Today we spent the afternoon at one of the playgrounds in Central Park with our usual Wednesday group. While the kids played, the moms chatted. A lot of times when we are there I wind up speaking to just one or two of the other parents, but today I got to spend some time with almost everyone, and the conversation revolved mostly around our roles as full-time parents/teacher/facilitators and how that role is perceived in American society. (One guess as to our conclusion.)
The group of women included Margaret, who had her son at the age of 43. Before Children, (our version of B.C.) Margaret had her own business and did freelance technical writing on the side. Then there was Kristin, who worked as an Engineer B.C. Maiysha recently went from working in an office as a copy editor while sharing the parenting duties with her husband who is a drummer, to opening her own business as a birth doula and pre and post natal care instructor. Kim is a personal trainer and sees her clients in her small home gym; she has cut back her hours dramatically over the past few years, and plans to stop altogether in the near future. Idit is mother of 4 and holds a PhD. All educated intelligent women, in other words, who have chosen to devote the bulk of their time to their kids and being ‘domestic’.
All of these women agree; staying at home with kids is not valued in our culture. It is not seen as ‘real’ work, and those of us who don’t send our kids to school are even stranger – freaks of nature who must love servitude and have no personal goals. ‘Successful’ women have nannies raise their kids so they don’t give up their place on the corporate ladder. Even before working outside the home was encouraged, women who could afford it did not raise their kids, as the book and now the movie “The Help” points out. Raising kids was something only poor women did.
Feminists of the 60’s fought for women to have equal opportunities in the workplace and sold the idea that women could have it all. We could be great mothers and successful career women (raising your kids does not count as a career). And so an entire generation or two tried to have it all – are still trying – and failed. Mostly they failed their kids. You cannot be a full time parent and a full time career woman and not skimp on something somewhere. And since if you skimp at your job you get fired, kids draw the short straw every time. Margaret was the most vocal about this situation, having had her son at the age of 43 (he’s 12 now). She said that when she was pregnant with her son, all of her friends, they of the ‘have it all’ generation, told her how she would run her business and not miss a step after giving birth. The fact that she found it impossible to dedicate herself to her new baby and her business and thus decided it was the business that had to go was a source of friction between her and many of her friends. She said, “It’s obvious today that many of the children from those ‘have it all’ moms didn’t turn out very well.”
Even in our community of homeschoolers, we can tell the kids whose parents are trying to maintain their careers (I say parent when I really mean ‘mom’. It’s very rare for a father to be the full-time stay at home parent, although I do know one) and thus arrange for a lot of drop-offs or have sitters running them around to activities; these are the kids with the behavior issues. I hate to stereotype but with few exceptions, this is the case and it becomes more apparent in the teens. You can watch a group of homeschooled teens for less than an hour and pick out the ones whose parents are still heavily involved and those who are dropped off and shuffled around by stand-ins while the parents work full time.
Which brings me back to the discussion I had with the moms in attendance today. They all agreed that the feminists who are railing against the trend of home births and breastfeeding (a recent New Yorker magazine devoted two articles to this issue) are missing the point of feminism. Feminism gave women a choice. Which means that if we want to, our choice can be to stay at home and raise our kids. It’s wrong to think that now that we have the choice whether to stay at home or join the workforce we should all choose the workforce. Most of us there today did work full time before we had children; some of us still work in some form. All of us agreed that the most important thing any parent can do is raise kids who are confident and healthy both in body and mind. What good is a fabulous career if your kids suffer for it?