Advantage and disadvantage

Interesting piece at the Aotearoa Project blog on the Maori/Pakeha literacy gap (related: I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get my chromebook to do macrons. Apologies!). 

Got me thinking about what we’re doing to develop the little dude’s literacy. I reckon in New Zealand there is a reluctance among middle-class Pakeha to acknowledge that we give our kids advantages. We distance ourselves from the over-scheduled and anxious hot-housing that we associate with pushy American parents. But advantages aren’t just things you consciously give your kids. The biggest advantage arises from being part of the group that sets the systems up, that is able to do things a certain way and have it be accepted as the social norm. 

We started reading books as part of the bedtime routine when the little dude was about 7 months old. Now if I ask him to go get a book and come sit on my knee for a story he does. He likes some books more than others, mainly he is really into lift-the-flap books. He has a packet of crayons and when he draws, it occurs to me just now, I often write some letters on the page – most obviously, his name. I’m not very good at drawing, so writing letters seemed like a good way of showing him how to use a crayon (I’d be at a major disadvantage if we lived in a culture where drawing things was important).  

At my baby shower, he was given lots of books. Lots. And people have continued to get him books. He has dozens of books by now, all the ones that he inherited from his older cousins and all the ones his Safta finds in second hand shops. His soft toy for bedtime is a Peter Rabbit. He also has a stuffed Miffy, which was another present he received at the baby shower, together with a Miffy book. Those were gifts from the parents of one of my dearest friends. I had a Dick Bruna alphabet frieze on my bedroom wall as a child, so it was pretty perfect, and when I opened it I said “oh it’s a cuddly Miffy, how gorgeous!” These are the middle-class advantages we don’t really count – we started acculturating him into a literary world before he was even born. He has The Very Hungry Caterpillar and he has Te Anuhe Tino Hiakai. He has Where the Wild Things Are in its te reo translation and in Ivrit. He has a gorgeous collection of Margaret Mahy verses, my favourite of which is Seventeen Kings and Forty-Two Elephants. These aren’t just any books, these are the very best books from more than a century of modern children’s literature. These are the books you would choose if you wanted to foster a love of books. Which of course is what we’re doing. And more that that – these books are one of the main features of his culture. These books are our taonga. My culture, his culture, is a written culture. 

I didn’t know that New Zealand schools used this “whole of language” teaching style, even though I’m young enough that it would have been used when I was at school. I had assumed that children are taught to read phonetically (that said, I have no memory of ever learning grammar at school, which is possibly evidence of the whole of language approach!). Looking back, I probably was taught phonetically – just not at school. Last week I when we went to Te Papa and the little dude was playing with the magnetic wall I thought to myself, I’m gonna need to get some of those letter magnets for the fridge like I had when I was a kid. 

The more highly educated a parent is, the greater their ability to compensate for any deficits in their children’s formal instruction. It’s potentially a vicious cycle from the perspective of kids whose parents left school without qualifications: the education system assumes parents are providing significant learning support at home; in response, parents who are able to do this absolutely do; and the assumption becomes even more entrenched. 

Diary of a toddler

5.00am – Ugh, I’m tired but I’m also hungry, this is the WORST, I HATE IT WHEN THIS HAPPENS, and it happens EVERY DAY and I JUST CAN’T EVEN COPE and WHAT THE HELL and WHERE ARE YOU MUM and CAN’T A KID GET A BOOB IN HERE?

5.05am – GEEZ MUM TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH 

5.30am – I’m in mummy and daddy’s bed, do dah, do dah, I’m in mummy and daddy’s bed taking up heaps of space. 

7.00am – I’m still in mummy and daddy’s bed, do dah, do dah, I’m still in mummy and daddy’s bed, time to get them up. Mum, hi. Dad, hi! Hi! Hi to both of you! Can I press your nose and you go beep? FRIGGIN HILARIOUS!! Hey dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad guess what? WE BOTH HAVE BELLY BUTTONS AND I CAN PUT A FINGER IN YOURS AND IN MINE! AND ISN’T IT AMAZING THAT THERE IS THIS HOLE IN OUR TUMMIES JUST THE RIGHT SIZE TO STICK A FINGER INTO?! I mean c’mon this is pretty awesome. 

7.30am – What’s for breakfast? Is it porridge? Or peanut butter on toast? Or a banana? I think I’ll only eat cheese omelets all day so I’m hoping it’s that. Hrm, porridge, good call, good call, I do enjoy the sensation of porridge on my fingers. DAH! Flung it on the floor. DAH! So satisfying. OHMYGOLLYGOSH the cat just came in through his special little cat window that I love to push open and shut! I gotta get out of my chair and chase him IMMEDIATELY. 

[Ed –  I thought it would be cool to do this post now that the little dude is so different to how he was when I wrote “Diary of a Baby” but I’m already exhausted and it’s only 7.30am in diary time. Which is also how I feel at 7.30am every day. You get the gist.]

Thoughts on blogging

Earlier in the week I got a superbly lovely message from a reader and it made my day! I typed back a reply and clicked send but having never responded to a tumblr message before (nor received one), I’m not sure that it went off into the ether successfully. So if not, hello dear reader and please know that you made my feel totally chuffed! And also inspired me to get in touch with a couple of bloggers in my city, to say how much I liked their blogs (Boaganette and Smothered). 

Reading other mum blogs was a bit of a lifeline in the early days of parenting. I read all of bluemilk’s blogs about the first year. I read all of Ugly Volvo, which is so hilarious. I read others too that  haven’t stuck in my mind so much.  

I blog as an outlet, because otherwise I bore my husband to tears with extended rants that I rehearse as an internal monologue to help me process my thoughts and feelings. I blog to keep a record of this parenting caper, because it changes so quickly. I want to preserve the moment in time, the experiences and attitudes, as I know I’ll forget. One of the isolating factors in the beginning years of parenthood is that things move so fast that someone with a kid just a few months older or younger is having a very different experience. When I read through the back-catalogues of the blogs mentioned above, it didn’t matter that I was reading thoughts written several years before. I felt like those blog posts were letters written to me and sent magically to arrive when I needed them, like in Charlotte Sometimes (obscure children’s literature reference). Or like Matilda reading her books (less obscure children’s literature reference!), reading the writing of other mothers gave me the hopeful and comforting message that I was not alone. 

Taking the kiddos out

Continuing my crush on Boaganette, this is a great piece that rang very true. 

riffing off it…

Today we took the little dude to Te Papa (side note – what’s with giant squid? Can there be a small placard about the evils of bycatch please? Is anyone else saddened by the thought of this creature that was just swimming along then got caught up and is now on display at a museum for people to gawk at? Further side note – the discovery centre in the Tangata o le Moana exhibit is a bit noble-savage-y and ugh, cringe. Te Papa you are a free indoor space but I think you need to be updated). 

The little dude is extremely keen to explore everything and gets bored in our house, so it’s great to take him to a kid-friendly museum, and we do it fairly regularly. One of his current hobbies is climbing stairs. There is a stretch of stairs from level 4 up to level 5 that is pretty quiet (it’s not the busy main staircase), and I was letting him practice going up and down, he was having a great time. A few people gave me huffy “you’re in the way” vibes. At the top of the stairs we got to the art gallery part. There’s a kids area with a magnetic wall and he is pretty enamoured by it. As I entered the gallery, the little dude was walking ahead by about half a metre and the attendant anxiously warned me that I would need to keep a close eye and make sure he didn’t touch the art (well of course!!). 

We took the lift back down to the first floor. The little dude had wanted to explore while we were waiting for the lift, so we almost missed it, and I was very apologetic getting in, and conscious that we were taking up heaps of space in a crowded box. As I got off, I overheard one of the fellow occupants saying to her companion “what a little cutie! So smiley! It’s so nice seeing toddlers, always brightens my day.” 

I forget that some people like kids. I genuinely forget. I am always acutely aware of the potential to annoy people and get in their way, and the frowns are so frequent and make me feel so gnawed at. And I got home and I read Boaganette and I thought, yeah, totally, ugh.  

Before I had kids, I was never one of those adults who frowned. I was always stoked to see kids. Once, flying from Wellington to Auckland alone, I was seated next to a woman and her 2-almost-3 year old son. He was in the middle, I was in the window seat, she was in the aisle seat. He was a first language te reo speaker, and too young to realise that not everyone was able to respond to him when he initiated conversation. Now my reo is not great but it’s about an ok level for a conversation with a three year old. I had a great flight, chatting to him, enjoying his company. Somewhat strangely, I thought at the time, his mum fell asleep. In retrospect and from the perspective of a fellow mum, she must have been over the moon at her good luck of seat mate and good on her for taking the chance for a break. I remember telling him that we were “kei roto i nga kapua”, and he just repeated that for the rest of the flight alternating incredulity and excitement. “Kei roto i nga kapua!” – so thrilled because actually yeah, being in the clouds is amazing and aeroplanes are super cool. And he reminded me how cool it was. And my day was better for it. 

So, a resolution – I’m going to be less apologetic when taking the little dude out. I don’t want him to feel like he’s an imposition and isn’t allowed to be in public. He’s an awesome person and random strangers should be honoured that he smiles at them. And yeah, he’s a bit disruptive, but geez he’s only 14 months, give him a chance! 

Picking a fight

I blogged last year about how wretched it was being at home with a baby while everyone I knew from my pre-baby life was at work. It was such a major issue for me at the time. I felt like I was completely excluded from the real world – the world where people Did Things.

I work a 26.5 hour week now in my paid job, oddly precise because it’s 70% full-time equivalent, where full-time is a 7.5 hour day (8 hours once you factor in the lunch break, so a quaint 9 – 5). That is to say, the full-time at my work constitutes hours that many people in the high-flying world would consider part-time.

My first job was a corporate law firm, and I had a few of those stretches of ridiculous hours that some people wear as a badge of honour. To me it was a sign I needed to look for a new job asap. Really really long hours were considered to go with the job, a clear expectation, part and parcel of professionalism. I was prepared to work hard, but just not that hard. I wasn’t prepared for the idea that it would sometimes be necessary to work a 12 hour day on a Saturday.

There are not enough hours in the day. After the little dude goes to bed, there are chores to be done, and then a small pocket of time for me and my husband to hang out together as a couple. Sometimes he works from home in the late evening. Just means more chores for me, and no time together.

One chapter of Lean In is devoted to the importance of (in Sandburg’s words) “making your partner a real partner”. The idea is that women can’t get ahead professionally if they do more than half the home stuff.

At the risk of going out on a limb and picking on a point that doesn’t sound controversial, I think this might be not be the best focus.

My perspective is not moored (mired?) in fond nostalgia for sharply differentiated gender roles. Not at all. It would be great if my husband and I contributed equally to the total necessary unpaid work to keep the family going. It’s just not my job to make him.

The women who divorced in the 70s or 80s, then realised their financial vulnerability: that is my grandmother’s generation (and my grandmother is one of those women). The women who went to uni and started work in the 80s or 90s, assuming that their (male) partners would pick up half the childcare and the chores if they did half the paid work… then had the shocking realisation that no, he still expects to play golf on Sundays and will basically never clean the bathroom: that is my mother’s generation (and my mother is one of those women). My dad had more leisure time. My mum had more time doing chores. It remains a matter of contention.

I think the third generation insight and experience may be to place less emphasis on inequalities within our relationships and more emphasis on how society generally lets down parents, especially mothers but also fathers. Which is another way of saying that we need to focus on the bigger structural issues. I think this is important because, bluntly, my husband and my father and men like them will never do half the childcare and the chores if they are working long hours at the office. It’s not a reasonable ask. Of course, it’s not reasonable to ask women to do this either – but we do it anyway. Because otherwise stuff doesn’t get done. So we get a million think pieces from women like myself and my mother saying “I love him and he is a great partner in many ways, but I still do the lioness’s share of the chores even though I have a paid job as well, what do I do?” The internet has lots of practical tips like “let him do it even if he’s doing it less efficiently” and “have chores that each of you are responsible for and stick to them”. A big part of the picture is that men get more recognition for everything they do. If he holds down a job and does any housework ever and spends any time with his children, he’s an amazing amazing man in the public eye. His partner is a lucky woman. So the only pressure for him to do more comes from within the relationship – but nagging your spouse is a drag.

A split of 30/70 or 40/60 still isn’t 50/50. If I do around half an hour more chores a day, which is a massive understatement, that’s a solid week of additional cleaning every year. If it’s 40/60 split, he’s not just a squeak under half – I’m doing a solid 50% more. It’s basic maths guys!!

However, the time and energy my mum spent trying to get my dad to do more was ultimately pretty futile. If we have a limited amount of time and energy, is this really the best battle to pick? Do we have to pick a battle that makes our partner the adversary? There are so many other battles – like the battles for more paid parental leave, increased early childcare subsidies, shorter working hours, more sick leave, more holiday leave, flexible work schedules, better transport and better housing close to jobs so time isn’t wasted in the commute, more public spaces set up for children, a universal child benefit, and so on.

My husband would run a mile at the suggestion that he stay home full-time. Sandburg says we need half our homes run by men and half our boardrooms run by women. It’s never going to happen. There is an idea that it’s possible for women to have careers like men if they also have a maximally supportive partner who performs the “traditional wifely role”. It’s a very harmful idea to feminism, even though a lot of feminists are the ones repeating it. Think of how impossibly unlikely it is: first, we’d need a whole lot of women who want to have the sort of career that requires a stay at home partner; second, we’d need a whole lot of men who want be a stay at home partner; and third they’d have to find each other in perfect matching pairs rather than falling into dead-weight couples in which both want the same thing.

I wouldn’t want to have a stay at home partner. I wouldn’t want that level of role differentiation. I like to have a handle on the life-admin, I want time to make my house my home, and I’d feel burdened if it was my job alone to earn the money. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to be the stay at home partner. I can’t bear the thought of being financially dependent on someone else on an ongoing basis. I want to use my law degree. I want to have things to talk about with my childless friends. I also wouldn’t want my daily life to be so different from my partner’s life, I’d worry it’d make us drift apart.

Incidentally, Sandburg’s husband isn’t a stay at home spouse enabling her to soar to corporate heights while he does all the stuff in the home. He’s also an extremely successful businessy techy type. In Lean In Sandburg relates a story of one of her kids reaching for the nanny instead of for her. Without dissing nannies or condemning Sandburg, this is the sort of anecdote that would make many women think “whatever Sheryl, you do what you want, but fuck that bullshit, I’m not gonna outsource my parenting to the extent that my kids prefers to spend time with someone I pay. So if that’s what it takes to get to the top, I’m turning round. I’m going to the park with my toddler and we’re going to play peek-a-boo in the tunnel.”

What are we left with? A situation where the top jobs are structured on the assumption that those in them have no other demands on their time. Even when women get to those positions, like Sandburg has, it’s difficult not to buy into this structure. If Sandburg really wanted to change the world, imagine how radical and amazing it would be if Facebook instituted a 30 hour working week? In reality, we end up with a remarkable lack of diversity in the life experiences and expectations of people in high-up positions in law and politics and business with very very few exceptions. By succeeding on the terms laid out by men, women like Sandburg undermine their own ideals and fail to bring a significantly different perspective.

Working the hours I do has given me new insights into workplace efficiency. After some trial and error, I’ve settled on a work schedule of 9 – 4 on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and 9 – 12.30 on Wednesday and Friday. Leaving aside the childcare dimension, this is proving to be a pretty good structure for my productivity. Because I have Friday afternoons off, I arrive ready to get stuck in on Monday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday morning I’m still going strong. Wednesday afternoon – a time of previously low productivity back in the 9 – 5 days – isn’t part of my working week. So on Thursday I’m refreshed again. Friday morning I’m busy trying to get a whole day’s work done in half a day, and I have none of the go-slow-syndrome that used to affect me at the end of the week. It’s not as though I slacked off before, it’s just that now I don’t suffer those dips in energy at work because I’m not there as much. I’m more efficient, partly because I’m more energetic, and also because I don’t “fill the time” – I always did what needed to be done in the time I had; now I have less time but not proportionately less work, and I get more done per hour. I reckon we could probably all work a shorter week with no negative effects. It’s not clear to me why standard working hours remain so long. There’s no shortage of people to do the jobs, things would still get done, and there’s plenty of money to go around if it was distributed differently.

Long hours squeeze everything else out. In almost every sphere, getting to the top means spending many years internalising the expectation that paid work is the be all and end all. I want to spell this out clearly. The problem is not only that they think long hours are fine and dandy, it’s also that because they work long hours doing one thing on which they are very focused, they don’t have time to do other things. This creates that blinkered perspective, that bubble, that loss of commonality with the rest of us. It’s an enormous problem. We seem to accept that the more important a job is, the more time you should spend on it. What a silly idea. If a job is really important – a CEO of a big company, a head of a major NGO, a very senior lawyer or public servant or academic, the manager of a large hospital, whatever – then it is essential that the person in that job has an understanding of what life is like “on the outside”. Otherwise they’re not going to be able to do their job well. How can a politician understand the concerns of their constituents if they never have time to do the things that normal people do?

Finally, the loss of commonality makes it difficult for those in charge to understand the pressures working parents (and non-parents) face in jobs which have long hours without high status and high pay. Like, the ordinary worker or small business owner who works long hours to pay a big mortgage because that’s the only way to give the kids a warm dry home. Again, PROBLEM. Such a major problem.

How do we fix it?

How do we challenge this norm?

Look, it’s simple. Just work less. Some people can’t, because they really need that job because of the $$$. If you have the privilege of job security and a decent salary, the onus is on you to push back against long hours and/or negotiate different hours, to try and change expectations. Go home earlier. Don’t stockpile annual leave, take a day here and there just to live. Cut it out with the voluntary overtime already. Encourage other people to work less. If you’re senior to someone, tell them to take a long lunch break on a day when things are quiet, tell them to go home early, don’t give them tacit approval for putting in extra hours. Time is all any of us have! And we have a finite supply!

If leaving earlier gives you a bit of spare time, use it to advance collective political action – for example, New Zealand is one of only a handful of developed countries which doesn’t have a maximum working week. Maybe that should change?

Oh and if you have a partner who works long hours and leaves you to do more than your fair share of chores, point out that you’re both putting in overtime 😉

My son’s first words

Freddie (our cat)

Stairs

Cheese

Banana

Daddy

Mumnum (any food)

Yeah

There

Len (one of the kaiako at his creche)

Shoes

Mamama (I don’t know if this means “mum” or “breastfeed”. Maybe it’s all the same to him?)

Dizu (“Dear Zoo”, his favourite book)

This

Ambition and humility

On Saturday night I left Mr Daddy to do the bed time stuff and went to a dinner with a group of wonderful friends and friends of friends. There are so many cool people in this town! So many engaged, thoughtful and generous people who have such a lot to offer to the world. Such great conversation. Often I feel like too many of my friends are in London, unavailable for great chats – on Saturday I felt like there is a whole world full of people who have interesting thoughts I want to hear. 

I think of myself as fairly smart and capable. But that’s not a big deal – so are most of the people I know. There were a few stellar stars I met at uni, people who are just utterly brilliant and who make me feel like the future of the nation is sunny and bright. I wouldn’t put myself quite in that group. Next tier down though is a very very big tier. 

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg talks about the importance of ambition. I see what she’s getting at, but how does it mesh with reality, given the mismatch between the size of the talent pool and the number of tippy-top positions?

Ascribing career success to luck is not insecurity. It’s truth. Everyone in a top position has been lucky – of course they have otherwise they wouldn’t be in a top position. When people state modest goals, it’s not necessarily self-effacing, it might be realistic; after all there is only one Prime Minister at a time. 

What inspires me to be ambitious is seeing people at the top who aren’t any smarter than I am. Or who are less smart. Or who have remarkably poor judgement. But the converse holds – there are dozens of people I can think of off the top of my head who are supremely talented and haven’t had the same career luck I’ve had so far.

Contra Sandburg, I don’t think insecurity and a lack of ambition among smart young women is a problem. I know lots of fantastic women with enormous potential, they are all humble in the best way – they acknowledge other people. They’re not crippled by insecurity. They’re held back by external forces, mainly sexism and ageism and the costs of higher education. On the other hand, I know lots of fantastically arrogant men who think they have enormous potential, but are crippled by mediocrity and utterly devoid of wisdom. 

As we approach Anzac day, let us remember that arrogant and unwise men in positions of power are pretty much the cause of all the problems humanity has ever had. To create a better world, we have to make sure we don’t imitate them. We’re more creative than that anyway. The only difficulty will be persuading them to lean back and let us in. 

Ed: I know lots of awesome men who are also humble in the best way. Yet a humble man often gets added kudos because his humility is taken as a sign of his superiority… Male privilege is pretty cool like that. Y’know, for men.