Rocket Science

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.

Child care choices persist into adolescence

Last month, a study about early child care came out with mixed results – one good for day care, and one bad. I decided to go back and take a look at how the news media covered the story. I have a bias: I think that we in the media reflect the American public's ongoing discomfort with the choices that dual-income families must make. Even though, at 46 percent of homes with children, dual-income households are becoming the norm. As I say, the study came up with good and bad findings. One of the biggest long-term projects of its kind, the University of California-Irvine study quizzed 15-year-olds who had been in day care as little ones. The study found that the teens who had attended "high-quality" day care did better in school than even those kids who stayed home. But the study also found that all day-care kids, regardless of the quality of care, were slightly more likely to take risks.

Is that a bad thing? Apparently, in teenagers it is. When we think of teens and risk, we think “drugs” and “sex.” Although, adult risk-takers, like inventors and money managers, are often highly compensated for such.

Anyway…. The results: My quick Nexis search turned up six neutral headlines, such as this one from States News Service, “Link between child care and academic achievement and behavior persists into adolescence.”

Five headlines gave a positive spin, like this from the Dayton Daily News: “Quality care in childhood pays off, study says.”

And seven headlines played up the negative. Here, from the Chicago Tribune, “Study: Day care kids show rash behavior as teens.”

I’m going to conclude that my bias at the outset was a little rash. This is fairly even-handed coverage – and good news for those of us who care about such things.

I also found the description of what constitutes high-quality child care to be illuminating, and cause for optimism. I remember looking for this description right after the study was published in mid-May, but I didn’t find anything this complete. I wonder if UCI updated it. No matter, here is study director Deborah Lowe Vandell’s take:

Q: How do you define a “high-quality” child care setting? ?A: It’s one where caregivers are warm, loving, sensitive, respectful and responsive to children’s needs. There should also be cognitive stimulation, with teachers talking and reading to children. If a child is wandering or getting into conflicts with other children, caregivers should find ways to intervene. If children are busy and engaged, however, caregivers should not interrupt or intrude.

What do you think? What's your observation about how child care affects kids? Does your child care measure up to this standard?

'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.

Crossing the pre-teen ravine

A couple of nights ago, my two daughters and I set up yoga mats in the living room. I had discovered that I could stream yoga instruction videos through Netflix's "instant play" option. So, we set the laptop on the coffee table, selected a video and stretched our way through downward dog and camel. I'm searching for new ways for us to enjoy time together, now that they are leaving childhood. I'm actually in a small panic about the whole thing, although I tell myself that it will pass. Dan-my-husband went through this several months ago, as Isabelle rounded her 12th-and-a-half year and bulleted toward 13. "She was such a great kid," he mused one evening, changing into his pajamas.

"She's still a great kid!" I replied, defensively. But I knew what he meant. Her interest in being a child had been full and complete. She barreled down snowy hills, caring to catch every mogul. She worked her diving board technique with a religious passion. She never met a dog she didn't go out of her way to greet. Rocks from her collected adventures littered my kitchen windowsills.

Isabelle's maturity was the first shock, but Charlotte, 17.5 months younger, is following fast behind. They are dragging up the rope ladder behind them. Suddenly, I find myself with -- O, joy! -- time to pursue the interests I have been suppressing these long years, more than a decade. I emerged recently from a three-month jag of writing a book proposal, having satisfied a long-deferred longing in my heart, only to find that my daughters no longer needing me so intensely. I felt as though I had skipped a chapter somewhere, lost a transition. Lost in transition. Maybe that's what I am.

But I don't want to wallow in the melodrama of it all. And so, the yoga class. I am determined to move into the future alongside my daughters, these near-women. I hope to cross soon to the side where the gain is as clear and perceptible as the feeling of loss.

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.