Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to What I Should Be Doing Instead, a blog about the choices women make in our lives, what influences them, and why everybody else seems to have an opinion about them.

A little background: Years ago, I started noticing that I often felt restless and guilty about how I was spending my time, whatever it was I was doing. However important or fun or even absolutely necessary my activity was, I kept feeling as if, instead of that, I should be doing something else. I would be cleaning the kitchen, say, but feel like I should be working on a writing project. If I was working, I should have been hanging out with my kids. If I was with my kids, I should have been loading the dishwasher. Or whatever. You get the idea. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing.

Some explanations for this phenomenon, I know, are simple enough. Stress. The pressures of modern life. Trying to juggle motherhood and career. The siren song of the internet.

But at some point I figured out there's another contributing factor: the many loud and conflicting messages about what I should do, about how I should look and eat and dress and work and exercise and cook and decorate my house and raise my children. Oh, these messages aren’t always addressed directly to me, as in “Katy, here’s what you should do.” Usually, they’re directed at women in general, particularly mothers. In many cases, I’ll freely admit, I seek them out myself. The messages come from TV programs, from magazines and newspapers and web pages, from books, from friends and relatives, and occasionally from total strangers.

I want to explore why this happens – why women, seemingly more than men (though we can discuss the differences later) and mothers, more than women without children (ditto), so often get told what we should do and who we should be. And why, often, we invite this instruction.

So I had been mulling over a blog on this subject for a while. Then a few weeks ago, something happened that sharpened my focus and spurred me into action.

On Jan. 5, I published an essay on called “Regrets of a stay-at-home mom,” (subhead: “Consider this a warning to new moms: Fourteen years ago, I ‘opted out’ to focus on my family. It was a mistake.”) In it, I explained that I had left a full-time job as a newspaper reporter in 1996 to be with my then-small sons and had worked part time, as a freelance writer, since then. Now, I wrote, I’m divorced and struggling to find a steady job in a tough economy, holding a resume that does not show seamless full-time employment. So, I said in the Salon piece, although I cherish the time I was able to spend with my children and am deeply thankful I was able to experience so much of their early lives, I am now facing the fact that exchanging full-time work for unpaid caregiving endangered my financial security. Or, as I put it more bluntly in the essay, my sons and I had some wonderful times together, but now I lie awake worrying that I’m permanently financially screwed.

The essay got a lot of attention.

Readers left 240 comments in the first 24 hours after the piece was posted, after which Salon closed the comment thread. Most of the comment writers held strong opinions about my essay, many of them decidedly critical, and the conversation was, er, lively, to say the least (more specifics in a later post).

Elsewhere, though, reactions were overwhelmingly positive. More than 5,000 people clicked the Facebook "like" button. I received nearly 100 email messages through my website, all but one or two wonderfully supportive, many from people facing similar predicaments. Mentions of my piece bounced around in emails, on Twitter and Facebook, on more than 50 blogs. NPR's Robin Young interviewed me for "Here and Now" (hasn't aired yet -- I'll post a date when I hear anything). Samantha Parent Walravens offered to include my piece in an upcoming anthology she's editing called "TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood" (out in May from Coffeetown Press).

I’m not sure if all of this officially qualifies as “going viral.” I’m certainly no Susan Boyle, or kid riding home from the dentist. I’m not even Amy Chua, whose book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and controversial excerpt in the Wall Street Journal elbowed me out of the motherhood-news spotlight a couple of days later.

Still, the brief fuss was fun, and very encouraging. Mainly because the reactions reinforced my long-held suspicion that the subject of mothers’ unpaid caregiving—how much they do, how much they “should” do, what financial sacrifices it entails and what society owes or does not owe mothers in return—has not received enough public discussion. Not nearly enough.

So that will be the first item on our agenda here. I welcome those who have stopped in to join the conversation and always feel free to express your opinions, whatever they may be. I love a good debate! 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting start to an interesting blog! I look forward to reading more.

    I'm not comfortable with the thought of society "owing" women/moms something in particular, but I recognize the issues women face when they take time off from their careers, especially in divorce. Thirty years ago, I remember reading a lot about displaced homemakers, older divorced women who had never worked outside the home. Different situations, similar end result.

    A couple of thoughts: What if there was some sort of agreement by which a stay-at-home mom would receive some sort of compensation from the father in a divorce for lost wages due to caring for children -- similar to alimony in practice, I guess -- through maybe a prenup (really rudimentary thought here off the top of my head)?

    Another thought is that Canada gives a year's paid leave, for either parent (I forget the details, but I believe it could be shared) after the birth of a child, and provides some protection for the job that is left on hold. No idea if Canada has more resources than the United States for stay-at-home moms re-entering the workforce.

    Just some thoughts ... and what I should be doing instead is sleeping. ;)