The XX Factor

Schools Need to Stop Asking So Much of Parents (And Parents Need to Stop Caving)

Run, mom!

Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Rosa Brooks hates Sheryl Sandberg. The Georgetown law professor and former State Department senior adviser wrote an essay earlier this week about how she “leaned in” to both work and her kids, which made her successful and the envy of her fellow moms but also exhausted and miserable.

In advising that we all lean out instead of in, Brooks—a high-powered Harvard grad with what sounds like a fairly flexible job—makes the same mistake that many others wading into the have-it-all/lean-in debate have done before her: She forgets or ignores that a lot of workers, especially at the lower end of the pay scale, don’t have a choice about how much or when they get to work.

But I’m actually more interested in talking about what Brooks describes as “the pernicious culture of intensive parenting.” It’s one thing to be spending time helping your kids with their schoolwork or spending time and money to fill the resource gaps at many cash-strapped schools, hit hard by spending cuts in the post-recession universe. (According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 34 states are providing less funding per student now than they did before the recession hit. That means more parents are volunteering to provide enrichment and supplies.) But Brooks is talking about something different. She says that, in her effort to lean in to parenting, she became room mom for her kids, that she made handicrafts to contribute to her school’s auction, and hosted the class potluck. All while simultaneously trying to stay at 110 percent at work.

No wonder working moms are so pooped. Beyond internal pressure, there seems to be a lot of external pressure on working moms to be ultrainvolved in their kids’ schools. One friend of mine said that, during the holiday season, she was a wreck because “every day it seemed there was a ‘Mitten Tree Lunch’ or a Pajama Party or a Christmas Friend SnackTime or etc. etc.” These “etcs” are supposedly optional, but “who wants to be the one mom who didn’t make a treat or didn’t do valentines?” Self-imposed guilt is one thing. But it’s not so easy to tell a mother to stop beating herself up for opting out of the Mitten Tree Lunch when it’s the school with the high expectations.  

There are other time pressures, too. A Slate staffer says that beyond the cookie baking and Valentine’s pressures, “the more onerous part to me is the end of year events that parents are invited/expected to attend. For some reason, schools cram field days, and fun days, and field trips and school plays, and a whole bunch of other crap right at the end of the year (May) and you either feel like shit for missing it, or you feel like shit for missing parts of several work days.”

I have two thoughts here. One, that schools stop behaving as if there’s always a parent at home to host potlucks and schedule events in a way that’s more mindful of business hours. Which means spreading out the fun days and scheduling PTA meetings at 8 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. (This won’t help parents with night jobs, so in a school where most parents work night shifts, perhaps there are better hours for meetings—my point is just that the schools need to stop functioning as if this is 1958.)

The other is that we all need to stop holding ourselves to unrealistic standards of perfect mom-dom. Jennifer Senior, the author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, says in an email that all this extra crafting is “an extension of the anxiety about making super-excellent kids, but also being super-excellent moms—it’s compensatory behaviors for work guilt.” But, note: Studies show that spending time on these things isn’t necessarily better for your kids.

Senior adds that “more Americans than ever before are OK with mom being the primary breadwinner, but more Americans than ever before ALSO think that someone should be home with the kid? It’s that. They’re contradictory. So moms try to do both.” Dads deal with these pressures too, but we know who is getting shade when your kid shows up empty-handed at Christmas friend snack time.

If you work, just stop. Stop handcrafting lunch boxes from recycled tires, as Rosa Brooks says she did. (If she was exaggerating for effect, I apologize; it’s impossible to tell these days!) Stop participating in whatever the hell a Mitten Tree Lunch is. The worst thing that could happen is that other parents talk behind your back about what a slacker you are, and your kid is mildly disappointed. (Your kid’s teacher is probably a working parent too, and missing something at his or her own child’s school, so, solidarity.)

I still jokingly give my mom the business because she missed my “50 State Luncheon” in 1990. I represented Illinois and had to bring microwave popcorn as my state food, because Illinois grows a lot of corn and my mom didn’t have time to make anything better out of corn. My mom, a doctor, had to work. As an adult, I’m glad she didn’t come. I respect her for preserving her commitment to her patients and protecting her sanity.