Saturday, January 17, 2009

Selling Ourselves Short

Last week I had what has become an increasingly common conversation for me: child care. The expense of it, the lack of it, the quality of it. The talk followed a predictable pattern with a predictable conclusion. I'm going nuts, as is the mother I was talking with, but neither of us can quite afford full-time day care.

This isn't quite true. My husband and I could afford it if (iff, that is -- "if and only if")I went back to a full-time job. So. I can go back to the task of copy editing increasingly dissatisfying children's textbooks, a job I used to enjoy, but only because it was freelance and part-time and I could write on the side. This would mean doing what millions of other women do every day, getting up early, getting showered and dressed, getting my son up, dressed, fed, with diaper bag packed, ready to leave by 7:30 so we can all race to the day care center and then to our respective jobs.

Maybe it's selfish of me, but I don't think I can face that life. It seems overwhelmingly pointless, harried, and stressful, for my son as well as me. Given the two options, I think I'd rather let him sleep as long as he wants, and spend the day reading him Goodnight Moon a zillion times, making sure we all have nutritious meals, and, during his naptime, trying to squeeze in my dream of making my living as a writer.

That's given only those two options. But truly, like most Mothers with Brains I know, I want both. I want to have quality time with my child, and I want to have time to pursue my own intellectual development and freelance career.

What struck me after this recent conversation was a) the guilt that Mothers with Brains feel over wanting to spend money on child care in order to pursue things that might not necessarily bear financial fruit (although keeping ourselves from going berserk could be argued as a financial benefit), and b) the realization that, in complaining about full-time day care costing $15,000 a year, I and other mothers are selling short our own talents, activities, and value.

Honestly, is that all I'm worth? I read to my son constantly. I take him for walks and make sure he has a strong relationship with nature, ensure he learns to love fresh air and sunshine. I play with him. Not "development activities." Just play, stacking blocks, chasing a ball, whatever he feels like doing. I cook three meals a day that are generally organic, nutritious, often from locally grown produce (sometimes even grown by me), and hopefully super tasty. I keep the house tidy and clean, but not sterile. If my son is sick I nurture him and make chicken soup. I still breastfeed, a health benefit for him that's been calculated to have a value of about $30,000 a year. I take the cats to the vet and the cars to the mechanic. I volunteer time and writing skills to two organizations. I am on call to edit and shape the freelance efforts of various friends working on their writing. I keep the flow of community and family relationships going through letters, emails, and phone calls (I loathe talking on the phone, so really should get extra points for that). I play music for my son, sing to him, and help him play music, too. I try to speak to him in Russian sometimes.

All this is only worth $15,000 a year? You've got to be kidding me. The Salary Survey calculates that a typical stay-at-home mother doing about 10 tasks every week is, in real salary terms, worth $138,095. I'm not saying day care should cost over a hundred grand a year, but it does seem to say something about how little "women's work" is still valued, at least in American society.

And it tells me something about how little I value my own work, both the parenting and the constantly-shoved-aside creative writing, that $15,000 just seems like an insane amount of money. What are we worth? As mothers, as thinkers, as human beings playing roles in an intricate web of communities and social constructs? The answer is -- we're worth more than we think, but nobody's going to hand us free time and intellectual stimulation on a silver platter. We have to learn to ask for it. And to do that, we have to learn to value ourselves.

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