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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

'Balance' Is a Women's Issue
February 14, 2010 - 5:10pm

Thanks to everyone who drew my attention Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s very interesting post on the myth of balance. As noted last week, I’ve been too overwhelmed to do a lot of reading lately, and this post is definitely worthwhile.

In the comments to last week’s post, "Doug" pointed out that the issues I described "aren't restricted to women, alas. I've been where you're at, and so have plenty of other men I know. I've never regretted any choice that made my family's situation priority."

I agree. The pressures of both work and family life are amped up to an insane degree for most of us right now. More is expected of professional workers, in less time, than seems humanly possible. (Of many blue- and most pink-collar workers, too, of course, but that has always been true.) And unlike previous generations, most of us don’t have a full-time “wife” at home to organize our personal and social lives, and raise the kids. Most of us don’t have Grandma and childfree Aunt Tessie to pick up the slack, either — they’re either working themselves, since they can’t live on their pensions, or they’ve retired to Florida, or our own jobs have taken us far from home.

And devoting time to our kids now means much more than cooking, cleaning, sharing meals, helping with homework, and staying home with a sick child. That was what my mother did, full-time, and it was considered more than enough. If I wanted guitar or piano lessons, I could ride my bike to the teacher’s house after school. I could walk home in the dark from school play rehearsals — no problem. My brother was on numerous sports teams, and my parents’ job was to show up to some games and root for him. My mother put in some time as a Girl Scout leader and den mother, and my father occasionally helped coach Little League, but those contributions were optional; nobody cast blame on those parents who were just too busy.

Now, children’s time, like that of adults, is more pressured, and the world is more dangerous, so parents must act as chauffeurs and chaperones, at least for younger kids. (As they become independent, most of us seem to morph into full-time worriers, a role that is universal across the generations.)

So, yes, everyone feels the strain. Yet for women, there are extra pressures, I think.

As "Anna" points out in the comments, "So often we deal with these issues as individual problems even when we recognize the social forces that constrain (and judge) our available choices (and so often we don't recognize them)."

Even in the twenty-first century, women are expected to be the primary caregivers to our children. These expectations are often communicated in fairly subtle ways which might not always register with our partners.

For example, I turn my phone off during psychotherapy sessions. I feel safe doing this — my husband works in an office, where he is nearly always reachable, and the friend who is our emergency contact homeschools her kids. I am assiduous about checking my messages between sessions, but I don’t feel I can give my clients my full attention if my phone is always ringing. (See how defensive I sound? That’s because of the jury of Parenting Experts every mother carries around in her head, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about.)

When my son was in elementary school, he sometimes got sick in class. The school nurse would try me first. If I wasn’t in session, I would race over and pick him up. If I was in session, she would move on to my husband, who would also race over and pick him up.

But when that happened, he got extra credit. Teachers and the nurse were always talking about what a great dad he was. Whereas the nurse would say to me, when we passed in the hall (which we did frequently, since I was the one who brought him to school and picked him up every day), "Great that his dad was available, since we couldn’t reach you." And I would blush with shame. Every time.

This is just one example. I’m sure readers can come up with others, and I would love to read them.

As Rockquemore writes:

Last week, I was visiting a research-intensive university and had the opportunity to talk with a number of tenure-track faculty. During this visit, I kept hearing one woman after another describe the act of setting aside time for research and writing as "selfish." These same women described long days of putting everyone else's needs first and "hoping" they will have the time and energy to write at the end of the day. If you’re in a similar situation, release yourself from the idea that taking care of your own needs (not to mention making time to tend to the primary criteria in your promotion and tenure decision) is "selfish." It is not selfish to prioritize your research. In fact, it's your job.

And women who don’t do their jobs — who spend “too much” time taking care of the kids — are considered not serious. When this happens, it’s not just the individual woman who suffers, but all working women, because unlike men, we are not just individuals, but representatives of our sex. It’s a heavy burden, but often an invisible one.


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