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The Choice To Work

It’s been a challenging few weeks, with work and home both demanding incredible amounts of energy and attention. At times, I’ve felt like I was failing on both fronts.  I’ve wondered why it is I’m always trying to do so much. So, in my private time (ha!), I’ve been writing a letter to my boys that maybe they’ll be interested in when they’re older. It’s tentatively titled, “Why I Forgot to Do That Really Important Thing. Again.” 

I won’t be sharing the letter with anyone but them, but, along the way, I have come up with some ideas that I thought might be worth posting here ....

I am tired of “choices.”

My middle son’s teacher, pregnant with her first child and due in July, has just announced that she’s quitting next month in order to stay home with her baby, full-time.  This has occasioned some slightly awkward conversations at my house, since I worked all the way through three pregnancies and, though my jobs have ranged from part-time freelancer to full-time executive, I have not ever been a truly “full time” mom to my kids.  Apparently, it never occurred to my boys that a person would not work and parent at the same time.  I find this slightly remarkable, since stay-at-home moms seem to be the norm in the very privileged world they inhabit, but, honestly, they’re guys: as long as their lunches are packed and their Lego Club magazines arrive on time, they don’t sweat a lot of life’s details. 

Still, I felt like the whole discussion was fraught with peril.  They have a tendency to quote me at inopportune moments and I didn’t want them repeating anything potentially offensive on the playground.  I’d made this mistake once, when my oldest child was just starting school and I told him that kids go to school and grown-ups go to work.  Naturally, he then proceeded to interrogate a roomful of playgroup moms about when they would be going to work.  Awkward.

Anyway, this time I was determined to get it right and toe my usual line about how different families are different and everyone makes the choices that work best for them, etc., etc. 

Message discipline: it’s something I evoke regularly in my professional life, so you wouldn’t think it would be too tough to maintain it with my preschooler.

Still, even for a bleeding heart, politically correct, non-judgmental, stereotypically liberal moral relativist like me, the whole “everyone is different and it’s all okay and isn’t that wonderful?” speech felt ridiculously hollow.  I could barely bring myself to recite it.  And then I quickly curtailed further discussion by offering to let them watch – again! – the nature video of the great white shark gobbling up the helpless, adorable seals.

That should probably have been the end of it.  It certainly was for them.  Man, they love that video.

But then, Monday morning, after running the whole drop-kids-off, jump-on-conference-call-while-still-in-the-car drill, I happened to bump into a few of the uber moms from my kids’ school when I dashed into Starbucks.  These are, it must be said, the awesome, amazing women who seem to actually run the school, organizing fundraisers that bring in the vast sums required to make up the difference between the Chicago Public Schools budget and what it takes to manage a halfway decent institution.  And they are always very nice to me, despite my notable lack of “room mom” volunteerism.

One of them, whose hair, I could not help noticing, looked seriously incredible – like something from one of those magazines they have at the salon where they show you what you might look like, if your stylist followed you around for every minute of every single day – mentioned the news about my son’s teacher, who had previously taught her daughter.  She launched immediately into telling me how excited she was to have such a teachable moment to share with her little girl.  To be honest, I didn’t catch her exact words because I was still focused on her hair (and thinking about whether I’d had a chance to comb mine), but my attention was grabbed by the phrase “women can choose.”  It stuck with me all day.

My first reaction, I guess, was to wonder what, if anything, she’d said to her son about all this.  Do men get to choose, too?

More than that, though, as her words kept popping up in my memory at inopportune moments throughout my day – Do I have time now to sneak off and run the miles I’m supposed to log for my half-marathon training program? Gah, I need to shower. Did I seriously promise that client I would get this entire project done in 10 days? Oh my God, do I seriously now need to go commando to this meeting because I forgot to pack clean underwear in my gym bag? Women can choose. – I thought about the impact these supposedly purely personal choices have on the world around us.

The very definition of motherhood has changed.  It’s no longer a relationship; it’s a project.

The super-intense model of stay-at-home motherhood, practiced by the well-educated [and funded] “opt out” moms, has them eschewing high-powered careers in order to invest their considerable energy and focus into raising their children. 

And, in so doing, they’ve set a new standard: if your kids aren’t being “enriched” and “engaged” by some activity at each moment, you are letting them down and they are falling ever-further behind their more advantaged peers.  For single-parent families and those who need both parents’ salaries to get by, the impact is clear and it’s deeply depressing: the achievement gap between the privileged few and the rest of the population has begun to look like a permanent fixture in American society.  Class mobility, which used to be the very essence of the American identity, is becoming a thing of the past.

Moreover, these moms don’t seem to be investing their time in the social causes and volunteerism that used to fill the hours of the ladies-who-lunch set.  Instead, their projects are limited to their own families or to the schools their own children attend.  Indeed, the very model of school reform here in Chicago and elsewhere seems to start with, “Take a bunch of moms who want a good city school for their kids ….”  The system is left to starve, while schools in wealthy enclaves become public in name only, with neighborhood families contributing thousands of dollars each in cash, supplies and volunteer time.

It’s not news that women who don’t need to work for financial reasons are staying home in large numbers.  Nor is it earth-shattering to realize that they are, through their choices, cementing their own kids’ positions in the upper classes.  What is remarkable, though, is the degree to which their behaviors and priorities have become the standard by which other mothers are judged.

From the pages of mommy blogs and too many mainstream media stories to count, their model of motherhood – make the meals from scratch, fully schedule every day, volunteer at school, help with every homework assignment, relentlessly advocate for your kid – is the model of parenting done right.

Those who can’t pull it off or, even more dangerously, choose not to, are coming up short.

Within this narrative, having a career is fine – women can choose! – as long as you can also make the rest of this stuff work.  So your kindergartener will be assigned research projects and you will be expected to wash the class dishes and if you want your kid to experience music or sports in any real way, you’ll need to hire a private tutor and coach.  That’s not a problem is it?  Also, the concert is at 10:30 am.  You will be there, won’t you?  And you did do the required reading for the Montessori parents group, right?

For the most part, I must confess, I have totally bought into this nonsense.  (See also: Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness.) I am competitive and a perfectionist and crazy in love with my kids, so I’ll do whatever it takes to be the best mom I can be for them.  I don’t get a lot of sleep.

So I have my moments of temptation.  If I gave up my career, I could probably do all this and have downtime.  Possibly even amazing, lustrous hair.

But I would not have myself.  I would not be putting to use the incredible education I was lucky enough to get.  I would not be challenging my intellect every day.  I would not be an equal participant in a world that still measures achievement in fairly limited terms.  I would not be able to tell my sons that kids go to school and grown ups go to work.  I would not be offering my skills and talents to a society that is larger than my own immediate family.

That, to me, would feel like failure.

So I choose to work.  Women can choose.

But it’s not just that.  That’s not all of it.  It’s not just about me and my personal choice.

I work because work itself has merit. 

I work because I reject this post-modern notion of the project of motherhood: my children are not the center of the universe.  They are not even, at all times, the center of my attention.  Sometimes, I do things that are more important than raising them.

I work because I am, by the incredible good fortune of my birth, in a position to be a role model, not just to my own children, but to others.  My sons, just like the students at Chicago’s Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, where I serve on the Development Committee, need to know that women lead, achieve and succeed.  We are carers and nurturers, but that is not all we are.  We do not live merely to meet the needs of our partners and children.

I worry about some of the women I see, choosing to devote themselves full-time to motherhood, at the exclusion of all else.  What happens if a husband loses his job?  Or gets sick or hurt or dies or leaves?  But that’s just my private neurosis about their private choices.  I know it’s none of my business.

Far more importantly, I worry about their kids – the generation of which my sons are a part.  Perhaps there’s no such thing as too much enrichment or engagement.  Perhaps their incredible level of involvement and investment in their children’s lives is a fine thing.  But perhaps not.

What is to become of a whole class of children raised to believe they are entitled to be the absolute center of everything?  Where will their independence come from?  Their motivation?  Their drive?

I worry about the world my boys will inherit.  Who will innovate?  Who will lead?

Selfishly, too, I worry about who they’ll marry, should they choose that path.  Will they fall in love with girls who’ve been trained in the idea that women can choose and men must simply pay the bills?  I want them to be able to make choices, too, as I have and their father has: to balance the work of family with other meaningful work, too. 

I want them to have the benefit of my honest counsel: that some choices are better than others.