Sunday, February 6, 2011

A regrettable misunderstanding

I need to clear something up.

Again, this involves my Salon essay, “Regrets of a stay-at-home mom,” reactions to which are still coming in. I suspect they will continue, as it’s going to be posted on the MomsRising website and on NPR’s “Here and Now” site. So I’ll probably keep talking about it for a while.

Anyway, a couple of those reactions – one on a blog, the other a very nice email from the friend of a friend – made me realize that some people have misunderstood something about it. Well, lots and lots of people misunderstood lots and lots of things about it, as the online comments and some of the blog reactions demonstrated. But this misunderstanding is frustrating, because it’s kind of a big one, central to the piece, and one that leads some people to react negatively to something they might otherwise view sympathetically.

The misunderstanding is this: People think that I regret having spent time at home with my kids.

I guess I can see where they get that, starting with the essay’s title. I can see where “Regrets of a stay-at-home mom” could be read to mean that, well, I regret having been a stay-at-home mom.

But in fact, I don’t regret the time I had with my kids, as I tried to make clear in the essay. What I regret is that in exchange I had to sacrifice my own long-term financial security. In other words, I’m not mad at my decision. And I’m certainly not, God knows, mad at my kids (contrary to what some particularly insensitive commenters have suggested). What I’m mad at is our political and economic system that forces such a harsh sacrifice.

But getting back to the issue of regret. It’s a rather subtle distinction, I know. Perhaps an analogy will help.

Let’s say you take an extended vacation in some beautiful foreign country. You encounter many hassles and hardships, of course – language barriers and missed trains and lodging hassles – but you realize they’re all just part of traveling. Meanwhile, much of your journey is wonderful, filled with beautiful sights and new adventures and enriching experiences. It’s the trip of a lifetime.

Occasionally, you find yourself marveling at the good fortune that enabled you to take this trip. You’re, say, enjoying a glass of wine in a sunny outdoor café in a beautiful ancient square. Or languishing on the beach, gazing out at the turquoise water. You pause to experience the moment as fully as you can. And even as you do, you understand that someday, far too soon, the trip will be over and these gorgeous days will be relegated to wonderful memories, and snapshots over which you will pore, longingly, in the wintry days at home.

Now, let’s say you come back from this luxurious trip and find that the bills have piled up. You start ripping through them and realize with a start that you couldn’t really afford to have taken the trip. Before going, you thought you had done the math, had figured you would have no trouble covering the bills. Now it seems you have miscalculated. Your credit card is maxed out, and you have no idea how you’ll pay it off.

Do you now regret the entire trip?

If you’re like me, you don’t. You’re still grateful to have done the traveling. Maybe if you foresaw your financial problems beforehand you would not have gone. But you did go, and it was life enriching. Why regret such a wonderful experience, such great memories? But you’re sorry, and probably panicked, that now you’re broke.

This analogy is limited. Because another part of the picture – the most upsetting part, in fact – are the various in which our culture pressures mothers to cut back on their careers, and then leaves them without a financial safety net, in fact discriminates against them. I can’t imagine how to illustrate that via the vacation analogy – if you can, please describe it in the comments. I’ll go into this in more depth, though, in a future post.

Meanwhile, it’s Superbowl Sunday, so I’m going to go rustle up some snacks for my sons and me.

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