Leaning In

Last July, I wrote a lengthy response to the Anne-Marie Slaughter v. Sheryl Sandberg debate over whether women can or cannot have it all. If you recall or reread my essay, you'll note that I don't much like that query:

"Can Women Have It All? has always sort of bothered me as a question. It’s so nebulous, so one-dimensional. Truly, what does it even mean? The answer is different for each of us and it changes as do we. There are definite societal inequalities -women make just .77 per dollar that men make in the US; some societies don’t value women at all- but by and large, I think that having it all means simply that you as a woman feel fulfilled, be it in your career, your relationships, your life choices, your sense of self."

Yesterday, lazily scrolling through my Facebook feed during a spot of downtime while a babysitter was here, I came across a re-post of a plea to moms to put down their phones when with their children. The friend who re-posted this did so with the quick note "good reminder" headlining its presence on her page, and as many folks do need to put down (hide from themselves?) their gadgets, I started reading the letter.

Almost immediately, I was irritated. Written by a man who, as far as I could tell from his thumbnail pic, resembles Marcus Bachmann (egads!), this call to all the "mommas" out there reeked of condescension, chastising us for not watching closely enough every single move made by our kids. The results of this include a sad slump of your little boy's shoulders, a delighted spin from your little girl that you missed and that she knows you missed (ignored). We are admonished to "put your eyes back on your prize: your kids," to take every bit of this in and be completely present because the time is flying and soon your little boy won't ask you to watch him, your little girl ("such a little beauty queen already" - don't think I didn't go ape on that phrase; great messaging Marcus) will stop twirling. His obvious belief that our not watching every moment of their lives will be damaging to them and a serious regret to us later, when it's too late, was extremely clear. I got angrier.

For starters, Marcus, are you a stay-at-home-dad? Because if you are, you should have said that. For me at least, your message would have been taken differently. I may not have agreed but I'd have respected you for speaking from within the army of at-homers; I'd have known that you too are in the trenches and so at least understand the challenges of experiencing parenthood in that way. If you're not, if you're a working father who sees your kids one or two hours a day or if you're not a parent at all, then please shut your trap. You have NO idea how much of everything I, as an engaged stay-at-home parent, see. No idea how involved I am, how much of myself I give most every hour of every day. No sense of my belief that my kids need to learn that I'm not going to watch and acknowledge and praise and encourage every spin/jump/song/coloring page they do. What's that teaching them? That their pleasure and sense of accomplishment and self come from without rather than within? No way. I check my phone sometimes because I need and deserve a minute (or 20) for myself, whether that's spent on a round of Angry Birds or attempting to edit a cover letter for a friend I'm helping with a job application. Maybe I just want to glance over the news headlines because I feel so disengaged with the larger world. Maybe I'm double-checking my older son's school schedule so I'm not late to pick him up. What I'm not in need of is your presumptuous guilt trip from afar.

It is absolutely true that many parents need to pay more attention to their children, to be more sincerely engaged with them, to involve themselves more deeply in their children's strengths and weaknesses, their development and health. When I read articles about children who are never read to, I ache. When I read about kids who are never hugged, loved, celebrated, valued, I almost can't bear it. Those things are critically important to our children, and are some of our most basic and important responsibilities as their parents.

But I don't think those neglectful parents are who this guy is addressing in his treacly note of patronizing disdain. I think it's moms like me, and that's why it riled me up so much.

Women who want to stay home with their children and can afford to do so are a fortunate group: I feel grateful every day that something I feel so passionately about (being an at-home parent) is doable. But these women are also a diverse group; some have no help, some have full-time nannies, some are trying to keep one foot in the career world they don't want to leave, others are attempting to maintain lives that include identities as mom but also as woman, self, friend, role model, student. Which niche you inhabit can alter your experience of at-home parenthood dramatically.

I'd venture to say that most stay-at-home parents would agree that in some or many ways, their choice to stay home required sacrifice. It is hard every day, it is exhausting and not always fun or interesting. It asks that you be your best self so that you can raise and guide and keep safe and teach the little beings you brought into the  world (don't even get me started on the anti-choice movement waging war in this country right now. Yep, I'm looking at you, crazy Arkansas.). And this point is the crux of why I just can't get totally on board with Sheryl Sandberg's call to Lean In.

Her movement, which I think is sincere in its hopes of encouraging women to be proud of their accomplishments and demand equal recognition/pay for them, nonetheless leaves out a swath of women who don't have the resources to lean in as she suggests. This, I think, is what Anne-Marie Slaughter was troubled by and spoke out against.

Those resources could be financial: if you have a full-time nanny and/or a partner who is literally always there or able to be there, sure, you can lean in; if your kids are old enough to be in school much of each day, you can probably make something work; if you never wanted to stay home with your kids and lack monetary resources but have extended family around you who really want to pitch in, you could lean in and scrape by.

But if you choose to stay home either because you wouldn't make enough by working to offset the cost of quality childcare (I worked in education pre-kids; I know) or because you really want to but would still like to maintain some sense of the you-before-becoming-a-mom, well, good luck leaning in in any big way. The lack of resources issue. I want to, I try to, but snow days, sick days, inconsistent auxiliary childcare...I'm on deck and have to be even with little or no notice. Meanwhile, your partner -likely, the breadwinner- needs to be supported too. My husband is great and his work enables our life, but when he travels 10 days out of 14, it's all me and that's a lot.

I'm not writing from bitterness in the least, but I do think it's worthwhile to remember that many types of mom the world of parents is. More support and less judging would help us all, to both lean in and simply be able to do our best. What's less frequently granted book tours and media coverage is that the U.S. has pitiful maternity and paternity leave policies, completely inadequate childcare available to the general populace, a definite lack of extended families in the same geographic area as you would find elsewhere. The village has, by and large, dissolved, and the challenges of that are definite. So when I read things like Marcus' call to mommas to be even better, I kinda want to barf. When I feel I should be leaning in more, I think "on what? the wall?"

I welcome any change that helps to erase gender gaps in pay and expectations, I laud couples who make the best choices for who they are (both parents working, the dad stays home, they opt against having children, etc), but concurrently, let's remember that in any decision and role there is nuance, shades of gray that also need acknowledgement and understanding. Let's keep in mind that everyone starts from a different point, with different abilities and reserves and contexts. I'm starting to wander so will now say goodnight. To be continued, perhaps.