Take Half My Heart, It’s Yours

Any parent who is honest will tell you that you live with that ambivalence. You just have it! You look at the face of your beautiful, lovely child and you think two things at the exact same time: I love this kid so much that it’s changed my whole life. I love other people more because of how much I love her.… She’s completely given value to life that didn’t exist before, and I regret every decision that led to her birth.

Louis CK in Louis, Season 2, Episode 1 (via johndeguzman)

A true dilemma is a choice between two mutually compatible and equally desirable ends.

Professor Michael Brint, via my memory circa 1991

The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

Barry Schwarz’s TED talk (author of the Paradox of Choice)

In part spurred by Elisabeth Badinter’s simplistic brutality about the choices women make, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parental ambivalence, the place of choice in parent’s lives, and the challenge of achieving a rough balance between the demands of work and home.

Maya is 19 months and, right on track, is dealing with a bout of separation anxiety. She has begun to identify and need the people around her with more specificity and direction than before, and transitions – going to bed, leaving for work – must be handled with a tedious slowness and gentle series of stages to avoid upset. Time feels both stretched out, and highly limited, both marked with utter precision in days, weeks, months, and as though its strangely slipping by me, faster than I could possibly reach to catch it with both hands.

Maya’s insistence on attention, however long it persists, also poses the question to me daily in a newly acute way about why I choose to work, and to leave her in the care of relative strangers. I question both my absence during this highly compacted developmental time, in which each week brings new skills and discoveries, and the inescapable risks associated with having someone else care for her, however caring they may be. I miss her terribly during the day, and ponder what new phrase or hilariously goofy new dance move I may be missing, too.

Yet at the end of a long weekend, I relish the idea to going to work with an almost-giddy mix of relief and excitement. I enjoy the rigor of working, and the attempt to make things happen in the world. Even small things accomplish my own pleasant transition – wearing nicer clothes, having lunch in a restaurant. I join a world in which I can complete my thoughts, or even, sentences, and in which I am listened to, at least some of the time. What freedom and luxury it seems after three days at home, running around after a defiant toddler.

So I don’t actively regret my choice to work. But it still isn’t the life of fulfillment I envisioned, either, when I was sold the bill of goods that I could “have it all.” Exactly who peddled that promise is hard to say – some mythic emissary that conveyed the idealistic excesses of growing up in the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in badly tailored man-suits? Perhaps it was Free to Be, You and Me, when the princess Atalanta chooses to travel the world, not needing her fair-minded suitor? Or that Enjoli commercial I can still hum the tune to – you know, the one that goes, “I can bring home the bacon…”

The notion was, you can be with a partner or not, work or not, be sexy and economically powerful, or – well, about that one it was clear that working and economic independence was the more aspirational choice, at least in my own emotional history. (I never considered not working with any seriousness, until perhaps this very moment.) And the promise was that our ability, as liberated women-worker-warriors, to make these decisions for ourselves would set us free to lead a life of economic empowerment sans regrets.

Of course, it’s indisputably true that many of the financial and economic supports for families that would make these real choices have never been put into place, particularly in the U.S., as I point out here.  But it’s also clearly the case that women my age – based on detailed research among my embarrassingly few current friends – feel let down, and that it’s not entirely, or even mostly, about the financial penalties for working families.

A world of choices also, as Barry Schwarz points out forcefully, means a world beset by known opportunity costs. Sure, we make our decisions, but we remain painfully aware of their downsides. And the particular costs shift over time, as our child’s needs for attention and our focus also shift, making them hard to measure, and even, some days, practically immeasurable.

In the comments to this article on the Rosen-Romney baloney, for just one example, or one this week from Dahlia Lithwick and Jan Rodak, moms (and a few dads) defend their choices as the right ones for them and their families. And I certainly believe them, both the working moms and stay-at-home dads alike. Which is more than many of the uncharitable other commenters could say.

I wonder if all the finger-pointing at the other people, over there, who made or are making a different choice, would lessen if we acknowledged that, in our relatively new experiment in trying to maintain a double-income middle class, most of the available choices are actually so painful and difficult that at times, even those with certainty about making the right ones are nonetheless agonized by them.

Having a child you love more than anything is hard enough, as Louis CK makes clear. Balancing all of this judgment on top of that enormous undertaking should be enough to give anyone pause.

And lest I be misunderstood, I am not asking for a world with fewer hard choices – read: opportunities – for women, or for anyone else. We are better for throwing off the constraints, which is perhaps why women don’t complain about this more. It seems ungrateful, somehow, given all the sacrifices that were made to achieve the gains in women’s ability to work, to be taken seriously, and to construct our lives.

But we also have a long way to go for true equality. And it strikes me that we can’t get there if we pretend that all of this is easy, and that the choices we’re making are among a wide range of peachy options. For me at least – and anyone who wants to join me – I’d like to drop the pretense that my mere decision to make the choices I have means I have to like them, all of the time. The truth is, I make them and regret them, sometimes even at the same moment.

So: less stridency, more poignancy; less moral high ground, more candor on the playground? It just seems to me the Mommy Wars are too important to fight them with each other.

Just Those Silly Women, At It Again (Responding to Badinter)

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John S...

The Women Fighting for the Breeches, by John Smith (died 1743). National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal books page included a breathtakingly vicious attack on moms and families that practice more natural approaches to parenting, in the form of a book review for French writer Elisabeth Badinter’s new hatchet job on modern feminism called “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

Review author Molly Guinness nods inanely along with much of Badinter’s “argument” that, for example, “naturalism” in childbirth, breastfeeding and co-sleeping are problematic because they place too many demands on mothers and render fathers less relevant.

Notably, the book is not yet available in print in the U.S., and few facts are shared in support of this perspective. Yet Guinness deems it even more salient in the U.S., where, she alleges, without irony, that “a vast industry peddling organic baby foods and anxiety is sucking the joy out of motherhood.”

She also points out with patent admiration the “fact-y facts” that French women reportedly feel no compunction in packing their newborns off to daycare right after they’re born, and that this lack of attention to their children renders them sexier, and far more willing to recommence their wifely duties towards their, in turn, more manly, fulfilled husbands. Guinness admiringly calls this “grown-up.” Labeling co-sleeping and “militant” breastfeeding “aggressively antisexual,” she actually praises French doctors who ask new mothers the somewhat creepy question, “Is Monsieur happy?” (IMHO, the only appropriate answer: Well, I just delivered him a baby.)

(Pained side-note: if I read one more fact-deprived paean to the alleged superiority of French parenting skills, I swear that I will make protest art out of a rotten wheel of brie. And send the horrible image around on the Interwebs. I lived in France, and from my sample size of, well, me, I can say with real confidence: they’re not that great. And the men are shaped like cigarettes. And they have lots more financial support and paid leave than we do, including home visits from nurses when they are pregnant. Etc. Duh.)

In some small way, I guess it’s good news that conservatives have evidently dialed from “Freedom Fries” all the way back to just “French.” The title of the review – “Women’s War on Women – makes it all too clear why the Journal is keen to promote Badinter. It even helpfully connects the dots on the recent faux outrage from conservative circles over Hilary Rosen’s unhelpfully disparaging comment about Ann Romney’s lack of qualifications to set economic policy.

Most have moved on from this non-issue. But the Journal persists. If the “War on Women” can be recast as a girl-fight jello wrestling match, the jerky men’s club who rigged an mostly-male Congressional hearing on birth control gets off the hook. Conservatives would obviously like nothing better than for us to reimagine their latest round of attacks on women’s rights as another tragic, contested chapter in the Mommy Wars: just those silly women, at it again.

Amanda Marcotte’s insightful take-down of the right’s false sanctimony about the “hard job” of motherhood is well worth a read. As she also points out, the hypocrisy of conservatives’ reverence for stay-at-home-moms was exposed when Mitt Romney’s statements from recently as January surfaced about the need for low-income women, even those with young children at home, to work outside their home in order to get any access to basic financial supports for their family.

But Guinness is basically on board. She picks up on Badinter’s bizarre argument about contraception, which evidently, because it gives women a choice about having a child, creates an “infinite debt” and leads to “extreme mothering.” Neither of them consider that being able to choose to have a child actually means that women may want (and be able) to make space to value the process of parenting – that volition leads to the urge to be a better mother.

And there’s certainly no mention of the research on child development, summarized nicely in this book, that shows, pretty unequivocally, that healthy brain development in children ages birth to three depends upon their sense of security in the world, their social bonding with parents and caregivers, and the flow of good communication. The science backs up “attachment parenting” theories, but is in no small tension with the fact that, unless you’re the Romneys, most families need two incomes to survive. And those who do choose to stay at home pay a steep price in career advancement as well as income. Badinter thinks that decision is the problem; while I think that penalty is.

Moms who are aware of this, and have to go to work anyway, like me, probably do seek to compensate for their away time by bonding with their child in such crazy, unnatural ways as co-sleeping (like millions of families do around the world). How this harms anyone is beyond me. And rather than pitting me against my husband, he seems rather on board with the whole thing, because, you know, he’s science-y and all.

Here’s a big problem both Badinter and Guinness appear to miss: you know what really “sucks the joy” out of being a mother? Answer: An unwanted, unintended pregnancy. If contraception drives us to extreme mothering, but we’re supposed to remain always ready-to-go for the sake of our husbands, um, we’re all going to have to deal with this one, over and over again. That’s a lot of babies to kinda’ ignore.

Also on my joy-sucking list for motherhood generally: having to worry about hormone-like chemicals inside the lids of ready-to-use formula and baby food jars. Or, say, IQ- and fertility-lowering pollutants in my sofa, nursing pillow and car seat.

I would have to say that it did “suck the joy” out of motherhood, just a bit, for me to have to spend 20 hours or so over the past month researching where to get an affordable, environmentally healthy new sofa given that the chemical companies evidently have purchased a stranglehold on lawmakers in Sacramento, California, 2000 miles or so from my home. So there’s that.

Neither Badinter nor Guinness specifiy whether we’re supposed to just stop buying organic foods, or whether we should actually go ahead and affirmatively sprinkle, say, lawn pesticides, on our children’s Cheerios for added crunch. Of course, Badinter is sitting prettier on this one than we are. France actively bans many genetically modified organisms, and all of Europe has far better chemical standards than we do here. Under a law known as the REACH treaty, many chemicals must be proven to be safe before the chemical companies can put them in our bodies. (Funny story: European lawmakers were so utterly appalled by the hardball lobbying tactics used when REACH was being contemplated that they called us at Public Citizen to help them design some half-decent lobbying and ethics rules. We recognized the insidious tactics they described from, er, basically every regulatory skirmish in the U.S.) I wonder if parental outrage about potential health impacts was a factor in European governments’ choices to make any of these protective decisions…

And I can go on from here. Yes I can. For me, and I’m just speaking for me here, what really sucks the joy out of the so-important job of being a mother is the fact that we have no mandatory maternity leave in this country. That our child care tax credits are so misaligned with the actual costs of childcare it’s laughable. In fact, it’s hilarious.

Or that it took until last year for the federal government to admit breastfeeding equipment is a medical expense that we can pay for with pre-tax dollars, thereby saddling my family with thousands in higher out-of-pocket medical costs. Or, thanks to politicians like Romney, that low-income women don’t get any monetary credit at all for working to care for their children in their own home, even today.

To state the obvious: while we all now expect women to work outside the home, the actual feminist agenda of making society support the multiple roles women are supposed to play never got finished. Instead, the right pays lip service to family values while screwing women in policy and fact, and the left never seems to get around to taking our needs seriously on the big structural questions that impact women’s choices and lives.

Meanwhile, we go to work and come home, and co-sleep with our kids. And, yes, thanks, it does feel like a lot to ask of mothers to balance all these demands on their time. But asking us to care less about our children as a means to get it all done, or to stop worrying about all those pesky pesticides in our water and food, is not exactly a reliable way to restore whatever delusionally “joyful” experience of motherhood supposedly pre-dated the current moment.

Instead, we need a plan to actually support good parenting, one that really delivers for families, so that we can focus on our needs and be less stretched for time and money. Maybe, just for giggles, we should check out all the supports that they supposedly have in France.

Women engaged in the new domesticity, or good parenting, or whatever you want to call it, are not backwards looking. Instead, they’re just trying to make good on unfinished business: the core promise that feminism once made that women should be able to freely choose the values that will determine their lives.