Friday, December 09, 2005

Forget atheists and Google, I got Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman has an article in Inside Higher Ed today. I didn't read her article in American Prospect, but read much of the commentary on it. I don't entirely disagree with her conclusions that maybe men should do more housework and family care. I read The Second Shift. I read The Price of Motherhood. I know, I know. And so do most of my friends, both at home and working outside the home. What Hirshman fails to recognize, I think, is that it's not that easy. You don't come home one day after reading her articles or the books that point out how work is distributed unequally and say, "Honey, we're gonna divide up the chores."

Let's face it. Most of us in mid-thirties and early 40s (like me and my hubby) grew up in very traditional families. We learned early on that housework is for women and "real" work is for men. Neither my father nor my father in law played a very active role in childrearing (though my father did take care of me for about 6 months when I was 3). You can bet your bottom Mr. Geeky did. However, we're talking undoing eighteen years of training here (for both of us). Doesn't happen overnight. But the way it works in our family and I suspect the way it works in many academic families is that it's a kind of dance and a crazy juggling act. Academic work is not always stable. Most of the academics I know have gone through a couple of jobs. And those jobs have been separated by great distances. It's not like working for one company and then moving to the one down the road. Moving halfway across the country is disruptive. And what are the choices then?

Let me use myself as an example, a working mother, and my friends here, most at home moms, to show why I think Hirshman is being a bit harsh. First, Mr. Geeky and I met in graduate school. We were both in graduate school, me in Creative Writing, he in Computer Science. We thought we would be finishing at the same time, but stuff happened. First, I lost my funding. Second, his first proposal failed, setting him back about a year. I proposed to him and decided that if he said no, I'd move on and pursue another career. Since he said yes, I had a decision to make. Certainly, I could have just pursued whatever career I was going to pursue wherever that was going to take me. But I kind of like living in the same city with the person I love, so I took a corporate job. I made the money. Mr. Geeky finished his degree and cared for our first child during part of that time.

Mr. Geeky went on the job market. Though I enjoyed my corporate job, it was just a job, not something I wanted to pursue as a career. I thought I might want to go back to graduate school, but I wasn't sure what field, possibly English, possibly Education, possibly Computer Science. My only request to Mr. Geeky in his job search was that he had to go somewhere where those options would be open to me, either at the institution where he worked or nearby. He landed at at research institution with all those options. I spent a year at home with our son and deciding what I wanted to do.

For five years, Mr. Geeky worked as an assistant professor and I went to graduate school. Both our kids were in daycare. We were very lucky that there was excellent affordable daycare available. Mr. Geeky often took care of the kids. Geeky Boy went to many a faculty meeting. Mr. Geeky was not happy in his position. It looked unlikely that he would get tenure and he wasn't sure he wanted to. That meant we had to look for another job. Like I said above, it's not like you can just move to the next company down the road. There were no other schools within an hour's drive that was of the same quality. So we ended up over here in the Northeast.

What were my choices in that case? I had passed my exams. I could stay there and finish. The kids could have stayed with me, but that would have been hard without Mr. Geeky there to help take care of them while I worked. The kids could have gone with Mr. Geeky and I could have stayed there. I had at least two years of work ahead. Two years apart from my family. I know many people make this choice, but it wasn't something I wanted to do. Besides, I had greater resources available here. So I disrupted my life and moved here.

The cost of living here is crazy. Daycare costs tripled. Housing costs went up by a little, but the cost of buying a house tripled, meaning we would need to save a lot in order to get into a house. I took part time work, the kids were in daycare and aftercare. Many of my at home friends moved from similarly low cost areas and were faced with the same issues we were. If we both worked and the kids were both in daycare, we wouldn't be able to save money for a house. We chose to eat the cost of daycare and find savings in other places. But many of my stay at home friends chose not to do that. We were all living in two bedroom apartments with two or three kids. That kind of life is difficult to live for very long, so home ownership was a goal we all had.

In this area, among the women I know, it's not about whether their husbands do housework. Most of them do. Most of them do childcare. And they do it willingly. And no, it's probably not 50/50 in households where the mothers are at home, but it works for them. What it's about is the money. It's about the fact that faculty salaries are low. The women I know are not lawyers or doctors. They could pursue careers that probably are exciting and make a huge contribution, but the hours are possibly long. They have decided that that's not what they want. They feel it's important for a parent to be there when their children get off the bus.

Do I think part of that decision is a result of society's guilt trip on women? You bet. But that's a problem that's not going to go away any time soon. We're working on it. So what needs to happen to even things out? Lots of things and none easy. Hirshman offers some decent options, reducing the work load on faculty, so that male faculty can more easily be coerced into doing their fair share at home. How about better salaries for faculty, so that the decision for their spouses to work is a little easier since the family pot will be a little larger? How about a huge change in the tenure system that doesn't make faculty feel like they have to work a million hours? Hirshman says, "It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash." I disagree. Mr. Geeky is not on the couch while I'm doing the wash. He's in front of the computer, programming, researching, writing, grading. He's freaking working!! And I know from talking to other faculty spouses that that's exactly what their husbands are doing too. I never hear them say they're stuck at home while their husband's out drinking with his buddies. I hear them say they're suck at home because their husband's in the lab. So, pardon me, but it's the tenure clock and the pressure to produce, produce, produce. It's also the school schedule that ends at 3, the inflexible work hours, the perception of at home moms as not contributing.

The decisions that I've made, that most faculty spouses make are complicated. They are affected by societal pressures, by their own ideas of the best way to raise children, by financial issues, and by the stark realities of their lives. So quit blaming them for not taking on challenging work. Working at home is darn challenging. Yes, it would be nice for many of these smart women to be in the workforce. God knows I'd love to have more of them in my own office, but the work world is not always a nice place for parents, men or women. I think we need to change the system, not our husbands.