It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Oh, just stop it

Being a sex-positive sort, I am drawn to people who write intelligently about sex. (Sometimes it’s me! This post remains a favourite.) Dan Savage? Love him. Read him every week, follow him on Facebook. Laura Kipnis? Intelligent and provocative. Mary Roach had me in stitches with “Bonk!” (Lest I appear too pure/intellectual on the subject to be credible, I read a fair amount of lower-brow writing on the subject, too. There is a discreet shelf in Mary’s library that under-teens don’t have access to.) More recently, I’ve been enjoying Marina Adshade, whose slant on the subject — sex and money/economics — interests me.

So when links to a recent article in the Globe and Mail appeared in my Twitter feed, I hopped over to check it out.

Hm. Another salvo in the mommy wars. Oh. I am not enthused with the mommy wars, but maybe she has something useful to say? The title was not promising, however. A bit early-adolescent edgy, no?

I went through the points. Some were absolutely valid. “Someone actually said that to you? With a straight face? Unapologetically? Outrageous!!” It never ceases to amaze me that people feel it is their right to make unsolicited negative assessments of someone else’s life choices to their face. Bizarre. Who asked you? Rude, rude, rude.

A couple of the other points, though, it seemed clear to me she was misinterpreting, or likely misinterpreting, the intent of the person making the comment. They read to me like completely innocuous comments she’d received badly. And on one of the comments, I disagreed entirely. “No, Ms. Adshade, that really is a negative consequence of your life choices; you just have to own it.”

Moreover, and regardless of the validity of her personal list of slights, I was aware that each and every SAHM could come up with an equally valid, equally convicting, equally meaningful list of slights received at the hands of mothers on the other side of the income divide. No group of women has the corner on insults received — or dished out.

And by the time I got to the end of the article, I was primarily struck by the sheer defensiveness of the thing. This isn’t a well-reasoned, intelligent article. This is just a short shit list, adding nothing of substance to the debate. It’s same-old, same-old griping, stuff I’ve heard and read a thousand times before. Poop. I was disappointed.

Maybe the complaints are entirely valid. Maybe the sting of those comments is intended. There are bitchy, judgmental people out there, who are only too thrilled to trip through life sprinkling rancor wherever they go.

Maybe they’re not valid. Maybe the comments are innocuous.

The “I don’t know how you do it!”, for example, that comment which so annoys Dr. Adshade? I get that comment, too. A lot. Sometimes it’s pretty clear that the speaker can’t imagine how because the “it” she perceives revolts her. Whining, bickering, snot and shit all the live-long day. Why would any woman with a brain in her head, with the education to have other options, want to do that?

However, most of the time, unlike Dr. Adshade, I’m quite confident the comment’s sincere. They admire what I do for a living, and genuinely don’t think they could do it. I often suspect the “it” that people imagine I’m doing doesn’t bear much resemblance to the “it” I’m actually doing, but I also believe that yes, I do a great job, and that few people could do it as well.

I’m confident that a certain percentage of the people who’ve said this to Dr. Adshade genuinely meant it as a compliment. There are only so many hours in a day, and if 8 or 9 or more hours of your day are filled with a career, how do you do it all? Maybe they’re impressed by her energy, her efficiency. Dr. Adshade’s point that, with the income you make in those hours, you can hire out a lot of domestic tasks is well taken … but was it necessary to turn that fact into a shot at the stay-at-home moms? With that shot, she becomes the woman she’s objecting to, except on the other side of the war.

If you’ve complained about this comment, the question is, why does it bother you? Could be be the sting is not because the comment is barbed, but that the sting is, rather, entirely a reflection of your own insecurities?

No choice is without its downside. Whichever choice you make — work from home, stay-at-home, work away from home, work full-time, work part-time, whatever arrangement you devise — has benefits and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses. I accept the downsides of my chosen career. I don’t deny them. I don’t pretend they’re not there. I don’t get angry when other people notice them. I accept them, because I think the benefits of my choices more than make up for any downsides. I own my choices, the pros and the cons.

Other people will see it differently. Other people will see the same set of variables and make different choices, because the variables carry different emotional and practical weights for them.

That’s fine. Their different choices don’t devalue mine. Not in my mind, anyway. If they want to believe that their different choice is superior to mine, or (worse) makes them a superior person/mother … well, okay. They can believe that. Doesn’t change how I view my choices. Or how I feel about my worth.

Generally, I believe, insults are unintended. “I was so surprised when I found out you do daycare!” said a new neighbour on our second meeting. “You look so …” She waved her hands up and down, indicating … what? My demeanor? My outfit? My radiantly intelligent face? I dunno. “You sound so well-educated and articulate!”

Yes, well. I am. I am also very happy with my chosen occupation. So the fact that she assumed only slovenly half-wits do it is … hugely offensive to me! How dare you demean me so! I am Outraged!!!

No, I’m not.

And I get that a lot. It’s not an occasional thing. It’s undeniable that there are some half-wits doing this job. I’ve met them. I have no idea who leaves their children with these women. Other half-wits, I suppose. It doesn’t matter. I’m not one of them.

What did I do about that comment? I laughed. I laughed that she honestly thought she’d given me a compliment. She genuinely meant well. I laughed that she could be so obtusely tactless, drop such a bomb into a conversation and have no idea she’d done so. And then, apart from a funny story to tell family and other caregivers, I forgot about it. It’s not a barb under my skin, constantly abrading.

But what if the sting is intentional? My working assumption, when someone is being deliberately insulting, is that that person’s insistence on making you feel bad about your choice suggests a level of uncertainty/ambivalence about their own choice. They can’t believe that their choice is a sound one without believing yours is inferior. Foolish, true, but human nature. At least, an insecure human’s nature.

The point is, I like what I do, I’m excellent at it, it makes good use of my skills, talents, and training, and I think it has value. That’s it.

Bottom line?

Who cares? Who cares what my new neighbour thinks of my occupation? Who cares what that random woman at the bus stop things of your life choices? Or the other mother at violin lessons, or the swimming pool, or the soccer field?

Why do you care?

I am weary of thin-skinned women, on both sides of the income divide, who insist that everyone else admire and respect them at all times. Who see slights where there are none, who toss insults back when insults are perceived, and the whole thing just goes on and on and on. Endlessly.

Are you really such a precious snowflake that everyone else on the planet has to agree with your choices? They could — and yes, should — have the common courtesy to keep their critical opinions to themselves. But even if they won’t … so what? That only makes them rude, and even more deserving of being ignored.

If you’re happy with your choices, then someone else’s opinion/judgement on it, real or imagined, is irrelevant and will not sting.

If we all just let it go, stopped fretting about other people’s opinions, and got on with enjoying our lives, appreciating our own choices in all their good-and-badness, the mommy wars would die a quiet, and very welcome, death.


November 26, 2013 Posted by | controversy, parenting | , , , | 3 Comments

The Great Debate

I’ve been thinking this week about the Great Divide amongst mothers. Stay at home or go back to work. The so-called “Mommy Wars”, a term I loathe. I loathe it because it’s too simplistic. I loathe it because it’s too often true — women do wage war with other women over this issue. I loathe it because it’s so damned unhelpful.

I was inspired to muse upon it as a result of an email conversation with a woman I quite admire. We were discussing a parenting issue she had recently encountered, and as I composed my notes, I was having to pause, consider, reconsider, rephrase, edit, alter, tweak…

She isn’t a difficult, prickly woman. It wasn’t a difficult, prickly subject, except that it was informed and underscored by the work-home debate. The issue haunted our conversation. As I sought examples from my own parenting experience to bring to her dilemma, they were, necessarily, examples from the other side of that great divide. I wasn’t attempting to convince her of the superiority of my choice over hers, but it’s so easy to mis-step, so easy to cause offense, even when trying very hard not to.

I got to wondering why that would be. Why, even when two women are trying very hard to be respectful, is it so easy to poke at the other’s sore spots?

You know what? I had an insight, I think.

When a woman is deciding whether to go back to work after the birth of her child —

oh, wait.

I need to back off a pace and address a pre-issue, lest I cause offense to yet another group of women. I am very much aware that there is a significant percentage of mothers for whom this entire debate is irrelevant, and its continual appearance in public discourse a continuous abrasion. Because, as they rightly say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were an actual choice? Wouldn’t I love to have to luxury to even consider making a choice?” No matter that some of them might still choose to return to paid work, the fact is for them it isn’t a choice. You can speculate as much as you wish on how many of the people who think they don’t have a choice in fact do, but it is undeniably fact that many, many families simply cannot afford to have a parent stay home. So, no choice, and the unceasing blah-blah-blah about it is just too freaking annoying for words!!!

So, to you women? You might just opt to skip this post now.

Back to the post.

When a woman is deciding whether to go back to work after the birth of her child, she (and her partner) will take a set of factors into account.

She’ll consider practical issues like finances, insurance, availability and quality of daycare, professional development, pension, time. Personal issues like ambition (this is not a dirty word, by the way), aspirations (for yourself, your partner, your children), self-esteem (what are its sources, for you?). Parenting concerns: will my child be best served by having this role model, or that? living here or there? having mom around all the time, or sharing time with other loving people?

The thing is, each woman making the decision is going to be choosing from a very similar range of factors. When two women weigh “child’s emotional health + personal aspirations + finances + role model + professional development” and come out with two entirely different choices, it can be very easy to see the other woman’s choice as a criticism of yours.

If you weigh the same set of factors, shouldn’t you come up with the same decision?

Well, no. Only if those factors carry precisely the same emotional weight for each person. Professional advancement was never a huge motivator for me. I might like the increased salary that came with it, but the job title isn’t a biggie. For me. I am not going to extend that to someone else and say, “If you really valued your children, “mom” would be the only job title you’d aspire to.” Any more than I would accept it if someone said of me, “If you really valued your daughters’ future, you’d be showing them that women can achieve great things in the world.”

We need to stop saying this critical stuff to each other, and even more important, we need to stop reading it into what other women are saying. Because really? I believe we read offense into things far more often than it’s intended.

(A little secret? Even if offense is intended, the best response is often to refuse to hear the insult. React to it straight, as if you believe they were only sharing a different perspective, with no judgment at all. Very often, if you do that, they will retract the claws and go along with your interpretation. They may even feel quietly ashamed of themselves, and change their tune a little. Thus we evade and re-direct aggression, and reduce the intensity of the Mommy Wars.)

Human beings are emotional animals. It is pretty much impossible for us to make a 100% rational, 100% non-emotive decision. In the case of parenting, I tend to think that’s for the best, anyway. Parenting is so very much about emotions, after all. You can’t eliminate them from your parenting decisions, nor should you.

So, you’ll weigh the same sorts of factors, and you’ll come up with a different conclusion than your sister, your best friend, your co-worker. Not because you’re right and they’re wrong. (Nor even because they’re right and you’re wrong — relax!) But because the factors carry a different emotional weight for each of us.

And that’s as it should be. We are different. Our children are different. Go to work or stay at home? Make the decision that feels right to you, that meets your needs and matches your values as closely as possible. And your children? Will be FINE. Love your child/ren, spend time with them, respect them, guide and correct them, provide a stable and nurturing home … and they’ll be fine.

January 2, 2012 Posted by | controversy, parenting | , , , , | 7 Comments

Feeling a bit wistful

You know, some days I really miss being a SAHM.

Being on holiday while at home causes flashbacks to those days, days when I didn’t have five extra tots in the house, only my own three. Days that opened before us with only our own desires to fill the hours. Nothing critical, nothing pending, just the decision of park or library, crafts or cooking.

Because I practiced benign neglect, my kids could readily cope with “Mummy’s busy now. You play on your own for a bit, and we’ll do X later.” They were fine at playing around my feet, or in the adjacent room while I did housework … and even, while I read a book! Which, as you know by now, I do a lot.

I also homeschooled them, so they were home with me till they were ten or so. Homeschooling, contrary to popular opinion, does not take hours every day. As many families do, we started out with a few textbooks and worksheets; after a year or two, we’d dispensed with pretty nearly all that, and just followed our educational noses — to the library, to the museum, to the gallery, to the weather station. We read a lot, we looked at a lot of pictures. We played. A lot.

There were times of conflict, of course. Times when I was exasperated beyond measure. You can’t parent without those moments. But you’ll have the bulk of those moments in the first couple of years… well, really, in that second year, from about 15 or 18 months through two to two-and-a-half. During that time, the critical piece of information you need to establish is that you, the adult, are the boss. Not this short, demanding person who’s content to carry his excrement around in his pants. Establishing your place in the hierarchy is not going to be accomplished without some highly charged moments with that child.

But having done that? The sun comes up on your parenting life. By the time your child is three, if you’ve nailed the discipline thing, tantrums are a thing of the past, knee-jerk negativity is, too. Whining is rare. Your kids will be well-rested and well-nourished, because they go to bed at a good hour, sleep all night, and eat what they’re fed. They’ll sit in coffee shops, they can be taken just about anywhere (so long as it’s not during sleeptimes).

Now, SAH doesn’t suit everyone. You may have kids who are delightful to be around, but, much as you enjoy their company, you feel restless. You miss your work, perhaps, the stimulation of challenges other than potty-training and winning the battle of bedtime. If that’s you, then off you go to work, at least part-time. There is no shame in that.

Just as for me, there was no shame in putting the university education aside, no shame in not pursuing the professional career for which I’d trained, studied, and invested a lot of money. Staying home was just so supremely right for me.

So when I look back on my SAH days, while I can certainly recall those intense moments, moments spent speaking with great firmness (some days, even some ferocity) to a child on the quiet stair, and then walking away, shaking from the aftermath. But those events happened so that the rest of it could come to be: the vast majority of the time, when I was simply enjoying being around these very nice little people.

Who have grown into very nice teens/young adults. People whose company I enjoy. People who treat me well.

Why are my SAH days different than what I do now? Aren’t I just a SAHM for hire, really? Yes and no. I do the same domestic things, but three children between the ages of 1 and 7 are much less restrictive than five 2 and 3-year-olds. And I don’t have total control. Very often the children are not well-rested, because they don’t have sensible bedtimes at home. When their parents show up, the behaviours I never see — whining, petulance, rudeness, disrespect — that suddenly emerge make my pysche twitch. Drives me mental. Working with the tots is a very satisfying job, but it’s not as satisfying overall as parenting my own … because I am not their parent.

(This is not because you love your own children more … though you do … but because, though I’m helping to shape these kids, the parents are the ones who have the last word. Since what I do with these children is ‘parenting’, it means there was more satisfaction in parenting my own toddlers, when I got to parent every minute of their lives, than with the daycare tots, for whom I am several rungs down on the parenting ladder. Which is only as it should be, of course!)

So as I spend my holidays having some quality time with my teens, and a lot of quality time with myself, as I do the domestic stuff, cleaning, painting, running errands, as I sit on the couch and read, and arrange lunches with friends, I am brought back to those days when my days revolved around such comforting domestic stuff, and I miss it.

August 20, 2008 Posted by | my kids, parenting | | 2 Comments