Sunday, January 30, 2011

So. About those online comments ...

As soon as I posted a link to my Salon essay "Regrets of a stay-at-home mom" on Facebook, friends started writing notes saying “congratulations” or “nice essay” or what have you, and then adding things like, "Whoa, but those comments!" or "Hope you have a thick skin!" or even "I want to punch some of those people."

240 people commented online within the first 24 hours after the essay was up. Then Salon closed the comment thread.  (I’m not sure why. Certainly they knew there would be negativity—my editor even warned me to expect it—so it can’t be just that. Maybe they just need to limit the comments for technical reasons of their own.)

Actually, I would estimate that maybe about half of the online comments were actually quite nice. They were from people who got my point or were in the same boat or wanted to encourage me in some way or maybe just enjoyed the writing. And of course, I loved seeing those.

The other half were, well, not so nice. Sometimes quite outspokenly not nice. And those were roughly divided into two camps. There was the (paraphrasing) “What kind of idiot fails to plan for her financial future?” camp, and the (again, paraphrasing) “What kind of terrible mother even thinks about money?” camp.

Heck, let’s just quote some verbatim.

There was, “Yes, of course, the last thing a child needs is to be raised by a loving and caring parent. Apparently, you're not one.” And “Given the dire financial circumstances in the USA today, this woman should be counting her blessings rather than whining about her current situation.”  And "Sorry, but the reason employers think mothers are unreliable employees is because they are" And, “Forget college. Your kids will need the money for therapy. What a mess this woman is."

One particularly prolific commentator kept writing things like, “It's a sin and a shame how fast women like her and the rest of the smug cocooning brigade found working ... too haarrd. They not only left the rest of us to pick up their slack, they looked down on us because we were cold pathetic career women who couldn't get a famblee--and who were unfashionable enough to still care about that tedious political/feminism stuff.”

Pretty unpleasant stuff. Apparently, expressing concern about my finances is "whining" that disqualifies me as “a loving and caring parent." Yet it was "smug" and anti-feminist of me to quit working in the first place. And by being such a "mess," I have screwed up my kids.

Yuck. But you know what? I loved seeing those comments, too.

OK, well, maybe “loved” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe I did occasionally share my friend’s impulse to punch. But really, I was glad to see all those barbs being hurled, all those resentments and hostilities aired. Because they told me that I’d hit a nerve. By raising the questions I did—questions about whether children need a parent at home, about how much of their own financial security mothers should be expected to sacrifice for their families, and so on—I had tapped a vein of conflict, confusion, resentment and fear. People still have really strong feelings about what mothers “should” or “shouldn’t” do, about what they owe to their kids. And despite all the tired debate about the so-called “mommy wars,” there are issues here that have not been thoroughly discussed.

I know, some of those letter writers are probably expressing a few issues of their own. Some seem to have strayed a bit off the deep end. Still, it’s fascinating to know that such strong feelings are out there, still underground for the most part, burbling away.

But the debate raged on, in blogs and elsewhere. Meanwhile, I'd love to see comments here--positive or otherwise. What did you think about those Salon readers' reactions? Do any of them, despite their rudeness, make valid points? Or are they just nuts? Why do people feel so threatened by this issue?

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!