mother has a cookbook called "Butter and Love," an artifact of a Patterson Elementary PTO fundraiser circa 1980.
The now kinky-sounding title appealed to me as a child. I hadn't
yet masterminded what I thought the elements of the good life would
be, but butter and love (and bike-riding after dark and infinite
Nancy Drew mysteries) seemed like a decent start.
These days, I define
the elements of the good life like pretty much everyone else does:
Time with our kids. Rewarding work. A satisfying love life. A tidy-enough
home, clean clothes, a balanced checkbook. A roof over our heads
and some food in the fridge. Friends, extended family. Ambitiously:
Time to volunteer, occasional vacations, the opportunity to exercise.
Plus a few minutes of pure zoning out with a beer in hand and E.R.
on the TV.
So when did it become
a Herculean task to fit all of these elements in? And not only fit
them in, but fit them in in the right proportions?
Once upon a time, whenever
I'd hear someone talk about how busy she was, I used to sort of
roll my eyes and think, "Come on, lady--enough with the self-importance."
But it's become pretty clear to me that part of motherhood is being
important. My child only has one mother. My husband only has one
wife. No one but me can or will do the things that fulfill me. At
the end of the day, I'm usually wiped out, but I'm still left with
the nagging knowledge that something went neglected. And I--with
one healthy kid, a husband who more than pulls his weight in this
house, and a job where I set my own hours--am the first to acknowledge
I have it good.
may be clunkily titled, but it's a hot commodity. A lot of us--no
matter what our specific lives look like--are lacking it. Experts
from a variety of fields, from economics to business to spirituality,
are penning books on the subject, and a whole new occupation--Life
Balance Coach--has sprung up to help those of us trying to fit a
full life into a measly twenty-four hour day.
What's the problem here?
A lot of fingers are pointing to paid work. According to Ann Crittenden
in her book The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important
Job in the World is Still the Least Valued (Henry Holt, 2001),
the average employed American worked 140 more hours in 1995 than
in 1982--almost an extra month a year. The number of people working
more than 49 hours a week rose by as much as thirty-seven percent.
For mothers who hold paying jobs, that means less time to squeeze
in "life" in the life/work equation. For mothers who caregive
full-time, that means the person who's bringing in the paychecks
is spending more time at work, leaving less time for the caregiver
to fit in anything but caregiving. Despite the high media profile
of so-called "mommy wars" between at-home and employed
mothers, it's clear that we're all in this boat together. We're
all part of a culture that sees child-rearing as an annoying sidebar
to The Real World of money-making and does little to accommodate
for a big fact of life: A lot of us want families, and children
don't raise themselves.
So what's a mother to
The answers to gaining
a little balance fall into two camps: change your life or change
the country. Either way, it's going to take a whole lot more than
butter and love.
Obviously, ours isn't
the first generation to scramble for time. But a look at what our
lives are like suggests that we've somehow raised the bar of what
must be a priority.
We want to be fabulous
parents. Child experts want us to be fabulous parents. The government
wants us to be fabulous parents (evidenced most recently by "Adventures
in Parenting: How Responding, Preventing, Monitoring, Mentoring,
and Modeling Can Help You Be a Successful Parent," a 62-page
booklet put out in January by the National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development). And if time spent with the children is any
measure, we are approaching fabulousness. Modern mothers--both mothers
with paid jobs and those who caregive full-time--spend more time
with our children than did mothers of the 1920s, according to an
article in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. Also changed
is how we interact with our kids; according to sociologist Sharon
Hays of the University of Virginia, the techniques we use (negotiating,
offering children choices, fostering independence) are more time-consuming
than the old way of making rules and demanding compliance. Still,
the Families and Work Institute, a non-profit research center, found
in a 1997 study that seventy percent of both mothers and fathers
feel they do not have enough time to spend with their children.
We also want to be competitive
in the workplace. But the workplace itself has come to expect more
of us. "Most modern work requires us to give away a slice of
our private lives," philosopher Joanne B. Ciulla writes in The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work (Three Rivers Press, 2000). We're invited to join the company family,
although we may have our own family already. According to Feeling
Overworked: When Work Becomes Too Much, a 2001 study conducted
by the Families and Work Institute, nearly one-third of this country's
employees often or very often feel overworked or overwhelmed with
the work on their plates. In 2000, Americans had the heaviest workload
in the industrialized world, including Japan, according to Ann Crittenden
in The Price of Motherhood.
With these two major
components of our lives battling it out for primacy, it's little
wonder that all the other stuff--from housework to our love lives--gets
short shrift. Both mothers and fathers report having significantly
less free time today than twenty years ago. According to the Families
and Work Institute, mothers' time for themselves on workdays has
declined from 1.8 hours, twenty years ago, to .9 hours, and fathers'
personal time declined from 2.2 hours to 1.2 hours.
"The first thing
to go is housework," writes Crittenden. A 1999 study conducted
by John P. Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland,
found that while housework by women has declined from an average
of 30 hours a week in 1965 to 17.5 hours in 1995, it mostly represents
a relaxation in standards. (Apparently, I'm not the only one who
lives with things like our fake Christmas tree still waiting on
the staircase landing in May for its return to the attic.)
Crittenden cites a study
of thirty-seven mothers working full-time at a California hospital
for clues as to what else we're giving up. The sociologist she interviewed
says, "I'd say most [subjects] were getting five or six hours
[of sleep] a night. Sleep--not their children--is what they are
giving up directly, along with couple's time."
Although the sample was
small, sleeping less in an effort to make more hours in a day is
not an unfamiliar concept to a lot of us. And, sometimes, even when
we're trying to sleep, that old tune of The Things I Need To Do
gets stuck in our heads, and it's just easier to roll out of bed
and pay the bills (schedule the vet appointment, make the preschool
snack, throw in another load of laundry, etc.) than sleep. We know
that lack of sleep and stress isn't good for us. Forty-three percent
of Americans suffer from stress-related health problems, according
to the American Institute of Stress, a non-profit information clearinghouse.
The Institute links stress to myriad health woes, from lowered immunity
to cardiovascular troubles.
Tuesday earlier this year, I was watching Oprah while my son and I cooked dinner. Dr. Phil--he
of blunt opinions and homespun aphorisms--was trying to figure out
why the couples on the show weren't having sex. No-sex-for-six-months,
no-sex-for-two-years kind of not having sex. He listened to one
woman describe her full-to-bursting life: mothering, a job, school.
It turns out the couple didn't have all the typical Oprah problems:
trust issues, childhood abuse, spiritual bereftness. The woman was,
Dr. Phil said, just too busy for sex.
"How many times
have you heard a woman say, 'I'm so lucky… ' and they're talking
about the little crumbs they have. You know: 'I'm so lucky I have
a husband' or 'I'm so lucky he makes a living' or 'I'm so lucky
I have a job that doesn't destroy me and destroy our family,'"
Ann Crittenden recently mused. She had just given a speech in a
Washington, D.C., suburb as part of a conference on caregiving.
"But they're not saying 'I deserve to have the right to have
my profession and time with my child. I deserve public support the
way elder people have public support from society.'"
Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter and Pultizer Prize nominee, wrote The Price of Motherhood after experiencing first-hand the
lack of respect full-time caregiving gets: After she left the Times
to be with her infant son, someone asked her in all seriousness,
"Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?"
In The Price of Motherhood,
Crittenden peers into the vast divide between the lip service paid
to mothering and the economic reality of mothers: "Motherhood
is the single largest risk factor for poverty in old age,"
she writes. In a compelling economic analysis, she details how mothers--whom
she claims contribute up to eighty percent of this country's unpaid
labor--get, in a word, screwed. The list is long and, frankly, a
little depressing: It begins with the unpaid six weeks of maternity
leave available to most women (the U.S. is one of the five industrialized
nations left that doesn't offer paid maternity leave, she says).
After the magical six weeks are up, our choices in work arrangements
are pretty slim; without a "rich and vibrant part-time labor
market," the choices seem to be full-time employment or none
at all. Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the economic fate of
those of us who caregive full-time: loss not only of wages (and
the pay raises that come with time spent at a company), but of Social
Security benefits. Holes in resumes that may one day be submitted
to employers who might regard child-rearing as nothing more than
babysitting--the old bon-bons-and-soaps vision of motherhood. And,
should divorce happen, the negating of that "choice" the
spouses made together, the choice that one would stay home while
the other brought in a paycheck. With no compensation for the time
the caregiving spouse took out to raise the children, forty percent
of all divorced women in the U.S. "tumble into poverty,"
While American parents
scramble for that precious commodity--time--the rest of the First
World countries are managing more life balance with some grace.
Near the top of the who's-got-it-good list is Sweden, where the
government subsidizes a full year of paid leave for mothers at seventy-five
percent of their salaries, where every parent with a child under
the age of eight has the right to an eighty-percent work schedule
(that's four days a week), and low-income families get checks to
cover the cost of child care. And, Crittenden writes, "The
very suggestion of cutting mothers' and children's benefits, I was
told, 'would be political suicide.'" In contrast, the major
U.S. program designed to help poor mothers and children, Aid to
Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was abolished in 1996;
so-called welfare queens--whose checks were treated as handouts
in the first place, not compensation for caregiving--were told to
get back to work. In its sixty years of existence, this aid never
amounted to more than one-half of one percent of the Gross Domestic
So, is it time to develop
a taste for gravlax, or might the U.S. take a clue from Swedish
"We're never going
to be a Sweden. We'll have to do it in our own way," Crittenden
says of this land of capitalism and cowboy mentality. "We have
this cultural sense that we're all individuals, that we're not really
in this together, that we're all going to make it ourselves, we
don't need any help. That ethic of the individual. And it's a strength;
it explains a lot of our success economically, that entrepreneurial
spirit. But it's a huge weakness because we don't really fully appreciate
how we are indeed all in this together. I think [our country's]
being heterogeneous, it makes it a little harder to see other people's
children as our children and understand that, 'If all these other
people's children are well-raised, it's going to help me.'"
By Crittenden's figuring,
if we live eighty years, we're dependent over forty percent of our
lives: the first twenty years and the last fifteen. "So who's
taking care of those dependents?" she asks. "A good chunk
of people in the prime working age. So the idea that we're all independent
and don't need each other's help is just a myth. Women need to make
that point very loud and clear: We're caregivers and we need a caring
state. But I think it's going to take another women's movement to
get that across."
Crittenden's book may
be the push that gets this new movement rolling. At the end of The
Price of Motherhood, she offers some solutions: Employers should
redesign work around parental norms, including offering the right
to a year's paid leave, shortening the workweek, and providing equal
hourly pay and pro-rated benefits for part-time work. The government
could do much to create a caring state, like offering on-the-job
insurance to those of us who do the unpaid work, setting up universal
preschools for three- and four-year-olds, and providing a "child
allowance," instead of a tax deduction or credit. (A deduction
does nothing for the thirty percent of low-income parents who don't
pay taxes, and credits don't help families where one parent is the
caregiver.) One of my favorites of Crittenden's ideas is that, upon
the birth or adoption of a child, a family should become a formal
financial unit, like a business. Members of the family would have
equal claim on the income. Along the same lines, Social Security
credits would be split between the adults of the household, no matter
who's bringing in the paycheck and who's doing the lion's share
of childrearing. This would benefit "working and stay-at-home
mothers alike, and …divorced women, who are among the poorest
old people in the country," Crittenden writes.
Since The Price of Motherhood's release, Crittenden says that
a whole lot of consciousness-raising has been going on--and
the beginnings of a grassroots movement to secure the rights of
unpaid caregivers. "A lot of people are saying, 'Oh yeah, this
is what it's like.' The whole debate is shifting.
to me is that around the country, there are a half a dozen women,
professional women in their thirties, who are saying we're going
to start something," Crittenden says. "We've proven that
we can do the work that men do and be professional. We have not
won respect for the work that women have traditionally done and
that's the key to the next stage, I think."
One player on that next
stage may be an organization called MOTHERS: Mothers Ought To Have
Equal Rights. It's in an embryonic state right now, but Crittenden
says they plan to write a Mother's Bill of Rights. Crittenden is
lending her voice to the organization, along with Naomi Wolf, feminist
activist and author, most recently, of Misconceptions,
a critique of the birthing industry, and Barbara Seaman, an activist
for women's health. (For more information, visit the MOTHERS
In the meanwhile, Social
Agenda, a women's think tank and advocacy group, is working to replace
the child tax credit with a caregiver tax credit. Like Crittenden,
the organization believes that caregiving is work, and it makes
some compelling arguments for why a caregiver credit makes fiscal
sense for the country. Under this campaign, anyone who's the primary
caregiver of a family member--whether it be a child or an older
relative--would receive a tax credit, or if they don't make enough
money to pay taxes, a check. (For more information on the Caregiver
Credit Campaign, check out caregivercredit.org).
concludes that mothers themselves are the real reason this revolution
hasn't yet happened. "[Mothers] don't feel entitled; they don't
feel they deserve things for themselves. They never have,"
she says. "I think that's the last bit left of what women used
to be taught: Women should be sacrificial, women should always serve
others. We've kind of gotten rid of that for women. We teach young
girls, 'Be what you can be, have ambitions, fulfill your destiny,
express yourself.' …Mothers have not quite gotten out of that.
So now all the things that used to be attributed to women are now
attributed to mothers. Mothers are still feeling like, in their
own name, they don't deserve something, in their own right."
I think Crittenden may
be right, partly. But as someone whose sense of entitlement is quite
intact, what seems to trip me up (and maybe a lot of women my age)
is not the feeling that I don't deserve help. It's the suspicion
that I just haven't figured out how not to need help. I am, after
all, as much a product of this individualist culture as anyone else.
I was once that young girl who was told she could be anything. And
I have a really hard time letting that idea die just because I'm
a mother. It is a monument to my arrogance that I researched this
article, fully supported what Ann Crittenden says, and all the while
thought: That's great--for other women. But I can work this out.
I can be anything I put my mind to, right?
I shared this bit of
navel-gazing with Lisa Belkin, who writes the "Life's Work"
column for the New York Times and is the author of the
newly released book Life's Work: Confessions of An Unbalanced
Mom (Simon & Schuster, 2002). "There's only twenty-four
hours in a day and we are human," she said. "When you
change either of those things, we can be anything we want to be."
There is no such thing
as life balance, Belkin believes, and you can really drive yourself
nuts trying to achieve it. When I spoke with her, she was doing
the little work/life dance that a lot of us do; her weekly column
was due in two days, yet she was at a coffee shop with her son,
drinking a latte, while construction was going on at her home. She
talked to me on her cell phone. At one point, I asked her to repeat
what she just said, and she replied: "I said, 'Hang on just
a minute, honey. I'll be right there.'"
is a jigsaw puzzle that can't be completed. There's always one piece
that doesn't fit. It could be depressing--but if you can get rid
of the guilt part, that's an accomplishment," she says. "The
guilt comes from the fact that we care. We all care about our work.
We all care about our children. If we didn't care, we wouldn't feel
guilty when we couldn't give things the attention they deserve."
For Belkin, "a close
approximation of sanity" means learning to be comfortable with
the compromises she's made in order to have the life she wants.
"I will never be executive editor of the New York Times and I don't care. I want to be home and flexible and that means
giving up some degree of success."
How long did it take
for her to learn that? Twenty years, she laughs. "I'm a proponent,
not a practitioner, of the 'so-what?' theory of life."
Lisa Belkin's editors
at the Times aren't the only publishers clued in to the
struggles this country's parents are facing. Tomes on life balance,
in different guises, stuff bookstore shelves.
The worst of them play
into the mommy wars--two-hundred-plus pages of justification of
why a given lifestyle is best for everyone. In their book And
What Do You Do?: When Women Choose to Stay Home (Wildcat Canyon
Press, 2000), Loretta Kaufman and Mary Quigley take a huge issue
for us mothers--the scaling back of our careers while our children
are young (otherwise known as "sequencing")--and whittle
it down to a handy stereotype, from somewhere in the way-back machine.
"Women like giving gifts. We really do. We shop 'til we drop
for the perfect present while men often grab the first thing in
sight," they write. "It's the same with relationships,
especially with our husbands and children."
What they call a gift,
Crittenden calls unpaid labor--and Kaufman and Quigley's subjects
give incredible gifts, like moving the household cross-country alone
and generally giving the husbands carte blanche to ignore everything
but their own careers. The authors also more often refer to sequencing
as "putting your husband's career first," rather than,
say, being a full-time caregiver to your kids. This conservative
bent on the idea may be most evident in their list of qualities
that "family CEOs" possess, which includes the snarky
"They May Even Love Their Husbands." (Which, I might add,
makes it pretty hard to remember that we're all in the same boat
and that we shouldn't wish unkind things on the authors' marriages.)
These defensive (and
offensive) books offering a one-size-fits-all-solution seem to be
falling out of vogue, though, in favor of the inspiration-style
books. The latter acknowledge that readers are facing some problems
cramming all the elements of their lives in a day; unfortunately,
the solutions they offer are only nominally helpful. The real benefit
to these books is the tone--soothing, inspirational, and offering
a vision of life that does not include the simultaneous occurrence
of the dog vomiting, the UPS man ringing, and your child's frenetic
flinging of Play-Doh around the sunroom. From Mimi Doe's Busy
But Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer,
Closer Family (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001):
"Head over to a
local pond or lake at sunset (imagine it's Walden Pond) and read
some of Thoreau's writings. Children are able to understand so many
of his simple yet wise thoughts. A great place to begin is this
line from Consciousness in Concord: "Any melodious sound apprises
me of the infinite wealth of God." You can listen to the melodious
sounds of God all around you. Or how about the following from Thoreau's
journal, dated June 22, 1852: "Is not the rainbow a faint vision
of God's face? How glorious should be the life of man passed under
this arch! What more remarkable phenomenon than a rainbow, yet how
little it is remarked!"
Return to the pond, each
with a journal, and write your own esoteric thoughts."
Once you get past your
impulse to think things like "Would Thoreau count the slapping
of mosquitoes as a melodious sound of God?", Busy But Balanced does play a strange little trick. You do feel calmer while
you read it. You might, as I did, suspect that a margarita out on
the patio would impart the same sense of calm as penning your esoteric
thoughts pond-side, but that's not really the point. As silly as
the tips in the inspiration-style books sound (lighting candles,
peeking in on your sleeping child), what Doe is really espousing
is living in the moment. And when so much of motherhood is preparing
for the next moment (are there sheets on the crib? is my preschooler
getting enough reading readiness?), it's an appealing idea. It speaks
to what we're all after, anyway: not only to have the elements of
the good life, but to enjoy them.
heart is the suggestion that if something's amiss in your life,
the way to fix it is to fix your attitude. (In the case of the inspiration books, you should adopt the attitude
of a very low-key Martha Stewart, finding peace in a beautiful dinner
table and letter-writing.) Hardly a new idea, it's the basis for
every self-help movement from improving one's self-esteem to kicking
Funnily enough, I found
some of the most interesting thoughts on life balance and attitude
in a self-help-for-businesswomen book, Michele Kremen Bolton's The
Third Shift: Managing Hard Choices in Our Careers, Homes, and Lives
as Women (Jossey-Bass, 2000). The title is a play on The
Second Shift, the famous book by Arlie Hochschild on working
women's second job: taking care of home life. The third shift, Bolton
writes, is the time we take to reflect on (and often beat ourselves
up over) the way things are going. The book isn't without its flaws.
Bolton takes certain controversial beliefs as truths (like there
is a feminine style of doing business), and her prose suffers a
bit from the self-help model of writing.
Still, her perspective
is an interesting one. With anecdotes drawn from women living in
boom-time Silicon Valley, the book's target audience is clearly
women who are or have been part of the corporate world. Yet it's The Third Shift that presents life balance more broadly
than the old work-versus-the-kids dichotomy (although, to be fair,
these seem to be the major components of many women's lives). Bolton
defines life balance as the tension between personal achievement
and service to others; although she generally attaches personal
achievement to work and service to home life, this new definition
of balance seems to me to be more open to all mothers--those with
paid work and those at home. Personal achievement can come in the
form of making a thriving garden with the kids; service to others
can be some mundane filing at the office.
In fact, redefining the
events of your life is a big theme for The Third Shift.
Bolton makes the distinction between compromise (which is good)
and sacrifice (which isn't). And one mother's sacrifice is another
mother's compromise, she finds. She compares two mothers, Laurel
and Juliet, both of whom left careers to focus on mothering. Laurel
is unhappy; Juliet is thriving:
"Laurel is more
vulnerable to social expectations for a successful modern woman.
She can only imagine one kind of satisfying life, which includes
full-time, challenging work. It took more than a year for her to
reexamine this somewhat rigid model and open herself to other possibilities
and their unanticipated rewards. In contrast, Juliet realized her
life could encompass both types of satisfaction, but not necessarily
at the same time. Juliet and Laurel are different . . . with respect
to their innate flexibility. Juliet's life and overall perspective
favors shades of gray, while Laurel's depiction of her choices involves
Bolton and all the other
experts agree on this point: Laurel's expectations to have a very
involved career and a very involved role in her child's life are
unrealistic. In an attempt to have both, Laurel was simply picking
up the pace of her life. Bolton suggests she change her attitude.
Bolton knows it's not
easy: "Even if you're not a classic overachiever, managing
balance is difficult and stressful because it speaks to how you
measure your own worth as a woman." In other words, what your
life's balance looks like is a shorthand: it tells you and the rest
of the world what you value most.
According to the 2000
census, 24.8 million households in the U.S. are made up of married
parents and children. So where are the guys in all this?
Whether or not this time
crunch is solely a mothers' issue is a matter of controversy. In
1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild came out with The Second
Shift, a book that detailed all the labor women--even women
who work full-time--put into maintaining the household, as compared
to men; the book showed women with paid jobs doing, over the course
of a year, an extra month of childcare and housework. In 1999, psychologist
Francine M. Deutsch published Halving Equality: How Equally
Shared Parenting Works, her National Science Foundation-funded
study on gender roles, housework, and childcare; it chronicled the
difficulty the study's subjects had breaking out of gender roles
into truly equal domestic life.
Still, the Families and
Work Institute now reports that fathers put in seventy-five percent
of the time that mothers spend on childcare and housework--up from
thirty percent in 1977. And as Lisa Belkin says, how we feel about
the amount of work we do has a lot to do with "whatever model
we're holding ourselves up against." Women may, on average,
still do more of the work at home, but men are doing a lot more
than their fathers did. "Men are patting themselves on the
back--and rightfully so," she notes.
And really, no matter
how much the men's statistics have improved, it makes no difference
if your particular guy is doing it 1977-style. In Misconceptions:
Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (Doubleday, 2001), Naomi Wolf devotes much ink to the inequality
in her marriage and those of her friends after the baby comes. She
writes of one guy in her circle of friends, a "Gen-Xer with
a goatee," who had adjusted his work schedule to accommodate
No one else's husband
among the couples we knew had been able--or willing--to make any
kind of change in his work schedule. The women around me, I noticed,
began to treat this young man as a demigod. "Dan takes Fridays
off," they would say meaningfully to their husbands. To the
women, Dan's having taken even such a small step toward sharing
responsibilities at home gave him an aura of desirability: he was
a winner. To the other husbands, I began to realize, the fact that
he could take Fridays off meant his job wasn't that important. To
the men--these egalitarian, pro-feminist men--Dan was a loser.
I'm married to one of
these Gen-Xers (no goatee, but admirable sideburns). I think we
have a pretty equal marriage: we spent the same amount and quality
of time caring for our son. We both cook; we share the mental work
of whether we're out of Pull-ups or if someone gave the dogs their
heartworm pills this month. We both ignore the Christmas tree on
the landing. We both feel the time crunch. What equality means around
here is that we're both pretty fried.
Ann Crittenden notes
that it's not the housework or the childcare that's the real issue.
Equality on the homefront will come when both the domestic and business
worlds are accorded equal respect, and when the sexes achieve economic
equality. She points again to Swedish families. "When two spouses
bring home close to the same income, the family stands to lose almost
as much financially when the mother cuts back on her paid work as
when the father does," she writes. "This changes the conversation
about who stays home and who remains employed, who picks the children
up after school, who takes the child to the doctor, and so on."
Back here, it's more
often than not the women who do the compromising, for a lot of individual
reasons. And those reasons are reinforced by the fact that that's
the way it's been since home and work became separate realms. But
if we had our druthers, research suggests, that's not the way it
would be. Crittenden cites a study at Williams College that concluded,
"Of all the possible work situations for married couples with
preschool children, the women rated highest the marriage in which
both partners worked part-time." That's one fantasy, and a
few families are achieving that here.
The reality, Crittenden
writes, is there aren't many real choices for the majority of us.
Job-sharing and telecommuting positions are fairly scarce. Married
working mothers, she asserts, pay the highest taxes on their earned
income. It's a gamble whether your spouse will support or sabotage
your goals. Paid, quality childcare can be difficult to find. And
then complaining about these facts is taboo because--even mothers
say--we chose this.
I think these are relevant
facts for fathers, too. Wolf's example above suggests that some
men are caught in a machismo-riddled world where being a "winner"
means sacrificing involvement at home. It's another version of off-kilter
life balance (granted, tipped in favor of the work that brings a
paycheck and a cultural pat on the back). I just find it hard to
believe that the majority of men would rather work ridiculous hours
than be a vital part of their kids' lives; it's hard to believe
that most men enjoy the work-heavy balance of their lives. My perception,
of course, may be skewed. My family lives in an area that prides
itself on being family-oriented; no one at the pharmaceutical plant
where my husband works complains when he leaves early for a Valentine's
Day shindig at our son's preschool. There is an understanding here
in this blue-collar, unionized area that your real life occurs at
family pig roasts and church gatherings, not within the chain-linked
fences of the manufacturing site.
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
article was first published in the Summer 2002 edition of Brain,
Child Magazine (www.brainchildmag.com).
It is republished here with the permission of the author.