Friday, February 18, 2011

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?


  1. not about society - but I thought your article was very well written, and brought up a lot of good points about the motherhood/career balance. best of luck to you!

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