Adventures in Ethics and Science

That all said, as a woman in science, it is sometimes disheartening to almost never hear an article suggest that a woman in science discuss household duties with her partner and split them evenly. The author of your article makes the statement that women bear the burden of household labor, but until scientists begin to tell other scientists that this isn’t right, women are going to continue to leave academic science for fear of not being able to “balance” work and family.

You can be right and be practical at the same time. These need not be mutually exclusive. I also think that you need not choose between achieving tenure and advocating for social justice. And, until you stop choosing, the pipeline is going to continue to leak like a sieve.

–Isis the Scientist, “A Response on Men, Women, Housework, and Science”

I feel compelled to add, as I have written in many blog-post comments over the last few days, that I deeply respect the value and autonomy of individual relationships — and this, too, is an important part of this calculation. Asking a woman to do more because she is a woman is never fair. But personal relationships are not appropriate places for philosophers or career advisers to lurk. It’s up to each couple — not me, not feminist critics, not tradition — to negotiate housekeeping, childcare, or other domestic responsibilities, and the other aspects of personal relationships. The goal is for those choices to be freely made and not coerced. So men, and women: It’s up to you and your partner to set the terms, but please make sure those decisions are made as freely as can be achieved.

–Jim Austin, “A Special Message for Men: Do Your Share”

While a robust internet discussion about careers and home-life and gendered division of labor has been going on, I have been sitting on the sidelines. (And baking cupcakes and making other necessary preparations for the joint birthday party we hosted for the Free-Ride offspring this past weekend. Plus wondering if this is the year that the social judgment will be spoken aloud, whether by someone outside the family or by one of the sprogs: “How is it that you can make them share a party like that rather than giving each of them a distinct birthday party close to their actual month and day of birth?” How indeed.)

It’s not that I don’t know something about trying to combine a career with family and obligations outside that career (although balance is not the right word to describe that kind of task). But it is hard to speak of these experiences without someone feeling as if my “is” is intended to have the force of an “ought”.

And that jump is pretty hard not to make, given that one thing that girls and women in American society are socialized to do pretty darn reliably is to judge other girls and women (and, of course, to judge themselves as girls or women). Is there a downside to a particular option? We will find it, even if it is just hypothetical. (And laboring under the burden of hypothetical downsides can be its very own downside.) We can speak about what works for us individually, but do so with the awareness that it might stop working, at which point we have to figure out some other option.

Against the backdrop of historical inequalities and gender roles that are so culturally pervasive that local counter-programming by egalitarian parents can only accomplish so much, the options that are widely embraced are imperfect, and some of the other options one might pursue are likely to be viewed as bizarre. Thus, necessarily, whatever autonomy we exercise is constrained. There may be a sense in which we are free to work out our own arrangements in our relationships, but it doesn’t mean we can fully escape the push-back.

I am partnered with someone who does much more of the cleaning tasks in our household than I do, and I joke that not doing the cleaning is my way of sticking it to the patriarchy. Maybe my extra tolerance for household entropy compared to that of my better half, an only child, comes from my being one of four children of pack-rat parents, both of whom had jobs outside the home for most of my childhood.

But maybe it just means I’m a slob and an asshole whose mother didn’t raise me right. (Somehow, when my housekeeping skills are under scrutiny, it’s never a question of how my father raised me.)

Those of us with kids (well-known sources of entropy) can try to hound those kids into helping, but then you worry that the hounding is what they will remember of their childhood with you. You can set aside time evenings and weekends to clean (assuming you’re not working on that project that’s due or that stack of papers that need grading), but then you end up without time to spend enjoying each other’s company (or maybe even to get sufficient rest for the next onslaught of job or parenting responsibilities).

“Outsourcing” the reduction of household entropy is an option, but the local housecleaners for hire seem to recreate the gendered division of labor (women clean, men fix) while introducing economic class gradients as well (between the people who can afford to have others clean up their messes and those who have to clean up their own damn messes). Even what you can afford as far as hiring help is susceptible to judgment: Is the price you’re willing to pay enough that you’re not exploiting the person you’re paying? Is the price you’d have to pay so much that it “doesn’t make sense” for you to hold on to your own job with the not-so-great pay instead of quitting it and becoming the full-time housekeeper for your relationship? What is the right balance between your satisfaction and the other things your family might be doing with the money?

My experience paying for skilled and loving childcare while I worked was that philosophers and career advisers do not lurk when it comes to such choices. They butt right in and tell you all the ways you are doing it wrong.

(They will, of course, be competing for your attention with the people lined up to tell you whether your educational choices and/or career trajectory render you a failure and/or peripheral to the group of people who could possibly offer insight or meaningful advice, including on issues like work-life balance.)

Because your personal choices, as a woman trying to build a life out of relationships and careers and other interests and responsibilities, are a matter of public interest. You are fair game for critique. And chances are good that you have been so well trained that you will critique yourself even in the absence of other critics.

I’m not one to throw up my hands and just accept the status quo. Indeed, it’s been suggested at times that I am overly optimistic about the prospects for meaningful change of features of the tribe of science on a faster-than-geological timescale. But changing the balance of power so that partners in relationships can really freely negotiate their own division of household labor (as well as what kinds of household labor they regard as worth doing) is a transformation which will involve many moving parts: expectations in the workplace about what kind of time and energy one must be ready to devote to the job, and what kind of support one must secure at home; the expectations each partner learned in the families that raised them as far as what a home should be like and whose job it is to make it that way; the importance of teamwork and meeting one’s partner halfway (or not) that each partner brings to the relationship; the expectations communicated by extended family, friends, and neighbors and the feedback, whether subtle or blunt, as to whether you are living up to them.

There’s more involved, in most cases, than finding a housecleaner and checking her references. That may address the filth, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem. Indeed, as long as we conceive of work-life balance as more a matter of individual decisions than of problems we share — in relationships and in communities (including professional communities) — it’s a problem I fear we will keep dragging along with us and recreating in each future generation.

Comments

  1. #1 Becca
    June 14, 2010

    I agree with the thesis of your last paragraph, but it must be a family matter as well as an organizational/community matter (as you said earlier). After all, that is the primary relationship in our lives, and the most important.

    Once I stopped living to impress my advisor and committee and started evaluating what kind of lifestyle I wanted for myself and my family, making career decisions became easier. Each of us has to make that decision for ourselves. For some of my friends, that means a tenure track position with full time day care and some household help. For me it meant a part time teaching position at a liberal arts college.

    When I am most honest with myself, I don’t think I would have been happy going TT even before I had kids.

    Of course, I am very lucky to have started my marriage and life as a parent while both my husband and I were in grad school. With only part time childcare we necessarily split all household tasks and childcare evenly. It’s set a good precedent for our life now. Even though I work part time and he full time, he still does a fair amount (fair given the amount of time he spends earning money and health care for the family, so it’s no longer 50-50) of laundry, cleaning, and cooking.

  2. #2 DrugMonkey
    June 14, 2010

    Well put, as always Janet.

    Some yoker over at Isis’ place wanted to know why I don’t post on stuff like this. Well, you nailed it. Too many ways to put a foot wrong and very difficult to express with the burdened word choices that are available.

  3. #3 Paula
    June 14, 2010

    “I joke that not doing the cleaning is my way of sticking it to the patriarchy.” Janet – I had to laugh at that sentence, as your brother often jokes that the reason he does so much housework in our home is to stick it to your mother. I choose not to debate the topic for fear that he may quit.

  4. #4 Cloud
    June 15, 2010

    This is a great post. I think one of the reasons we have so much trouble with these issues is that there is an underlying false assumption- the assumption that there is a “right” way to be a mother. Or a woman, for that matter.

    I wish we could all recognize that what works for one woman and family might not work for another. I personally am a better mother because I work. I know that without a doubt. But that doesn’t mean I think that the stay-at-home mom across the street is a worse mother than me. Far from it. I think (hope?) that she has made a decision based on what works best for her and her family.

    There is no single right way to balance things, just the way that works for you. I do get tired, though, of the assumption that this is only a problem for women. In my house, it is an issue shared equally by my husband. And yet no one ever asks him how he does it.

    I actually agree to a certain extent with Jim’s point that it is not fair of us to judge what happens within a marriage. It is impossible to see what is really going on from the outside. We may look in and think that things are so unfair because the woman is doing the majority of the housework, but we don’t know what her arrangement with her husband is. Maybe he does a bunch of chores we don’t see. Maybe he’s really good in bed. We just don’t know.

  5. #5 Super Sally
    June 15, 2010

    Peripherally relevant tidbits:

    o Certainly once the children outnumber the parents in a household there is no chance of balance between work and family (or much else). The appearance of success at any moment depends on juggling skill.

    o I struggled to justify hired help to clean periodically, until I realized it was cheaper than going to a shrink. It really helped that you kids had to “pick up” for the help, rather than for me, and relieved me from being angry that I had to pick up YOUR stuff (and mine) so the help could actually clean.

    o Your Father had no training from childhood in housework or childcare, but did get some good training when he was in law school days (without an additional job). To save money on childcare he took care of you one day a week (and your brother to a lesser extent in his final year).

    o Men are born understanding the value of being “incompetent” at doing selected chores; women are too willing to try to do anything, and soon find out that the task becomes theirs.

    o I generally was out at classes and/or work at most part-time until you were gone and your younger bros mostly grown, but I became aware when you all were young that your behavior was better for most any one else but me. That made it an exercise in reinforcing your better behavior to contract out your care (to sitter, day-care, occasionally grandparent) for at least part of each work day. I applaud the growth of childcare choices over the years, but “she” still is generally responsible to find, evaluate, contract, and switch when needed.

    o We warped you, but then you all did a number on us too. It was a mutual learning experience, that continues to this day.

  6. #6 Pat Cahalan
    June 17, 2010

    @ Cloud

    > There is no single right way to balance things,
    > just the way that works for you.

    Presuming that the you is plural, I agree with you :)

    > I do get tired, though, of the assumption that
    > this is only a problem for women. In my house,
    > it is an issue shared equally by my husband.
    > And yet no one ever asks him how he does it.

    Let me ask you a question.

    Does he (or did he) ever ask anyone else how *they* do it?

    The comment thread over at ScientistMother (that is now closed) seems to be predicated quite a bit on this premise, and I don’t buy it.

    Nobody asks me how I do it. No, wait, my mother has asked me, a couple of times, and my father and my sisters have wondered aloud a couple of times how I do it, rhetorically. Dad’s not interested in my home dynamics, any more than he’s interested in anyone’s home dynamics other than his own. Probably because, like you, he assumes this is something that each couple needs to jigger out on their own, and if they want his input they’ll come and ask him.

    None of my friends have ever asked me, including the ones who are stay-at-home Dads.

    On the other hand, I *never* asked anybody how they do it. Not once. It never occurred to me to ask.

    I just do it. I suspect that the equitably-balanced households also have never asked anybody how they do it. They just do it.

    Why is “the number of times you’re asked to do it” or “the number of times you talk about it” held up a such a measurement for how much of an issue it is for men or women?

    It seems to me that the disparity is reflective of something, certainly. And given that I agree there’s gender disparity in homework, it might be (and I mean, really maybe just slightly possibly might be) related to the problem. Then again, it might not.

  7. #7 Cloud
    June 18, 2010

    @Pat, my husband has had several discussions with colleagues (male and female) at work about baby sleep and how to achieve it. I don’t know if he’s ever talked about housecleaning- he might have when we were shopping around for a cleaning service.

    But casual discussions aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about angst-filled questions from young people trying to decide what career to choose. The number of times I have been asked about how I manage to balance my career with my homelife (almost always meant to be my homelife as a mother) is a proxy for me to the fact that women in science are worried about this problem. I think they are worried about it because they are told that the incompatibility of a career in science with motherhood is a reason (sometimes “THE” reason) the pipeline is leaking.

    This is a problem because it becomes self-fulfilling. I remember hearing these pronouncements when I was in grad school, and thinking about them as I chose my career path. The reality of working motherhood is nowhere near as bad as what I’d been led to believe. (And for that matter, the glories of non-working motherhood as I experienced them during my maternity leaves were nowhere near as enticing as I’d been led to believe.)

    The number of young women who still ask me about how to combine work and motherhood, when compared to the absence of young men asking my husband that question, is an indicator to me that this subtle sexism lives on and is probably having a real impact in the career decisions of our young women.

  8. #8 Cloud
    June 18, 2010

    @Pat, I’m coming back to try to be really, really clear, because your comment and the ones from Padraig over on ScientistMother’s post gave me an “ah ha” moment. I think I have been unclear. Note that in the following, I conflate “work-life balance” with “balancing parenthood and a career”. I do this because, in my experience, that is what people are really worrying about, and they are just calling it “work-life balance” in an attempt to be inclusive or something.

    Anyway, here goes an attempt to clearly state the problem, as I see it:

    I am frequently asked by young aspiring female scientists and/or IT types how I manage to balance my career (which is at the interface of science and IT) with my home life, specifically with motherhood (I have two small children).

    My husband has never been asked by anyone, include young aspiring male scientific software engineers how he manages to balance his career (as a scientific software engineer) with his home life, which includes fatherhood.

    In actuality, the issues are the same for both of us, and we manage them quite equitably.

    The disparity of our experience with this makes me think that there is a big difference in the perception of young women and men about the possibility of blending parenthood and a scientific/technical career.

    I suspect that this difference arises because women are frequently told that “the pipeline” is leaking because women are opting out to have families, because it is “impossible” (or at least very, very hard) to combine motherhood. The subtext is that the problem for women in these traditionally male-dominated fields is no longer sexism, but rather one of personal choice.

    I think this is BS, for two reasons:

    1. If it is indeed harder to balance motherhood with a STEM career than it is to balance fatherhood with the same career, then that is sexism. I’m sorry, but the actual biological differences in experience aren’t as big of a deal as some would imply, and they can easily be balanced.

    2. Motherhood (and I presume fatherhood) is hard no matter how you do it. Yes, it is hard to be a working mother. But stay at home moms aren’t sitting around eating bon bons all day, either. Taking care of kids is HARD WORK. If I weren’t at work all day, I would be at home caring for my kids, and I suspect my house would still be a mess. The idea that motherhood is only hard when you insist on trying to combine it with a career, and that only dual career families have a hard time keeping on top of the housework, is just plain wrong.

    But, BS or not, the idea that motherhood and a career in a STEM field are somehow incompatible has made it into “common knowledge” and this creates (1) extra worry for young women who may already be experiencing some negative feedback about their decision to pursue such a career, and (2) a perception amongst some men that there are no longer any systemic issues that need to be addressed.

    And THAT, in my opinion, is why this topic matters.

  9. #9 Cloud
    June 18, 2010

    @Pat, I’m coming back to try to be really, really clear, because your comment and the ones from Padraig over on ScientistMother’s post gave me an “ah ha” moment. I think I have been unclear. Note that in the following, I conflate “work-life balance” with “balancing parenthood and a career”. I do this because, in my experience, that is what people are really worrying about, and they are just calling it “work-life balance” in an attempt to be inclusive or something.

    Anyway, here goes an attempt to clearly state the problem, as I see it:

    I am frequently asked by young aspiring female scientists and/or IT types how I manage to balance my career (which is at the interface of science and IT) with my home life, specifically with motherhood (I have two small children).

    My husband has never been asked by anyone, include young aspiring male scientific software engineers how he manages to balance his career (as a scientific software engineer) with his home life, which includes fatherhood.

    In actuality, the issues are the same for both of us, and we manage them quite equitably.

    The disparity of our experience with this makes me think that there is a big difference in the perception of young women and men about the possibility of blending parenthood and a scientific/technical career.

    I suspect that this difference arises because women are frequently told that “the pipeline” is leaking because women are opting out to have families, because it is “impossible” (or at least very, very hard) to combine motherhood. The subtext is that the problem for women in these traditionally male-dominated fields is no longer sexism, but rather one of personal choice.

    I think this is BS, for two reasons:

    1. If it is indeed harder to balance motherhood with a STEM career than it is to balance fatherhood with the same career, then that is sexism. I’m sorry, but the actual biological differences in experience aren’t as big of a deal as some would imply, and they can easily be balanced.

    2. Motherhood (and I presume fatherhood) is hard no matter how you do it. Yes, it is hard to be a working mother. But stay at home moms aren’t sitting around eating bon bons all day, either. Taking care of kids is HARD WORK. If I weren’t at work all day, I would be at home caring for my kids, and I suspect my house would still be a mess. The idea that motherhood is only hard when you insist on trying to combine it with a career, and that only dual career families have a hard time keeping on top of the housework, is just plain wrong.

    But, BS or not, the idea that motherhood and a career in a STEM field are somehow incompatible has made it into “common knowledge” and this creates (1) extra worry for young women who may already be experiencing some negative feedback about their decision to pursue such a career, and (2) a perception amongst some men that there are no longer any systemic issues that need to be addressed.

    And THAT, in my opinion, is why this topic matters.

  10. #10 Helen Huntingdon
    June 21, 2010

    I struggled to justify hired help to clean periodically, until I realized it was cheaper than going to a shrink.

    This is a brilliant point. Even if you pay the housekeepers as much as you pay the shrink, the housekeepers are still likely to be more effective in a lot of cases. The shrink takes up more time. The housekeepers give you back time. And when you’re deeply stressed, an assertion of control over your physical environment can have amazing palliative effects, that seem beyond all reason.

  11. #11 Pat Cahalan
    June 21, 2010

    > The disparity of our experience with this makes
    > me think that there is a big difference in the
    > perception of young women and men about the
    > possibility of blending parenthood and a
    > scientific/technical career.

    I agree even with a general version of this; there are disparities between how young men and women expect to blend parenthood and work.

    > I suspect that this difference arises because
    > women are frequently told that “the pipeline”
    > is leaking because women are opting out to
    > have families, because it is “impossible” (or
    > at least very, very hard) to combine motherhood.

    Notice the difference between the objects in this paragraph and the previous one. The previous paragraph, you’re talking about parenthood. This paragraph, you’re talking about motherhood.

    Now, regardless of how you or I or any other particular person feels about gender roles in parenting, the social context surrounding the word “motherhood” is far, far different from the social context surrounding the word “parenthood” (or “fatherhood”); if I build up a structured survey about work/life issues, distributing them to similar randomized samples, with those three words changed in an otherwise perfectly identical survey, I’d expect some very interesting differences in results, cross-gender. I also expect that women would answer a survey about fatherhood differently than they would about parenthood or motherhood.

    That aside, look at that paragraph.

    “The pipeline is leaking” (assumed fact)
    “Women are leaving to have families” (assumed proximate cause)
    “It is hard to balance parenthood with working” (assumed root cause)

    In and of itself, there’s nothing really controversial about any of those statements.

    My wife went to a woman’s college. She’s the class editor for the school magazine, and she processes a lot of social updates from her graduating class.

    Many, many women around her age bracket are in fact leaving the workforce (be it science, law, medicine, whatever) to stay at home with their children. Some leaving partner-tracks at law firms or other difficult to re-enter career tracks. For all of the ones I’ve personally spoken to, the reasoning looks like this:

    “Parenting is hard”
    “My husband and I have decided that it would be better for one of us to stay home with the children”
    “I *want* to be the one to stay home”

    Now, of course, it’s obvious that this could be a rationalization of social pressures: it’s certainly the case that they’re bowing to some sort of external expectations to stay home with the kids. I don’t know that this is the case, however (if any group of people has been self-selected to be critical of social norms of women roles, it’s a graduating class or five at one of the Seven Sisters). Still, limited anecdotal evidence.

    > The subtext is that the problem for women in
    > these traditionally male-dominated fields is
    > no longer sexism, but rather one of personal
    > choice.

    Yeah, and this is obviously bunk apologetica horrid reasoning and I don’t blame you (or ScientistMother, or anyone else for that matter) to call it out as bunk. Sexism is still here.

    However, it is definitely the case in today’s age that some women *are* making the personal choice to leave the workforce. Some of them may be making that choice because women are typically paid less than men (that would be bad). Some of them may be making that choice because their work environment is filled with constant reminders of institutionalized sexism and it’s exhausting (that’s bad, too). Some of them are making the choice because they believe they want to be the one to stay home (which could be good or bad, depending upon the actual desire, but I for one ain’t gonna tell anybody how they feel about this issue, as I appreciate my head’s current position atop my shoulders).

    The actuality is probably a combination of the above.

    > But, BS or not, the idea that motherhood and a
    > career in a STEM field are somehow incompatible
    > has made it into “common knowledge”

    I think this is probably explained by the disparity between the assumed context of “motherhood” vs. “parenthood”. People, generally, conflate “motherhood” as the nurturing role, and “fatherhood” as the disciplinary role (that’s a gross overgeneralization, of course, but I bet the science would bear me out on this).

    It then pretty much stands to reason that they’ll assume that a nurturing role is going to be regarded as less compatible with careerism. Not because women are inherently going to fail because of their sex, but because their sex is gender-linked to the nurturing role, and the nurturing role is more difficult to balance with careerism.

    Now of course we can all agree that there are couples where the male person is more inclined to accept a nurturing role, or the parents split the duties on the nurturing/disciplinary roles… and that yes, it’s probably a *really bad idea* to have established societal norms that dictate who in a parenting couple should operate in what role.

    We can also agree (or at least agree to disagree) that perhaps the idea of having a nurturing role vs a disciplinary role is one that was actually a construction of modern post-industrial society, or is itself a symptom of patriarchy, or established social norms that are outdated and ought to go.

    > this creates (1) extra worry for young women who may
    > already be experiencing some negative feedback about
    > their decision to pursue such a career

    This could create extra worry, but it seems to me that the level of worry for parenting workers is a constant, and the distinction of what’s actually causing the worry is cosmetic.

    That said, I’m willing to grant that this is a problem. Tackling the problem by insisting that “motherhood” is compatible with work doesn’t seem to be the right answer (because “motherhood” means so many different things to different people); a better answer would be, “Parenting is going to be really hard, and no matter how you divvy up the duties between the members of the household, it’s going to be harder if both parents are working. You’re both going to obsess about whether or not the children are getting enough nurturing response from their parent(s). So be realistic about what your expectations are regarding the parenthood roles in your couples dynamic… and (if you decide on a one person being the more nurturing role), be aware that this is going to be much more difficult to balance with careerism.”

    Right now, the practical reality is probably that more women are going to suffer this distress than men. I’m not disputing that. Getting people to realistically examine their expectations for parenting roles (hopefully prior to the act of giving birth) might be the best way to approach it.

    Moreover, if we continue to present this issue in this light, it becomes easier to identify what we might want to do to solve the problem. If society decides that having a parent be a more involved parent is a good thing (male or female, straight or gay or single), we might come up with better mechanisms for balancing work and life. Employers will have to take a more nuanced view of career expectations. This is already happening in some fields (particularly law), let’s push on *this* rock. Working nurturers want less structured workweeks, let’s make it so this is possible. Telecommuting is becoming more commonplace (which is advantageous to nurturing parents), leverage that, make it easier, more acceptable. Working parents want easier entrance/egress to career tracks to facilitate spending more time with their kids, let’s make that happen.

    > (2) a perception amongst some men that there are
    > no longer any systemic issues that need to be
    > addressed.

    I think this is a cart-and-horse problem. Men who are inclined to believe that there are no longer any systemic issues that need to be addressed… are going to find “plausible” reasons to affirm this belief, period. People are great at confirmation bias, it’s a core competency of the human brain. Yes, they deserved to be smacked in the face (rhetorically speaking, of course), probably repeatedly. But this sort of baloney isn’t going to go away if we get rid of the work/life question, they’ll just come up with some other reason to believe that this is a horrible problem for women instead of problems with the system.

  12. #12 Cloud
    June 21, 2010

    @Pat- actually, I don’t agree that parenting is harder if both parents work. Sorry, I just don’t. It might be true for some people, but not for me. And I think that the idea that there is some easier way to do parenting does an injustice to the women and men who decide to leave their jobs and stay home with the kids and skews the discussion about work/life balance or whatever you want to call it.

    Staying at home with kids all day is damned hard work. I just about lost my mind when I was home on my first maternity leave. I certainly did not have time to clean the house. I barely had time to eat. My life would not be easier if I stayed home instead of coming to work. Not at all. I doubt my house would be any cleaner, either.

    My life would be different, and some of the problems I have now would be resolved. But there would be other problems.

    I know stay at home moms, moms who work part time, moms who work full time, and the partners of all of the above (who all work full time). I work with a woman whose husband stays home with the kids. I work with quite a few men whose wives stay home. I don’t know any of those spouses, though.

    You know what? None of us think that we have it easy. Not even the husbands of the stay at home moms.

    Kids are hard work. There is no easy way to be a (good) parent.

    It then pretty much stands to reason that they’ll assume that a nurturing role is going to be regarded as less compatible with careerism.

    I’m not sure I buy this, but I don’t have time to deconstruct it either. All I’ll say is that a lot of the actual WORK of child rearing (changing diapers, doing laundry, making bottles for the next day…) doesn’t really fall neatly into your nurturing vs. discipline division.

  13. #13 Cloud
    June 21, 2010

    Oh, and I switched from talking about “parenthood” to talking about “motherhood” because I switched from talking about people to talking about women. Who are mothers, not fathers.

  14. #14 Pat Cahalan
    June 22, 2010

    @ Cloud

    I think you and I are using different metrics of “hard”. And I think we’re actually getting somewhere :)

    There’s “parenting is hard” as in, “parenting is logistically difficult” or “parenting/homemaking is physical work”, and “parenting is hard” as in, “parenting is psychologically difficult”.

    I agree that the second is not dependent upon who is working, or how much. The first two, though, no. I’m thinking of “parenting is hard” as an aggregate of the above.

    If you’re not cut out to be a homemaker, then it’s going to be torture to do that job role, regardless of what it may make logistically easier (or not). You’re going to hate it. To be 100% clear, there is nothing wrong with not being cut out to be a homemaker, even though many of the people with the embedded biases we’re talking about think so.

    So if you’re not cut out to be a homemaker, that means that yeah, you working isn’t making parenting any more psychologically easy (in fact, undoubtedly the reverse).

    However, it’s still going to make parenting more logistically difficult, unless the amount of psychological difficulty is big enough to impact your productivity.

    > Staying at home with kids all day is damned hard work.

    Yes, it is, especially if you are a homemaker and a parent at the same time. It’s way harder than working in an office (unless you have a very toxic work environment), at least when the children are younger than 6, and so much of their universe is authority-figure and attention-span dependent.

    It’s bursty work, though. Some people thrive off of this sort of work environment. They can context switch easily when it comes to short duration work. They can feed the baby while serving breakfast to the toddler and then slip the younger one into the playpen and fold a load of laundry while they call the plumber about coming tomorrow.

    If you’re a context-switcher (male or female), that’s actually not psychologically very difficult. If you’re *not*, just the stress of trying to keep all of that straight in your head (and remember where you were, if the toddler suddenly barfs up a load of cereal and you have to jump over and fix that)… yeah, you’re not going to get anything done.

    Even if you hire domestic help, it doesn’t necessarily help that psych burden, because now you’re thinking about all that stuff (even if you’re not doing it) and you’re thinking about someone else doing stuff. This can actually make the situation worse (speaking as someone who’s read quite a bit about team dynamics and psychology) :)

    That still doesn’t make it *easy*, of course. You’re still going to be tired when the day is done.

    > And I think that the idea that there is some
    > easier way to do parenting does an injustice
    > to the women and men who decide to leave their
    > jobs and stay home with the kids and skews
    > the discussion about work/life balance or
    > whatever you want to call it.

    That’s a very fair point. I *do* actually think that there are sets of circumstances that *will* make parenting easier for certain types of couples, though, so not talking about them doesn’t help anybody (which, uh, was sort of the idea that sparked the whole initial discussion at ScientistMother, right?)

    Now, GRANTED, it’s very likely in our current day and age that a lot of the strategies that will make parenting easier, but **they won’t generalize**. (not just raising the kids, but the holistic “household with extra bodies with it and the change in domestic chores that comes with” sense as well). Having someone stay at home isn’t going to make any couple’s life together work well if neither of them is suited to be a homemaker, it’s just going to make life worse.

    And it’s totally, completely, and utterly true that all women have a societal expectation imposed by a majority of social influences that they *will be* good context-switching animals, able to juggle four household chores and two kids at the same time, and it’s also true that this expectation is both garbage and totally unrealistic. It’s also true that men have social influences telling them that they *won’t* be good at this sort of thing, which is equally unrealistic (and insulting, iff’n you ask me). A great number of men buy into this, because it means they get to claim helplessness when these sorts of tasks come up. They all need to be kicked in the butt.

    Telling someone that “having a parent stay home is easier” isn’t good advice if neither parent can be a homemaker, you’re 100% correct. It’s also true that the man might be much more suited for the job, but face crazy social pressure from his family *not* to be the one who stays home, so even if he *were* the one to stay home and he’s psychologically suited for the job, he may not be psychologically suited to deal with his stupid parents, and the job winds up being hell anyway :)

    This is what makes it hard to talk about this problem space. People’s advice is usually predicated quite a bit on their implied context, and they don’t do a good job of making their context clear from the get-go. Misunderstandings run rampant, people interpret what someone else is saying through their own context, and say to themselves, “Geezus, that’s messed-up advice!”

    Finally… it’s also generally true that people of my generation and younger really don’t have a good grounding in domestic basics (as a class, here in the United States anyway). It’s very, very hard to tackle the homemaker job if you don’t know basic plumbing, electricity, what cleaner to use on the toilet and what to use on the chrome fittings in the bathtub and really don’t mix those two chemicals together if you want to keep your hair.

    If you don’t know how to clean a bathtub, it takes 45 minutes to really clean a bathtub. If you really *do* know how to clean a bathtub and you have the proper supplies on hand, it takes 15. A lot of parents in the last 40 years haven’t really transferred that data into their kids’ heads, and as a result the job itself is three times harder than it needs to be.

  15. #15 Cloud
    June 22, 2010

    @Pat, no, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere. But I think I have tired of the discussion.

    I’ll just reiterate- I do not think that me staying home to care for the children would make my life easier IN ANY SENSE OF THE WORD. Not logistically, not physically, not psychologically. Not at all.

    And I do know how to clean a bathtub and do most things that most people would consider part of being a “homemaker”. I just don’t think that caring for young children leaves you much time to do those things.