Monday, November 20, 2006

Words, Landscape, and Motherhood

I ran across this blurb for a book I'd really like to get for Christmas (hint, hint) on the Family Scholars Blog:

A group of writers has collected more than 800 fading landscape terms in a new book — Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. …Nature writer Barry Lopez launched the project after he found that he was unable to double-check the usage of some landscape words, simply because there was no place to look. Poet Michael Collier, who also contributed to the book, believes that the words are worth preserving because “language is the DNA of the culture."

Honestly, this looks like a wonderful book - it's got all my favorite things: eloquent writing, historical depth, beautiful photographs, and descriptions of different environments with personal meaning (that 'sense of place' writers like to talk about). I'm grateful to the Family Scholars for bringing it to my attention, especially since I missed the NPR story last week in the confusion of school conferences, birthday preparations (my son turned ten on Saturday), trips to the veterinarian, and runs to the drugstore for more cold remedies and kleenex.

The remaining part of the Family Scolars post, however, made me stop and think twice:

Reminds me of why some of us are concerned that redefining marriage and parenthood in ways that make us unable to talk about mothers and fathers (but rather simply “parents”) could contribute to more children growing up without their own mom and dad. When you are no longer able to talk about the thing itself you stand a grave risk of losing it — if you have not lost it already.

It is undeniably true that our society is redefining marriage and parenthood. I think that American mothers' and fathers' roles are more flexible than ever before. As more mothers work in formerly male-dominated fields (note that I'm not just saying that more mothers working outside the home - as many historians have shown, mothers working in the fields, in the marketplace, and even in industry are nothing new), and more fathers become more involved in childcare and housework, yes, parenting is evolving.

But what is the relationship between describing what we do for our kids as "parenting" instead of a specific kind of mother's work or father's work and children growing up without a mom or dad? How exactly do flexible gender roles (dad changing diapers, mom mowing the lawn?) contribute to more fragile marriages? Is commitment limited to those with traditional "family values"? Because good parenting is a family value, no matter what you call it or who does specific tasks.

I guess that by calling what mothers do traditionally ("kissing boo boos" as Linda Hirshman sums it up) parenting, as opposed to mothering, mothers do lose some special status. But using a gender neutral term and letting fathers nurture, too, cannot lessen the essential relationship between a child and their mother. As far as I can see, it just gives mom a chance to read the paper while dad reads the kids a bedtime story.

Please note that I don't think that men and women are exactly the same, either biologically, or in how they parent. But men as well as women can certainly nuture, and women can also protect and provide for their children without invoking the end of the world (either culturally or environmentally). Motherhood and fatherhood won't disappear if some of us parent instead of mother, or if Dad cooks and cleans like every day is "Mother's Day". And speaking of bygone phrases: we're not going back to the days when men "wore the pants in the family", and a government where women were active participants was dismissed as "petticoat government".


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Barry Lopez won an Oregon Book Award & came to Bend with a few of the other book award winners. They spoke at the library. I had enjoyed his books & looked forward to seeing him, but wow, was he serious! Not at all as sparkly-eyed as he appears in the pictures. Maybe he was having an off day. Aaaaaaaaaaanyway... I love the idea of this book. I learned a whole new vocabulary when I moved out here. Like "draw," which back east we called a ravine.

Victor said...
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