The missing piece in the “good mother” puzzle

Today I re-tweeted an article by Kathryn Sollmann, Peace Talks for the Mommy Wars in which she re-frames the “have it all” and “lean in” rhetoric into personal, economic terms. I love this article. I think her argument is spot-on. She writes, “At the end of the day, let’s accept that we’re all good mothers…The better mother is the one who faces reality, plans for life contingencies and makes certain that she tucks her family into a future that is financially secure and safe.” Amen.

I am fortunate to have a mentor (the same one since I was 22) who told me to always know what money is going in and what money is going out. She taught me that I am responsible for my financial future and no one else. That was/is good advice. Especially since at that time, a spouse wasn’t even on the horizon. I was young, educated, and on my own. I needed to know how to pay for my car, food, health insurance, plane tickets home to NJ, etc. etc. No one else was going to do it for me. I needed to know how to do these things. And, thank goodness, I do. God forbid I am ever¬†widowed, I could still stay afloat. I have a job, my degrees, and the know-how to figure it out, or at least ask someone who does.

But this is only part of the “good mother” puzzle. An important one, but not the only one. Of course I need to tuck my children into a financial future. But I also want to tuck them into bed and into my heart.

I have read Lean In and I think Sandberg has some great points. For some people. I spent five years of my life as a PhD student investigating work-life “balance,” which I now call work-life negotiation, and wrote an entire dissertation about women student affairs administrators with young children and how they are trying to “have it all.” I read journal articles, tweet interesting links, have entire files of studies, pie charts, and bar graphs outlining ways that corporate America can help working families. All of these things are good and important. I have even blogged about my own “negotiation” strategies sometimes on this blog.

Today I had lunch with my husband who is also a working parent in higher education. It was a date in a college cafeteria because that is what fits our lives and our budgets right now. Sitting there over the beef and broccoli and roasted turkey, I realized something. All of these “have it all” articles are missing one important piece. The articles are prescriptive, one size fits all suggestions. I’m not a fan of being told what to do. I don’t know many mothers who are.

My contribution to the missing piece is this: the better mother is the one who does all she needs to do- personally, emotionally, financially, legally, geographically, etc., etc.- because it works for her. Because it works. for. her. Happy, focused mother= well-adjusted children and family.

The focus of modern rhetoric has been on macro changes. If more mothers lean in, then “the system” will change. (Maybe.) If legislators are made more aware of the burdens of working families, government will start to act in the best interests of the people. (Umm, sure.) Yes, these are important and necessary. Is it ridiculous that in 2008 I pumped breast milk in my own locked closet with paper on the windows because that was the only place I could go? Yes. Ridiculous. Is it insane that families with a sick child or elderly parent miss important meetings at work AND with their loved ones’ medical care team for fear that something will fall through the cracks? Of course. We absolutely need changes on the macro level. No question. But shaming SAHM and working mothers (or fathers) into leaning in, or wanting to have it all isn’t the answer.

I don’t have the answer. But, I have my own experience, I have my own answer. And what I have learned is this: forget everyone else and focus on what works for you. What worked for me as a working mother was to leave a Director level position and come home to a less than mid level advising position 10 minutes from my house. And guess what, NO ONE said boo to me. The person who was shaming me into thinking that I was derailing my own fast track train to having it all was me. I thought that giving up this job made me a hero or even better, a working mother martyr. Neither of these labels is true.

I gave up…nothing. And gained everything.

When I told people at my former institution that I was leaving because a job 5 miles from home opened up, every other woman (mother or not) in that office said this, “Oh, well, of course. That makes soo much sense. The little people in your life will be so happy.”

The little people in my life were indeed happy. Especially the three year old (who is now six and a giant!). When I was gone 60 hours/week (15 of which were spent driving the autobahn that is I-96 East in MI), he barely spoke to me. I saw my boys for 15 minutes each morning. I forced them to snuggle with me because I needed to leave the house with their morning smell still on my shirt. When I came home at 530pm (if I was lucky), the three year old wouldn’t speak to me. Sometimes he would open up and start talking to me over dinner. Sometimes he never spoke to me; he avoided my loving, hopeful eyes. This was his little three year old way of telling me that he resented me being away for so long. I resented it, too, but was constantly torn between wanting to “have it all” by using the degree I had just spent five long years earning, and wanting to be a “good mother.”

At the time, a fellow working mother told me that my son’s not speaking to me when I came home was about him and not me. He was three years old. Maybe that is how she would have approached the same situation. But for me, that was not working. I was actually starting to get really good at my job when I left it. But I was not the kind of mother I wanted to be. I missed everything- drop-off, pick-up, class trips, laughing at the breakfast table. And, I missed them. I missed them. Much of the modern talk is about the children. How are the children impacted by a parent’s work-outside-the-home status? What are the differences between children in daycare and those not? The good news: there is no difference.

What I think is missing from this rhetoric is the other side. The mother’s side. My side. I saw very little of myself in all of these articles screaming at me to keep my fast track job. I missed my children and my husband. I needed them. I missed them so much I ached. Eventually the three year old would have been fine. But I am not sure that I would have been fine. I was tired all the time. I was stressed out from driving. I started clenching my jaw at night (and now need a bite guard which I am getting tomorrow).

I tried the stay-at-home mom thing, too. Twice. Hated it. I was not good at it. I would be a horrible stay-at-home mom. I was also a horrible “have it all” mom.

For now, I am a mid-life, mid-career, mid-western mom who does not have it all. But, I am pretty darn close. I am happy. My boys are happy. I go to work and I help people. I help students be better versions of themselves and I love it. Turns out, my current position pays even more than my last one and I am no longer spending money commuting, so double bonus. Tucking them and myself into that financial future.

My real legacy, my “having it all” is my sons. They are the micro changes that will go out into the world and make macro differences. If that happens, when that happens, then I really will have it all.

That same mentor who taught me to take charge of my financial future also told me once, “your life right now is not your life forever.” Preach.

Parent “helper”

Last week I volunteered in my son’s second grade classroom for the “one-room schoolhouse event.” Since September, they have been learning about life in the Pioneer days- think Little House on the Prairie, covered wagons, and no electricity or running water. That day, the entire second grade pod was transformed. The teachers wore long skirts, white aprons and bonnets. The children were asked to dress up as well and bring their non-processed lunches in brown paper bags, baskets, or wrapped in napkins. The lights were off and they weren’t allowed to use the water fountain. Each classroom became a one-room schoolhouse, with multiple grades of students in each room. L. wasn’t too thrilled about being demoted to first-grade for the morning, but he made the most of it. It was impressive and very, very organized! It was obvious that the four teachers had worked long and hard to transform their classrooms so the students could go back in time. And you know, actually learn something.

I arrived early and waited outside my son’s classroom for my assignment. As I was standing there, several other parents arrived. I was stunned to observe how loud and disruptive they were. I have a natural awe of and deference toward teachers that when I see such overt disregard for their work, I am stunned speechless. It’s totally fine and completely natural to want to chit-chat with your fellow mom-friends and parents of your child’s peers. I actually crave that time. It makes me feel normal and not so isolated.

Usually, people are aware enough to keep it to a slow murmur. Not that day. There were three grown women standing right outside a classroom door, talking and laughing at full pitch. One of the teachers came out and closed her door. That should have been the first clue. Then, one of the teachers whose door was already closed, came out, and spoke with them. She asked them very politely to please keep it down. She said something to the effect of: “We have a lot to get through and it would be helpful if you could keep it down out here. Then, we I am ready I will come out to explain the rotations to all the parent helpers.”

That didn’t go over very well. As soon as that door closed the Chatty Cathys reamed her. They absolutely ripped into her. And they weren’t even trying to be quiet about it. They started twittering and making faces and rolling their eyes. Kind of like a second-grader would. Then, right after that a fourth mother arrived and shouted at them from the other end of the hallway, across all four classrooms: “Hey, why aren’t you all dressed up, too?” The three who had just been scolded, said something like, “Shhhhh! We just got yelled at for talking!” I wish I could write how high-pitched and nasaly they sounded. Then they walked down the hall laughing and snickering. (I am assuming they came back eventually to help, but I honestly don’t know.)

Seriously? Who does that?

I wish I were making this up. It felt like a bad dream from grade school.

I understand the desire to chat with other moms. But, these women were there, in theory, to be parent helpers. After multiple messages went out from all four teachers indicating how much help they needed to make the day happen for the kids. (80 second graders, rotating through 4 stations of 30 minutes each) Chatting outside a classroom door is not helpful. And, that teacher had every right to say something to protect her time with her students, her lesson, and the learning environment that all four of them were trying to create.

If Chatty Cathy wants to be social, do it in the parking lot, or in your car, or at lunch after you are done volunteering. As a parent helper, I believe it is my role to be there to be helpful. I am perfectly wiling to be bossed around by teachers who are either younger than me, or old enough to be my mother.¬†It’s not social hour. It is precious time that I get a window into my sons’ classrooms, where they spend more time every day than they do at home. I get to observe the teacher in action. How does she interact with the children? How do my son’s respond to her? Are they helpful, good listeners? Are they focused on the lessons and working hard? Are they struggling? And if so, where? Who are their friends?

Maybe those women were having a bad day. Maybe I am over-sensitive. Maybe these women are the exception and most parents don’t act like second-graders. I am not so sure. I have been on enough field trips to have witnessed some interesting cell phone usage.

Maybe I am right, though. Isn’t this where our children get it? If parents don’t have at least a modicum of respect for teachers, why should their children? Teachers work too long and too hard to have to battle parents, too.

The good news is that the kids are fine. They really are. They are kind, helpful, smart, energetic, messy (oh boy! The boys, my son included, were all a hot mess!), funny, eager, and wanting to be loved, by their teachers and by us.

When did we start thinking so little of our children and ourselves?

A few days ago, I stumbled across Mrs. Hall’s FYI letter to young girls. I don’t even remember where I saw it first. Facebook, maybe. I clicked on it. I read it. I re-read it. At first, truthfully, I thought it was a joke. Then I saw the comments on her blog and all the re-posts and re-tweets and realized she was in fact quite serious.

As the mother to two boys, I was….confused by her post. As a woman and a feminist (gasp!), I was enraged. I could not believe that this woman, who also parents a daughter, had these thoughts about young girls and their sexual identities (on-line or otherwise). That this mother believes that the best way to teach her young sons how to be men is to shame women for being sexual creatures. In the process, she is denying that her own children are also sexual beings and abdicates them from any responsibility for whatever decisions they have/will make. I really thought we were past the whole “women are temptresses out to snag a man” and “men are visual beings who cannot be trusted because they think with their penises” stuff.

I am very very new to the “blogging” world. But as I am writing and tweeting more, I am also finding more and more blogs, especially by other sassy mommas that I really enjoy and find quite hilarious. Several of those bloggers posted responses to Mrs. Hall. (Google it. There are too many to list here.) I read along and thought to myself, “right on!” I even wanted to post a snarky one myself with the same condescendingly self-righteous tone that Mrs. Hall invoked in her original post.

Something stopped me though and I am glad I waited. Because although I think Mrs. Hall is wrong in both her message and her tone, me being snarky back accomplishes very little, other than to make me feel better. And the truth is, I don’t feel better. I am sad. I am deeply disturbed by the message that her post sends to both boys and girls.

For days now I have been wondering why we think so little of our own children? Why do we think so little of ourselves and our abilities to raise them well? When did we stop raising our children to handle the tough stuff that life will teach them? The tough stuff that we are morally, socially, ethically obligated to teach and show them as their parents? Children come out of the womb innocent. They are pure. They are raised to be jerks or bigots or brats or alpha males. Behavior is learned. Maybe that is what is so scary to so many of us parents. We are so afraid of doing it wrong that instead, we do nothing and throw up our hands. Or, as Mrs. Hall did, blame the pretty girls for tempting her innocent, pure-of-heart-and-mind-boys.

What I read in her post is fear and mistrust. (My original comments about that are still posted on my facebook timeline.) She is afraid of the world that her children will enter. She does not trust herself. She does not trust her children to think for themselves, to remember the values that she has taught them. Clearly she thinks that boys cannot be trusted to their own devices and that pretty young girls are only out to corrupt them along the way. Why are we so afraid? And why do we trust our children so little?

In the process of formulating my own response to her post, I came across this post from Kristen Howerton. She blogs at Check it out. Really, really good stuff.

Her post really says it all and says it very well. “But when it comes to our sons we need to focus on teaching our boys to manage their own thoughts and to extend respect to every woman, regardless of how she is dressed.”

We need to trust ourselves as parents. We need to teach our children. And then, we need to trust that they have learned well.