Friday, September 11, 2009

Why we get defensive

I was going to post something fun here today, but nothing floated to the top as worth it, and after I read Historiann and Dr. Crazy this morning, I found myself with a lot of thoughts to put down. Dr. Crazy's post on speaking out as a non-parent on parent-related issues is excellent as are the many comments which dig into the topic further. What she and Historiann both marvel at is the defensiveness with which many of their parent commenters express in their responses. I feel that defensiveness pretty keenly these days in all kinds of different situations. It feels to me that no matter what choices I've made--to be a parent or not, to work or not, to mother a certain way or not--I'm criticized for them. I think many parents--mostly mothers, imho--feel they're in a basically lose-lose situation. And I think Histioriann's discussion of patriarchy is right on the money as to why this happens. Here are some of my humble thoughts, mostly based on my own experience, so, as they used to say in the old days of the Internet: ymmv.

1. Women in the workforce have a difficult time. They are still often perceived, even in places that are "family-friendly" as the primary caregivers. This leads to assumptions about how dedicated they are to their work and whether they're going to up and quit because of a child. Unfortunately, many women do quit to manage family matters because they find they can't once they realize there's no (affordable) child-care, no (affordable) afterschool programs and their workplace isn't flexible enough to provide time to juggle child-care and work. Even if their partner can take on part of this, they both need the flexibility to manage this and workplaces are often even less friendly to men who want that kind of flexibility to do their part as parents. And all this is systemic, having nothing to do with individuals as individuals who just react and make choices that make sense within that system.

2. On the flip side, when mothers who work find themselves among mothers who don't, they're often treated as if they're not being good mothers. They're leaving the kids with less than ideal care (ideal being a parent). Also part of the system.

3. Mothers who don't work feel awkward among mothers who do because again, they feel they're being judged. As one commenter noted, and as I myself have experienced, some women will expound on the "anti-feminism" of the sahm. I'll admit to having had those thoughts, but would never say them out loud. And now, I think that some people are sahm's because they are persuaded or caught up in certain social norms that stem from patriarchy, mostly having to do with appropriate gender roles. And some are sahms because they get forced out of the workplace, which as I said in #1 functions under these same social norms.

So, here's the thing. This was my first week at home after school started. The kids aren't here from 8-3. For the first time in 13 years, I am making absolutely. no. money. It feels very, very weird. I feel all at turns useful and completely useless. And yes, sometimes defensive. When I was working at my polling place a couple of years ago, my across the street neighbor came in and one of our other neighbors, a man in his 50s, started talking to her, and she explained that she'd quit her job to stay at home (her kids are older than mine--oldest is a senior, youngest is in middle school). He said, "Good for you. As it should be." That has stuck with me, and just the other day, when I was standing at the bus stop, a neighbor said to me, "Hey, don't you teach too?" And I stumbled a bit, and said, "Not anymore. I quit my job last fall." And he said, "Good for you." And I heard "As it should be" in my head. And that does not feel good--at least not to me.

There are subtle messages that we get as parents about how we're expected to behave. Those messages are often different for fathers than for mothers. One would think the easy path would be to meet those expectations, but most of the time, we end up trying to overcome those expectations. A working parent often has to prove to her workplace that she's not a slacker and prove to the mothers at the soccer game that she's a good parent. I'm getting a nagging feeling all the time that I should be working, but then I realize how much work it would be to manage the house and kids and I cringe, thinking about putting in a 40-hour week plus god knows how many hours juggling the home front. And I don't feel comfortable at all running around with the PTO crowd, some of whom have literally said they put their children's needs ahead of their own. I'm not even doing that now, as a sahm. I quit work for myself, for my own mental and physical health and to give myself some time to work on some projects that may or may not make any money, but I feel like I can't say that.

So what am I saying? I guess I'm just saying that it's complicated, but I'm very glad that the conversation is happening. And I think we should all be observant of the ways in which we might be participating in a system that reinforces stereotypes, one of which might be that parents need extra "perks" as Dr. Crazy suggests is the norm at her school, but another of which might be that non-parents have all the time in the world, which is equally untrue. Those stereotypes are damaging to us all, put us all on the defensive and make it so we can't work together toward viable solutions, which might be local, but which might also be part of a larger policy goal related to working conditions.