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A mother’s not-so-perfect life?

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It's no secret that mothering young children can be isolating, exhausting, and demoralizing. Mothers have been (guiltily) exploring these feelings since the women's movement first shed light on them decades ago.

            And for all the advances women have made since the feminist revolution, not much has changed in the parenting department. Society still places almost no value on childcare, housework, and the million administrative tasks needed to manage a family. The people who do this work --- still, usually, women --- end up being ticked off, whether they're home with the kids all or part of the day.

            That's where we find Faulkner Fox, a well-educated, white, lucky woman who addresses some of the difficult issues raised by mothering in an intimate memoir called Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life (Or: How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child).

            I say she's "lucky" to point out that this is not a book about the Big Problems people can have, but rather one about the smaller --- but important --- issues that arise in, as the title implies, a near-perfect life.

            Fox, now a poet and instructor at Duke University, shines a spotlight on her specific unsatisfactory parenting experience as a hetero woman in a committed relationship. She and her husband started off on equal footing --- both with graduate degrees, both confident of their feminist credentials.

            But something went wrong. After their first baby was born, she found she was shouldering much more of the home-based work than she ever imagined possible. And she was angry.

            Sometimes it's hard to sympathize with Fox, who, with her husband, moved away from their East Coast world to Texas, where a university job awaited him. She certainly had her share of stressful times --- she was six-months pregnant when she arrived in a town where she knew no one and had to find a doctor or midwife right away. But she had other levels of support that some young families lack --- contact with a caring mother and aunt as well as a small inheritance which enabled her to hire a nanny for a few hours a day so she could work on her poetry.

            It's tempting to dismiss this work as the whining of a "spoiled middle-class princess feeling sorry for [her]self" to use the author's words. But, to her credit, Fox is aware of her good fortune and frames the discussion with this in mind. Sleep deprived and feeling oppressed by society, she strives for more equity inside her home and more understanding outside of it.

            Fox developed an ingenious childcare-and-housework yardstick called "Frequent Parenting Miles." She listed, in 15-minute increments, how much time she and her husband had spent, respectively, in the previous week doing childcare and domestic work. Needless to say, her husband didn't measure up.

            If enough angry mothers hear about Frequent Parenting Miles, it could become the next catch-phrase salvo in the endless war of the sexes.

In a phone interview, Fox said Dispatches is a "hybrid book." She sees it as both her personal story of her early years as a mother of two sons and also as a cultural critique. "The narrator that I've created questions social structures and cultural assumptions wherever she goes --- Mom & Me classes, the playground, how a dinner party works."

            But when Fox strikes her social-critic stance, she loses some of her authority. She is quick to interpret every experience as evidence of an entire culture that forces mothers to act and feel a certain way. She lashed out at a 60-something neighbor who asked her if she was enjoying her "break from work," assuming that the woman was projecting a "monolithic, lovely-lovely version of maternity."

            In the same circumstances, that question might have struck another woman differently. Perhaps the neighbor is like my mother, a feminist of a different generation. Perhaps she knows all too well that when a mother returns to work, her life becomes even more difficult --- studies show married working mothers do the lion's share of childcare and housekeeping in addition to their full-time jobs.

            Dispatches works best, however, when it functions as pure memoir. Fox writes honestly and cleanly about her experiences, sometimes bringing great wit and insight to her plight.

            "I figured I was either working like a maid or a cow about 90 percent of the time," she writes. "While Duncan thought, taught, and wrote (all of which I missed terribly), I cleaned, grocery-shopped, prepared meals, and breast-fed. My daily work came entirely from my body while Duncan's came primarily from his mind."

            In one of the book's funnier moments, Fox blasts the midwives who told her that sometimes women have orgasms during childbirth.

            "Which women?" she writes of her difficult and painful labor. "Those who practice up by masturbating with a chainsaw?"

Faulkner Fox will speak on Wednesday, March 3, in the Lederer Gallery of the Brodie Fine Arts Building, on the SUNY Geneseo campus, at 7 p.m. Info: 245-5273. On Thursday, March 4, she will be at Barnes & Noble, 3349 Monroe Avenue, at 7 p.m. Info: 586-6020. Both events are free.

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