Mother's Work · Motherhood · Parenting

Imagine not having to talk about being “torn”

I’ve been perusing Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog in the New York Times quite a bit lately, and there’s been a lot of talk about modern motherhood, and how we modern mothers face a tough choice between career and motherhood that leaves us torn. A propos, her book of the month is Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood by Samantha Parent Walravens, and many good post topics have emerged from discussions of that book. (By the way, check out what three books Amazon is pushing under “frequently bought together”! Hilarious!) The post titles range from “Why Don’t German Mothers Work?” to “Do Gen X Women Choose Work Over Kids?” to “The Doubts of a Stay-at-Home Dad”. Her readers offer a plethora of reasons why women are, or are not, faced with this soul-splitting choice. If health insurance weren’t directly tied to 30-40 hour/week jobs, then more parents might stay at home or pursue part-time work options. If today’s modern mother with a higher education weren’t forced to act like a man to get ahead, more mothers would feel less pressure to choose career over staying at home. If we only had laws like those in Sweden, everything would be easier. “Laws help change mentalities,” Germany’s family minister Ursula von der Leyen is quoted as saying. If everyone would just finally realize how ludicrous it is to have kids only to have them spend most of their growing hours under a stranger’s care – some think. Why have kids in the first place? And if Dad decides to stay at home, will that send the wrong message to his daughters, like reverse psychology or something?

Anyway, this huge debate gets me thinking: It’s an equation that cannot be solved without removing, or controlling for, certain variables.

Scenario 1: Imagine if a mindset of equally shared parenting were the norm in our society (the changed variable), while women’s current career opportunities remained the same as they are in our post-feminist present (fixed variable).

Quick tangent: I first want to say that I totally agree with Ann Crittenden when she says somewhere in The Price of Motherhood, and I paraphrase, that the Gen X generation of women is the first to face the true repercussions of feminism. We’re the first generation to have to figure out what to do with what we’ve gained. I also strongly agree with her assessment that feminism stopped at mothers. It addressed pretty much all aspects of being a woman in today’s society, unless you’re a mother. When motherhood – whether married, single, or divorced – enters the picture, things start reverting back to olden times.

Back to Scenario 1: Ok, so, the husband and wife have had tons of heart-to-heart, all-cards-on-the-table discussions – before marriage, during marriage, before kids, and after kids – about how they are going to tackle parenthood. They’ve assessed their strengths and weaknesses, agreed to both work part-time, divided the week evenly, and reviewed the household chores list. They check in with each other every week over a glass of wine to review “how are we doing?”, and adjust accordingly. Now let’s insert the fixed variable of today’s career woman’s necessary choices. Mommy wants to get ahead in her career, wants to be on par with the men at the top. Part-time won’t work. Flexible hours work only in rare occasions. So we’re already stuck shifting the balance of “equally shared” to “Mommy works and Daddy stays home.” And here we are back at “Doubts of a Stay-at-Home Dad.”

Scenario 2: Today’s workplace is totally flexible for parents (moms or dads), provides on-site childcare, doesn’t dock pay compared to everyone else, or frown upon you, or hinder advancement, or show you the door for starting a family (changed variable), while the household and parenting situation at home proves what many studies are showing – that with the arrival of kids, gender roles in a marriage tend to automatically revert to the more traditional picture of husband goes to work / wife stays home with kids and manages household (fixed variable). This scenario feels better to me, but it still doesn’t compute. What role does husband/dad play here? I ask myself: If the workplace were more accommodating to parents, would the reversal-to-traditional-gender-roles-effect go away? Could equally shared parenting really be possible? Could the traditional gender roles finally be shattered?

Bottom line, I don’t think it’s one thing or another that is leaving women “torn”. I think we’re on a continuum that feels like a tightrope, with workplace flexibility and support on one end, and a mindset of equally shared parenting on the other. Everyone is trying to find, and define, a sweet spot on that continuum. However, I believe that each end of the continuum needs to stand on its own and be working at its fullest potential. The workplace needs to become more flexible for parents, and today’s parents (if they have the luxury of being a couple and not single, divorce, or widowed) need to really explore what equally shared parenting can mean to them.

As an added bonus, I’d like to throw into the mix the beautiful concept of extended families. Imagine if we didn’t desire to isolate ourselves so much, and it were still the norm – as it still is in many other cultures today – to remain close knit as a large family and provide each other with support across the generations. I know that many families in the United States strive to work this way, but I believe it has become the exception, more of a “wow, that’s so great that you have that kind of help!” sort of situation.

As rough and confusing as these times can seem, I’m optimistic. I think we’re moving in the right direction. And we can each make a difference by starting small, in our own homes, in our own little families.

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