The XX Factor

When Working and Mothering Don’t Mix, Blame Moms

Hanna , in reading Erica Jong’s piece in the WSJ , I alternated between between total agreement-absolutely, children should have many care-givers! Of course women shouldn’t have to give up their lives to to raise children!-and fury. Like Libby , I found Jong to be overly condescending toward modern parenting. Yes, “attachment parenting,” as dictated by the Sears dynasty and caricatured in the media, makes wholly unrealistic demands of parents, and of mothers in particular. But while Jong blames the culture in general for putting the parenting burden on each individual family’s shoulders, her anger that generations of feminism have failed to improve things much for mothers seems to fall squarely on the mothers themselves.

Maybe there are women out there who have, as a result of societal pressure to be the perfect parent, given up their lives for their children. Since Jong rather famously didn’t (and more power to her), it’s not surprising that she sides with Elisabeth Badinter, French author of Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mere ( The Conflict: Woman and Mother ) on the question of whether the modern devotion to child-rearing is good for women. (Jess wrote about Badinter here , and I responded here .) Attachment parenting, Jong writes, is a “prison” for mothers, the “ultimate bondage” for women. Jong’s fear, as an ardent feminist and someone who knows from backlash, is that the mandates of attachment parenting will become just that: societal rules that effectively (or even, in the case of Gisele Bundchen’s proposed breast-feeding requirement, legally) require women to revise their schedules and lives wholly in the service of their children.

But I’ve never met a woman who changed or left her career to be a perfect parent. The women I know have made compromises after finding too little child care, too little flex time, and too little acceptance of men and women making equal adjustments to their working lives to accomodate young children. To quit or cut back on work on the grounds that one must have time to create one’s own home-grown applesauce would be ridiculous, but does anyone really think that’s why some women step back from their careers when their kids are at their neediest stage? This is not about whether women put in the time they now have at home filling a “reusable lunch bag” with “produce from the farmer’s market,” although those are certainly fun and easy behaviors to mock. It’s really about why there are so many women at home with the time on their hands to do those things.

Anyone with kids in full-time school has time to do a full-time job-just not necessarily the precise time that many employers seem to want those jobs done in, or the seamless r é sum é s of the kind of employees many want to hire to do them. The difficulties many women find in staying in or returning to work aren’t about the absolute demands of the workplace; they’re about the particular assumptions of our workplace. In her anger at attachment parenting, Jong puts the cart before the horse. Yes, if all of society begins to assume that the only way to be even an adequate mother is to bake every slice of bread your kid eats from scratch, then working mothers are doomed. But it’s also true that if all of society accepted that working from 7-3 instead of 9-5 didn’t constitute slacking, it would be far easier for women to stay in the workplace. I’d hoped Jong would spend more time on that question, and less on deeming “pathetic” the efforts of mothers to “control what we can while ignoring what’s beyond our reach.”

Jong’s daughter, in her companion piece , gives a nod to the clich é that the feminists of Jong’s generation “worked hard so that the women of my generation could have the choice to work or to stay home,” but the real disappointment is that it’s still not much of a choice. Individual women looking for a way to keep the baby and the toddler happy, healthy, and safe so they can work in a world that assumes wage-earners have no other responsibilities may see no choice at all. When Jong assumes that the woman lawyer who quits her firm to raise a child is “pursuing a higher goal” when she may in fact be pursuing nothing more than the opportunity to see her baby during the daylight hours, Jong is giving the corporate world a pass it doesn’t deserve. She may be worried that our culture of “attachment parenting” will blame a woman who chooses to stay at work, but a woman who makes a different decision shouldn’t have to shoulder all the blame for feeling like that particular choice is a zero-sum game.