Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Buses, yes. In the book I write about how it's just hard to get traction on the motherhood/parenting/fatherhood question. There are so many moving parts. You need fixes in government policy, like taxes and social security credits. You need workplace changes, starting with a general understanding of the real labor that parenting takes. You need economic and finance changes, so that houses aren't so expensive, and so we can all live on less. And then there's the schools issue, which has some of us working really hard for lots of money to buy houses in good public school districts, or living in cities and often paying through the nose for private school when urban districts are in disarray and hard to navigate. And that's not even the half of it. It's hard to know where to start. One can start big, with federal legislation, but that's complicated, especially with politics as they are right now. Or one can start very small and local, but raise the same issues.

Back when I was in Durham, and at a party at author Faulkner Fox's home, one of the mothers told a story about how her son was starting middle school, and she had just gotten him enrolled at a charter school, because the general middle school was deemed too rough. She had been at home all these years and was ready to go back to work, but she had just learned that the charter school didn't provide bus service.

That's all the detail I know. The group talked about it for a while, and then the discussion moved on to something else. But the conundrum stayed on my mind for a long time after.

In all our discussions of parenting and work, most of us would never point to buses as a culprit in the lack of support so many of us feel. They're not the main problem, by any means, but what I've learned is that the parenting problem is the sum of lots of small ways that parents don't get the help we need, of things that one by one feel small and petty but which add up to a climate that undermines us. You can't go after a climate, but you can take it apart and try to fix things one by one. I look around, and many mothers and fathers end up delaying a return to work, or feel like they can't go back to work, or that their part time hours are compromised, because of difficulties in getting the kids to and from school. Again, it's fine for many of us. I don't mind dropping my daughter off and picking her up. But that day when I tire of working from home all by myself, and I want an office job--well I'll be mighty glad that the school provides buses.

The mother seemed resigned to the situation. I understand that. We live in political times where we doubt that ordinary citizens can make change happen. And we are told again and again that motherhood, fatherhood, and family life are private, individual, and can't be fixed ever by group or governmental efforts of any kind, which is just plain ideological and wrong.

After the discussion, I kept wondering. What would it look like to raise a fuss about buses, to call the school district, to write to the papers, and not to limit the discussion to the simple "I want bus service" but to link it to the whole structure (or lack of structure) that supports (or doesn't support) parents and work, that makes it harder to do ordinary things, like get our kids to school. What would it look like to say, families need buses because in lieu of bus service, it's the mothers (mostly, and the few at home dads) whose lives balancing work and family are made more difficult. Because the savings on the part of the school is made up for by the unpaid labor of mothers and fathers, to raise the bus issue as a parenting issue.

I think sometimes we're afraid to make those links. We're afraid that someone will say we're insane, that there's no linkage, that a bus is just a bus. It's that small fear, or perhaps not a small fear, or being ridiculed or having someone say "you're wrong, that's silly" that keeps us from raising issues in the most immediate ways we know how, by calling school and city officials, by talking with our friends, and by writing letters to the editor.

Still, a bus, it turns out, is not just a bus, but one of many microcosms of the frustrations that families face.

And I wish that mother luck.


chip said...

You're absolutely right, Miriam. Our society really has disempowered each of us by making us think that we can't change things, that we are alone, and if we make noise, that we are crazy.

But forget about the bus. Parents need to use that energy to make all of the schools good for all of the kids.

I fear that the charter schools and other opt-outs are just reinforcing the competitive individualistic approach, leaving the kids whose parents don't have the resources, etc. to get them into alternatives stuck in bad schools. Better for people to fight for every kid, by pushing for systemic change.

Yeah it's really really hard and frustrating, and I'm going to blog about our own little battles which left me totally burnt out and disgusted. But until we see that the battle for our own kids has to include battling for all kids, none of this stuff is gonna help much. (sorry for the longwinded post...)

landismom said...

Well, I agree with Chip about the need to improve public schools for everyone, and his dislike of the elitism evident in some charter schools. I've also seen some work well, but most of those have been in various black communities that were setting up charter schools to provide black-led education for black children--something that public education has largely failed to do.

I think that at the root of this problem is a great failure of the US labor movement to engage with feminists back in the 70s. Stay with me here.

One of the major battles that the labor movement fought, from the beginning of the last century, was the fight for the eight-hour day. A fight that was predicated on the idea that a man should be able to support his family with an eight hour day, and not have to work 12 and 15 hours just to get by.

What if, at the point that women (primarily middle class women like you and me) were demanding to enter the workforce, we'd taken that demand to its next logical step? If one man was able to support his family working one eight hour per day job, shouldn't a working couple be able to have a similar standard of living working half-time?

What would this country be like now, if instead of demanding the right to work insanely long hours and still go home and raise the kids, the second gen feminists had demanded that men should have to give up those hours, and be at home more? What if all those working parents had extra time EVERY WEEK to volunteer in the schools, in local nursing homes, to attend city council meetings, and do all the other things that people in a democracy should be able to do, if we ever had time to do it? What if we actually believed that that volunteer work was as valuable as the paid work that (most of us) are doing now?

chip said...

great points landismom! We've always said that for us the ideal situation would have been both of us working part time.

Robyn said...

My biggest fault is that I see two sides to every story. I understand how buses would make this Mom's life better, and perhaps several Mom's life better, but I wonder if a bus is her ONLY choice. There are going to be other kids going to the school, find out who and see about setting up a schedule. Maybe she could have dropped off 3 kids in the morning and then not have to pick her child up in afternoons. Perhaps that is part of the myth of motherhood, we have to do it ALL OURSELVES. Yes, buses would be nice, but if you have a problem find a solution, don't resolve yourself to losing.

Anonymous said...

By parity of reasoning...
If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Think of the sacraments that would become available tp parents at home if most of them were male.

Miriam Peskowitz said...

Thanks everyone. I didn't mean to say that buses are the only answer. It was just that the conversation with this woman was so poignant because of how hard it was for her to imagine any solution, other than that she herself would do it.

And landismom, and chip, I just appreciate your vision at the moment. I did an odd reading today; the details don't matter as much as I left really wondering whether there's room for alternate, visionary talk about these issues, and about all the interconnected things, for really convincing more people that we need change, and that changes become possible when we start to talk and act. What a treat is was to come back home and jump into this debate. The school problem is just so connected to the parenting problem, isn't it. I think of the hours of conversation we've had in my family, and among friends about schools and kids and finances. And this happens in city after city, where the options are really terrible, for the most part. A friend was visiting this week who works in education in California, and he was talking about just how huge the inequities are. I told him about the mediocre public schools I had attended in New York, all those many years ago, and how now, we yearn for a decent, midrange school, something inbetween awful violence, and high achieving magnet.

And landismom, I love your vision of us working part time, and how during those moments of social change, what would have happened if we had asked all people to have less, to work less, to want fewer things, and instead, lead very different kinds of lives. yes, yes, yes.

And thank you, I needed inspiration tonight, and you both provided it to me, and to others reading, too.

landismom said...


I didn't think you meant that buses were the only answer, but understood the point that you were making about demanding systemic change.

Glad to hear that my post gave you inspiration at an "very odd" time.

amy said...

I remember my surprise and appreciation when I discovered that in Iowa, where I live, there's a careful charter-school experiment in progress. Between now and 2010, up to 10 charter schools may operate here. Charter schools must apply to local school boards for permission to operate. Parents and teachers have a strong voice in whether or not the board approves the application, and the board recommendations go on to the state DoEd. Anyone attempting to set up a charter school must submit a transportation plan for getting the children to school.

There's no cherry-picking, no tuition screens; admission is on a lottery basis, and charter schools may not charge tuition. They must also provide special ed. The entire idea appears to be, "If you have a sound educational experiment in mind, and you can generate public support for it, we'll let you try it, but we won't let you wreck our expensive and generally well-respected public school system in the process."

With a law that requires parental/board approval of charter school applications & explicit transportation plans, my guess is problems like "no buses" largely go away.

Unsurprisingly, the Center for Education Reform (a lobbying/advocacy charter-schools org) gives Iowa's law an F, mainly because charter school apps here can't bypass the local level.

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