Work, Moms, Families, ‘Merica, and The Dream

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I realized while writing that last post: the rabbit trail I wanted to take would turn that post into a monster.  So here’s a coda of sorts.

America’s work/life balance seems is broken. This is not really a revelation; people have been writing about it, like here (Slate) and here (The Atlantic).

Women who work “outside the home” tell us they suffer tremendous guilt (or suppress the guilt), perhaps because the dominant message in both sacred and secular society is that the successful woman is a Pinterest mother, crafting perfect sandwiches for her offspring from the sanctity of a spotless home.  She runs taxi for all the soccer games and school field trips in a sparkling tan SUV that runs on a hybrid engine (caring for the environment!)

And to the extent that work gets in the way of the Pinterest dream, work is a villain for the working American mom.

We Americans seem unable to find any way for a woman to be both a flourishing human being (a doctor, a pharmacist, a hairdresser) and also be fully a mother without having to blend those into a shadowy compromise, a failure to live up to either set of impossible standards.

Corporate / Working America runs on consumerism – the economy must grow! grow! grow! so people must spend! spend! spend! And that demands work! work! work! so we can earn! earn! earn!    I am tired just thinking about it.  So we work to earn to spend so the economy can grow, and that work eats 40-50 hours of our lives because Americans work more than nearly anyone else in the world; we take fewer vacation days; we offer very little in the way of family leave to actually give both men and women breathing room to achieve a balance of life and work.

Research tells us that men are likewise frustrated at the vice-grip of trying to balance work and family.   Working moms get all the press, but the dads can’t even talk about it.  American companies rarely offer paternity or family leave for new fathers, and the struggle for a dad to balance his work life with his children doesn’t get much better from there on — even if his wife is staying home.

Our national view of parenting seems to be broken too, at least for some middle-class families.  It’s possible to smother kids with too much love, to clutch so tightly that it’s not possible to let kids go.  We’ve taken all of the risks out of living (or attempted to), reigning in kids’ freedoms so that no kid ever seems to be alone ever – and certainly never out of line of sight. But kids need freedom to develop creativity, problem-solving, and independence.

Colleges are telling us that “helicopter parents” are worse than ever. Some have appointed “parent bouncers” to force parents to leave their kids behind and get off campus on Move-in Day.  It’s like we Gen-X’rs had such a great time in college that we insist on living our lives again, vicariously, through our children.

One of the most interesting books I read in the last couple years was Bringing Up BéBé (Amazon link), written by a woman who moved to Paris with her husband and their toddler. The French women around Druckerman weren’t obsessed with their children. Their homes weren’t child-centric.  The tiny preschools down the street were ready to accept the wee ones around the six to nine month mark, and the mothers returned to being people first, and mothers second. They were far happier, far more fulfilled, far more successful in their marriages, far better parents (as evidenced by the happiness & behavior of their children).

The French mindset of making children part of life rather than the center of life paid big dividends in the parents’ and children’s lives. And their educated, capable men AND women were able to pursue gainful work if they chose.

Agree or disagree with Druckerman, it’s at least worth considering.

And here’s where I’m going to get in trouble:  🙂   It would help if the dominant voices in Christianity were not preaching that SAHM’s were the closest to the Kingdom.  Even if it’s not spoken aloud, it’s certainly a deep undercurrent in the religious traditions that have shaped my life — all of them.  Working women are appreciated and supported and occasionally pitied yet the homemaker is the fairest of them all.  Eventually, the argument reaches its natural conclusion – that the women who matter the most to the Kingdom are those who have raised children.  That perspective marginalizes a lot of women. (Rachel Held Evans has an excellent post on why the Church can and should support “breadwinning” wives, one that addresses several of these thoughts better than I have.)

So what took me down this deep rabbit hole of thought?
Just the recognition that we Americans have built our own cage – our working lives and family lives are in conflict because the system  for earning what we need to live (whether that’s a realistic measurement or driven by capitalist greed) is forcing us into decisions that shouldn’t have to be so gut-wrenching, guilt-ridden, and exhausting.

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