Monday, August 29, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure

As I've been reading the wonderful comments on my last two posts (and they really are wonderful, every single one of them- I'm lucky to have such thoughtful commenters), I've been trying to better pin down my thoughts on the issues we've been discussing: what careers are "better" for mothers, how unfair it is that we rarely worry about what careers are good for fathers, the differences between difficulties inherent in the work and difficulties that are artificially created by the culture of the field or the company involved.... I want to write a thoughtful, well-organized post about all of this, but I can't do it yet. My thoughts just are that organized, I guess.

But I still wanted to get a few more ideas out there, before I move on to other topics for awhile.

The first is the thought, which I am sure is not novel, that motherhood is a lot like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I loved as a kid. You make choices along the way, and they shape the choices that you are presented with down the road a bit, and it is not always easy to predict the ultimate outcome from any one choice. But also (because these were books written for kids), the alternate outcomes were rarely bad- just different.

I see four sets of choices around motherhood. As I've written before, I don't think there is an easy way to be a mother- I think that no matter how you do it, you get an adventure.

1. You could choose to leave the workforce when you have kids and never really go back, or at least not go back until the kids are grown. I don't really have a lot to say about this path, because it is so far removed from my experience. I think I have one friend who has gone this path, and we see each other so infrequently that I wouldn't presume to comment based on that one example. But I want to make sure to acknowledge this option, because the women who choose this path do make valuable contributions to the community- they are often the classroom volunteers, soccer coaches, and the den mothers, for instance. Just because our society hasn't figured out how to place an economic value on the work that they do, we should not ignore it or belittle it.

2. You could choose to leave the workforce for a shorter period, maybe five years or so, staying out until your youngest kids is two, or starts kindergarten, or whatnot. I do know several people who have done this, although it is rare in my particular line of work.

3. You could choose to stay in the workforce full time, just taking your maternity leaves. Obviously, this is the path I took, and it is also the path that most of my friends have taken.

4. You could choose to stay in the workforce, but go to part time work. I know two people who have done this, and they were doing a job share with each other. I think it is hard to set this option up, but if you can get it, it can be pretty awesome... unless you find yourself permanently on a "mommy track", I suppose.

I'm sure I'm missing something, but my main point is that there are different ways to do motherhood, and each has its pluses and minuses. In my view, the trick to being happy is to be happy with the path you took. The problem is, of course, that it is not always obvious ahead of time which path will make you happy. Also, sometimes you get forced down a path due to financial considerations, and you would actually prefer to be on another path, or you really want to leave the workforce for awhile, but the career you love isn't very accepting of that. And of course, you may think you can switch paths- going back to fulltime work after a stint of part time work, and find that it is harder than you'd like to make that switch. And a whole host of other things can go not quite according to plan.

So its a high tension Choose Your Own Adventure, I guess.

The second thing that I've been thinking about is the difference between things that are hard for working parents that are inherent in the work required by a job (the difficulty with leaving for a mid-day doctor's appointment if you are a teacher, for instance) and things that are hard due solely because of the arbitrary way in which the culture of that job has evolved (the late-shifted hours of some computer programming jobs, for instance, or the difficulty of re-entering science after a break of a few years).

If I ran the universe, the only difficulties would be those inherent in the work, and we'd actually try as a society to minimize those. But I suppose that is obvious. And I don't run the world.

Finally, at the risk of calling privilege on myself... I have been thinking about how invisible mothers working in service industry jobs are in these discussions. People will tell me that I must have a hard time balancing my career and my family, and the truth of the matter is that it isn't all that hard for me. Sure, there are challenging times, and times when I sit and want to cry out of frustration or exhaustion and think that surely there has to be an easier way. But those times are infrequent, and for the most part, my life isn't that hard. It is pretty darn good, actually. But when I try to imagine making it all work with a service industry job, my mind boggles. Those are the working mothers who have it the hardest, I think, and I don't see my society doing much at all to help them. I don't actually see many viable solutions to this problem, either.

And on that depressing note, I'm going to go watch some TV with my husband. Thanks for the interesting discussion everyone. Keep the comments coming!


  1. And in real life you can't just keep your fingers in the other pages to jump back and have a do-over if the path you picked didn't turn out like you expected ;)

    I am really enjoying this whole series even though i don't fit in anywhere (which is why I just lurk).

  2. I think part of the problem too is that sometimes, when you are making these choices, you don't really have all the information either. When I had my first, I had no real intention of going back to work because we didn't need that for financial reasons and I though saying home with a child sounded lovely. My husband was, as always, supportive either way. As it turns out, I SUCK as a SAHM and I love my work (and I didn't really realise until I was away how much I loved it). Thank goodness I didn't give my employers an indication that I might not return because I could have done some serious damage.

    My best friend had the exact opposite feeling - she was a hard core commercial litigator (seriously, one of her cases was in front of the Supreme Court of Canada) who planned to return to work immediately because "why bother getting a law degree if you are not going to use it". She quit her job 1 year after her baby was born, and now works from home part-time doing wills about 25 hours per week. And she loves it.

    And I absolutely agree that its a real position of privilege to be able to pick and choose what path we want to take in motherhood, and to even worry about what will make us happy. I am in awe of moms in the service industries.


  3. What @Toria said, "And in real life you can't just keep your fingers in the other pages to jump back and have a do-over if the path you picked didn't turn out like you expected ;)"? EXACTLY! I totally used to do that, and you can only do that to some degree in the real world.

    ITA about the women in the service industry. I really believe that things could be better set up to accomodate parents of either sex in those industries, but that the industries can get away with not being accomodating, so they aren't. It doesn't seem right.

    I've been known to say, "If I were
    Queen of the World, things would be different."

  4. How timely! I just negotiated with my bosses *today* to drop from 30 hours to 20 hours/week. I've been working part-time in the tech industry since returning from mat leave last year.

    AFAIK I'm not on a mommy track, and I do love having the sort of job and skills where I really can figure out what works best for our family. It's been sort of trial and error for the past couple of years but I'm finding my way.

  5. Love the CYOA series reference! I agree with what @Jac said: "I think part of the problem too is that sometimes, when you are making these choices, you don't really have all the information either." Yep. Not too many people are good at knowing what's going to make their own future self happy.

    Best career/life advice I ever received IRL actually came from a very wise old white boy network man and had nothing to do with work: "Don't marry an asshole." One of his other gems was "Parenting is a team sport." He was an unwitting feminist in that he gave the exact same advice to both men and women employees alike.

    When we're 25-ish a lot of us are still several years away from adding marriage and kids to the equation and clearly don't have all the info. However, this is precisely why blogging like you do may be of some major importance as a source of firsthand knowledge about working out all the nitty gritty details you don't even really know about until long after mat leave is over. Voices like yours saying, "Yes, it can be done (without losing your sanity) and here's how," etc need to be heard!

  6. I've been following these posts with interest. I've got a post coming up (once I get my shit together) on some interesting Australian studies on family & work etc. One of the components of the study that was interesting was their examination of the deliberate government policy in the Netherlands of having a one and a half earner per family model. One of my friends who has just returned from living in the Netherlands says it was really common where she worked that men we're having 'Daddy days' as well as women working part-time - she was working in the engineering industry too.

    I agree with Jac. Sure, we might want a do-over or more information sometimes, but being able to make a choice between the CYOA options - that's a real privilege.

    For me personally, I was very ambivalent about going back to work at the time. I enjoy being at home with my daughter and I was worried about having that time cut down. However, because I can could reduce my hours to 2 days a week and I was also worried about losing my technical skills (and my husband really thought I should, partly for financial reasons, partly because he thought I'd be happier) - I went back part time. And, as I've previously, blogged - it was the right decision for me. I enjoy the days I go to work, and the days I'm at home. I don't think I'd be happy working full time right now - and I'm confident that I don't need to work full time to continue to advance career wise at my organisation. There are enough women & men who are not full time or work flexible schedules and continue to be promoted and do interesting work. But, the organisation knows their technical staff have made an explicit trade-off in money vs conditions - and that's what gives us all a strong bargaining position. Plus, the other thing that makes it easy to negotiate flex hours, is that it's not just the women looking for the flexibility. It is no surprise to check one of the guys calendars and see time blocked out with the note: "Stay at home Dad today" or "No appointments before 9.30 or after 3" or "Daycare pick-up" I really think that makes a huge difference to the atmosphere.

  7. I agree with what Zenmoo points out about the atmosphere being different when men are engaged in the process of caregiving. Sadly, I don't think anything will change for mothers until fathers are doing the same thing. (I say 'sadly' only because I wish women's experiences were enough to create the political and social will to change.) I'm in a difficult personal-professional situation with no end in sight(an academic with children and a partner who works 350 miles away). OUr life is a constant stream of complex and excruciating negotiations about how to balance/measure our personal happiness and professional fulfillment against the other person's and now our children's. I have almost given up more times than I can count, and have made very difficult decisions to pursue my career aggressively even though it means that my partner and I aren't together. (Nobody ever says anything to me about it except that they "respect" my ability to balance things, but my partner hears all the time, Doesn't your wife want to quit her job? Couldn't she just stay at home with the kids? Then you could be together!) We keeping hoping for the best. But as others have pointed out, we don't know what the outcomes of our choices will be. That's one of the main reasons I've maintained my high-status job, even though it brings with it a certain amount of dissatisfaction - but it does place me in a good position to move on, whereas I feel like I'd be diminishing my potential future opportunities by leaving it. It's scary to take a step into the void, even though our commuting situation causes pretty significant financial and emotional stress.

    Re: service industry - imagine having a night shift. I know a nurse on the night shift whose a single mom. Ever heard of a daycare that operates at night?

    My memory of CYOA is that 85% of the "wrong" paths ended in death/disaster.

  8. WOw, a single mom w/ night shift - how much would that suck :(?

    But I have a friend whose mom deliberately worked the night shift so that she could be home with her kids during the day. She'd sleep while they were at school - not sure what she did when they were little. But it worked for them.

  9. Where there is demand, there is supply. Las Vegas has several 24-hour day care centers near casinos. We also have them in Chicagoland near our factories and casinos. They are not exactly what I would deem "quality care" but if the kid is sleeping, I'm not sure how much it matters. I have no idea when parents sleep then though.

    I've heard of parents setting up a babyproofed living room and sleeping on the couch while the kids toddle around. Usually the other parent gets off work rather early (2 or 3) and then the other parent goes back to sleep. I could never do that. I mean, really. I worked swing turns before I had kids and was a zombie. I can't imagine doing it now. I do know people who do this on purpose to save on day care costs. Maybe a second shift nurse and a teacher or a police officer on afternoons/midnights and an office worker.

    As for service industry jobs, I had always thought of those as being ridiculously, infinitely family-friendly but for quite different reasons than others are stating. I was thinking of retail work. There is easy entry and exit into the jobs so you can enter and leave the workforce as desired. The scheduling can be flexible using off-hours and weekends to maximize the other spouse's caregiving and minimize day care costs. The scheduling can change from week-to-week allowing you to have weekdays off to do school things with the kids. You can have part-time arrangements and probably move up and down with the number of hours you want and need. At least, that's how I had always seen it.

  10. @Erin, the thing that drives me crazy is that no one asks your husband why HE doesn't quit and stay home with the kids so that you can be together. No one asks my husband how we juggle it all.

    I've shut up many a insensitive boor telling me I should stay home with the kids by stating the truth: I make more money than my husband, so if anyone was going to stay home, it was going to be him. And he didn't want to. Somehow that's OK for him but not for me.

    @SarcastiCarrie- I think of service industry jobs as family unfriendly because you generally have to find a way to work more than 40 hours to make ends meet, at least in my neck of the woods. Unless, of course, your spouse has a high paying job, in which case you are right- you probably stay home.

  11. Oh- and they generally don't have the flexibility I have of just packing up and leaving if day care calls with a sick kid. Chances are, they don't even have paid time off.

  12. Well, I think you've summarized things pretty succinctly. I agree that no choice is optimal. As an engineer, exiting the full time work force is career suicide. I think the ideal for me would be part time employment but the few "mommy track" jobs at my company are totally mind numbing. So, instead I choose a little more crazy and hectic in exchange for being able to continue to use my brain.

    It's so true that it's great to have choices. So many don't have that luxury.

  13. re: service industry jobs - yes, it's true that there are some jobs that provide employees with actual choice regarding which shifts they work. But a lot of shift work (generally, moving beyond but including service industry work) is about seniority - that is, the folks who have been there the longest get first priority in choosing shifts. So if you're newish, you actually don't often have choices. That may not be true everywhere, but it's true a lot. And I also bet there are a lot more single mothers worked evening/night shifts than there are places with night time child care available. Where I live, there are zero institutional options for people who have to work at night (ie, you have to find a babysitter).

    @ Cloud - well, nobody asks my husband that except my mother! She thinks he would be a great SAHD.

    I been mulling this over some more, and am struck by how often choice are "choices." (Choices in name only). So I was able to work out maternity leaves that were extended by US standards (although the first one meant I was without a paycheck for over 6 months). I really really didn't want to leave my babies in daycare when they were tiny. If faced with a "choice" of going back to work at 6 weeks, as many American mothers do, or quitting my job, I would quit my job. It would have been a choice in the technical sense of the word - since I wasn't fired and there was no literal gun to my head - but when you think about the institutionalized sexism that makes such choices the only viable ones, well, then it seems like less of a choice, and more like a punishment. (Not that being with my baby was punishment. You understand.) And of course the less income your family has the less choice.


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