Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Feminine Mistake

Not my title. It's a new book by Leslie Bennetts that argues that women should not stay at home with their kids because they are taking a huge risk leaving the paid workforce. I have not read the book (should probably tell you that before this goes any further), but I have read an excerpt from it in last month's Glamour (a fashion mag with a true feminist consciousness), and I did see the author on the Today Show.

I think the premise of this book is interesting, and Bennetts makes excellent points about women winding up destitute after divorce and about women being penalized in the workplace for taking time off with their kids-- earning up to 40% less than men, if they can find places who'll hire them with a 4 year (at least) gap on their resumes. She also said some smart things about little boys growing up to think they'll someday take care of their families and little girls growing up expecting to marry Prince Charming.

I really think it's important to address the growing myth that divorced women make it big on child support checks-- surely this is just as ridiculous as the Welfare Queen-- and I do think that Mommytracking is a serious problem in the world of work. Just last week, women in this town marched to the capitol to demand equal pay for equal work-- gotta love those second wavers. So I guess what I am saying is that I want to like this book and I want to like Bennetts' arguments.

The problem, I guess, is that the book is making us talk about the WRONG THINGS. It shouldn't be another way to spark debate between stay-at-home moms and working moms ( And these are truly ridiculous labels, by the way. Maybe not as ridiculous as pro-life and pro-choice-- how the hell can both sides be pro, people? And what the heck is choice anyway when you get right down to it? Nothing but a consumerist ideograph, if you ask me, and you probably shouldn't since I am knee deep in my dissertation and mad as hell about the whole situation), and it shouldn't be another way to blame women for not doing enough-- enough at the office, enough at home, enough in marriage-- because, really, if we all followed Marabel Morgan's advice and met our husbands wearing nothing by some saran wrap and a smile, would 50% of marriages end in divorce? (Sorry-- I am not being fair to the Total Woman. Much like 70s feminists didn't ever burn their bras, Morgan never really told women to get wrapped up-- but her actual advice was not a lot better.)

The book should, I think, make us think critically about the daycare system we have in the US. Bennetts talked a little bit about patchwork care-- the kind of cobbled together, a-little-bit-of-everything childcare most women have for their children-- you know, some help from family, a sitter, perhaps a few hours at a drop-in center, some latch-key time. But Ann Curry kept leaning in and making her voice all husky-- the way she does, you know, when she's going to ask a really meaningful question-- and asking Bennetts what she would say to the millions of moms who can't bear to leave their sweet little babies in daycare centers. Bennetts answered that the media makes daycare look way worse than it is (I totally agree), and then she started talking about how women simply can't afford to stay home.

Here is where it would be great to see a reporter ask about on-site daycares in every office, or other reforms that can make the workplace more family friendly and help us reimagine the ideal worker as someone besides a childless person (man). But instead, Curry leaned even closer, got even huskier, and asked AGAIN about sweet babies and cold, poorly regulated centers. Bennetts just didn't have a good answer, which pissed me off. Because here I am AT HOME working my ass off with Harry and with my project-- and I have it GOOD. I have help and a husband who does at least half the work and a flexible job with great hours and tons of autonomy and the freedom to spend as long as I want nursing on demand, and it's still SO HARD. Because I am not a stay-at-home mom and I have no sympathy for the women who arrive late to Little Gym bitching about how hard it is to pack little Billy or Suzy up for the trip AND THAT'S ALL THEY HAVE TO DO. Because so help me god I DO judge the women who drop their kids off at 7 and pick them up at 5-- I think why the hell did you have kids, then? And neither of these responses is good, but framing "it" (and by it I mean the plight of the working mom? or maybe the work of mothering? motherhood?-- I'm not totally sure, so that's why I went with a noncommittal "it") as a debate between stay-at-home and go-to-work mommies is so dangerous. It leads to judgment without solutions, blame without reimagining.

I am addicted to the mommy-blogosphere. Most of the blogs I read are written by women who are a lot like me-- not really at home, not really at work. Check out Amalah, who does freelance writing work, Academomia , written by a PhD student, and Her Bad Mother , authored by a philosophy instructor. All of these women are also negotiating a third way, somewhere in the middle of at home and at work.

I want to say that Bennetts is right-- women shouldn't stay home, but that's silly, right? What about choice (here we go again with the consumerism)? We should have more and better childcare options. And I think Curry is right, too. You notice Harry isn't in a center, right? But I also think Bennetts is right about the media making daycare look bad. So what's a girl to do?


This one loves that she can wake up late every morning with her big cudddley boy and his odd collection of sticky pacifiers.

But there HAS to be another way. There have to be more moms like me living in the shades of gray. And we've got to do something about daycare and about the ideologies of mothering that force us into these black and white categories, imagining work as always separate from the family. What is mothering, after all, but a whole lot of work?

Speaking of which, my boss is awake, and he's a total tyrant when he hangs out in his crib for too long.

1 comment:

alison said...

I love this post, Sarah! Thanks for the book review-update blend.