Friday, December 24, 2004

Page Proofs, I

A little bit on me: I'm a mom, trained as a professor, once a fulltime, just tenured professor, who quit when my daughter was born. I now teach part time. And write. And parent. That's right, I quit and gave up tenure and a job for life, all because life is complicated. Or was it I just got mad that my university didn't have real maternity leave?

I was at a conference this past weekend, in Chicago. One of the panels featured a study that had been done on Jewish communal life and why women weren't rising to the top, to run organizations. It's a different field than mine, but the analysis, by Shifra Bronznick and Sherry Israel, was excellent. There's so much talk these days about mothers opting out, but that's not the way they explain it. they look instead to issues like, was there enough professional development for women? was there sufficient support and flexibility to accommodate family life? Their questions were so empowering--mothers who quit jobs still feel like somehow we've failed. Had we only been stronger, more competent, we could do the balance of work and family that others seem skilled at. Women who work hard and end up never reaching the top think it's about their skill--or lack of it.

Most of my book "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars" is about the falacy of such things. That workplaces squeeze us out by not adjusting to our lives as parents. That many mothers who look like they're making it all work aren't--they're either hiding the effort it takes to keep kids and worklife going, or they have housekeepers or other help, or a decent job that really ends at five and doesn't have stress, or they're among the few and the proud mothers who are totally organized and efficient. The rest of us--we're just struggling, whether we're working fulltime, or at home, or trying to do some part time work, too.

In real life, the panelists were saying, it's that men are mentored and women aren't. Mentor women and we will rise to the top. Give us family flexibility and help us through those first extremely tough years, or welcome us back in after a few family-raising years off, and we'll do well.

In an earlier draft of the book, I wrote a prose-poetry chapter that kept giving reasons for why I quit my job as a feminist professor to be a mom. The reasons kept changing. They were many. I was mad, I was bored, I was tired of commuting to a city seven hours away each week, I was burnt out because I had to work so hard for tenure, I was enthralled by the idea of life at home with a young child. I kept going. A full chapter of all the reasons one woman quits out.

At the conference, then, I found myself telling a single version: I quit because there was no maternity leave. Because I realized I had worked my butt off for my career, and in return, that career didn't care a hoot about whether I had a baby and some extra needs because of it. The thing is, my university goofed. They had invested thousands of dollars into my research; had given me summer grants to study in Britain and in Turkey. They gave me teaching prizes, and when I received an outside grant, they matched the funds. Yes, they lost it all because they didn't have maternity leave policies for professors. Their policy book still assumed that professors were men (as if dads too don't need time off when a new baby arrives...). the secretaries did find a way to patch together some sick time for me, and if I remember, a dean offered me a faux-research leave--but I would have had to produce some new writing--during my child's first four months--and I needed to promise I'd return after. I had the good instinct to say no on both accounts.

All that work they demanded I do for tenure, they couldn't even offer paid family leave, on its own merits.

After listening to the panel, I've decided to contact my old workplace and see whether they ever changed their policy. Does a certain Florida university now offer paid family leave to professors? It may take time to figure out, but stay tuned.....

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Okay, it's serious

Yes, it's become a rather serious blog.

I didn't plan it that way. I thought I could pull off writing a happy cheery book-and-blog that still managed to give voice to the real problems facing women, and mothers in particular, and how we rarely get a chance to talk about these things.

I wanted to keep it perky. In real life I like to laugh. I like to joke, and I like to smile. When I first drafted the book, it was all in a first person voice. It wasn't supposed to be memoir, but still, I was the guide through the world of early motherhood and its social politics. I wanted to capture the fun of it all-you know, hanging at the playground, making new friends, watching toddlers do jellyrolls down a slow hill while miraculously avoiding all traces of dog poop. I wanted to show that one can be serious about the world and the need for change, and still care about how to make an excellent dinner party. The first draft even included a few recipes. The idea was to combine the daily practicality of life with children, of life as a woman trying to take time off from a career without ditching it all, with more philosophical ruminations of why it's still so hard to combine work and motherhood, why none of our options are excellent.

No one wanted to publish that version. it mixed genres, I was told by various editors.

In the meantime, a good book, a serious book, by a fabulous new writer who's rather fun over the telephone, as I discovered when I interviewed her for my book: check out Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner: The F-Word.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

really, this happened, or, domestic labor really was invisible

It's unbelievable, true, but here's what happened, just an hour or so after I wrote the last entry. The scene: a family holiday dinner, kids all around, siblings, great aunts, granparents. My mother in law spent all week preparing. Chopping for the beef stew. Grating potatoes for the latkes. Baking two cakes. Making her own apple sauce, which, I know, it's easy to buy very good apple sauce these days, but she loves making her own. She's 79, and this is the way she's always done it. She set a gorgeous table, two actually, one in the dining room for the adults, and put a cloth on the kitchen table for the kids.

After it was over, most of us adults were in the kitchen, cleaning up. My father in law was with his sister in the dining room. it turns out that though they've been married over fifty years, this is the first dinner party she's thrown that he ever helped out with. He was proud of his contributions, and he was beside himself: he couldn't believe how much work it took to pull the dinner together. For him it was one of those 'ah-ha' moments. As in, the floor doesn't sweep itself. The garbage I put in front of my house doesn't go away by itself. Dinner parties don't cook themselves.

He finally got it. And in his excitement, he said to his sister, a woman in her 70's who has spent many a week preparing many a dinner party, "You have no idea how much work goes into a dinner party."

The poor dear. He meant well. He meant to convey to the women around him that he finally realizes the extent of their labor, cooking all those meals he has so enjoyed.

His sister was furious. "You are so stupid," she said, losing her temper. "You are so stupid. Of course I know how much work goes into a dinner party. I've been making them all my life."

The rest of the apartment grew quiet. In the past I've been the one to raise my voice and quiet the place down, so I was glad to have some company in that regard. One time I had to yell at an older man who was harassing my daughter. I told him that if he didn't stop I was going to raise my voice so everyone would know. He ignored me, kept teasing my then-four-year-old daughter, I raised my voice and yelled at him to stop. All the relatives turned toward us, silent, until his wife ushered him out. He's never been invited back to a family meal.

"You don't know. Believe me, I know how much work it takes." And she huffed into the other room, repeating how stupid he was.

Now, name-calling aside, and they did make up later, there it was, clear as daylight, the invisibility of women's domestic labor. Over fifty years they've been married, and while he's been appreciative and admiring of the women in his life, he's never exactly realized--till now-- how much labor they performed.

housework is political

Today I'm thinking about the labor of everyday life. About what it takes to create a happy family life, and how many minutes, hours of time are devoted to it. Tonight's a big family hanukah party. We will all enjoy it. And my husband's mother has been cooking and freezing and prepping all week. The holidays have begun, and that means dinners to plan and prepare, and family to host, not to mention presents to procure. Last saturday, with a long list in hand, I took my husband with me to the stores in Chestnut Hill. I wanted him to be part of the process. In as natural a way as possible, I wanted him to realize the time it takes to buy presents, the way your throat gets dry after sorting through too many stores, the way you get hot because your coat's on, the tedium that takes over (okay, I've never been much of a shopper....)

I wanted him to see it, to take part, because I've gotten into the habit of doing all the present-buying for his family, as well as for my own. That's me wracking my brain to figure out what all the tween and teen cousins might like. It's horrible to admit that. Horrible, because it's just so gendered, so predictible, that women end up doing so much of the labor that keeps families going. When my brother married, his new wife took on all the responsibilities of his relations with his family. She's wonderful, but shouldn't he take responsibility? So there I was, realizing that the responsibility for

We mothers do too much work. And we rarely count it. It becomes the white noise of our lives. A few years back, when my daughter started fullday school, I began working again, and hired a housekeeper to stop by once every other week. I hadn't been aware of how much time it took me to keep our house clean until I saw him working, till I counted the hours that he scrubbed and dusted and changed linens. Housework is political, feminists of the early 70's knew that, but it's one of their insights that we've lost.

Monday, December 06, 2004


In the past six weeks of silence I finished the book, got sick again (writing can sure wear a body out), worked through copy edits and fact check, and the Truth Behind the Mommy Wars is now in production! Which means I can return to blogging much more regularly...

On my mind today. At the last minute, one of the many mothers I interviewed for my book told me how uncomfortable she felt with the several paragraphs I had written about her. I had used only her first name, but she decided she didn't want her name used. She wanted all details that could identify her deleted. She just plain felt uncomfortable with seeing herself in print. Her story was one of giving up her job when her daughter was born, of several moves, including one to a very glamorous European city, which I can't mention because I must respect her need for absolute privacy, and then returning to the US and working quite hard for severeal years to put herself in position for a new professional job. It's an important story that speaks to the problems that many mothers and fathers have when they take time off with young children and then look for new, decent work. It's the reentry problem.

She's not the only person I interviewed who wanted anonymity and privacy after agreeing to talk with me about the frustrations and joys of family life.

And I understand that many mothers don't want to raise a fuss, that we are afraid what others will think.

It's also true in my book that the fathers had no problem with using first names, last names, they wanted all the details in. they had confidence. Many, many of the mothers were more afraid. They wanted to talk, but became timid about speaking out in public. Which we understand. It's sad to see something I write about--mothers being timid about raising a fuss--played out so poignantly, and personally.

I understand that it can be quite horrifying to see oneself in print. We have relatively few models of literature about the everyday details of mothers' lives