Lately I have been in a tizzy about the way our country views families and parenthood. It is hard for me to believe that more mothers are not marching in the street. Then again, we have no time for protests since we are too busy hustling to find child care, working twice as hard and sucking up to unsympathetic bosses.
In our country, there is almost no support for a middle to upper-middle class young family. If we made no money, there would be some government assistance with food/daycare costs, but as it stands, there is nothing. We are forced to make very difficult choices. I love staying home with the baby. I love seeing her grow and being able to be a part of her life every second of every day. But we are very lucky. Not all moms and dads have that luxury and for those who have to work full time at an office, this country is abysmal.
There is almost no support for a mother who wants to have both. Yesterday, this was front page news in Boston. A medical student is unable to take an exam because the testing board would not allow her the extra time to express milk. As a nursing mother, this makes me irate. I have gone five hours without expressing. Not only does it hurt, it also makes me very emotional and makes it hard to focus on anything else. How is she going to pass an exam while she is stressed about the milk leaking down her shirt?
"It is not fair to the other testers" the testing board said. In my second job out of college, there was a woman who was about 32 and childless. Since I was 23 and also childless, she thought I would be sympathetic as she railed against the mothers in our office. "They do not work half as hard as I do," she complained. "They get to leave early and take 3 months off. People that don't plan to take maternity leave should get 3 months vacation, too."
Even at the time, I thought she sounded whiny and obnoxious. But now, I am furious. It is that kind of attitutude that makes mothers feel terrible when they have to leave at 4 to pick their child up at daycare--even if they come in at 7 to make up for that hour. It is that kind of attitude that makes a mother (like me) get chided by her boss for taking a whopping three months to care for my newborn daughter (and p.s. the next person who calls it a "vacation" in my vicinity will get slapped). Even in offices that purport to be "family friendly," there is an undercurrent of guilt and shame--even from fellow mothers. In fact, some of my harshest critics and most bitter enemies in the parenting game have been fellow mothers. If we can't even support one another and our decisions, how can we ever expect anything to change?
Women are celebrated for their dedication to the office. I know a woman (no names here) who works around the clock. She is a single mother and her daughter--just 13--often waits for her to get home. Sometimes she falls asleep waiting. At the office, this woman is celebrated for her "dedication" and "hard work." In meetings, men pat her on the back and chuckle, thanking her for her willingness to put the office first. Meanwhile this woman (who is rather high ranking) comes back to the office and expects her colleagues to behave in the same way. No matter how "family friendly" one's office, no matter how dedicated a person is to leaving at 4 or working a compressed week, it is hard not to fold under that kind of pressure.
What message do we send to our children with this? "You are important, but not quite as important as this memo I need to type on my vacation." I grew up with a father who work(s)(ed) constantly. I know the damage it does to relationships. I learned the hard way that there is nothing more important than being there for your kids. So, why is our culture so afraid to let go of some of the workaholism and let people enjoy their families? Why are people celebrated for their office dedication and villified for their dedication to their families?
Recently a good friend told me that she is not going to be allowed to bring her infant son to work with her anymore. An incredibly well-behaved child, he rarely cries and has been mostly content to sit quietly as she works. But someone complained. "No names, of course," her boss told her. "But this can't last forever." I guess the daily noise of raising the next generation of humans proved too much for an office so focused on the important business of pushing paper (isn't that what most office jobs are about, after all?) So she found childcare. The baby is out of no-name's hair. She is free to gossip at the water cooler, surf the net and file her nails (all things I have seen done in my various offices countless times). Meanwhile my friend will work double time, cramming her hours full of work, counting the seconds until she can see her son again. This can't last forever, indeed.