Sunday, June 20, 2010

Anyway You Do It, It Is Hard

Whenever I think I have a handle on this parenting thing, one of my kids does something that shows me how wrong I am. Petunia's refusal to go to sleep continues. Here I was, feeling all smug in with my "do whatever it takes to get everyone in the family the sleep they need" mantra... and now I can't for the life of me figure out what, exactly, it takes to get Petunia to sleep. Her bedtime has suddenly moved 1-1.5 hours later, and I can't get her down without a fair amount of crying. I hate making my baby cry. Hearing my baby cry short circuits something in my brain, and I can hardly think straight until I can get her to stop. So we're not exactly good candidates for a cry-it-out sleep approach. And yet, that is what Petunia seems to be doing.

Anyway, posting is likely to be even lighter than usual around here until we get Petunia's bedtime back under control. However, there is something that I really want to get out of my system. Lately, the science blogs I read have been buzzing about "work-life balance" and the division of household labor.  Dr. Free Ride and Zuska have good wrap-ups, and I think it all started with posts by Dr. Isis and Scientist Mother.

It is mildly ironic that I haven't had time to write this post until now because it was our week to clean the house,  and we therefore had chores to do every night and extra chores to do this weekend. I am pausing to write this post even though the office remains unclean... the majority of the cleaning needed is on my desk, and I'll get to it tomorrow night.

The "work-life balance" issue matters to me for reasons that are not evident in my own life. I actually feel like I have a decent handle on things. Hubby and I have a chores schedule that we mostly follow without too much angst. We have a cleaner who comes once a month, and I feel exactly zero guilt about that. We send our kids to day care and I feel a little more than zero guilt about that, but not much. I have a career I like, but usually work between 40 and 45 hours a week, and I feel fine about that, too. I am, on the whole, a very happy working mother.

But the issue still matters to me, because I think it is being used against women. The difficulty of achieving work-life balance in science careers (or, I suspect, in any demanding career) is often cited as a reason for the infamous "leaky pipeline".  To make matters worse, "difficulty with work-life balance" is often code for "this career is incompatible with motherhood". I have written before about the fact that I do not think a career in science is incompatible with motherhood- and have found plenty of examples of scientists who are mothers.

As an explanation for the gender imbalance in science, "it is too hard to combine with motherhood" is at least better than "women just aren't as good at science"- but only just.  The idea that a demanding career is incompatible with motherhood is sexist B.S. because it assumes that the need to combine a career with responsibilities at home is an issue only for women. (I know, I know... there is a biological difference between mothers and fathers, blah blah blah- but I think that is bunk, too. The actual biological difference boils down to a 9 month pregnancy, a day or two in labor and delivery, and maybe two years of breastfeeding- these are time-limited, usually manageable within your career arc, and can be readily balanced by a partner who views himself as an equal parent. But I digress.) The need to balance some sort of home life with work is not a woman's issue- it is a people's issue.

The data do indicate, though, that in practice, it is more of an issue for women. There are many studies that show that women, even women with demanding careers, continue to do more of the housework and child-rearing than men. While this is deeply unfair, and I am very much in favor of both personal and public action to change this fact, I don't think it should give hiring managers or committees much pause when they consider hiring a woman. I also don't think it should give women much pause when they consider choosing a demanding career. I posted about one such study about academic scientists not too long ago.  As I wrote in that post, the statistic that struck me most in the study was the finding that the partnered men (who did on average 28% of the housework in their homes) and the partnered women (who did on average 54% of the housework) were working the same number of hours- 55 +/- 11.

So the men may be getting a free pass on housework, but they aren't spending that extra time at work. I postulated that they were at the pub drinking beer. Comrade Physioprof had a less PG suggestion, which should surprise no one who is familiar with his unique commenting style. Regardless of what the men are doing with their free time, the key point is that the "extra shift" pulled by some women at home is not impacting their work so much as their leisure. It isn't that motherhood is incompatible with a demanding career. It is that motherhood and a demanding career are incompatible with having hobbies and a selfish partner. Something will have to give. I personally recommend finding an unselfish partner, but I have to admit that even with a partner who does his fair share, my hobbies have taken a serious hit. The funny thing is, though, that I manage to find time for the things that really matter to me. But I digress again.

I also think the "this career isn't compatible with motherhood" explanation does a disservice to all mothers, be they working or stay at home, because it implies that there is somehow an easy way to be a mother, or at least an easier way. I don't think there is. I regularly joke with one of my (male) coworkers that we go to work to rest after our weekends. Caring for young children is hard work. (Which is probably why humans have always had help with it. But I digress yet again.)

The three things that I find hardest in my life right now are: (1) Petunia's sudden bedtime freak out, (2) the difficulty of making dinner while also watching two small children, and (3) the fact that the only way I get any quiet time at home is to load the kids in the double stroller and push them around for a walk while they nap. I don't see how quitting my job would make any of these things better, and in fact, I suspect it would make dealing with them even more difficult.

So I think any woman who wants to work outside the home but also wants to be a mother should go for it. It certainly isn't easy, but neither is the alternative. Therefore, perhaps the best thing to do is to aim high in your career- so that you can afford to hire help.

Bad Mom, Good Mom has a couple of interesting posts on related topics, which imply that I may be re-evaluating my opinion on combing work and motherhood once the girls reach school age. It will be interesting to see what happens. If I've learned anything in the last three years, it is that I really can't predict how this motherhood thing is going to go, so it is best to just roll with things as they happen.


  1. Anonymous5:01 AM

    It is hard when they just. Won't. Sleep. Your blog has helped me feel a bit less alone with my 'sleep is for the weak' baby! We've had to change it up a bit - at the moment what works for our near 6 month old is bouncing on a Swiss (fit) ball until she drops off. It seems hardly soothing - but hey, after 10 or 20 minutes it works & she isn't crying during those 10 minutes... So she goes to sleep & her parents get a workout!

  2. paola5:20 AM

    'The "extra shift" pulled by some women at home is not impacting their work so much as their leisure.' Every single working mother I know can vouch for this. But I don't know how much this is due to having a selfish partner. Many of my Italian Mum friends (90% of my friends) spend any leisure time they do have doing 'extra' cleaning (inside of cabinets, windows etc) rather than something that would help them unwind and relax and it's not because their partner puts pressure on them to do it either. I know it is probably cultural. If your own mum spent all her time at home, cleaning and tidying up, some of that would have rubbed off on you too.

    Well, very little of that rubbed off on me, considering my mum was always running around after us tidying up. I have a hubby who is selfish in a lot of ways, but encourages me to find time for myself. As you know I am a SAHM (around 90% of the time) and contribute around 95% to home and child care, but hubby was the one who encouraged me to take up running and go to the pool ( although I haven't actually gotten around to that yet). He will sacrifice one of his own running days so I can get in 3 in a week (we both run in the mornings before the kids wake up and we (he) goes to work )just because he knows it is important for me to run and have something else in my life other than being a SAHM.

    I consider myself enormously fortunate to have a husband who supports my interest in running and keeping fit, but also understand that it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with it if I did work full time.

    However as you mentioned, it helps having elder children (mine are 5.5, 3.5). Babies and pre-school aged kids sap so much of your time, let alone your energy, that it is near impossible to be proactive about your owns needs and wants.cul

  3. Petunia's what, 8 months now? So a sleep disturbance is right on time. *sigh* Still sucks in the moment, but this too shall pass...

  4. I really enjoy reading your blog. I also have the sleep/dinner problem. My "cooking dinner while two children scream" issue has been helped by me taking 15 minutes to read a book with them after we get home before I even get started with dinner. In the end, it doesn't make that much difference in when dinner is ready, and it makes them feel like they got a bit of time with me before I have to work on something.

  5. @Anonymous- I am really happy to read that my blog has helped you. Thanks for telling me! Pumpkin went through a phase during which the best way to get her to sleep was to bounce her fairly vigorously. I used the exercise ball (great ab workout) and Hubby just bounced on his toes (good glutes workout). If that would work for Petunia, I'd do it in a heartbeat! My abs could use a workout....

    @paola- I think the only way in which it is harder to exercise as a working mom than a stay at home mom is that when I get off work, I don't want to do something that takes me away from my kids. However, I have a gym IN MY OFFICE, and could find the time to visit it during the workday if I really wanted to. I go to yoga once a week and call it a late lunch hour.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think it is necessarily easier as a SAHM, I think it is different. However you do the mom thing, it has challenges. I guess the trick is to pick the way whose challenges bother you the least.

    And to try to ignore the cultural messages you get that you're doing it all wrong!

    @Katie- yeah, knowing that Petunia is right on schedule is some comfort, but not much!

    @Emily- that's a good idea. My kids actually play pretty well while I cook, but then Petunia crawls into something and bumps her head, and Dora finishes and Pumpkin wants me to come do the "we did it!" dance... and argh! I know this is something that will get better when we can move dinner a little bit later. And when Pumpkin gets old enough to help....

  6. Oh, that regressions messing with Petunia going to bed! That just sucks! I hope it passes quickly. That phase for my boy seemed to pass quickly, and I hope the same for you!

    I have often wondered what it is that the men who don't share household and childcare responsibilities DO when they are home while their wives are doing it all. Just the thought of it gets my feminist side all a-twitching!

    I've been thinking lately that perhaps some of my frustration with my own husband is that perhaps he doesn't multitask as well, or at least in the same way, as I do. Although he handles dinner with the two kids, more often than not it is quick, microwaveable (and what I consider not really good) food. I get the morning task of cooking/fixing breakfast with the two kids. But I've noticed that he doesn't keep up with other housework very well while watching the two kids. Although, he does keep up with his computer just fine while watching them. Hmmm... ;-)

  7. aim high so you can hire help. I love that!

  8. Anonymous9:03 PM

    @Cloud You're welcome! I have to admit to feeling a little Deja vu the first time I read your blog... I'm an engineer, my darling husband is a kiwi, we love to travel, the grandparents just sent over The Wonky Donkey, VERY spirited baby...

    Seriously though, I think the key to equal division of chores is having the right partner. It's not just personality either - Its their level of career orientation too. my darling kiwi is supportive - but he's a doctor in training for his fellowship. He's chosen his speciality a) because it's interesting & b) because it is 'lifestyle' friendly (limited on-call, patients -generally- not acutely unwell. But it's still a hard slog and we really have to work on scheduling fun into our lives. This means I do the bulk of the chores - and have done from when he started his intern year with working 144 hours over 13 days! But I only do them when he is working/studying/bouncing the baby to sleep. Effectively this means we have the same free time. What does this arrangement cost me? A change in my technical field from one I really loved (but was only compatible with working in a high stress but high paid industry) to one that is just interesting, not as well paid but FAR more flexible with a company that has strong pathways for career development for female & part time workers. And it's not just women who use the flexible working environment - plenty of men start or finish early to do the school run, take carers leave when their kids are sick. Sometimes I'm a little sad that the darling kiwi is never going to be reliable about getting home because he just. can't. walk. away. unless. he's. finished. Which is good for his patients I guess. But not compatible with both of us having a demanding job.

    It does s@&t me though when HE gets sympathy about working long hours from our family & I don't!

  9. @Anonymous- that's too funny! Do you know the words to Hairy Maclary by heart, too?

    Somewhere I read a quote I liked (but can't remember, exactly) that in an equal marriage, it is not 50-50 all the time, but 50-50 over the long run. That's what I aim for, anyway. Sometimes, Hubby does more, sometimes I do. Over the long run, it should all balance out.

    Of course, I've never had such a long period of time in which I had to be the one doing more. It would be a tough thing, I think, both to do at the time and to stop doing when the time came, because habits form and they can become unquestioned. It sounds like you both have an eye on keeping things fair over the long run, though.

  10. @Anonymous and Cloud,
    I also felt some Deja Vu reading this blog. My boys are the same age as Pumpkin and my husband is an Aussie. I know I know, not at ALL the same thing, but I know all the words to Hairy Maclary. We're currently obsessing over "Dragon in a Wagon". The boys do a mean Scarface Claw.

    @Caramama- YES, what ARE those husbands doing while their wives do all the chores?

  11. Anonymous7:13 PM

    Yep - Hairy Maclary is on high rotation while I still have total control of storytime choices! I love the rhyme and rythmn of the words. Embarrassingly though, I only just realized that Donaldsons Dairy isn't a moo cow dairy, but a shop. Yes I lived in NZ for three years but I didn't make the connection until I really looked at the illustrations one day.

    @zed Scarface claw impressions sound so cute!

  12. Did you see the NY Times article about paternity leave in Sweden? And how it is now expected that men leave their jobs for months at a time? Somehow it seems easier to deal with the hard when everyone experiences all the facets of parenthood (cause everyone knows they exist, first-hand?)

  13. "...I don't see how quitting my job would make any of these things better, and in fact, I suspect it would make dealing with them even more difficult. So I think any woman who wants to work outside the home but also wants to be a mother should go for it. It certainly isn't easy, but neither is the alternative."

    Exactly. Thank you for this post, Cloud.

  14. Loving finally reading your blog, your girls are just so adorable and exhausting too!

    My brother is a part time stay at home dad, and it is interesting how all the emphasis is always on the mom for having to juggle things. I noticed an interesting article on offbeat mom about how sometimes dreadful people at the playground say to stay at home dads how wonderful it is that they are 'babysitting'! WTF!

    One thing that does interest me is that dad's dont seem to feel as guilty, I dont know if you read mamsters blog, or read 'hungry monkey' but the guilt seems more female.


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