Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome, MPR listeners!

Some of you heard my live conversation Friday on Minnesota Public Radio about the cost of opting out to care for children. The other guest was the estimable Joan C. Williams, author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, easily one of the country's leading authorities on gender roles and work-family balance.

The conversation and call-in questions were great. It was exactly my second time being interviewed on the air, my first time live, so I was a little nervous about how we'd fill the hour. But I could have gone on much longer! There's so much to say about this topic.

As usual, I was both heartened and discouraged (heartscouraged?) to hear from call-in parents who've left the workforce to care for family and now feel trapped, permanently unable to get back to work. I'm so sorry we're all struggling, folks, yet so glad to be connecting. I think sharing our thoughts about our situation--talking about why, frankly, it's bullshit--is an important first step. Personally, for a long time I figured my problems returning to the workforce after my divorce were obviously due to my incredible unemployable loserdom rather than anything related to my unpaid caregiving status and gaps in my employment history.

One caller, David, a stay-at-home dad, noted my "sexist" focus on stay-at-home mothers. While there are only about 150,000 SAHDs compared to 5.1 million SAHMs, David definitely has a point, because of course stay-at-home dads struggle, too. In fact, as Joan Williams pointed out, in some ways SAHDs are more stigmatized than SAHMs, because at least mothers are doing what they're "supposed" to do according to gender expectations, whereas fathers have betrayed both their employers AND society's notions of masculinity. Sorry, David, and SAHDs in general, for seeming to disregard you.

By the way, another group briefly mentioned in the MPR discussion is people who opt out to provide care for ailing parents (or other family members). An old friend called recently to say my essay had resonated with her, even though she doesn't have kids, because she had left work to take care of her parents and then had an extremely hard time getting another job. I could relate to this, since I cared for a mother with Alzheimer's for a number of years. My kids were little then, so I did some time as the peanut butter in the sandwich generation. With Alzheimer cases expected to quadruple by 2050, we can expect to find more people in this situation.

So I guess the group we're talking about here, the group whose under-reported needs we're hoping to address, is: Mothers and fathers who leave work altogether or reduce their paid employment significantly to care for children or other family members. Otherwise known as MAFWLWAORTPESTCFCOOFM.

Hmm. Might have to look for a slightly catchier acronym.

For those who missed the MPR conversation, here it is. It's longish (almost an hour), but I think worth a listen, and I'm not the least bit biased.

On the radio again

I'll be live on MPR at 10 a.m. CST today, with author Joan C. Williams, author of the fabulous "Reshaping the Work-Family Debate," whom I interviewed just a couple of weeks ago for the upcoming spring wiissue of Brain, Child (currently up on the site is the winter issue, which doesn't contain the Williams interview, but does feature an article of mine about one of my fave topics: the widespread confusion of causation and correlation in parenting "science").
MPR's program is a call-in show and will be streaming on the site if you're out of MPR range but interested. I would guess it would be available after the fact, too.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How high would you score as a 1930s spouse?

I love things like these Marital Ratings Scales from the 1930s, via Alexis Madrigal's blog on Wives and husbands score merits and demerits based on their habits – different habits for the wife than for the husband, of course. They offer a glimpse of how marriage and gender roles have and haven't changed in 80 years.

They're even based on actual science! Madrigal quotes the American Psychological Association's magazine,which reports that the chart's developer based the wife scale on interviews with 600 husbands about their wives' annoying traits. No mention of how he compiled the husband-rating chart.

Reading this, I can see why I'm divorced. It's obvious at a glance that my score would put me at “Poor” and possibly  the dreaded “Very Poor (Failure).” (What would the consequences have been for a spouse who “failed” back then? The divorce rate was pretty low—about 500 to 600 per 100,000 people in the 1930s, this website says, whereas in 2000 it was “ 9,255 per 100,000 for men and 12,305 per 100,000 for women.” Either spouses were hardly ever “failures” or … well, I can think of other explanations and ways people might have responded to  “failure” spouses in the 1930s, and most are either depressing or sickening, so I won’t go there. Sorry.)

Anyway, at one time or another I’ve done most of those bad things, and can’t be relied upon to do the good ones on a regular basis. For example, I haven’t darned a sock in years (specifically, all of the years I've been alive) and I serve meals on time only if by “on time” you mean “whenever.” And Merit No. 11, apparently the most important one on the whole questionnaire, worth a full 10 points? “ “Religious—sends children to church or Sunday school and goes herself.” I don’t do that. How interesting, too, that while not going to church is apparently deeply annoying in a wife, in the very next item a wife gets a point if she “Lets husband sleep late on Sundays and holidays.”
One demerit I didn’t get, luckily, was No. 5: “Wears red nail polish.” Plain old red? I agree, men of the 1930s, yawwwnnnn. I prefer tawny or cool shades:  green, lavender, brown, gray … Actually, I’ll go with just about any color that would never naturally occur on a mortal earthling.

How would you or your spouse score on these ratings charts? Have the traits that charm or annoy us changed much since then?

Friday, February 18, 2011

A stay-at-home dad reports struggles of his own in the "Letter of the Day"

The Star Tribune's "Letter of the Day" in the Letters to the Editor section is a response to my essay, by someone who left his job to stay home with his kids and is now struggling to return to the job market. The twist: It's from a dad.

Scott Richardson gave up teaching, "a profession I dearly love," and now "can't even get an interview." He has some alternative plans, which he describes in the letter.

So far, it has one online response, questioning why it was designated "Letter of the Day."

Does society influence our choices about work and family?

 “Where to start,” the woman’s email began.

The woman writing me had so many problems with my essay, the one about the high cost of staying home to raise your kids, that I'm not sure where to start, either, in listing them.

My correspondent couldn’t believe I didn’t fully foresee the financial risks involved in quitting my full-time job in 1996. She scorned as hopelessly unrealistic my endorsement of a stronger safety net for stay-at-home parents. She scoffed at my complaining that I'd been rejected for jobs paying $20,000 less than I made in the mid-1990s (um, they rejected me, keep in mind).

“Your essay tends to come off a bit on the ‘I have the means to hold out for that dream job so I won’t consider anything demeaning,’” she wrote. Having just got home from my shift selling sweaters at Macy’s for $8.75 an hour (one of the two part-time jobs I hold), I sighed a bit at that.

She said she’d checked out the articles on my website, noticed I’d written a lot about the culture of motherhood, and suggested I consider writing about something else instead.

What annoyed her most, though—she kept coming back to it—was that she felt I was blaming “society” for my decision to quit working full time.

“[T]he point I want to make is society does not tell us anything,” she wrote. “We tell ourselves stuff – maybe we let ourselves believe it is society telling us what is important.”

I hadn’t used the word “society” in my essay. And I had stressed that the decision to quit was based on a mixture of external and internal (i.e., emotional) factors.

But my correspondent was absolutely right. I do consider that “society” played a crucial role in my decision to quit my full-time job, and in many mothers' decisions to curtail their paid jobs for the sake of their families.

Oh, I’m not saying society wagged its finger and told me a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Heck, if they had, I’d probably still be at my old job! As an outspoken feminist and liberal, I’m certainly not one to let others tell me what I can and can't do, even Society.

If society had done this, I'd probably still be working full time.

… Or am I?

As I said in my essay, when my sons were babies I read articles and books—many by highly respected parenting experts, like T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach—warning that small children needed to be cared for not by anonymous day-care providers but by a loving figure who showers them with undivided attention.

Who was going to step up? Grandparents? They all lived 1,300 miles away. My then-husband? Well, two things you should know about him. 1, he’s devoted to his job in the extreme. And 2, he didn’t even read those parenting manuals.

When I talk about pressure from “society,” those parenting manuals are among the pressures I mean.

Neither my husband nor I were offered paid parental leave. I took my allotted 12 weeks of unpaid leave, filling in with sick and vacation days. The company offered fathers three months of unpaid leave, too, but I heard of only one father ever using it. My husband took a couple of weeks.

The stingy parental leave benefit? The way men choose not to use it? Again, that’s “society.”

My then-husband and I held demanding jobs; our employers, though ostensibly sympathetic to parents' responsibilities, expected us to make work our priority. Part-time jobs weren’t available. As a nursing mother, I brought an electric breast pump to work and used it twice a day, sitting on a toilet in the women’s restroom.

Work held to be the ultimate top priority? No meaningful part-time jobs? Nursing mothers offered a bathroom? Once again, all society.

When I say “society” influences our decision, I don’t necessarily mean it scolds and lectures. I mean it sends subtle messages. It provides opportunities—or it doesn’t. It claims to offer choices, but doesn't always make those choices feasible or convenient. It encourages certain kinds of attitudes and discourages others.

All of that stuff is society. I'm not saying it makes us all do the exact same thing. I'm saying that we make our choices within that framework. And my point is, if we don't like the framework, we can always change it, because society is us.

If my correspondent is reading this, I would guess that at this point she would tell me I’m unreasonable to expect any change. Among people who have disliked my essay, there’s a faction who seem to feel it’s wimpy or snooty or whiny or overprivileged all of the above to expect society—workplaces, parenting manuals, day-care centers, public policy, employers—to make life any easier for parents or mothers to balance their sometimes dueling roles.

I responded to my correspondent's email, answered some questions and provided a little more information. I invited my correspondent to stop by the blog to discuss it further. I hope she will. I welcome all opinions here, as long as they're politely expressed, as hers were.

Meanwhile, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what "society"—or  culture, or reality, or whatever you want to call it—tells mothers about how they balance work and family. What messages do you see in the media? What opportunities or restrictions have played a part in your own choices? Is “society” something you feel you can utterly ignore as you go about your life?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Valuable words to live by, even if you only half remember them

She had probably said it before. Many times, maybe. It didn’t sound scripted, but she sounded sure and articulate and definite. Since then, in any case, Anna Quindlen has said the thing—or, more accurately, my vague and fragmented half-remembered approximation of the thing—many, many times.

In my head.

Of course, I wish now I had written it down. I hadn’t brought anything to write with, wasn't expecting to pick up any unforgettable quotes. I have nothing against beloved novelist/journalist, but I’m not her biggest fan. A friend asked me to go see her one evening last spring. The talk was free, it was a lovely evening, and the church where she was speaking overlooked Lake Minnetonka at sunset. So why not?

Quindlen’s talk was engaging enough to hold the interest of someone who has never read her novels and has no plans to, has admired her journalism career but never followed her columns closely. Whatever you think of her writing, Anna Quindlen is a smart, eloquent, forceful, high-achieving woman who of course has interesting things to say.

Anna Quindlen speaking—not where I saw her, but at Stevenson University in Maryland, which furnished this photo.
Quindlen read a passage from her novel and spoke a bit, then asked for questions from the audience, which filled the big room. People asked the usual things about writing, journalism, books. (Quindlen is, it turns out, a big Betsy-Tacy fan, so that was exciting for me. She said that whenever she mentions that, about half the people get it and half don't; I'm very definitely one of the getters).

Then somebody asked her something about mothers.

I can’t remember the question. I suspect it had to do with blaming mothers—or rather, in this cordial, affluent, literary, churchy, Minnesota-nice audience, with holding mothers responsible—for some problem or other. Helicopter parenting, maybe; that's the newest trend.

That’s when Quindlen made the statement whose exact words I don't remember but whose gist I have never forgotten. Something to the effect that raising children involves so many “moving parts” that at the end of the day there will always, inevitably, unavoiably, be loose ends, things done less than perfectly. She makes it a philosophical point, she said, not to blame mothers for them.

How true! And how valuable to hear, even if you already know that, even if you already try frequently to remind yourself of it! How nice to hear it confirmed so well, before a big audience, by someone as widely known and well-respected as Anna Quindlen.

So on a day like today, when I have only now got around to returning an email from 11 days ago about an opportunity I’m actually really excited about. Or when I pick up the phone to find the orthodontist's receptionist dryly informing me that my son missed a big appointment this morning. That’s when I think, “Remember that thing Anna Quindlen said about the moving parts,” and I instantly feel better.

Here’s a quote from an interview with Quindlen posted by Random House, which published her novel Every Last One last April, just around the time she visited the church on the lake. It doesn’t sound like the exact words she used that night, but it touches on similar themes.

“There are a million moving parts to raising kids, and you can’t always anticipate them all, especially when the outside world, other people, play such a huge role in their lives as they grow older. With independence there is one kind of pitfall; with overprotection, there is another. And sometimes you do everything right and something bad just happens. It’s as simple, and as scary, as that.”

Isn’t that a nice quote to inwardly recite (or at least recall, as I do, in a vague and fragmented way) whenever you’re tempted to kick yourself for screwing up something, which in my case averages at least once a day?

But wait! There’s more! This next part I don't recall her adding that evening in the church by the lake. But in the Random House interview, she notes that when something bad happens involving kids, people tend to point the finger at the mother.  Though she is partly referring to some incident in her novel, which as I said I haven’t read, it's not a prerequisite to understanding her meaning, which applies just as accurately to events in real life.

“Of course, when things go wrong, it’s still the mother who gets blamed. Where was she? What was she thinking? … Despite the increased role of fathers in our society, there’s still a sense that motherhood is the big fail if anything goes wrong. Yet it’s independence that is the ultimate success for your kids. If your goal is to build strong people from the ground up, the only way to do that is to give them enough rope to sometimes make their own mistakes.”

Thank you, Anna Quindlen, for being so right, and saying it so well.

Anybody else have some reassuring mantra they dredge up whenever things go wrong?