So it’s been a kerfuffle of a week. Let’s take on the Internet bit, shall we?
It all began when The Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s fine article on her decision to leave her job as a director of Policy Planning in the State Department, and return to her position as a professor at Princeton. Entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” we sum up her point as:
One cannot succeed at certain kinds of high-impact, high-profile jobs and still be a high-impact mother of children at home.
Brouhaha ensued. Slate held a video talk. Jezebel wrote something, I’m sure there’s more out there. But I spend more time in intimate blog/social network circles than professional ones, so was more affected by Twitter conversations, and posts by people I talk to. This, by Liz of Happy Sighs and A Practical Wedding, articulated many young women’s feelings. We will sum up Liz’s point as:
I’m being flippant. Please go read Liz’s posts, either on her blog or on A Practical Wedding. Meanwhile I will expand. Apparently for many young women there’s enormous pressure now to do exactly what Professor Slaughter recommends, i.e. immerse yourself in motherhood. And women of that generation, at least a segment of them, quite resent the zeitgeist.
There are probably 100 things we could say about all this. Nay, 127, 816 things. Verily, 1,983,445 things. But let’s not. Let’s rely on root causes to illuminate why the questions of women, motherhood, and life paths are so complicated right now.
It’s technology’s fault.
Before birth control, women had little control over when to have children. If they wanted to have sex, in many cultures, they had to get married first. So, little control over when to wed.
Before cars, men who hunted or fished while women were nursing babies, couldn’t fly across the country. Before gas lamps, and then electricity, it was hard to pull all-nighters, or work on oil rigs, or whatever.
In particular, before cars, everyone lived close together. So women could maintain roles of authority – in the female hierarchy that is – with babies to hand. Besides, the big kids took over baby care very, very young.
I get that I’m describing a village. This is not new news. But I wanted to make an analogy.
Motherhood in 2012 has the same ideological flu as nutrition. But worse. Technology has made certain things possible. We do not know if these things are good for us and getting data is hard because we are unwilling to experiment too rigorously on human beings.
The issues around motherhood are harder yet than those around fat in our diets, artificial ingredients, or soy. Because motherhood involves babies, and we’ve got a soft spot for babies. They are designed that way. Unfortunately they don’t come with a dashboard telling us what they really need to grow up functional and happy in the 21st century. Nor an Off button, but that’s another subject altogether.
As always, when decisions must be made under uncertainty, try to nail what you know first. Start with your certainty. Feed babies, hold them, look into their faces. Easy. But soon they will push you for more than you want to do and then you’re going to have to start making decisions. I can only suggest that you look for data. It’s vast land of not knowing – for everyone who isn’t doing what their mother or their culture insists upon. Or doesn’t have an insistent mother or homogeneous culture, for that matter.
When my kids were little, being the sort who trusts cognition over feeling, I would ask my Ph.D. brother what the actual studies showed, about Piaget’s work and so on. That counted as data to me. I found parenting books torturous – all second-hand inferences, sometimes based on data, sometimes not, and always, always, just someone’s opinion.
But studies get you only so far. The rest of knowing has to come from living. I know. Sorry. Live an examined life. Do as best you can, and observe that baby carefully. I wish I had better advice to offer, but I don’t. Not at arm’s length. I’d be happy to come over and tell you what to do, however. Also bounce your baby while humming.
The one thing I believe, with certainty, about motherhood, is that you shouldn’t take it on unless you vow to do the best you can. Now, what the best you can actually means? That is up to you and your circumstances and your psychology and your biology. And, your baby.
If you absolutely must hunt up some advice – meaning non-data but opinion – look for it from those who a) you understand b) support your strongly-held values. For example, in reaction to Slaughter’s article, I’m guessing Deja Pseu is going to say something that works for me, here. Find parenting books that don’t come at you from left field, because it’s very hard to catch those theories without falling over.
Then, one fine day your children may tell you this kind of story.
With that, one of the most endearing little podcasts ever, I leave you to a lovely, peaceful Saturday, in which doing the best you can may involve staring out the window as much as is humanly possible.