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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Wedding Dresses
April 22, 2009 - 9:22pm

While on sabbatical and spending more time with my kids, my thirteen year-old daughter, Katie, has opted to spend evenings with me, while her fifteen year-old brother prefers to stay with his dad (my ex-husband). Their dad and I are working hard to let the children initiate these choices, and not to fall into the trap, as Katie tearfully accused us, of laying on a ‘guilt trip’ for choosing the other parent. We do not allow any more statements such as, “But I’m cooking your favorite chicken pot pie tonight! Can’t you go over to your Mom’s house some other night?”

Needless to say, I am delighted that Katie wants to spend more time with me lately, and we are carefully trying to develop more ‘feminine’ mother/daughter pursuits — moments she avoids with her father and brother. I am experiencing lots of feminist angst as many of these moments focus on issues related to clothes, romance, physical appearance, etc… None of this 'togetherness' precludes the fact that we’ve already spent lots of time developing Katie’s personal interests in volleyball, the sciences (we love watching the Fox show House), and the culinary arts (baking pastries).

But at thirteen her interests (and her hormones) are changing radically and swiftly. Last night Katie begged me to rent the film 27 Dresses, written by Aline Brosh McKenna, the same screenwriter for The Devil Wears Prada. I have to say I enjoyed Prada as it reminded me of living in NYC after college, being terrified of my first editor and ignorant about questions of style, status or power. I became disillusioned with that NYC world very quickly, as does Anne Hathaway in Prada, primarily because of the superficial condescension that Meryl Streep embodies in her smart, edgy performance. I agreed to rent 27 Dresses.

27 Dresses develops from the adage “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” The film stars Katherine Heigl, who plays Jane, a NYC magazine editor’s assistant with a love for weddings and a tendency for planning her friends’ weddings while ignoring her own personal life. Jane’s closet is crammed full with bridesmaids’ dresses — all 27 of them. At one wedding she meets a ‘New York Journal’ wedding columnist who secretly writes a column about her bridesmaid 'self-hatred', while also falling in love with her. (The film is 100% heterosexual—not one gay wedding guest, not even a glimmer of sexual alternatives in it.)

I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you, but I will tell you that the film led me to pull out my own ‘princess’-style wedding dress from the closet, try it on, and demonstrate how I could not zip it up any more in front of my daughter. Katie’s delight kept rising, as my feminist mom scorecard sank into the negative numbers. Katie talked about how she wants to have two children — a boy and a girl — when she grows up. (I don’t think she’s seen Knocked Up yet, but maybe so…) I responded that she should probably wait for marriage and children (unlike myself, of course) until she’s 30. She replied to my point just as quickly, “Can’t I get engaged before 30?”

“Sure…” I said, racking up more negative points…

I went to bed recalling a moment from my undergraduate days in David Paletz’s year-long “Politics and the Media” course at Duke University. Paletz (who was one of the reasons I went on to get a PhD in Cinema Studies) struck that first feminist note with me when he pointed out how many Hollywood films, particularly films aimed at a female audience, end with a wedding march. When he showed The Sound of Music (one of my all-time favorite films), I promptly picked up a pencil and threw it at the screen when Julie Andrews marches slowly down the aisle, looking perfect in her huge, white gown, after having discarded her less attractive clothes from the nunnery. Paletz laughed out loud at my response, which indicated clearly how disillusioned I was by Hollywood’s vision of a woman’s most 'triumphant' moment.

Now why, I wondered, was my daughter not getting this contradiction? Why is the wedding day romance suddenly so important to a divorced child of college professor-types?

I found myself remembering a New Yorker article about Barack Obama published before the election. In it Obama describes his international childhood, which was partially the result of a divorced, academic mother who gave her son the choice to stay in Hawaii at age thirteen, while she completed anthropology research in a brutalized Indonesia. As a result of this divorced, disconnected family life, all Barack wanted to do with Michelle was to establish a solid, home base in Chicago, and a community for his family to feel connected with and supported by. Both experiences have defined him in important (and electable) ways.

Katie seems to be seeking a retelling of her own family romance, and I certainly can’t blame her for that. She keeps a wedding photo of me and her father in her room at her dad’s house. Like Obama, though, Katie already knows the alternative versions of that story. She doesn’t need me to remind her of them.

Maybe we’ll read Freud next…


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