Friday, April 27, 2012

Mother Nature's Son

The interwebs have, of late, been full of foment over motherhood. The current debate has two centers: a discussion of whether 'natural parenting' undermines the status of women based on Elisabeth Badinter's recent book entitled "The Conflict;" and a discussion, spun off of Mit and Ann Romney's recent inarticulations about work and motherhood, of whether stay-at-home parenting is 'work.'

After a bit of time pondering, I'm going to toss out that I don't think these two debates are separate at all. And I think both of them are the sort of straw-mom scuffles that distract us from addressing the real issues of motherhood and work in our culture.

In October of 2005, I started working as an environmental compliance specialist at Death Valley National Park. It was great opportunity - good pay, good benefits - that would likely have turned into a career for me. I was able to work three-quarters time because my husband and I worked ten-hour-days, staggered our days off, and paid one of the few other mothers in the valley to look after our two-year-old for a couple hours two mornings a week.

I was off on a new career track. A track that ended, less than a year later, with the birth of my son.

Would I have chosen to quit because I wanted to stay home with him? Maybe...  I don't know because I didn't have that choice. There was no reliable infant childcare available in Death Valley. (Our presence in the Valley and our housing allotment was based on my husband's job, not mine, so his staying home wasn't an option). Twelve months later, when my son could have moved to cow milk, my job had been filled by someone else. A single guy who didn't have any kids in tow.

In the back-and-forth over Badinter's book on Slate, Hanna Rosin says of formula that, "This powdery substance is arguably as critical a chemical innovation as the birth control pill in fostering women’s progress and freedom." Given my own experience, I just don't buy that. A parent can have a supertanker filled with formula and it is only going to liberate her to pursue progress and freedom if she has a trusted, reliable, affordable caregiver to make sure that the formula makes its way into their infant. And to make sure that the baby's diapers (whether cloth or disposable) get changed. And to make sure that the baby gets to sleep (whether in a swing or held in a sling against someone's chest). And to make sure that the baby gets entertained (whether that means with a plastic teething ring or whatever chemical-free, brightly colored, organic, Bach-playing do-dad parents are being sold these days).

The limiting factor on the progress of women isn't some ivory-tower ideal of 'natural' parenting to which American women are alleged to be striving, failing to achieve, and then cat-o-nine-tailing themselves over.  

It is the lack of reliable, affordable child care.

Which, I hear tell, isn't quite so much of a problem over in France.

My kids are now eight and five. When I talk to the other mothers around town, I generally have no idea what their children ate for the first year of their lives. I don't know if they drank a glass of wine, ate sushi, or rode mechanical bulls during pregnancy. I don't know whether my friends had epidurals, doulas, gave birth in a whirlpool tub, or had a scheduled c-section so they could make it to a Dave Matthews concert. I don't know what sort of carriers they used; where the baby slept; whether they used cloth diapers, or disposable ones, or if they swaddled them in the bark of a willow tree. I don't know if they ever hand-ground organic wheat into crackers, whether their boys are circumcised, or if they cut their teeth on toxin-free blocks.

What I do know is that, years after the moments to make these choices have passed, and long after we might have been 'freed' by the existence of a miracle white powder that our children could drink from someone else's hands, we are still struggling to balance finances, motherhood, work, and childcare.

What do we discuss? Often the fact that money is tight, that a second job doesn't net much in income, and that trusted caregivers are hard to come by.

What rarely comes up? The ways in which many of us - myself included - failed to live up to the alleged 'natural mother' myth. The myth itself doesn't come up much, except when outside sources raise it as something to which we are comparing ourselves. It certainly isn't something that conditions our daily interactions and aspirations.

So, here is my plea: let's agree to table the fight over whether we as a culture of mothers are being oppressed by this mythical vision of the 'perfect natural parent.' Yes, parenting choices matter, but bickering solves nothing. (I learned that from my kids!) And basing sweeping statements about the oppressed state of American mothers based on the inference that some sad-faced woman at a park in Seattle is chastising herself because her organic orange marmalade didn't jell right solves nothing. (Although, for the record, I think she was sad because her childcare fell through).

Let's work instead towards an affordable system of childcare for families of all income levels.  We could model it on the French system, even. Then parents (whether moms or dads) who want to return to work, or need to return to work, or simply need a break from their tyrannical infants (which, heavens know, I needed: A LOT), can pursue "progress and freedom," or "the dignity of work," or even five minutes alone in the shower without someone banging on the door and crying. Whichever applies to their particular case.

My son will start Kindergarten in the fall. It has been 70 months since I held a career-track job. I'm glad I got to spend time home with my kids, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have jumped at the chance to take on some part-time, intellectually and financially rewarding work years ago. I'm worried that with my out-of-date resume, getting my foot back in the door won't be easy.

Especially since a full-time job will mean $800 a month in after-school care.

We'll see what I can find.