March 2019 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and discussed childcare and paid family leave, as well as girls entering the Boy Scouts:

In Praise Of Slowing Down

It feels funny, from my maternity leave, to write in praise of slowing down. I am occupied. My left forearm, at times, is numb from rocking my baby in the cool, silent dark. During the day we walk outside and observe the slime mold in the mulch. We practice cooing and tracing our eyes around the room. We have one play mat with a hanging stuffed elephant, giraffe, bird and monkey, and it is so stimulating when I lay her down beneath them! We sing songs and look up and learn one new word from the dictionary every day. The world is small and new.

Within the confines of the adult world our activities are not particularly cognitive. I used to spend most of my leisure time reading books that kick my ass. Now I have a baby who depends on crying and screaming to communicate that she is tired and needs my help to calm down. In this space we have discovered silence, quiet, deep breaths, relaxed muscles and gliding on the balls of my own two feet. If the crying escalates I will whisper to her, “We’ll get through this. We always do. Every single time.” We are together and there is nothing else.

During the course of my life, I have found the most happiness in radical presence: immersing myself in the actions of love; running and other physical activities in nature; being totally and completely taken over by ideas and stories. While all of these activities could mean work (caring, physical labor, mental labor), they are typically devalued. During my life I have run in circles with a generation of women for whom “breathing out” is as much of an issue as “leaning in.” We haven’t been trying to have it all so much as prove that we can do it all. From racing from one extracurricular activity to another and then homework into working after hours to please a boss who is under (or not) paying us, and sticking to exercise, and a commitment to the arts, and social time, and the constant streams of unpaid volunteer work, and being in touch online with everyone and all the time, the world is actually so large and frantic as to make noticing the slime mold impossible. Which, I have learned, actually moves around — and quite quickly, if you keep tabs on it.

Anecdotally, men I know seem less likely to suffer from the need to “breathe out.” I don’t think this is because women are stupid. I think it is because we are undervalued within a culture that is held up as a meritocracy. It is unfortunate all this hard work has not translated into fair acknowledgement, much less happier lives.

Innately, my little girl has excellent focus. When she is crying, she is crying. When she is looking, she is looking. When she smiles, it takes effort, and it makes my whole day. I am so fortunate to learn from her.

Does It Make Sense To Work When Child Care Is So Expensive?

On the brink of another life change, before I got married the first time, my mom offered the following unsolicited advice:

“Always have girlfriends, and always keep your own bank account.”

In other words, always stay interdependent with others outside your family, and always maintain enough independence to call at least some of your own shots.

It’s something I’m considering as I navigate the fraught terrain for women planning to merge career and child care for the first time. How do I find this stuff? How much should it cost? How do you make sure it’s good?

And the biggest question of all, one that keeps coming up with other friends who are expecting children or new parents:

Is it selfish to keep working when child care is so expensive and he makes more money than I do?

That question. My goodness. That question we’d heard before and never thought would apply to us.

I keep thinking back to my mother’s advice. Always have girlfriends. It’s not just about friends. It’s not just about marriage. It’s about a woman’s place in a broader world. It’s about support systems. Having just one support system is not supporting yourself as well as you could. My family is important to me. But I feel like I’m selling all of us short if I don’t have friends and career, which are also important to me and my sense of identity.

Always keep your own bank account. This one feels more tricky. Like a lot of women married to men, my husband makes more money than I do. And with a kid on the way, the questions get louder. As one New York Times blogger wrote, Why Do I Think My Salary Pays for Child Care? I admit to the same thinking, and hearing it among friends. Does it economically make sense for me to work? Given that we almost always direct this question at women, how will we clear the way so our daughters don’t have to ask this question? Sure, we often get paid less. But maybe if we stick around at work we can help be part of the ongoing and as-yet unrealized call for equal pay.

It’s also about now and not just the future. As one of my friends said to me, sure he makes more than I do, and he’s going to pick up more money for the baby’s needs. What if I work less or not at all to stay with the kid, and I want to buy a pair of jeans? What if I want to stop for a coffee? And whether we’re talking about disposable income or accessing basics like food and health care, that’s what money really comes down to: Power. The power to make your own decisions and be in control of your life.

I don’t have easy answers to these questions. Our baby will come soon. As I consider a life on the brink of great change, I can’t stop thinking about what my mom said. Mixing interdependence, independence, child, work and family is not easy. It makes me frustrated that these issues are typically seen as women’s issues. They are societal issues. My guess is the more we move toward that frame, the easier it will be to make some changes.