Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Metafiltered Take on Mothering


I'm nervous to be blogging here. Not to be blogging -- I write unabashedly over on my personal blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). But to be blogging here. At Literary Mama. It's a bit scary for me.

Because there is a new group of readers -- ones who might find my fast and loose treatment of the semicolon, or my overuse of exclamation points (and italics) unsettling. Sophisticated readers seeking out literary mamas. Mamas who have read something slightly more pithy that Horton Hatches the Egg (although truly, I think that even that text warrants further discussion. Why is Maysie considered so lazy? She just wanted someone to sit on the egg while she took some time for herself. Is that so bad? Does she relinquish parental rights simply based on the need for some alone time?)

But, in spite of my trepidation, I'll wade in.

Andrea Buchanan turned me onto a discussion on Ask MetaFilter generated by this initial post.

My boss just had a baby. It's a small company. She's bringing it to work everyday. How do I tell her that this is bad?

Call me old fashioned, but an infant should not be at work. I'm having a hard time dealing with a crying baby in my office, as well as someone changing diapers and also having my boss closing her door and breastfeeding while I'm trying to work. I need to somehow tell her that I have a big problem with this and how it is reflected on our companies' professionalism but I don't want to hurt her feelings, or worst even, look like a big grump. Got any pointers? I'm having a difficult time with this one.

While online forums (like talk radio) tend to attract commenters with extreme options, and are thus not necessarily representative of the population as a whole, the debate generated by this post raises some interesting issues.

What starts out as a fairly specific question about one particular situation quickly turns into a general debate on the appropriateness of bringing young children to work, presumably in lieu of other childcare options. After reading the first several comments, I quickly came to the conclusion that the issue had two camps.

There is the camp which believes that parenting is a private/domestic issue and the burden should fall squarely on the shoulders of the parent (read: mother); I'll refer to them as the "bad camp" since I might as well get my personal bias out into the open. A commenter using the name Agregoli sums up their beliefs:

I don't want kids, and I won't ever have them. I am not responsible for someone else's kids simply because they made a choice to have them. I hate that "it takes a village" crap. I made a conscious choice, and so did they. I don't have to share the burden of their children.

Speranza, also in the "bad camp," agrees:

You are absolutely not old-fashioned (or a "crank" about the breastfeeding). No one should have to put up with babies in the workplace unless you actually work with babies. I don't think I'd be terribly tactful in this case, because some parents really need a smack in the head with a clue-by-four to make them realise that not everyone wants to be around their kid as much as they do.

As a mother of two, I, of course, identify with the "good camp" filled with people like Occiblu, who writes, "it's nice when people recognize that raising the next generation of children -- your soon-to-be lawyers and teachers and doctors and judges and legislators -- isn't solely women's reponsibility, and maybe it's time we start recognizing that." It's easy fo me to say, yes -- right on -- amen.

But then things begin to become less straightforward. Tom g, who identifies himself as speaking from a "progressive/feminist" point of view, challenges the 'babies do not belong at work' point of view articulated by Agregoli and Speranza:

There are very few people who have the opportunity to do what is best for their child. I am nervous that you are going to ruin it for your boss and her child.... There are some great noise-cancelling headphones available for sensitive types like you. This way, your bosses baby can be where she is supposed to be - with her mommy.

Now wait a minute... Progressive? Feminist? Yes, tom g is from Massachusetts, is the parent to a four month old and is married to a La Leche League leader. But how is believing that a baby is "supposed to be...with her mommy" a feminist belief?

Surprisingly, it is Speranza from the "bad camp" who challenges tom g:

I feel that you are speaking from an extremely unfeminist point of view as you stated initially that babies should be with their mothers all the time (no mention of fathers) and you seemed to imply that it was more important for anon's boss to be a mother than to be anything else (like a good boss). As a feminist, I find it difficult to see what's feminist or progressive about suggesting that mothers bear 100% of parenting duties.

So tom g, who belives that children should be with their mothers is a feminist. Speranza also identifies him/herself as a feminist, in spite of writing:

Anon isn't being "sensitive" here, and I don't see why s/he should be the one to make compromises when it's the boss who's made the decision to juggle work and a kid. If it's so important for the baby to be with mommy, then mommy should've stayed home instead of coming back to work with the child so she can be a mediocre mother (is a place of work/office environment the best place for a baby?) and a shitty boss.

Well, now I don't know what to think.

There seems to be confusion when it comes to the idea of defining feminist parenting. One of the commenters refers to an article in Mothering magazine entitled "Babies in the Boardroom." The article interviews five mothers who bring their children to work with them in what appears to be an ultimate feminist utopia, where work colleagues act as the "village" raising the children, and breastfeeding during a meeting is common.

And yet the article does not feel partucularly "feminist" to me. The article's author writes: "While bringing your baby to work has an impact on everyone involved, it is primarily a way for a mother to respond to her natural instincts. Money can still be coming in, and baby can spend the workday near mom--in a sling or another close-to-mom setup." Language like "natural instincts" seems dangerous to me because a) it is alienating to women who do not want to spend the workday with their children (are their instincts "unnatural?") and b) by assuming that mothers are biologically hardwired to care for their children, it uncomfortably attaches childcare responsibility to gender, giving credence to the 'not my child, not my problem' argument.

An interview with one of the working mothers further compounds this point of view:

Bringing Sarah to the shop was her response to starting a family while building up her businesses. But Cath's situation is equally an expression of her ideas on mothering. She isn't comfortable with someone else serving as her substitute. "I want to be the one teaching Sarah the right behavior and providing for her. I couldn't hand her off."

Right. Couldn't "hand her off" like other mums do, being the implication. And in rolls the judgement.

This language plays into the hands of those who like to believe in the polarization of mothers and the "mommy wars," where women choose a side based on their so-called parenting choices. We choose to work or choose to stay home or choose to bring the kids to the office or choose to "hand them off". But, as most mothers will attest, it never really feels like a true choice. To me, it feels more like making the best out of a bad situation, in a society which is decidedly mother unfriendly. As one commenter points out, there isn't the degree of choice in this matter that some people believe: "In the states, most maternity leave runs out after 12 weeks, but plenty of childcare facilities won't take babies till they're at least 6 months. The options for what to do in the interim are extremely narrow. Taking your child to work is one of them."

I often discuss the whole mothering/working issue with like-minded mother friends. And I leave those conversations feeling refreshed and hopeful. I'm sure that we are all on the same page in believing that things need to change. We need to lobby government and big business for more accommodation of mothers in the workplace, for recognition of the work women do at home, for true choices. But I thought that we were well down the path of knowing what work needed to be done.

Getting a glimpse of what a broader audience, including self-proclaimed feminists, thinks about this issue make me much less certain.

Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.

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Thank you for your very thoughtful commentary on this issue, Jen. I hate it when *anyone* hates to impose a "one size fits all* solution on me, and I find it particularly insulting when someone tries to imply that "good mommies' will "naturally" want to do such-and-such. Even if I agree with whatever "choice" they are "pushing," I tend to feel very angry. I look forward to reading more of your posts here.
Just a comment from my few-people-can-duplicate-my-job corner of the world. As a parttime marketing person at a non-profit (run by a daddy of 3), I was encouraged to bring my baby to work whenever I showed up (which was basically for staff mtng; I worked from home). So it was, maybe 3 hrs a wk; not 40+. And everyone loved seeing the baby and spending time with the baby and all the grammies there were ecstatic to hold him. And as he grew up, and I occasionally needed to be there more often he's been a VERY useful tool for: getting out of said staff meeting deflecting attention or diffusing situations giving everyone something to agree on. He's adorable. He knows where the crackers are and how to get water and now he knows where the juice is in the fridge. And I'm still there maybe 1 afternoon a week. And, no, this is not an investment bank or a brokerage or a medical office. Which makes it easy. I'm very lucky to be able to parent this way and the people I work with genuinely love him too. And there's nothing like a crying baby to get you out of a lo-o-o-oong meeting....
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