Saturday, February 19, 2005

Feminist Balderdash

Judith Shulevitz, writing in The New York Times, reviews Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:
Warner has two points to make. The first is that, in affluent America, mothering has gone from an art to a cult, with devotees driving themselves to ever more baroque extremes to appease the goddess of perfect motherhood. Warner, who has two children, made this discovery upon her return from a stay in Paris, where, she says, mothers who benefit from state-subsidized support systems -- child care, preschools, medical services -- never dream of surrendering jobs or social lives to stay home 24/7 with their kids. In the absence of such calming assistance, however, American moms are turning themselves into physically and financially depleted drones.
Did I miss the part about where someone has held a gun to the collective head of those "drones" and forced them have children and work outside the home? And what kind of model is France, for goodness sake?

Later, Shulevitz notes that
Warner tends toward hyperbole, but she strikes me as right about the basic phenomenon. In a society that measures status in consumer goods and hard-to-come-by symbols of achievement -- grades, awards, brand-name colleges -- the scramble for advantage is bound to propel American upper-middle-class parents into exponentially goofier displays of one-upsmanship. Try giving your 3-year-old an old-fashioned cake-and-balloon birthday party at home, with neither facilitator nor gift bags, and you'll see that Warner's onto something, and that it's harder to opt out than you'd think.
It's not hard at all, if you have a sense of values. For instance, you might save the money for your children's education. But catered birthday parties and other status symbols are more important that bringing up baby:
Take the woman who decides to scale back when her baby is born. Her smaller paycheck makes her husband feel that he must bring in a bigger one, or at least make sure not to slip into a lower income bracket. That means longer hours and less time at home. Before long, the wife cuts back her hours even more to cope with the increased housework, shopping and cooking she has to do, and to care for the baby, who, as he gets older, needs more love and educational enrichment, not less. Soon she is wondering whether to keep her expensive part-time baby sitter (who is probably looking around for a full-time position) and whether her career, now barely recognizable as such, is worth what it costs to maintain it. ''Was I really a good enough writer to justify the sacrifice?'' Warner wondered when she found herself in that situation. ''Or should I, at long last, just hang it up?''
Why doesn't she write at home or tell hubby that he's in charge of the kids?

It gets worse:
Warner's second point, which is more openly political than her first. Our neurotic quest to perfect the mechanics of mothering, she says, can be interpreted as an effort to do on an individual level what we've stopped trying to do on a society-wide one. In her view, it is the lack of family-friendly policies common in Europe that backs American mothers into the corner described above -- policies that would promote ''flexible, affordable, locally available, high-quality'' day care; mandate quality controls for that day care; require or enable businesses to give paid parental leave; make health insurance available for part-time workers; and so on.
Since when is mothering a society-wide function? It's a responsibility that flows directly from the decision to become a parent. The so-called family-friendly policies common in Europe discourage mothering by encouraging women to work outside the home, and they foster unemployment (the rate of which is much higher in Europe than in the U.S.) by raising labor costs. There's no free lunch, even for the sake of motherhood.

After dispensing with Warner's book, Shulevitz slogs on:

[A] Families and Work Institute study...found that, compared with members of the baby boom generation, younger college-educated workers seem markedly less willing to sacrifice everything to advance in their careers. Many of the younger workers yearn to work fewer hours, and say they would turn down promotions if the new jobs required longer days and more work brought home -- claims that may well prove untrue in practice, but nonetheless say a lot about the people making them. More young professionals rank their families as equal in importance to their jobs, or even greater....

Which brings us back to overparenting. Warner deplores its dangers both to us and to our children, who, she says, are likely to wind up as spoiled, callow, allergy-prone, risk-averse success machines with no inner lives. I rather doubt it....For all its excesses, overparenting is still preferable to its alternative, which was depicted with quiet sadness by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1997 book, ''The Time Bind.'' Hochschild studied a Fortune 500 company with exemplary work-life balance policies for both men and women and discovered that few mothers and almost no fathers took advantage of them. Some were afraid of losing their jobs; some couldn't cope with the fear that they'd be diminished in their bosses' eyes; some wanted overtime pay; but a majority eventually admitted that they liked life in the office and even on the plant floor better than life at home. Work was orderly and companionable. Home crackled with the anger and acting-out of children cycled through jury-rigged baby-sitting arrangements and yanked through their lives like tiny factory workers keeping pace with a speedup....

What Hochschild forces us to consider is that we're losing the ability to imagine a world in which we work less and at more reasonable hours, and therefore that we no longer bother to fight to bring that world into being. It is our own internalized workaholism that threatens to devour us and our children -- that, and the increasingly untenable absence of a public infrastructure of care.

Shulevitz almost gets it right, then she blows it by throwing the problems of parenthood -- which is a choice made by individuals -- back into the lap of "society." Yes, working outside the home can be more immediately gratifying (both intellectually and financially) than facing up to the responsibilities of parenthood. But that's an irresponsible and short-sighted attitude.

It's irresponsible because there is no substitute for parenting (especially mothering). If you truly want and love your children, you don't abandon them to others to raise.

It's short-sighted because the often painful task of parenting -- when done right -- is rewarded, in the end, by the knowledge that you are responsible for those upstanding, hard-working adults who finally emerge from infancy, childhood, adolescence, and post-adolescence.

Related posts:

A Century of Progress?

The Marriage Contract