Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Work-Life Balance, Childcare, Generational Change: A Nana considers. . .

Because I wrote here about my daughter's experience, I sent her a copy of the post before publishing. I've made a few changes and additions to better reflect her perspective, and I'm very grateful that she has given me the go-ahead to post, given how much more she generally prefers privacy than do I. Do keep in mind that I use her as an example of my need to clarify my thinking rather than as any ambivalence she has about the path she's taking.

In my last post, I tried to explain why Sheryl Sandberg`s book, Lean In, resonated so strongly with me, after having felt so strongly pulled between work and my mother`s bedside last spring.

Sandberg fortifies my sense that I shouldn't have to choose, any more than the men do, and that it's okay to do my best at both work and home/family life, while accepting that I may fall short, in both fields, of other's standards. She offers examples of her own shortfalls, on both the domestic and the work front, from necessary compromises to downright refusal of certain unrealistic standards. For instance, she describes being mildly scolded by another mom for sending her son to school in a blue shirt on St. Patrick's Day (yes, a small incident, but if you`ve done the school run, you know the censure that can acompany such failings). I recalled her anecdote last weekend when my daughter told me that, on scoring a pair of ballet slippers in her daughter's size, she was gently chided by the consignment store owner who couldn't believe she was picking them up only an hour before her daughter's first ballet class. "Well, aren't you a last-minute mommy?" the shop owner said, teasing, yes, but also pricking the tender places she might have known to avoid. The dance class wasn't at a formal ballet school, but rather was a community centre "sampler." Yet enough of the other prospective wee dancers were fully attired already that our almost-5-year-old granddaughter asked her Mom to explain her own gear to the teacher. See how early it starts?
My daughter notes that for her the ballet class story is just funny. Rather than take it personally, she thought it was slightly bitchy of the store owner, but not a big deal, and certainly not enough to make her feel guilty. More mildly annoyed, she says, with the owner and with some of the other moms, but in a momentary, amused/bemused way. Hearing this, I admit that I pat myself discreetly on the back, hoping that perhaps I had a tiny bit to do with raising a daughter much less prone to guilt than I am. . . .and more comfortable in her choices for herself and hr family.

Personally, I know my daughter to be a wonderful mother in all the ways that count. And part of her wonderful mothering includes showing her daughter that she can't have it all but she can combine work and home "well enough." She was at a conference in Europe for N's first week at kindergarten, but she's made sure that Nola has a Dad who can look after her very well -- and Granddad pitched in to ease Dad's load for a few hours each day.
 My daughter points out that she first discounted the conference when she realized it fell during N's first week at kindergarten. But her husband encouraged her, promising that he could handle the transition, and then Granddad and I added our support. (In fact, we even suggested they both go, as it's been a while since they had some couple getaway time). Without that, she doubts she would have gone. As it turns out,  a week was barely enough for N and husband to notice she was gone, and Granddad felt very fortunate in having that time with Nola. If anyone felt a bit off-kilter, it was probably Nana, who was a bit envious of the retired grandparent and wishing I could have cancelled some of my classes to help out.
 Indeed, daughter stresses, in the end she would not rate this work-domestic balancing act as "good enough," but sees it as awesome, and I'd have to agree.

Somehow, though, despite our being so impressed by our daughter as mother, by sheher and our son-in-law as parents, despite our being as supportive as we could, knowing we felt nothing but awe and pride at how well the new family was managing, somehow there were a few touchy months. Somewhere in my granddaughter's second or third year, my daughter was prickly with me and I didn't know why.  Outside of the usual stuff through the teen years, we generally get along really well. As well, I knew I'd been a big help as the family adjusted to its new patterns, childcare arrangements morphing to suit Mom going back to work full-time, Dad working part-time around baby-sitting availability, then eventually N moving to full-time care in a marvelous new child care facility in which she thrived. So why the tension? Why was my daughter avoiding my calls? What was up?

Well, as it eventually turned out, I'd said something that seemed to insist I believed children could only really be looked after properly by their mothers, at home, full-time. I would never, ever say such a thing, my husband, my friends, most of my family, would tell you. I don't believe it at all. I can point to many friends whose children grew into fine adults, raised by moms who worked full-time outside the home. As well, we'd raised our daughters to have careers, to nurture those careers.

But here`s the scary thing: as mothers, our actions wield immense power, beyond what we might say. At some level, I clearly implied that being home with my kids was the best choice because, after all, that`s the choice I made. I`m happy I made it. And my husband was, and is, happy I made it because, of course, it made his career so much more manageable (a wonderful hands-on dad and pitcher-in on the domestic front when home, he was away ten days, back four, away ten, home four, almost regularly during firstborn's first six months -- the travel did get less, but I was often on my own with all four, and it would have been hell-ish to find childcare). He is, perhaps not surprisingly, more invested than I am in saying that I was a great mother, and in packaging my SAHM status into that "greatness." I've been insisting he play that down, insisting for several years now, increasingly aware of its possible implications. Added for clarification: I had a private music studio in my home while my kids were growing, fortunate to be able to work ~20 hours a week teaching piano, music theory, Orff pre-school groups, etc. while a baby-sitter kept my gang entertained.  

Still, there's also a possibility that I was more pleased than I admitted when he made such comments. It's possible that I felt my choice negated by my daughter's direction; perhaps I worried, at some less recognized level, that she looked back and wondered how I could have been satisfied to stay at home. Perhaps I, too, wanted her to see how worthwhile my path had been, however different from her own.

I'd love to think I had no such motivation, albeit unrecognized. I'd love to be sure that my clearest message was one of untrammeled, uncomplicated support for what she's doing.

Because I`m supremely happy that my daughter is making another choice, as happy as I know Paul is. I`m especially happy that she`s found a way to make that choice work for everyone in her family. And I want to say that, more loudly and more clearly than ever -- with Sandberg`s help. If your daughters haven`t yet got to the stage where they`re making these choices, you`ve got time to think about this before you get blind-sided. Meanwhile, I`m embracing the chance to celebrate my daughters` choices and let them understand mine.
My daughter points out that even my phrasing her return to work as a choice reveals a certain -- hmmm, she's gentler here, but I think she sees an inability or refusal to see her family's reality, maybe even a generational naïveté, at worst an obduracy. I see her point. It's tough to see how they could manage on a single salary, particularly since hers is the job with pension and health benefits -- fewer and fewer positions offer this, these days. But I suspect my daughter would make the choice to manage both career and family even if she could somehow afford to stop working for a few years. Meanwhile, whether choice or not, this Nana thinks her granddaughter is lucky to have a father and mother who both love her dearly, parent her together, competently, and have work that engages them. What a world of possibilities she's growing into! As are her friends whose mothers or fathers integrate their work-home lives in other ways. There's really no single "best way" -- how can there be, when we're all so different?!

Just a reminder as I close by welcoming your comments: I used my daughter's story only to tease out the generational repercussions of my own choices, my own tangling with the work-family balance a woman must make. Any comments aimed against the choice of any woman who balances childcare with work may be met by my Full Mama Bear. Not because my daughter still needs my protection, but because all our daughters do. Daughters-in-law. All our younger sisters as well. Nieces, granddaughters. Sons as well, and sons-in-law. Brothers. Nephews. Parenting is a tough gig, and we struggle to do our best. We barely know what that is for ourselves, and we should be ever so careful about prescribing it for others. But you all know that already, don't you?! Now excuse my sensitivities (it's been a challenging post to feel my way through), and I'd love to hear from any of you but especially those who are experiencing or looking forward to the Mother-Daughter gig as it shifts up a generational notch.

27 comments:

  1. Another wonderful -- and spot-on -- post! You are SO right about our actions, as well as our words, having immense power for our daughters, and also daughters-in-law. I was never a SAHM, nor are my daughter and daughter-in-law. Like your daughter, they chose amazing partners who are wonderful fathers. But they still feel the societal pressure and occasional guilt at not doing everything the SAHMs do. I try to support them and carefully weigh my words, because I remember how much I felt my own mother's criticism -- and pity that I "had to work."

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    1. Oh, thank you! I waited with considerable trepidation for the first response -- this post feels scary to me, somehow. . . So good to hear the perspective of someone who has experienced that generational criticism and is working to ensure your daughter(s) are supported in their balancing.

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  2. I was a SAHM until both my kids were in kindergarten then I worked for the school district in various capacities and even having the same hours as my children there were plenty of opportunities to be unprepared or I'll prepared. I did feel moments of guilt when asked to drive for field trips or bake and such. I was a very active parent on the PAC boards and held an officer position most if the years. I did the best juggling act that I could....and had I been employed full time I think I would have been filled with guilt. It's too bad that mom's are judged so harshly regardless of our choices there seems to always be a store clerk or another mom who think they are above us, yet I think they are just as insecure as we are.
    A lovely post today which will resonate with most of us...thank you to your daughter for sharing.

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    1. Sounds as if you "leaned in" in some significant areas, juggling crazily all the while. Guilt is such a pain, isn't it, and I don't say that frivolously. TY for the TY to my daughter. . .

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  3. Such a thoughtful and careful post. We have the particular vantage point of experience that allows us to respect the variations on the theme of family life. I appreciate your sharing these observations - it can be tricky...
    My own mother went to work when I was in the 6th grade - it was only part time but for quite a few years she was the only working mother among my circle of friends. She did it for the extra money (not for bills/support) and, I think, for her own sanity. It was a choice at that time. Her situation changed, work became a necessity and at 80 she still puts in 2 days a week.
    I have been both a SAHM and worked outside the home - finances influencing both situations. I loved being home. I enjoy my work. Our kids saw both options and adapted as children do. Our son and daughter were taught to do household chores like meals and laundry - they grew up seeing both parents willing to do whatever needed to be done.
    My daughter is an RN, recently divorced with one child. She is a good mother and our pain, on her behalf, is not that she has to work, but that she has to shoulder these responsibilities alone. I look on in awe at how she juggles and manages without breaking a sweat...
    There is a generation of young children who have never seen a desk/wall phone. And while the working/SAHM mother question is never going to be that simple it is almost a generational distinctive that our children just don't see this as a big deal. We struggled through the choices and guilt while presenting a bigger picture of options that our mothers didn't have and our daughters see as a birthright.
    It's hard to always be carefully neutral in our comments (or facial expressions) when we care so deeply about the lives and struggles of our children but family life and working requires so much that we should make sure they know that we support their decisions and are rooting for their success at every level. Sometimes we need to remember to extend that same consideration to our own circumstances.

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    1. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and open response. I think you identify a real boon when you point to kids who see parents willing to do whatever needs doing -- and this can be achieved in many ways, with moms who work in or out ('cause we know all moms are working moms, right?)
      It's true that it's not as big a deal to our children, but I sometimes see my other mom-daughter wishing she could stay home, worrying about how/whether to get back to paid work. My granddaughters, though, take it absolutely for granted that their dads will change and bathe and feed them, drop them off at daycare, play with them in the park, and that their moms will head away in the morning on the bus and then be home for dinner and a story and a snuggle. A bigger picture of options indeed.

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  4. what an excellent and thoughtful post. You've placed the greater "debate" (I would prefer to think society is having a conversation about this, but it so often gets framed in binary thinking) in the personal--the most powerful way to illustrate the fact that, as you say, that there is more than one way to raise children well. As women we need to support each other in our choices and demand that our society does as well.

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    1. Thanks, Alison. I do think that thinking through the personal helps to highlight the complications rather than allow us to picture those less than useful binaries.

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  5. How generous of your daughter to contribute her experience to your post. How sensitive (both positive and negative) are the interactions between a mother and daughter.
    My mother returned to work, full time, when I was in Grade 3, because she needed to. My father was a truck driver and things were tight. I don't remember missing her being at home until late in high school when I was full of teenage angst. But I do remember sitting on my parents' bed late into the evening, talking, talking, talking, when I'm sure they were exhausted. They never let on.
    When we had our own children, I was living overseas, in a very different situation and work wasn't an issue. I loved staying at home with the little ones, and volunteered a lot in the community after they started school. After the eldest started high school and we moved to the capital city, I began teaching. The struggle to balance life was helped by a supportive husband (and a maid).
    Now, I have a daughter who is choosing to stay at home with her 16 month old and plans to return to teaching when she's in kindergarten, and a daughter-in-law who is working full time with an almost 3 year old and a new baby due in February. I see how tired and torn she is, in spite of having a husband who is extremely supportive. I have to be so careful in what I say so as not to cause hurt feelings for either woman. Letting both of them know that they are awesome mothers is crucial.
    How to do that is sometimes tricky.

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    1. I love the range you sketch out here, along with Ilona and Leslie and Tricia. I think it's useful for our sons and daughters to see this range, to recognize the possibilities that can shift with circumstances. And yes, letting them know they are awesome without tripping over our tongues. . . . I suspect you do a wonderful job of that.

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  6. I've been enjoying your work/life balance posts but must refrain from commenting. I am glad in retrospect that my last comment was lost. It's not that I don't have thoughts to share but sharing them inevitably means referring to my family and they are extremely conservative when it comes to internet privacy. All I can say is thank you for these posts and thank you to your commenters for their thoughtful replies.

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    1. I know what you mean, Susan. Considerable negotiation and collaboration went into my daughter consenting to this post -- very generously so, I must stress. It's so important to protect that privacy, isn't it?!

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  7. I wish I had longer to leave a long and thoughtful comment on this, but I'm in a hotel room attending a conference for four days, on the other side of the country to my partner and children. And you know what, I don't feel the slightest bit guilty! I've been away from home rather a lot for professional reasons lately, and in practical terms that takes some organising, but I feel that things seem to balance out quite nicely. The children see very clearly that women do important work too; I get to know that I'm in this world to do more than just nurture my children until my genes are passed on to the next generation; and my partner realises that male nurturing can be just as effective and necessary as female nurturing. And when I get home my mother will have arrived to stay with us for a week and she will admire how we manage; how I am not tied down by housework and childcare to the same extent as she was. Having said all that, I really do understand women who choose to stay at home while their children are young. Why not, if that's what they really want to do and not just what they think society expects of them?

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    1. Yay for no guilt! Paul always traveled a great deal for work, and I know he never felt guilty about it, and no one ever aimed guilt in his direction either. And your children are so wonderful that any guilt would be ridiculous!

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  8. In my daughter's case - she is often criticized for being a SAHM. I went back to work when my youngest was in the 5th grade. But always worked at job where I could take off to attend school events and act as a room mother, girl scout leader, etc. My daughter has a Masters in Education and taught middle school for 9 years (which included the first 18 months of her daughter's life - Dad stayed home and worked on his dissertation and cared for their daughter). The the second child arrived, dissertation was finished, husband got a great job and daughter decided to be a SAHM. She has been home for 4 years and loves it. She is busy, busy, busy. She says she will go back to work in a few more years - when kids aren't sick all the time, when husband doesn't have to travel so much, when the kids can stay at home when the schools close for every known (and some unknown) holiday. For now she is happy as a girl scout leader, room mother, and car pool mom. Each to his own - what ever works for your family.

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    1. Again, so interesting to see the range of experiences -- I felt, not so much criticized for being home with mine (even though I was able to work part-time, from home) as perhaps patronized for it. Again, I think that depending on resources and circumstances, we may find satisfaction in different ways -- as you say, that decision is so personal.

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  9. All of our choices are circumscribed by our resources. Your daughter has a partner, and you and your husband who are more than willing to help, plus other family members nearby. Many young women have absolutely no one to hand their child to, for even an evening, unless they have the income to hire someone.

    It is very hard to lean in, if one is a single parent without family nearby, and many women face that situation. The support of family is an incalculable assist to being able to combine work and child-rearing.

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    1. I lived for many years in a small town 1000 miles from either of our families, with a husband who was often away for a week, sometimes two, so I know the challenges you speak of, even if I was fortunate in having a supportive husband.

      I'm not sure how you are defining "leaning" in . . . I've read Sandberg's book fairly carefully, and while I realize I'm shaping her phrase somewhat to suit my own perspective, I really can't see any indication that she disregards the challenges of a single parent. My own point in this post was more to do with the influences a mother's choices have on a daughter's, often in ways she doesn't recognize until they're in some tricky terrain. And to do with my wish that we try our best to support rather than critique other mothers, all of whom are doing a tough job no matter what they're juggling.

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    2. I was looking at your comment not through the lens of how a mother influences a daughter, but how support enables a woman to meet the exacting demands of the workplace Sandberg inhabits.

      Sandberg's champtions women's participation, fully and equally, in the workplace. I like that. However, I am skeptical that many women can do so in •in corporate settings• like hers, having worked for some of these, among other multinationals. The corporate world's favourite buzzword these days is "engagement"; they continually ask employees (not just women) to do more with less, especially with all the cutbacks. Such demands are stressful for parents working full time, without the extended family to give emergency backup or a break.

      Though global corporations have progressive "family-friendly" policies, and receive accolades for them, the actual managers override those (IME regularly, sometimes with apology, sometimes not), citing deadlines, client demands and profit targets.

      Your university and your daughter's employer may be more respectful employers.

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  10. I really enjoy the back and forth between you and your daughter. I can see why the post was scary. My own feelings and issues here are complex, and involve stories not mine to tell. So we'll leave it at this...

    Go grandmothers!!! And grandfathers!! What an incredible luxury, to have family so close and so willing.

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    1. Yes, I think it's a real luxury -- we had a bit of it for a very few years ourselves, and I'm so pleased to be able to offer more to our guys.

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  11. My mother went back to work full time when I was 6, which no ones else's mother did, who I knew. It felt strange, but not bad. I was a SAHM until my children were out of high school and off to college. I was lucky to be able to do that. My husband and I wanted it that way and we were fortunate to be able to afford it. My daughter and daughter in law will both likely choose to go back to work soon after giving birth. I support whatever choices they make, and am hyper sensitive about how I phrase my thoughts on their choices. Great piece. My, you are a brave woman to put these issues out for all to read. I'm not as brave.

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    1. Funny to remember a time, so relatively recently, when it was strange to have a mother who worked full-time. Do you know what she felt about that?
      As for being brave, after reading a poem about sex to my two 1st-year classes yesterday, the post doesn't seem that brave! ;-) 18-year-olds are a tougher crowd. . . .

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  12. What a lovely and timely post. My mother was a SAHM, and once I was in school even I could tell she was so bored (I'm an only child). She joined book clubs and sewed all of our clothes, but she became far too involved in the details of my life. I was thrilled when she went back to college to finish her degree when I was in high school, but those early years distorted our relationship. It was interesting to me that she was upset that I continued to work after my children were born -- almost as if the work was a direct criticism of her choice. My choice was informed by my interpretation of her SAHM experience as well as practical needs, but I never felt critical of her. I do so wish we could just support each family's choices and work to let more families have a choice in how to rear their families. Lynn

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    1. So interesting! Imagine your mother and Jennifer's (Above, Well-Styled) meeting. I wonder what they would have thought or said of the other's choices. It was a time when the binaries were so much more strictly inscribed, and it's amazing, really, that we've got here from there, even if we still have a ways to go. . . . I suspect that your experience is a sharper version of what still filters down, somehow, and can be seen in the working-through my daughter and I were, and perhaps still are, doing.

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  13. Surely the measure of any society should be how it looks after the vulnerable.....the very young,the old ,the disabled.Whose job is it ?
    Having a family in the seventies we made the choice & took the responsibility without the expectation of grandparents carrying the load.I don/t remember expecting much .me time. But I do remember caring for aging grandparents
    as well.
    So what is new? Who cares enough to be trusted with the vulnerable ? The nursery......the care home ...the poorly educated /paid minder.??
    In the U.K. there is also a huge argument about good enough child care where a child was kidnapped while well educated parents were enjoying a holiday meal in a restaurant nearby.
    The message will always be the same ...life is all about choices ..take the best care possible.

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    1. Given how much all of us benefit from seeing the next generation raised well, I'd say we might hurry up and get better, more widely available child care happening. My granddaughter spent 3 years in a wonderful facility with well-educated caregivers, specially trained in Early Childhood Education. This weekend's Globe and Mail (a leading Canadian newspaper) has a great article on Quebec's huge social experiment with affordable day care -- the economics appear to benefit everyone, not just parents.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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