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.