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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Re-Entry: On the Razor’s Edge of Work/Life Balance

Full Moon and Stars

(Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

This week, I went back to work.

I started a terrific new job as Legislative Director of a progressive union of nurses, National Nurses United. It was as good as it could be — welcoming colleagues, a job with real meaning and opportunity, and even based close to home in Silver Spring. It is the position I was hoping for all along.

It is also an incredible luxury to be able to keep what I believe aligned with my paycheck, which is something only a few of us get to do. And it was delightful in many ways to feel that sense of autonomy from leaving the house behind, to get dressed in the morning with purpose, to eat lunch in a restaurant without asking them for crayons, or to read something without interruption and be able to form a thought. In short, it was nice to be out again in the world, beyond the solipsism, exhaustion and solitude of caring for a child.

And yet, it was still hard as hell to leave my girl. All week, in keeping with the turmoil, she’s been angry at me. She’s lashing out physically, hitting and kicking in the intense manner she only uses when she actually intends to hurt someone. She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much. And I’ve been short-fused as well, my normal responses to her misbehavior infused with guilt, sad understanding and my own small heartbreak.

On Wednesday night, or Day Two of the new job, she and I were snuggling in bed, everything cuddly again, and she started pleading with me to “stay home.” She incanted it over and over again, until, in desperation, I called to her dad to come in and distract us. I would have given her anything, but could not give her that.

On Thursday night I had a dream. I was exploring a beautiful, sun-dappled orchard with a friend, talking about grand topics like whether plants communicate to one another. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered I had a child, and she was nowhere to be seen. I panicked. I ran, panting hard, to the edge of the field only to see her small body under the wheel of a stopped car. “Maya,” I screamed, then broke into pieces and woke up in a cold sweat.

She was snuggled up next to me. I went to the next room and stared out the window, unable to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.

In an uncannily timely way, I had two wonderful friends from college over last weekend for brunch, both my age, and these subjects were on the menu alongside the eggs. One is married and does not want children, but spoke with genuine anger of the toll that time out to have kids took on her female peers in the academic world. Another is unmarried, and always assumed she’d have a family, but works at a law firm and has too many long hours to meet someone or to have a child on her own. She sounded sad, and not a little surprised, to find herself in her 40s without children. Knowing her, it surprised me too.

It struck me that me and my peers are really the first full generation of women to be able to work hard enough to make something of ourselves in the professional world, and to have widely internalized the expectation that we would do so. At the same time, many of us — though certainly not all — also want children, a family, and want to be good at all that as well.

I’m not the first one to notice this tension, of course. As I wrote with regard to the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece last spring, the institutions in which we work have a lot of work left to do to accommodate this balancing act, and women are equally bewildered by it much of the time.

I do know many women who seem fulfilled by not working, some of whom are home with children. I know many more who, like me, want a career and a family too, and live with the ambivalence of these half-measures — at work with an undeniable sadness in her heart, or home but stuck on the Blackberry or computer.

Talking with my dear friends, it became clear that some agonizing may be unavoidable. Women need and want to work, to be useful in the larger world. We have ambitions, and we have a right to them. But creating a life that includes the incredibly meaningful act of caring for children, should we so choose, is also so important that for many it ranks as a necessity. How to reconcile these imperatives? No one really knows, and the penalties and suffering in both directions are steep.

We can hope that someday, the political system will catch up a bit, and provide better supports for working families, including Slaughter’s proposals for more accommodations and the ideas I suggested here. But even with paid family leave and affordable universal preschool and paycheck fairness and an increase in the minimum wage and all the other things I dream about, there will be women like me and my friends:

Women who would have been amazing moms but forgot to work less so they could meet someone. Women who might have been moms if the professional penalties were less — or yet might not. Moms who give up a brilliant career to be where they are needed more.

And moms who want to work — who love their work — but love their children just as much. Those of us who live with a small but constant betrayal of some part of our heart, yet bear up under it, smiling through our confusion and loss, comforting our child however we can, and facing the nightmare of our inattention, late at night, alone.

Some New Shoes: Looking for Work at 40 Years Old

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers (Photo credit: AlbinoFlea)

I’ll be 41 in November and, in some ways, I still don’t know exactly what I’d like to be when I grow up. More precisely, I’m just this minute trying to figure out what more I would want to be, since I’m pretty much set, like everyone is, with what’s happened up ‘til now.

This looking for work business for mid-career folks is now far more common than it used to be, back, oh, whenever that time was when people went to the same job for much of their adult lives. Now, we change jobs more often than shoes.

(Well, at least for some of us. Personally, I haven’t updated my shoes since I got pregnant and they mostly became an expensive form of torture. I refuse to concede that I will never be able to fit into those utterly dated but still pristine kitten heels again. Stubborn, pointless pre-preggo nostalgia, anyone?)

Still, each moment of change asks us something different – who and what do we want, now? Is the next step a linear move from the last one, a side-step, a step down, or a leap off the steps entirely into something new?

Since I’ve been writing about work-life (im)balance a bit, I’ve had to acknowledge my ambivalence, and that my priorities since having my daughter (who turns 2 in two weeks, sniff) have shifted more profoundly than I would have thought possible as a mid-thirties workaholic.

Being with Maya is so delicious, right this second, with her stumbling attempts at 3-word strings that actually mostly make sense, and her “look, mommy” need for my gaze while she tries something new.

I’m keenly aware that this will too soon pass into something else entirely. Even when she’s testing me, I think, well, she’s still so manageable, so obviously ill-equipped to deal with her quick shifts of emotions and desires that she’s really hard to dislike. I suppose that parenting will soon become so much less about physical labor and so much more emotional work – less what will she eat and more what will she think. Wow, that will be harder.

So I rather like it here, with her, right now. I have a job to do that’s reasonably clear to both of us. And Maya would still agree that she needs me, which is something.

Unfortunately, it’s not something I can take to the bank. One considerable downside of being a public interest lawyer, as opposed to some other kind, is the persistence of student loans that require continuing employment.

And far more importantly, so long as my health holds out, I have 30 years of gainful contributions to things I care deeply about left in me. I’m up for that, and looking forward to what can be done with whatever I already know, and whatever I’ll learn. I have energy for that next thing, and I think I’ll know it when I see it.

But let’s be clear on terms: it’s more about values clarification than “work-life balance,” which, when you think about it for more than two shakes, doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway.

After all, for many of us, myself included, our professional work is a defining aspect of our so-called “life,” and we find purpose and meaning there, when we’re fortunate. On the other hand, of course, the notion that all of what we do outside of our jobs is not “work” is unfair because it disqualifies the ordinary labors of running a household, paying bills, or, more essentially, maintaining the emotional and physical lives of our relationships.

Weighing scale

Weighing scale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s not about “having” it all, or, more crudely, having some boxes checked. And while maybe sometimes it feels like a balancing act, it’s not really about a “balance” either, because it’s all (or mostly) work, and all (or mostly) life. Instead, it’s about how we want to spend our always limited time.

Once that’s clear, the question becomes what we value, personally, and what we think should be valued, by society at large. On that second measure, I would suggest, any truthful account would show we’re doing a terrible job at valuing the ways we care for and support each other – both for parents and other caregivers, and for the caring professions like nurses and teachers.

As to the more personal, my job search this time around is of course mainly about finding a job. But not just any job, I’ll (boldly) hope:

Mom, 40, ISO purpose, job: in that order.

When I consider where I am today – in terms of both looking forward to the next three decades, and what time away from Maya now and then will cost us – I need the following: to be part of something that suits me, that feels powerful and meaningful, and that allows me to build on and make sense of the my work and experiences thus far.

If only I could I be so lucky. As they used to say on my favorite series before they rushed out to take the field, “Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

Embracing Your Inner Mommy Warrior

A Milk White Flag

A Milk White Flag (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

No one likes the so-called “Mommy Wars.” At the BlogHer 2012 conference last weekend, the speakers I heard were unanimously opposed to them, calling on all of us to move past these bloody battlefields to someplace more productive – a greener pasture of peace, tranquility and mutual appreciation. Where, I presume, we get to have tea together under a white flag and our children serve it to us with ceremonial perfection and crisp, clean napkins draped over their small forearms.

Which certainly sounds good to me. No one’s been more disdainful than I have about the media’s over-simplification of these issues. But then I got to thinking about how characterizing disagreements as disagreeable can be its own kind of social censure, and about all the playground conversational tangos and tangles that general impulse may be creating, even as it attempts a truce.

If what we mean by “Mommy Wars” is a tedious mud-wrestling match in which we hurl well-worn clichés at each other about stay-at-home moms versus working moms, I’m all for moving on. It’s a yawner, to begin with.

On the other hand, though, call me crazy, but I do have opinions on things. I maintain these developing viewpoints on all things mommy because, first, I have to make decisions for me and my family that impact how my daughter is raised, and second, with apologies to Kahlil Gibran, I’m not merely a vessel through which my daughter arrived into this dubious and sometimes wonderful place.

In this battle, I’m a frontline trench warfare expert, and I came by my stripes honestly. I’m not about to abandon my albeit modest rank of Captain-of-One-Child readily. As anyone can read here, I do not lack my own nutty perspective on a host of questions concerning how I’d like to be a parent to my kid and what impacts her health and experiences.

And it sometimes feels like the call to halt the “Mommy Wars” is about never, ever passing judgment, about anything. As though we must subscribe to an indifferent laissez faire attitude as a prerequisite for holding onto whatever shredded tatters remain of our coolness, post-child.

I do live in fear of being labeled – that horror of horrors – a “Sancti-mommy,” and have no doubt that I’ve crossed that line, at least in my heart. But given that moms are called upon to – and do – make 85 percent of the household purchase decisions, and that we, er, have brains and the concomitant opinions those brains freely generate, how do we tiptoe across these Mommy War minefields?

For example, when my sister, whom I dearly love, offered my not-yet-two-year old daughter a “princess pancake” a few weeks back, was I remiss in recoiling in horror and saying, with my typical grace, that “Maya will be happy with the obesity-shaped one.” Ok, I’ll admit the appalled look on my face was likely unnecessary, and that Cinderella may in fact one day eat my daughter, but in the meantime, durnit, Maya doesn’t yet know what a princess is and I hope to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Or yesterday, at a concert, was I wrong to be annoyed when another mom asked me to get out of the way of her 2-year-olds’ view of the show? First, the kid was catatonic and not even really paying attention, and second, IMHO, kids should be moved around adults and not the other way ‘round. Anything else just teaches the inmates that they are in charge, and dangerously sacrifices what little power we grown-ups may retain.

But clearly that’s just me. It’s also just me on the playground when I don’t want Maya grazing opportunistically from some other kid’s plastic bag o’ Cheez-its and have to find a semi-gracious way to say why I’m declining their generous offer to share. (“So sorry, we don’t eat sodium-packed, processed junk at our house” seems a tad ungrateful somehow.)

And when I happen to mention that Maya’s a little big for her tender age, I’m not being a Competi-mommy, I swear. I’m merely trying to cover for her lack of social grace. She looks like a 3-year-old, and so people are often puzzled when she won’t take turns – like, unless I beg her – without a dramatic amount of squealing and/or physical violence.

And even along the critical fault line of the SAHM vs. working mother, there are important things to say about how hard it is in ways it shouldn’t be, and about everyone’s ambivalence concerning the choices they’ve made. None of it is easy, as I’ve noted. And I’ve also been gratified to see “Grass: Greener” posts from far more gifted self-observers.

In short, moms have to navigate this world, trying to preserve their own peculiar take on parenting and choices for their kids. There will be judgment involved in this. There will also be provisional decisions pending more data, and lots of agony. Certainly, so long as we otherwise “click” as people, we can be friends and support each other regardless of these somewhat petty distinctions.

But some eye-rolling is also likely to be involved, particularly if we don’t know each other personally. We’re human, after all. We bring our discernment and pre-formed views with us wherever we go. And I, for one, get a lot out of reading even contentious comments on particular hot-button mommy topics, as they help inform where I come out on critical issues like whether investing in a Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bag is cute or been-there-done-that. (My vote is the former, but I’m always behind on what’s hip by a decade or two.)

Even as we call for tranquility and tea, let’s be careful not to think that whenever a Mom – or Dad – expresses an opinion of any kind, that’s verboten under peacetime, post-Mommy War conditions. And let’s create an environment that allows us to compare notes on parenting without fear that any act of comparison at all is an odious attempt at competition.

Ultimately, we’re tougher than that. If we can deal with a red-faced two-year-old’s tantrums over absolutely nothing, we can also weather a little judgment concerning things that might actually matter. Making these decisions about our lives and families, is, after all, our prerogative as parents. We should be strong enough to debate the issues on the merits and indifferent enough to do what we decide is best. And, for the most part, to be friends (or sisters) after the disagreement, just as we were before.

Cinderella (Disney character)

Cinderella (Disney character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond Work-Life Balance, In Search Of a More Balanced Life

When I read Tim Kreiter’s essay criticizing how so many people (including me) are caught in “The Busy Trap” a few weeks back, it struck me as true that the pace of our lives has generally sped up until it out-paces any consideration of the quality of our time.

And this has implications for the heated debate over motherhood occasioned by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and, far less insightfully, Elisabeth Badinter. Though the two approach the problem of work-life balance from diametrically opposed positions — Slaughter believes the world should better adapt to the needs of women and parents, while Badinter believes women should abandon, more or less, a nurturing role in favor of work and marital obligations — both implicitly buy into the notion that super-heroics might still be necessary in order to prove … well, what is it exactly? That women can stand next to men in the workplace? That we think as deeply and meaningfully as men do about the problems of the world?

Slaughter has since partially recanted this aspect of her article, instead saying that “time macho” hurts us all. The truth is, most of the men who have left any lasting impression on the history books were idle men of means or paupers who wrote stuff down, like Marx — who famously imagined a world of working in the morning and “fishing in the afternoon”– with plenty of time for contemplative pursuits.

Sure, to be more fulfilled, women and parents could really use a workplace that honors and celebrates family obligations as central to worker productivity and happiness. But we could all — parents or no — also benefit from a set of expectations for work that are more limited, and fewer activities, obligations, and extra commitments overall.

I’m with Kreiter in thinking that there is real value in apparent idleness — for both adults and young children. Kids, in particular, need time to process new information, pursue wild and pigheaded ideas, and direct their own explorations of the world.

Yet, as this wonderful article sadly describes, even in environmental education, which should be the ultimate opportunity for a child’s confrontation with the unmediated vagaries of nature, we have formalized the lessons and sanitized the experience, urging children to “stay on the path.”

As if these limitations were not enough, there is also, on the other hand, overload. IMHO, too many think that even young infants and toddlers should be regularly shuttled between multiple enriching experiences. On Monday, it’s music class, and Tuesday, kiddie gym, and so on. Here’s what Resources in Educare expert Janet Lansbury gently explains about the impacts on children of this well-meaning impulse:

What parents don’t realize is that each of these learning opportunities requires children to conform to a set of rules (attire, etc.), and be directed, taught, sometimes even tested.  In even the loosest, most playful of these classes, children sense that some sort of performance is expected of them.

So activities that might sound interesting and enriching to us create at least some level of pressure for our toddlers and preschoolers.  The more of these situations children have to endure each week, the more pressured they feel.  Instead of learning through the play they choose — tinkering, exploring, creating, daydreaming — they must spend most of their time being quiet, listening obediently, imitating, trying to “get it right.”

I initially also dutifully signed Maya up for music classes, but, truth be told, I quickly learned that she was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the environment to relax. Once a week was simply not enough to build the familiarity needed for her to enjoy it, even though at home she is keenly interested in music and singing at all levels of silliness.

So, what are the ways we can all take a deep breath and inject some idleness into our too-busy lives? I’ve written before about the need for structural and economic changes that would dramatically improve the lives of women and families, and I’m certainly not the only one to make those points.

But while we’re (not) holding our breath waiting for Congress to come to the overwhelming realization that they are failing American families, here are my three simple thoughts on some antidotes to busyness that could also pay dividends for health:

1) Stop eating processed food and cook a little every day.

I was once someone who would always have the frozen stuff on hand, just in case. But I recently discovered that if I just stopped buying those pizzas and perogies to fill up the freezer, I would have to make something myself using real food, almost every day. Now, I often cook in the morning for the day, and because Maya’s up at 7 a.m., even a long-cooking recipe is done by 9 or 10 when we’re likely headed out the door.

The act of chopping vegetables is, to me, meditative and tactile, a nicely concrete task that allows me to accomplish something small before the day even really begins. Maya loves to play nearby, and often insists on whisking eggs or supervising the chopping herself. We eat fewer foods with chemicals or packed in plastics, and far more vegetables and fruits, and it’s (mostly) cheaper as well.

Living this way slows you down, just a little a bit, and makes you think about what you want to eat and what is seasonal and fresh, instead of merely discovering what you have pre-decided in frozen form. It’s in the moment, experimental, and requires your participation. Whether or not it’s what we usually mean by work-life balance, it would be hard to imagine a life in balance that lacked the time to ensure that the food we eat is nourishing and contains a bit of our intention.

2) Put away the devices, and find the time to read a book.

In our screen-driven world, fewer steps are more radical than sitting down to read a book. One with pages, and paper, and words in ink. All the way through to the final page.

And don’t check your email. Or answer your cellphone. Though it’s not in Slaughter’s piece, one major factor that must be driving the heightened tensions between family life and work is the implicit assumption by most employers that the mobile phone and email are never truly off. Not on vacation, and certainly not on a regular evening. The slow but unmistakeable creep of a shadow of work into every moment of our lives is perhaps the most suffocating — and quietly unreasonable — aspect of contemporary working life.

And working aside, we now all have Facebook, and Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Even just putting away the identity management tasks related to life on the Interwebs for a few hours at a stretch is a revolutionary notion. As someone’s signature line on my parents’ listserv admirably says:

“I’m not available on email from 10 am to 8 pm. It’s not “avoiding work,” it’s “developing a reservoir of cognitive capacity through strategic non-application of processing resources.” M.G. Saldivar

Modeling reading for kids is, of course, even more important in the Age of Screens. When I was a (nerdy) kid of 7 or 8, my mom says, she would often come up to check on the sudden silence in the playroom and “catch” my best friend and I quietly reading to ourselves. I wonder how often that would happen today, when even 7-year-olds have Iphones.

Given this happy memory, I was tickled pink when Maya imperiously commanded me to sit next to her yesterday and read my own book while she perused hers. It went on for 20 minutes or so, the two of us just sitting and reading together on the floor. It was a wrinkled brow moment for her, and pure joy for me.

3) Dance. In your living room if need be.

Turns out, both Maya and I dig us some classic Lauryn Hill. With her unique approach to rhythm, this evening Maya stomped and twirled her way through most of the Miseducation album, utterly and blissfully ignorant of the criminal sentence for tax evasion Lauryn now faces.

While this one requires little pre-planning, and is a bit of a no-brainer, I’m struck by the absence of public dancing as a form of exercise and expression for Americans. All around the world, and even in more rural parts of America, celebrations include dance, with multi-age groups and traditional forms from salsa to two-step.

Yet for many Americans, any real attempt at dancing is now reserved for the club, and is basically an activity confined to prom-goers and over-makeup-ed twenty-somethings. Like many, I don’t relish the idea of being the oldest and least stylish person in a club, so my friends and I have basically ceased our dancing outings. As with the bygone days of communal singing pointed out in a poignant article by my good friend Karen, the days of the “Saturday night date” for married couples at a supper club with a live band are, sadly, no more, and much to our detriment.

Personally, I can’t think of a more spontaneous and fun way to be in the moment (if only to ensure you are not about to twist an ankle!). As Maya’s clear delight tells me, dancing forms an imaginative connection between music and our bodies. It’s deliciously pointless, at least for those of us clearly not vying for a spot on Dancing with the Stars.

And it’s something we can do with nothing but a song and our willingness to embarrass ourselves. When we dance, it’s nowhere but here, and no moment but now.

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What are some things you do to take back your time and slow down? Hiking? Hanging out with friends? Knitting?

Do share, and feel free to post pictures and comments on my new blog Facebook page as well!

The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

Washington hikers (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This post could just as easily be called: “Why Women Will Never Have it All, But Still Should Fight For More.”

Today’s Atlantic Monthly contains a blockbuster piece from Anne-Marie Slaughter on modern feminism, motherhood, and the demands of work, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Overall, Slaughter gives us a thoughtful discussion of the real agony working women experience in choosing between the demands of their careers and the joys and trials of parenting. The article also contains enough personal reflections to be refreshingly candid, which is a particularly welcome turn from someone with such a robust career in high-profile politics.

Like my own prior admissions of ambivalence about my choices with Maya, and my impulse to pointedly complain about the structurally unreasonable demands on women in a response to the absurd attacks earlier this spring by Elisabeth Badinter, Slaughter has decided to put down the “we-can-do-it-all” cheerleader pom-poms that sometimes obscures what should be the real goals of the women’s movement, and to keep it real instead.

She points out something about her talks with students that I’ve also found: women in their twenties who happen to be in my orbit generally observe the frantic pace of my efforts to juggle a baby, work and, lately, a blog, with a bemused and tragic smile, as if to say — how is this all supposed to work again? So we’re not fooling anyone, least of all the women coming up next who will grapple themselves with all these questions.

The truth is — if we’ll only admit it to each other — it doesn’t work very well. Like many women, but certainly not all, I’m far too invested in my professional identity to choose to “stay home,” as we all awkwardly say (as if moms “stay” anywhere for very long). But that doesn’t mean I’m not beset with regret most days, or that when the nanny and her son joined us at the pool the other night, and Maya obviously felt more drawn to play with them than me, I didn’t quietly, invisibly, seethe about it. After all, she spends five days every week with her, and only two with me, I thought, with more than a twinge of envy.

The challenge for mothers to our sense of priorities is profound, particularly when we acknowledge, as Slaughter tries to, that despite our efforts to achieve 50-50 parenting, the bonds that women have with their children are irreplaceably, undeniably deep. Whoever else they may have in their lives, she notes, for children a mother’s role is “indispensable,” and she makes a point of citing half a dozen powerful Washington moms (and dads) who agree with her or have left careers for at least some time to attend to the needs of their families.

I particularly enjoyed the criticism she has for female exec flavor-of-the-month Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose work habits have now morphed into a kind of reproachful working moms’ urban legend. She dismantles the half-truths women like Sandberg promote: that “it’s possible if you just are committed enough,” or “it’s possible if you marry the right person,” pointing to serious but no-duh propositions like the fact that the school and work day are not aligned to make working easier, and that even the ideal marital arrangements can run up against a mom’s ambivalence about leaving her child.

Notably, Slaughter fails to consider what happens to women who unluckily choose a less angelically supportive partner, women who have no partner at all (single moms are raising fully one-quarter of America’s kids, and are a much higher percentage of minority and low-income households), or parents who might imagine a life with far more balance than the work schedules she describes, which are downright punishing. Despite her critique, even she can’t quite let go of the boosterism and elitism embedded in these expectations. In fact, at one point Slaughter unwittingly, and almost comically, reveals just how much she’s lived inside the privilege bubble by ridiculously claiming, with what appears to be a straight face, that “[j]ust about every woman who could plausibly be tapped [for a high-level Washington job] is already in government.”

She also projects a bit too much from her own experiences with her child’s troubled teen years and thus understates the problem. She notes that a woman would want to be free to stay home, or to put family first, when her children “are 8 to 18,” a period of absence from the workforce which she calculates as ten years.

But the developmental stages from birth to 3 years old are at least as significant, if not more so, to a child’s growth, and any family with multiple children who are not twins would require this window of time to expand to account for siblings. And what about aging parents, or non-traditional families, or widely spread out births? Slaughter’s too-neat math fails, once again, to account for the variety and complexity of family obligations and women’s lives, and thus, the changes we need will be more far-reaching and fundamental than she suggests.

She does include a discussion of the problems that women, and career women in particular, now face with fertility at our more advanced maternal age. But even here her advice can be a bit tone-deaf, to say the least.

Given her own difficulties conceiving, Slaughter blithely recommends that women under 35 freeze their eggs. But she ignores the high costs of this advice. It seems utterly unrealistic to think that most women, or even most “career women” in their late 20s and early 30s, will have $7,000 to $15,000-odd just lying around (or double that amount if they need a second go at it). And even with all that expense and medical hassle, there is only a 40 to 50 percent chance of success, which makes it a pretty expensive gamble for most people.

As this has been an area in which people I love have experienced completely crushing kinds of disappointment, I think it’s critical that we not gloss over how hard this question of timing is for women, or, even worse, attempt to erase the problem by suggesting that an expensive scientific half-miracle is in the cards for all of us.

Last, although she casts her story as a cautionary tale for professional over-achievers, even Slaughter appears at times to need to prove to us, the reader, that despite her recent, renewed dedication to mommyhood, she’s really very smart and all. When her acquaintances cuckoo over the loss of such a brilliant mind to policymaking circles in Washington, it’s hard not to consider that for all but a handful of moms, whatever choices — and deep personal sacrifices in terms of ambition and foregone possibility — they make usually go unnoticed, remaining unremarkable except to them, or if they are one of the “lucky” ones, to their partners as well. Unless you’re Slaughter, or Mary Matalin, or that ilk, rarely in women’s lives are the costs of these sorts of decisions even added up.

Still, on the whole, the article is a timely and important account — the beginning of a picture of what really needs to change to make women’s lives more manageable, meaningful and free. While some internal agonizing about working and raising children is probably written into the script, steps to achieve wider agreement on what a “work-life balance” really means would help greatly to transform the sharp corners of our ambivalence into a cushier, more shapely set of supports.

Slaughter proposes a few, all of which I liked, including aligning school days better with work, allowing more flexible workplace arrangements, and shifting understandings in the workplace to lessen or eliminate penalties for women (and I assume, men) who would like to take a few years away from their careers to focus on family. And she closes the piece with a straight-up appeal to businesses to see new value in the many older women discarded as workers today.

I also deeply appreciated her call to all of us to stop making up fake, more “serious-sounding” excuses when we really have something to do that takes time out of work for family. If we all stopped lying and were honest about our obligations, this would give all of us, in turn, permission to have a life and work as well. And the perception of employers and co-workers that attempting this balance openly makes us “unserious” is in itself toxic to getting what we want, or even, achieving any kind of accurate picture of how hard this all really is.

To her ideas I would add more radical structural ones that still seem blindingly obvious to me, and that would lend a hand to many more women: mandatory paid parental leave of up to one year as they have in Canada and Europe; better pay for low-wage workers so that they can better balance the needs of work and family; far more accurate (read: adequate) child-care tax credits and robust funding for programs that work like Healthy Start; pay for low-income moms at a fair wage for caring for their own children (what better work program in a recession?); and paycheck fairness — the crazy idea that equal work deserves equal pay. Moreover, we must also extend every protection we have — and those we may win — on behalf of women, families and married couples to include same-sex couples and nontraditional families.

The truth is, the job of feminists in making society better for families is, at most, half-done. We don’t acknowledge often enough how partial our sense of completeness is in our own lives, and how tenuous is the wish-and-a-prayer is that it’s all constructed on. Instead, we suit up, kiss the baby goodbye, and push on with our many dutiful roles: pay the bills, send a tweet, call our own mom, plan a playdate, cook dinner, kiss our partner, work late, and somehow try to get some sleep.

A friend said to me on the playground the other day, “I never thought my life would be this hard.” I nodded. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of exploding opportunities and shape-shifting for women, and was told that anything I wanted was possible.

That turns out to be true in some ways only, and not even, perhaps, what I want anymore. In fact, it now seems like we’ve asked for so much responsibility, so much opportunity, that it’s exhausting — even superhuman — just to be us. Slaughter says that’s true of the overachievers — she misses the point that this is part of the fabric of all of our expectations, and that even “ordinary” women are now edging, however reluctantly, towards superhero status.

The next generation of women, looking up at the utter craziness that is our lives, must force governments and corporations to create the structural supports and understandings women need. What feminism will really mean is not that women can do it all — we certainly can, as we’ve all run ourselves into the ground to show everyone — but really, why should we?

Women of my generation — and older, like Slaughter’s — can help them. First, by being honest about what it’s really like to be us, as she has been and I have tried to be. And second, by raising these issues again and again, and joining the fight when the day comes — and it will come, my friends — that there is something big worth winning.