Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Imagining How It Could Be

I've written before about how much I liked Mother Nature, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. It really helped me see how much of the narrative about what is "natural" or "biological" about motherhood in our society is actually cultural. It also raised some interesting thoughts about why our culture has evolved in the way it has. These thoughts are far from fully formed, but I'm sure that the entirely natural male desire to ensure the survival of their genes played a big role. She has an interesting, if a bit disturbing, section about why women might go along with these arrangements, too, in the interest of furthering their own genes' chances. (I'm speaking purely about the biological influences on our behavior, and ignoring the extent to which we can overrule those impulses.)

The book also includes sections that show glimpses of a different way- for instance, in her discussion of the Canela, whom she describes as a "mother-centered" society, and in her discussion of the matriarchal non-human primates. I don't think biology is the whole story, but it is certainly part of the story. And the fact that different species and different human societies have found different mechanisms to meet the same biological goals should help us shake off the stale idea that the reason mothers typically struggle to integrate children into the rest of lives more than fathers do is purely due to the different biological roles of mothers and fathers.

While I was reading Mother Nature, I could almost imagine how we could arrange a society that would let all members- mothers, fathers, people without kids, people whose kids are grown- pursue their interests and ambitions while also ensuring that our kids have the care they need to thrive. Hrdy spends a lot of time discussing the role of allomothers (child-minders who are not the mother), including some fascinating stuff about older women that merits a post of it own. She also describes various ways in which mothers can and do integrate their kids into their "other" lives. Those two things together sparked my imagination, and I started to think about how we could remake our society if we weren't constrained by our patriarchal roots and the fact that so many people have a vested interest in seeing our traditional gender roles stay intact.

After my first daughter was born, I felt the strong urge to care for her that many mothers talk about. This urge truly does have biological foundations, albeit foundations that are quite different than what we often assume- the act of caring for the baby in those first days and weeks appears to be the trigger for the impulse, and not the act of giving birth. Hrdy's discussion of what we actually know about the "maternal instinct" is both in depth and fascinating, but that isn't what I want to discuss in this post. Instead, I'd like to focus on the fact that I did not feel an urge to abandon all my other interests and engage in a single-minded pursuit of caring for my offspring. Judging by the many impassioned posts and comments I've read from new mothers looking to reclaim their sense of self, this was certainly not a unique experience, although it is not one our culture really embraces. For me, the other interests I wanted to maintain were my professional ones. I wanted to go back to work.

My desire to work didn't mean that I didn't want to spend time with my daughter and care for her. I wanted to do both, and I feel like I have found an arrangement that allows me to do both. My arrangement is not perfect, though, and as I read Hrdy's descriptions of how mothers in other societies and even other species do indeed do both, I realized that a lot of the imperfections I see in my own situation are due to the fact that our society as it is currently structured expects most of us to make an either/or choice- or at least, it tells us that we are making that stark either/or choice, when in fact, even with the limited wiggle room available to us now, most mothers do not do that, but instead find ways to combine mothering with other things.

As I said, I think that I am still caring for my daughters- and my time logs support that opinion. I'd argue that a stay at home mother who devotes time and energy to economizing around the house is also making a choice to do both care-giving and other work. It is just that her work is unpaid. I can't actually think of any mothers I know or know of who do nothing but mother their children. And yet, we have largely accepted that the choice as it is currently presented to us is The Way it Has to Be, and we fight amongst ourselves about which choice is The Right One.

If we try to free our imaginations from the constraints set by our current system and think about how it could be if we designed a system from scratch, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of a better way that doesn't force a rigid choice- or the illusion of one!- on us. We can imagine workplaces that accommodate our families and our lives, instead of competing with them. We can imagine a society that celebrates and rewards allomothers instead of distrusting them and trying to convince the  mothers who rely upon them that we are giving up some portion of our childrens' affections. We can imagine being allowed to find new ways to combine work and caring for our children.

Doors: Effective Baby Blocking Technology
Sadly, I can only catch a glimpse of this world. I cannot describe it, I can only describe ideas that might be part of it. Perhaps we could integrate child care with some work places, so that mothers could work when our kids were happy with their allomothers, but be there for the times when they are not. I'm not thinking of the current rare office with a day care center on site, hidden off in some corner of the building and perhaps visited on lunch breaks, but of an environment where the kids and their carers were more integrated with the rest of the office. You may think that this would never succeed- the kids would be too distracting. And you'd probably be right for some types of work places. But a lot of jobs involve mainly sitting at a desk and typing on a computer. Some babies are quite content for long periods when worn in a sling, and most toddlers can be distracted by fun activities. Maybe we'd need to move people out of cubicles and back into offices. You remember- the work spaces that had four walls and doors. Or what if we freed ourselves from our obsession with counting hours and instead focused on measuring productivity, and set up work/play rooms where mothers could work while their kids played and some allomothers helped entertain the kids? I think that the appeal of this sort of arrangement is what attracts a lot of mothers to the idea of working at home- but in many cases, there are no allomothers present, and so the result is a mother trying to squeeze work in during naptimes.

Or maybe we could better institutionalize part time work. In my ideal maternity leave arrangement, I would have taken 4 months off, and then worked the rest of the year part time, starting out at about 24 hours per week and gradually ramping back up to full time work. This was not an option I felt I had open to me for a variety of reasons, although I got reasonably close the first time around, with 3 months off, 1 month at 24 hours, and then working 35 hours/week until I changed jobs. Yet even that amount of flexibility is a rare thing, and people are amazed I managed to set it up without incurring a career penalty. The sad fact is that right now, going part time for a long period often means accepting less interesting or meaningful work, and there is usually a sharp career penalty to pursuing this option. But there is no fundamental problem with part time work that requires it to be this way, as long as the arrangement includes enough hours to enable productivity. I currently have two mothers working as part time contractors on my projects, and we are actively recruiting two more. Why do we accept their limitations on hours? Because they are damn good at what they do and they won't work otherwise. (This ties in with discussion about focusing on skills in my post about So Good They Can't Ignore You.) Not all managers are willing to consider part time workers, though, and even among those who are, there are limitations that would not have to be there. My job, for instance, could not be part time in my current company's culture. This is not because of the nature of what I do- I could easily fit the core functions of my job into four eight hour days, for instance, and with a little more work, I could carve up my responsibilities and make it possible for me to job share. If I wanted to pursue these options, though, I'd have to negotiate for them and I would frankly be taking a large career risk. It does not have to be this way.

Or we could keep our 40 hour work week and really make it a 40 hour work week. We could teach productivity and reward efficiency rather than face time. We could arrange our school days to better match work days. We could fund our schools so that art and library are covered by paid staff and not parent volunteers. We could lengthen the school day and include more "enrichment" options so that parents don't have to arrange before and after care, and can let their children get all of their education at school, rather than shuttling them to various classes. We could have more preschools and day care centers, and subsidize them so that quality options would be available to everyone, not just those whose incomes allow it. We could integrate day care centers into schools, so that parents with more than one child do not face the dreaded double drop off problem. In short, we could stop treating two-career families as an inconvenience on everyone else, and fund programs that actually make their lives easier.

Or we could do something else entirely, that I can't free my mind enough to imagine. Think of the solutions we might find if we stopped arguing about artificial constraints on the system and instead worked to truly solve the problem.

I am a pragmatist, so I recognize that we all must try to find the best solutions for our families out of the options currently available, and not the wild musings of some random blogger. I have made compromises in my own life, and I refuse to judge other families for the compromises they decide to make. But I want to at least recognize the compromises I am making. I want to hold on to that glimpse of how it could be, and try to see the possibilities more clearly. I want to find ways to move us closer to what is possible. Maybe if we can do that, we can start a process that really changes our society, and gets us off our current track of flipping through culturally approved compromises that mothers must make: one decade, the approved option is to sacrifice all outside interests for your kids, the next it is to ignore your caregiving instincts and focus on your career, then it is to "do it all", and then it is "you can't have it all".... and all of it pushes the issues onto mothers and sometimes their partners, without ever questioning the constraints and cultural assumptions that are making the problems in the first place.

Yeah, I know, it is unlikely that we'll make much progress. The forces pushing back are strong. But still, a girl can dream. Right?


  1. If we're dreaming:

    1. 2 years of parental leave to be shared between parents as we see fit, and that doesn't need to be taken consecutively, ieyou could use it to take off Fridays for a long time, etc. or you could take it all at once if you wanted to.

    2. +20 to school schedules lining up w/ the work day. it's ridiculous that school gets out at 3pm and there aren't good after care options (some of the ones I've heard about here are pretty sketchy).

    3. None of this "always connected" crap. On one of my teams, the execs promised not to send emails late in the evenings or on weekends, and it really did make our work culture better. if you have to collaborate with teams across the world, then allow people to set their own schedules. (not work 9-6 THEN have a 2 hour conf call with India as well.)

    I totally agree with you about the rest. it wouldn't feel like such an either/or decision, if work didn't loom large over the rest of my life. (which is why I will only work part-time.)

    1. I definitely want more parental leave and I want fathers to use more of it- I think even fathers like my husband, who took an unusual amount of leave for a father, but still nothing close to what I took- are missing out on something really cool.

      But I get twitchy when people talk about longer leaves as the magic solution, because just tacking longer leaves onto our current system just introduces a career penalty on mothers. So I like your idea of being able to use the leave to take Fridays off for a long time. That would have been awesome for me. Heck, that would still be awesome for me!

    2. Yes, I too was thinking I would like that (Fridays off) now!

      Actually that idea does tie in to my larger sense that the rhetoric that mothers should "stay home when the kids are small" does us all a disservice -- it is suggested that women can return to work once the kids are in school, as if school-aged kids don't need parental attention. Having (step)parented teenagers, I can tell you this isn't so, and it isn't so for a long, long time.

  2. Please keep dreaming! This stuff is so important.
    I don't really want my child with me while I'm working - when I've worked from home it doesn't feel like I'm parenting or working with my full attention.
    But basing my work on productivity instead of hours, and letting me do more work out of hours or out of the office? Well, that would be heaven.

    1. Did you have someone there to help care for the baby while you tried to work? I think that is a really important part- or it would be for me. But all the same, I also turned down an opportunity to be fully work at home after my first child was born. I needed to actually leave her to get work done. It is unclear to me in retrospect how much of that was due to the fact that I was living in a very small apartment at the time, though.

  3. Those dreams are my dreams, too, Cloud. Every time I run across some feminist blog derided women for bringing their kids to work (creating "unprofessional" atmospheres) and whatnot, it gives me a stroke - why do we have to contort ourselves to fit into a model that *isn't working*? Let's try something else instead! It's not like your innovations are unheard-of. Many people in other parts of the world have a largely part time workforce, or have child friendly workspaces. I also heard in Denmark there are co-housing spaces, where people live in separate apartments but eat some meals together with indoor common space.

    For me taking care of my babies was exactly like falling in love with my now-husband. I was completely overwhelmed and only wanted to be with them - like being drunk on them and their presence. It terrified me and upset me when my baby was absent for more than an hour (first baby). And then slowly, this super intense feeling subsided gently and I started to return more and more to myself, and then I began to work part time (when babies were 4 months old, only about 10-15 hrs a week) and then full time when they were 7-8 months old. This system worked really well for me. I absolutely would have quit my job if it had required returning to work at 6 weeks (and I LOVE my job) when I was still in drunk baby mode. I *needed* that time with each baby (and alone with each baby; when I had Pooh, Christopher Robin was off in a home day care all day). For us it was integral to the emotional process, to attaching, to our relationship. I'm not generalizing about anybody else, that's just how it worked for me.

    1. Oh, yes! I wouldn't have wanted to go back to work in the first couple of months, although I did take a few work phone calls and answer some emails, and I liked that. I liked feeling like I was still connected to my pre-baby life. Maybe what I really wish for is a more gradual transition back to work than what we have now? I don't know. As I say in the post, I'm only catching glimpses.

      And I completely agree- what is right for one mother might be wrong for someone else. In the dream world we're discussing, there is lots of flexibility for mothers and their employers to work out the system that works for them- because employers no longer view the existence of mothers in their workforce as an inconvenience. Or something like that.

    2. I was completely out (except for the occasional email/phone call) for 2 months. Then I went back 12 hours/week (2 6-hour days) for a month, and then 18 hours/week (3 ditto) for another (that is, I spread my return to 30 hours/week across 2 months). Then I went back 30 hours/week. This worked really well for me.

      My commute is far from crazy by US standards (1 hour r/t and not unpleasant), but among the things I have found, working (in the office) for intervals of shorter than about 6 hours just isn't worth the bother of coming in, so having some flexibility in scheduling things (like 2 6 hour days rather than 3 4 or whatever) made/makes a big difference. Ditto of course some ability to connect/work from elsewhere.

    3. Yep, i work 30 hours, and do it in 3 long days instead of 5 short ones. (I'd have a hard time leaving the office after just 6 hours anyway.) This also gives me 2 days where I can switch off work and it's easier for my coworkers to get - they just know I'm not in on Mondays and Wednesdays.

  4. Love. That. Book. And this: "We can imagine a society that celebrates and rewards allomothers instead of distrusting them and trying to convince the mothers who rely upon them that we are giving up some portion of our childrens' affections." (not to mention trying to convince us that we are neglecting some portion of our maternal responsibilities)

    I agree with so much of what you write. Heck, forget crazy dreams, what if (here in the US) we simply had equal pay for equal work? I'm not talking about that quaint 1960s idea that gender (etc.) shouldn't affect pay rate (duh), but rather the wildly radical idea that someone doing a job for 20 hours a week should earn (including benefits) half of what someone doing the same job for 40 hours a week would earn -- not the step functions we typically see now (in the US) where full-time employees get entirely different packages from part-time employees. I'm fortunate that my employer counts as full-time anyone working 30 hours/week or more, but the difference between 29 hours/week and 30 is, in addition to, you know, 1/30 of wage, about $1K/month in health insurance and about 8% of the total salary in retirement account contribution, plus loss of a bunch of other small (but possibly important) benefits.

    ... continued in the following comment, because apparently I have too much to say ...

  5. ... As for me, what I got out of Hrdy's book were these things: evolutionarily, reproductive success has nothing to do with how many children you have and everything to do with how many of your offspring live to reproduce themselves (and raise offspring that reproduce themselves, and ...); given the long duration of dependence in human young, this poses a serious challenge for both mothers and fathers (not necessarily the same challenge for both sexes, but both can reasonably expect it to be difficult for their children to survive long enough to become independent and to reproduce). It is totally normal (evolutionarily typical, desirable in terms of impact on outcomes for offspring) for women (mothers) to work and to strive for status; it is totally not normal (ditto) for mothers to be exclusive caregivers to offspring, and for much of human history and much of the world today this is basically impossible, that is, a human mother cannot raise a child without help, the precise nature of which may take any number of forms.

    Also, that we should thank our lucky stars every single day that there now exists (in places that have safe water supplies and refrigeration, both still far rarer than they should be) something other than mother's milk, i.e. (gasp!) formula that can safely nourish infants.

    As for me, I grew up endorsing ideas like childcare in the workplace (and I still do) *but* as I've commented previously here, I was so grateful I didn't opt for the (very good) childcare provided at my workplace, but rather for something close to home, so that my DH and I shared responsibility for getting DS to/from childcare (and all the "and also" jobs that that to/from involves). While I'm 100% in favor of supporting women as mothers and workers, based on my own personal experiences and preferences I've grown (somewhat) leery of support systems that lend a hand toward concentrating parental responsibility in one parent (almost always mom) rather than a larger group (two parents, assorted alloparents). Of course ideally we'd have a wide range of choices and support in choosing those that suited us and our families best, and flexibility in changing them as our needs and preferences changed. It's a gross oversimplfication, but looking at what I've seen in the various European countries I've traveled in and lived in (or have family living in), my overall impression is that many of the much better structures those societies have adopted have been motivated (not by feminist leanings but) by the desire to maintain a status quo in which raising children is "women's work," in which men refuse to get (very) involved. And/or that the systems that have been adopted (whatever the motivations) have allowed the perpetuation of that circumstance (childrearing as women's work), and that is not, I think, a good thing.

    1. That's a good point about keeping the father involved. Maybe in my dream world, the kid could go to work with dad sometimes, too. I don't know- I can't really imagine a fully functioning system where kids were more integrated with work. All I know is that is how it was before work was outside the home. I'm not sure what it SHOULD be. I am sure that we aren't having the right arguments as a country to figure that out, though.

  6. mom2boy8:56 AM

    Health insurance tied to employment limits the practicality of lots of part-time workers for employers and for those workers who need healthcare through work.

    And what about workers who are just average? If only the best of the best get considered for special part-time consideration like at your company- should only those women combine motherhood and a career? I guess that's one way of advancing the species biologically - if you can't afford to have kids without paid work and you can't have paid work that let's you have kids unless you are in the top 10% ability wise...

    1. @mom2boy- it didn't come out in my post, but I want the part time option to be available to anyone, not just the superstars! But obviously, finding work is always easier if you're a super star in your field. The problem is, most women aren't superstars yet at the time they are having kids. Superstar status takes time and experience to earn...

    2. mom2boy12:29 PM

      I think that the problem is that there is not much benefit to employers for having part-time employees unless it is for an amazing employee. Each body is an additional possible HR issue and benefits per person add up. I've never studied employment law or read up on statistics on this topic but if I could manage my choice of one full-time employee or five part-time employees - seems like an easy choice even while I want to be one of those part-time employees.

      My first law firm considered 37.5 hours to be full-time for the hourly employees. That is actually a really significant difference in terms of scheduling as a working parent. Granted you were only paid for the hours you worked but you got all the additional benefits of working a standard 40hr week.

    3. @mom2boy
      David Cutler and someone else have a good paper on the topic, though I don't think they ever bothered to get it published. It's in the NBER working paper series.

      In that paper, when health insurance costs go up, employers try to get more hours out of their full time workers and they hire more part-time workers that they are legally not obligated to pay benefits for (so they don't).

      There's also a literature on the increase of contract work in order to avoid paying benefits and to have more labor market flexibility. (Since it is hard to fire workers in many states, though laughably easy in others.)

    4. I can't speak to the HR/cost side of the equation, but I can say as a manager is that what I most want is happy employees who are productive. I don't mind working around people's outside lives, and I don't mind having part time people, as long as I know what amount of work I can expect from them and I think I am getting good value for the money we pay them.

      I acknowledge that this is perhaps NOT a common sentiment- but I have also generally worked for bosses with a similar sentiment.

      Honestly, my worst nightmare is having a great employee unexpectedly quit. I'd far rather deal with that employee going part time!

    5. mom2boy11:43 AM

      That's good to know! I have a job finally (yay!) and I had to already say, oh btw I'll be taking three full days off in the middle of February to take the bar but they were totally fine with it. Anyway, I fully expect to be a great employee so hopefully it's win win for everyone.

  7. Banana11:43 AM

    I second that we MUST decouple health insurance from work to afford any real flexibility. Having two part-time parents, or two freelancers, two hourly working parents - all of this becomes more possible when we take health insurance out of the equation.

  8. I don't think longer leaves, like what is offered in many European countries, is a magic bullet. However, I think like Erin mentioned in her comment, many mothers are sort of drunk with love for their babies in the first months, so having to return in 2-3 months time (and still deprived of sleep/breastfeeding in many cases) makes women choose the stay-at -home option, which at the point of time, seems more do-able. I know not all women are the same but leaving a baby behind so soon was heart-breaking, but once they got older, I was much better at it and glad I didn't make the choice to quit at that 2-3 month mark.

    1. Exactly. I'm with @Cloud that a 4-month mat leave is pretty ideal (which is what I did with kid#1). I followed that with a part-time arrangement for the first few months back, and gradually eased back into FT work.

      We also had paid postpartum doula help, so I was not a total sleep-deprived zombie at work (my kids never slept through the night).

      It was a great fit for me and mine.

    2. I completely agree- I think different women will want different amounts of time in that "exclusively focused on baby" phase. And different women will want different things as they go back to work. And fathers should be shouldering child care duties, too, assuming they are around. Etc., etc... I think that each situation is individual, and that what we really need is to remove the stigma from combining child care and work, and move to a place where we expect new parents to negotiate some changes in how their work is structured (and also extend that to people without kids). Then we might find real solutions.

    3. Right, that's the thing - sometimes you hear childfree people talking like parents are the enemy who are demanding all these special privileges that burden others, and maybe that is the way it plays out sometimes, but really the things that most feminist mothers are fighting for in the workplace are things that apply for everyone, not just parents, not just caregivers, but to improve the quality of everyone's lives. We are all for each other, and we can all win.

  9. Like a previous commenter said, thanks for dreaming for all us working moms!

    My mat leave was a long 7 months! 4 months paid and 3 more unpaid. Then I attempted to jump back into FT. It was soon evident that I was losing my mind... ;)

    Until my son started play school, I did 35 hour weeks. 7 hour days. From just a week ago, I have started 40 hour weeks. I felt so natural to ease into work... But this is so atypical, that i did lose out on couple of opportunities... I also have to take a pay cut...

    Our techie industry is skill based... And I find it entirely unfair to measure productivity by time. If I could dream, I would erase the pay cut part of it...

    Still, I have managed to pull off something that would make other working mothers look at me with incredulousness


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