I was moved by a number of the responses to last week’s column. I find it really helpful when people share their stories, humanizing what is otherwise cold (though interesting) data and speculation. I felt, though, that several writers fell into traps which, because they’re all too common, I’d like to address here.
The first is the tendency to generalize from one’s own experience, or “I was able to handle _______; therefore, what are you whining about?” This stance presupposes identical, or at least equivalent, circumstances, but these almost never occur outside of controlled experiments. Not all women are in command of the timing of their pregnancies, for example, and not everyone feels entitled to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Not all pregnancies and deliveries are problem-free, and not all children are born healthy. Not all families or universities are supportive to the same degree.
The second is the confusion of the terms “parent” and “mother.” In the program I attended, it wasn’t the “parents” who were exiled to the mommy track; it was the mothers. The dads did just fine. As Dana’s and Libby’s recent columns on the “opt-out revolution” demonstrate, it’s not generally “parents” who leave the workforce because of the dearth of “family-friendly” options. I think it’s important to make this distinction, not because dads don’t deserve consideration too, but because failing to acknowledge that the burden of childrearing still falls mainly on women can lead to victim-blaming. Expecting mothers of young children to always attend class on time and always hand in papers on time, without providing any backup or leeway, is often a setup for failure.
Which leads to the third trap, which I have tried to find a snappy, nonjudgmental name for but which I can only, finally, characterize as a failure of compassion. As “AdjunctMom” asks, “Does everything have to be a competition?” Can we listen to “Always Amazed,” who is more stressed by the “emotional battering” of undermining fellow students than by the demands of parenting while in school?
In addition to being the primary caregivers for our children, women are usually the ones to care for aging parents, disabled siblings, and, because of typical age and health differentials, ailing spouses. Some of us might choose to delay or forgo having children in order to pursue a career, but unless we isolate ourselves from all familial ties and obligations, most of us will end up, at some point, exhausted, with our fingers jammed in the dike. It might be helpful to keep this in mind when we blame others for their poor choices or for asking for the occasional pass.