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.
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
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).
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.'"
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.