Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Rant Before Reading

These are the books I just picked up from the library.

To say that I am excited about reading them would be like saying Jack makes a teeny bit of a mess when he eats pudding.

I have strong feelings on the subject of motherhood. When I started writing my dissertation, I thought abortion was my personal hot-button issue, but by the time the project was complete, discussions of abortion took up maybe 30 out of 300 pages. Maybe. Instead, I wrote word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, and end note after end note about mothers. Real mothers, the women who begged Margaret Sanger for birth control, or lobbied to keep day nurseries open so they could keep working after World War II soldiers came home, or suffered from the "problem with no name" that Betty Friedan diagnosed in the 1960s; idealized mother images, shadowy figures in Planned Parenthood's organizational literature who obediently saw their doctors for prenatal care and diaphragms, learned how to space their children so that childbirth would no longer kill them, and realized that sacrifice, piety, hard work, and deference to experts were secrets to happiness in their homes; and of course potential mothers, all women, all female fetuses and toddlers and preschoolers and grade school girls and awkward middle-schoolers and teens and married women, all socialized from the moment their sex was known to care to nurture to breed. Even childless women in the literature were defined by their negative motherhood.

It's a leap, of course, and one that I did not have enough textual support for, really, to claim that Planned Parenthood discourse was a neat little microcosm of larger America. Of course the campaigns the organization ran, the ideologies it deployed, the idealized mother figures it used were influenced by culture, by context, by the political landscape, but as the fabulous historians on my dissertation committee reminded me, the relationship between rhetoric and reality was not as linear as I wanted it to be.

Still, what I took from my study was this: we are seriously f*cked up when it comes to motherhood in America. Let's face it, it is increasingly less common that families can live comfortably on one income (wages have simply not kept pace with productivity since the 1980s-- thanks Reaganomics). There are more and more 2-income families, but the rhetoric of motherhood, parenthood, family hasn't changed. We still pay lip service to the value of the SAHM, but we (the social we, the federal we) aren't putting our money where our mouths are. This is where my argument starts to become discombobulated, where I know how close I stand to this critical problem (and I am forever grateful to the professor my first year at PhD school who had us read Michael Walzer, who argues that critical distance can be measured in inches and helps to sort out the problem of prophecy, as it were) because the money issue introduces a problem that Friedan famously, disastrously skirted. It's a status symbol of sorts to stay home with your kids. Oh come on now, of course it is. It announces to everyone, "I don't HAVE to work. I choose to stay home. Money, you see, is not an issue." Which, in turn, makes working moms take one of two really shitty positions. You can say, "Screw it. I need the money. I have to work. But oh god I wish I were home with my kids," neatly devaluing the 40 or more hours a week you spend engaged in outside-the-home activity. Or you can say "I work, but it's not like I HAVE to,", tripping all over yourself to reassure everyone that you have the LUXURY (the financial luxury) of choice, but you chose work and that doesn't make you as much of a shitbag as it sounds at first breath because you are really fulfilled by your career, but you have to stop short of insulting women who don't work in order to justify yourself and it's not because women are catty or because you are jealous; it's because our culture makes moms feel like shit no matter what.

I am sure you can tell by my increasing defensiveness that I fall into the second camp of working moms. I am so defensive that when people ask me if I work, I make a huge deal about how I am still home with the kids a lot and my husband's hours are flexible and I just got my PhD last May. That last one is especially funny because it has NOTHING to do with the original question, but I just babble it on out there as if it does fit in, as if it explains ANYTHING. Because I can't just say yes and move on-- I feel terrible that I am a mother of 2 small kids and I work outside the home. But here's the catch: I don't like staying home with them. I don't like it. I suck at it if I do it for too long (I mean, 5 weeks off in the winter, a week in the spring, and the whole summer? Plus at least one full day a week-- that's too much time for me to be good. Think about 24/7!) (And? Do you see what I just did there? I tripped all over myself to tell you how much time I do spend with my kids because I feel so guilty for working and feel guiltier for choosing to work and feel guiltier still for liking it so goddamn much.) (And there-- another jab about choice, about how all options being equal, I chose to go to the office-- another little slip of the fingers that illustrates my claim about SAHM as a status symbol).

I almost cried the other day at Harry's swim lessons because I found out that 3 other moms of kids in his class have PhDs are work part time (one at a college and 2, who are psychologists, in private practices). It was wonderful to talk to them about the daily scramble and the conflicts and how not to drown in the dissonance.

The thing that I didn't know when I was childless and scoffed at staying home and at people who think daycares are evil and at husbands who didn't help with everything is this: You love your babies more than anything in the world, and they are tiny and helpless and hypnotically adorable and when they cry, you want to be the one they cry for. Also that breast is best and pumping sucks, so forget help in the middle of the night.

I didn't feel this way because I am a woman and I am "hard wired" or biologically predisposed to feel this way. I do think, however, that women and girls are culturally conditioned to feel this way, to assume the burden of care and to work out elaborate justifications for why they WANT this burden or why they are shirking it. I mean, go to freaking Toys R Us and check out girls' imaginative play toys versus boys' imaginative play toys. It's still pink kitchens and fake make up to rocket ships and chemistry sets.

I am no stranger to creepy message boards and the mommy wars waged on them. I know that SAHMS are made to feel bad for SAH. I know there are terrible arguments about wasting education, etc, designed to make SAHMS ashamed so WOHMS can feel better (and from a historical perspective these arguments are really funny because women were only allowed to be educated in the first place because the founding fathers thought it would make them better mothers, who would, in turn, raise better citizens). I spend most of my days passing for a SAHM. I send my kids to a part day nursery school where almost all of the kids have SAH or WAH moms. I go to the Little Gym, which is all SAHMS and nannies. I run my errands with my kids during the day. Part of this is intentional-- I feel so bad that I don't stay home that I act as if I do. I understand the value of an at-home parent, and Ben and I contort ourselves to be home as often as we can and to give them the opportunities they'd have with a full- time at-home parent because ultimately (and flame away here) I do think it's best for tiny kids to have one-on-one attention in the home (and maybe I have just been duped by en vogue parenting ideology). That's why we have a nanny to care for them when we can't. I like that it is below zero today and I left them barefoot in a warm house playing a board game with someone who loves them. I hate that that someone is not me and that I don't really want it to be. Not today when the adventure of new semester is rolling out fresh in front of me.

It's not fair, I don't think, to plead the fifth on the issue of motherhood in America or to dismiss it, saying something like, "Meh. Everyone makes the choice that's good for her own family." Here's why:

First of all, the notion of choice is misleading here. To say that we choose is a very capitalist and consumerist way to look at the issue. It assumes that we all come to the buffet line with the same size plate, that we are all selecting from the same array of scrumptious choices. That's just not true. Some women aren't choosing at all; they're doing what they have to do; they're selecting the only available road, and then they're being made to talk about it, to think about it, as if they chose it for themselves. Because if it's a choice, we don't need longer maternity and paternity leaves. If it's a choice, we don't need federal infrastructure for equitable, accessible daycare. If it's a choice, then it's not a right, and if it's not a right, then we don't have to help you pump at work, or take your sick kid to the doctor, or be compensated in any way for the work you perform everyday in your home.

Second, what happens inside your house affects what happens inside all of our houses. The choices we make about raising our families are certainly private, but all of these private choices together make up our public notion of family, of motherhood, of social justice. In a very real way, what happens in your house directly affects what happens-- what can happen-- what we can imagine happening-- in my house, in the White House, in every house.

So, that's how I feel BEFORE I read the books above. I'll check back with you after I read them.


  1. Amen. To all of it. I still feel the need to tell every ding-dong SAHM I meet that I used to work, would still like to work, but that right now SAH is what's best for us. But, then, when I meet a WOHM (which, being in the military now, are HARD TO FIND...) I explain that I enjoy SAH, do miss working a little, but am so happy to be home.

    What is wrong with me?

    And, I think I might read a couple of those.

    Ooh, and, I have the book my grandmother read when she was pregnant with my mom and the book my mom read when she was pregnant with me. Plus my Dr. Sears book I read with my girls. Holy smokes, what a difference!!!!! But, I was surprised at so many of the similarities too. I'll have to send you the titles and authors.

  2. Yes-- send me the titles and authors b/c I want to write a book about the rhetoric of parenting books!

  3. AMEN!!

    I recently went from full time WOHM to part time. Like yourself, I feel like I kind of suck at the staying home part. Yet it is the very thing I would sit in the corporate ladies room stall and cry about when I first when back to work after maternity leave. I wanted to be the only face my daughter saw, cried for, at, etc.

    Now I have what I feel like is the ideal arrangement for our family (working 20 hrs/week) and some mornings I dread the whole "at home" routine.

    What the hell is wrong with me?

    Oh, and I LOVE your blog. Love it.

  4. I like working. And I like staying home. Would I like doing either full time? No. Do I think it's possible for two parents to both work demanding "career jobs" as they are currently configured and still have a meaningful family life? Not really. In that sense, there is no "choice." In the fields Ryan and I are in, you work 60 hours a week or you don't work at all. Doctor's visits? Sick kids? Sorry! Use a vacation day. Errands move to the weekends, no down time, blah.

    But! I do love preschool and (the right) day care. I loved having other adults who loved my kids. I loved the resilience and independence it gave them. All the structure I could not provide.

    But yes, depending on who I am talking to I do feel I have to justify my working outside of the home part time lifestyle. What is that?

    We are constantly made to feel bad about each parenting choice--by society, yes--but more importantly by other mothers sitting around the wading pool or the Big Red Mat! Pullups? Pacifiers? Cosleeping? Working? Staying home? TV? Preschool? Nanny? Daycare? All are elevated or denigraded with equal fervor depending on who you are talking to.

    I also am no good at staying home full time. Unless "good" is endless hours of TV and lots of emotional eating.

  5. I read this right after my kids woke up from nap, both screaming for twenty minutes. No clue why. So I'm a little on edge. Before I go any further - I want you to know I respect every single thing you wrote. Everything. Except the SAHM being a status symbol, the "money isn't an issue" thing. Because here, it is. Here, we can't afford to have two kids in daycare if I went back to work. The "field" I was in didn't pay much at all, and I didn't even have healthcare costs taken out. I barely would have have broken even w/ just one kid in daycare.
    That's a rare case though. I know almost every other case a little money coming in is better than not. And I'm not saying I really want to work, though I'm looking into starting to do freelance work (but again, why do I need to justify any of it?)

    That's the big thing. Why the need to justify what we do to anyone? You do what works for your family, I'll do what works for mine. It's when we stop thinking that way, and start thinking we know what's best for each and every family out there that we get ourselves into this terrible situation that we're in. This put everyone in the same box problem.
    (I lurked over on the Parenting board on the Nest or bump or whatever the hell it is now, the other day and read a thread that I was just appalled at. People ripping into sahm's that can't give their kids the extras. I almost worked myself into tears. There are SO many other aspects to everything, and honest beliefs, and we all believe differently.... Oh my freaking lord I'm getting off track...)

    Anyway. That was way too long of a response, that might not have made any sense.
    But I love that you started the discussion. That you put it out there. Because Motherhood, especially in the US, is a clusterfuck.

  6. Corinne--you're totally right-- that is the other side of the coin-- when it costs too much to work b/c daycare costs are cuh-razy. But I think that fact is to the point of how little the culture as a whole is willing to SUPPORT the values it promotes. Daycare should not be so expensive that it prohibits people from working if they want to work-- because if SAHM "vs" WOHM really was a choice, that wouldn't be the case.

    I do think there's a myth surrounding SAHM that it's a blessing and a privilege (which it is, of course and it's a bummer that we live in a culture where that statement needs qualification), so money isn't important in that SAHM is invaluable, if that makes sense? So that's the mythology, but there's no policy to make it real?

  7. excellent post - excellent points.

    And I will agree with what Corinne said above me - at least for us me being a SAHM is not about having enough financially. We are struggling, and failing and drowning at every crossroads financially. But there is no way that if I went back to work I would make enough to pay for even one kid in daycare, much less three. So I play up the fact that I am a SAHM, I play off the faact that most people view it as a status symbol so they won't realize just how hurting we are. And I'll scrimp, and save, and cut coupons and go without everything for myself so my kids can have what they need because I don't want to work. I HATE working. I want to be a SAHM, I CHOSE being a SAHM and I'm proud of being a SAHM.
    It impresses me unbelievably the woman who can work and go to school and take care of their kids and balance so much more on the plates spinning above their heads than I will ever have to. Who run such tight schedules with daycare and drop offs and appointments - I can't imagine what happens when someone gets sick and a wrench gets thrown into the whole machine. The fact that they (you) manage all of that, is endlessly amazing to me.
    I think we all need to learn to be gentler and kinder to not only ourselves (relax the standards of the perfect organic meals and spotless eat off the floor homes) but to each other. Whether we make the choices we make because they are best for us or the only option, we are all trying to do the best we can to raise our chldren and balance our lives. You cannot stand back in judgement if you are standing close for support.

  8. Becca, I have been thinking about your comment, and the thing is, those 60 hour a week jobs depend on a SAH parent or some sort of support system at home. There's something really effed up about that when some of those jobs (not using yours as an example) don't pay enough to support that home support. I think our society has to show how important family values are by working out a way to SUPPORT families (with money or time or leave or flexibility, etc)

  9. We are really blessed with the opportunity our jobs have given our family. My husband's job does not require him to work 60 hour weeks. It is a big deal if he has to work more than his normal 80 hours or so every two weeks. And I am able to work part time from home and can bring my kids with me when I have to go to work. Was this a choice for us/ In a sense it was. We knew going in that my husband's job would be like this and that is why we were happy to accept it even though it was not near family. I planned over three years ahead to give myself a job opportunity that allowed me to work from home. But, not all careers are like mine. Few companies allow you to get paid well and only work hours like my husband can.

    Some of us get to choose to work or not, but there are way too many who have no choice. Financially they have to do what they are doing to keep their family afloat. The only time would ever criticize a mother for how she parents is if I was 100% sure working was a choice in their family and her job was keeping her and her husband away from the home 60+ hours a week. To me, it is obvious then that the job is more important than the family,a nd that is something I do take issue with!

  10. Tripod6:11 PM

    I agree! I was lucky to stay home while the kids were little, and there are things about it that are absolutely priceless! I am thrilled not to have missed out on the experience. At the same time, how does a person stay at home full time without becoming bored and depressed? And who wants THAT to be the face your kids see? There were lots of times that I felt like a horse or an ox harnessed to a grist mill, and plodding around in a little circle over and over.
    I can't wait to see the book. And think of it like this: you can impact so many lives doing what you do. Harry and Jack are lucky to have the parents they have.

  11. tripod6:23 PM

    Oh, yeah, one more thing - If you look at the penal system, you see the reflection of the value our society accords women and children quite clearly.
    See the sentences people get for woman or child physical or sexual abuse in criminal court. If there is not a grisly, headline-grabbing murder involved, it's likely county jail or probation. Contrast that with th punishment dispensed for burglary or other property crimes.The gulity party is sentenced to prison almost every time.
    Yeah he beat the wife and kids, but it wasn't like he stole anghin...

  12. Lots of people LOVE staying home. I do too most of the time. It is priceless which is exactly my point. We live in a culture that SAYS the work of mothering is priceless but ACTS as if it's valueless. I think you are called to be a SAHM. Like being a tea her or a member of the clergy.

  13. Just move to Chicago (you and Ben can just get jobs at DePaul) and we can hang out 24-7 and I (the SAHM) won't judge you (the WOHM). Instead we can judge all the moms in my hood who stay home AND have full-time nannies. That's all kinds of fun.

    Also, I read Nurture Shock in three hours in one sitting. LOVED.

  14. I read this while eating lunch at my desk at work because - horror of horrors - I am a mom who works outside the home. And I think my head spun off and I was useless the rest of the afternoon. Because yes! yes! yes! to all of it! The justifying and the guilt! And really, the fact that the justification and the guilt is most an 'issue' when talking to other moms. Why is that?!? And all of this is so much less eloquent than what you've written because, like I said, my head spun off during lunch hour. So yeah, what you said.

  15. Jenn Wallace12:21 PM

    My mother worked because she LOVED her job. My father worked because in the 70's, hell even now, he'd have been a MESS with a baby day in and day out. I went to day care every day and then I was a latch key kid. I never, not even once thought I was missing something by not having a SAH Parent. I had a strong, involved, enriched mother who, usually, wanted to be with me when she was done at work. I'm SURE the juggled a lot to be able to do that but I was NOT sacrificed in the process.

    Staying at home with me would have likely made my Mother nutso and not such a great Mom.

    Thanks for making us think Sarah!

  16. I'm such a mish-mosh of this all because I do stay home and it is a luxury that Husband can support us, and I'm glad I stay home, in theory. But I don't think I'm very good at it. In reality, most days I really wish I had a field of work that I wanted to go back to.

    I am envious of SAHMs who have activity upon activity lined up for their kids and who engage w/ them at every turn. I can't do that. I lack that "super mom" gene. I just isn't in me, no matter how much I adore my kid. And I feel guilty for that.

    I am also envious of WOHMS who feel passion and love for their careers and were raring to go when it came time to go back to work. I was done w/ teaching when I left it. And now the idea of a professional self leaves me feeling all twitchy and guilty and lost because I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up (well, I have an idea, but it's just not possible right now).

    Either way, I feel screwed up and guilty.

    I love when you get all philosophical about the idea of motherhood. You give such a great, clear voice to what is normally a giant mess.

  17. Sarah-- I always think of you as one of the SAHMS who has a calling to be one. Like that game you played with E where you cut out magazine pictures that started with a certain letter and glued them on a poster. Dude, that would NEVER occur to me EVER (but I so copied it from you). And all the playdates you line up for him. And the museums you guys visit. You ARE the mom who has it all together.

  18. Bless your heart, Sarah! LOL :-)

  19. The messages around motherhood always make me feel bad— either angry at other women for the shitty assumptions that buy into, or guilty for the reality of my life or the reality of the woman next to me at the grocery store. The system does NOT work for women— by design it is meant for men who are not the primary care giver to children. Once women began working outside the home (for a variety of motivations) the very design of how “work” was done should have started to change- but it didn’t and it really hasn’t. Telecommuting/flex time/ job sharing are options for women in non-wage earning jobs-- but aren’t they the women that need a more flexible work life? The two camps: the SAHMS and the WOHMS are not real for most low wage earning women—they work and they are at home—and without much support. I read the Mommy Wars book--- I look forward to reading what you think. I am sure you have read Peter’s Women’s work: Dismantling the maternal wall article in Women’s Studies last fall. Her article prompted the best discussion in my WS class last spring.

  20. I'm not sure I can really articulate my thoughts on this topic except to say that I think it really is a double-edged sword. (Which you pointed out.) I stay home (but I work out of my home as a freelance writer) which actually has been the very best job for me because I hate to wear any kind of clothing with a waistband.

    I know, I know...but I only wear trendy comfies. No elastic-ankled sweat pants or anything.

    But I think women are going to be looked down upon regardless. If you work it's that you don't spend enough time with your kids. If you stay home it's that you're nothing but a diaper changer with very few brain cells left and the inability to carry on an adult conversation.

    Where's the middle ground, and why do we, as women, feel it necessary to judge each other all the time? Why can't we just say "that's great that works for you! So happy you figured that out" and leave each other alone? (I'm speaking hypothetically here.

    I do have a degree (two actually) that I have been using since I graduated over ten years ago... and I haven't had a "real" job in ten years. :)

    I have a GREAT collection of yoga pants though.

    :) Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Sarah. And good for you for knowing what works for you (working outside the home) and doing it. Your kids need to see that Mommy is HAPPY and FULFILLED. Not trying to live the life everyone else told her to live.