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Living Full-Throttle
Motherhood, Balance, and Another Women's Movement

page three

Since The Price of Motherhood's release, Crittenden says that a whole lot of consciousness-raising has been going on--and the beginnings of a grassroots movement to secure the rights of unpaid caregivers. "A lot of people are saying, 'Oh yeah, this is what it's like.' The whole debate is shifting.

"What's exciting to me is that around the country, there are a half a dozen women, professional women in their thirties, who are saying we're going to start something," Crittenden says. "We've proven that we can do the work that men do and be professional. We have not won respect for the work that women have traditionally done and that's the key to the next stage, I think."

One player on that next stage may be an organization called MOTHERS: Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights. It's in an embryonic state right now, but Crittenden says they plan to write a Mother's Bill of Rights. Crittenden is lending her voice to the organization, along with Naomi Wolf, feminist activist and author, most recently, of Misconceptions, a critique of the birthing industry, and Barbara Seaman, an activist for women's health. (For more information, visit the MOTHERS Web site.)

In the meanwhile, Social Agenda, a women's think tank and advocacy group, is working to replace the child tax credit with a caregiver tax credit. Like Crittenden, the organization believes that caregiving is work, and it makes some compelling arguments for why a caregiver credit makes fiscal sense for the country. Under this campaign, anyone who's the primary caregiver of a family member--whether it be a child or an older relative--would receive a tax credit, or if they don't make enough money to pay taxes, a check. (For more information on the Caregiver Credit Campaign, check out caregivercredit.org).

Crittenden reluctantly concludes that mothers themselves are the real reason this revolution hasn't yet happened. "[Mothers] don't feel entitled; they don't feel they deserve things for themselves. They never have," she says. "I think that's the last bit left of what women used to be taught: Women should be sacrificial, women should always serve others. We've kind of gotten rid of that for women. We teach young girls, 'Be what you can be, have ambitions, fulfill your destiny, express yourself.' …Mothers have not quite gotten out of that. So now all the things that used to be attributed to women are now attributed to mothers. Mothers are still feeling like, in their own name, they don't deserve something, in their own right."

I think Crittenden may be right, partly. But as someone whose sense of entitlement is quite intact, what seems to trip me up (and maybe a lot of women my age) is not the feeling that I don't deserve help. It's the suspicion that I just haven't figured out how not to need help. I am, after all, as much a product of this individualist culture as anyone else. I was once that young girl who was told she could be anything. And I have a really hard time letting that idea die just because I'm a mother. It is a monument to my arrogance that I researched this article, fully supported what Ann Crittenden says, and all the while thought: That's great--for other women. But I can work this out. I can be anything I put my mind to, right?

I shared this bit of navel-gazing with Lisa Belkin, who writes the "Life's Work" column for the New York Times and is the author of the newly released book Life's Work: Confessions of An Unbalanced Mom (Simon & Schuster, 2002). "There's only twenty-four hours in a day and we are human," she said. "When you change either of those things, we can be anything we want to be."

There is no such thing as life balance, Belkin believes, and you can really drive yourself nuts trying to achieve it. When I spoke with her, she was doing the little work/life dance that a lot of us do; her weekly column was due in two days, yet she was at a coffee shop with her son, drinking a latte, while construction was going on at her home. She talked to me on her cell phone. At one point, I asked her to repeat what she just said, and she replied: "I said, 'Hang on just a minute, honey. I'll be right there.'"

"[Life balance] is a jigsaw puzzle that can't be completed. There's always one piece that doesn't fit. It could be depressing--but if you can get rid of the guilt part, that's an accomplishment," she says. "The guilt comes from the fact that we care. We all care about our work. We all care about our children. If we didn't care, we wouldn't feel guilty when we couldn't give things the attention they deserve."

For Belkin, "a close approximation of sanity" means learning to be comfortable with the compromises she's made in order to have the life she wants. "I will never be executive editor of the New York Times and I don't care. I want to be home and flexible and that means giving up some degree of success."

How long did it take for her to learn that? Twenty years, she laughs. "I'm a proponent, not a practitioner, of the 'so-what?' theory of life."

Lisa Belkin's editors at the Times aren't the only publishers clued in to the struggles this country's parents are facing. Tomes on life balance, in different guises, stuff bookstore shelves.

The worst of them play into the mommy wars--two-hundred-plus pages of justification of why a given lifestyle is best for everyone. In their book And What Do You Do?: When Women Choose to Stay Home (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2000), Loretta Kaufman and Mary Quigley take a huge issue for us mothers--the scaling back of our careers while our children are young (otherwise known as "sequencing")--and whittle it down to a handy stereotype, from somewhere in the way-back machine. "Women like giving gifts. We really do. We shop 'til we drop for the perfect present while men often grab the first thing in sight," they write. "It's the same with relationships, especially with our husbands and children."

What they call a gift, Crittenden calls unpaid labor--and Kaufman and Quigley's subjects give incredible gifts, like moving the household cross-country alone and generally giving the husbands carte blanche to ignore everything but their own careers. The authors also more often refer to sequencing as "putting your husband's career first," rather than, say, being a full-time caregiver to your kids. This conservative bent on the idea may be most evident in their list of qualities that "family CEOs" possess, which includes the snarky "They May Even Love Their Husbands." (Which, I might add, makes it pretty hard to remember that we're all in the same boat and that we shouldn't wish unkind things on the authors' marriages.)

These defensive (and offensive) books offering a one-size-fits-all-solution seem to be falling out of vogue, though, in favor of the inspiration-style books. The latter acknowledge that readers are facing some problems cramming all the elements of their lives in a day; unfortunately, the solutions they offer are only nominally helpful. The real benefit to these books is the tone--soothing, inspirational, and offering a vision of life that does not include the simultaneous occurrence of the dog vomiting, the UPS man ringing, and your child's frenetic flinging of Play-Doh around the sunroom. From Mimi Doe's Busy But Balanced: Practical and Inspirational Ways to Create a Calmer, Closer Family (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001):

"Head over to a local pond or lake at sunset (imagine it's Walden Pond) and read some of Thoreau's writings. Children are able to understand so many of his simple yet wise thoughts. A great place to begin is this line from Consciousness in Concord: "Any melodious sound apprises me of the infinite wealth of God." You can listen to the melodious sounds of God all around you. Or how about the following from Thoreau's journal, dated June 22, 1852: "Is not the rainbow a faint vision of God's face? How glorious should be the life of man passed under this arch! What more remarkable phenomenon than a rainbow, yet how little it is remarked!"

Return to the pond, each with a journal, and write your own esoteric thoughts."

Once you get past your impulse to think things like "Would Thoreau count the slapping of mosquitoes as a melodious sound of God?", Busy But Balanced does play a strange little trick. You do feel calmer while you read it. You might, as I did, suspect that a margarita out on the patio would impart the same sense of calm as penning your esoteric thoughts pond-side, but that's not really the point. As silly as the tips in the inspiration-style books sound (lighting candles, peeking in on your sleeping child), what Doe is really espousing is living in the moment. And when so much of motherhood is preparing for the next moment (are there sheets on the crib? is my preschooler getting enough reading readiness?), it's an appealing idea. It speaks to what we're all after, anyway: not only to have the elements of the good life, but to enjoy them.

attitude adjustment

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