The Mother Talk event the other week was well attended and (I think) well enjoyed. Deena was a gracious hostess, and her house was more than accomodating to the 35 or so women who came to eat, drink, and talk. This event was more political than the others, since we were featuring Miriam's book, and the conversation was lively and topical, covering everything from the recent NY Times opt-out redux piece to the encouraging yet simultaneously 100% unrealistic portrayal of a mother's return to the working world on "Desperate Housewives." Mostly the focus was on work and mothering, and making work work. There were women in attendance who were self-described stay-at-home moms, and women who worked full-time; but most of us in the room were mothers who were cobbling together some kind of part-time work and full-time parenting arrangement, squeezing work into precious preschool hours or post-bedtime late nights (or, god forbid, marathon sessions of Noggin). So the issue of work and its value, and the invisibility of mothering-work, was quite compelling.
- I was struck by a few things: in the capitalist ecomonic climate most companies are functioning in, mothers are very small players. In the individualist culture of "every man for himself", why should an employer bend over backward to accomodate the seasons of motherhood when there are other, childless (child-free?) workers who don't have such extra-curricular obligations? That's the problem with benefits for mothers: someone has to pay for them. Mothers aren't good for the bottom line. And the bottom line is what matters. ... It highlights what's missing in this culture, and in this country especially. There is no sense of shared responsibility for the children who will make up the next generation. Children are a luxury, a hobby, a lifestyle choice made by an individual. That individual is considered lucky to get any accomodation at all, much less paid leave and job security. Who pays, in the end? Mothers do: financially, professionally, and emotionally. Until the focus shifts from the welfare of the individual to the welfare of the community, change will be hard to come by. ... I didn't say anything all evening because as a stay-at-home mother who never even considered for a moment going back to work, I thought that this discussion didn't really apply to me. But then I remembered that I did make these choices, and I live with the consequences.
What I came away with from the overall discussion was mainly two things: 1. the sense of being overwhelmed by something so big and so wide-ranging that it seems impossible to "fix" -- someone brought up the important point that mothers are different, and they do not have monolithic needs, even in the workplace; and 2. the idea that these issues (specifically making parent-friendly workplace policies) fall out of the cultural memory (leading each new generation of mothers feeling as though they are fighting this battle for the first time) because those non-monolithic needs change as our children get older and the toughness of the balancing act of those years becomes a faded memory. Everyone agreed that one of the main things we can do is to return to the workplace once our children get older, because that's an important way to make mothers visible and make the issues important to us relevant at work -- and then young mothers trying to "sequence" or "juggle" or whatever you want to call it will have allies (the older mothers) in the process, not just women who are bitter about having to make everything work themselves (and therefore giving the old "it sucked for me and it'll suck for you, suck it up and get used to it" attitude).
Actually, I guess the most important thing women with kids under 5 or 6 can do is to remember what this awful work-parenting time crunch feels like, and not dismiss it later, when things aren't so hard. I think about how many of us who write about mothering lose interest in writing about the intensity of that identity shift as our kids get older and things get less intense and the things that seemed so challenging just aren't any more. But when we stop writing about it or talking about it, or taking seriously the issues young mothers deal with daily, it fades from our cultural memory, and new mothers have to reinvent the wheel -- or rewrite the momoir -- to figure it all out.
In the meantime, the question of making work and mothering work is overwhelming, and for those of us with young children, I think the answer is small steps. Miriam suggested just simply calling your local politician and asking "what are you doing for mothers?" You won't necessarily get an answer, she said, but if you call enough and ask enough, you might get the notion of mothers on the radar. Another small step is to actually talk about it when we are with other mothers. It's another "dark side" that's not so rosy to bring up at playgroup, but sharing this kind of stuff and initiating this kind of discussion is the first step. (On a similar note, Brain,Child has a great piece on the burgeoning mother's movement that discusses just this kind of thing.)
Our next Mother Talk will be Thursday, November 17, at 8 p.m. in Center City Philadelphia, and will feature writer Marion Winik talking about her new book Above Us Only Sky and both of us talking a little about my new book It's a Boy, to which she is a contributor.