Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I Know you Hate my Minivan

There was no way we were getting a minivan. I had trouble parallel parking a Subaru Forester. How could I parallel park a minivan?

But you and I both know the real reason I was afraid to buy a minivan. It’s not the perspective that I as a driver would have, it’s the one you’d have of me that I was worried about.

A mom in a minivan.

She must be so devoted to her kids that she’s lost all sense of self.
She doesn’t even care that she’s a stereotype of suburban motherhood.

My old Subaru Forester has its own image, of course, one that a colleague in the faculty lounge at the small independent school at which I teach found appropriate to remind me of.

“You know that’s a lesbian car, don’t you?
I’d figured you’d drive a Volvo.
Maybe an old Volvo, but still …not a Forester.”

The Forester didn't scare me.

It’s the image of a mom in a minivan.

And, I had to start asking myself why that worried me.

I’ve read many magazine and newspaper articles recently (no books—I have a toddler), written by women like me. We waited to have our first child until our early to mid thirties—after college and grad school and careers and marriage, discovering our maternal instinct a bit later than our own mothers. And, now that we’ve discovered it, we are filled with ambivalence. Ambivalence not so much about who we are or what we do with our time, but about how we are perceived by others.

So, we soften this anxiety by creating an image of motherhood that is decorated with cool and overpriced accessories--pretty diaper bags, fancy strollers, bottles that don't even look like bottles. In many ways, the fullest expression of this desire to offset our parental state is not in an accessory we tote, but in the one that totes us: our cars.

It is because I am a mother that I did not want a minivan. I am not alone. Sales of minivans are at their lowest in years, and many car companies (Ford, Saturn, Buick, Mercury) have stopped production on minivan models.

Why are women like me eschewing the traditional family vehicle in search of a crossover?

The first answer I came up, size, had no validity. If I am afraid to parallel park a minivan, I’ll be just as bad parallel parking a large crossover, but the truth is, I haven’t had to parallel park in almost four years.

The next obvious answer was the image.

A woman driving a minivan is perceived as a mother, and mothers are simply….well, mothers.

Their identity is conditional. They are someone’s parent, and often, someone’s wife. They are not women in their own right. But a woman driving a crossover could be anyone. Who knows if she’s married, or single, rebellious, or conservative? The idea of driving a crossover seemed liberating. My car does not become a sign, following me around like a rolling billboard, telling everyone who sees me driving who I am. Was my lust for a crossover a sign of individualism, or insecurity?

In her article, The Image of Helplessness, (The Washington Post, June 17th, 2007), Naomi Wolf discusses our fascination with women who are falling apart, (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) as a retreat from the fact that most women, are in fact, not falling apart. Wolf points out that when women reach periods of great opportunity and achievement, there is often a need by society to counter those successes with images of women who are sick, frail or self-destructive. The underlying desire, it seems, is to make sure that women never stray too far from their role as caretakers: bestowers and recipients of love.

Although it’s less tied to independence and more to family, couldn’t the image of the mom in the minivan be likewise unsettling to a society that wants to know the boundaries of a woman’s potential, or a society that keeps women off center by constantly redefining this potential? My argument might seem counterintuitive, because the minivan may in fact be linked with the role of caretaker, but in a larger sense, it’s linked with the role of confident caretaker, not one who is taken care of.

The mom in the minivan has a stake in something: the world her kids live in. She might pay attention to the laws that regulate guns, or lead paint on train sets. She might go to a school board meeting. She could even use her minivan to haul five other moms to a political rally, saving gas and time in doing so.

The woman in the crossover? She may or may not be a mom. If she is, she either has fewer things and people to carry than the minivan driver, or she’s amazingly well organized.

Either way, to the world outside,
she is a marvel,
and she has not sacrificed the one
intangible that is
undeniably lost with a minivan:
sex appeal.

Was I rejecting the minivan because I wanted my car to be sexy, not maternal? I gave this serious thought. The two relationships that have given me the most confidence over the years are with people inextricably connected to status as mother: the one with my husband, and the one with my daughter, not the guy who may or may not gawk at me as I get into my car. As I thought through my rejection of the minivan, I realized that I had been acting on instinct, the way I had rejected the modestly priced, domestic looking stroller. I knew why I didn’t want something, but I hadn’t thought about why I desired something else. And, that made me realize I hadn’t thought—really thought—about any of these choices.

Then I read Ann Job’s article on MSN Auto, Who’s Killing the Mini Van? (MSN Auto, 2007.) My first response was, well, I am. Now I really wanted to know why.

No, it’s not just my generation’s unique style of parenting by accessory. Although, it was interesting to be reminded that it was the baby boomers who first jumped on the Dodge Caravan in the early 80’s and perhaps my generation was just looking for a something new, the way the boomers deserted the station wagon.

Job also mentions that auto makers make more money on the sale of a crossover, as much as ten thousand dollars more, than they do with a minivan. I am not usually a cynic, but I started to suspect that perhaps someone else wanted me to consider a crossover instead of a minivan.
And, then Job quoted a saying in the auto business that is apparently standard:

You can sell a man's car to women, but you can't sell a woman's car to men.

I don’t know what the numbers say, and I am sure there are plenty of examples to refute this adage, but the ethos struck a chord. Has motherhood gone out of style? So much so that even those of us who have found fulfillment through it greater than any we have known before, don’t want to be identified with it?

There are a lot of forces challenging it. I am one. As long as I seek accessories to mitigate the image of motherhood, I am part of the tide of consumerism that has masqueraded as enlightenment. As if, by not revealing my status as mother, I am somehow better able to maintain those parts of me that exit independent of it.

If the mom in the minivan is the stereotypical soccer mom, then that image is being attacked right now by the lust for crossovers. And, in that desire, we’re just being sold another myth, replacing the one of absolute family with one of unlimited potential. It’s going to be up to the real women and moms to stand our ground, taking pride in who we are as moms, and finding a place to genuinely cultivate the other sides of ourselves. Our cars are nothing more than accessories.

In December, still filled with ambivalence, I went to a Toyota dealer prepared to buy the Toyota Highlander. I left as the proud owner of the Sienna minivan. It's been more than a year now, and I have no regrets.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Stories...

The running monologue in many mothers' heads is not between them and the outside world, but between the person they have become and the person they once were. These are my stories.