Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mindful Parenting: Childrearing is a Job. Pay Me and Get Over It.

It's hard to know where to begin. Do I launch into a critique of Erica Jong's rambling, contradictory column in the Wall Street Journal, in which she criticized attachment parenting -- essentially, it seemed, because it put too much pressure on mothers? How about pointing once again to the Salary Survey study that found stay-at-home mothers, if they do 10 common activities per week (including preparing meals, minor housecleaning, and driving kids around to various activities), are worth nearly $118,000 per year? How about the studies that show that people who have children are unhappier than those without? Or last year's factually incorrect attack on breastfeeding in The Atlantic Monthly, in which Hanna Rosin sacrificed scientific fact in order to justify how pissed off she was at society's lack of support for breastfeeding and other beneficial parenting practices?

I will start, instead, with one statement and one little story. The statement: conditions for parents, families, and mothers in particular are never going to improve if the only people given voice in the media are the ones criticizing others' parenting choices.

The story: Last night I got really pissed off at my husband, simply because he offered to help me.

You see, I haven't made much money since our son was born 3 years ago. It's a long story, which I won't go into here. But this week, for the first time since he was born, I am taking on paying work in my job as a copy editor and proofreader of textbooks. As our house flooded recently and we could use the extra income, my husband was happy to hear it. Last night we were discussing how many hours I could do per week, given that our son is in preschool 3 days a week but we also have a daughter almost 5 months old who needs my care.

"I can't do it the days I have John home," I said. "It's just not gonna happen." I've explained to my husband (and friends without small children) that using a computer with our 3-year-old around is just an exercise in frustration. I can't even check email, much less concentrate on a detailed proofreading job I get paid to do. Forget it.

He said, "Maybe I can help a bit in the mornings on those days, and you can do an hour or so of work."


Of course I knew, and I know now, that this was a generous offer. My husband is emphatically not a morning person. But he is a modern father, one who cooks dinners and cleans the bathroom and, before we had the second baby, took our son out on weekends so I could have Saturday mornings off. And one who wants to support me in the choices I make regarding our life, my life, and our children's care. However. Behind that statement (and I emphasize that my husband never intended this meaning, and was simply trying to be thoughtful and helpful) is an unspoken point that all of the other work that I do every morning is worthless compared to something that actually earns money. Being the one to get up at 5:30 when our son says, "I all done sleeping," playing with him, helping him poop on the toilet and wash his hands with soap, making the granola we all eat, packing a healthy, tasty lunch for both of them, writing notes to our son's preschool teacher and speech therapist. Making breakfast, sweeping up spilled granola, nursing our baby daughter, making coffee, washing the dishes, writing checks for bills, making our son brush his teeth, changing our daughter's diaper, reminding our son for the zillionth time to say please and thank you. God. Let's not even talk about the rest of the day. Or my often smothered efforts at writing essays, novels, stories.

None of those things have ever earned an offer of help in the morning. (Since so many people like to criticize women for complaining too much, I emphasize once again that my husband is awesome. He just can't deal with mornings. My brain checks out after 6 at night, so we balance each other.)

Then again, I don't earn an income for any of those things. And in this fact lies the tangle that mothers these days have found themselves in. Because while some of us read books and practice what I think of as 'mindful parenting,' other mothers attack us for treating childrearing as a job, a job for which we are not paid.

"When I was a mother, all we had to do was keep the kids alive," I've heard. "If you're breastfeeding exclusively you're only doing it because you've been brainwashed to think of yourself as a cow." (Okay, that's a paraphrase.) "If you treat childrearing as a job, then you're taking it too seriously."

So, essentially, those of us who actually spend the time and effort to consciously do a good job of mothering? We suck. And we make life suck for all the other mothers who feel guilty for not doing what we try to do. We should all just wing it, all just throw out the research of the last 50 years, ignore the benefits of breastfeeding and attachment parenting, put our kids in preschool, take our kids out of preschool, spend more time listening to them, spend less time listening to them -- basically, do whatever feels like it takes the least effort.

None of the critics has actually come out and said this, but that's what it boils down to. If any of your childrearing choices feel like they take mental effort or thought, then you'd better stop. Because it means you're taking it all too seriously.

Yeah, that attitude has worked real well for humanity up until now. You can see how well we're all doing. No greed, no wars, no poverty, no wasteful use of non-renewable natural resources. Life's just roses all over the world.

You think the state of the world, the condition of humanity, the choices that the powerful make, the struggles we have for equality and justice have nothing to do with how we are raised? They have everything to do with how we are raised.

Those who criticize some of us for treating mothering as a job have a misconception as to what that job is. My children are not my job. My job is to understand my children in the best way I can, to provide an environment for them to become the most complete human beings they can be, and to instill in them certain lessons that, if we adults actually followed them, would make the world a livable place for everyone: share, let everyone else have some, wait your turn, say please and thank you, wash your hands with soap, listen (if adults just listened and paid attention to others' points of view, we could probably solve about 80% of our problems), don't hit, clean up after yourself, apologize when you've hurt someone, don't take more than your fair share, everything you do has consequences, good or bad, listen to your intuition, trust yourself, respect your choices, respect others' choices, if you've done something you regret, then own up to it. Goodness knows how many others I'm not even aware of.

The most important of all these lessons is respect. And here is where the job comes in. Before my children can learn to respect others, they need to respect themselves. And in order to do that, I have to help them understand that I respect them. I think this is the lesson that sticks in the craw of many critics. Somewhere in the back of our minds still lies the mantra that children should be seen and not heard, that their needs are unimportant and subservient to others' needs. Even I was raised somewhat that way. When I say that I try to listen to and respect my children, too many people hear "I let my life be ruled by my children."

Not. What. I. Said. Listen.

When my son says that he wants to watch more Curious George when he's already had several episodes, or play with my computer, or squeeze his baby sister, I try not to say just plain 'no.' That's all it means. I don't let him do these things. I don't let him negotiate for them. But I do take 20 seconds to focus on what he is asking for, show him that I understand what he wants, and explain why it isn't happening.

Sometimes in response he'll throw a fit and have to go into time-out. But over time the lesson does sink in -- both the lesson of what is allowed and what's not, and the lesson that I will listen to him, respect his wishes, and explain when they're not possible. And I use the same lesson to teach him respect for me: that sometimes Mummy has to work, that sometimes she needs quiet or some space, that he can't just take my things without asking for them, that I am a person, too, with wishes and needs of my own.

If I expect my children to honor my needs and my space and my possessions (and, I hope, take those lessons to their interactions with others in the outer world), the best way to achieve that is to give them the same respect.

This is a really hard job. It takes an immense amount of time and energy. I read piles of books and articles, looking for more tips on certain sticking points. I talk at length with other parents about their difficulties and problem-solving tips and frustrations. I practice a lot. I start over a lot. I have done more work in three years of parenting than I devoted to my Master's degree.

Yes, I take this job seriously. And because I and others do take it seriously, the world might possibly be a marginally better place in the next generation.

Therefore, I think we should be paid for this job. I think the taxpayer should pay all stay-at-home parents a salary. You think I'm kidding? We pay politicians crazy amounts of money to solicit campaign contributions and future job offers from lobbyists in order to push through laws that they neither read nor understand -- I mean, we pay them to pass thoughtful legislation for the benefit of their constituents. How is that any different from paying full-time parents for raising the next generation in ways that are most beneficial to society?

Of course, the danger is that many full-time parents might do a bad job. There's little quality control. But seeing as how the aforementioned politicians largely fail to do the job they're paid for (concentrating instead on aforementioned campaign donations, thinking up nasty things to say about people they dislike, and trying to make sure the other party can't do anything they want to do), and seeing as how I can think of a number of bank executives who did a really shitty job and still walked away with millions of dollars each, I don't see why it's such a stretch.

The easiest way to put a stop to the "Mommy Wars" (for a critique on that concept, read my post Declaring War on the Mommy Wars) is to simply make full-time parenting a paid position funded by the taxpayer, like Congress or public schools, with Social Security benefits and a monthly check.

Personally, I'm going to continue treating this as a job. Maybe if I raise my children right, the next generation will pass more family-friendly policies and will start giving mothers some compensation besides brunch on Mother's Day, rights to half our 'working' spouse's Social Security benefits, and really repetitive essays about our children's love being all the compensation we need. And maybe a day will come when that is true, too.

[Note that during the time I spent writing this, I also made breakfast for 3 people, ironed a shirt, made coffee, nursed my daughter, showered and dressed, reminded my husband of tomorrow's haircut appointment, and 3 times took my son to poop on the potty and wash his hands with soap. I'd like to see my husband do that while performing the job he gets paid lots of money for!]