Why Telling Working Moms to Lower their Standards on Parenting Is Actually a Bit Insulting

cartoon made using Toondoo

cartoon made using Toondoo

An acquaintance from law school recently posted the following on Facebook:

Just wondering – are there any parents out there who work full-time and don’t constantly feel like they are coming perilously close to failing at everything? If so I would like to know your secrets, especially if they don’t involve substance abuse.

My friend is an accomplished legal professional and mom of three. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability, so I weighed in with my own 2 cents about the challenges of work and parenting.

Including mine, there were about 25 responses. Most were kind attempts at reassuring my colleague that she has high standards and is doing a great job. One suggested that she might ease off at work at times (alternating by easing off at parenting). Others chimed in to say, with sympathy, that they experience the concern about failing at parenting as well. But what struck me was the unmistakable sub-current through the comments that parenting — of the two “jobs” — was the one she should worry less about.

One friend said: “Parent” is more or less a pass/fail course, and failure is a flexible concept.” Another came outright with: “Lower your standards. Do not let the great be the enemy of the good.” Another, sweeter version, was:

I think that parenthood, by definition, means feeling like you are, or are about to, fail. But, you aren’t! You are doing fabulously. But, when you feel like you aren’t – cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission to let go of things that don’t have to be done, ask for help when you need it and know that as long as your kid is clothed, fed and loved you have done your job. Oh, and wine.

I have no doubt that the intent of these comments was entirely positive. They were merely trying to cheer up a friend: one with high standards for many aspects of her life and aspirations. And the last one was funny, and had some sound advice. I happen to agree, among her other points, that wine is a necessary aid to family life.

But I came away wondering whether a quiet but clear devaluation of the skills and time needed to be a great parent is in fact one of the problems working moms face. It’s so much a part of the culture it’s an essentially invisible bias. Just ask yourself: of the jobs that working moms have today — is it really the case that their paid work is more important? To whom? Even those of us (like me) who find tremendous satisfaction in our work, and work on issues we find meaningful, still love our kids more than our work. Of course we do.

Just at the level of practical demands on parents, here are the tasks involved to do that job:

  1. Finding affordable, reliable, safe and appropriate child care arrangements, schools, after-care, holidays and summer activities;
  2. Attending events related to the above, paying bills on time as needed or volunteering as expected;
  3. Cleaning the house, doing laundry, dishes, etc., or paying others to help with same;
  4. Shopping for groceries, seasonally appropriate, suitable and correctly sized clothes, any needed sports equipment, car seats or other gear, as well as developmentally appropriate books and toys;
  5. Making breakfast, lunches, snacks, dinners;
  6. Celebrating birthdays and holidays;
  7. Finding suitable, well-located physicians that accept your insurance, including pediatricians, eye doctors, dentists, and any other specialist needed; oh, and…
  8. Playing with, talking to, and reading to your child.

Even if we were phoning it in (and let’s face it, none of us really are), this is a ton of real work. Yet the hard truth is that you could do all this and still feel like, at some level, you are failing. Does that mean that the folks on Facebook are right to tell my colleague to let her hair down a bit?

I’m going to climb out on a limb here and say, no. While it shouldn’t be about generating anxiety, thinking hard and carefully about how well we did today (or are doing generally) at this most important job — helping to guide a human being in formation — strikes me as, well, another job of parents.

If we feel something isn’t right with how we are making choices, or in our conversations with our child, or how we structure the time we do have with our kids, we need to take a closer look at see if something large or small should shift to make it better. The intuitions involved here are important, and should be valued. Our gut is telling is something about our relationships, or what our child needs. There are no do-overs on this one: paying attention in real time is the best guide we have to what’s going on, what could be improved, and when we need to call in the Calvary.

There is a tremendous amount to learn in parenting, from the practical to the emotional, and thinking about parenting (and unpacking our own inherited family baggage) is an important part of the learning process. All of us intend to be great parents, but it’s a job that changes rapidly all the time, often without notice, and that inevitably triggers left-over stuff from growing up. There’s almost always things to notice about your child and yourself that surprise, challenge and humble you.

Yes, trying to be good at it (as my friend clearly is) matters, and keeping kids clothed and fed and safe is essential, but trying is not enough, and those other pre-requisites are not enough either. It’s not a surprise to me that women who are high achievers in their professional lives want to reach for more with parenting, too. Creating a real, stable bond with any child requires responsiveness, patience, steadiness around limits, highly intentional communication and a crazy-making level of tolerance for needless emotional outbursts over the wrong shoes. At least if you have a kid like mine.

And our lives are hectic, ruled by contradictory impulses and goals. A parent’s time and level of availability to accomplish these moods with our kids are under constant pressure. Even when we do have time together, slowing down to have a sense of ease, to allow for play, and to create calm is often not easily accomplished. Becoming a parent who says less, but is emotionally present, who observes more, who is earnestly delighted by their child, who finds pleasure in between the hassles and deadlines and schlepping, this is the goal, and everything about the way we live inveighs against this connection.

There are also steep — even untenable — political costs to the pretense that the current situation is acceptable for working parents. We are the first generation, really, of women committed equally to work and family. What we are discovering is that there is incredible meaning in both work and parenting (which is one reason I object to Sheryl Sandberg’s framing: “leaning in” and “leaning back” implicitly assumes the thing that matters most is work).

Yet there are not supports for parenting that both value who we are — and what we aspire to — and hold open space for us to do other things when we are ready. The New York Times piece last week on the shrinking options for women who left the workforce to have families a short decade ago made maddeningly clear the punishment they face for their choices.

Add to that the grotesque over-burdening of families from the lack of reliable, affordable and safe daycare and preschool options, the anemic child care tax credits, the inflexibility of employers on workplace policies, including flex-time and part-time work, and the generally terrible economy, and you have a recipe for trapping women (and men) in ambivalence, feelings of incommensurability, and yes, even failure. Other countries have solved these issues far better than we have here. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic social science.

It is up to us, then, to talk clearly, even angrily, about the impossibility of our lives in this uniquely American and ruthless economy. Given all this, I don’t want to be told, even by sympathetic friends trying to be kind, to lower my standards on parenting. I want a system that works for everyone — working moms and dads, work-at-home moms and dads, and those without families too.

The kids we are raising today in this stretched-tight world are the grown-ups of tomorrow. They will inherit a complicated world, and have much repair to do. They need what we have to give them, as parents, and as people who speak up for the significance of parenting. Let’s not accept less on their behalf, and reassure each other it has to be enough. Instead, let’s make space to make sure they get what they need, first, and aspire also — dare we dream? — to love our lives as parents and workers, both.

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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.