Thursday, May 29, 2008

The core of me, the parts

Am in NYC this evening, and have had a wonderful day just being alone in the city.  I haven't been alone in a long time.  Tomorrow I'll do the same and then head back to Bethesda.

I want to clarify and explain some of the stuff I was trying to articulate the other day about mothers and 'voice' and so on.  But I can't tonight.

There were some things driving this beyond just the Shapiro poem and my own thoughts.  These include posts at The Gimp Parade in which the writer (who has disabilities and medical gear, etc.) going to get her hair cut and being, well, made into spectacle by others, gawked at in a manner completely devoid of manners and respect.  Also the experience of taking my own son out in his wheelchair into the world.  Our spectacle is a different sort: Robert is still a little kid, and often people want to prove that they're empathetic to people with disabilities by making eye contact and smiling or saying something encouraging or nice to us.  There's nothing wrong with this, and I certainly like it when people are nice to me and Robert in public.  But there are times when I just don't have the energy to reassure people that, yes, you guys are decent, thanks for working so hard to try to show that to me.  It's spectacle of a different sort.  There are times I'd just like to be out in public and have the same minimal privacy shield others have: we're just a family out for a walk, we're bonding, we're ordering ice cream.  

Come to think of it, this is a reason I like New York.  No matter what kind of weird thing is going on, people maintain this circle of privacy around themselves and their observations all the time.  People just don't pay attention to you in NYC.  Or it is paying attention, but only a wary sort of attention, making sure the people around you are not going to do you harm.  Eye contact is rare in NYC--there are just too many people, it's too crowded, there's too much traffic, there's so little privacy.  So people create these privacy shields.  Unfortunately, NYC is not really at all accessible.

I've also been thinking about the experience I had with a group of special needs parents at our local elementary school a month or so ago.  We've started a support group with the help of school staff, and we're all trying to figure out how to bridge the social barriers that, even in an inclusion school, separate our kids from others.  I.e., kids are great and supportive in class and the playground, friendly, etc., but playdates are a rare thing for our kids.

The principal has been trying to have conversations not just with us, but with families with typically developing kids to try to articulate the issues we each feel on both sides and act as a communication facilitator.  She is very brave.  

But we were all stopped cold in our tracks when she raised the issue most parents have about our kids: if we were to have a playdate, would my child be 'safe' with your child?  Since we don't see our children as threatening, this was shocking to me, and I think to all of us.  I guess Robert could do some real damage by rolling over other kids in his wheelchair: he could knock them down.  It might hurt.

What interested me about Shapiro's poem, and what makes me hate it and feel sick about it is two-fold:

1. disability as spectacle
2. the issue of what a mother's voice is or can be: that nagging fear that what I can say, what I'm allowed to say in the context of my role as mother is narrow.  And that if I don't stick to those norms: the unflinching supporter, the love that comes without limit or check or worry or concern, the one who gives all for nothing--if I don't stick closely to those norms of the mother-speaker, I'm liable to be labeled unethical or immoral.  And it's not black and white: I can love without reservation, but still have worries, concerns, second thoughts, recognize that the love is exceedingly complicated.

When I speak as a mother, am I forced to put on that one hat and dissemble or hide the rest of my identity?  Is the aspect of me that is a mother just some sort of mask that I wear?  Is it all of me?  Can I only have a complexity of emotion if I take the mother hat off and just present myself as a woman, a person?  

If mother becomes my identity, am I then bound to its stereotypical speaker rules?  Can I stray without being derided or despised?  Do I really, really give up all my other speaking privileges if I say that motherhood defines the core of me?

And if not, if it's just a hat and mask I wear, a mere sliver of a larger identity, how can I deny the fact that motherhood is inextricably a part of me, a part I can't separate from other parts?  It's not a separate suit of clothes.  My body is permanently changed because I gave birth not once but twice.  Motherhood is just psychological, it's physical, too.  It's part of and infused with every other part of my identity.  I can't just channel it into some entity that people are willing to receive.  I am what I am, a whole person made up of parts that blend and interact--these are not separate buckets.

Does this make any sense?  Or am I creating some kind of straw (wo)man here?  Why does it seem as though being a mother and being a fully rounded person are separate things?  Why the dichotomy?  It wears me out--'you know, you really wear me out, Olivia' (a line from Ian Frazier's picture book of the same name, Olivia).

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