Mini post #2

Slaughter presents a contrast between caring and competition, one of the guiding strands of the book:

“Competition, with myself as well as with others, has helped drive many of the best things I have done in my life. But loving and caring for my family and friends, teaching and mentoring my students, helping and watching staff members grow into and then out of their jobs is every bit as rewarding.”

But you know me, Doubty McSkepticalpants, I wonder if we can reframe the appealing satisfaction she identifies in competition as a more neutral value, one that can be complementary to caring.

Competition is appealing because it’s satisfying to master something. This has application to all facets of life: not only paid work. I’d love to reach a point where I feel like my husband and I have mastered talking through disagreements. We are not there yet. We are getting better! And an oppositional mindset could never get us there, but a cooperative mindset could.

Similarly, it gives me deep satisfaction to have mastered certain elements of parenting. It’s one of the things I am enjoying most about having a second baby, a chance to look after a bubba without so much self-doubt. I know for example that if he wakes after only 20 minutes when napping in the buggy, he needs me to settle him back to sleep, and then he will get a good rest and be his chilled little self. And when I succeed in getting him back to sleep, WOOHOO that is a PARENTING WIN my friend.

A cooperative flow with another person can also be a win. That flow is something that is highly valued in a professional setting, and it’s also a feature of parenting. I love baking with the little dude for this reason, “and den we mixtz it all todetha, and den we dgonna woll it out!”, and he’s happy and engrossed, and I’m happy and engrossed, and it’s a joint enterprise we’re doing with great success. 

So yeah, not buying this dichotomy at all.

A Slaughter book mini-post #1

I have SEVENTEEN PAGES of notes oh no way can I get that down to a proper review in the tiny scrap of time after children are in bed and chores done. Mini post series time!

At the very end of the book, she talks about her own family history. I love reading about family histories. Her stories are fascinating, especially the Belgian grandmother who fled her occupied homeland with two children in tow, to join her husband in the UK. Both of Slaughter’s grandfathers were educated and successful professionals – one a doctor, the other a judge.

My upbringing was upper middle class, but scratch back a few generations to the same time period as Slaughter’s grandparents, and the stories of my great-grandparents create a different perspective. My great-grandmother, a contemporary of Slaughter’s two grandmothers, had a pretty hard life. My grandmother doesn’t complain about her childhood, her reminisces are fond, but the detail of the stories she tells paint the picture of working class struggle anyway. There were seven living children, one dead. She and her sister closest in age shared a bed. My great-grandfather had tuberculosis so he had the privilege of an egg for breakfast every morning, despite the stringency of war rations. The children would take turns having the top of the boiled egg. That’s right: every eight days, they got the top of an egg. Growing kids. One Christmas, their mother decided to kill the pet chicken “Hoppy” (he only had one leg), to serve for Christmas dinner. My grandmother remembers none of them wanted to eat Hoppy and her mother was cross.

When the kids had spare pennies, they would buy a card of peanut butter from the shop: a smear of peanut butter on a scrap of cardboard, to be licked off, savoured. They would eat this treat in secret because their father thought it unhygienic and forbade it. When he was well enough to work, my great-grandfather was a telegraph operator at the post office. When he became too ill, he stayed home and managed the house and my great-grandmother worked as a  housekeeper for a doctor’s family. After he died, my great-grandmother remarried. Her second husband was a widower with two children. They had another child together. In the “on demand” economy of the day, the work situation of the second husband was not favourable. He was a dock worker (they lived in Liverpool), and would line up in the morning seeking work unloading containers. Here’s how the system operated: the men would stand around, and the big strong ones would be offered work first. There wasn’t always work for everyone. The wives would go down on payday and make sure they were there to get the pay packets so that the money wasn’t drunken or gambled away. My grandmother passed her 11-plus but there was no money for the grammar school uniform so it wasn’t an option. She wanted to be an “authoress”.

It’s not that long ago, this history.

It’s difficult for me to see the promise in the “gig” economy for mutually advantageous flexibility, glowingly discussed by Slaughter, when I think of my grandmother’s step-father waiting on the docks, hoping that there’d be work for him that day, knowing that there were ten children at home. 

But what are we over-valuing?

I have screeds of notes for a review of Anne Marie Slaughter’s book, but no time to write it, which says it all huh? I saw that puff piece today, paperback is out, more publicity, and it made me think – done is better than perfect so let’s just chuck down some bullet points or write a series of small blogs.

Sooooo.

I say, she says, everyone says that we don’t value care enough. The article closes with this quote:

“The bottom-line message,” she says, “is that we are never going to get to gender equality between men and women unless we value the work of care as much as we value paid work — or when both men and women do it.

“That’s the unfinished business.”

And, I have some thoughts, because I think this is actually a really complex issue and I want to unpack it a little bit.

There’s a slight of hand in saying that we need to value caring more without looking at what is on the other side of the ledger, looking at what is overvalued, and what specifically is undervalued. “Caring work” is an amorphous term. It involves the daily grunt work, packing lunches and pushing buggies and keeping calm when the kid hits another kid at the library, getting them bathed and to bed. That stuff is undervalued, but there’s more hiding behind it, and the hidden components of care are even less valued: in particular, connection and play and downtime. These are so thoroughly undervalued that some go so far as to doubt whether they’re necessary.

Downtime is when all the magic happens. Holidays, weekends, time that is unhurried and unscheduled, time that does what it wants. When I was back in the office, between babies, I had my lovely expansive afternoons with the little dude – picking him up at 3.30ish most days. One day we got home and the neighbour’s cat was on the roof. The little dude would have been around 18 months old. We watched that cat for almost an hour. He was entranced. He might not remember that, but I do, I’m keeping that memory for him. We watched that cat as it clambered round the roof, slipping in and out of view, and he laughed and he burbled away, pointing, “diddis!”. I remember it so clearly, I remember thinking  – I am utterly glad that we get this time together, that I don’t have to hurry him down the stairs because he needs dinner soon.

Hey, how much is downtime valued in our world? Not so much eh.

Today I Skyped with my aunt in Vancouver (hiya!). When her twins were four they stayed with us for a little while and my brother and I, young teenagers, would take them to the park. I remember pushing them on the swings – two of them and two of us – the game was to try and get the swings to sync up so that the twins could reach out to each other. We must have played that game for hours and hours and hours.

I worked at a childcare centre most of the way through uni, one day a week during school terms, for four years. There was one girl who I was particularly fond of, she had this great purple corduroy jacket, and she was utterly fearless on the jungle gym, and the wickedest sense of humour. I looked forward to seeing her, my little mate.

I put the job on my CV when I was still at uni, applying for law jobs, and at an interview they said “that sounds like a fun job”, and I said, yeah, it was. I think now – wait, if they know how much fun it is to spend time with little kids, why are the hours so punishing for parents who work there?

Stop wasting time! Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive? Why are you lounging about? Don’t be lazy. Come on, don’t dawdle. We need to boost productivity. What is the most efficient solution? Did you know Steve Jobs used to wake up at 4.30am when his kids were little so that he could get work done before they got up? Top ten tips for busy mums and dads! Yeah, life’s good at the moment, pretty busy though.

 

STOP.

What’s the rush?

Seriously!

What is so urgent that it can’t possibly wait?

You know what’s actually, genuinely, really important: spending time with loved ones. Especially children, because they grow up and change. It is shattering how quickly they change. I get a notification from the photo app to rediscover this day and whompf, I miss the little dude as he was this time last year. Sometimes I see those little snippets of video and I get an ache of longing to just hold him once more as he was then. The day it sent me the photo we took of the last breastfeed, oh my heart. Those soft damp curls. That still chubby body, my arms around his back.

It’s bad enough that we miss them when they’ve grown, it’s a brutal world where we miss them while they’re still here, because we’re too busy doing something that FEELS more urgent. And most of the time, that urgency is a myth, a pervasive, intensely damaging myth.

The jobs where things really are urgent, burnout is a huge risk, and this needs to be managed through shift work and staffing levels. You don’t want the paramedic working a 60 hour week! People could die!

In other areas, like law and policy which is the area of interest to Slaughter and also, um, me, the urgency is… not real. It’s manufactured urgency. Sound, durable policy arises from a robust assessment of whether anything needs to change in the first place, careful consideration of alternatives, and an iterative refinement that builds consensus and broad support. A culture of urgency undermines this process, and creates a ridiculous waste of resources. If you’re working long hours, you’re doing it wrong. What the hell are you playing at – we’ve been trying for centuries to figure out a just set of laws, are you really so arrogant as to think that you working a 55 hour week is going to make or break our system of government?

We need to be like little kids, asking the why for the why, scratching away to see what’s underneath, see what we’re really valuing. Because it looks to me like we’re valuing the state of being busy, for its own sake. We’re valuing a life without spare time. The term “spare time” is even slightly derogatory! Spare?!  What’s spare about time? IT RUNS OUT. But hey, we should be so rushed every day that we don’t pause to remember our time on this planet is finite and every moment we don’t spend with people we love is a moment we can’t get back. Ouch. Fuck. Heavy shit eh.

On Friday a few weeks ago I picked the little dude up from creche at 4.30. (He goes two days a week now. Oh I’m so glad we can afford those two days so that bub gets a bit of actual attention, and so that the little dude gets the fun activities and gets to hang with his friends.) Buckle him in his carseat “where Daddy?” and I said “he’s at work”, and then he rattles off this long list of follow up enquiries, where Nana, where Dranddad, and so on – all the adults he knows! And I’m like “work, work, work, Auckland and also work, work, work, France and sleeping because it’s night there, Auckland, Auckland, work, work”.

It must be so weird from their perspective. I wonder what he thinks.

 

 

Small thought this morning 

I’m having coffee with some colleagues later today. I’m kinda looking forward to going back to work already – but at the same time, I think at 5 months old bub is still better off being looked after at home, his place at creche isn’t available til January anyway, and the little dude is getting his tonsils out in two weeks and will need a big recovery time after that. Then it’ll basically be the end of the year anyway. So I’m not going to change when I go back. And we’re having lots of good moments these days. But overall, at this point, I’m at home with them primarily for their sake not mine. My preference would be for some part time work already. 

I don’t think I know anyone who is unequivocally enthusiastic about being an at home parent. Can’t think of anyone in my circle of acquaintance. It’s so much harder and more exhausting than most of our paid jobs. 

I don’t feel any qualms being honest about this, though I know lots of mums wouldn’t admit it except to other at home mums, and there’s pressure to say something like “it’s hard but I wouldn’t swap it for the world!”. 

Being at home with them has some upsides, and in our current situation it’s the best option for the next few months. But I think we need to stop assuming that at home parents have the lucky fun job. 

in pain thou shalt bring forth children

Very much resonates for me. I love the photo of bub’s foot sitting above my belly stretch marks; I wouldn’t mind showing it to the world. But it’s not the truth (the truth is that when I walk briskly, it feels like my pelvis is collapsing).

myflatpacklife

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I were pregnant at the same time. My daughter arrived first, and despite my extended hospital stay, I was at home to see the footage of her leaving hospital rosy cheeks glowing, Princess Charlotte bundled in arms, another dress more lovely than anything I own. The plaudits soon rolled in; Kate had achieved the highest prize in motherhood – another natural birth. Oh, and a healthy baby.

Sitting on my couch at home I watched the cameras surrounding her. Glad I was spared the scrutiny of their lenses. That I could keep my dressing gown at midday, my grey-tinged skin, and slow painful walk to myself. I told myself the dress, the make-up, all hid the unglamorous reality of birth. Pain-killers and maternity pads can hide a multitude of sins.

After her first was born Kate was praised for her willingness to expose the…

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Live blogging instead of a review 

Started reading the Gopnik book. Thesis is that ends-based parenting is problematic. We shouldn’t be raising our kids with the intention they turn out a certain way. I like this general point, appeals to me philosophically. 

Related: I find myself drawn to the child-as-person category of parenting advice but I’m pretty uncomfortable with how often it veers into “and then if you encourage emotional connectedness your child will grow up to save the world!” Calm down, being nice is an end in itself. Moral perfectionism is just as unrealistic as any other perfectionism. 

(My vision of some parents in 30 years “Sirius is such a disappointment, I don’t know where we went wrong, he’s *sniff* he’s an optometrist in Christchurch and he doesn’t even attend political protests on the weekend! I always imagined him doing something spectacular you know? But he says he’s fairly content. Fairly content?! It breaks my heart. I can’t even talk to him anymore, not after our recent argument when he said he’s not planning on unschooling his kids. I offered to unschool them myself but he said that the local primary school was fine. Fine?! It’ll break their unique spirits! Maybe I was wrong to gently transition him out of the family bed so soon, eight might have been too young.”)

[Ed – I think the parenting perfectionism is more a US think anyway. Writers I follow from here and Aus and the UK tend to take a low key approach “if I do my job as a parent more or less ok, my kid will be a decentish person”. When we’re really enthusiastic we might add “who tries to make the world a better place in their own small way”.]

Kids need kids

It’ll be nice when the baby is old enough that they can play together, because today the little dude invented the game of putting seed pods out the cat door, opening the door, counting them, putting them back inside, repeat, repeat, repeat, and we were happy for him to play this game but it’s not high on the list of preferred activities for an adult and it went on for sooooooo long. The husband was very patient.