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A Mother's Place Taking the Debate about Working Mothers beyond Guilt and Blame (Part 3) - 03 Jan 2016 16:48


But as the reader hunts through the book looking for at least one reassuring bit of evidence to support these contentions, she comes up empty. Miss Chira cites studies showing that children in full-time care still strongly identify with their families and prefer their mothers to their baby-sitters (but she does not see why this makes a mother's prolonged absence all the more devastating: the child doesn't cease to look to Mommy; it's just that Mommy isn't there). Miss Chira complains, a la Susan Faludi, that visions of perfect mothers are relentlessly forced upon women, and casts the obligatory sneer at June Cleaver and Donna Reed. She praises the objectivity of feminist researchers who produce evidence that soothes her, and dismisses most others as biased. (Although she gets her facts worrisomely jumbled: she growls at conservative television pundit Laura Ingraham, who, according to Miss Chira, "emerged after the birth of her child as an advocate for the new traditionalist mother." Miss Ingraham is single and without child.)


And when Miss Chira's own research presses uncomfortable conclusions upon her for instance, that while routine, short separations between a mother and infant are fine, longer separations might be dicey she falls headlong into self-delusion and arbitrarily defines "short" separations to include 10- and 12-hour days. In any case, she retorts, shouldn't we be worrying about the danger of being around too much? "It is a parent's responsibility to curb children's natural fantasy that they are the center of the universe," she writes. "A mother who never says, ‘No, I can’t, because this is my time now,' is a mother who convinces children she lives only for them."
But what of the mother who is not around enough even to say no? The "experts" we don't hear much from in Miss Chira's book are the children of all these contented full-time working mothers. Perhaps that is because so many of them are not yet old enough to speak. Or perhaps it's because their opinions open up that tiresome vat of guilt we're supposed to stop carrying around with us. Miss Chira's own children do not seem particularly thrilled with Mommy's job. Her daughter, when she was four, wept bitterly one day after her baby-sitter left, and told Miss Chira that she wanted "her babysitter to live with us and never leave, and that her baby-sitter could be the mommy and I could be the baby-sitter."
Though rattled, Miss Chira says she got over it the way she seems to get over everything that rattles her about her children: by plugging ahead at work. In a stunningly unselfconscious passage in her epilogue, she tells us that shortly before her book was published, one of her children became gravely ill; in fact, the child's life was in danger for "many, many months." Fortunately for Miss Chira, however, she discovered that "work can be a lifeline not only in normal times but in dire times as well…. Going to work … allowed me to visit a world far removed from the one of sickness and sadness that we inhabited."
Unfortunately, Miss Chira's children have no other world to escape to. As I closed this book I thought of all the months Miss Chira took to write it months of shutting her door and steeling herself against her children's yearning to be with her. In the end she has produced not really a very good book, one that a year from now will be almost completely forgotten by everyone except those children. And they, I suspect, will never forget it. Find more info. - Comments: 0

A Mother's Place Taking the Debate about Working Mothers beyond Guilt and Blame (Part 2) - 03 Jan 2016 16:44


There is no solid evidence that a mother's working full-time harms her baby, we are told, and so she shouldn't feel guilty for doing it. The love a mother feels for her children will compensate for the hours she is away from them. "As I and many other mothers and their children have found, our bonds can survive hours or days apart … somehow children sense when a parent is or is not committed to them."
This would be a reassuring theory if it rested on more than Miss Chira's assertion. But it doesn't. Like any diligent Times reporter, she painstakingly reviews the studies on child care, interviews "typical working mothers," and broods about the vastness of human experience and the difficulty of drawing conclusions.
Yet she acknowledges that much of the child-care research is flawed or still in its early stages, and that no one really knows the potential long-term effects of placing babies in day care before they are old enough to smile. She acknowledges, too, that the little we do know can be disturbing such as the neurological studies which show that the quality of attention a child receives through infancy directly affects its brain development. Indeed, she admits that she does not know the toll her own long hours will take upon her two small children, and she frets, "There are times when I worry about having them shake this book in my face when they are older."


Nonetheless, this does not prevent her from urging working mothers to put aside their guilt, shut their ears to the "drumbeat" of those who would urge them to do otherwise, and trust that what they are doing is right. Despite her own periodic doubts, she insists she is not neglecting her children: she is there for them most of the time, if not physically, at least in spirit. This, she claims, is what is most important: "What I resent most about the discussion of working motherhood is the premise that working means valuing work more than children. I am not placing one above the other; I am choosing both," she writes. "Rather than torment themselves about what they cannot do, working mothers can take solace in the different gifts they may be able to offer their children. For me, my work is part of my delight in the world of ideas. I believe that this is a heritage I can offer my children that is just as precious and enduring, just as much a token of love, as the traditional mother's baked goods or spotless house."
But the creepy truth, we learn as the book unfolds, is that Miss Chira is in fact placing "one above the other." Her own example proves what she set out to disprove: that women can't "balance" work and family when their children are very young. When a career woman has a baby, one side or the other has to give. Miss Chira does not choose "both" she chooses work.
When her first baby was born, Miss Chira writes, she took six months' maternity leave because "experts told me that was a bare minimum." But she hated being at home, was startled by how exhausting taking care of a baby was, and "far from [being] the blissful communion, the respite from the routines of work, that I had anticipated, [my] days had become increasingly desperate exercises to fill up the lonely hours." Her daughter's colic, she writes with despair, interfered with the one domestic task she really enjoyed gourmet cooking. "When I returned to work [full-time], I left behind a gnawing sense of oppression, boredom, and guilt that had cast a pall over my maternity leave."
She would leave home each morning and often not return until her child's bedtime or later. Much to her relief, her daughter "did not fall apart the first time I worked past 8 P.M.," and the little girl was grateful for the "small presents (a T-shirt, a seashell) I brought back" from business trips. When her son arrived, Miss Chira took only three months' leave. This doesn't mean, however, that she believes a woman should never take extended time away from work: for her book, she took an 18-month leave of absence.
Later, when she was offered a promotion that would result in even more demanding hours, she "agonized" but then leapt at the chance: "I asked myself what my children needed and what I needed to feel close to them. The answer was enough time every night before bed to play, to talk over the day, to establish that elusive but essential sense of connection. My months back at work had taught me that I could tolerate some late nights, but I could not bear regularly arriving home after my children were asleep, or even getting home just in time to kiss them goodnight."
In other words, Miss Chira is suggesting that a woman can be just as good a mother in 45 minutes a day or about the same amount of time she might spend toning her thighs on a StairMaster as if she stayed home or worked part-time. Miss Chira cites, approvingly, one of her friends, who rarely gets back from the office before 9 P.M.: "[Her] half-hour at her daughters' bedtime gives her a sense of intimacy and assurance that is evident every time I have seen her with her children."… - Comments: 0

A Mother's Place Taking the Debate about Working Mothers beyond Guilt and Blame (Part 1) - 03 Jan 2016 16:22


It sometimes seems that no educated modern woman can have a baby without suffering agonies of self-doubt about the meaning of motherhood. We fret endlessly about our identities and our independence. In the past, a woman might have enjoyed motherhood or not, been good at it or not, but she did not enter into existential dialogues with herself about what it meant to be a mother.
Today we can do nothing but. Usually our angst is focused on what becomes of our careers. A modern middle-class woman will almost certainly have been raised to view herself as a working woman. It is thus a shock to be transformed from a briefcase toting employee, with large responsibilities in the business world, to a home-bound, sweatsuit-clad wretch at the mercy of a tiny, whimpering infant. Good God, she exclaims to herself, what am I doing here? And who is this, she wonders, gazing at the new baby, and when did I begin reporting to him?
Most women are able to adjust and joyfully so to their new state within a few weeks. But there are others who are more like the impulse buyers of a cute puppy in a pet-shop window: they are horrified the first time the little beast wets the carpet and complain that they did not expect owning a pet would be so demanding.
Unfortunately it is the latter group who seem most moved to write books on the dilemma of work versus motherhood. A staggering number of such books have been published in recent years, almost all of which attempt to persuade women that their desire to return to work is natural while their impulse to be a mother is not. Some of these books, to be sure, have been written by ideologues who would have us believe that this most basic of female conditions is imposed upon us by men (although I guess in a crude way it is). Others have been written by social workers and pseudo-scientists, who claim to have examined all the evidence and confidently conclude that the absolutely best thing a woman can do upon having a baby is to hand it over to someone else. There have even been authors who insist that the rush of maternal feeling, the protectiveness a woman immediately feels for her child, is nothing more than cultural conditioning that we should make every attempt to overcome (interestingly, the most prominent advocates of this view like Diane Eyer, author of Mother Infant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction tend not to be mothers themselves).


But perhaps the most fascinating of these apologetics are the memoirs and essays written by women who simply prefer going to work to being with their children. Their books may be crammed with statistics and feminist citations, but ultimately they can best be understood as extended exercises in self-justification: "I'm not a bad mother really!" Working is good for kids if it's good for Mom; there is too such a thing as quality time; children actually do better in day care; etc. A Mother's Place, by the New York Times's deputy foreign editor, Susan Chira, is the latest example of this genre.
What sets Miss Chira's book apart from others like it, however, is the author's blunt candor about her dislike of spending more than the bare minimum of time with her children. "Sacrifice," she declares, "has no place in the motherhood pantheon." This is a bold position to take, even today. There remains a lingering prejudice against mothers who deliberately put their work ahead of their infants if they don't strictly, for economic reasons, have to. Most women even those with MBAs still adjust their careers to the needs of their children, or at least talk as if they do. Even the most ardent advocates of child care hesitate to denigrate traditional motherhood. It would be nice if women could afford to spend more time with their children, they'll sigh, but they just can't, and that's why we need more government-subsidized day care. Miss Chira is bravely willing to tell the truth: Many of the women who work in these affluent times don't have to. They have simply made the calculation that tending to their children is less interesting and lucrative than their job. Why should they sacrifice their ambitions to the out-of-date "Good Mother icon," as Miss Chira calls it?…
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