Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Daughters of the Revolution

I am the Gen X daughter of a Boomer, and the mother of a girl who, I learned today, is on the trailing end of the newly named Generation Z, or the iGen. Lately I have been thinking a lot about what one generation of mothers gives to the next, and how some of our challenges are timeless, while others are shaped by the times. What will my daughter take from my choices and experiences? And how will those choices and experiences shape the advice I give her?

Our Boomer moms were the first generation of liberated women, and they raised us Gen Xers to forge new paths, follow our dreams, maintain some degree of financial independence and yes, pursue successful careers. Because of them, we are the lucky beneficiaries of the Freedom to Choose, finances aside, whether to work or not. But lots of moms (grandmothers) have strong opinions about the choices their daughters make when they become moms themselves - especially when there is already a working spouse in their house. The question I've been mulling is: Do Boomer Women's attitudes around working women and working mothers shift when they become grandmothers? Or have they simply shifted with the trends of our times? Or are we all collectively grappling with the newer complexities that freedom and choice give us?

Yesterday I read Kate Bolick's provocative and well-researched article All the Single Ladies in the Atlantic about the rise of single working women and the dearth of conventionally-defined "eligible men" as an unintended consequence of the rising success of women. I was struck by the parallel path I had been taking with this post, and how the issues our generation faces are as thorny for those who marry and mate as they are for those who do not. Bolick writes how her "future was to be one of limitless possibilities" and how "this unfettered future was the promise of my time and place." Amen - I hear that! But when she added, "What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don't think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation" I sensed it wasn't just the single ladies who wondered if maybe there needed to be an asterisk to the promise of limitless possibilities* (like, *they all come with trade-offs). And at what point do I start incorporating that asterisk into how I inspire my children about their futures?

The Boomer voices in my world - not just my mother's - repeat the chorus 'It goes by so fast.' It resonates. I can move myself to tears just imagining an empty nest years from now. But it seems to me when this truth is spoken in the context of career choices - the implication is if you work too hard, you'll miss it. It's worth noting that I don't know a lot of Boomer women who sustained successful, demanding careers through motherhood - and I certainly haven't had Boomer moms as mentors or sponsors in my professional life. So I'm supplementing with the views of two prominent feminist Boomer grandmothers who have had their cases made in the media this summer - Elisabeth Badinter and Erica Jong.

Soon to be released is Badinter's latest book, Conflict: the Woman and the Mother which was profiled at length in the New Yorker (in an article by Jane Kramer that I recommend paying to download if you have to) and more briefly in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in which she takes aim at "motherhood fundamentalism," laying out a number of themes that have driven women back into the home and away from work. In response there were several pieces by Erica Jong published in the Wall Street Journal ("Mother Madness") and the New York Times this year about today's mothers - including the assertion that we are so focused on family that we are shunning sex. (To this there was a lovely response from a young mother named Hallie Palladino, in the New York Times' parenting blog, Motherlode).

Essentially they both argue that motherhood - with the rise of attachment parenting, co-sleeping, year-long breast-feeding, cloth diapers and home-made baby food have trapped mothers into an impossible set of expectations, all of which are keeping us increasingly tied to the home and feeling guilty when we provide any less than a 100% of ourselves to our children. Jong asks, "Is it even possible to satisfy the needs of both parents and children? In agrarian societies, perhaps wearing your baby was the norm, but today's corporate culture scarcely makes room for breast-feeding on the job, let alone baby-wearing. So it seems we have devised a new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children."

Still, when I surveyed my peers about what their mothers think about managing both career and family, there was a wide range of perspectives, some surprising, some inconsistent, but almost always coming from a supportive, well-meaning place. I wondered, when they discourage us, however subtly, from trying to juggle it all, is it because they falling victim to the same trends we are? Or, I wonder, it is a highly personal response - one that thinks of what is best for the grandchild first, then the daughter? Or is it simply a perspective that can only come from having a generation's worth of experience in parenting - that childhood is fleeting, and you don't need to have it all, all at once? Or that they see how hard the juggle is and wish it wasn't so? I've come to believe it is mainly the latter, but perhaps elements of all those things are true.

A college friend hit it on the head for me: "Overall, I think our mothers have the perspective of knowing there is no perfect/ideal choice and there are compromises to ourselves or our family, whatever path we may go. What my mother has stressed to me is how the level of contentment a mother feels directly correlates to the harmony of the family. For me, I believe this is an absolute truth - and my choices are, and will continue to be, a function of my families' unique needs, at any given time. I hope I can maintain that mantra...and maintain myself at the same time. I think my mom is most troubled by the amount our generation of mothers is attempting to juggle. Put to a simple example, our mothers (working or not) used playpens and didn't for a moment feel guilty about it -- that type of dynamic has completely changed and the impact to the family is very real. My mother-in-law seems saddened by all the pressures we have to be mothers and career women as well. There are serious growing pains with the choices we have - and our mothers are witnessing it. (italics mine)"

Do you think your children's well-being depends almost exclusively on you? Does your mom? How does she advise you about juggling it all? What's the most encouraging tip she's ever given you?

Before you respond, and I really want you to -- here's are my own mother's thoughts on this particular conundrum:

"The predominant factors that influence the advice a mother gives to her daughters are drawn from personal experience. So in my limited way, I gleaned “wisdom” from my own personal experience and passed along my feelings, observations, opinions and aspirations to my daughters. I felt happy, lucky, and very fortunate indeed to be able to stay at home and care for my daughters during their formative years. I surrounded myself with caring, upbeat, educated, professional women who had made the same choice that I did. We loved caring for our children and relished in bonding lifelong friendships. That was a magical time of discovering what really mattered in life. We volunteered in the community, engaged in creative activities, took classes, learned to cook, worked part time, and visited every child-friendly resource available. We stopped and smelled the roses. It was an option that today’s women and most men never have the good fortune to experience.

But all was not like the life of June Cleaver. There were days when being a full time mom felt trying and stressful, frustrating and limiting. While I was busy building my family, other women were busy building their careers. Being an achievement-oriented person, I sometimes felt that my life could have taken a different path, one that led to making lots more money, or one that led to more prestige, responsibility, accomplishment of things more highly valued and rewarded by society. I was outside looking in, and saw the glamorous, rewarding side of being a professional woman. I knew that excelling in a profession demanded concentration, hard work, time and energy, but because I had not chosen that route, I never gave much thought to how that concentration, hard work, time and energy could affect one’s life as a mother.

Throughout my formative years, I remember hearing over and over again that teaching was such a wonderful job (not career, profession, but job) for a woman. That, in fact, proved to be true. I could have it all. Or did I? I did feel that that career choice (did I have a choice?) in itself, was limiting. I don’t remember having a choice of what I wanted to do. It was always assumed that I would be a teacher.

When I returned to teaching full time at age 40, I was able to juggle my time, vacations, and experience success and fulfillment in my teaching career. What I did not have to do was work late, commute long distances, find daycare during school holidays, travel, worry about building my resume, posturing myself for raises or promotions, or keeping an eye out for future career opportunities for climbing the corporate ladder.

The advice that I gave my daughters over and over again, was that they could make whatever choices they wanted when choosing a career path. The world was theirs. However, this advice was heavily slanted towards keeping their options open for advancement, increased earning capacity and accomplishment in that path, something that was not available to me in my career. If you love teaching and stay in the classroom throughout your career, you are doing the same thing at the end of your career that you did on the first day of your career. And whether you are a rock star at teaching or a slacker, you are receiving the same pay as everyone else. I wanted my daughters to have choices that I felt I did not have. The advice that I gave never focused on careers that would be good for a woman, or for that fact, for a family.

Late in my career in education I moved to a position as an administrator in the central office of a large school system (15,000 employees). This position was similar to one in a large corporation - with it came stress, long hours, pressure, extreme visibility, politics, management and budgetary issues. I found myself so busy and consumed with work that my husband had to step up to the plate and manage the plans and arrangements for our daughter’s wedding!!! Was there such a thing as work/life balance? I was caught up in what my daughter is now experiencing, only I was doing this as an empty nester and she as a mother of young children. I’m not happy about the choice I inadvertently made to “opt out” of the wedding plans. Can I go back and redo it? That moment in time is lost forever.

We only get one chance to raise our children. There are no do-overs. But there are continuing opportunities to get back into the job market and a time to devote yourself to your career with a vengeance! When reentering the workforce, one might find, as I did, that I had the total support of my husband who was secure in his own career and shared family responsibilities and believed in me, maturity to make good decisions and the time to carry through and execute ideas flowing from those decisions. It’s true, I envisioned great opportunities for my daughters, but I could not have possibly imagined what it would be like to walk in their shoes. Times, economic conditions, attention to unique situations that arise in the family, nanny issues, and other outside influences all contribute to the stressors that make up life for a working professional and a mother. That said, seventeen years later, the house is very quiet. A person could feel drained and empty if all their eggs had been invested solely in the mommy basket for all those years."

She ended with, although we are not overly religious, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 - 'To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven'. So this isn't new afterall. I guess doing it all, all at once, has been fraught with difficulty for thousands of years.


  1. I loved reading this post, and your mom's thoughts! Obviously, both very intelligent women...

    I always knew I would marry young, have children young and stay home with them. My husband and I worked really hard at scrimping and saving to make that happen. When he entered medical school just after the birth of my second child, we entered a world of debt that had only existed in our nightmares. I did medical transcription to get a few extra dollars for groceries during the time the three kids were little (yes, by residency, there was another child). I stayed busy with the kids, their school activities, school board, PTO, really running any volunteer activity I could, whether I really had time or not. Throughout these days, I found myself questioning my life path, namely was this all there was? Was I really making a contribution to society and my family? My husband was incredibly supportive, trying to reassure me, but the nagging feeling persisted.

    After I became a foster parent, I was holding my first foster baby (who was to become my first adopted daughter - for those of you keeping track, this is #4) when I had an epiphany, strangely enough on the way to church (I say strangely as church has not been a major part of my life, though my faith is incredibly strong). I got a chill and then a sense of peace - I was a mother. Not only was I a mother, but a mother of 4, and this WAS my purpose. I was good at it, and I loved it. This was a full-time, very important job, this raising of human beings. I had to give this job honor it was due. The doubt melted away from that day on.

    As I went on to foster many more, and adopt one more (at 5 colleges and 4 weddings to pay for I had to stop fostering because I, obviously, was keeping the kids...) my sense of purpose became even stronger. Many of my friends (I am in my early 50s) were returning to work, trying to figure out where they fit in. I was still in the monosyllabic world of babies and toddlers, while also raising teenagers and I was loving it!

    So, while I may be a little off sometimes (as my children will freely share with anyone who listens) I think I have successfully navigated the waters of where I belong. I try to teach my daughters to keep a sense of self, no matter what they choose to do. It is difficult to "have it all" - I have seen very few who have been successful at this. Rather, it is up to each woman to really examine her inner self, figure out how to let some of the "perfection" that she needs in her life just go, and get on with living her life. The job will still be there, the kids will survive, and you have to make sure you are in one piece once all the demands on you fade away. It does go by quickly, though it doesn't feel that way sometimes. Find the joy in every moment if you can. Take lots of moments in the day to be silly. Be contemplative each evening as you go over your day. And, most importantly, remember that you are doing the very best you can, so give yourself a break!

  2. Love this, Cathy. Especially the "chill" of clarity - may it strike us all!!!

  3. I am the daughter of a woman who worked outside the home for most of my childhood because she had no choice: our family needed the income she generated. I was raised by live-in help while my parents were at work until I was 6 years old. My mother stayed home until I was 12 years old and then returned to work because divorce made it necessary for her to do so to support the family. I was the oldest of three children, and we were latchkey children in our teens.

    I always preferred the part of my childhood when my parents were married and my mother stayed home. I'm fairly sure that I felt that way because my parents and I always were happiest when they were together.

    I was married for 8 years before giving birth to my daughter. I never considered staying home after she was born. I loathe the confinement of staying home. I loved my career--the independence, financial security, feeling of accomplishment, and being a part of a bigger world. More than my career, I loved my husband and my daughter.

    When I first returned to work when my daughter was 4 months old, I was so happy to be back in the professional world. And then I shocked myself by sitting down at my desk and crying because I missed my daughter so much. So I switched to part-time work until she was 6years old. It was very difficult, because I was doing demanding, professional full-time work on a part-time basis. But I knew it was right; I didn't miss her when I was gone, and I enjoyed our time together. I did not want to leave the professional world, and in fact, I earned my masters degree during those years of working part-time.

    After my daughter was 6 years old, I worked full time by choice. She was the only person in her kindergarten class whose mother worked full time. When she was in high school, she said to me that her friends were jealous that she had a mother who worked. They didn't want their mothers who stayed home to be so focused on their every move--and not just the ones that children don't want their mothers to know about. She and I laughed at the thought of the nightmare of my being more involved in her life than the very involved in her life I always had been. I had car pooled, hosted parties, helped with extracurricular and school activities, and so on. I made dinner every night. I took her and her friends on outings. And I had a demanding executive job. Was it easy? No. Were there late nights when I went back to work at my desk at home? Yes. Would I have had it any other way? Never!

    Today my daughter is 35 years old. She says my working was a non factor in her life. She grew up in a home where Mom worked, and that was the life she knew. She has always known for sure that she is loved, treasured and respected.

    I believe that when the mother is happy, the family is happy. I do not believe in sacrificing a mother's happiness for the presumed "good" of the child. I also have no idea of how anyone can do what I did when they have more than one child. I couldn't have, and that is why I made the choice to have one child.

  4. This is so helpful, Gray Mere! There seems to be consensus building that mom it all starts with mom's happiness and cascades from there. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!