Thursday, August 7, 2008

Parenting between the Cliffs of Risk and the Rocks of Pragmatism

Cliffs and rocks at Big Sur, California, photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yesterday in comments on my feminist homeschooling post and at her own blog, Marcy of Marcy's Musings suggested that my arguments against long-term withdrawal from the paid labor market were driven by a politics of fear. She pushed me to keep thinking about this, since they way I mix my feminism with my parenting is definitely not driven by fear. It’s a balance between risk-taking and pragmatism, which recognizes that "choice" is illusory unless you've got a clear picture of the trade-offs.

Honestly, a lot of people (feminists or not) might say I take a few too many risks. Too many years in grad school? Check. In an "impractical" field? Check. Married a foreigner whose training is in philosophy? Check. Rode home the other night on my bike after midnight - alone - through the big city of Berlin? Check. In other areas, though, I'm boringly risk-averse: I won't talk on a cell phone while driving, and I'm very careful with my kids' safety.

We all take risks - some smart, some stupid - and the trick is to figure out which risks are worthwhile. Marcy recognizes, for instance, that her decision to stay home with her kids through their school years entails a financial risk. She doesn't deny it, though she reduces it mostly to the risk of divorce, while I see the issue as broader: a spouse can also die or become disabled while kids are still young. My husband narrowly escaped death twice, and he went through a prolonged period of disability.

My story is far from unique. The Sungold family tree indicates why it's important for women not to become too dependent financially over the long term. One grandma was divorced from an alcoholic husband in her early twenties. (Circa 1912! Imagine the scandal!) She raised her two daughters alone until she met my grandpa nearly two decades later and then gave birth to my dad. One of my dad's half-sisters was divorced while her daughter was still tiny. His other half-sister was widowed in her early fifties. My maternal grandma was widowed while still in her early forties, with four children to support, the youngest (my mom) only six years old. Both my mom and her sister were divorced while they still had young children at home. Their two brothers remained married to the same women into old age.

So, in those two generations, only two of eight women enjoyed a husband's support throughout their childrearing years. (And those two were farm wives who worked from dawn to dusk and beyond.) It's not that the women in my family are unusually flaky, either; those who divorced did so only under considerable duress. While none of the women in my family chose single motherhood, they still had to find ways to cope, financially and emotionally. For instance, both my grandmas were teachers, and that's how they held their families together.

My family tree suggests why it's neither pro- nor anti-feminist to say that women run greater risks the longer they're completely financially dependent on a mate. The risks are simply a pragmatic reality.

Now, Marcy interprets my argument as saying
women shouldn't have the freedom to do what we find fulfillment in, if it means we might be dependent on the men in our lives, because if those men should fail, we will be in serious trouble. We should follow the current cultural pattern and go to work so we will have a "safety net" in case our husbands should walk out on us.
(Read the rest here.)
No, what I'm saying is something different. I'm suggesting that we need to balance a quest for fulfillment with awareness of the risks of long-term dependence, which grow over time. Only if we're realistically aware of the risks can we make informed and conscious choices.

I'm not at all arguing that mothers should take six weeks' maternity leave and then plunge back into work full-time. I'm not inveighing against stay-at-home parenting. My own choices have tilted in that direction since my first baby was born. I chose to take the financial risk of parenting first - and working for pay only secondarily - during my kids' preschool years. I believe kids need intense attention while they're very young. As infants, my boys got that almost entirely from their dad and me. Starting from around their second birthday, they went to daycare half-days with six other kids and a wonderful caretaker; they loved it, and I could work part time. Only now, with both kids in school, am I returning to work full time. I'm lucky I'll still be able to pick up the kids after school, since I can grade and prep classes at home. My work responsibilities have allowed me to spend lots of time with my kids, and to enjoy the sort of self-fulfillment that Marcy describes. I was lucky that my husband supported (and quite literally subsidized) this arrangement. Other people make other choices, and that's okay too, as long as their choices are conscious and well informed.

Indeed, failure to recognize the importance of active, involved parenting - and its rewards for children, mothers, and fathers - poses very significant risks of its own. The truth is, most jobs are a hell of a lot less interesting than mine, and it's very common for parenting to be far more fulfilling than paid work. That goes for most of men's jobs, too, although lots of fathers still find their fulfillment through the breadwinner role - sometimes too narrowly, at the expense of closer relationships with their children.

Where I differ from Marcy is mainly in the length of time we're spending outside of the paid labor force. The risk here is that re-entry into the labor force becomes increasingly difficult, the longer you've been out. For women, this has historically translated into a substantial risk of poverty in old age or upon their marriage ending. (One of my aunts is in precisely this position now, at age 76.) If the kids are still at home, they're hurt by poverty, too.

In other words, I'm arguing that we need to consider the long-term perspective in our decisions. For me, it made sense to roll back my career to spend lots of time with my little ones. That was a risk and a trade-off. It struck me as worthwhile - and it was. But I see how its costs continue to rise over time. The choice to homeschool, if it means two decades or more outside of the labor force, carries risks and sacrifices that would be too costly in my life. Above all, my children would depend on me completely if my mate's health failed again.

Other folks are free to take that risk, and for some parents whose circumstances are different than mine, it may make sense. However, it would be misleading to portray these significant risks as minimal or to argue that homeschooling may be a more feminist choice than relying on the public schools. The only feminist choice, I'd say, is one that's thoroughly informed.

Finally, I really haven't addressed the elephant in the room: socioeconomic class. It should be clear, though, that the capacity for real choice depends on a certain level of prosperity. In many families, both parents must work in order to avoid eviction and keep the utilities on. That's when choice - even to take a brief maternity leave - can become an unattainable luxury. And that's why poverty has to be a central issue for feminists. That would be a whole 'nother post.


Anonymous said...

For me homeschooling my kids turned into a career. I have chosen to do more for free than for pay, so it isn't a well paid career. That decision, however, has to do with our family circumstances and could easily be changed. Every family is different and each woman makes her own choices based on her own life circumstances. We need to build more options for life choices, but that is a different approach to the issue.

Sungold said...

Hi - I'm not sure how to address you since I keep tripping over the consonants. (And I'm spending a little time in Germany, so you'd think I'd be used to that!) Anyway, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment.

I think it's wonderful that you built career skills, which you could use if needed. This is the key, I think - to not allow ourselves to be "deskilled." I'm resorting to scare quotes because darn it, we really do use *so* many skills in parenting, and nearly all of them are transferable. For instance, as a college teacher, I rarely need to deal with discipline issues. But if students do get a little rowdy, I just bring out my "strict mama" voice and they quiet right down.

The problem is, too few employers recognize and honor all the wisdom and transferable skills we develop as parents. It's not just our loss, it's theirs, too. I think that's part of what you're getting at with "more options for life choices" - which ought to apply to fathers just as well as mothers.

Oh, and I popped over to your live journal. What lovely baptism pictures! I wish you and your extended family much joy.

Sungold said...

Sorry, that last comment should read in part:

"I think it's wonderful that you built career skills, which you could use to earn an income if needed."

I guess I was hurrying too much to get to my reform-the-workplace mini-rant.

Laura said... might not amount to fear, but contingency planning still leaves me a little cold. There was a lot of discussion of this issue in the wake of The Feminine Mistake. I don't reject that contingency planning is wise. It just doesn't resonate with me, personally, as a reason to work. Your other reasons, for example, liking what you do, are much more compelling in my opinion.

And back to the whole "choice feminism" debate - I respect the choice to be a SAHM, but I reject Marcy's statement (in the comments section) "the whole point of feminism is that we believe women ought to be free to make the choices that are right for their families". The whole point of feminism ought to be social and political equality. Again, I don't think anyone owes it to feminism to pursue wealth and power over family. But lets not redefine feminism to justify personal choices.

Sungold said...

I'm not sure that contingency planning always means "staying in the workforce full time." It mostly means have a plan B, and maybe also a plan C. I typically have plans D, E, and F, too - it's just that none of them are ever very lucrative. So my moralizing on this has more than a little "do as I say, not as I do" in it. :-)

That said, I think there are lots of ways to keep skills sharp and develop new ones outside the formal labor market. Unfortunately, as I remarked above, employers aren't as quick to recognize that as they ought to be.

On choice feminism: A couple years ago, The Onion ran a wonderful spoof called "Women empowered by everything." It really took the piss out of the whole Oprah-esque, feel-good approach to choice. I oughtta pull that up again; it was just precious.

Anonymous said...

What you are up against is assumptions. People tend to assume a mother at home is credential-less and probably skill-less. Most of us - like other mothers - go into parenting as full adults. In other words, we "completed" an education and have probably worked a number of years in some field or other. So we start with credentials. Homeschooling is about learning, for parent as well as child. Every homeschooling parent is accumulating experience in and knowledge about being an educator. We go off into a huge number of directions in addition to that. It's not uncommon for homeschooling families to have small businesses. So thinking of us as lacking skills is a false assumption. What we might lack is credentials, and we often need help with resume building. Owning the knowledge and demonstrating it is the primary issue. It takes roughly a year full time for a person with a college degree to get a teaching credential. It can be done more slowly while teaching. Other credentials may take more or less time but can also be acquired while working (or while homeschooling). Making sure you have enough life insurance on the primary breadwinner to do the transition if needed is the piece you are missing.

What I was referring to was two other things. The first is that many professions have expectations based on the assumption that the person has a wife. So whether it's a young professor going for tenure or a young lawyer going for partner, the assumption is that one puts in huge numbers of hours just at the age when your children are young and needy. That, for us, meant that in some of the key years my husband was earning plenty but time at home for him was scarce. What the family needed from me wasn't money, and if I had also wanted such a career we couldn't have done the kids.

Secondly, society needs to develop ways to recognize and credential skills and knowledge acquired outside of traditional paths.

If we could change those two things, we'd go a long way toward making it easier for our granddaughters to make a life path.

The lj is personal rather than professional. One big piece of the professional side is the TAG project - ( - though I do more than just that.


Sungold said...

Hi Kit! This is funny. Now that you gave the tagfam address, I know *exactly* who you are. I've been on the main tagfam email list since my older son started kindergarten three years ago, and it's been very helpful, even though I mostly lurk. So it's lovely that I get a chance to say thanks to you (almost) in person!

I completely agree with everything you say about credentials, false assumptions, and the rigid structures of the workplace. My husband got tenure as a professor a few years ago. I had one baby while I was still working on the Ph.D. and then my second one soon after I defended it. If I'd had a tenure-track job at that point, we likely would not have had a second child. I know some people make it work, but honestly, I want to have time for the kids, too, and not feel like we're always under the gun.

One thing I think I'd enjoy about homeschooling would be the fact that I'd be learning along with my child, especially at the higher levels. I know I've forgotten way more than I ever learned. :-) In the non-school hours, we still spend a lot of our time learning together. This morning over breakfast, my five-year-old, the Tiger, wanted to know exactly "where do the numbers end?" My eight-year-old was trying to explain infinity to him (with backup from his dad and me). Then the Tiger decided that the numbers should end at 30. I dunno know how he picked 30, but he was quite adamant. :-)

Thanks again for your thoughts, which I think sum up the problem very adeptly.