Friday, January 20, 2012

Piece of Advice #100: Don't rationalize bad mothering

Redbook offers its modern readership the classily titled piece,"WTF" Working Mom Moments! in which Paula Szuchman and Kate Ashford advise working mothers to forget about the guilt even when committing rather egregious neglect.  Because nothing - really, nothing - is more important than the paid work/personal satisfaction combo feminists have been touting to women for forty years.

An excerpt:
A few weeks back, I dropped my daughter, Ida, off with a neighbor and rushed to work. This is the sum total of what I know about the woman I entrusted with my 18-month-old's life: Her name is Lisa, she lives on my block, and she has two kids. I didn't — still don't — know her last name, and I forgot to take her phone number with me to the office. I had chatted with her a few times in passing, on my way to our neighborhood park, and she'd nicely offered to babysit. So when my nanny called in sick at the last minute, I took her up on it.

During my commute to work that day, I couldn't believe I had left my kid with a stranger. If I'd stayed home, would the office have come to a standstill? No. Would I have been fired on the spot for taking a day off? Unlikely. But in the panic of that morning, all I could think about was the giant to-do list waiting at my desk, the inconvenience I'd cause my boss, and, most importantly, the shame of failing to manage my personal life in a way that didn't interfere with my job.

It's as if the day I became a mother I'd made some tacit agreement to never let my new, non-paying job interfere with the one that gives me a salary. How hopeful I was — and how very wrong. I had no idea that life with kids would be so messy and unpredictable, so marked by those WTF moments when the urge to be a perfect employee and the urge to be a perfect mom rush at each other in a game of chicken. Inevitably, one of them goes screaming off the track.

Most of the time, it's only a temporary derailment. Your boss forgives you and your kid forgives you. What's tougher is forgiving yourself.
A sample situation in which I, grerp, would consider giving a stranger complete and total access to my son without getting her name and contact information: The world as we know it collapses, there is violence in the streets, order breaks down, and police go door to door rounding up people of my racial/religious/socioeconomic group to be taken to an unknown location for indefinite detention.

That's about it.  No hyperbole.  The nanny-calling-in-sick scenario doesn't even come close to making this action responsible or acceptable.

I get that women work.  I understand that with the terrible economy and the breakdown of the family, women often have to work.  I also understand that child care is expensive and often inconvenient and that parents frequently have to take what they can get and punt when things come up.  My family tree is filled with women who worked when their children were young.  Both my grandfathers were seriously disabled for periods of time, and my grandmothers stepped up to the plate.  My mother worked and worked outside of the home after I was 10.  This is not a working mothers vs. stay-at-home mothers rant.  This is a rant about putting first what should always be put first - your child's safety.

The above woman didn't  have to leave her daughter with a stranger. She chose to.  She didn't want to miss work.  She didn't want people to know that she doesn't have everything in her life under control.  And she probably didn't really want to stay home with Ida that day.  So she chucked her daughter into the arms of a women she didn't anything about and punched in.  And, having done so, she doesn't want to feel guilty about it.  So she writes the above, "Who's with me?" manifesto.  And women cheer her on because, well, we've all been there, haven't we?

What feminists do not acknowledge (but do know) about the work/motherhood dilemma is that it's not really much of a dilemma.  If you screw up at work, you will be fired.  To be fired from motherhood, you have to fail spectacularly and repeatedly, and this failure will have to be noticed and documented by teachers, social workers, police officers, and judges.  Therefore, work will always come first because the pushback for failure will be harder and more immediate from a boss.  To a child, "normal" will be what Mommy creates for her, even if that's neglect, abuse, chronic selfishness or the less malign flakiness.  

What irritates me most about these sorts of articles is the idea that women must jump on the 7-7 treadmill for the betterment of the child, for the fulfillment of the mother.  The majority of women out there working aren't doing so because they love it or because it's making their lives richer.  They're doing it because they need the money to pay for food and rent.  Their jobs aren't glamorous and never will be.  They're trapped because of the economy, because of divorce or single motherhood, or because of outstanding student loans.  And there is no "work/life" balance.  There is only work and then whatever you can get done after work - the same grind people had before the period of the mid-twentieth century American prosperity.  Only now Grandma's not living upstairs and can't take care of Baby while Mommy twists together silk flowers or does piecework, so Baby has to be schlepped to an expensive daycare.  And children get parked in front of a TV or a game center and stay up all night and eat fast food and gain weight and lose both their ability to pay attention and their ability to interact with real people.  

But it's all right in the end because "we become far happier once we accept that most days call for tough decisions." Or something.


  1. My wife works, I work. When we have a sick child or daycare issue, one of us stays home. Granted, we use daycare not as a lifestyle choice but as a "we like to pay our bills" choice. Stories like this vex me. My boss is not the most understanding man, but even he grasps that children are not hot potatoes. As you wrote, this woman made a decision to place her work over her daughter.

    This is a prime example of why I detest feminism. It's women striving to live down to the worst stereotypes of men.

  2. I am not a mother yet, Grerp, but I have made a vow to myself never to let work override my responsibility as a mother one day. I know it won't be easy, but I shall do everything in my power to do as I vow. Thanks for this post. You speak the truth.

  3. I used to run an in-home daycare. It was fun. I loved the children. But when I started getting calls from total strangers like the one above, I started to question the 'rightness' of doing daycare. Two darling little girls were dropped at my doorstep one day. It was then I realized that neglectful parents were also the ones that called in the police for made up reasons, etc, etc, etc. I became worried for my family's safety and well-being. I gave notice to all regulars and closed my doors to any further business. From then on, I happily cared for my family. My children were happier without the added 6 or 7 messing up their home, books, and toys, too.

    1. When I left a very nicely paid managerial position to stay home with our child, I briefly considered operating a home day care. I decided that accepting a maximum of two children in addition to my child would be ideal.

      After meeting several families who would like to have me care for their children, I too was extremely upset by the level of child neglect and parental entitlement. For example when I asked many families why they were looking for a different child care situation I would receive responses such as, "When I have to stay a few hours late at work, our nanny gives us attitude". A few HOURS!? or, "you're cheaper". They didn't know me from Adam and were willing to roll the dice that I would care for their child instead of staying with the care provider who was already caring for their child.

      Then we started to hear the "horror stories" of calls to DCFS as "punishment" for charging more or refusing to watch the children additional hours. My Husband and I just decided it wasn't worth the risk to deal with the crazies we were encountering.

  4. Ohhh Kay. i will try not to rant. But... Back in the day, was married to a doc, and am a doc. In New zealand you must stay current ie continue to work.

    So I had to live with my father in law when the boys were small. We made it work... and it was difficult.

    If you have kids (I do, and since I divorced am raising them solo, and yes, I work) you use the network. You take your sick leave. You take the academic job that pays less but gives you flexibility. You have not one but three babysitters who are screened and trusted available.

    Or you tell your boss to take a running jump, and one of you stays home. Your kids are young for a very short time. And this woman is failing her kids and herself.

  5. Insane. Pathetic.

    My mom and a friend have both told me horror stories of what happened at the babysitter while their mothers worked. I'm soooo thankful my mom was the babysitter.

    From what I've read and women I've known, I don't think the vast majority of working women are trapped. They could change their lifestyle and reduce their budget. It has been demonstrated that most women, after paying for child care and business clothes, aren't adding much to the family budget anyway.

  6. I just caught an episode of Intervention at the gym and a mother who had: 1) given her daughter money for heroin 2) offered her car for her to shoot up with 3) did heroin with her daughter in order to "bond" with her once 4) knew her daughter was prostituting herself for heroin and did nothing about it, got very upset at the counselor for daring to accuse her of bad parenting. She tried her best, you know.

    I think a lot of this comes from the desire to not stigmatize single moms. That is where the "I'm not perfect but I am trying/doing my best" meme comes from. In society's desire to not criticize single mom's or demand they take responsibility for their actions (or even acknowledge it's not the best situation for a child), bad parenting in general has become somewhat of a third rail.

  7. I would argue that there are more women than you think who WANT to work. I'm one of them. I also think it's a dirty secret -- we're supposed to want to stay home and if we don't, we get judged. So we pretend we "have" to work and then get judged for our lifestyles. If only I'd cut out my (nonexistent) Starbucks habit, I'd be able to stay home with my kids, goes the thinking.

    I schlep my younger son to an expensive daycare so he's NOT in front of a tv/Wii all day, eating crappy food. The teachers love him and frankly do a better job with him than I would if I were home with him all day.

    I'm not justifying what this woman did. I'm saying it's not as black and white as that. We have no family in town -- no grandparents to drop the kids off with, no siblings to pick them up if I'm running late, etc. And maybe she's in a similar situation, panicked, and made the wrong choice. I think I would've gone back home instead of staying all day.

    We were at a school dinner for my older son and got to talking to his friend's mom -- a single mom who is juggling childcare and is worried that her nanny might disappear at any time because the nanny's mom is dying of cancer. I offered to pick her son up at school if ever necessary. She doesn't know much about us, either. :( But we meant the offer. Just thinking out loud at this point.

  8. Mary - I'm sure you're right there are a number of women who prefer working to being home and don't want to say it because of the mommy wars. What bothered me the most about this article was that the mother was essentially bragging about how she neglected her daughter and expected understanding/positive feedback. Anyone who's ever been a parent has made a bad call with a kid and regretted it, but I think she should have realized and rectified her error sooner and not bragged about it online. Why is there street cred now in child neglect as long as it's work related?

    And I guess I don't understand how she still doesn't know the woman's name. Wouldn't you have introduced yourself at least after the fact? Weird.

  9. Yeah, I don't think I would've bragged about it. But I kinda get why she wants positive feedback -- she knows she messed up and wants to feel like she's not the only one. Again, not justifying it, just putting it out there.

    And like I said, she seemed to regret it when she got to work, and she STAYED there. I don't get that. And you're right -- when you picked the kid up, wouldn't you have been like "Ya know, I realized we don't know each other all that well etc"

  10. Jesus said it well... you can not have two masters. You will hate one and love the other. Motherhood and Work-X are both careers and careers take a lot of time. You cant have two careers. Its as simple as that.

  11. A big old "RIGHT ON" to Grerp and commenter Kiwi the Geek.

    Leaving your child with someone you don't really know is plain old bad parenting, enough said. Even if there's someone else out there who did the same, it's bad parenting. Even if there was no other choice (which is pretty hard to believe), it was bad parenting.

    If those few bucks she's making after paying for the nanny are worth the risk of what might happen to her kid being with a stranger, then she's got her priorities bass-ackwards. Your JOB is an inconvenience to your CHILDREN, not the other way round.

    Single parenthood is always tough, but is should be tough for YOU, not the CHILDREN.

  12. I dunno. If you can't suss out a neighbor from a few interactions like this, particularly one you've seen with her kids, then I question your ability to function as a human.

    This person was not a stranger. She was a neighbor. And being willing to take an infant on this kind of notice is evidence of one of two possibilities:

    1) she's a really great person
    2) she's EVIL and planning on doing bad things.

    Someone who's going to be just plain neglectful isn't willing to do last minute emergency babysitting!

    And if the lady is crazy and evil? Well, she's your NEIGHBOR. If she's some kind of crazy baby-harmer, you're in pretty big trouble just having her near you.

    In the old days, this was how neighborhoods functioned. Leaving your kids with a neighbor was completely normal. This is how normal people act - they take care of each other's kids, because that's part of living in a society. They don't worry that other people are going to hurt their kids! I agree with you on the rest of the post, but using this specific instance is just isolated-suburban-American and bizarre. If you can't trust your neighbors, you're screwed.