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Friday, April 27, 2007

Mother's ilk

The debate over the "opt out" movement has resurfaced. For those of you who were lucky enough to miss it the first time, The NY Times published an article in 2005 which put the spotlight on a number of Ivy-educated women who had decided to drop their careers and stay home full-time with their children (I think there was a 60 Minutes special as well). Of course, this was a very select group -- the choice was made with little economic sacrifice and these women had worked as professionals for a few years before starting their families. The choice can be quite a bit more difficult for some of us -- says the wife of an artist.

Studies show that women have been staying home in increasing numbers in the past 15 years. And a number of women from the 70's feminist movement are not happy to see this trend. Linda Hirshman has been rallying the cry for mothers to return to work. Most recently she published an op ed piece in the NY Times. And Leslie Bennets has published The Feminine Mistake, a passionate critique of women who leave their careers ostensibly to bake cookies and put bandages on boo-boos.

Four years ago I was with these women. Of course I needed to maintain my financial independence and keep winning for the girls' team. Of course it would be good for my child to grow up with a professionally accomplished mother. Of course daycare could actually be good for children. I took for granted that I would head back into the office after my child was born and keep climbing the corporate ladder. But when my son was born I was completely sabotaged by the seductions of motherhood. I actually wanted to be with my son all day -- every day. I wasn't getting sick of him. I wasn't dying to get away from his demands like I thought I would be.

I trudged back to the office anyway for a full year until Lane and I felt confident enough to live on his earnings. For the past two years we've been swinging from golden parachute to golden parachute. It's a frightening, perilous life, but we have no regrets.

The debate over being a career mom vs. opting out seems, to me, often misplaced. Quitting your job to stay home with your child does put you at economic risk, not just for the short term but for the long term. There are many different factors leading women to decide to drop out, such as long work hours and the stigma against people who leave work early to attend a dance recital. I don't believe these are the strongest factors, however. Why do we "drop out"? I can only speak for myself, but I did it because I wanted to see Jasper grow in slow motion, to have him in my arms constantly, to stare at that mug all day, to make sure he felt loved and secure constantly, and to guide him through these first formative years.

Many women have been talking back to Hirsh and Bennet, bringing up this missing factor of pleasure and satisfaction in mothering. Psychotherapist Daphne de Marneffe wrote a wonderfully eloquent book on this, Maternal Desire. My favorite New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead took on Bennett's book a couple weeks ago (by the way, Mead is a new mother herself and just completed a book taking on the wedding industry, due out this May). And several wise readers wrote letters in response to Hirsh's op ed piece. They all raise important points -- I will let them speak for themselves (except I can't find Mead's book review online, sorry).

Of course, the question gets polarized in public debate (with the exception of the above). The truth is, most of the mothers I know are working out their own unique compromises, working part-time, freelance, etc. Mothers who return to their careers full time do so for widely divergent reasons. Some absolutely adore their work. Some have student loans. Many work out of dire financial necessity. Many others work out of moderate financial necessity. We all want to mother in the best way we possibly can. This means we all mother in different ways, and each way is probably the best choice for both the parents and the kids.


shaunamama said...

Fabulous post! I too am one of those mothers who opted out when I had my kids. I stopped working at a scary time, too.

My husband just got chosen to work at a job that decreased his salary (with a great opportunity for but not promised advancement) that would put us living in a state with a much higher cost of living, and we had two kids to support on one salary now on top of it all.

Would I choose to dive head long into debt yet again if offered a "rewind?" Oh my yes. Two-billion times, yes.

My children although they're still at tender ages ( 8.5 & almost 7)are growing at such breakneck speeds and I'M HOME TO WATCH IT ALL HAPPEN! Since they're at school, I'm doing part time work at home but when they come home...I quit working. I tutor up at the school a few hours a week still to "sneak a peek" at them too. I still can't get over how fast they're growing. I can't possibly imagine what it would have been like to see this happen from the workplace. I'm sure it would have absolutely overwhelmed me.

One of my very best friends couldn't quit working out of necessity. She laments it every single day. I know moms who didn't skip a beat after having their children and went back to work and are just fine. Then there are the moms who did go back to work and for some reason or another there was some sort of breakdown in expectations and follow through that the kids are just little (and sometimes big) terrors.

It's a roll of the dice for sure...I hope that most moms make their decisions based on what's best too.

Lindsey said...

This very subject has really been on my mind lately. It was a good read.

Swizzies said...

I'm happy about working moms, stay-at-home moms and all-kinda-hybrids-thereof moms. What I'm NOT happy about is when the SAHMs who are religious won't shut the fuck up about how God wants ALL women to have babies and stay at home with them forevern'everamen. Parent your offspring however you want to - just don't be a GD PATRIARCHY-LOVING WOMAN OR I WILL GO MENTAL.

The end.

Adriana Velez said...

Amen to that, Swizzies, although you don't have to be religious to be a sanctimommy. There are plenty of atheist/agnostic parents who make a religion out of their parenting approach and can't wait to tell you that you're doing it wrong and that science is on their side.

But at least the latter will usually leave you alone if you happen to decide not to become a mother. It's all about choice!

Luisa Perkins said...

Excellent post, AV. I'll look for that book at the library.

Very jealous of the coinage 'sanctimommy.' Why didn't I think of that?

Annette Lyon said...

Stumbled upon your blog--something I needed to read today, so thanks! I've been with my kids from day one and never regretted it, although I think I would have if I hadn't gotten my college degree first. I had a friend who opted out after two kids and then had two more, and it was a treat to see her--as you said, begin to watch her last two kids grow up in slow motion and realize the things she had missed with her first two.

liz said...

I love this part of you Adriana, a part I don't know so well but always assumed you contained (mostly apart from your blog).

I love the angles you think, the multiple sides of an issue you are aware of, the materials you seek and summarize....the writer and thinking in you. I like that voice- I want to read it more often.

My heart was so scared to disappoint the senior managers and corporate friends when I broke news I was leaving (and I was also scared I would disappoint myself and not fully realize all I was giving up in the now and potential future I would have had).

That fear is further back in my mind, but it took a few noble, brilliant women at my job to swing by my office before I left to tell me they wished they had done the same and truly admired my decision. Just remembering that gives me chills. I should not have needed anyone else's approval, but it was a comfort.

We still have the same gifts and talents we had when we worked FT, they will just be a little harder to sell when we decide they are going to be a bigger part of our lives.

Prof. B. Waterman said...

the only thing i don't get about all this is the throw-back-to-the-50s gender essentialist assumptions that women somehow are better suited or hard-wired to want to "drop out" more than men are. who wouldn't want to opt out of work and stay home with their kids all day, especially when they're young and in need of constant interaction? but why do all these writers have to gender essentialize it? it drives me crazy. this is why i left the patriarchal culture of my upbringing in the first place.

Adriana Velez said...

Shauna, I wish I could take credit for sanctimommy, but I've come across it in several other sources. One is a memorable post from Mom 101:

Love it.

Professor B, according to my once stay-at-home dad husband, whatever joys men feel at staying home with Jr. are overshadowed by the lack of peer group (few other SAHDs), stand-offishness of SAHMs (is he hitting on me or just being friendly), and socialized anxiety about letting your woman bring in the dough while you play nanny. There's just not enough support for that movement, alas, despite the efforts of that hipster dad blogger.

SAHMs out there, be nice to the SAHDs you run into.

nathalia said...

Yet another reason why I love your blog... it's not just the food, it's the thoughts, and picking up on bits of your lifestyle as a mom, excellent cook, intellectual, and woman!

Bud Weiser, WTIT said...

Very interesting. That stay at home Dad thang....I would have lasted 1/2 a day. God bless those of you who can do it!