Monday, May 23, 2011

Ideals and Reality

We had a great weekend.

On Saturday, we took the kids down to Balboa Park for a visit to the fish pond, carousel, and zoo train. This was Pumpkin's idea, and it was a great one. Pumpkin still judges the main carousel to be too fast for her (and it is a fast one), so she climbed into an airplane in the little ride nearby, to show Petunia how it was done. Petunia happily allowed us to strap her in behind her sister, hung her arms on the side of the airplane in an almost perfect mimic of her big sister, and enjoyed the ride.

After the ride on the carousel, we headed over to the nearby train, and again, both girls loved it. Petunia was quite serious, and seemed more interested in her crackers than the train ride until we passed the mosaic lion, at which point she said "raaarrr" and started to smile.

Then we met my sister at The Station for lunch. San Diegans with kids- if you have not yet discovered The Station, you should check it out. You may never eat the over-priced zoo lunch again. Of course, we still do, because Pumpkin likes to eat at the zoo.

On Sunday, the mother of one of Pumpkin's day care friends emailed to see if we wanted to meet them at the Sicilian Festival in Little Italy. We decided that we did- so we packed Petunia's snacks and milk into the diaper bag and headed out. Pumpkin enjoyed getting her face painted, watching the short parade, and jumping in the bouncy. Petunia was a little overwhelmed by it all, but had a great time walking around on the little patch of sidewalk we grabbed to eat our lunch. The adults enjoyed some good food, although I wish I'd been able to hack the long line to get a cannoli.

After nap, I took the girls outside to play for awhile, and decided to thin the carrots Pumpkin and I had planted a couple of months back. Both girls enthusiastically wandered the yard with carrots in their hands for awhile. In fact, I only rescued the last carrot from Petunia with great difficulty. And yet, neither would eat the carrots for dinner. Ah well, at least we had fun with them before they were cooked.


Here is what I left out of the above synospis:
  • The nap time f*** up on Saturday that resulted in me taking an hour long walk instead of the nap I so craved (the walk did at least get Petunia enough sleep to allow her to make it through the rest of the afternoon without trouble)
  • Me losing it at bathtime on Saturday when Petunia kept climbing out of the bath and sitting on my lap.
  • Hubby giving Pumpkin a time out in her empty bath tub on Sunday because she kept demanding that I come dry her off, when I was nursing Petunia.
  • Me losing it during pre-bedtime snack on Sunday when Petunia threw her strawberries on the floor. Why do I fall for this over and over? She never eats the strawberries. But she signs '"strawberry" and she says "raw-bury" so convincingly, so I get out the strawberries I've cut for the next day's morning snack at day care. And she squishes them and throws them on the floor.
And probably a few other less than idyllic scenes that I've already blotted from my memory.

All of this was fresh in my mind when I read blue milk's post (and linked article) about why women work. It is refreshing to read an article in a mainstream publication that acknowledges that work for mothers is not all about economics- it is also about sanity.

It sometimes seems to me that we have all entered into a collective vow of silence about the reality of parenting. Perhaps it is just because we love our kids so much that we highlight the good parts and gloss over the bad. But surely we have all struggled to answer the question from the childless (or is it "child free"?) friend or colleague about why we had kids, and ended up with some lame answer about how they make us see things with fresh eyes (and they do!) or how there is nothing quite like making a baby laugh (and there isn't!)- all while our friend/colleague looks at us with obvious disbelief and cannot comprehend how whatever good thing we're highlighting could possibly compensate for the lost sleep and lack of free time.


Then today, both Female Science Professor and Dr. Isis had Q&A posts from women who wanted to take time off to stay home with their kids (or, in FSP's case, had already done so). It is interesting that the comment sections diverged quite a bit- the comments on FSP's post slant heavily toward "yes, I'd hire someone with a gap"- perhaps because the woman in question had actually been working part time and producing papers during her "time off"- while the comments on Dr. Isis's post slant heavily toward "your kids will be fine in day care, don't take time off".  It is an interesting dichotomy, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

Perhaps it is just another in a long string of mixed messages mothers get these days. One one hand, there is still a fairly large societal bias towards staying home- even though the majority of mothers in America do not stay home. It seems that we reconcile this by saying that they would stay home, if they could afford it. But of course, as that blue milk post- and my own experience- indicates, that isn't necessarily true. Plenty of us could afford to stay home and choose not to. That reality is rarely acknowledged.

Of course, some women really do want to stay at home with their kids, and that is great. But I wonder if some women end up feeling pressured to stay home, and worse, to give up all of their non-child interests. If no one really wants to admit that sometimes, parenting sucks, then it is hard to explain why sometimes you just need to do something else for awhile, particularly if you've decided to leave your career to spend more time with your kids.

This all feeds into a society that has frankly gone a little bit off the deep end in terms of what we expect good, middle class parents to do for their kids. We have taken an already intense experience, and intensified it further. Just when the kids are coming out of the time period in which they truly are quite needy and demand more time and attention than it sometimes feels possible to give, we decide to tack on more expectations. Rather than saying "phew, now I can rest a bit," we decide that our kids need lessons of all sorts, and sports leagues, and various other enrichment activities. It is easy to see how a mother could end up in a situation in which the entire focus of her life, all of her dreams and aspirations, involve the kids. In fact, that is in a way what our culture tells us is the ideal mother.

Until the kids get older. At some point, this focused mother is not the ideal. She becomes a "helicopter parent" and is ridiculed for not being able to let go and let her kids succeed or fail on their own.

I am certainly no fan of helicopter parenting, but I can't help but think that we have at least in part created this phenomenon. Perhaps the helicopter mothers are just the natural extension of the false ideals that we are fed about parenting. Maybe we'd have fewer helicopter parents if we all just acknowledged that sometimes, parenting is no fun at all, and that it is fine and normal for any parent to want some other thing in his or her life, too, be that paid work or volunteer work or a hobby.

But I don't know. This is all just semi-coherent musings- I have no data to back me up and it is past my bed time. What do you all think? Is this all related? Or have I finally gone crazy from the sleep deprivation?


edited to ad: In the light of morning, after a fairly good night's sleep (thanks, Petunia!) I realize that I left out the other half of the mixed message- that if you decide to keep working, it is hard to ease up a bit. There aren't many part time jobs, and it is hard to even just downshift your drive for a few years and "idle" in a good fulltime job without aiming for promotions, etc., without being shifted permanently to a "mommy track".

So the choice that may feel most natural to some women- lower your career expectations a bit for a few years while the kids are in the very young, very needy time and combine that with motherhood that isn't all consuming- doesn't feel available. It can be easy to feel that you are making an all or nothing decision, and making it quite early in your baby's life, since we don't give decent maternity leaves in the US.


  1. I think there is a lot we don't talk about because it feels like minutia that is only interesting to the people involved. Like how excited I am right now because Tate put his sippy cup in the sink rather than screaming HERE! for me to take it from him. Or why even though the screaming drives me batty, nine times out of ten I still walk over and take it after reminding him to talk nicely and ask for help.

    I just spent ten full days with Tate, no school for either of us. It was awesome and exhausting. And then he spent two nights away and I missed him so much it felt like a sharp pain sometimes. It's a curious thing being a mom. (Or dad) I don't know if you can ever really explain it to a childless person.

  2. Nah, you're preaching to the choir. I could dig up links to similar posts of ours but I'm too lazy this morning!

    I imagine that when confronted with the actual cv of the lady in the FSP post (if they are not, in fact, the same questioner with details changed), the reaction will be different, especially depending on who the other folks in the cv pile are. It's easy to say, "Sure, I'd hire her" when you have no position available.

    My reaction to the Dr. Isis post was irritation at the questioner that daycare before "the tender" age 1 was somehow inhumane. It isn't. So I understand all the comments on that front.

  3. I just had to laugh at Petunia & the strawberries... Kids just know how to push their parents buttons so well!

    I liked the article linked by blue milk. I think people think I'm joking sometimes when I say I come to work for a relaxing break from kamikaze patrol. It is very good for my sanity to have a couple of days where for hours at a time I don't have to intervene to stop the 16 month old attempting to climb out the window/ stick her head out the back of her stroller/ stomp in the dogs water bowl/ empty and then sit in the kitchen drawers/ post pens into the base of the BBQ / jump off the step ladder/ crawl through gap between the
    rose bushes and the garden fence... (that was a list of today's pre-lunchtime nap effort.) I could not cope with that every day.

    However, I personally don't want to work any more than that now because I want to do kid stuff too. Plus, being realistic - the husband doesn't have the career or job flexibilty I do - and with best will in the world, he just isn't that helpful with stuff that would make working more feasible without significant additional stress for me. I mean, he did his very first daycare pick up this week, after 4

    And as for why being a parent is great - well, I think it's love. Nobody is going to love my baby more than we (her parents) will. And nobody is going to love me more purely than my baby does. It's a powerful thing to feel how much I matter to her. (This is probably coloured a little at the moment by the fact her new trick is to come running over for a cuddle and then when I pick her up she grinds her little finger into my chest and says with great certainty & glee - 'My Mummeeee!)

  4. Petunia and her strawberries is the perfect example of the dichotomy of parenting - seen from afar it is totally adorable; dealt with every day it is infuriating.

    One of my favorite bits about being a parent is snuggling up with a small sleepy person at bedtime and reading her stories before tucking her in. And yet...some nights she can be so incredibly infuriating that I'd rather go wash the dinner dishes instead - because that is a task with a definite ending. Once you're done you can look at a nice clean kitchen and feel that glow of a job well done. Tucking the small child in who does not want to be tucked and decides to spend an hour screaming at you instead...not nearly so satisfying. And yet...those nights when she is sweet and snuggly and goes right to sleep - well, that doesn't even begin to compare with the satisfaction of a clean kitchen.

    The highs are higher and the lows are lower. Not better or worse, just different. It is the really hard work that gives us the strongest feelings of happiness and satisfaction. And then there are the really cool bits - like the look on her face when she discovered that addition is transitive...

  5. Susan8:20 AM

    I very much relate to all of the things you say in this post, about the lack of balance on both sides of the mom/work divide. At work there isn't much accommodating motherhood. I am a university professor, and with a 3.5 year old son. I am up for tenure next academic year, but would like to have another baby (I am almost 38). Yet I feel like I can't come up for tenure while pregnant; and I know that a second child WILL completely slow my productivity, my promotions, my raises, etc. But I don't want to be a fulltime SAHM either, and we cannot afford it. So I either spend less time with my kids than I would like, or make less career progress than I would like. Argh.

  6. @Susan, FWIW, I found that my productivity rebounded faster after the birth of my 2nd baby than after the birth of my 1st. Lots of reasons for this. Her better sleeping patterns were certainly a big factor, though.

    Also, everyone- blogger is having issues. If you can't comment with your blogger account, try a name/url.

  7. mary d11:14 AM

    My daycare director has said "Some of us are better mothers BECAUSE we work." I like that. You're right -- it's not mentioned enough. Not everyone wants to or can stay home with the kids.

    Excellent post, again. Thanks.

  8. "It sometimes seems to me that we have all entered into a collective vow of silence about the reality of parenting." YES! And I for one would love to know more about why that is in the first place, and how it is that we are still there.

  9. YES a thousand times YES.

    I second nicoleandmaggie's comment that you're preaching to the choir. Most of us read your blog because we're like minded. I work for the exact same reasons you do. Pretty much all of them.

    And, incidentally, Annie doesn't like strawberries but always asks for them and cries if I give them to Rosie and give her something different. Then she puts them in her mouth, chews them, spits them out, then throws on the floor. The extra step of pre-chewing is really necessary for her to extract the full impact of my annoyance.

    And I agree with hush - I'd love to know why it is that we've entered this collective vow of silence. For the most part I have not, and I often get weird looks when I'm honest with people of the challenges of parenting. And childbirth too. If a girlfriend asks me how childbirth is, I don't put lipstick on that pig. I tell it like it is. Because I certainly wish someone had told me and no one did.

  10. the milliner7:29 PM

    Thank you, thank you for posting the 'here's what I left out' part. It's so great to hear from other parents when even their great days are mixed with the everyday frustrations we all face.

    Honestly, I'm getting pretty sick and tired of all the labels (helicopter etc.) that are placed on parents - mostly mothers. It feels like you just can't effing win no matter what you do. And I totally agree that I think we create this kind of phenomenon. I suspect that media also has a big role to play in this.

    While no doubt there are parents on all ends of the spectrum, the fact is that it's SO hard to place yourself in someone else's shoes...especially when it comes to parenting.

    What would be nice instead is a society that is built around helping parents raise their children and not placing all of these crazy barriers (like inflexible work environments or hours and cost-prohibitive daycare) in the way of doing it in a sane, healthy and ultimately more productive way.

    We do have a lot where I am (12-18 mos maternity leave and subsidised daycare), but it's not enough. Even with the long mat leave, I still often feel like I have an all or nothing option when it comes to my career. I hate that.

    @mom2boy, I love your description of being a parent as curious. It really is hard to explain to someone whe does not have a child.

  11. Anonymous5:03 AM

    re: Silence on these issues:

    Join a mommy forum. You will hear them so much that you will wonder why these folks have kids at all. There's got to be a happy medium.

    Personally though, I'm working on seeing the bright side to life because it makes me happier. I'm not hiding anything, I'm changing how I feel about things.

  12. @mom2boy- yes, I sometimes crave time away from my kids, particularly when one of them is in a clingy phase. And then, when I go away, I miss them.

    @nicoleandmaggie- the hiring after a gap may be one thing industry does better. People end up with gaps due to lay offs, etc, so as long as it isn't too long, you can recover. I think it is reasonable to have to go "down" a step, though. If I took 5 years off, I wouldn't expect to be able to come in at the same level I'm at now. I'd have to come in a bit more junior. It seems reasonable for the same thing in academia- i.e., that you'd have to go back and do another postdoc.

    @zenmoo, @mary d- I am totally a better parent BECAUSE I work. Definitely. I like to say that getting the break gives me the patience to be the sort of parent I want to be.

    @Today Wendy- I'm right there with you on the bedtime snuggles. We're mostly at a good compromise now (I snuggle for 4 songs, a zebra story and one more minute, then I go). But sometimes, I just want to crawl out of my skin and go be alone.

    On the silence thing- I think we break it online more easily than in real life. I'd like to see the stigma decrease to the point that I can say in real life "sometimes parenting sucks" without getting shocked looks.

    On the "all or none" choice with the career: I've downshifted a bit and been surprised that it hasn't come back to bite me. Yet. I can see that I might be able to ramp up again in a couple of years, when Petunia is 3 or 4 years old. But of course, I won't know until I get there. I should write a post on the downshifting thing sometime.... It is hard, because I don't really feel like my career is suffering, but I also don't feel like I am pushing it as hard as I could. How those two things can be true at once is hard to explain.

  13. I love your posts on work/family issues and the things we're silent about that make it harder. I think all the time about your points a while back r.e. "convenience" foods.

    I stopped by because I just ran across a blog that made me think of you. Not sure if you already know it:

    She has some ideas I thought you'd dig -- seems to mix science / politics / a hard look at how parenting is in the same way you do.

  14. This post was great - I don't feel guilty about not blogging for ages because you pretty much said what I've been feeling lately about parenting being an intense experience and society being super judgmental about it, no matter what. :)

    I still lament the loss of free time and sleep, while not regretting the decision to have kids. But I'm totally honest about that with people and I think they find it weird that I'll say that up front.

    I'm already finding myself overscheduling BabyT on my non-working days: Little Gym, physical therapy (which she needs, so not really negotiable), toddler group, swimming lesson, and music class, which I ditched after 2 sessions because it was stupid and the schedule was driving me mad. Kind of ridiculous for a 20 month old, right?

    Still trying to find the right balance here.


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