Monday, June 18, 2007

Whose Rules Are These?

I've had a potential blog post kicking around in my head for the last week or so, prompted by questions I got at a recent speech from working women, some of them already mothers, some just projecting ahead, about feeling guilty by reason of being a working parent. I've confessed before that I don't experience guilt properly, but, even so, I'm realizing that these questions - which are as inevitable during a speech that touches on work-life balance as are the mystified looks on the faces of the men in the audience - reflect a perceived conflict over having a career and children that is both a uniquely female characteristic and really rather quixotic.

Don't get me wrong: I'm sure men worry occasionally about whether they're spending enough time with their children, and I'm equally sure they sometimes feel as if their work-life ratio is out of balance. But I seriously doubt that there are many men, if indeed there are any, who worry that they're doing the wrong thing by working when they have small children. Whether for traditional reasons or because they're simply wired differently, men expect to work and be parents simultaneously. For that matter, for reasons of economic necessity, so do the vast majority of the women in the world. It's a peculiarity of well-educated, affluent women to feel the need to define career and motherhood as separate, non-interlocking spheres and to feel conflicted about trying to cram both into one balanced life.

If you think about it logically, there are about 4 years after the birth of a child when the child needs full-time care, another 5-6 years of intense, if part-time, supervision, and then 8-9 years of loving oversight. I feel comfortable as a child-raising veteran in saying that it is not possible to devote one's full time and effort to raising children - they're simply not around enough. As infants, they spend a lot of time asleep and as older children, they spend a lot of time in school and with their friends. And that's how it should be. Kids are not trophies for their parents. They are independent human beings, and the goal in raising them should be to guide them in becoming happy, civilized, self-sufficient contributors.
They are not, and should not be viewed as, substitutes for a career.

It seems to me the questions about guilt - and indeed the feelings of guilt - are misplaced. They have more to do, I think, with an overly romantic definition of motherhood and a conflict in the working mother's mind about her career. A wonderful mother I know who is also a high-powered and very busy professional used to tell me often that she felt guilty and wondered whether she was doing the right thing by her children. At dinner one night, as she fretted about this, I realized that it was all bullshit - she was the kind of person who would have left her career behind in a heartbeat if she really thought it was harming her kids. Her problem wasn't that she actually felt guilty about having such a full life. It was that she thought she should feel guilty and was conflicted about that. From her own mother, from the media, from some of her colleagues, every message she got was that she had to be failing as a mother by reason of her fancy career. She refused to buy into that, but felt guilty instead - as a sort of penance for having it all.

Who defined motherhood for upper middle class educated women as stay-at-home, full-time, and entirely incompatible with a job? Do even stay-at-home moms actually have nothing in their lives but their kids? Of course not - a woman wouldn't be much of a mother or a human being if she had no other interests, activities or concerns. So isn't the problem really more a confusion of career goals, maybe even a lack of passion for or commitment to career or a worrisome suspicion that career goals are somehow unwomanly? Being a working parent requires accommodations in how one approaches one's career - and, from pregnancy through child-raising, being a working mother requires more accommodations than being a working father. Moreover, traditionally male work institutions (i.e., practically all professions and businesses) were set up and are maintained with the working-father accommodations more front of mind than the working-mother accommodations. It's hard to find balance as a working mother in a professional or business career.

But that is not a reason to opt out or to feel guilty. It's more properly viewed as a reason to opt in, to change institutional realities so as to ease the experience for working mothers, to figure out what works for you and your family and go for it, and to quit letting other people push you around.
There's no one right way to be a mother or a career woman, any more than there's one right way to be a father or a career man. It's your life. If you want to stay home and raise kids, do it. If you want to be a working parent, do it. But what a waste of time it is to feel guilty about failing to exemplify some half-baked media-induced notion of what a real mother or businesswoman is.

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