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Changing the Conversation

68

Contributed by MOTHERS volunteer and guest blogger Rosanne Weston
In an October 24th NY Times op-ed piece by Joanne Lipman, once the deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, she bemoaned the stalling of women’s progress in the workplace. In the Arts and Leisure section a week earlier Katherine Dieckmann, director of the new film “Motherhood,” emphasized that a man could not have made this movie, not really having the inside view of the grit and grime of mothering work that she and the other creators did. And in the October 22nd edition of that same newspaper, an article in the Styles section (why the Styles section I couldn’t tell you) was devoted to the experts’ current view on yelling at children – to whit, don’t do it.

But with all this attention to the so-called truth of women’s lives in the 21st century, what seemed missing in all these articles was an appreciation for the reality of caregiving. Lipman notes the plateauing or decline in the number of board seats and corporate officer posts held by women, and she reports that women earn only 77 cents to a man’s dollar. But outside of revealing that she was able to work from home as an editor when her children were small, Lipman does not give a nod to how caregiving affects a woman’s relationship to the workplace. It takes a lot of hard work and networking to be offered a seat on a corporate or organizational board. Being a corporate officer often requires punishing hours and a devotion that no one, parent or not, should be expected to expend on just one aspect of life.

So how could a woman with children advance in the workplace, should that be her choice or need, without affordable, accessible, quality childcare and absent the flexibility that was offered to Ms. Lipman? She doesn’t say, although she does urge girls and women to have confidence in themselves. She also does not note that when caregiving is factored into the calculation of how much women earn in relation to men, the number drops from 77 cents to 38 cents. No wonder motherhood is considered a great risk for poverty in old age.

Turning to the world of film, I was interested to learn that the gorgeous and sublimely willowy Uma Thurman was starring as the Everymom in “Motherhood,” an expose of the lives of harried housewives. Okay, being beautiful is beside the point (mea culpa for falling into the trap of discussing a woman based on her appearance), and perhaps the movie is good. (Reviews, anyone?) But I was dismayed by the subtle denigration of the work of mothering in the article about the film.

The language used in interviews by the director and the writer of “Motherhood” clearly drew a line between women who spent their days mothering full time and those who “worked.” The director acknowledged that raising kids while pursuing a career is overwhelming, but she stated, too, that women often use this fact as an “excuse” to not find a way to forge ahead. Once again, as in the Lipman piece, the onus of the juggling act falls on the shoulders of the individual. There is no mention in the article of public policy or the cultural and attitudinal supports needed to help a mother trying to find the tricky balance. And the condescension toward full-time mothering is indicated by the filmmaker’s stated concern that, unless women find a way to transcend the stultifying role of stay-at-home mom, they risk losing their own, authentic “voice.”

Which brings me to the last article, the one that warned that yelling “is a risk factor for a family.” Really?

Come on now. Do the researchers who found that parental yelling “was a near-universal occurrence” think that those of us who have been guilty of it get up in the morning pondering ways that we can risk the wellbeing of our families? Of course it is good to find ways of limiting the amount of shouting in the household, to understand the conditions that lead to a loss of control, but the focus on how damaging the practice is will do nothing to enhance tranquility in the home. The only things enhanced will be guilt and a sense of inadequacy. Again, only a glancing mention was made of the economic pressure and unrealistic expectations underlying parental tensions.

My longtime involvement with the Mothers’ Centers movement and MOTHERS has taught me many things, and one of them is that we need to change the conversation when speaking about women, mothers and family life. We need to stop talking about how each woman has to carve out her own destiny as if we function in a political and economic vacuum. We need to emphasize, repeatedly, the need for family-nurturing public policies and cultural attitudes that are respectful and supportive of all the work that women do – inside and outside the home. We need to bring caregiving into the policy conversation in a clear-eyed and pragmatic way and recognize it as one of the most prominent factors that affect a woman’s decision on how to live her life.

Frantically funny movies about raising kids are fine, but caregiving is a fact of life worthy of serious attention. It is not something that is each person’s individual responsibility to be carried out in private. How it is perceived and supported affects all of us. One of the best gifts we can give our children is to place caregiving on an equal level with other worthy endeavors.

And another gift we can give them is to show them that caregivers, including mothers, are human. We cry when sad, laugh when happy, and, yes, even yell when we are angry or frustrated. We can apologize for going over the top from time to time, but we are imperfect. We have learned over the past forty years or so that aiming for perfection is not a roadmap for happiness or serenity.

For brief, shining moments here and there I may have been the perfect wife, the perfect worker, the perfect mother, even the perfect human being, apart from any of these roles. Maybe. But you can bet that I was not all of them at the same time. I look forward to reading articles about life as it is really lived, as it would be recognized by mothers facing the contradictory demands of their own and others’ needs and wants. That would do more to help build the self confidence Ms. Lipman recommends than all the warnings about the dangers of losing my voice or losing my temper.


Comments

  • Joannie

    Hi,

    Certainly care needs to be the center of the discussion today – moving away from the good and the bad mother. It is only expressed that way because care has been privatized and gendered through the family. We need to see the big picture and like you say, put care at the center of an agenda for change.

    From the Swedish Ministry of Labor:

    “To make it possible for both men and women to combine parenthood and gainful employment, a new view of the male role and a radical change in the organization of working life are required."

    and Nancy Fraser continued:

    “The trick is to imagine a social world in which citizens’ lives integrate wage earning, care giving, community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational life of civil society – while also leaving time for some fun. This world is not likely to come into being in the immediate future, but it is the only imaginable postindustrial world that promises true gender equity. And unless we are guided by this vision now, we will never get any closer to achieving it.”

    Nancy Fraser, 1997, Justice Interruptus, p. 62.

    Some great research taking place at:

    http://www.yorku.ca/arm/

    The UN Division for the Advancement of Women 2009 session identified as the priority – The equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDS. There are some wonderful and informatives speeches available to be seen online:

    http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/53sess.htm

    best, Joannie (Australia)

  • GoodReason

    There's 2 things on my mind:
    1) moving towards a dual-carer model of the couple, and
    2) making practical caregiving experience a credential that can be parleyed into voice.

    Unless care belongs to both men and women, care will become economically irrational for women–and eventually it will cease.

    And unless care gives you voice, care becomes socially irrational for women, and society's policies end up ineffective at best and harmful at worst to our families.