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You’ve all heard the airline safety spiel: how to buckle your seat belt, find the way to your closest exit, and put on those oxygen masks. Helpful images accompany the oft-quoted line, “Put on your own mask before helping others.”
Take care of yourself first — that’s the up-to-date advice for caretakers and (especially) new mothers. Of course, the thinking is that if you’re not okay, you’re going to have a hard time helping the people who need you, be they children, parents or spouses. The airplane metaphor is very practical; if you faint from lack of oxygen while you’re adjusting your child’s mask, you’ll both be left gasping. But there’s also a broader application, in which, for example, caretakers are advised to get some time off and mothers are told to get themselves to a yoga class or take a bath.
After I had children, I heard a lot of this kind of advice.
There’s a pretty straight line from Feminism to the idea that women should take care of their own needs before attending to others. When you get down to basics, the big news from Feminism was that women actually have needs, desires and ambitions. It sounds like common sense now, but as a doctrine back then it was close to a revelation.
Feminism told us that we had certain rights, but those also came with responsibilities. By the time I graduated college in 1979, not only had I learned that I could be assertive, I had learned that I should be assertive. Putting myself first wasn’t just acceptable, it was laudable.
Yet in spite of the overwhelming influence of Feminism on my life and the gender-neutral expectations with which I was lucky enough to be raised, once I became a mother, any shred of putting myself first dissolved. It became at best a goal for another decade, inserted into my brain right next to “having it all.”
Culturally speaking, good mothers are all about sacrifice. Beginning with pregnancy and childbirth, motherhood is easy to see through that lens. Children want and need you in a variety of ways, from essential to optional — for food, cleanliness, attention and guidance. But neither responsibility nor overwhelming love makes being at the beck and call of an infant or a toddler more fun than say, having a leisurely meal, or chatting with friends.
What about the inverse? Are you a bad mom if you put yourself first? There’s a range of badness that would make a nifty graph. On one end, making time to feed yourself and brush your hair occasionally — on the other end, shooting heroin. Drug use, prostitution, leaving the family — they’re all classic tropes of bad motherhood — definitely the wrong kind of putting yourself first. And there are pretty active controversies about where certain choices should go on the continuum — for one (judgmental) person choosing not to breastfeed equals being a bad mom, for another it’s letting your kids have access to screens. Most of us are somewhere in the middle: we go out to dinner with friends and then feel guilty about not being home to help with homework, we miss a soccer game to go to the gym, or maybe bribe our toddlers with television to get a half-hour nap.
The truth is that I felt guilty about not living up to either ideal — motherhood’s or Feminism. I’d lay down my life for any of my children in a heartbeat, but if they interrupted me say, when I was eating, sleeping, reading, or watching ER, I could get crazy annoyed. (Now that they’re adults I don’t mind quite as much.) But back then I felt guilty when my own need for comfort, adult conversation or intellectual stimulation made me inattentive or absent. And on the other hand, I struggled to justify not having a job, or not writing that novel. Was I a bad feminist because I didn’t want it enough to make it work?
It’s a legitimate question, one that’s definitely come back to haunt me.
Asking the right questions is fundamental to finding the right solutions
Have you ever wondered why women's representation, across all levels of government, has been stalled for decades at less than 25%?
Although women have long had entree to careers in business, law, and medicine, why are women CEOs and those in C-suites such a rarity - and what happened to all the potential managing partners and department chairs?
Are the anti-discrimination laws we have the ones we need to close an array of gender gaps?
What are the consequences over time of the significant gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers?
If we were to educate students differently, would it change the numbers? And what would "differently" look like?Read more
Here is a partial list of work I did while staying home with my kids:*
Auction catalog organizer/co-writer
Secretary of Parent Board
Member of Board of Trustees
Library volunteer (my favorite)
Organizer of a student film competition
Unofficial secretary of my 28 year old Book Club — writing correspondence, keeping records, creating and managing our website
Co-writer of the proposal for a how-to book about our Book Club. (We were too easily discouraged and gave up after three (only three!) agents passed on the project.)
Clearly I am a person who likes to be busy, prides herself on contributing, and has a multitude of interests. I didn’t have to do most of the things on the list; I chose them. With my husband frequently out of town or working long hours, I wanted to spend time with adults, so I volunteered at school. I wanted my Book Club to be successful, and took on its organization. I read books on the sidelines of all kinds of sports games, looking up to cheer when I heard other parents cheering. I wondered if my kids should be made to practice musical instruments if neither of their parents played, so after about a thirty year hiatus I took up piano again. I made (beautiful, if I do say so myself) embroidery samplers while watching Rug Rats with the kids. I learned Quicken so I could keep track of our finances…
Just making such a list makes me sound defensive, right? And I am. I’ve watched too many eyes glaze over when I told them what I was up to. Graduating from Yale garners expectations from employers, friends, and family along the lines of, “Designed any Mars Landers recently?” The daily work of being a mom is not the stuff of exciting narrative. It can be engaging and even fascinating from a “student of human nature” perspective, but that’s something you only know from the inside.
Other parents, who had to work outside the home ran the gamut in their appraisals. For each, “Thanks for everything you do, here’s your annual room parent gift,” I’d hear “It’s so unfair that you get to do all these things with and for your children.” The issue is fraught, from all perspectives.
But challenges abound. Think about being the Type A person who sits on a playground bench. Learning to be “in the moment” with my children instead of always busily accomplishing was the (highly unsung) personal triumph of that time in my life. Frankly, it’s the best thing I could have learned, though I can’t say I’ve quite got it yet.
I was challenged in so many ways, some quite similar to life in the “working” world. I had carpool schedules, snack schedules, hot lunch schedules and meeting schedules. Plus practice, game and rehearsal schedules. If one thing fell out of place, there were back up plans. In Los Angeles all these things require driving.** It’s a wonder no one gave me a gold watch when the last kid went to college.
Every parent has her (or his) own story. I can get judgmental with the best of them, but I try not to jump to conclusions about staying home vs. working. When I see young mothers, which occasionally I do, I like to hear their stories, their concerns — their realization that they’ve just talked to the casher for five minutes because she’s the first adult they’ve seen all day. Looking around during such conversations, I often note disapproval from eavesdroppers. The unasked question: why do you care about her day with her child? It’s not politics, it’s not art or business, so is it really worthy of discussion? My answer: without our mutual interest in how our children are raised — from the grand ethical questions to the minutia of daily rituals — childrearing will become even more devalued than it is already, and the women (and men) who stay home for whatever reason will continue to be marginalized. In some ways that’s why I think I decided to write this blog.
*I couldn’t have done any of it without part-time help, which I had until my youngest was about five.
**Yes, there’s a whole other conversation there about everything from public transport to helicopter parenting but we’ll leave that for the moment.
I gave a concert for the tsunami victims and with Choir Musette who are tsunami victims. The idea for this concert was inspired by the Yale Day of Service philosophy. It was a very successful and emotional fulfilling experience.
mma yale 1973
the best-laid plans.
My husband and I had a plan for being parents — we would trade off work. Film is a project-based industry, so we thought this was both practical and realistic. Our scheme succeeded for about the first six months, largely because my husband’s job continued after our son was born. Then it was my turn.
My husband would stay home, but the demands of his career meant that he was always on the lookout for work, which in turn meant phone calls (which back then, tied him to the landline) and meetings. We hired an au pair, B, whom our son instantly adored. B adored him back. Finding someone so loving and trustworthy — I now realize — was a matter of luck, pure and simple.
The deck seemed clear for me to return to work. I had the will, the breast pump, and an offer of a short job ten minutes from home. The hours were long, so B would bring my son to me for at least one daily feeding. But, where breastfeeding at home in a rocking chair was something I had conquered, there was no couch or private office in my warehouse-like building. Solitude could only be found in the large industrial Ladies Room where there was no (hygienic) seating. Balancing my baby in my arms “just so” for even twenty minutes, was stressful, to say the least.
Remember, it was 1987. Working mother’s issues were very much under the radar.
Next time, I wanted shorter hours. I contacted my former bosses. I should say here that they pretty much rolled out the red carpet to help me. They supported every request and every change. They were truly exceptional in an industry where traditionally only top-tier execs and highly-sought actresses receive accommodations. When I decided to try being their Sound Librarian (a 9 to 5 position) they welcomed me back. But a librarian’s take-home is about a third of an editor’s, and I barely made enough money to cover B’s salary. Plus, I had a 45 minute commute.
My next idea was to work at home. I converted our study into my editing space and since those were pre-digital days, the company moved in a Moviola™, editing bench, rewinds, bins and supplies — all at their own expense.
By then my son was a toddler. Those of you who have been there can recognize this as a major flaw in my plan. Moving gears, sharp metallic surfaces, bright and shiny objects — it was all there behind closed doors, along with his beloved mother. He was allowed to visit, but the boundaries became fluid all too soon. If my husband or B got distracted for even a second, in marched my son. Sound editors wear headphones so I couldn’t even hear the door open. Eventually his sippy-cup of orange juice tumbled into a bin of sound I had already cut. Sugar does bad things to magnetic tracks. I had to clean, check and recut almost everything.
I tried again, moving my whole set up into our ancient detached garage. Keeping tracks clean was a constant battle. My son still knew where to find me. When I found myself cutting background “gas chamber ambience,” for a disturbing scene in a bad movie I seriously questioned how I was spending my days.
It wasn’t like I’d always envisioned myself as a sound editor. It was a skill, a skill I was proud of and good at. It appealed to my love of craft, my puzzle-solving compulsions, but wasn’t essential to my well-being. My husband had a new job, a bigger film. So I threw in the towel — the splicer, the paycheck — and discovered I was relieved.
Last Saturday August 2nd, the lovely Michelle Fait (Yale SOM '93) hosted a fantastic group of Yale women as part of the YaleWomen of Northern California Book Club BBQ. Altogether, about 15 literary ladies gathered in the early evening to grill some grub, get nerdy and meet some fellow Yale ladies in the Bay Area.
(Special blog contribution by Teresa Tapia, PC '06)
On June 4, YaleWomen of Northern California along with the Yale Club of San Francisco and the AYA hosted a discussion on "Preventing Sexual Violence: The Workplace, the College Campus, and Other Sexual Ecologies," featuring Yale faculty Melanie Boyd (Assistant Dean of Student Affairs; Lecturer, Women's Gender & Sexuality Studies) and Inderpal Grewal (Chair, Department of Women's Gender & Sexuality Studies).Read more
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