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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.

 

More Thoughts on Work and Motherhood (The Work vs. Motherhood Dilemma, pt. 2)

The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? - Leslie Bennetts

It's been a couple weeks since I finished The Feminine Mistake, but I'm finally returning to some of the other quotes I took down for further thought. A lot of this brings up experiences from my own childhood.

 

"The feeling of accomplishment you get from running a school bake sale or making a child's Halloween costume is lovely, but the feeling of empowerment you get out of saving your children from losing their home or their education is a different order of magnitude entirely." - pg. 121

 

When I was ten, my dad decided to sell our cattle and rent out our barn and land. He was done farming, which he had never enjoyed but felt pressured into by his family. He went back to school, which he had always wanted to do but hadn't been allowed to by his strict father who thought higher education was "useless." This constituted a major shift in my family's day-to-day life, as we went, seemingly overnight, from a household in which both parents essentially "worked from home" to one in which my mom took on a 40-hour workweek outside the home and my dad went back to school. Although I didn't really understand the magnitude of this shift at the time, it constituted a definite dividing line in our family's way of life. That was when my mom started pulling the majority of the financial weight in our family, and, yes, it was her job that allowed my dad to pursue his education and later set up his own business. Still, I know her feelings about this were more complicated than Bennetts implies. Rather than feeling empowered that she could take care of us financially, I think she resented the time spent away from her family, where she was happiest, and the infamous "second shift." I know she also recognized the tension between the work she did in the outside world, where people appreciated and validated it, and the work she did at home, which went largely unnoticed. She did tell me later that she wouldn't go back to an economic arrangement where she didn't have her own money, which leads into my next thoughts.

 

"There's a certain amount of economic secrecy with many couples, and women who don't have economic power feel this need to sneak around to do things if their husbands might not approve of the ways they're spending money. It's a little game they're playing." - Darcy Howe, quoted in "The Feminine Mistake," pg. 210

 

Every time my mom bought me a new toy that wasn't for a birthday or Christmas present, she'd tell me to hide/throw away the packaging right away when we got home so my dad wouldn't know she'd bought it. He wouldn't notice a new toy without the tell-tale packaging -- he wasn't on top of our toy collections. This was never an issue of real tension in our family, more of a fun little secret between my mom and me. But what lies beneath it is this secrecy, where a woman without economic independence must hide at least some of her purchasing choices. I don't remember hiding packages anymore after Mom started working outside the home.

 

"In families structured around traditional gender roles, absentee fathers often pay a high price for the long work hours required of a sole breadwinner. 'Women are the losers to the extent that they cannot remain involved as productive members on the business side, but men are the grand losers, because we don't have the opportunity to enjoy as much of our kids growing up and of our home life. So everyone loses. I know powerful lawyers whose children are saying, "We are going to choose a different lifestyle. We don't want to spend three thousand hours a year working and missing out on the rest of life; it's not worth it.'" - former managing partner in a New York law firm, quoted in "The Feminine Mistake," pg. 263.

 

I'm glad this idea was included, even if only in passing. While giving up financial independence is dangerous and may lead to regret, how many people, once their children are grown, feel regret that they didn't spend enough time with them during those early years? Ultimately, cooperation needs to be the goal, so that neither parent feels as if s/he is the sole bearer of certain burdens, whether that's earning a living, picking the kids up from school, or cleaning the toilet. And what about scaling down on lifestyle so that, regardless of who makes the majority of the income, the financial burden of doing so isn't so heavy? Although many women were profiled who fell into poverty after their husband's deaths, job loss, or divorce, the book seemed to assume a very high standard of living that needed to be maintained overall.

 

"Fairness on the home front still feels like a struggle, and it is often the source of friction. 'Gender equity is messy,' [Scott] Coltrane acknowledges. 'If you just assume the man is the breadwinner and the wife does everything else, people know what's expected of them. Equal-partnership marriages are more fulfilling for both partners, but they take more work--and because negotiation is difficult, they look like there's more conflict; there's risk of more butting heads, more foot-dragging It's not fun to demand change. If women bring it up, they're nags; if they don't, they have to do it all themselves.'" - pg. 264

 

YES YES YES. I can't count all the times I've been hesitant to ask my husband to do something as basic as bring his dishes to the sink or throw away his candy wrappers because of not wanting to be cast in the "nag" role. But the reality is that women "nag" because they're the ones who, whether through biology or culture, are attuned to the state of the home environment, and seem unfairly predestined to organize on that front. The choices are not good ones: being considered a nag, or building a wall of resentment as you continue to "pick up after" the others who live in your house. It's comforting for me to read this, to hear that this conflict and friction (even if it's mainly internal, as it is in my case -- Ivan is very responsive when I ask him to do something or help with something) is just part of the process. My overall philosophy? Do it myself if it's not a big deal, if I don't feel resentment about it -- but it's better to ask, even at the risk of feeling like a "nag" than to let that wall of resentment grow too thick.

 

"When Donna Chatsworth gave up her career to care for her family, it never occurred to her that her children might emulate their mother instead of their superachieving father. But her kids--now twenty-four and thirty-two--are chronically unemployed and living on financial subsidies from their wealthy father, despite their anger toward him for having divorced their mother. Although Chatsworth has encouraged both of them to make a commitment to work, they dismiss her as a dilettante who didn't do so herself and who therefore has no credibility. 'My son has utter contempt for me; he has totally absorbed his father's attitude that I have no value in the world, because I don't make money," Chatsworth says. "At this point, he sees me as pathetic and useless.'" - pg. 281

 

I almost didn't include this quote because it's so depressing. But after a good conversation about it with Ivan, I decided to keep it because the rebuttal is important. We both agreed that it's not because their mother didn't work outside the home that her children don't. It's because their father enables such a lifestyle. Cut a kid off from the parents' revenue stream, refuse to let them "crash" at your house indefinitely (or make them abide by your rules if they do, which always chafes adult children), and you give them very little choice EXCEPT to learn to support themselves. It sounds like this is an issue of dysfunction wherein Daddy is trying to buy his children's forgiveness, and they're using their mother as a handy scapegoat for their laziness -- not that they're lazy because their mother stayed home with her kids, which is not the same as being "lazy," irresponsible, and essentially just refusing to grow up. 

 

"So here's one message a lot of successful women would like to pass on to those who think that opting out is the answer: If you don't like the way things are set up, work to change them. If you have problems with the way your job is structured, figure out some creative alternatives. If you just walk away from paid employment, you will not only have cheated yourself of the opportunities that might have come your way but you will also have forfeited your chance to have an impact for the better." - pg. 301

 

I see the value in what Bennetts is saying here, but this argument really rubs me the wrong way. I'm tired of women who are beaten down on multiple fronts being told that it's their "job" to change these corrupt systems. Yes, it's true that change doesn't happen if we don't demand it, but it's also true that many women leave the workforce because they are overwhelmed by conflicting demands of the home and the workplace. Now, on top of this, they're expected to take on the whole system? These are women who "opt out" because something has to give, and they've made the choice to sacrifice work for family. When you're in a position where something has to give, it's not fair to have to take on the responsibility of changing the system as well, which requires giving more at a time when you're looking for a way in which you don't have to give so much. Bravo for the women who are able to do this, because their work benefits everyone. But let's not blame and shame women who just can't add one more item to their "to-do" list.

 

This reminds me of the argument I used for staying in the Catholic Church as long as I did/have, despite corruption and repressive teachings. I wanted to stay and change the system rather than just leave and take my voice and impact with me. But you know what? Leaving sends its own message, and in some cases might be the biggest "punishment" you can dole out (it's too bad so many of those in position of power don't even realize the value of what they're losing when women leave their institutions). Also, this argument is uncomfortably close to pressure to stay in an abusive relationship in hopes that someday it will "change." Sometimes, walking away is the only change you can hope for, and that option should always be respected as valid.

 

"The best thing I could wish for my daughters is early success, because that gives you the confidence to believe you can have the career you want." - Tanya Mandor, pg. 305

 

Yes. I've been incredibly lucky in my work life -- I got a job with an organization that mattered to me right out of college, moved up through the ranks there, and learned how good it feels to be valued in a work setting. I still think about that experience when I need to remind myself that I am competent. I've also had periods in my life when my self-esteem has suffered because my work doesn't utilize my strengths, and I think a series of jobs like this can impart a larger blow to women's confidence than we may think. So much of this is not about talent, hard work, or ability, but about circumstance, and it's no wonder that a woman would choose to focus on her family if she's had a string of demoralizing or unfulfilling work experiences. I would wish early success to all young women as well, so they have a reference point to anchor their confidence to for the rest of their work lives.

 

"It's hard to figure out who you are and how to make your own unique contribution to the world--not as a daughter or a wife or a mother but as an individual. We can try to avoid this task or pretend it doesn't exist, but it will always be waiting for us around the next bend in the road. Deferring that challenge through marriage or motherhood is a temporary solution at best, and one that exposes us to myriad risks. Whether in our twenties or our forties or our sixties, whether as young woman or divorcee or widow, each of us must eventually confront the question of who we are and how to give our lives meeting." - pg. 310

 

That's absolutely true, but work isn't necessarily the answer to that. Identifying yourself solely with your profession seems as dangerous as identifying yourself solely with your family life. Yes, finding meaning in life is crucial, and yes, work is one avenue for that. But so is family, volunteer work, or creative pursuits. I personally find more meaning in my writing than in my paid work, but it's the interplay of many different facets of my identity that make me feel complete and fulfilled. Expecting work to be fill that empty place inside and validate you is as precarious as expecting a husband and children to do the same.