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

page five

Not all parents work in this environment, though. And not all mothers have someone even potentially sharing the load. Almost nine percent of the nation's households--9.8 million--are headed by a parent raising kids solo.

The life balance problem is, strangely, one that's easy to overstate and, at the same time, easy to understate.

On one hand, a lack of life balance has the tendency to sound like a personal problem. We all know the mother who has somehow managed to perfectly match her temperament with her circumstances. She might be the sequencing mother who truly does not miss her job, who honestly gets a kick out of long days with her children. She might be the mother who feels content to leave her kid with his grandparents while she puts in nine hours at the office and comes home revved up for family time. She might be the mother who's hit upon the exact proportion of part-time work to time spent parenting, and never seems to have a problem fitting in time to exercise or have toe-curling sex.

She is not most of us, however. Lisa Belkin, who's written the Times's "Life's Work" column for three years now, says, "I've received, at last count, ten thousand e-mails, and nobody says, 'Hey, what's all the fuss about! I can do it!'"

Still, most of us seem to be managing it okay. The kids get storytime, loved ones' birthdays are remembered, we all (usually) have clean underwear. On most days, the vast majority of us are not on the verge of something drastic and heinous. On the contrary--we find our moments of happiness and fulfillment in all the elements overstuffed into our lives. Then we go get our six hours of sleep and do it all over again. Despite relating to the guy in the latest Paxil commercial ("When I'm at work, I'm tense about things at home; when I'm at home, I'm tense about things at work"), I can't say that I'm so riddled with anxiety that I dread tomorrow.

Here in the middle-class life of ordinary problems, we are living full-throttle--but we're doing it.

Maybe more instructive are the lives of mothers who are also doing it, but with that one extra element.

Take poverty. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001)--which should really be required reading material for all elected officials--after the AFDC program was axed. How will, she wondered, all these mothers survive after the end of welfare? In Nickel and Dimed, she writes of the special costs exacted on the poor, like living in a hotel for lack of money to pay a deposit on an apartment, or eating meal by meal with no place to cook or store, say, a big vat of lentil soup.

The cost in time is perhaps dearer. As Ehrenreich reports, it is virtually impossible for one person to survive on working class wages, let alone an entire family; the only way she could do it (and however briefly) was to hold two jobs. If your home doesn't come equipped with a washer/dryer, you spend long hours at the laundromat each week. If you'd like to attend your kid's holiday pageant, forget it--you can be fired for not conforming to the schedule the manager has mapped out. This is not a small problem: One in six American children--11.6 million--live in poverty, and over three quarters of them live with a working adult, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

Or, take a new family addition: our own parents. With Americans living longer and having children later in life, more and more of us find ourselves caring both for children and aging parents. A 1997 National Family Caregiver Survey found that almost a quarter of all American households was involved in caring for a person aged fifty or over, and that the typical caregiver is a married woman in her forties, provides eighteen hours a week caregiving, and works full-time. The average length of time spent caregiving was about eight years. "Informal caregivers are the backbone of the long-term care system in the U.S. today, providing much of the assistance to individuals who want to remain in their homes and need help with daily activities, including eating, bathing, and dressing, or shopping, transportation, and taking medications," an AARP report acknowledges.

Or take any number of events that do happen but aren't headline-grabbing trends. What if a member of the family--mother, mate, or child--becomes disabled? What if your support system of friends and family drops away? What if the company decides it doesn't want part-timers anymore? What if, during the time you're supposed to be sequencing back into paid work, your teenager develops a serious mental or physical illness?

The real kicker is that when any of these things happen, the smidgen of free time you once had is gone. And time is what it takes to work toward either solution--change the culture or change your attitude.

Of course it's not a good idea to live as if catastrophe's always lurking in the back of the minivan. But neither is ignoring the fact that something seems off-kilter here.

The solution depends on who you are. Some, like Lisa Belkin, believe that when people adjust their attitudes, changes in policy will naturally follow. She sees a difference in corporate culture just in the time she's been employed. "When I started at the Times [in 1982], no one would have pictures on their desk--especially women. It wasn't the sort of place where you wanted to admit you had a life," she says. "Has [corporate culture] changed completely? No. There will always be places that change faster than others. Businesses are run by human beings, who change one at a time."

Public policy reformers like Ann Crittenden would like to see the culture get a kick-start, particularly from the government. Part of the solution, she feels, is for mothers to recognize that many issues--from the elder caregiving crisis, to the painful death of AFDC, to inflexibility in the workplace--are different variations on the same problem. In The Price of Motherhood, she reports that a divorce-reform advocate finds that her cause is perceived by small women's advocacy groups as an issue for "rich white women." Another activist told her, "We have to cast child support as a children's issue. If it becomes a woman's issue, it's a loser. Domestic violence is the only women's issue that's a winner."

Yikes. If all we can ask for is not to be abused, what does the future hold?

In terms of getting the government to invest in paid parental leave, early childhood education, or "any of these basic things that they have in almost every other country, it looks like an uphill battle," Crittenden says.

"But," she adds, "women have never asked."

mmo : may 2003

Jennifer Niesslein is the co-editor of Brain, Child Magazine. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with her family.

This article really could have been a book. The issue of life balance is endlessly fascinating to me--largely because I think it informs almost every decision we make, from family size, to what we have for dinner, to where we live.

If you have the time (!), you can find some really interesting analysis in The Price of Motherhood. There's a very compelling section on how this country treats veterans and why caregivers deserve the same sort of treatment. Her explanation of the history of feminism and the domestic realm is a great read, too.

Many thanks to Heidi Brown Lewis for conducting the interview with Ann Crittenden.

Also in MMO:

An interview with Jennifer Niesslein and Stephanie Wilkinson
Founders and co-editors of Brain, Child Magazine

This article was first published in the Summer 2002 edition of Brain, Child Magazine (www.brainchildmag.com). It is republished here with the permission of the author.

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