Blind­sided by work

Should we talk to girls about ca­reer plan­ning for moth­er­hood?

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER

It might be help­ful to have the heads up that some ca­reers of­fer a bet­ter work-life balance for work­ing moth­ers than oth­ers.

I took my el­dest daugh­ter to open her first bank ac­count. The wo­man who helped process the ap­pli­ca­tion had a kind of deer-caught-in-head­lights look, and soon af­ter we sat down she said, “Please bear with me; this is only my sec­ond day back from my ma­ter­nity leave and some things have changed while I was away.” Her dis­ori­en­ta­tion was so fa­mil­iar to me: each time I re­turned to work I found things had changed — a new soft­ware plat­form, a new name for the depart­ment, a new course text­book …. Of course, the thing that had changed most was how I felt about be­ing at work. Af­ter a year of be­ing at­tached, of­ten lit­er­ally, to my baby, to be away felt so strange. I was an­noyed, be­cause work seemed so triv­ial next to the needs and de­lights of my baby, who couldn’t un­der­stand why I was aban­don­ing him. Per­haps most of all, I felt adrift, not only from my baby but from the per­son I was be­fore I gave birth, and the per­son I was sup­posed to be at work.

I asked the wo­man if she had any help and she shook her head: “My par­ents and my in­laws are all out of town.” We sat qui­etly in the lit­tle of­fice while the ap­pli­ca­tion was done; I won­dered, not for the first time, how I should talk to my daugh­ters about ca­reer plan­ning for moth­er­hood.

I don’t re­mem­ber any­one ever telling me that the chances were good that I would have kids, so I should think about go­ing into a ca­reer that would of­fer good pay, and flex­i­ble work hours and lo­ca­tions. As a col­lege pro­fes­sor, I have all th­ese things — for a mother, it’s like win­ning the lottery. I say “lottery” de­lib­er­ately here, be­cause it was pure, blind luck that I ended up with this job — col­lege teach­ing wasn’t on my radar in the slight­est, but a univer­sity friend sug­gested I ap­ply to teach a course, and I got hired. This even­tu­ally led to a full-time po­si­tion.

We tell our daugh­ters that they can be any­thing they want — that they can do any­thing a boy can. I un­der­stand the im­por­tance of in­tro­duc­ing this par­a­digm of equal­ity, and I cer­tainly agree with it, but the ele­phant in the room is the re­al­ity that over 80 per cent of girls will be­come moth­ers, and once they do, they’ll be re­spon­si­ble for most of the par­ent­ing. There’s lots of re­search to prove this, but any­one can rec­og­nize it if they just look around: at the park, at the gro­cery store, in the doc­tor’s of­fice, it’s still the same story … moth­ers do much more of the child-rear­ing than fa­thers. Can we pre­pare girls for this like­li­hood with­out sug­gest­ing that it’s de­sir­able or in­evitable?

For those of you shak­ing your heads in dis­agree­ment be­cause you share par­ent­ing equally with your part­ner: good for you, I know you ex­ist (some­where), but you’re sta­tis­ti­cally im­prob­a­ble, es­pe­cially if “equally” means all par­ent­ing tasks, not just the play­ing, read­ing and go­ing out for ice cream. In her mas­ter­fully re­searched “Wife­work,” Su­san Maushart writes that women in the late nineties were do­ing about 80 per cent of child care — as much as in the 1960s. “The ar­rival of a first child,” she notes, “more than dou­bles a wife’s do­mes­tic load, work­ing out to an av­er­age in­crease of thirty-five hours a week.” And then there’s the in­crease in men­tal work — the “re­mem­ber­ing, plan­ning and schedul­ing” — like or­der­ing Christ­mas presents, or­ga­niz­ing play­mates, etc.

All of this is to say that, when headed into this sta­tis­ti­cal prob­a­bil­ity in a so­ci­ety that doesn’t seem to be do­ing much about it, it might be help­ful to have the heads up that some ca­reers of­fer a bet­ter work-life balance for work­ing moth­ers than oth­ers. While I want each of my three daugh­ters to have all the op­por­tu­ni­ties of my sons, I don’t want them to be blind­sided (like I was) by the re­al­ity of not only their ovaries and milk ducts, but by the so­cial struc­tures that aren’t chang­ing nearly enough, de­spite decades of “progress” in gen­der equal­ity, when it comes to par­ent­ing equal­ity. The stresses of par­ent­ing while work­ing a tra­di­tional 9-5 job will fall more heav­ily on them. I want them to un­der­stand that they’ll most likely be their chil­dren’s de­fault par­ent, even if they plan oth­er­wise. Even if they are ed­u­cated, suc­cess­ful, and in love with their hus­bands, af­ter they have kids, odds are they will prob­a­bly find them­selves pre­oc­cu­pied by their un­de­ni­able at­tach­ment to their child, dis­tract­edly back­ing into the role that seems to be carved into our culture’s un­der­stand­ing of What Women Do.

Latham Hunter is a writer and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­tural stud­ies; her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.

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