This is our final Tradition Month post about the varieties of ways women shape their lives around children and work. We’ve discussed the Work-From-Home Mom, the Stay-At-Home Parent, and now daycare. While we’re wrapping up this discussion for the moment, we always want to hear more from you about shaping your life balance. Childless? Childfree? Daycare with a corporate job? Currently a single mom? Send it in, we want to discuss it all.
by Meg Keene
Babies and Writing Don’t Exactly Mix
When I first announced I was pregnant, and that APW wasn’t changing or shutting down, many people commented that they were “continually amazed by my energy and my ability to do it all.” My reaction to these comments was one of confusion. I mean, I assumed we’d all watched our share of babies (this has proved to be my first incorrect assumption), and knew that while babies are great, babies and writing don’t exactly mix. And secondly, I thought we all knew the answer to the question of how you do it all, right? Also incorrect.
The short answer, which seemed obvious to me at the time: help.
The long answer, which I’ve since realized is perhaps not that obvious: help. Or more specifically in our case: daycare.
But there is a reason that people were leaping to the wrong conclusion about what we’d do after the baby came: the ball is being hidden on childcare. The puzzling thing is, I don’t know why. Families that have two parents who work full time have help of some form or another. They just do. I don’t want to be the one to burst the bubble, but it’s a fact. More than that, families with two full time, working parents, assume you know they have help, because have you ever MET a baby? But the trends of entrepreneurship and telecommuting, mixed with the current cult of motherhood, have muddied the waters. We’ve taken to pretending that if you work full time from home, you can do it while bouncing a baby on your hip. We’re being asked to suspend our disbelief and pretend that women, particularly entrepreneurial women, are able to do it all. And by do it all, I mean literally Do It All, all of it, At The Same Time.
I’m Calling Housewife
The Feminine Mystique, the feminist classic about the destructive myth of the perfect middle class housewife, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary earlier this year. I read it early in my pregnancy, expecting a fascinating feminist period piece, and was gripped (and troubled) by its immediacy. Because the new feminine mystique is of the “whole mother.” The one who keeps her kids in her own care, makes organic pureed baby food, has a small urban farm in her back yard, runs a full-time business, and keeps an impeccably decorated house. Now, all of those things are pursuits I happen to personally enjoy. I love me some business running and baby wrangling, have a recently planted garden, think my house is pretty cute, and might even (ask my husband to) puree some baby food. But I don’t do all of these things at the same time. I work on making the garden and the house awesome on weekends, I wrangle a baby morning and night, and I work during the day. While my kid is at daycare.
I can’t count the number of articles I’ve read about professional bloggers, women I’m friends with, that just flat out get the assumptive facts wrong. There is the “Better Homes & Bloggers” post, “The Feminist Housewife“ article, the recent “Mommy Business Trip“ travesty, and the Mormon Housewife piece. (Which is possibly the most offensive?) While I’m interested in questioning the feminist implications of the “new domesticity,” there is danger in confusing cultural trends with actual people. The women discussed in these articles happen to run businesses focused on motherhood or women’s lifestyle—in some cases, awesome feminists businesses focused on motherhood or women’s lifestyle. Unluckily for them, that means that while I’m a small business owner, they’re housewives—even though we do exactly the same job. The articles always start with the premise that these women are living some sort of vaunted June Cleaver existence, living and documenting their perfect domestic lives, while staying at home to raise their children. And you guys? They’re not. Many if not most are professional women whose businesses happen to focus on motherhood. They sometimes do crafts for the same reason I sometimes do crafts: it’s in the job description. They by and large have full-time childcare and run a business that supports their families (often as the primary breadwinner, at that). But here is the weird part: they’re forthright about having childcare, yet the world somehow wants to assume that they don’t have help.
Last week, at Mom 2.0, I heard Rebecca Woolf speak. Rebecca was one of the women misrepresented in “The Feminist Housewife” article, presented as a mommy to her husband’s professional. She talked about how she recently wrote a (beautiful, must-read) post about having help, because even though she’d mentioned having a full time nanny over and over again on her site, people somehow missed it (or, to personally editorialize, perhaps they didn’t want to see it). They thought she had some secret that they didn’t—and that would be a serious secret, since Rebecca has four kids and a full-time writing job.
And the way we think about mothers and work is truly fucked. We’ve constructed a no-win paradigm—a jail for mothers. Women who stay at home with their children are deemed ”privileged,” and then roundly dismissed as unimportant. (Even though caring for children is hard and important work, whether it’s done by a parent in the home, or a childcare provider.) When women work, and their partners are deemed able to support the family, their work is deemed a “luxury.” (Somehow it’s never the partner’s work that’s a luxury.) And for women who work because they have to work, to feed and house their children? Well, our worst judgment is reserved for them—the women not properly providing their children with “options.”
And while mothers are damned before they even begin, they’re doubly damned by the pervasive myth of the woman who does it all. It hurts everyone: in the public eye, out of the public eye, writing about motherhood, or working at lawyering. It puts the onus of childcare on women and their careers, while letting men totally off the hook. People never ask about how our childcare situation affects David’s job. No one compares our childcare costs against David’s salary. And no one thinks of childcare as an investment in David’s career. All of that is on me. And funnily enough, even though I’m married to a successful attorney, my salary primarily supports our household because my salary has been the steady one for years in this volatile legal market. But it doesn’t matter. My work is still a hobby, the luxury, the job that simply pays for childcare.
This is the point at which I’m supposed to tell you that I wish I could have it all. That I wish I could stay home with my little butterball, and run a business. But I really don’t. I love my kid as much as anything else in this world, and I simultaneously want to inhale him and spend hours making him laugh at baby jokes (he goes pretty lowbrow). But I don’t really want to be home with him. I have periods every workday where I miss him so intensely I could cry, but honest to goodness? I want to be at work. And frankly, he wants to be at school. Because that’s what we went with: Daycare. Known by his daycare ladies as School.
Fuck The Nanny, Let’s Go To Daycare
I just got back from dropping my son off at daycare. When I got there, a tiny girl was standing there with her short golden curls all over the place, sobbing her little eyes out. And I hear a voice pipe up from the other room, “You’ve been asking for the baby all morning, and here he is!” ”You’ve been asking for him?” I say. “He’s right here!” And she shakes her head to pull herself together, breaks into a big smile, and sounds out his name. And then he smiles his big toothless baby smile.
Before I had a kid, I thought (logically, it seemed) that having done childcare since I was eleven was going to help my mothering. And while it generally made me calmer (kids are really hard to break, y’all), its very different to be caring for a kid whose cry makes your skin crawl (hey, hormones). Instead, it turned out what all that childcare work helped with was daycare. There is a lot of heightened rhetoric around childcare, and I had been around the block enough times to know that ninety-nine percent of it was bullshit. That whole ,“Why have a kid if you don’t want to raise them?” meme? Crap. I’ve nannied some kids in my day, but I didn’t raise one of them (they would have been a damn sight better behaved if I had). That whole thing about it being awful to smell another woman’s perfume on your kid? Possibly true, but destructive if you give into it. Because there is nothing worse as a childcare provider than to work hard to build a relationship with your small charge, to begin the process of loving them, and then have the mother yank them away because she’s envious.
Because I’d worked in a lot of childcare settings, I wasn’t set on one particular kind of childcare. Funnily enough, working in a daycare at a battered women’s shelter was more or less the same job as nannying kids in Greenwich Village. Or more specifically, my job was the same: loving the shit out of those kids, though the way the families interacted with me was very different. So we examined all our options, this was my personal score card:
Full-time nanny: Crazy expensive, plus hard to work with the baby in the other room.
Nanny share: Complicated, and oddly… expensive?
In-home childcare: Less oversight, and no waitlists? Please, sister.
Institutional daycare: Ding, ding, ding!
Since day one, my kid has learned to socialize (though at first this meant lying on the floor and staring at the other babies). More important to me, as he’s currently an only child, he spends his days learning that his needs do not take priority over everyone else’s needs. He adores his caregivers. I adore his caregivers. I mean, I get access to their expert skill set. (At our daycare, almost all of the teachers have, or are working on their AA’s in Child Development, and have tons of experience. Their advice? The best advice. Lazy girl mothering, FTW.) Plus, he’s in a stable and well-run environment where there are uniform reporting practices, and I have administrative staff to bring my concerns to.
Imperfection, Pink Skinny Jeans, and Aching
What I’m saying is, we skipped the prestige options and I feel great about it. Bringing Up Bébé was the single most helpful book I read in terms of putting the idea of childcare in a broader perspective. Turns out, in other countries, daycare is the preferred option. We look down on daycare in the US, because it was developed to deal with the crisis of impoverished children, while preschool was created as the province of the wealthy. Possibly because of that, we’ve neglected our daycare system, leaving it with very little government oversight or mandatory training requirements. (Note: that article is designed to scare you to death, but does have good facts amidst the emotion.) There are great daycare centers out there (we’re in one) but they can be slim pickings. (Interestingly: we found them to be both cheaper and easier to get into than other options, but I was shocked by how few centers there were.)
I will say that my experience of daycare is bizarre. The other parents within my social circle have generally taken the more zeitgeist-y options: staying at home or using some sort of nanny care. The people choosing daycare in our area are often (though not always) older professionals, not, say, writers in their early thirties. I show up in pink skinny jeans, with my hair piled on top of my head, and a baby wearing a grey bodysuit with tiny motorcycles on it (it’s an adorable hand-me-down). I look, for lack of a better word, nuts. I look nuts to the corporate parents, I look nuts to our creative friends with creative childcare. But you know what? Our kid is happy. We’re happy. It’s worth looking nuts.
On some level, I expected daycare to just be good enough. But it’s not. It’s kind of perfect (in a deeply achingly imperfect way that seems to infuse all of parenthood). My extroverted kid spends much of his days avidly watching the other babies (he’ll refuse naps just so he can watch the other kids play). And sometimes when I pick him up, he’s burying his head in his caregiver’s neck, the way a baby does when they know they’re loved. He’s already brought home two “art” projects. And there is a tiny little girl who waits for him, blond curls a-bouncing, every single morning.
And meanwhile I work. I ache with missing the baby, and I work, knowing all is well.
Photo: Me and the kiddo, from my Instagram feed