all parents work in this environment, though. And not all mothers have someone even potentially sharing the load.
Almost nine percent of the nation's households--9.8 million--are
headed by a parent raising kids solo.
The life balance problem
is, strangely, one that's easy to overstate and, at the same time,
easy to understate.
On one hand, a lack of
life balance has the tendency to sound like a personal problem.
We all know the mother who has somehow managed to perfectly match
her temperament with her circumstances. She might be the sequencing
mother who truly does not miss her job, who honestly gets a kick
out of long days with her children. She might be the mother who
feels content to leave her kid with his grandparents while she puts
in nine hours at the office and comes home revved up for family
time. She might be the mother who's hit upon the exact proportion
of part-time work to time spent parenting, and never seems to have
a problem fitting in time to exercise or have toe-curling sex.
She is not most of us,
however. Lisa Belkin, who's written the Times's "Life's Work"
column for three years now, says, "I've received, at last count,
ten thousand e-mails, and nobody says, 'Hey, what's all the fuss
about! I can do it!'"
Still, most of us seem
to be managing it okay. The kids get storytime, loved ones' birthdays
are remembered, we all (usually) have clean underwear. On most days,
the vast majority of us are not on the verge of something drastic
and heinous. On the contrary--we find our moments of happiness and
fulfillment in all the elements overstuffed into our lives. Then
we go get our six hours of sleep and do it all over again. Despite
relating to the guy in the latest Paxil commercial ("When I'm
at work, I'm tense about things at home; when I'm at home, I'm tense
about things at work"), I can't say that I'm so riddled with
anxiety that I dread tomorrow.
Here in the middle-class
life of ordinary problems, we are living full-throttle--but we're
Maybe more instructive
are the lives of mothers who are also doing it, but with that one
Take poverty. Barbara
Ehrenreich wrote her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting
By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001)--which should really
be required reading material for all elected officials--after the
AFDC program was axed. How will, she wondered, all these mothers
survive after the end of welfare? In Nickel and Dimed,
she writes of the special costs exacted on the poor, like living
in a hotel for lack of money to pay a deposit on an apartment, or
eating meal by meal with no place to cook or store, say, a big vat
of lentil soup.
The cost in time is perhaps
dearer. As Ehrenreich reports, it is virtually impossible for one
person to survive on working class wages, let alone an entire family;
the only way she could do it (and however briefly) was to hold two
jobs. If your home doesn't come equipped with a washer/dryer, you
spend long hours at the laundromat each week. If you'd like to attend
your kid's holiday pageant, forget it--you can be fired for not
conforming to the schedule the manager has mapped out. This is not
a small problem: One in six American children--11.6 million--live
in poverty, and over three quarters of them live with a working
adult, according to the Children's Defense Fund.
Or, take a new family
addition: our own parents. With Americans living longer and having
children later in life, more and more of us find ourselves caring
both for children and aging parents. A 1997 National Family Caregiver
Survey found that almost a quarter of all American households was
involved in caring for a person aged fifty or over, and that the
typical caregiver is a married woman in her forties, provides eighteen
hours a week caregiving, and works full-time. The average length
of time spent caregiving was about eight years. "Informal caregivers
are the backbone of the long-term care system in the U.S. today,
providing much of the assistance to individuals who want to remain
in their homes and need help with daily activities, including eating,
bathing, and dressing, or shopping, transportation, and taking medications,"
an AARP report acknowledges.
Or take any number of
events that do happen but aren't headline-grabbing trends. What
if a member of the family--mother, mate, or child--becomes disabled?
What if your support system of friends and family drops away? What
if the company decides it doesn't want part-timers anymore? What
if, during the time you're supposed to be sequencing back into paid
work, your teenager develops a serious mental or physical illness?
The real kicker is that
when any of these things happen, the smidgen of free time you once
had is gone. And time is what it takes to work toward either solution--change
the culture or change your attitude.
Of course it's not a
good idea to live as if catastrophe's always lurking in the back
of the minivan. But neither is ignoring the fact that something
seems off-kilter here.
The solution depends
on who you are. Some, like Lisa Belkin, believe that when people
adjust their attitudes, changes in policy will naturally follow.
She sees a difference in corporate culture just in the time she's
been employed. "When I started at the Times [in 1982],
no one would have pictures on their desk--especially women. It wasn't
the sort of place where you wanted to admit you had a life,"
she says. "Has [corporate culture] changed completely? No.
There will always be places that change faster than others. Businesses
are run by human beings, who change one at a time."
Public policy reformers
like Ann Crittenden would like to see the culture get a kick-start,
particularly from the government. Part of the solution, she feels,
is for mothers to recognize that many issues--from the elder caregiving
crisis, to the painful death of AFDC, to inflexibility in the workplace--are
different variations on the same problem. In The Price of Motherhood,
she reports that a divorce-reform advocate finds that her cause
is perceived by small women's advocacy groups as an issue for "rich
white women." Another activist told her, "We have to cast
child support as a children's issue. If it becomes a woman's issue,
it's a loser. Domestic violence is the only women's issue that's
Yikes. If all we can
ask for is not to be abused, what does the future hold?
In terms of getting the
government to invest in paid parental leave, early childhood education,
or "any of these basic things that they have in almost every
other country, it looks like an uphill battle," Crittenden
adds, "women have never asked."
mmo : may 2003