“women’s work” timecard #4

Reading this typically dull-yet-provocative Tracy Clark-Flory article in Salon, I followed a link to a Katie Roiphe article from a few years back called “Get Your Kid Off Your Facebook Page” in which Roiphe complains that women who are interested in their children make lame dinner companions:

Think of a dinner party you just attended, and your friend, who wrote her senior thesis in college on Proust, who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in her twenties, a brilliant and accomplished woman. Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk about…what?…a book? A movie? A news story? True, her talk about her children is very detailed, very impressive in the rigor and analytical depth she brings to the subject; she could, you couldn’t help but think, be writing an entire dissertation on the precise effect of a certain teacher’s pedagogical style on her 4-year-old. But still. You notice at another, livelier corner of the table that the men are not talking about models of strollers. This could in fact be a 19th-century novel where the men have retired to a different room to drink brandy and talk about news and politics. You turn back to the conversation and the woman is talking about what she packs for lunch for her child. Are we all sometimes that woman? A little kid talk is fine, of course, but wasn’t there a time when we were interested, also, in something else?

You can’t help but feel a little sorry for Roiphe here. For her, a book, a movie, a news story — some sort of mediated, packaged experience — is more important and more worthy of discussion than actual everyday experience. Never mind that Proust’s work is essentially a “dissertation” on the minutiae of life, that Proust is engaged in exactly the project, here lightly mocked, of bringing “rigor and analytical depth” to remembering one’s own experiences. The reality of sandwiches and strollers isn’t worth her time compared to what the men are doing over there.


Of course, the constant contact with sandy, banana-coated reality that is a stay-at-home parent’s primary intellectual reward for his labor faces disdain from more corners than just the supposedly-feminist. The job market is also less than impressed.

I recently called the Navy Reserve to see about getting commissioned as an intelligence officer after seven years of experience as a linguist and analyst. I thought it would be fun — stay up-to-date in the field, regain some of the camaraderie I enjoyed in the military — and in a pinch we could even get health insurance. But when I told the lieutenant commander in charge of officer recruiting in my area that I stay home with my son, he made a face like he’d smelled a fart. (This was over the phone, but you could tell.) “So you’re unemployed.” He then explained that although he totally understood the economic choice to stay home with the kids, they routinely received applications from people in the FBI and other intelligence agencies, and that I wouldn’t really be competitive. And hey, why didn’t I come in as an enlisted sailor and also maybe work on a Master’s online — he recommended this diploma mill respectable university — which would really show that I’d been doing something with my time.

And, you know, I understand the guy was totally trying to be nice, but…. Dude. Nobody’s going to spend good money to get a useless online Master’s degree in order to be “competitive” for a part-time job.


Being a stay-at-home dad is some of the most focused learning I’ve ever done, and I respect no one’s made-up degree in “information technology management” compared to the work of studying and recording one human being’s development. Consider this dad, a scientist at MIT who recorded the first 90,000 hours of his son’s life and then combed the footage for patterns, especially related to language development. Follow this link (really!) for a 45-second audio clip that traces the child’s acquisition of the word “water,” starting with an incomprehensible “gaga” and ending, several months later, with a sudden discovery of the right sounds — “wha-ter?”

Not all parents go so far, but then the people talking about Proust at dinner parties are also not going as far in their intellectual striving as Proust himself. The point is that the intellectual project of parenting has merit.

As a practical linguist who’s devoted a substantial portion of his adult life to learning languages, for example, I’m fascinated by my son’s failures at the same task. The above-linked audio file, illuminating as it is, also obscures the two-steps-forward-one-step-back struggle every language learner experiences. Language acquisition doesn’t have a neat upward slope; the student linguist doesn’t just get better and better. He forgets words, or he knows them only in context; he mispronounces foreign sounds more after he’s known them a while than when first trying to master them; he misses even well-known words when they’re embedded in long, complex strings; he makes creative, but unwarranted, categorical leaps that don’t match up with the categories a native would use. Perhaps most frustratingly, as his abilities increase, he goes through troughs of despair at how much more there is to learn: he feels he ought to be able to express an idea now that it wouldn’t have occurred to him to try to express a few months ago.

I watch H. go through all these stages again and again. He’s only said perhaps three or four words, and only one consistently (a very dismissive “nah,” for “no”), but he knows many words receptively, and he can sign or gesture for about a dozen ideas. His current obsession is the sign for “bird,” which looks like a beak opening and closing:

Even the children in the video have a hard time with this sign — the girl in the first clip, who’s distracted, waggles all four fingers in front of her face; only the girl in the second clip, who’s presumably being coached, delicately uses her forefinger and thumb to mimic a beak.

H. is a waggler all the time, so he’s consistently “mispronouncing” the sign. But what I find interesting is that he applies “bird” generically to many animals, including horses and cats — but not to dogs, for whom he has a more specific linguistic indicator: “Oo-woo!” (his approximation of “Woof woof!”). Even more interestingly, I believe he understands the difference between “cat” and “bird” receptively — that is, when we say the words — but can’t quite manage the difference between the signs. (To sign “cat” you stroke imaginary whiskers, as demonstrated here.)

Or take “more,” another sign he’s quite fond of. When he first learned it, he was eating blueberries, and for a long time it wasn’t clear that he understood that the sign could be used for other foods as well. And even when he got that down, he made only an approximation of the gesture, clapping his open hands instead of bringing his fingertips together. He really only mastered the actual physical form of the sign when he began to clap for other reasons — amusement, applause, musical experimentation. When he finally needed clapping to be clapping, he couldn’t use it for “more” anymore, or people would constantly be bringing him blueberries. So he learned to modify his clapping-sign to look more like the real sign, so that clapping could be itself again. And finally, even now he rarely uses “more” spontaneously to ask for things; he just knows that it’s a good affirmative answer to the question “Do you want more?”


Not that Katie Roiphe cares. Or, you know… maybe she does. “Get Your Kid Off Your Facebook Page” was written in May 2009. On August 25, 2009, she published an article in Slate called “My Newborn Is Like A Narcotic.” In the article she notes that suddenly an evening lecture by Gay Talese is much less interesting than it ought to be “by any objective standard,” and her thoughts drift to her infant, who’s home with a sitter.

That phase doesn’t last forever, of course, and Roiphe’s perfectly aware that she’s operating in a haze of hormones and sleep-dep-induced psychosis. But you know what lasts a lot longer? The intellectual rewards of an in-depth study of another human being from the very beginning of his life.

Now excuse me while I go investigate that poopy smell.

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6 responses to ““women’s work” timecard #4

  1. A couple of things:
    I spent years at parties avoiding the women so I didn’t get stuck in mommy talk.
    Not that I didn’t like it. But there is the fear of losing one’s edge, one’s mind, and so parties become a chance to be your other self, the one before child, as it were. You do it to assure yourself you still can. It wasn’t feminist in my mind.

    Second, language learning is a steep slope at first. Then it explodes all over that the kid has everything by the time he is 4 or 5, except vocab which we pick up all along our life span.
    Your chronicle of H’s language acquisition is fascinating.
    And he did sign bird for dog when we were skyping. Is ooo-wooo new?

    • thehandsomecamel

      Yes, “ooo-woo” is new. Also, he seems to have just figured out the sign for “dog.” “Cat” is still too subtle, though.

  2. I think I need beginning book on sign.

  3. What sign does he use for dog?

  4. Do you think his language acquisition resembles yours of Korean or Arabic in any way?

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