How It Was

It’s 1954 and you’re the leader of a group of Camp Fire girls. You host their weekly meetings, plan little crafts with acorns and pipe cleaners, make sure they all have their outfits pressed for the 4th of July Parade, and, when the local paper calls, you pose with all the other Camp Fire leaders for a picture.

When the paper is published, in this case, the Hastings Banner, you look to see if the photograph is flattering and then you look for your name. Only it isn’t your name that is listed, it’s your husband’s name with a Mrs. There is Mrs. Robert Beadle, Mrs. Arlin Chambers and Mrs. William James. And then there is you, Mrs. Roy Overley. But this doesn’t bother you because this is the way it is. You don’t think two seconds about it. You’re just glad you crossed your legs at the ankle unlike some other ladies in your row.

My mother never said much about feminism. As she would say, she had other fish to fry – like trying to function with chronic and often debilitating depression. And I never talked to her about feminist issues like women keeping their own names after getting married or even using their own first names if they took their husbands’ last name. So I figured she didn’t care about the naming thing, assumed she was fine with being anonymous. But I might have been wrong.

The first time I went to the cemetery where she and my father had installed their shared headstone before they died, leaving only the departure date blank, I saw this engraved on my mother’s side.

Virginia (Boyes) Overley

Her given name, her maiden name, her married name. I wish we had talked about it.


Time for Joy

Jan and Elizabeth

The feminist struggle could be pretty joyless. I became a mother in the thick of it – in 1973. Should I wear a nursing bra or burn it? That was the question.

Like every movement that seeks equal rights, recognition, and authenticity, feminism took its pendulum way to the outer reaches of Siberia before it settled back to the tame little arguments we have today. Lean in? Hell, in the 70’s, we weren’t even standing up yet.

At the risk of telling my “I walked 5 miles to school, in the snow, uphill” story, I feel compelled to tell younger women just a bit about how it was. Becoming a mother was a weird mix of natural childbirth, unshaven legs, and do it yourself gynecological examinations. If you don’t believe me, go rustle up a first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Oh wait – I’ve probably still got my copy on the shelf entitled “WTF was I thinking?”

So while we were supposed to be doing the mother earth thing, feminism expected us to push the struggle. Tuck that baby under your arm and pick up that hammer!

So I tried to be both. I did the natural childbirth thing, being all calm and doing the breathing like I was taught. I was never nutty enough to want a home delivery although a couple of my friends actually had their babies at home with their husbands doing the delivery. Shit. My husband was an urban planner. Seriously, I was going to have him deliver our baby?

Anyway, the natural childbirth approach worked fine until I cracked and started begging for drugs. When the nurse told me the drug wouldn’t take effect until after the baby was born, I told her I didn’t care. Give it to me anyway.

All I remember about the actual birth is a sexist pig old male doctor telling me what to do. Last male doctor I’ve ever had except for the guy who checks my ears. Done with that – my childbirth resolution. And then I remember the serene, dimly lit recovery room, the frost on the inside of the window from the coldest ever Michigan winter, and my baby wrapped in a white blanket on my chest. The two of us alone in the dark. The tiniest, most perfect slice of joyfulness.

Soon after that, my feminist struggle resumed. I was a new mother, a very recent college graduate, with not much of a career and few prospects, married to a successful man, well-educated, a public figure in our town. I was overwhelmed by feeling ‘less than’ and started to squirm and fidget, looking for my hammer.

I went back to my two-bit research job 4 weeks after my baby was born. It wasn’t like I was a brain surgeon where my maternity leave would result in lives lost. I was, get this, driving my VW around the countryside coding the crops that were detected via aerial infrared sensing. Soy beans? Sugar beets? Seriously. This was my precious work.

A few years later, a friend remarked to me that my boss at the time said that I had “…the worst adjustment to motherhood of anyone he’d ever known.” It stung at the time but it was probably true. I struggled against motherhood at every turn.

And so, if I have regrets about anything (and I really don’t about much), it’s that I let this struggling – the cross pulls of old and new feminine roles: my mom in the kitchen with her apron, freshly pressed, mother earth in a peasant dress with the safety pinned flap for breast-feeding, and a mad as hell Rosie the Riveter who would leave her baby in a bucket so she could turn on the pile driver – take the pure, perfect joy out of being a mother.

Now my life is about wandering around and picking up those little shards of joy that fell on the floor, the ones stuck in the bottoms of my pockets, in my big purse with the old pens and Kleenex.

I know what I missed in my fitfulness. It’s in this picture.

Mistaken Identity

You might have heard — there is a lot of controversy in Wisconsin right now about the collective bargaining rights of public employees.  I’m not a public employee but I’ve often been mistaken for one.

Various people have assumed that I was a social worker, child welfare worker, probation officer, and school principal.  These cases of mistaken identity occurred when I was with one of my kids, usually at their school.  (For the uninitiated, I am white, some say, super white – northern European.  My three adopted kids are from Nicaragua.) I’ll never forget standing in the hallway of Milwaukee High School of the Arts having a nice chat with one of my kid’s teachers, walking away and hearing him yank my son back to ask, “Is that your case worker?”  “Uh, no, that’s my mom.”

I started thinking it would just be better to be the social worker.  Why fight it?  Be a social worker.  Flash that badge.  Get all the info.  Talk like an insider.  Keep the school professionals  from e-nun-ci-a-ting like they tend to do whenever they meet up with mominsweatpants.

If I just go along with being the social worker, I can avoid the story.

Because if I tell a nosy person the story, it will surely be like giving a Moose a Muffin or a Pig a Pancake.  If I start with the plain fact that my husband and I adopted from Nicaragua, it will lead to the reason why, then it will lead to making it clear that we didn’t pay a lot of money for our kids, that they were abandoned and without options, that they were sick, because, of course, I would then want the person to know that I’m not a rich white imperialist thinking I can just buy children who belong to another country, and then I’ll have to answer questions about their ‘real parents’ and how they feel about that which I won’t be able to answer because I don’t actually know, and whether they have ever gone back and looked for them, and how much do I know about their past which is practically nothing.  And I will feel like apologizing and my child, whichever one it is, will be slinking down the hall wishing he/she had never been born in any country because the big, giant JULY 4TH AUTO SALE spotlight will be shining on them and it just isn’t f**king worth it to explain.

So I just decided to be the damn social worker or probation officer or whatever.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really have an attitude about it.  I never really got mad at people who asked questions because I figured it was plenty weird seeing me and my kids. (My husband – different story — he can pass as the Dad.  Me, no chance.)  Plus I figured that actually having these kids was like the most massive stroke of luck in the universe so I was ok talking about it.

Still.  It does really make you feel like you are wearing a bikini at a PTA meeting.  Really.

So, anyway, several months ago, I walked into a group home where my CASA (I’m a Court Appointed Special Advocate for a girl in foster care) girl lives and one of the group home girls said, “Is that your grandmother?”

I loved that.  I really did.