More thoughts about staying home (Part 5)

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. 

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  • Jacqueline Collins Hullar
    commented 2014-12-29 19:14:52 -0500

    This piece is very superficial and full of generalizations, but the point is made that parenting ideas and techniques vary from culture to culture. And, presumed, but not proven, is that these cultures’s varied parenting styles are all effective in supporting, not harming the children. One does wonder if the children turn out differently. And whether parenting styles adapt to changes or cause changes.
    I do believe that Americans could benefit from awareness, here by comparison to other cultures, of how relatively strong our cultural belief is that parenting has a very very (the most?) powerful and significant effect on the children. My sense is that other cultures and even American parents from prior generations believe much more strongly than we do right now in the US that each child has a fundamental nature, and built-in-abilities to learn and grow and develop into a mature independent adult. [I am not ignoring the potential deleterious effect of environment, including parenting, just trying to keep this in perspective.]
    Perhaps it would be liberating for those caring for children in the US to stop and observe, and re-think; we may stumble upon some prejudices and assumptions, especially the ones we are not aware of, about how children develop in relation to their parents.

    Anna, your question is excellent. Just asking the question about how we can do the right thing rings so true. It is such a paradox, being a parent: how can we be strong, healthy, which benefits our chidden? Can we hold onto our non-parent identity without guilt, with pride, and with the belief that it is good for our children to see parents as real people with lives and identities, interests, personalities, problems, successes, relationships “outside” of the family? It is part of taking care of ourselves first. It is also part of giving ourselves a chance to keep growing and developing, and to reflect and rest.

    After being held fiercely in the grip of the feeling that I could never do enough or be too available for my children for many years (old habits die hard- being a serious hard-worker has always been my approach to whatever I have been doing, plus I was so motivated by that nagging cultural fear that something I did or did not do would harm my children), a little time off from that job has led me to understand that having identity less oriented to childcare and home management would have allowed me to continue to develop outside of the home AND be a better role-model for my children, not to mention a more patient and present parent, ironically. I was not a helicopter parent or a tiger mom: no, I was just 100% immersed in the non-stop job management the life of our home and family. In my case, being sent to Japan as an expatriate without a license to work was the catalyst for my transformation from a childless Wall Street executive to a full-time parent. Today, I think if I had to do it over again, I would make an effort to have some interests and activities very separate from the home and family, and that I would talk about my outside life and feelings about it and myself with my family. I think my children would have more space to call their own to figure things out and learn from their experiences, to develop resilience by looking inward for strength. I think they would see me as a strong woman, and a valued member of the outside world, particularly important because I have daughters.
    No matter what, I especially hope that they know I am not basing my self-worth on how they turn out, that I love them as they are and whatever they will become, and that is why I take such an interest in them and feel it is my responsibility to share my experiences and knowledge for additional perspective. Heck, I learn so much from them, too! It is such a tricky dance for a parent: being there to love and nurture, support and guide a child to independence, while also having one’s own independent life.
  • Jacqueline Collins Hullar
    commented 2014-12-25 18:44:18 -0500
    I ran into this Ted Talk again just now, and thought I would share it- another take on parenting in 21st century USA:

    May all YaleWomen have a fabulous 2015!
  • Jacqueline Collins Hullar
    commented 2014-12-06 01:02:38 -0500
    Hi Anna,
    Thank you for writing about this… you write about the situation with such eloquence, clarity and passion! I really enjoy your pieces- they strike a real chord!!

    I think that the mixed message about being a raiser of children is a huge reason for this conundrum. The nurturing professions (nursing, nannying, teaching young children, caring for the elderly, caring for the kids at a daycare center, etc) are all low-paid professions, and are still generally occupied by women. And parenting is a NON-paid position. (Although it does create value: another topic for another day!)
    Nurturing may be considered low-value because it is low tech, or because it is done by women, or because it is not a skill that requires much, if any, special training, let alone upgrading to keep up with technological change…
    Yet parenting today in the US is also held up as a “sacred cow”: how dare a parent consider her/his needs or desires before or at the expense of the child’s? how serious it is to be called a “bad mother”!
    Are women the ones who are thinking this way? Or does our society or culture as a whole have this impossible value system, which means a mother cannot “win?”
    Do you think that if mothers were “paid” or their work in the home was assigned a value in the economy, things would change? Would this cause nurturing jobs, thus women, to be better paid? Would men then be more interested in doing these jobs (SAHP, nurse, pre-school teacher, etc.?) Is this what it takes: monetary value, status, and the respect of men?
    Or are mothers supposed to feel so happy and fulfilled by having the HONOR of raising the children and keeping the home, either in isolation or on a second shift, that they just do not mind not being respected or valued or paid for it (while being judged harshly for any perceived failures)? It is a mighty strange system, even if one loves being a SAHP, or believes wholeheartedly that raising children is the most important job in the world, or is very confident and good at raising children.

    Truthfully, I think that highly educated women have turned being a SAHP into a career in the last 40 years. They have “had” to do so if they have given up a career in the workforce or acquired a higher education: to justify that decision by seeing it as swapping one job for another or transmitting something magic to the next generation, and also to seek importance and respect, to build an “identity”, and to derive fulfillment. Pity the working moms, the single moms, the single & working moms: Mothering has become an all-consuming, competitive, unlimited self-sacrifice for so many- an arms race. How can a mother ever feel she has done enough given the barrage of information constantly transmitted everywhere about how to be a good parent, how to have successful or happy kids, and a good home-maker, and a “lean-in” executive or super-volunteer…. It reminds me of the whole body image distortion problem in the media: we are getting the idea that we need to lose ourselves completely, and if we do not, we are doing something wrong, and if we suffer by doing so, we are just not cutting it. This is a cultural soup that we are drowning in. (And… Is this really benefitting the children? Another time for that topic!)
    And it is a feminist cause until we raise the value (monetary, status) of the roles women play in ALL arenas, including that of mothers! The privileged stay-at-home mother’s plight is certainly much less of a strain that that of the majority of women, who must work while raising the children, but the issues of WHO should raise the children and HOW and WHY, and how much women’s work anywhere is valued are still very much in play. Ultimately, we have to decide whether we want to change to change our whole idea of what a parent is and does…

    Moving on from the problems of value, status and respect (and fulfillment!), there is also the need for collective, communal care-taking methods which have been developed with careful consciousness of the effects on the children- this is the technological aspect of the solution, which makes flexible gender behaviors “feasible” (necessary if we are to re-invent how to raise children.) I believe that there would be ancillary increases in the perception of the value and status of raising children if both genders participated equally. And if multiple generations participated, there would be a reduction in ageism. Sharing the caring would be efficient, and would allow individuals to follow their personal inclinations, no matter the gender or age or… you name it.
    I believe that the technological change involves a complete re-thinking about the “home”, away from the nuclear, stand-alone suburban ideal invented in the 1950’s (courtesy of the automobile, the suburb, household appliances); the boundaries between the workplace and the home and the school and the neighborhood and the store are no longer needed given our ability to connect digitally for information, communication, connection, entertainment, education, commerce. In fact, it is amazing, given the rate of technological change everywhere, how slowly this change is happening. We need to re-define the places where we gather to live, work, play, learn, socialize, nurture, trade, eat, create… Once we do that, our activities and relationships will change.
    For instance, on a given day, in the main space of a home or grouping of homes, there could be children learning on the computer or in a small group with a shared screen or projection, a parent working on the computer, another child running a business on the computer, and another parent taking courses on the computer. A grandparent might be teaching the children or running a business. Children might be learning math and chemistry and doing research on health and nutrition while they cook with a parent using digital tools. Another adult could be creating a piece of art with a child and a grandparent. The family (flexibly defined) would live in a compound with other families and share responsibilities for household and child-raising, among others. I know it sounds a lot like a commune with home schooling and a home-based business, but I think that is where we are likely to head soon! There is something universally social and collaborative about humans that makes us thrive in groups and communities. If you look at the work we do today, the majority of jobs and tasks can done by either sex. Moving towards a more modern, gender-flexible version of the tribe should allow gender stereotypes to become vestigial.

    Signing off for now, and looking forward to hearing more from you, Anna!
    Thank you for starting this conversation, and I do hope that others will join in the discussion.
  • Anna Boorstin
    commented 2014-12-03 22:13:03 -0500
    Hi Jackie! Of course I remember you!

    Thanks for the great comment. You know, it was my first comment on this series — which could speak to how worrisome this topic is for younger/other Yalies and/or how just plain uninteresting it is for them. “It won’t happen to me,” is of course the likeliest reason for lack of interest, and one I myself believed when I became a parent. I don’t know if you read all my posts from the beginning, but there’s background there.

    I agree — raising children isn’t a part time job, so of course it holds women back (men too, if they’re doing it) — and if “holding back” is defined as keeping you from spending time on your own interests or the work you trained to do. While I don’t know a lot about cross-cultural parenting outside of the U.S. and Europe, I do know that in Northern Europe, at least, there is much more of a sense of the village raising the child — at least in terms of the social network that is there to help, whether it be with paid parental leave, good available child care or health care. And grandparents seem to be more ubiquitous in certain areas like Russia, where it seems that every kid on the subway is with a grandparent during the week and the parents on the weekend. No scientific study, just my observation.

    And of course there was a culturally based guilt system in place for both options, worker bee/contributor-to-society and mom. My mother was classic — she really didn’t like being a mom to very young kids and she was aghast that I didn’t choose to go back to work during that time. She also had full time help raising us, not something we could afford nor did we have room for it long term (though we did have a few live-in and definitely part-time au pairs in the early years).

    I also know that some of my own insecurity came from a “Little House on the Prairie” mentality that I for one took with me — if she could do it with no electricity, running water or central heat, what’s my problem?

    I’m so glad to hear you’re involved in research on this level. And very curious about further findings.

    IMO the lack of pay is the biggest long-term issue. Parents get great support in Northern Europe, but my sense is that certain kinds of financial support are tainted — labeled anti-feminist — when governments start “paying” women to have more children, stay home, etc. I understand and even mostly agree but suspect we’re shooting ourselves in the foot (feet?) when we go there. Check out the Judith Warner “ten years later” in the New York Times if you haven’t already. I think my next post will be about that and the affects on marriages that she notes when women stay home. Btw, it was an issue in the demise of my marriage, though my ex talked circles around it.
  • Jacqueline Collins Hullar
    commented 2014-11-26 17:28:06 -0500
    Hi Anna,
    I am in the midst of writing a piece about this very topic! I think that “raising the children” is the one activity that is holding women back: while many innovations are occurring in marriage and pregnancy, American mothers after WWII have not let go of, or “innovated” how to RAISE children. Our “preferred” style of child-nurturing is something unique to our culture, IMO. It causes working women to do that second shift at home. It causes women who work outside the home to feel guilty, and women who work inside the home to feel guilty. Our ideal isolates the care-giver. It may also be causing SAH Dads to defer taking care of themselves.
    So, my answer to you would be that NO, you were not individually a bad feminist at all, but that you were responding to a very strong culture-bound message that is very “mixed”: either choice feels bad. U.S. culture is embedded in this. The worst thing a mother can hear is that she is a “bad mother”, and there seems to be a pretty narrow definition in this country of what a “good mother” should be doing!
    I hope to successfully argue for the need to re-define/re-invent options for how we in the USA can parent resilient and healthy progeny.
    I will be asking for more research, unbiased, creative, on many dimensions, and in a large number of scenarios, on attachment and bonding. Anthropology is very useful here- I have lived in many countries and saw many different ways to raise children, obviously not all effective, but the local preferences and beliefs definitely varied.
    It is entirely possible that the style of parenting that is currently advocated here (subliminally) may actually be contributing to less emotional resilience, poorer mental health, and less defined sense of self in the next generation, as well as on the primary care-parent: we need some research on this as well.
    I also believe that raising children is completely undervalued in the USA because it is not a paid activity, yet it is highly idealized as enjoyable, and is also not negotiable.
    Underlying all this are varied basic deep beliefs by different cultures about how much or little impact parenting has on children’s development. Then there are all sorts of other beliefs about sensitive stages of development, and who should parent…
    More later… Happy Thanksgiving, fellow YW!
    Jackie Collins Hullar (also ’79 MC)
  • Lee Jones
    commented 2014-11-13 20:10:30 -0500
    I didn’t get to my alone time until one of my friends made a three-hour appointment with me each week to do something with my daughter and I could do whatever. Every week without fail. Sometimes I did me time but other times I caught up on somethings that weren’t getting done so I could sleep better at night. I always felt better after either.
  • Anna Boorstin
    published this page in Blog 2014-11-13 18:21:55 -0500