Media Round Up by a Very Confused Working Mom

Okay, here’s the headspace I’m in. Just got back from a week of pretty grueling travel (something like 20 meetings in 4 days) in India. Home this week when I should be at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston. Feeling guilty and left out about not being at E2, but elated to be home with the munchkin, who is totally my crack (but healthier for sure). Leaving next week for Europe for venue tours, advisory board meeting, Ignite Paris, etc. Husband begging me desperately not to go; he’s on final crunch for Spore and under “normal” circumstances would revert to his normal 28 hours on/12 hours sleep work cycles. But guess what: we have a kid, and we both have jobs. How’s this gonna play out?

So this is the headspace I’m in, and here are four articles I read today.

Are There Too Many Women Doctors?
How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart, By Rebecca Walker
The mother-daughter wars
$5 gas? To some, it’s not impossible

Get it? No I guess not. Alright then, here’s a glimpse into my stressed and messed mind. We’ll start with the Walkers: mother Alice (yes, the famous writer) and daughter Rebecca, also a writer (and a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know her personally). Rebecca has published a very bitter account of her relationship with her mother, one in which she blames her mother’s ambition and feminist ideology for a neglected and painful childhood.

…While she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.

Well, I wasn’t planning on becoming Alice Walker anytime soon, but I sure as hell could have used a more encouraging message today. That long list, minus the fame, is mostly stuff I thought I could have and also have a child who felt loved and nurtured. I realize this is all relative, but Rebecca implies that you actually can’t balance those priorities without your kid getting the shaft. It would be histrionic of me to suggest that Clementine would consider herself at the bottom of my priority list, or feel as unloved as Rebecca clearly feels (and it seems with justification), but it would be nice not to have the mother’s needs and the child’s needs positioned in such direct opposition. After all, I’m about to leave again next week. And I’ll be spending Wednesday night with my book club, Thursday night with Josh and Helen (visiting from Oz) and Friday night with my women’s circle. And I’m up late writing an unnecessary blog post, which will make me tired and probably grumpy with her tomorrow morning. Do I need to look at my priorities?

When I have thought about my priorities lately, I’ve actually been trying to pay more attention to self-fulfillment outside of motherhood. Yes, I guess I’m lucky that I am so fulfilled by being a mom to an adventurous, sweet, loving, and willful five year old. But I notice something when I spend time doing two things I don’t do nearly enough of: writing and exercising. I notice a sense of taking care of myself, and I think I should do more of it.

Rebecca concludes that she has “discovered what really matters – a happy family,” and decides to model her own motherhood on her stepmother’s traditional approach.

My father’s second wife, Judy, was a loving, maternal homemaker with five children she doted on. There was always food in the fridge and she did all the things my mother didn’t.

To which Phyllis Chelser, writing on Salon, has this to say:

Yes, and Alice did all the things that women like Judy don’t want to do and can’t do: Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women’s rights. Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.

Chelser is just warning against pretending you can do everything and be everything, and hey, that’s something many women, including me, probably need to hear daily. But ouch. Again, I’m not as ambitious as all that. And I think I have a pretty decent role model, which clearly Rebecca lacked. My mother struggled with the demands of school and then her midwifery practice, with its long shifts and odd hours, while raising two daughters. My sister and I were often what they called “latch key kids” back then (maybe they still call them that) and there were times I wished for a mom who was big into the PTA. Her divorce from my dad wasn’t exactly fun. But I never felt unloved, and I don’t think I ever doubted that I was high on her priority list. My mom needed her career to be fulfilled, and I think it was good for her daughters that she pursued it. Only now do I realize how hard it must have been.

I’m with Rebecca on one thing: I think motherhood is Da Bomb. But I’m not with Rebecca on throwing the baby of feminism out with the bathwater of her personal pain. While I feel the weight of daily, even hourly choices in a zero-sum game, pulled in multiple directions and constantly disappointed not to have lived up to my potential, I try (sometime unsuccessfully) not to blame anyone but myself. Mostly because I am personally too privileged to get away with it; my job is flexible, my boss is understanding, and my husband has always been willing to play Mr Mom whenever I need to leave town for work(current circumstances excepted). But things still aint right in our culture, not by a long shot. Pick up The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi and read a page, any page. Or check out this truly bizarre exercise in sexist illogic, a Business Week article that takes the following data:

  • Women doctors tend to work 20% to 25% fewer hours than their male counterparts,
  • Women are willing to take on lower-paying specialties that male doctors are moving away from, such as primary care, pediatrics, and obstetrics,
  • Doctors who work fewer hours have less burnout; there is a strong association between long hours and medical errors

and concludes that perhaps there are too many women doctors. Apparently we are projecting “a shortfall of anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 physicians in the U.S. relative to demand by 2020,” and I guess there must be someone to blame. Somehow the fact that more women than ever are becoming doctors (up from 10% of the physician workforce in the 1970s to one third now) is a bad thing, because we don’t have enough doctors overall. Huh? Wait, let me explain. Turns out motherhood is to blame.

“It’s pretty much an even bet that within a year or two of entering practice they will go on maternity leave,” says Phillip Miller, a vice-president of the medical recruiting firm Merritt, Hawkins & Associates. “Then they are going to want more flexible hours.”
Such demands tend to irritate older doctors. “The young women in our practice are always looking to get out of being on-call,” says a male internist at a large New York-area medical group who asked not to be named. “The rest of us have to pick up the slack. That really stirs up a lot of resentment.”

Well fuck you very much, Dr Asked Not To Be Named. No chance that making the profession tolerable to human beings who may also be parents might actually help recruitment? And fuck you, Dr. Brian McKinstry, of Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, who concludes that “in the absence of a profound change in our society in terms of responsibility for childcare, we need to take a balanced approach to recruitment.” In other words, let’s not let so many women into medical school. Unless we can effect a profound change in responsibility for childcare, in which case, what? Then we let in fewer men?

(I should clarify that the author of the article isn’t entirely to blame here. I think she chose a rather unfortunate title and I think she implies some really stupid things, but she is really just reporting on an article in The British Medical Journal by Dr. McKinstry titled “Are There Too Many Female Medical Graduates? Yes.” The Yes is IN THE TITLE. I didn’t add it. Just to be clear here.)

All of this, of course, brings me to the price of gas. Basically, my thought is that it’s going to kill the airline industry and do serious harm to the events business, assuming that a lot of people fly to the conferences and tradeshows we produce. Maybe I should just get ahead of this curve, can our overseas business, and spend less time on the road. If only it were my decision alone, and if only I were confident and quick to act. I would not only decrease the stress on me and my family, I would dramatically reduce my carbon footprint, which is more like an asteroid crater than a footprint at this point.

The truth is that I kind of hold on to the travel. Remember that profound change in our society in terms of responsibility for childcare? Yeah, well that’s one part Dr. Fuckwad got right. It’s not really here yet. Chris is an amazing dad and husband, but when I am at home, things have a tendency to just kind of drift. Responsibilities designed to be shared slip slowly and quietly downhill… towards the mom. I let them. I’m supposed to go to my boot camp class in the morning, but if Clementine wakes up before I leave, I spare Chris the early rise and stay with her. Chris is supposed to clean up the kitchen but when I’m up I might as well load and unload the dishwasher. Taxes, bills, camp applications, school forms, doctors appointments, travel plans; those don’t slip, they’re just mine. When I go away for a week, which I do a lot, Chris deals with everything, and it feels like our roles even out. He likes it (except, understandably, during his crunch time). He gets quality time with Clementine, he gets to be in charge of the house, he gets to feel super-competent and independent. And Clem gets to see Domestic Daddy.

I don’t know what the right thing is. I know that I want to accuse my employer and the entire capitalist system of always wanting more – more events, more revenue, bigger brands – but that wanting it all feels familiar. The list of things I have not done is so much longer than the list of what I have done, or at least it seems that way. Small thing: in the course of writing this, I decided to shorten my trip to Europe next week. London only, instead of the three cities planned. I will do the advisory board meeting, but skip venue tours, Ignite Paris, and the salon in Amsterdam. It’s too small a decision to be a tragedy, a victory or even a true embarrassment (though I am a bit embarrassed). I think it just is my life: little things here and there. Hoping each little decision heads me in the right direction.

6 responses to “Media Round Up by a Very Confused Working Mom

  1. you’re amazing! why is it that if women aren’t thinking about this they are cold hearted, career driven bitches? i am sure most men don’t think twice about this. stupid society. you’re doing fine!!!

  2. Jen, thank you for the post. If, as I see, I will not see you soon in Berlin, at least in October. …and..it is the society, yes, however, our choices are still our own to make. I think you are making a lot of good ones.

  3. I haven’t figured out my path yet, but women like you, in my company, who I see every day struggling to make it work but contributing so much, are my role models. I know you always shrug that off but it’s true. I hope some day we as a society get our shit together and figure out that all children, ours and others’, are everyone’s responsibility and start putting the right incentives in place to support families in the workplace. Can I borrow the Faludi book?

  4. I agree.

    There was always food in the 1970s to a strong association between long hours and medical errors and concludes that perhaps there are too many women doctors.

    It would be nice not to have the mother’s needs and the entire capitalist system of always wanting more — more events, more revenue, bigger brands — but that wanting it all feels familiar.

    The myth that we can effect a profound change in our society in terms of responsibility for childcare?

    Maybe I should do more of it.

    It’s too small a decision to be shared slip slowly and quietly downhill…

  5. Thanks for the kind words, but did it ever occur to you that besides “fulfillment,” my midwifery practice was what put food on the table for you and your sister? Love, Yr. Ma

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