Laura Tropp's blog

Moving Your Kids: My House or the White House

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President-elect Trump recently announced that while he would live in the White House, the first lady and his grade-school son, Barron, will stay in NYC to finish the school year. This decision may be the only thing I can relate to in connection to Trump. A year and a half ago, I had to make the decision whether to move the entire family halfway through the school year (and one of my children was midway through 5th grade, his last year at the elementary school) or wait until the following fall. I didn’t want to move them mid-way through. I thought the change would be too much for them, they might flounder with a potentially different curriculum, and how could they make friends suddenly as the new kids.  This is where my commonality with Trump ends because even though I’m framing it as if I had a decision, I didn’t really. Finances made the “choice” simple. I couldn’t afford to maintain the mortgage on a new house and rent on another, couldn’t live in my parents cramped place any longer, and thus had no choice but to move mid-year. For someone who built his campaign, at least in part, on his claim to understand the struggles of the lower or working class, I think he’s missing a key difference between the rich and the not rich: access to choices, especially with education.

One of the main reasons we moved was to give my children access to excellent public schools. At our old neighborhood the elementary schools were strong, but the middle school was on more shaky ground. To be sure that my children would get a strong, or even safe education, we were told to either try out for a specialized middle school. Someone advised me to start teaching my son a string instrument when he was four. Unfortunately, he showed no aptitude for that so music wasn’t going to be our ticket. Then, we were told to try out for the gifted program. Getting your children into a NYC gifted program is a serious endeavor which often involves tutoring and coaching. Much has been written on the inequities of the system. We didn’t do any coaching because we figured if he couldn’t get it on his own, then he’d be doomed to a lifetime of coaching to remain competitive. He didn’t get in.  So, our last choice was to move to a place with more taxes but access to great schools. We were privileged to even have that opportunity.

As those criticize the Trump decision to leave his child behind, they do so sighting clogged NYC traffic, the cost of secret service protection, and making a decision that affects everyone at the expense of disappointing a 4th grader. I can advise Trump that moving midway during the year was actually the best thing that ever happened to us. The kids were all treated special by the schools and given a moving helper. They were fine with the curriculum and got attention when needed, and most important, they had a chance to be seen as the new kids in the middle of the year rather than blend with the newness of the fall when they wouldn’t have been given any special attention. The kids survived.

It’s not easy to be kid. It’s especially not easy to be a White House kid as tales of Amy Carter’s loneliness at her first day of school when she was not even allowed out for recess, the media satires Chelsea Clinton had to entire, and the lack of privacy for everyone abound. Yet, first children have access to major privilege and opportunities the rest of us lack.  Barron, Trump’s child, would survive, and probably thrive, given that the Trumps have access to any private school they want. I would hope that rather than spending time exploring this particular decision that Trump is making in terms of cost and one child, it’s time to tackle the larger issues of education, access, and the hard decisions every parent must make when it comes to doing right by their kids.

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Moving Your Kids: <br>My House or the White House

Turkey Stress

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Thanksgiving is almost here, but so far, I haven’t had time to do much writing, start preparing my Thanksgiving feast, or even think about what I’m thankful for. I’m too busy preparing a fake, somewhat edible turkey so that my child will have the same turkey as everyone else at school (because, as the mom of an allergy kid, I always have to send in a duplicate of any food served to the class, and the class moms this year are bringing in turkeys made from popcorn stuffed in a clear plastic glove).  Here’s a pic: 

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I sent a copy to my friends to brag about my crafty prowess. They sent me back pics of each of their turkeys:

I now have discovered that women at every level of profession throughout most industry, government, and educational institutions in the U.S. are getting absolutely no work done this week, because we are all making turkey crafts.

At first I wondered why we were doing this? It’s one thing for schools to make turkey projects with kids, but is it necessary for us parents at home to actively participate in he turkey-making experience? Why do I feel so compelled to drop everything and make this turkey? Is it just because I don’t want my child to feel left out of the turkey craft experience? Or, am I competing with the other moms, an attempt to prove myself so that I don’t lose my mom card?

As I glued the snood onto my turkey glove, I began thinking about how disingenuous this project was. Here we are, making these cute-looking stuffed turkeys filled with candy or popcorn or pretzels while, later in the week, we will be buying and cooking turkeys that have been killed for our consumption. A project that my children (and by extension, myself) have had to prepare in previous years is disguise a turkey so he won’t be caught for Thanksgiving. At least that’s more honest about dealing with the holiday.

I wonder whether, in some ways, these turkey projects are a way to distract from the other, less palatable, aspects of the holiday that involve explaining to children how settlers treated Native Americans then, and our country’s treatment of them still now. Every time we decorate a turkey, we aren’t having real discussions about the issues associated with this holiday. 

I find Thanksgiving a complicated time for academics who focus their work on questioning power, control, and ideologies. Sometimes, it’s just easier being a mom stuffing a latex glove with rainbow Goldfish, popcorn, and feathers. Happy Thanksgiving to the other Ph.D. moms and dads out there. Don’t worry about your work this week; there are turkeys that need crafting!

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Grannies Rocking the Vote

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My doctoral dissertation was on voter mobilization campaigns. After the birth of my children, I moved toward writing about feminist and motherhood issues. These days, I’m tackling the subject of grandparenting in a new book I’m writing as I watch my own parents with their grandchildren. It’s pretty exciting, then, to watch all my subjects converge with the recent attention on voter mobilization and grandparents. In 2008, Sarah Silverman worked with a PAC to create a funny video designed to convince young people to persuade their Floridian Jewish grandparents to vote for Obama.

These days, in a reversal video, another PAC has grandparents convincing their grandchildren that the fate of the country rests on them voting for Clinton. Hillary Clinton herself has been trying to persuade Abuelitas to use their influence to convince their children and grandchildren to vote. Clinton often refers to her experience as a grandmother to show her vested interest in the next generation and share what she has in common with others in her age group. She has faced some criticism for claiming more in common than she has with those of specific cultural groups. They have pointed out that their experiences are different, which Clinton acknowledged recently to an audience of men and women of color, particularly referring to grandparents.

It’s nice, though, to see an older population getting attention and being seen as an influence on the campaign. Much attention has been spent on the idea of Clinton as making important progress in advancing the cause for women. As a woman of a certain age, she may also have the potential to shift how we think about the elderly, particularly the female elderly. Much attention has been paid to her bout with pneumonia and her “cover-up” of it. Yet, with the way that popular media typically depicts elderly women as frail and needy, it’s no wonder to me that she wouldn’t advertise any type of frailty. As more and more products and media emphasize youth, I hope that this election can also be a chance to think about when age and gender intersect.

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Parenting Extremes

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It is not often that one article can spur combined emotions of fear, guilt, anger, and resentment in me. This past week, the New York Times Magazine featured an article about a father trying to be an anti-helicopter parent. On the one hand, I share his sentiment of the sadness of the disappearance of community and children’s play and the over-scheduling of children’s activities. I also certainly don’t want to be a helicopter mom. In theory, I like his ideas of opening up his home to others and creating an environment where children can play without the straightjacket of parental protection. Yet, there is much I question in his philosophy. 

First, his equating masculinity with rugged play and risk-taking is problematic. We are finally moving to a place where people do not assign strict gender roles as frequently. We even are seeing post-gender names becoming popular. I don’t want to return to a time when we need to assign specific traits exclusively to boys or girls.

Second, this story raises the question of what role class plays. He looked at other communities of a lower class than his as a model for his environment. However, it is one thing to have no choice but to create a community-based daycare so kids have a safe place to go in the summer when their parents can’t afford camp, and it is entirely another to have the money to create some version of a wealthy playground so that kids can engage in risky play. The ability to choose risk is itself a privilege. Not as widely reported are times when parents of modest means have no choice but to engage in what’s labeled as risky behavior for their children. Instead of being lauded as creative parents, they are prosecuted.

The role of the law when it comes to parenting is another issue I have with the family featured in the article. When the reporter questioned the father about the potential litigious environment he has created within his backyard, where kids can play on the roof of a house, he laughed. He isn’t worried about lawsuits because he has the means to defend himself if faced with a protracted lawsuit. Again, this is a form of privilege that he seems to take for granted. In fact, a constant refrain I hear from wealthy folks is often the phrase “I could (or should) sue him.” The idea of lawsuits as a weapon of power is reserved for the powerful.

I also question his thinking that children’s play will naturally work out for the best. As the reporter opined, the “Lord of the Flies” mentality is just as likely to come about.

The father’s philosophy is appealing because the idea of returning to an age of casual, less formalized play is attractive to a society in which too much of childhood is constrained. Yet, I’m not sure that going to the other extreme and creating manufactured risks in your backyard is the answer.

 

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Parenting and the New Television Season

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The new television season is bringing to light parental anxiety.

First, I saw This is Us (Spoiler Alert for those not finished watching the first episode). What makes the show interesting is its storytelling: the show intercuts scenes of three siblings living in the present with past moments from their childhood.

While this structure may be simply a clever plot device, the consequence is that the show implies the actions of the characters in the past scenes influence what’s happening in the present. This has become a parenting nightmare for me.

In the second episode, the siblings’ mother attempts to help her seven year-old daughter deal with being overweight. She gives her daughter a serving of cottage cheese while giving her sons bowls of cereal. In the present scenes, the adult daughter is now obese and struggles with her weight. We are left to wonder whether the mother is, in part, the cause for her daughter’s unhappiness with her weight and life circumstances. If her mother had accepted her daughter for who she was, would she be happier now? Would her life be different? In my previous blog posts, I’ve referred to some new studies about how parents can influence the self-esteem of their children, and, in particular, of their daughters. This show taps right into parental anxiety and blame.

This is Us is not the only show to do so. I watched the program Frequency, where (second Spoiler Alert: stop here if you have not seen the first episode), the daughter, living in the present, communicates with her dead father living in 1996. She saves him from his early demise, only to realize that she accidentally changed the thread of time, which results in the murder of her mother instead. Throughout the show, the power of parents to impact your life seems to resonate. Her life is different growing up with a father in place of a mother, and viewers see the different possible outcomes. Implied is the idea that the choices you make have a strong influence on your future happiness.

Speechless is a comedy about a family with a child who has a disability. The mother’s strong advocacy for her son often results in the mother being thought of as crazy, the other children sometimes feeling neglected, and the family having to sacrifice ideals of normality. While I think the show has a really interesting perspective on living with disability which alone warrants watching it, the show also raises questions about many mothers’ struggles of deciding when to intercede on behalf of her children, and when to hold back.

During a period of parenting when the label of helicopter mom is still natural for some but abhorred by others, when movements within minority populations show moms who lament that they can’t protect their children from violence, when new studies often demonstrate how often genetics or epigenetics influence people’s futures, it seems that the television season is finally reflecting the challenges, fears, and anxieties of this new age of parenting.

 

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The Period Years

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I’ve always been interested in how we divide topics into private and public categories, particularly in regards to sex and gender. This is why I have been following so closely the shift of menstruation from private to public. Some media outlets have declared 2015 as the Year of the Period.

The public period is becoming more and more popular. During the Olympics, Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke publicly about what it was like having her period while she competed. Presidential candidate Donald Trump seemed to allude to it when he complained about the treatment he received from Republican primary debate moderator Megyn Kelly.

The period also received attention as the company Thinx moved into the marketplace to offer a new version of period underwear. It wasn’t so much the new item they sold (period underwear is actually not new), but the way that they publicly chose to come out of the (bathroom) closet about their product. For example, the company took out ads in the New York City subway system, though they faced some challenges). Thinx broke down more barriers by featuring a transgender model in its ads.

In a new form of “period activism,” runner Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon while “free-flowing” during her period. While some critics reacted by calling her action disgusting, many others supported her effort to push back against social pressure to hide menstruation. Period activism has found its way to social media: a popular Twitter hashtag is #Livetweetyourperiod. BuzzFeed has featured a story about a teen boy who carries tampons for his friends who are girls. He started his own hashtag, #realmensupportwomen

Some parents now throw their daughters period parties (aka first moon parties) to make their first menstruation a mark of pride and excited anticipation rather than one of worry and dread. A colleague of mine criticized this as fetishizing the period. It did make me pause for a moment to question the line between celebration and fetish.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled by these developments. I believe that normalizing menstruation is important toward eradicating the shame and objectification of the female body. However, I also wrestle with the loss of privacy as every aspect of life becomes a public spectacle. Just recently, I read a Facebook post from a mother who was searching for some information about a period app and consequently announced the arrival of her daughter’s period. Another mom commented that she might want to delete her post because her daughter might become angry for outing her first period in a semi-public forum. The first mother countered that her daughter was proud of her period, so why should it remain private?

I still can’t decide if, as a young girl with my first period, I would want to plan for its arrival with a period party, or if, as a high school teen, I would want to have my male friends carry tampons for me. If I say no, am I ashamed of my body and its natural processes? When can moments be private but not shameful? If you don’t join the period party, are you helping to stop the progress against body shaming? What are your thoughts regarding the questions of private vs. public and the female body?

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When an Academic Goes Shopping

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Recently, I was shopping with my daughters for clothing. One is squarely within the “tween” market, and the other is on the cusp of it. I find shopping for them to be frustrating at times because of the lack of clothing choices. At times, the clothes seem too sexualized, or perhaps it’s the gender/media scholar in me reading too much into the messages. Does a shirt with a fox on it (which seems to be a popular theme across brands) imply foxy (sexy), or have I taught too many semiotics classes?

It seems that, if you are a lover of animals (they must assume that most young girls are), they have a whole selection which I have labeled the “animal option.” You can find most common animals, and some more rare ones, on a shirt these days. My daughter today is wearing a shirt with a bunny on it, and she has a llama shirt ready for later in the week. These seem fine, although she sometimes rule a shirt out when it has a message like “be as awesome as your dog thinks you are” because it seems inauthentic to wear that when we don’t have a dog.

Some shirts I categorize as the “Trend Setter.” They have messages like “My Future is Bright” or “Top of the Class.” These shirts seem to combat against the stereotype that women are taught to be modest and men are taught to brag, as studies have shown. Am I discouraging my daughters from future success if I tell them that wearing a shirt like that seems to much like bragging?

Other shirts fall into the category of “positive message” (yes, some of them actually have that label). At the tween clothing store Justice, girls can choose to “Be Amazing,” “Love Your Selfie,” “Let Your Imagination Run Wild,” or “Be Creative.”  At Old Navy, girls can “Be Bold” or “Stay Fierce.”  Some shirts even seem to be a warning of some sort, such as “Try and Stop Me.” Others encourage some sort of moral lesson, like “Good Vibes Make Great Karma.” One shirt has the word “Follower” crossed out and “Leader” written over it. Some seem to fight the patriarchy: “Girls Make the Rules” and “I Run This Show.” A few seem to be confidence boosters, like “Shine So Bright” and “I’m Kind of a Big Deal.”

I already have discouraged (not all that successfully) my daughters from buying clothing festooned with brand names by explaining how they are just paying to wear advertising.

They ask me what’s wrong with these “nice,” positive-message shirts, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I find them troubling. After all, the brands seem to be responding to earlier criticism of promoting over-sexualized clothing. At first look, I feel that I should be giving a shout-out to the clothing lines for emphasizing positive messages. Yet, I’m wondering if now maybe they are trying too hard to be empowering, when I do not find the style of clothing itself to be so. I don’t want my daughters walking around wearing shirts that say “Leader;” I’d rather them just lead.

I don’t see “Girls Make the Rules” as promoting feminist empowerment. First of all, it’s just wrong: they don’t. We still live within a patriarchal society, where women and men are not treated equally. Messages that say “I Run This Show” and “I’m Kind of a Big Deal” take away from the real work needed to empower girls and women. Buying a shirt won’t solve these problems. Teaching girls to lead and demand equality will.

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Respect the Syllabus

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A student of my hybrid online class sent an email to me, complaining that the online notes for my class were designed poorly (she did not like the background colors) and that she was paying too much money for my sloppiness. Another student requested in an email that he would like me to “simplify” the paper assignments. Yet another student wrote an email to me that, being that I am a mother myself, she finds me shockingly intolerant of personal problems. One student sent me 12 messages in a single day.

In part, I blame the consumer model of education (whenever I’m given a chance to blame consumerism, I will always take it), where students treat their education as another service and feel they have the same right to complain as they would at a fast food restaurant counter that forgot to include their fries with their order. The student-as- consumer model already has its critics. As more consumer experiences move to an online environment, habits developed from interacting with companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix bleed over to online courses. I have never had a student complain about the comfort level of a classroom chair, but the design of a course web page must be as sleek as those of multi-billion- dollar companies or else it is perceived as an inferior product.

I also blame the ease of sending off email messages, where one can just keep firing off emails to people as if there were engaged in an ongoing conversation, without ever having to face the negative body language that would provide valuable feedback during an in-person encounter. I couldn’t imagine someone walking into my office 12 times in one day to ask me similar questions.

It makes me wonder about how these students will act when they become employees or have their own businesses and work for clients. I just picture these future workers at their job, telling their boss that they want the project they were just assigned to be simplified, and the boss just looking at them puzzled. Or I imagine workers expecting everyone at the office to care about their personal problems all the time. This article about Millennials in the workforce suggests that they prefer a coach over a boss and “don’t want to waste time on little things.”

I wonder what our obligation as faculty is to teach students that, yes, sometimes you have a supervisor that demands things of you, or that little things (even things that may seem like busy work) are necessary before moving on to grander solutions? Do we also have an obligation to teach civility, respect, and compassion? Are they not a basic part of education?

I’m not even sure how we do that well in today’s environment. Technology has made it more difficult. A student over-visiting my office could be dealt with by a stern look or an exasperated sigh or just looking busy, but there is no equivalent of that in an email. Even if you try to set limits in an email, the permanence of the electronic word is scary to many because, at the end of the day, we are fooling ourselves if we think that universities have completely resisted the consumer model. Treating your “customer” rudely will come back to haunt you in your customer evaluation survey, otherwise known as teaching evaluations.

Is there a way to engineer mutual respect onto your syllabus? It doesn’t seem to fall under participation or any content assignments. It’s difficult to create a rubric for it.

Yet, it may be more necessary today than ever before. How do you create a respectful environment, particularly within the student-teacher dynamic? When has that environment gone awry?

 

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An Olympic Class

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I have been watching too much Olympic coverage. As I listened to the commentary during gymnastics competition, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if teaching were judged in the same way as the Olympics. It might go something like this:

Announcer 1: Laura is stepping into the room with 15 years of teaching experience. She’s mid-career now. In some ways this gives her an advantage. She has a lot of experience that she can fall back on. She’s likely, though, to lag behind in the technology of her peers. We also sometimes don’t see the same enthusiasm levels.

Announcer 2: I agree with you about the technology. We certainly do not see the same level of technology use in teachers at this level in the career. They don’t often use the clicker as a polling device. We do not typically see a social media site set up. Yet, I don’t know if I agree with you about enthusiasm levels. I have seen high energy across all ages and career stages. So, we’ll just see what she brings to this game (err, class). Let’s watch as she begins.

Announcer 1: Ooh, interesting. She just opened up with an in-class writing assignment for five minutes. This is a great way to engage students and move them off their devices.

Announcer 2: But, she’s going to lose points because she forgot to clearly state her learning objectives.

Announcer 1: Yes, that is an automatic half-point deduction. Okay, she’s moving into discussion. She’s dividing the students into groups. Looks like she’s attempting to flip the classroom.

Announcer 2: Yes, she clearly is attempting The Flip. This brings her potential difficulty score higher than others she is competing against, so she has the potential to earn many points. Yet, we all know the perils of this. There is a danger that she might never actually impart any new information to the students.

Announcer 1: Yes, we saw that in the Intro class in 2012. The flip can have a big payoff if the right balance is set.

Announcer 2: Okay, she’s bringing up some Powerpoint slides. They have clear pictures, links, and will serve as the core of her lecture. This is a great move.

Announcer 1: This makes me wonder, though, why her coaches would let her stick with Powerpoint and not consider PowToon or Prezi. It would have allowed her a more competitive interface.

Announcer 2: I can’t disagree here, but look, she’s about to apply gamification to the classroom. This is impressive, as it poses great risks because the student application cannot be planned. She will have to respond on her feet.

Announcer 1: Look at this: student just made borderline sexist remark. She quickly acknowledged it, responded to it, and has the class back on track. Amazing. See what years of experience can bring to the game. Let’s watch a slow-motion instant replay of that one.

Announcer 2: I like what she did with the sleepers in the back of the room. See how she physically moved around the classroom to wake them up? But she does seem to be ignoring some students on their phones. Perhaps she’s just too intently focused?

Announcer 1: At this level of competition, instructors rarely get rattled. Did you see the eye roller in the fourth seat? She clearly noticed her but didn’t let it bother her.  She also didn’t get flustered with the front-row student challenging her entire thesis.

Announcer 2: That’s where it is fun to watch her. It’s like she deals with these problems every single day. Just an aside, the students’ social media accounts are buzzing. They are absolutely loving the challenge to the sexist remark. There’s even some texting to their moms about how they like the class. Oh wait, she is, however, getting negative remarks on her wardrobe. They think her shoes do not match her skirt and believe that she wore the same blouse in last week’s class. Of course, that has no bearing on the competition, but it certainly can affect fan appreciation.

Announcer 1: Yes, she might want to consider a branding specialist here. Meanwhile, it looks like she summing up now. Though she missed her learning goals in her initial set-up, she does appear to be offering a summary now.

Announcer 2: Yes, all in all, she seems to have a decent shot at a medal. Up next, though, a newcomer to the field poses some serious competition. She describes new technologies like mind mapping and the compiling of big data as the key component to her teaching. We’ll be back after a word from our sponsors.

 

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The Crying Baby in the Room

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By now, many people have seen the video of Trump yelling at a baby and its mother at one his campaign stops. At first he seems to welcome the baby and acknowledges the mother’s efforts to stop the baby from crying, but later he asks the mother to take the baby out and indicates that he was joking about welcoming a crying baby who is disrupting his talk.

As a mother who also has faced rooms where she was not sure whether her crying (or even just happily noisy) baby was welcome or at other times specifically told to remove her baby, I’d like to call attention to a larger issue beyond whether Trump doesn’t like babies. Do we want to be a society that not only values parenting, but also one that embraces the act of parenting?

To simply value parenting, all we need to do is what politicians regularly do already: talk about the importance of family. We can have television shows that feature all kinds of families and have lots of consumer products at the ready to make parenting easier. Yet, the act of parenting is different because that is when moms (and dads) are seen visibly interacting with, engaging, or disciplining their children.

This is not to say that the news media never cover act of parenting moments. Jet Blue produced a commercial, for Mother’s Day of course, about an airline crew encouraging passengers to smile at a baby because everyone would get a percentage off their next flight every time a baby cries. Every once in a while, I see a warm-hearted news story about a professor holding a baby during class for a student. I find the professor story particularly funny, as it’s a male professor holding the baby for a woman. As a female professor who once brought my baby to class, I can assure you that many people did not find the experience heartwarming. In fact, after that one time, I went out of my way to make my husband take any and all future babies of ours to work during necessary times. I did this because, in my experience, people tend to perceive men taking infants to work as sweet and helpful but women taking babies to work as being completely unable to balance their work and family life.

While we can find heartwarming images of people trying to help parents integrate their children into the world, in the United States, I would say it’s something that parents have had to work hard to do. I think of the big fight in Brooklyn over bringing babies to bars. I think of how a homeless mother’s life might have changed if she could have just been allowed to bring her kids to her job interview rather than leaving them in car, and then getting arrested for it.  My own town has recently been involved in a discussion over whether in it is inappropriate for the owners of a nail salon to have their toddler in the store during the day.

Trump’s baby story and these other minor discussions over the do’s and don’ts of parenting acts distract from some larger ideas. Do we want to be a society that not only encourages people (some people, at least, but that’s another blog) to have children, but also makes it possible for them to engage in public acts of parenting? Looking at other countries shows us that it is possible to change our economic policies and our attitudes about why we feel the need to hide our acts of parenting or protect the public from seeing them. Right now the baby in the room is what everyone thinks they are talking about, but the discussion we should be having is how work, play, family, and life should intersect.

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