavily edited or brutally honest?

Are you inundated with other people’s social media photographic “perfection” or TMI?

These are some of the questions we will be tackling this week.

In the mean time, have a look at this fascinating history of the female portrait in European art.  Just think, one day, years hence, one of those iterations will be of a woman posing with a selfie moue.

iphone-6-selfie-camera-taptapflip-download

On Researching Family Histories: Guest Post by Meg McInnis

tree-701968_640We are so pleased to present Meg McInnis, friend and mother of two, as our guest poster this week for At Issue.  Here she shares her ongoing journey of discovering her family’s historical pathways.  Enjoy!

::::

Perhaps it was growing up fatherless.  Perhaps it was looking at my somewhat eccentric family and wondering, how did we get like this? Whatever the reason, my interest in family history began early on.  I was lucky enough in Grade 8 to have an elective course in genealogy offered at my school.  I wrote letters to my grandmother and my great aunt in Germany and I received a wealth of information in return.  I was excited to be able to fill in my family tree for a few generations.

I found out that the family had lived as farmers in Westphalia since sometime in the seventeenth century.  There are holes in the narrative due to records being lost over time.  These people were tied to the land and even now the original farm is owned by descendants of the same family.

Imagine my delight when I discovered family tree searches online!  One day, I entered my elusive father’s name into ancestry.ca and got a hit.  I felt the excitement physically rising within me until I realized I was holding my breath.  The link took me to the family tree of his cousin and I began a correspondence with this wonderful man in England.  We traded information and I have a whole new set of interesting people to get to know, some rural, some in service like a groom who moved with his family from Lincolnshire to London.  I even have a publican in my tree.

The imagination is a wonderful thing.  From a few facts we can get a glimmering of  the person’s life, like the sailor who is last mentioned at age 38, or the railroad worker who was beheaded by an engine, or the widows who somehow raised their children in a time when there were no pension plans.

I can happily spend hours looking up records to look for clues as to what might have happened to them.  It is a never-ending puzzle.  And when I find an answer, I can happily share it with my family.

Oral Personal Histories of Women I Love: A Winding Process

family tree
No less than three times with three different people have I tried to compile and compose a personal history based on oral interviews.  First with my mother, then an elderly friend, and finally an aunt who was like a grandmother to me.  With my mother I just took notes, but with the next two women, I sat down for some beautiful, unforgettable hours and recorded interviews about all aspects of their lives.

The goal was grand: I wanted to transcribe the interviews, and extract and recount a narrative that reflected the woman’s voice and subjectivity, and convey all the fascination I felt for their lives.

Dear Reader, I failed.

I have learned a few lessons about oral storytelling though. For one thing, it takes eons to transcribe interviews and gives me a sore neck. Also, people do not talk in linear pathways, but take rambling strolls through memory, criss-crossing back and forth through time and across anecdotes, and don’t always bother with consistency (not to be confused with truth).  The most intense and interesting and integral revelations are often exactly the ones she will ask you not to include.  And that trying to piece together the vagaries of anyone’s life into tidy chapters that flow one to the next, and doing so with some decent literary texture, is a grueling and massive work.

Which is why I have three incomplete personal histories under my belt.

As suggested above, I viewed this, for a long time, as an utter failure. Two of the women I worked with have long passed away, and I presented neither with the book of themselves I had so clearly envisioned and told them about.  Their stories, their amazing stories, lie tucked away in cabinets or the recesses of my computer and no one knows them except me.

And yet… I’m not sure what has shifted for me exactly… maybe a greater appreciation for grey areas?… but recently I am not experiencing my unfinished projects as the defeats they once were to me.  It’s true I haven’t accomplished my written goals of preserving their lives, but I did take enough steps to at least preserve the ability to to do so.  Their stories are not public, but neither are they lost. At the least, I have the interviews, the raw data and materials that they shared.  With a bit of editing out to honour their wishes of what should not be shared, the histories of these women can be passed on, imperfect but intact, as they are.  Maybe my one of my sons, or my great grand niece should I be so lucky, will come across the files one day and do with them what I couldn’t, or something else entirely that I can’t imagine.  The chance has been preserved.

Or maybe it will be me who comes back to it.  It’s possible that the chance that has been preserved has been preserved for me, and the thought of this is as warming as the spring.  Maybe I will revisit these projects at a more right time and have better success pulling the pieces together, and the talk of failure will have even less hold than it does. I feel reassured by this possibility, how it brings me just that much closer to the lives of the women I love. They are remembered, and somehow with that, the process of preserving their history feels yet alive and well.

Family History: a map for the adventure of life

larch-forest-358059_640Last month I had an incredible experience. I was present for the birth of my nephew. It’s not the first birth I’ve been present for, I have three sons of my own, but it is the first where I was fully overwhelmed by the intensity of the situation. I wasn’t listening for my cue to push or holding my breath and bearing down. I was just there, committed to the moment, and as trite as it sounds, witnessing the miracle life. And what a miracle it is.

When my nephew took his first breath I was unprepared for the flood of emotions. Unlike the birth of my own children, at a time when my adrenaline was pumping and my heart exploding with love and gratitude, I was enveloped by a fury of anxiety and devotion. This perfect little person came into the world more loved than most with years of life to live.

And life can be messy. Life can hurt.

But knowing family that will always support him and stand by him through the valleys and peaks of life, will give him the courage to get messy. To get hurt.

When we’re born, we’re born into a family with complexities, eccentricities and deep-rooted psychologies. We’re not simply a mash-up of genetic material. We’re a complicated, mash-up of generations upon generations.

And if for nothing else, preserving my family’s history serves as a map for the adventure of life.

Oral vs. Written Family History: Not the Only Options

Which is the better way to preserve memory, stories told or stories written?  The debate is a long-entrenched one, with written documents claiming ascendency over the oral tradition in the western world.  So suspicious are we of oral testimony, even when you swear an oath in court, you do so with your hand on the Bible, a written text.

As anyone who has ever lost the contents of her computer’s hard drive or suffered a flood or a fire or an over-zealous co-habiting purger will know, written documents are exceptionally vulnerable.  The written record is only as good as its ability to survive the elements and the whims of fate.

My husband is an avid Franklin expedition historian, and he has been writing about the search for the missing ships of the ill-fated English captain for years. When researchers finally found the lost ships of the Franklin expedition, they were right where the Inuit had said they were all along.  I admit to feeling delight at that confirmation, not least because it validated the oral tradition.  I felt an odd sense of satisfaction in knowing that the written tradition that I hold so dear had not come through in this case.  I am overly dependent on writing and on photographs for recording history, and I like to think that something like a needle in a haystack could be found with stories that have been told for hundreds of years.

The oldest piece of English literature, Beowulf, is a marvel to me.  How did the bards manage to pass that poem down through time and generations?  How many hundreds and thousands of times did people gather to hear it before it was written down?

How do we know that what got written is definitive?  Does definitive matter?

It does in court, which accounts, perhaps, for covering both bases by swearing on the Bible.

There are other ways to confirm a spoken promise, though.  We also seal deals with handshakes, and it’s that tactile element of history that’s got me thinking these days.  In last week’s posts, Beth-Anne, Carol, Kerry, and I all chose objects to illustrate our family history that we can touch, and even though some of these are out of reach of small hands, some of them do get frequent handling.  I like the idea of capturing history in things that get frequent handling.

As poor as my memory is (Very poor.  For my own purposes, I’m squarely in the written and photographic record camp because I cannot be relied upon to remember anything.  I hoard books not just because I’m a bibliophile but because they are a (false) security blanket.), I do remember a designer on a TV show once saying about a very expensive front door handle that it was worth the price.  “It’s something that you will touch every day.”  That has stayed with me.  Something you will touch every day is worth paying more for, and something you touch every day would also surely be a wonderful piece of family history.Data dump Sept 15 2015 134

How does a tactile record of family history look?

I’m about to find out.  For Eldest’s Grade 8 graduation, I am having a quilt made for him from a selection of his old hockey, camp, school, books, movie and sports t-shirts.  They tell a story of who he was as a kid, a story that he will throw over himself every day, whether he sits to watch next season’s hockey games or read the next Hunger Games-like series that captures his imagination.  I picture him bundled up in it, and that’s the kind of (security) blanket in which I have full faith.  It is a gift I plan to give to his brothers, too, and to all three of them I will say the same thing:  If you ever tire of this and are tempted to throw it away, don’t.  Bring it back to me, and I will give it a home until the stories it tells speak to you again, as I hope they will for many, many years to come.

The Many Faces of Preserving Family History

Planting-a-Family-Tree-for-Parents-Day-–-iPhone-and-iPad-Genealogy-Apps-300x300

We’ve devoted this month to family histories because we are, quite simply, captivated by them. They feature in Beth-Anne’s, Nathalie’s and my life in various forms, not least of which our efforts to capture what is happening in our lives with our families now, which we know will become historical soon enough.

I love to listen, and have listened, for hours to my elders telling me stories of their lives.  I’m most struck by content of these family stories, but form can also be mesmerizing. There was the breath-taking quilt hand felted and stitched by a older friend who wanted a way to commemorate the pile of sweaters her mother left when she died.  Or the one I saw online that salvaged the favourite pieces of clothing of her children. Or a handmade item, like the sweater my mother-in-law knit for my husband bearing his name across the chest, that all three of my children have worn in turn.

Then there are photo books, photo walls and even birthday cards that depict the highlights of the year. The video footage, the journals, the personalized children’s stories or songs or paintings created by the people who love them most. The carefully saved letter stacks, the elaborate family trees, the sepia images captured on slides or cracked photo paper.  I’m greedy for all of it.

Here on the blog, over the last few weeks, we’ve given some windows into preserving our own histories, and this week, we’re delving into this domain a bit more. To share what we’ve done to document and capture what it is that makes up who we are and the ones we hold most dear.  Maybe talk a bit about what efforts we’ve undertaken and what has worked, and maybe also about what has stalled or been let alone altogether. Trying to preserve memories reflects a bit of the scope and depth of the histories themselves, and we hope you’ll find it as interesting as we do.

Image credit