My first job in Boston was working for Senator Jack Backman, a progressive state Senator who headed up the Human Services Committee on Families and Elder Affairs.I was considered his “child and family expert”, but I hardly felt like an expert, particularly in that shark tank of policymaking. I loved and hated that job, the daily tedious business of writing legislation, sitting for hours in meetings, taking orders as the lowest of the low on that totem pole. But I learned how to analyze a state budget, and how bills get passed, and who makes decisions behind which closed doors. I also learned that I wasn’t suited to moving things from inside the system, but I loved being an outsider trying to make the system move.
Senator Backman sponsored the first universal child care bill in the state, arguing that all children should have access to early childhood education. While this seems laudable now, at the time it was laughable because people felt it was so “out there”, beyond anything that was remotely possible. This was the early 80s, and while women had already been entering the labor force in droves, some politicians were just getting used to it.
The Governor, a rabid right-wing demagogue, vociferously argued against increasing child care subsidies to poor families, much less even considering universal child care policy. His famous line was that “child care is a Cadillac service”, a “luxury” that the state could not afford, particularly because it was women’s place to stay at home to care for their families. It took several decades for Massachusetts and 39 other states to finally implement universal pre-kindergarten (UPK). The most compelling part of my job was working with a ferociously committed group of early childhood teachers who fought for more funding for child care programs, including funds to increase child care worker wages. Since my role was as a liaison to a liberal Senator, they lobbied me to take up their cause. Initially I felt flattered that they were trying to convince me to support their issues, but I soon realized that I was “one of them”, except that I had some leverage to help them get access to key legislators.
It was from this group of amazing early childhood education advocates that I learned about the need for government subsidies to defray the high cost of child care for low- and middle-income parents. It was from them that I learned about the high turnover of child care workers because of their low wages – and the negative impact of teacher turnover on the quality of care to children. Not too soon after I left that job, I became a lobbyist for a statewide child care association. Recently, I organized a panel for the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting, and as I looked for speakers who could demonstrate the wide range of jobs that sociologists have in the “applied world”, I discovered Tekisha Everette, a brilliant Sociologist who, at the time, was working as a lobbyist with the American Diabetes Association. Tekisha spoke about why she chose to be an Applied Sociologist, the substance of what she actually does in her job on a day-to-day basis as a lobbyist, and how she incorporates a race/gender/class lens in talking with policymakers about public health issues. Having worked in the policy world, I was particularly moved by how Tekisha uses her scholarship as a sociologist, incorporating analyses of how race, gender and class affect public health policy issues. Here’s a snippet of our conversation:
Mindy: Tekisha – why did you choose to do Applied Sociology?
Tekisha: I chose Applied Sociology because I wanted to combine my educational background – political science, policy and sociology – to affect change in society. I wanted to go beyond studying society to applying that knowledge to drive policy change in society.
M:Can you tell me a bit about the types of applied jobs you have held?
T:I am a lobbyist now but I’ve been policy analyst and a liaison between state government employees and a firm of economists. In each position, I have used my research skills as well as my sociological theoretical lens to execute my work. For me, this has been an amazing experience because I am relevant in a variety of spaces and I can alter my voice and perspective based on what is needed in the situation.
M:How would you describe the role you play within the organization’s structure?
T:I am the lead lobbyist for my organization and I lead a team of three lobbyists and one manager. I provide strategic leadership on policy and legislative efforts of the Association. I also serve as a member of senior management for the department and help shape a number of our projects and priorities. Since most, if not all, of our initiatives have to be evidence-based, I spend a fair amount of time reviewing, requesting, and explaining research to support our legislative ideas.
M:What does the work of a lobbyist entail?
T:Interacting with Members of Congress and their staff, the White House and federal agencies, training and helping our advocates to use their experience to gain support for legislative proposals, reading/reviewing research and translating it into policy.
M: How do you incorporate a sociological lens in your work?
T: Since I have come to my organization, there have been a number of times where I’ve been able to bring a sociological lens to affect decision-making. Overall, I think I have worked to change the way we make decisions to ensure that we take a variety of backgrounds and various interests into account. Being a sociologist gives me the advantage of being able to go beyond the data and making it relevant to policymakers in ways they can understand. My goal is to always be sure I can explain the impact of policy at a localized level – and to incorporate the impact from a gender, race and class perspective.
M: What drives you to do this work?
T: I believe that you have to be a able to explain anything you do to your grandma! Perfecting the art of being able to use research and explain it to a variety of audiences is important to me.
Tekisha has just accepted a new position to become the inaugural Executive Director of Health Equity Solutions in Connecticut. The organization is a non-profit focused on addressing health equity issues in Connecticut through public policy, education and advocacy activities. She begins her new position in May, as she takes on another opportunity to have an impact in the policy arena!
I was a high school cheerleader. Whew – I’ve gotten the confessional part of this post out of the way. In all honesty, I hated football, and didn’t know anything about the game. I had discovered ballet and modern dance at age seven, and very soon was taking lessons four times a week. Dance was my life. This was an era when girls were often discouraged or excluded from playing sports, before the passage of Title IX. When I reached Riverside High School (RHS) in Buffalo, New York, the only dance-like option available for athletic girls was cheerleading. So another dancer friend and I plunged into the world of rah-rah, feeling like outsiders even though we were viewed as football-loving cheerleaders. Perhaps more importantly, we were also considered “popular girls”, with status that was derived from our official role in supporting the football players, “our men”, who represented the epitome of masculinity.
Like most occupations that are female-dominated, our all-female cheerleading team was a vehicle through which we were able to bond. Our coach was the first lesbian I ever met, closeted of course in those days, who supported us in our prominent role, despite the fact that it was a gendered role. Our job was quite simple. We were to rev up the audience so that they could rev up the players. We cheerleaders – dressed in our short skirts and lettered sweaters – were happy to cheer and leap with chronically fixed smiles, as we performed to an appreciative crowd. Although unlike me, most of my “sisters” really meant it when they cheered for the players. Here was one of our popular chants, which I loved not because of the words, which glorified the heroes of the game, but because of the athletic moves that accompanied them: “They always call him Mr. Touchdown They always call him Mr. T. He can run and and kick and throw Give him the ball and just look at him go Hip, hip, hooray for Mister Touch-down He’s gonna beat ‘em today So give a great big cheer (WOO! – cheers the crowd ) for the hero of the year, Mister Touchdown, RHS (Riverside High School)”
The real hero of the RHS team was Joe Ehrmann, a star football player with a solid frame, wide, powerful neck, and muscles that popped out of his uniform. Unlike most other girls in school, I was not interested in football players, including Joe. I presumed – right or wrong – that if you were a football player, you probably had an inflated ego and you were short on smarts. That said, it was clear that Joe was different than the other ball players. He was funny and clever, and a “mensch” – aka a really sweet guy. I remember his performance in an all-school “assembly” when Joe got up in front of the whole school and danced in a hula skirt. At the time, this was hysterical and unheard of – a popular football player cross-dressing for laughs. He wasn’t afraid to be outrageous, and perhaps understood that a hulk of a man displaying so-called femininity was discordant and therefore, funny. No surprise that Joe and I didn’t see each other after high school, but we both attended Syracuse University. He went on to become a star player on SU’s football team, and I went on to become an anti-war activist and aspiring feminist. When Joe graduated from SU, he was immediately drafted to play defensive tackle in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts. Given my disconnect from the world of football – in my mind, a violent sport that typifies our “masculinist” culture – I knew nothing about Joe and his success over the next four decades. That is, until I began to teach courses on gender and workplace issues, and lo and behold, I discovered that Joe and I had a lot in common. Over the years, Joe had become a minister and popular motivational speaker who chose sports as his bully pulpit to preach all over the country about the damaging social construct of what it means “to be a man”. In his blog, Joe writes about 10 lessons he’s learning about sports in America. Lesson # 7 says: At the core of much of America’s social chaos – from boys with guns, to girls with babies, immorality in board rooms and the beat down women take– is the socialization of boys into men. Violence, a sense of superiority over women, and emotional disconnectedness are not inherent to masculinity – they are the results of societal messages that define and dictate American masculinity. Speaking like a feminist sociologist, Joe says that “America is increasingly becoming a toxic environment for the development of boys into men”…which “disconnects a boy’s heart from his head (and) contributes to a culture of violence, emotional invulnerability, toughness and stoicism (that) perpetuates the challenge of helping boys become loving, contributing and productive citizens”.
I wouldn’t have found Joe, had I not become aware of a controversy around a couple of macho sportscasters who run a morning radio show on WFAN in New York City, called Boomer and Carton, followed by a social critique from my old classmate, Joe. The “Boomer and Carton” show began with Carton ranting about a New York Mets player, Daniel Murphy, who took two days of paternity leave, or as they called it a two-game paternity leave, to be with his wife as she was birthing their baby. He said that he could understand why a man would be with his wife while she’s HAVING the baby, But to ME, and this is MY sensibility – Assuming the birth went well; assuming your wife is fine; assuming the baby is fine – (then he should take off) 24 hours! Baby’s good; you stay there; you have a good support system for the mom and the baby. (Then) you get your ass back to the team and you play baseball! That’s my take on it.
As Carton finishes these last words, he knocks his fist on the table, agitated, and then continues: “What do you need to do anyway? You’re not breastfeeding the kid!…I got four of these little rug rats! There’s nothing to do!” Initially, Boomer counters by saying that Daniel Murphy has the legal right to be with the mom and his newborn, but when pressed by his co-host, Carton, about what HE would have done, Boomer backs off and says: Quite frankly I would’ve said (to my wife), C-section before the season starts. I need to be at opening day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to because I’m a baseball player. So here we have two sportscasters telling us that a) “real” men have no responsibility, nor should they have an interest in being an involved father; and b) “real” men should tell their wives that this is how it’s going to be: You wrap your birthing around my work schedule, and then when you’re done popping out the baby, I’m outa’ here because I’m making money to send this kid to college, and that’s more important. This is where former NFL player Joe Ehrmann chimed in. I think these comments are pretty shortsighted and reflect old school thinking about masculinity and fatherhood. Paternity leave is critical in helping dads create life-long bonding and sharing in the responsibilities of raising emotionally healthy children. To miss the life altering experience of ‘co-laboring’ in a delivery room due to nonessential work-related responsibilities is to create false values. Take that, Boomer and Carton!
In the background throughout all this hub-bub was Daniel Murphy who, without any fanfare, commented that he did hear about the controversy around his leave-taking, but he didn’t care. “That’s the awesome part about being blessed, about being a parent, is you get that choice. My wife and I discussed it, and we felt the best thing for our family was for me to try to stay for an extra day – that being Wednesday, due to the fact that she can’t travel for two weeks”.
Instead of cow-towing to the traditional view that men – in particular, high-priced athletes – should put work over family, Murphy exhibited compassion for his wife and a desire to be an involved dad. “It’s going to be tough for her to get up to New York for a month. I can only speak from my experience – a father seeing his wife – she was completely finished. I mean, she was done. She had surgery and she was wiped. Having me there helped a lot, and vice versa, to take some of the load off. … It felt, for us, like the right decision to make.” Okay, Murphy defended his right to take a measly two days off from work. This isn’t so different from thousands of men around the nation, as the range of men’s use of parental leave goes somewhere from a couple days to a couple of weeks. And that time is generally taken as vacation time, which disassociates it from the act of involved fathering. But still, the public face of this story elevates the importance of father involvement in child caring and co-parenting, with Murphy as the protagonist, and my old classmate, Joe, the advocate who understands and has a lot of important things to say about it.
Joe continues to give inspirational talks around the country, where he questions how men begin to understand themselves and connect more deeply to others. “It’s a long term process but it starts with the idea that you can’t keep hiding and protecting yourself. You’ve got to be able to let people in. Then you have a chance to be truly loved and to love.” Check out Joe Ehrmann’s TedX Baltimore talk called “Be a Man”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVI1Xutc_Ws
Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of funding arts education. I’m still thinking about these issues, so here is Part Two: Save the arts because the arts save lives...
The arts – dance, theater, music, writing and the visual arts – have a powerful impact on children, opening the door to deeper knowledge and self-expression. I know from personal experience, and I have seen it in young people far and wide. While the current administration has said all the right things about arts education, this is sadly not enough, because federal, state and local policies STILL favor standardized testing and severely limit arts education funding. With all the concern about remaining competitive in a global market, this is precisely the time to fund arts education and allow our children to thrive.
I started taking dance lessons at age seven. For the first year, I did ballet, but only lasted one year because the teacher was nasty and the movements were too rigid for my soul. Instead my mother found a modern dance teacher, Seenie Rothier, a kind and ageless woman with a lean body and tight bun (and buns), who spoke with a raspy voice as she led her charges through endless contractions, swirls and triplets across the floor. Trained in Martha Graham-style dance, Seenie, as we all called her, had a penchant for the dramatic, and yet she was the most grounding element in my life. I always assumed that my family life was your average normal, and yet looking back, I have realized that it was a household rife with angry silence and disappointment. Seenie’s studio on Hertel Street in Buffalo, was just up the block from Kaufman’s Deli where they sold frosted brownies, and down the block from my grandparents’ working class neighborhood. It was my salvation. She recognized my talent, and by the time I was thirteen, had invited me to join a college dance troupe. Dance was my manna and still is.
While it is hard to “make a living” as an artist, I tried my best, working as a dance therapist in a psychiatric hospital and later, teaching dance as a resident artist in the Syracuse, New York public school system. I discovered the magic of movement as a source of expression for young children. Often in these schools, children were marched into the gym in single file, and told to remain quiet and respectful of the visiting teacher.
Little did they know that the new visitor was about to tell the children to jump up and down like popcorn, express their joy and anger through finger dances, and shout as loud as they could, using only their eyes or feet. There was always one child in every school who attached her- or himself to me, following me around, sometimes sitting on my lap or holding my hand as I moved through the room. Sometimes I imagined that what this child really wanted was to crawl into my womb for safety. And there was always the wild child. Sometimes teachers warned me about him or her, and other times, I learned through my own encounters. If teachers were observing – they rarely participated – they might speak with the child in a stern, warning tone or pull the child away for time out. But when I could, I intervened and said ‘no, it’s okay’, because I could usually figure out a way that that child could use movement to express herself.
Dance is a healer, a universal mode of communication that is good for children. It’s natural. It’s great exercise. It wakes up the brain. It gives children an outlet. I have observed talented movement professionals use movement with children to help them learn science and math concepts. Dance can strengthen children’s emotional intelligence, and their ability to collaborate with others. And it can provide a form of discipline and order, when students are challenged to create dances that have beginnings, middles and ends.
A number of studies (see Critical Links) cite a positive correlation between dance experiences and nonverbal reasoning skills. One study demonstrated that “subjects” who were exposed to creative dance made significant gains in creative and critical thinking. And another study conducted with children with behavioral disorders found that when dance and poetry were combined, students’ were engaged and their social skills improved. Another study that promoted reading through dance to elementary children found that students improved significantly on all measures assessed by a reading test, including their ability to relate written consonants and vowels to their sounds.
The research on other arts modalities is equally strong, linking the study of theater to literacy, music education to improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning, achievement in reading, and reinforcement of social-emotional and behavioral skills. And classrooms that integrate the arts are a leveler for all students, including those with disabilities.
In my own research, I’ve found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitudes towards learning, but also their ability to learn.
It’s time to broaden the policy dialogue and demand increased funding for arts education!
A number of years ago, I was invited to the Pentagon to talk about a work and family study I was conducting. Anyone who knows me may find this fact pretty incongruous. But I was intrigued to find out about the human resources side of the military. Given my history of antiwar and women’s rights activities – and the fact that my father had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – I fully imagined that I wouldn’t make it through the security screening. But, to my surprise, I sailed through. I found myself being chaperoned through dingy hallways to a very nondescript office for a meeting with a powerhouse of a woman who headed up programming on family supports for military “members” and their families.
Over the next two years, I worked with her and a real live Colonel, a kind and gentle soul who was an expert on domestic violence issues in the military. Our work together focused on assessing how well various military family support agencies were able to collaborate. Their “mission” was to support families through the challenges of dealing with deployment and loss.
I initially felt like a fish out of water working within this institution. But I soon connected with the human dimension and discovered that within the military, there are people from incredibly diverse backgrounds – including political perspectives – who really care about people’s well-being. I also learned that the military has far more progressive family policies than governmental policies in the civilian sphere, which rely on a hodgepodge of precarious private and public funding to service those in need.
I discovered, for example, that the military provides high-quality, affordable and accessible childcare in which early childhood teachers are paid good wages. According to Gail Zelman and Susan Gates, researchers at RAND,
“While there are no easy or obvious solutions to the childcare problem, policymakers can look to an unlikely source from ideas about improving childcare: the military. The US Department of Defense (DoD) has succeeded in optimizing the three key aspects of child care delivery – availability, quality and affordability – a juggling act unduplicated anywhere else in the country. The system currently meets around 60% of the assessed need, serving about 176,000 children 6 weeks to 12 years old in 900 centers and in 9,200 family child care homes nationwide. (Family child care homes are usually run by military spouses.)”
Let’s be honest here: The military’s desire for high levels of productivity and commitment among its members – and the need for support from military family members – are the drivers underpinning military support for these policies.
So what can policymakers learn from DoD’s experience, ask researchers Zellman and Gates?
“The clear message is that affordable, high-quality child care requires a system level commitment to quality, as well as incentives and funding to make it a reality.”
In contrast, our “civilian” child care system in the U.S. is underfunded and suffers from lack of quality, which can largely be attributed to low wages and inadequate support for its workers. In fact, the turnover rate of early childhood teachers in the U.S. is between 25-30%. Research points to a “turnover climate” which affects overall program quality. One study found that highly trained teachers (BA level or higher with specialized training) “were more likely to leave their jobs if they earned lower wages, worked with fewer highly trained teachers and worked in a climate with less stability.” (Whitebook, at al, 2001). Therefore, worker retention is linked to the stability of the program and ultimately, to higher quality.
In addition to high quality, affordable child care, the military offers paid parental leave and universal health care. Ironically, when progressives promote these policies at the federal (civilian) level, conservatives cry ‘socialism!’
In a memo entitled, “For Our Air Force Family,” Lieutenant General, USAF, Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, Joseph H. Wehrle, Jr., says,
“The United States Air Force is committed to taking care of its own. Steadfast, homefront support is provided to family members by the Integrated Delivery System… As always, we remain One Force, One Family.”
in the military, the credo – “We take care of our own.” – is motivated by the belief that this will support “readiness” for battle, increase productivity, reduce turnover, and ease the process of leaving one’s family behind to put oneself “in harms way” around the globe.
Without such immediate drivers in the corporate or non-military governmental sphere, it is hard to make the case – or as human resource professionals would say, the business case – for progressive family policies. But we don’t have to only look to Europe for inspiration around family policies; we can look to the U.S. military to find some of the most progressive policies in this nation. Don’t we all deserve them?
Yesterday, I shared a long plane ride with a Japanese woman who was coming to the States to visit a friend. She patiently helped me try to track down an old Japanese friend via Google. Yes, there was WiFi on board; yes, Google in Japanese is very cool; and no, we were not successful in tracking her down! But more importantly, we talked about work and family issues, as she described the gendered division of labor in Japan. She is employed as a translator, but took a 10 year hiatus from her paid work – actually quit her job – to care for her son. This is typical, she said, among women “in her generation.” (After our conversation I calculated her age as around 43.)
In his book,The New Paradox for Japanese Women: Greater Choice, Greater inequality, Japanese economist Toshiaki Tachibanaki presents a gendered analysis of the Japanese economy. He reports that while Japanese women now have more choices in their careers than in earlier days when their education consisted of preparing them to be “good wives,” they now face job discrimination, sexual harassment and wage inequalities on the job. My new Japanese airplane friend commented that her husband wanted her to stay home with her son, telling her that it was the most important thing she could do. He, on the other hand, was working 12+ hour days. When I asked her if he was “able to” spend time “at home,” she winced and said that he did play with their son sometimes, but didn’t do any housework or cooking.
She was surprised to hear that over 75% of American mothers of school-age children work for pay. In Japan, nearly half of all women work in the labor force, but Japanese women earn less than half of what men earn. So it’s no surprise that women take on the brunt of the caregiving responsibilities, simply from an economic perspective. By the way, the gender wage gap in the US also is a significant problem, particularly for mothers, albeit less stark than in Japan.
She also described the dissolution of the extended family in which multiple generations lived together. Without a grandparent to do childcare, women in Japan have a harder time sustaining full time employment.
While we didn’t dive into a discussion of childcare policy in Japan, her observation got me thinking about the meaning of community and the gendered division of labor during my childhood years in the 50s. The 1950s in the U.S. are portrayed much like my Japanese friend’s description of contemporary Japanese culture, with the general assumption that mothers’ most important work was to stay at home with their children.
But what did staying at home actually mean in 1950s America? I know from personal experience, as a child of the 50s, I spent hours playing on the street with my friends. Whether it was kickball, dodgeball, relay or two-person races, or making up plays, we kept each other busy (on the street, as opposed to off the streets!). When I wasn’t in school or hanging out with my buddies on the street, I was taking dance classes or piano lessons. And when I wasn’t in school, on the street or at a lesson, I was firmly planted in front of our black-and-white TV, watching “traditional family life” in shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet. While my mother was a “stay-at-home” mom, like the majority of middle-class mothers in that era, she and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time together because, frankly, I had other fish to fry!
Despite the glorification of family life in 1950s America, believe it or not, mothers today spend about the SAME amount of time as the 50s and 60s moms who did not work outside of the home! Family sociologist Suzanne Bianchi found that while the number of children with mothers in the paid labor force has gone up considerably between 1965 and 2000, there has actually been a slight INCREASE in the amount of time moms are spending with their children over these years now – from 10.6 hours per week in 1965 to 12.9 hours per week in 2000. Contemporary dads also spend a little more time with their kids these days, from 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 6.5 hours per week in 2000.
So what’s the deal? Well it looks like a number of factors have converged to create this new reality, even though mothers and fathers spend a lot of time at their paid jobs. First of all, the work of the “at-home” mother has been greatly altered by technology and fast food. Meal preparation – especially when it comes from a takeout joint, comes out of a package, or pops out of the microwave oven – takes less time. Mothers are also spending less time cleaning the house, compared to a few decades ago. Dust bunnies prevail! And actually, fathers never spent a whole lot of time cleaning the house anyway, so no big change there.
But equally important, the notion of good parenting has shifted over the years from more hands-off to more intensive, involved parenting. From playing classical music to your in-utero fetus to knowing all your kids’ teachers to coaching her Little League team to texting daily with college age kids, the contemporary notion of “good parenting” has been redefined as engaged parenting. Based on the research, it seems that mothers who work outside the home want to “protect” the amount of time they have with their children; ergo, spend as much time with them as possible.
In her study of nurses who work night shifts, Anita Garey found these women chose night hours so they could maintain the notion of the “ideal mother” who was available to meet during the day with her child’s teachers, bake for the bake sales, and show up at school events. All this came at a cost: sleep and personal care. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild called this phenomenon the “time famine.” Bianchi argues that the increase of mothers in the paid labor force, at least in two-parent families, has shifted some of the caregiving responsibility to fathers, commenting,
“Perhaps most controversial, women’s reallocation of their time probably has changed men. The increase in women’s market work has facilitated the increase in women’s involvement in child-rearing, at least within marriage.”
Clearly, the economy is the driver in the U.S. and other parts of the world, creating an imperative for women to participate in the paid labor force. But women, like men, derive meaning from paid work, and the women’s movement of the 1970s – while rarely mentioned these days – had a powerful impact on women’s sense of entitlement in the workforce.
While we are not battling the level of tradition that exists within Japanese culture, we have a long way to go to achieve equity, particularly for mothers in the paid labor force.
To achieve real equity in the labor force, we need concrete changes in government policies that promote and protect wage equity for women, and protect against gender- and parent-based job discrimination. We need a paid parental leave policy, and support for shorter work hours so that parents of young children can choose to gradually return to full employment after taking a parental leave from the jobs. We need universal child care so that all young children have access to high-quality early education and care, and not just those in families that can afford it. And we need universal health care, so that workers are not reliant on a job for their health insurance. That’s too dangerous in this economic climate, and even with employer-based insurance, there is too much variability in the type of care provided.
Tall order? Maybe, but we need a comprehensive set of solutions to achieve “good parenting” in this age of work-family imbalance.
My daughter is “launched”, having successfully completed her first year of college. A kid who never liked to leave home for more than an overnight with a friend, she welcomed change with curiosity, an open mind and excitement. The year went well for her on all fronts, as she plunged into new friendships and new academic challenges in a culturally vibrant city. What else could a mom want? Happy kid, happy mom…
We have always been close, but we are becoming friends of a different sort now. At the same time, as her mother, I still feel a sense of responsibility and protectiveness towards her. How to balance these roles cannot be premeditated and planned. The balance strikes me emotionally, as it teeters back and forth depending on context and circumstance.
This summer, our daughter decided to become an au pair in the UK, where we have family. I admired her ability to take charge and find a job in a country where she has never lived, and yet has citizenship. Refusing most of my offers of help, she planned her journey, found the host family, and ultimately took on the responsibility of caring for 3 young children, ages 4 and under for 6 weeks. Yikes! Just the sheer number of children would drive me crazy! But shortly after she arrived, adding additional stress to this scenario, the family dynamics went very sour and she gradually realized that she had to get out. My husband and I had planned a visit in the middle of her stay, and as the time drew nearer, we realized that the purpose of our visit was to help her extract herself from the situation.
The job of an au pair is well-defined in many countries, but my guess is that the majority of au pairs operate outside of any regulations. According to the British Au Pair Agencies Association:
“The au pair programme is an internationally recognised Cultural Exchange Programme. It offers a young individual the opportunity to travel and live/work with a host family in a new country, learn a foreign language and experience the country’s culture. The au pair will work a set amount of hours for the host family, usually doing a mixture of childcare and light housework. The au pair may have some childcare experience, but an au pair is not a nanny and should also not be treated as a housekeeper.”
In our daughter’s situation, the work hours grew to 12 per day, and the children came to rely on her nearly exclusively for their most basic needs as well as constant love and attention. As tension between the parents grew, their dependency on her grew as well
In her study of what she calls the “shadow work of nannies and au pairs,” sociologist Cameron MacDonald says,
“Contemporary working mothers and child care providers are actively involved in a process of redefining motherhood. The nexus of this redefinition involves the negotiation of child-rearing practices, of who does what and what that division means.”
In our daughter’s host family, the mother wanted an egalitarian marriage and the father felt that it was his wife’s “duty” to be primary caregiver. They both seethed with resentment. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild says this phenomenon is the result of a stalled gender revolution, in which women are changing and men haven’t yet caught up with them. The “mum” in the host family rebelled against her husband’s views by going out partying with single friends at high class clubs (there’s a class element here as well, of course!), and the dad rebelled by working long hours, going to the pub with his mates, and indulging in his obsession with watching car racing and playing golf. Meanwhile, the childrenwere neglected by their parents, who preferred spending money on their vocations instead of their children. Consequently, the children were emotionally needy.
The parents were high earners, but when it came to paying our daughter, they were stingy, nickel and diming her for cash she fronted for their children, and at times questioning the number of hours she worked for them. Since they were avoiding each other, there were times they didn’t seem to know that she was the one caring for their children. And yet each of them confided in her about their marriage. Of course, it is their children who suffer the most, and as their caregiver, our daughter wanted to protect them. At the same time, she had to protect herself.
She learned that it is difficult to leave a job, particularly one in which young children are involved. She was lucky because she speaks the language, has family nearby and parents who were there to support her. But this is often not the case for au pairs… and therefore they may be vulnerable to exploitation. Au pairs become part of the family dynamic, which in a good situation can be very fulfilling, but in a negative situation, can be emotionally wrenching, as the child caregiver becomes closer to the children. It was hard for our daughter to leave, but ultimately she knew that it was time to go, and we helped her do it. Not an easy situation, by any means.
As a visitor to this host family’s home, I was infuriated at how the family was taking advantage of her, but also awed by the amazing job our daughter did, providing love and security to the children and standing up for herself in the toughest of situations. To be honest, it also felt good being “mommy” again. And there is my challenge – finding the balance between a growing friendship with my young adult child and still maintaining the protective role of mother. Supporting her to walk away without telling her to do so…