Thursday, February 16, 2006

Finding balance: parenting and working

Ironically, before the whole explosion of posts over housework on the internets occurred, I attended a talk about social policies and gender equity. And then, I went to another one. The first talk occurred within the framework of emergence (the idea that simple rules can lead to complex systems). The argument was that social policies, such as one finds in Sweden and Norway, that are meant to "force" gender equity within the household and within the workplace end up reinforcing gender inequity. Why? Because women take advantage of such policies much more often than men. The connection to emergence was that perhaps these top-down policies were not the way to go and that it might be better to try to enact some smaller, incremental actions to gradually change the social landscape.

The second talk was also about policy issues, this time with federal workers. Again, "family-friendly" policies were largely used by women and not men. The speaker hadn't come to any conclusions yet, since her study was just beginning, but she had conducted some interviews with the women and the key issue was that they were feeling somewhat frantic in their lives. They had long commutes to and from work. They might not see their children in the morning and when they got home, after six usually, they threw together something for dinner, helped with homework, bathed and showered kids and tucked them into bed, all at a kind of whirlwind pace (FYI: some days this is my life). The women took advantage of part-time hours, flex-time, and telecommuting in an attempt to slow down their lives.

During both these talks, there were students in attendance and I have to say, a couple of them scared me a little. One woman said, shouldn't a woman be able to choose to stay at home and feel satisfied with that and society should feel satisfied with that? And other felt the workplace was too harsh and maybe we shouldn't ask for these policies or take advantage of them. I'm paraphrasing and probably distorting a little since this was a while ago. First, there's that word choose. Linda Hirshman threw it around in her essay a lot. Honestly, I don't think there's that much choice involved for a great many women. And, the arguments that are being put forth here, here, here, and here also suggest that there are greater societal forces at work that rule out completely free choice. In a sense, all these folks agree with Linda Hirshman that the real issue for gender equity is in the home. I don't completely disagree with that, but I think there's more to it.

First of all, Hirshman argues that feminism changed the workplace. Sure, okay, there's family-friendly policies now. But, as I mentioned above, mostly women use them, not men. Hirshman, and some of the others linked to above would say that's because women feel the need to do most of the housework. However, I would argue that it's also true that the workplace hasn't really changed. That is, in a lot of places (maybe in most places), the culture hasn't changed. There's still a premium placed on the number of hours worked (remember Lawrence Summers?) rather than the quality of work done. There's still an idea that if you're not in the office, you're not working. And there's a premium placed on aggressively climbing the ladder vs. becoming good at your particular position. Among many other things. So, yes, it would help to even things out at home, but you'd still have this problem of the work culture facing both men and women.

And the feminists did nothing about school. Work hours are 9-5. School hours are 8:30-3:00. Anyone see a problem with this? Frankly I'd rather see the work hours cut back rather than extending the school hours, but given our culture's push for productivity, that's probably not going to happen. I found out at the second talk that my school district's entire schedule revolves around the high school football team. Yep, that's right. School lets out at 2:30 so the football team can practice. As several of us stood around talking about all the issues we faced as working mothers, we all kept saying, "It's just so complicated." Because every suggestion we made for fixing the bigger problems ran up against a huge cultural problem. What would stay at home parents of school-aged children do if school let out at 5 instead of 3? Would they end up working? Is this a good thing?

I seriously find myself confronted with the problem of being a working mother within a culture that believes mothers shouldn't work on a nearly daily basis. Example, tomorrow is a half day. Monday is President's Day. Thankfully, I have the kind of job with tons of time I can take for whatever reason I want, so I'm taking the day off. In the past, when I haven't been so lucky, Mr. Geeky has taken on the child care. Not all families have this luxury. Sometimes both parents have jobs with little time off. Another example, Geeky Girl had homework that required her to go outside and collect weather-related things and draw pictures of them and make notes about them. She received this assignment on a Monday. It was due on Friday. Given that we don't get home until 6 p.m. every night and it's dark by then, when the hell were we supposed to complete this assignment? Oh, right, between the hours of 3 and 5, when I'm supposed to be home.

It gets tiring to fight these little things. I almost sent a note to the teacher telling her that while I thought the assignment was a good one, she might want to assign it over a weekend when those of us who work might have time to help their children complete it. I have serious issues with homework anyway that are not helped by the fact that we don't have as much time as we'd like to help with it. With NCLB and the PTA and the School Board who wants high PSSA scores, I'm not going to get very far asking for a reduction in homework or a free class period to do it in or something that might accommodate dual-income families.

Instead of fighting these things, I think, maybe I should think about part-time work or quitting altogether and staying home. Because frankly, I don't like being tired all the time and I want to raise good children and I think I could do a better job at that if I were around more. And I think that happens to a lot of women (and maybe men, too).

I think parents who stay home should be valued. The work they do is difficult and important. I'd like to see them be economically rewarded as well. But I also agree with Hirshman that society is missing out on some excellent talent because highly-educated women are not working. Unlike Hirshman, though, I don't blame the women or feminism. I blame society for not making a truly family-friendly (heck, human-friendly) work environment, for having Martha Stewart be our standard of housekeeping, and for having stupid tv shows that have large lazy men sitting around drinking beer while their svelte wives make dinner for them.

A while back, I wrote to Bounce (owned by Procter and Gamble) after seeing yet another commercial where they show only women doing the laundry. I said that they could change the way people view household work by showing men doing the laundry. Their response?

While we agree that the roles of men and women are different today, our ads go through a lot of testing to find the one that is most broadly appealing. We rely on consumer feedback, such as yours, to tell us how effective our ads are. Overall, we want to show a variety of life situations in our ads in order to reach as many people as possible.
Basically, showing women doing the laundry tests well.

I think I have a lot more to say about all of this, but I'm going to stop now. Like I said, something comes up every day. Maybe instead of saving it up for a huge post like this, I should blog the snippets. Quite a thought, huh?

Update: Apparently, I'm obsessed. This was written almost exactly a year ago.