Middle Path parenting

We middle-class Moms must make some trade-offs

Here's a post I wrote, published today on the NYT's Motherlode blog. I wrote this in response to a Mom's entry about her nanny, which you can read all about here. My two cents:

We're going through a time of change, where we middle class women find ourselves "required" to work and raise children at the same time. In some ways, our lives may be less fulfilling than our mothers'. It's fair for us to debate these issues here, out loud.

Having said that, I think that we're all going to have to accept the tradeoffs that our work-family situations require. It hurts me, sometimes a lot, that I'm not home with my two 'tween daughters. But I take strength from knowing that I am providing for them, materially, by working. These are competing feelings that I have to reconcile. When I feel that I've been too immersed in work, I cut back and take my kids out for a special day or weekend. I've sometimes changed jobs to have more time with them. I suppose that if I ever got to the end of that line of logic, I would join the radical moms I've read about who are growing their own food and rejecting consumerism and status labels. I'm privileged to have all of these options, but that doesn't make it easy or painless.

I also take solace in the idea that if our generation works through some of these issues, it will benefit our sons and daughters when they're raising families.

'Rescuing' kids from child care

Have you ever tried to rescue another Mom from her child-care choices? My sister texted me today to say that another Mom from school invited her 8-year-old son over for the following afternoon. My sister said yes, thinking it was a playdate invitation. But apparently, the other Mom was reacting to my nephew's fussing about going to his after-school child care. The other Mom said he clearly didn't like his day care. So, she thought she would give him an afternoon off -- presumably in the more wholesome environment of her home. The thing is, this Mom was mistaken about why my nephew was fussing. He likes his day care, but he also wanted to go over to her house to play on his friend's new ride-on scooter. It says a lot about our continuing guilt over child care that this Mom felt she had to butt in and rescue my nephew. I think she was being very judgmental.

We're becoming ever more dependent on non-relatives taking care of our kids -- what with the growth of two-income homes, single parents, mobile workers. Yet, we still can't seem to resolve that child care is an acceptable way for our children to spend their time. I'll go out on a limb here and say that it's mostly women who are so uncomfortable with "strangers" -- that is, trained child-care workers -- taking care of our kids. In the back of our minds, we compare this arrangement with Mom or Grandma watching the kids, and the strangers never quite measure up.

I'm guilty of this myself. Several years ago, I met my daughter's friend at the YMCA, ready to put in a day of assistance with her Mom who worked at the Y. I offered to take the girl home to play at my house, certain that it would be a better day for the kid. But her Mom quite rightly said, "She's looking forward to spending the day with me." Her Mom was very nice about it, and we're still friends. But I wonder at my own motivation, trying to "rescue" this kid from a day at work. It's quite possible that she enjoyed her day with Mom and learned a lot in the experience.

What do you think?

Dual-income families show signs of strain

We parents know we're stressed out. Now researchers are documenting it. Social scientists from UCLA installed videocameras in the homes of 32 families, all middle class, with two earners and multiple children. The cameras recorded nearly every waking moment at home for a week. Writes the New York Times' Benedict Carey:

... the U.C.L.A. project was an effort to capture a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household. The investigators have just finished working through the 1,540 hours of videotape, coding and categorizing every hug, every tantrum, every soul-draining search for a missing soccer cleat....

Dual-earner households with children have existed for years, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. But the numbers have jumped in recent decades, to 46 percent of families with children in 2008 from 36 percent in 1975.

Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which financed the project, said parents learned on the fly — and it showed.

I think that if we parents could anticipate some of the challenges and decisions we have to make, we'd be better off. Almost no family I know is living in the same circumstances, years later, in which they started.

One family I know, for example, relocated several times between the cities of New York and Los Angeles -- only to discover that their two sons needed less regimentation than city living could provide. My brother Bill made a similar decision, moving from inside the Washington Beltway to rural Connecticut, where his in-laws have provided support and extended family connections.

Dan-my-husband and I have taken turns commuting to New York City, which is about an 80-minute trip, one way. One of us always works closer to home, in case we get one of those emergency calls from the school that our daughter is sick -- or even just to deliver a pair of sneakers in time for gym class.

Each decision to arrange one's life differently is a value judgment. I'm exploring these values for my book-in-progress, Rocket Science for Working Moms. One of my values is a desire for my children to feel safe and supported, even though I have a 40-hour-plus time commitment to my employer. Other parents have altered their lives so their kids can learn to entertain themselves imaginatively without tying them to a dead-bolted schedule.

Learning on the fly is common, but it isn't much fun -- as the researchers on the UCLA project discovered.

“The very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever,” said one, Anthony P. Graesch, a postdoctoral fellow, about the experience.

Post-racial, post-partisan, post-Mommy Wars?

Our society is said to be getting past a lot of things these days. We elected our first black president. We're increasingly registering to vote unidentified with either of the two major parties. It makes me wonder if we are also ready to slough off the labels -- and bitter tensions -- that apply to the Working Moms vs. Stay-at-Home Moms. Writing in O: The Oprah Magazine this month, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the accomplished lives of her women friends -- Moms, single career women, all stripes -- and wonders why so many of them are waking up at 3 a.m. tormented with self-doubt. Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love believes that women lack "centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate," and that we are forging new paths.

By all rights, every one of these clever, inventive women should be radiant with self-satisfaction. Instead, they twitch with near-constant doubt, somehow worrying that they are failing at life.

When I look at my life and the lives of my female friends these days -- with our dizzying number of opportunities and talents -- I sometimes feel as though we are all mice in a giant experimental maze, scurrying around frantically, trying to find our way through. But maybe there's a good historical reason for all this overwhelming confusion. We don't have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. We make mistakes. We take sharp turns, hoping to stumble on an open path, only to bump into dead-end walls and have to back up and start all over again. We push mysterious levers, hoping to earn a reward, only to learn -- whoops, that was a suffering button!

She encourages women to keep trying, and failing when necessary, and to keep mapping our own lives. This is the impulse that has led me to begin writing a book on working motherhood, this desire to help make sense of all of our choices and to describe new possible paths for the next generation of women. I'm calling it Rocket Science for Working Moms: Facts and Fuel for Women Launching Their Own Journeys. In it, I discuss a lot of the wrong turns I made, and how my family, and other families I know, have crafted unique ways of working out the new lives open to us -- filled with greater opportunity for women, increased financial pressure and higher expectations for how we raise our children.

Gilbert writes that we should lay down arms in the Mommy Wars and stop competing with each other over whose life is more perfect, fulfilling, correct. I couldn't agree more. But I'm not sure it's human nature to do that. If you're reading this, let me know what you think.

Flexible work: Twenty years of progress lost

In July, a Congressional committee, the Joint Economic Committee, heard from work-home experts about the disappearance of flexible work arrangements – a hazard of the economic recession. Cynthia Thomas Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California said callers to the center “unanimously expressed their needs for flexibility and feelings of near desperation at facing unemployment because of their inability to work a standard schedule.” Calvert went on to say that employers may be using the recession as an excuse to terminate family caregivers. Between January 2008 and July 2009, the center had heard from 45 women who were fired shortly before, during or shortly after their pregnancies. In many cases, supervisors had expressed doubt about their ability to combine work and family.

Thirty percent of working moms, whose companies have had layoffs in the past 12 months, are working longer hours, according to CareerBuilder’s annual Mother’s Day survey taken in 2009. Fourteen percent or working moms had taken on second jobs in the past year.

In good times, workers frequently seized the opportunity to use “flex time” and family leave, to telecommute and to take paid sick days. But the recession has brought with it a "silent fright" among workers, Joanne Brundage told the Washington Post in March. The executive director of a mothers’ networking group, Mothers & More, Brundage said the current mindset is to "work as many hours as you can. Make yourself indispensable. Don’t ever complain. Don’t ever ask for anything. I’m just horrified. We may as well just forget the last 20 years.”

Anti-abortioners get them while they're young

A 12-week-old fetus model My daughters came home from a street fair near our home with this "cute rubber baby" -- given to them by an anti-abortion group that had set up a table at the fair. The trouble is, my daughters are 12 and 10. These activists apparently pulled them aside -- or maybe just lured them over with rubber babies and pencils -- and talked to them about abortion without their parents present.

My girls came home and asked me what abortion is. The activists had told them something about "ripping up a baby" in the womb. I answered the question -- I believe in giving my kids good information when they're curious, along a healthy dose of spin about our family's beliefs. But I resented this group for introducing my kids to this issue too young and framing it with their bias.

It's not that we don't talk about sexuality and reproduction at home. Their dad and I have explained the facts of life and the dangers of becoming pregnant as a consequence of having sex. We've taken every opportunity to teach them to respect their bodies -- by eating well, by not lifting their shirts for second-grade boys on the school bus.

But what happened to my rights as a parent to teach them about life and morality at my own pace? These anti-abortion folks, as usual, seem to care more for the life of some hypothetical baby than for the innocence of the two young girls standing in front of them.

I've heard that some 10-year-olds can be very mature and even sexually active. But mine simply are not. They carried the rubber babies around for the rest of the weekend, talking about how cute they are, and made them a place to sleep in their dollhouse.

This rubber baby was supplied by heritagehouse76.org, an online warehouse supplying any number of items to the anti-abortion movement. The company was founded by Virginia and Ellis Evers, activists who began using silhouettes of tiny baby feet on lapel buttons in the 1970s to further their cause. The rubber babies must have come later. You can order them in several different models and three "ethnicities." (White baby shown above.) The people at the street fair also gave my daughters a pencil with a silhouette -- which is the size of a 10-week-old baby's feet.

Fortunately, the other side was represented at the fair too. My kids also came home with bright pink lapel pins stating, "My body is not public property." These came from the American Civil Liberties Union. My 10-year-old read the pin out loud to me, and I responded, "That's right. Your body is not public property." Especially not for some anti-abortion fanatic at a street fair trying to indoctrinate little girls before their time.

My kids' homework changed my life

I'm working on a book that observes the balancing choices today's parents make between home and work. I used to be at one end of the spectrum, when my kids entered grade school, when it came to homework. Their teachers were telling me that this was work they should be able to accomplish on their own, and so I left them to it. But as I stand here today, with daughters in 5th and 7th grades, I am at the other far end of the homework spectrum. It all happened so gradually, so innocently....

I used to go out at night after work. I wasn't just hanging out with friends. I was a reporter new to NYC political circles, and I felt that it was important to get to know people so I could be plugged into what they were thinking and doing. It was also marvelous fun. New York is filled with fascinating characters who love to tell the story of politics as they know it -- both present and recent past. I had a professor in journalism school who used to say that you could walk down the streets of NY and pick up stories off the sidewalk, they were so plentiful. That's how the city in 2003 felt to me.

So, I was out two or three nights a week. But then I noticed that my older daughter wasn't doing so well in school. I thought, perhaps average is her best work. Maybe she's just not a student. But I began coming home more often at night to work with her, starting in about 3rd or 4th grade. It must have been helping, because soon I began to feel a tug in my chest every time I tried to go out and meet my political friends at an event. I became almost physically unable to stay away from home at night. I think other parents will know what I'm talking about.

At the time, I had this big, bald friend named Ray (hi, Ray) who would urge me to attend the events. "You have to get out and listen to what people are saying when they've had a couple of drinks," he told me. Constantly. He was saying this to me two or three times a week. I just couldn't do it. I tried meeting people for breakfast or lunch instead, which worked well enough. It was very hard when I considered that I might not be giving my very best to a job I loved.

Originally, I thought my daughter would need a year's worth of extra help from me, maybe 18 months. Then she would be on the right track. But she's in 7th grade now, and I'm still waiting to feel as if I can jet out on my own at night. It's not even that she needs me so much now. She has made an amazing transformation. She's serious about her work and so far this year has earned all A's (with just one C on an English paper. We'll do better next time!). I have to believe that my "sacrifice" helped her get here. But now her little sister needs the same focused attention from me and her dad. Our nights these days are turned over to homework, no questions asked.

I've even taken a more family-friendly job, and I no longer talk to Ray much. I've heard many of my friends' political tales many times over. But I miss that scene and wonder if I will ever get that kind of a kick from my work again.

I am not my job

Newspaper people are losing jobs left and right. And, you know, being verbal types, they are writing a lot about it. The Columbia Journalism Review is giving them a forum to sound off, called "Parting Thoughts." Most of the posts are good reads. But there is one I particularly enjoyed, by Todd Engdahl, a 31-year veteran of the Denver Post. Engdahl is merciless with people who don't adjust to the changing times. His post is entitled, "Sorry to be blunt, but get over it." Yes, it's a little journalist-style macho. But I loved this line (last paragraph): "Your job is not your identity."

For so many of us, this is what job loss is about, losing our identity. I was lucky in that I confronted similar identity issues when I had a baby and, about two years later, left my high-profile reporting job for stay-at-home mommy status and a little freelance writing. I suffered the entire meltdown at that time and so no longer have to worry about losing it ever again. (Maybe.)

For three months, my heart raced at odd times throughout the day. I saw a doctor, who gave me a portable device to record my heart rhythms. I would then connect the device to a phone and beam them in to the lab, as a sort of progress report. I believe the technical term for my problem was panic.

How much of this is going on with the current wave of layoffs? Do people become immune to it after being fired a few times? Or does it slowly destroy their souls?

Why do we judge each other based on our professional titles, anyway?

If you're out there reading, why not post some ideas on this.