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|
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?