No More Leave it to Beaver

In the lively “Room for Debate” series in this week’s New York Times, provocatively entitled “Motherhood vs. Feminism,” the piece I like best is the one by Annie Urban, who reminds us that “it’s about parenting, not mothering.”

“Too often the discussion about women’s choices (stay at home, go back to work) ignores the role of fathers. To achieve meaningful equality, we need to push for a society that values fathers who strike a balance between their career and their family life too. Women shouldn’t have to be equally uninvolved parents to reach their goals; they should be able to ask their spouses to step up too.”

Hear hear, Annie!

Amazingly, she was the only one of the seven women columnists commenting on Elisabeth Badinter’s slamming indictment of “attachment mothering” who thought to look to the fathers.

Is it because for the six other women, the fathers are so absent from the parenting landscape that their input is immaterial?

Erica Jong, who describes herself as a “zipless gran,” is the only one to point out that the intensive, at-home parenting required of the “attachment” model “takes resources”: “An affluent mom who doesn’t need to earn can afford co-sleeping, making pure food, using cloth diapers and being perfectly ecological,” Jong rightly observes.

She doesn’t say, but it’s easy to assume, that such a mom is supported by a hardworking spouse.  The unspoken assumption about fathers, unchanged since the Leave it to Beaver days, rears its head: the primary function of a father is to pull in the bucks.

But times have changed. For mothers who must work to keep our kids in food and shelter, short-cuts are necessary, and juggling too many responsibilities becomes a fine art. Should I miss the cocktail party after work today, where all the important networking takes place, or should I pick my kid up from day care in time for dinner and a relaxed bedtime story?

How about calling dad to pitch in here? Why can’t he do the bedtime story so mom can go to her cocktail party and chat up the boss?

In my experience, the answer to such a query is too often a flat no—you handle it, honey.  And so she will, making those tough choices day after day, doing the best she can.

It is no accident that women still earn 77 cents on the male dollar.  The other 23 cents go to our unpaid, unsung attention to mothering and family care of all kinds.

Elisabeth Badinter says we should get over our obsession with the “voluntary servitude” of mothering and go play the career game with the boys, giving it all we’ve got.

I’d rather see a kinder, gentler scenario, in which parents, both male and female, work together to balance the conflicting demands of work and child care.

As a society, we could encourage this in a material way by acknowledging the value of parenting via Social Security and other benefits.

By dint of hard struggle we have enshrined the concept of family leave and parental leave in law, but we could do a lot more to support parents through the difficult years when so much is demanded of them on the home front while they are also in their prime career-building years.

Instead, our society seems to be pushing women back into the unpaid homemaker roles, by sinking our efforts to balance career and mothering under the weight of guilt, frustration and sheer exhaustion.

Do we really want to focus the bright minds and creative spirits of 50% of our population exclusively on issues of breast-feeding, diaper rash and what to have for dinner?

Do young men really want to return to the good old days of being the sole provider for a houseful of dependents?

Feminism needs to demand that fathers fully engage in the struggle to make parenting a joyful, cooperative stage of life, rather than a gendered minefield.

And mothers and fathers need to insist on the social support they deserve for the valuable labor they perform every day, both in the home and outside of it.

More words for my son, a warrior for Good

My son read my last post and said that’s very nice, Mom, but it’s all about you!  I thought you were going to write something nice about me, or give me some words of wisdom.

As usual, he was right.

I had actually sat down to write about him, but ended up getting so caught up in the story of his birth that I ran with that instead.

Also, the idea of offering him “words of wisdom” is intimidating.  Most of the time I am just trying to ask the right questions…I am wise enough to know I don’t have the answers.

But let me not shy from the challenge.

What do I wish for my son as he steps out into his third decade of life and enters adulthood?  What do I have to offer him for the journey?

It makes me sad to think about how the actions and inactions of previous generations, my own included, have led to the current threshold upon which he stands, looking out at his future.

My son often talks about looking forward to raising his own children, trying to be the best father he can possibly be.

As I look into the future and try to imagine my grandchildren, I am saddened by all the pressures that they will face, due to global heating, overpopulation and the contamination of the environment.

Will my grandchildren know what it’s like to sit under a blooming apple tree filled with merrily buzzing bees on a perfect May morning?

Will they be able to lie in the tall grass of June without fear of a plague of disease-bearing ticks?

Will they have the pleasure of watching a noble blue heron stalking the riverbank, reaching down with a merciless snap to grab a frog from under a lilypad?

My son wants to be a marine biologist, and has already spent quite a bit of time and energy pursuing that goal out on the water and in the lab.  But every day brings fresh reports of how damaged our oceans are due to overfishing, toxic contamination and ever-acidifying water.

The upcoming corps of marine biologists will have the grim task of monitoring inevitable species decline and habitat degradation, and perhaps suggesting ways to remediate and hold off the destruction.  Rather than celebrating life, they’ll be bearing witness to death.

In my most pessimistic moments, I fear that the havoc of climate change will lead to knock-out storms, epidemics and food shortages that will make huge portions of our planet dismal versions of post-earthquake Haiti.

How can I bear to watch my son stepping out into this apocalyptic landscape, so strong and healthy, so full of energy and hope, so motivated to live his life with high spirits and good grace?

I know there have been many moments in human history when mothers have looked out at the future with similar trepidation.

We simply have to stand back and let them go, trying not to encumber them with our fears, or even with our hopes.

My son’s life is his own to live.  I know that as we cross this Year 20 milestone together, he will begin to pull out ahead of me, leaping boldly and fearlessly into the future.

I hope that during these years when I’ve been nurturing him, I’ve given him some good tools for the journey; some rich memories, and sound habits of body and mind.

The world is waiting for you, my son, and she needs you to stand up and be the warrior for good you were born to be.

Go.

 

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