Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

October 30, 2005

In defense of the bake sale

Maybe I just notice it more now that I’m a mother who gave up a high-powered career to spend more time with her daughters.

But I can’t seem to pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading something depressing that accuses women like me of abandoning feminism, or trading in our potential for a cushy life as conformists and sex objects, “stranded in suburbia,” as the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd – who has no children – calls it.

Worse, the media predict permanent doom for those of us who hop off the corporate ladder while our children are small and needy. "Women find it impossible to restart their careers," the articles claim. One New York human resources official – a woman - even said, "Volunteering at the bake sale is probably not going to help you re-enter the work force."

Excuse me. But that is total bullshit.

The problem is that mothers and fathers who adjust their work schedules for the sake of their children don’t have articulate people explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It’s not just baking cookies, nor is it simply a chance “to spend time with our children,” as the human resources official said. That makes it sound like a hobby.

What's more, the cause of thoughtful parents, and particularly feminists who choose children over careers, isn’t helped by the loony Biblical literalists who argue that women are men’s helpmeets whose place is in the home.

Nor are we helped by the uppity, controlling types who call daycares and other professional forms of childcare “abandoning one’s children to strangers.” This is false and makes full-time working parents and even part-timers feel guilty for needing a break – for whatever reason – from a job that otherwise lasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I wish those people would shut their pie holes and let other people make the case for a modern kind of parenthood: one where the difficulty of the job is recognized, the intellectual and strategic rigors are respected, and where a short-term reallocation of time – the only resource in finite supply – is recognized as a crucial contribution not only to the lives of our children, but to society as a whole.

Here’s what I mean.

Raising children well is physically and emotionally grueling. Imagine a corporate executive having to be near the office all day, every day, with no vacations – unless a trained proxy can fill in for the short term (such a person could never be trusted with the long-term health of the company). Oh, and the pay and benefits are zero dollars. Less, if you consider the expense of working the job.

Such an executive would be regarded as incredible. A true believer. Someone making noble sacrifices for the sake of shareholders. Either that, or insane.

And yet, these are the working conditions that people caring for their own children face. Physically, it is exhausting. The emotional cost is even higher, compounded by the uncertainty of the job. First time parents often say, “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, as long as it’s a healthy baby.” But even that isn’t something we can count on. Nor is it an excuse to walk off the job. Any parent who’s spent time in the hospital with a sick baby – as I have – knows you can’t. You can give this job your heart and soul, and get no guarantees your child will even survive.

Parenthood is not mindless; it requires strategic planning and thinking. And I’m not just talking about the challenge of timing dinner preparation so that all the elements of a meal are done at the same time, all the while wearing a toddler legwarmer.

Rather, it’s the planning that goes into a good life: figuring out how to grow our children’s minds, discover their passions, develop their ethical and moral sense, keep their bodies fit and healthy, and out of trouble.

Even with top-notch childcare (which comes at incredible cost), parents still must be deeply involved in their children’s lives to be confident of a good outcome, which benefits society as a whole.

To write this off as “volunteering at the bake sale” is the deepest of insults. That it comes from a woman makes it worse.

Why is it that corporate executives aren’t described as spending their time “wearing neckties” or “sitting in padded chairs”? Both are accurate descriptions of the appearance of that work. But they fail to capture the intention of the work, which is far more significant.

Bake sale volunteers are people who recognize that schools don’t have enough money to teach our children well, and that their time spent earning extra funds for language, art and other programs will pay off for their children and for society in the distant future. It isn’t baking cookies; it is investing in minds, spirits and the soundness of society. This is strategic, and it is admirable.

I spend a half-day each week in my daughters’ classroom; when I was the editor of MSN.com, I would have made considerable money for that time. What’s more, I am not a full-time mother; I have a part-time nanny for my toddler. I could make $250 in consulting fees for the hours I volunteer in my kindergartener’s classroom. And yet, which hours will continue to have value many years down the road? I believe the ones spent helping children -– and the people they meet -- have better, more productive, and more meaningful, lives.

The idea that any other person who diverts career time for the sake of his or her kids would have to start over on the career ladder is ludicrous and insulting.

I don't deny this phenomenon is real. When I asked to continue my work at Microsoft part-time, I was told that was impossible. Today, the job is held by a man who works in London. The message: a man who is never in the office is preferable to a woman who is there some of the time.

But the blindness of corporations to the value of parents -- both in and out of the office -- is something we must fight. I have never worked so hard, and I have never been as effective with my hours. I am confident that all serious parents –- the ones who recognize that our lives change when we have children –- could do the same.

That is, if we had the words to sell the importance of what we do. And so this is what parents who are ready to re-enter the workforce or go back to full-time emloyment need to say about the way we've been spending our lives.

We were not baking cookies. We were not fulfilling Biblical obligations. Nor were we “opting out” of the hard, hard career world for the comforts of being kept by a well-paid spouse. We simply recognized that there is a relatively short window of time that we, personally, could ensure the future of the human race.

The stakes are no lower than this. Our society needs world-class healers, teachers, thinkers, builders, artists, scientists and more. It needs people who are prepared to operate at the very highest level to address the problems the world faces: disease, poverty, violence, environmental degradation, and despair.

Right now, these people are children, children who will not automatically develop wisdom, passion, courage, or the capacity for deep compassion and unending work. They cannot learn to do this in the factory setting that is our current school system. As excellent as the teachers I’ve seen are, these are values that must be taught one-on-one, a single day and a single experience at a time. Our children can’t do this if they are abandoned to television or video games, or to anything in isolation from people who can help them make sense of the world.

Doing this well requires a certain sacrifice.

In another, less shallow and materialistic time, the people willing to give their lives up in the service of others, the people willing to do the lowest work for those who can not do it for themselves, weren't called conformists, sex objects or sell-outs.

They were called heroes and saints. Last time I checked, the world today needs more of these.

That it is mostly women who are willing to do this work is not a reflection on our failure as feminists; it is evidence of how far the men, who still rule this world, have to go.

22 Comments:

Blogger Jessica A Bruno said...

Martha,

Read Maureen Dowds article as well and really wasn't crazy about it for another reasons then your reason was.

Totally agree with what wrote about this even though I'm not at this stage yet.

Thank you.

Jessica

10:16 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

Well said! Like you, I gave up a high-powered career to be a powerful force in that small window of opportunity we have to make a difference in our children's lives.

It's a difficult, time-consuming job with few breaks and little respect from the people around you (often including the spouse!)

Thank you for speaking up for us.

2:55 AM  
Blogger Holly said...

Martha,
thanks for your insight and support for all of us moms out here on the front lines. I've always noticed that so many other women criticize us, but you seldom hear from at-home-moms defending our choices. My theory is that people who are comfortable with their decisions don't need to explain themselves. It's those who are uncomfortable with us who need to attack us (plus, most at-home-moms are too busy to respond).

Thank you for taking the time to explain our side of things. I wouldn't go back to the corporate world and leave my child for anything and I'm thrilled to hear about other intelligent, succesful women who do the same.

Holly

7:45 AM  
Blogger janet said...

I have only heard Maureen Dowd put down courtship artifice, never parenting skills. Where did you see that articulate journalist put down full time parenting for any one?
Janet

8:50 AM  
Blogger laney_b said...

Amen, sistah!

If I had a choice, I would be at home with my new son. As it stands, I am working diligently toward being able to work half days from home.

Having been a nanny, though, I think the most insulting thing ever said to me was said by the mother I worked for at the time. She actually said, while I was holding her baby in one hand and tickling her toddler with the other, that she couldn't imagine what kind of dull, mindless woman would want to spend a day doing nothing but living with children.

She went on to say that any woman satisfied with that kind of life was a blight on feminism and a waste of estrogen. All the while I was goggling at her, thinking, "Er... You PAY me to be a dull, mindless, blighted waste of estrogen. And, I LOVE your kids!"

Raising a child is the hardest work there is. I could not appreciate my son's caregivers more.

Thanks for what you said.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Martha Brockenbrough said...

Responding to Janet:

This is the paragraph that really bugged me.

"Many women now do not think of domestic life as a "comfortable concentration camp," as Betty Friedan wrote in "The Feminine Mystique," where they are losing their identities and turning into "anonymous biological robots in a docile mass." Now they want to be Mrs. Anonymous Biological Robot in a Docile Mass. They dream of being rescued - to flirt, to shop, to stay home and be taken care of. They shop for "Stepford Fashions" - matching shoes and ladylike bags and the 50's-style satin, lace and chiffon party dresses featured in InStyle layouts - and spend their days at the gym trying for Wisteria Lane waistlines."

She doesn't mention children, but the biological in "Ms. Anonymous Biological Robot" suggests our biological function as mothers.

I do have a solution for Maureen Dowd and other highly successful women who can't find men. Look at work. It's where I found my husband. I pitched a book on this topic, but it didn't sell. Meanwhile, demeaning crap like "The Rules" did. Too bad for women who really want to be respected in a relationship for their minds and characters, and who want the same in a partner.

Work is an outstanding proving ground for whether you can get along with someone in the day-to-day grind, which is exactly what managing a family is. You have to be careful, of course. You can make a bad choice in a boardroom as easily as you can a bar. But if you pay attention to who has character, you'll be fine.

What's more, work-based romance would obliterate any phony coquettishness that Dowd, who admits to liking heels and makeup, is objecting to. No one respects an airhead at work.

I've talked to my single friends about this, and they claim they can't be attracted to coworkers. But I think this is a failure of imagination. The people we work with best are the people with whom we have lasting good chemistry, not just short-term lust.

All the evolutionary stuff in her article, IMHO, was crap. We evolved to give birth and die by the time we were 25. Relationships didn't need to last beyond the time our kids were toddlers. We're in a different spot in world history now, and the people who successfully pass along their genes (our prime drive as living creatures) are the ones who can balance the many pressures of the world, and put their energy into children, family and work, so that all will grow.

4:30 PM  
Blogger David Vincenti said...

The problem is that mothers and fathers who adjust their work schedules for the sake of their children don’t have articulate people explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Well, we do now, don't we?

Regarding Dowd, I think the problem is columnists get rewarded for the volume of response to their articles, regardless of content. So it pays to take stupid positions sometimes.

Regarding men, James Lileks writes about being childrearing from the other genderview quite a bit, about being the one Dad in the "Mother's Lounge" at his child's preschool, that sort of thing. When my kids were Gymboree-age, I got an average of 2 apologies per class from the instructor - a great teacher, by the way - for forgetting to add "and Dads" when talking to "the Moms". There's also an OK book called "Father Courage" by Suzanne Braun Levine on the subject.

I'll just leave workplace relationships for discussion another day....

9:57 AM  
Blogger liak said...

Martha,

After a full night spent with a wide awake 10-month old and a morning spent trying to pacify my clients, I thank you for your latest "column."

I appreciate that you have spoken on behalf of all mothers, not just stay at home moms, part-time employees, or full-time careerists.

Long ago, before the birth of my now 4 and 1/2 year old, I read an article of yours stating that you wanted to expand your "snuggle circle" by having a child. Since then, I have read your columns and found bits of truth, laughter, and woman power in every one.

Thank you!
Lia

10:57 AM  
Blogger Dawn said...

LOVE the last line!!!!!! Excellent!

2:53 PM  
Blogger moljasmorcon said...

ROCK ON, SISTER!!!!!!!

7:25 PM  
Blogger moljasmorcon said...

ROCK ON, SISTER!!!

7:25 PM  
Blogger trasi said...

All I have to say is WELL SAID! And thank you for saying it.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Chris (mombie) said...

Wow.

I'll give you the highest praise one writer can give another: I wish I had written this.

Thank-you.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Martha-

Amen sister! I loved your book when I read it during my first pregnancy years ago, and I have loved your articles. "In Defense of the Bake Sale" is by far my favorite. It says so eloquently what NEEDS to be said, but that so many of us don't have the words (or the time) to say. I have not only sent it to every mom I know, but also have printed it up. I read it every day. It inspires me and reminds me why my JOB as a mom is so important. Thank you, and keep up the great work!!!
Beth

2:11 PM  
Blogger tomama said...

Gosh, I love this post. You so nailed it. I too am one of those so-called opt-outers, and am equally frustrated by the spin on my "choice" to be at home at this point in time. The "wearing neck-ties" and "sitting in padded chairs" analogy is just so perfect - and points out just how absurd the patronizing language directed at mothers can be...

Well said.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Thanks so much for that refreshing article, all i have to say is AMEN!!!!

3:10 AM  
Blogger tdpCA said...

brilliant words. i have been home for 5 years and the fruit of that labor is beginning to show bud. watching it bloom will be the pinnacle of my life whether or go back to a high paying career outside my home or not.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Silandara said...

Well said. Thank you.

I'm working on becoming a "bake saler" mum. :) I'll still be working -- freelance -- and imagine I'll be working harder than I do working full-time in an office, but it'll be worth it to spend that time with my son.

You expressed something I've been trying to but haven't been able -- that it's a short window of opportunity that we have to spend with our children when they're little and that it makes such an impact and such a difference. That's not opting out at all.

So, thank you.

Silandara

1:30 PM  
Blogger Mindy said...

I'd like to add a bake sale note. You get a couple of savvy moms throwing a bake sale and you just might wind up equipping the computer lab with their clever planning, innovation, and business acumen.

Waste of estrogen, my ass.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Ale Brown said...

I think everything in life should be balanced. How about the bake sale dads? Are they not supposed to be involved?
My husband and I are discussing our plans when our first "heir" arrives.
I am the major "bread-winner" at our household and my income is important. My husband works too but his work is more flexible, so I am going to cut my work days to 3 a week (I'm lucky I have a supportive employer) and he will too (he works independently). That way, I give him a chance to experience raising a child and I'll give myself a chance to have a break as well.
I think children are two people's responsibility. My husband is excited by the fact that he'll get the chance to be more involved in a child's life and I am too.
Why as women we think it is our sole responsibility? I don't know. But if we decided to share our lifes with a man, we should share all of it.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Hisham K. said...

"...it is evidence of how far the men, who still rule this world, have to go."

I feel I have to run to the defense of my gender here lest I be kicked out of the Y club. There are many fathers who have assumed the role of stay-at-home parent while the wife continued her career track. These fathers are making a sacrifice in the same way a woman would, and perhaps it may be viewed as a bigger sacrifice since there's more stigma attached to a stay-at-home father than there is to a stay-at-home mom, no?
My uncle is a divorcee who raised his two kids in Texas (in cooperation with his ex), and it takes a special kind of commitment to raise two kids in a broken home. I think the ex-wife did (and continues to do) a stellar job, but the kids benefitted from his wisdom, teachings, and sacrifices just as much.
I don't think men have that far to go - in fact, I think men and woman stand on equal ground when it comes to raising kids. But I also think that it takes two to raise a child, which is why I think God designed us to reproduce sexually and not asexually. A man alone can raise a child just as well as a woman can, and a man can be a bad parent just as much as a woman might be, but I think that ultimately, it takes both.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

Woohoo! This needed to be said, and you said it very well. I'm printing this out for those days when my mind boggles from the lack of any mind-boggling stimulation.

Now I'd like to chime in with my own "amen sister!"

6:51 AM  

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