And so it begins . . .

The first day of school begins for child # 1 in about an hour and for the youngest, two hours. We are actually semi-organized this year. Yesterday, we went to purchase all the school supplies and the kids cleaned out their backpacks–from last year!–and reloaded them with new stuff. The three of us all thought about things that would make their lives easier–new hair brushes and toothbrushes, snacks, good cereal–and we went to get it. We walked over to the local water ice place for a break later in the afternoon. Geeky Boy and I got the same size and flavor (cherry).

While we were there, we had some interesting conversations about money. Geeky Boy asked me if I won the lottery, say $33 million, what would I do. I started talking about how I’d buy a new house and car, but I’d save a good chunk of it and live off the interest.

Then Geeky Boy told me what he’d do and then I said, “Wait a minute. About half that is going to go to taxes.”

He stopped cold. “What?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what the exact amount would be, but I’ve always heard it’s about 1/2 of prize money. We pay about 1/3 of our income in taxes.”

“What? What for?”

“For the government. Somebody’s gotta pay for Iraq.”

“Can’t they make their own money?”

I laughed. “How? We are their only source of income.”

I explained about the Revolution and taxation without representation and where all of our tax money goes. (If you want to know, here’s a good chart.) He was still pretty flabbergasted. Basically, he figured that the government prints the money, so that’s how they should get their money, just print it up when they need it and leave the rest of us alone. I suggested he might read America, the Book. Mr. Geeky thinks he’s not old enough. I think, so there’s some naked Supreme Court Justices, big deal.

On the way home, Geeky Boy suggested I home school him. But then Geeky Girl said, “No way, cause you’re proof that moms don’t have to stay at home.” She was very defiant about this for some reason. It was pretty funny. I told Geeky Boy that since I’m working a flexible schedule, I’d be happy to provide some added instruction, but that home schooling did not appeal to me.

I think it’s going to be a good year. The hardest part for me about dealing with the kids’ education is keeping up with all the stuff they send home. I’m going to try to corral that this year and not be overwhelmed by it. I’m also going to try to help Geeky Boy create some good habits this year.

Being the Oldest

My oldest child, Geeky Boy, is a great kid. He’s kind and funny and smart. He seems to be well-liked by his peers. But he’s not perfect, of course. Sometimes, because he is such a good kid, we have really high expectations and we’re hard on him. We have higher expectations of him sometimes than we do of ourselves. For example, we ask him to keep his room clean when our own house is pretty unkempt.

Our oldest has had to live through the leanest years, has changed schools three times and left behind friends. When we moved here, he cried for days, usually when I was giving him a bath, begging to go back home. It was like a knife in the heart for me, especially since I, too, wanted to return. I had to put on a happy face and tell him everything was going to be okay even though I wasn’t sure myself.

When we moved to this house, we actually let Geeky Boy guide us. As we drove up to what is now our house, there was a group of kids across the street huddled in a circle. “They’re playing with Yu-Gi-Oh cards,” he exclaimed from the back seat. “Can we move here?” And so we did. But our house is small, especially the kids’ rooms and Geeky Boy is now starting to feel the squeeze. There’s not much we can do about it, though. We do hope to add on to the house soon, but we don’t know if we’ll be able to improve the sizes of the bedrooms or add a new bedroom.

Sometimes I sense that Geeky Boy is disappointed or bitter or something. This doesn’t happen often as he’s a very cheerful person most of the time. Yesterday, for example, as we were discussing how to set up his room and get it organized for the school year and what we might buy to make the room better (a new bed or new dresser), he seemed disappointed that we couldn’t do more. And he wasn’t being a typical teenager who already has too much stuff complaining about the brand new clothes he/she’d just gotten. He didn’t say anything really. It was just a look. A look of resignation. I suspect he has friends whose rooms are much larger and filled with video games and tvs. I suspect he knows we’re doing our best, but somehow feels that’s not good enough, but won’t say anything.

I worry about him more than I probably should. I want him to be happy. I want him to be successful. And I want to provide him the support–emotional and otherwise–to help him be those things. But sometimes I feel I’ve let him down somehow. Maybe it’s just that as he’s gotten older, he rarely shows any emotion or response to much of anything, so it’s hard to tell if something I’ve said or done has even registered. Maybe this gets worse as he heads to teenagehood. My own parents didn’t figure very large in my own pre-teen and teen years and I suspect I’m just a blip on the radar screen for him. Important as a constant, perhaps, but not much more. I honestly don’t know whether to be sad about this. He seems, as I said, to be doing just fine for the most part, and he hasn’t totally cut me off yet. And it is part of life to begin to separate from your parents. But I remember a time not that long ago when we were best friends, living through the tough times together. I’ll admit it hurts to not be that friend anymore.

The Feminine Mistake

Some of you may have read about or seen interviews with Leslie Bennetts, the author of The Feminine Mistake, a book that discusses the issue of women who choose to stay at home. In her book, she says that staying at home is the mistake. I first saw Bennetts on The Today Show while we were traveling and I was incensed not by Bennetts, but by the interview tactics of Ann Curry and the framing that The Today Show did of the whole issue. Basically, they preceded the interview with teasers and a montage that made it seem as if they were about to, once again, make working moms feel guilty for working. So I was surprised when Bennetts book basically supported the idea of mothers going back to work. Ann Curry kept trying to get Bennetts to admit that the decision mothers make to return to work or not is difficult. Methinks she doth protest too much. Really, watch the video.

Apparently, Bennetts has been hearing lots of serious disagreement from stay at home moms. In a post from March 31 at The Huffington Post, she expresses her disappointment at the rancor these women are expressing, especially without ever having read the book. I, too, haven’t read the book, so I won’t comment on it yet. I have read The Price of Motherhood, another book that details the financial impact on women who stay at home. That book made me mad, not because it was anti-sahm, but because I felt the wool had pulled over my eyes and I’d been sold a bill of goods about the wonders of staying at home. Bennetts goal in writing the book is similar to Crittendon’s:

Naively, I assumed that once women were offered more accurate information, they would be eager to get it. After all, women aren’t stupid; it’s true that they’ve been deserting the labor force in record numbers, but surely the problem was just that unfortunate information gap. Wouldn’t they want to protect their own interests by educating themselves about the dangers that lie ahead — and to plan accordingly?

The thing is, I don’t think women decide to stay at home based on a clear analysis of the facts other than to determine that the family can afford for her to do so. I think most women decide to stay at home for emotional and personal reasons. They feel a real need to be with their children. They feel it’s the “right” thing to do. They are unable to find good childcare. Etc. I don’t think most of us make any decision by clearly analyzing the facts. If we did, I think the world would be a very different place. I also think, and Bennetts says this in her interview with Ann Curry, that the media (conceived very broadly to include most of what we read and see) plays a role in convincing women that staying at home is the “right” thing to do, that it’s wonderful and that children will suffer if we aren’t at home. Many, many of my friends are or have been stay at home parents. I wouldn’t want to deny them that choice and as I’ve said a number of times here, what I think should happen is for the workplace to be a more family friendly environment. There needs to be more part-time options, more of a sense that it’s okay for people to put their family first (and themselves!) when they need to. I remember Laura at 11D wrote a long time ago that sometimes work sucks and why should be push women to participate in the drudgery that most jobs really are.

I’m looking forward to reading the book and I’ll say more once I have.

Why I Work

It’s kind of funny that this is even a question, but for women with children, it is. I guess it should be a question for men with children, but it isn’t. I’ve been thinking about my recent post and stumbled onto another one with a similar theme. Before I was married, I never questioned whether I would work or not. I knew a couple of women from both high school and college whose goal was to marry, have kids and stay at home, but for most of the women I knew, the question of whether to stay home or work didn’t arise until after kids came along. For me, the question didn’t arise until pretty recently. When our first kid came along, I was our only income, so there was no question about whether I would work or not. I had to. I had a pretty heated argument with someone who suggested I was shortchanging our son by returning to work. I remember nearly shouting, “Well, who’s going to pay for our food and shelter if I don’t work!” I was pretty steamed. In hindsight, it wasn’t that I felt my adversary was right, but that I resented the dilemma in the first place. Somewhere inside I kind of wanted to stay home. After all, the job I had at the time was just for the money (and the insurance).

Back when my kids were little, I felt like they got good care. I didn’t feel like I needed to be there to read books or play or whatever. We did all that when we were with them and I knew they were getting lots of attention from their caretakers. Now that they’re school age and they’re not really getting anything special out of aftercare programs (or don’t even have aftercare programs), I feel more of a need to be with them, to help them with homework and to help them negotiate social issues that arise. This year, Mr. Geeky has been meeting Geeky Boy after school. On days when he can’t, he calls us and discusses homework and other things. Not ideal, but it works.

Despite the tug of wanting to be at home, I work for three main reasons. First, I work purely for my own personal satisfaction. I need intellectual stimulation. I need to be challenged. I need to be around people. I enjoy solving problems, thinking about issues, etc. I’m not creative enough to create that environment for myself at home. Second, I do it for the money. I enjoy the extra income, and for a long time, we actually needed it. We could probably get by now without it, with a few sacrifices, but I know I appreciate the buffer my income generally gives us. Third, I feel the need to contribute and chose my job accordingly. I think if I were just working for the money, I would not feel as satisfied nor would I feel as compelled to work. If I were a corporate drone of some kind or a salesperson or something along those lines, I don’t think I’d enjoy working. Being part of an educational institution and mission makes me feel like I’m doing some good in the world, even if it’s only for a handful of people. That’s not to say that I feel that if I’d been at home, I couldn’t contribute in some way. It simply reflects my own perception of how I need to contribute. I’m just not the type of person who could get satisfaction out of volunteering by itself.

In other words, my decision to continue working is an individual one and probably different from many other women. There may be women who work purely for the money and are satisfied with that. There are women who don’t work and are satisfied with that. It’s often a complicated decision for many people. A two income family juggles many things in order to make things work. A single income family may have to make certain sacrifices in order to make that situation work. And the world of work doesn’t make either situation all that easy. For one, there’s no in between really. Some jobs are inflexible and involve working long hours, keeping people away from their families and placing undue burden on the spouse at home (if that’s the situation). I feel lucky to have enough flexibility that I can take days off when I need to and could take plenty of time if something tragic happened. That, too, helps me continue to enjoy work, knowing that my workplace would want me to put family first when I need to. If only every workplace had that attitude.

So much for family values

I just watched a report on Good Morning America about paid maternity leave for mothers. The US is one of 5 countries that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. It’s interesting that people were shocked about this. I’ve been talking about it for 11 years–since I had my first kid. I’m one of those people who probably wouldn’t take more than about 3 months, but I still think it should be an option. The worst part of the story was when someone from the labor department–a woman, in fact–said that people should just save their money and plan for these things. Well, when you’re talking about a baby, maybe you can, but if your spouse gets cancer? Can’t really plan for that. It’s the standard right-wing response, though. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s not our problem.

USA Today Coverage.

Homework

One theme of yesterday’s Wednesday Whining was homework. I added my own homework whine before I’d read everyone else’s and was tickled to see so many other people who have issues with their kids’ homework. I’ve written about homework before and Geeky Boy’s (and our) struggle with it. Pretty much everyone at Phantom’s was annoyed with having to be so involved in their kids’ homework. They remember (and I do, too) not having to get help from their parents; they remember just doing their homework and suffering their own consequences. I think the stakes are higher now, for whatever reason. I think there’s more homework and there’s more expectations on parents to be involved in the process of doing the homework. For dual-income families, this is especially hard. Either, homework gets done during an afterschool program or with a sitter or it gets done after dinner when it’s late and everyone’s tired. So the parent feels uninvolved or resentful, neither a good feeling.

I honestly feel pretty bad that we haven’t done a better job of instilling the importance of schoolwork in Geeky Boy. I believe we’ve instilled the importance of learning and education, but we haven’t really explained that to get that learning and education, there are hoops to jump through. And sometimes those hoops aren’t fun and are quite difficult, but you have to do them anyway. Geeky Boy feels pretty defeated right now, like there’s just no chance of pulling it out. School, which used to be easy for him, has now gotten difficult.

I remember when school first got hard for me. It was math. I’m actually very good at math, but when we got to trig, I was so confused. And I was afraid to ask for help. I sat in class, feeling stupid and just muddled through. But, when the final came around, I did some math and figured out I could pull out an A if I got a 98 on the exam. So, I went to my teacher and I explained that I’d let myself fall behind because I didn’t always understand what was going on. So he worked with me for about an hour or so and I got it. And then I went home and studied my butt off and I got the 98. Wherever you are, Mr. Chandler, thank you! A similar thing happened again in calculus and I got a friend to tutor me. Somewhere I found the motivation to do better. Now, I need to help Geeky Boy find his.

I’m still on the fence about homework. In elementary school, I think it’s superfluous. In middle school, though, it’s obviously laying the groundwork for high school and college. Here in the northeast, academic competition is fierce. This is where some of the extra work comes from. People want to make sure their kids get into the best schools. Public schools compete with private schools, wanting to prove that their kids are just as smart as the ones in private schools. This puts a lot of pressure on the kids. It’s my job, then, as a parent, to help alleviate that pressure, to support my kids in their work. It’s a harder job than I thought. We want our kids to be independent and we want to sit back and watch them become independent and cheer from the sidelines, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes we have to dig in with them, show them the way, and do more than cheer. It’s not what we remember as kids, but this is the way it is now.

Mean Girls Start Early

For the last few weeks, Geeky Girl has been dealing with a mean girl who also happens to be her best friend. Now we’ve never been particularly fond of the best friend. She’s kind of bossy and whiny, but we wouldn’t have put her in the mean girl category. At the parent-teacher conference in early December, however, Geeky Girl’s teacher discussed the problem with me, explaining that at least once, MG had said something mean enough to make GG cry. So we started talking to GG about MG, just asking her if they got along, asked her about the incident described by the teacher and talking about strategies. And now, we get a flood of information. And we’re not liking what we’re hearing. Regularly, MG tells GG that she’s not going to be her friend if she doesn’t do X or if she plays with someone else. Yesterday, she made “angry eyes” at GG during math. And then, I also heard that she regularly lies and as GG says, “I don’t like people who lie.” We had MG over over Christmas and she pretty constantly tried to manipulate GG, telling her what to do. I stepped in and said GG could do whatever she wanted.

I have a couple of theories about why MG behaves this way. One theory is that she has an older sibling in high school and she must hear her and her friends behave this way. The other theory, more likely I think, is that she’s not adjusting to the new school very well and her way of dealing with her insecurity is to try to control the one thing she can: GG.

We’ve explained to GG that she doesn’t have to be friends with MG and that we’d be happy to have anyone else from her class over for a playdate. We’re also trying to help her come up with what she can say in response to the mean things MG says. The teacher has encouraged us to role play with GG so that she feels confident saying what she needs to to MG. The thing is the meanness is subtle most of the time. She uses a quiet and pleasant voice when she’s being manipulative. So I think that GG has recognized that she’s not on the up and up, but hasn’t been able put her finger on what’s going on and hasn’t really known what to do about it. I had some very unpleasant mean girl experiences in middle and high school. It seems it’s a rite of passage, but I really don’t want it to be. I hope we can give GG enough confidence to deal with these situations and not feel beaten down by them. I can’t believe we’re dealing with this at the tender age of seven! On the bright side, it gives us time to deal with it. On the down side, it could be a looong road to the end of high school.

Dissertating while mothering

Bitch, Ph.D. comments and academom responds to the issue of getting a graduate degree while simultaneously raising children. Dr. B ends with this observation:

because, though I hate to say this, academia is not the easiest field for women with kids, especially in the plural; and graduate school, especially when you’re still doing coursework, is probably about as bad as it gets. You might get the degree, but in all honesty it’ll probably end up being seen a vanity degree: you’ll have worked your ass off to finish, but while you were focusing on your work, you’ll have been sidelined in the minds of your department as someone who isn’t going to go beyond grad school and will somehow be reabsorbed into the non-academic world with a nice diploma to hang on the wall of your home office.

I personally think this sucks. Yeah, I see some truth in it, but I think Dr. B, of all people should try to suggest ways that this can be fought. Madeleine offers this response, which I think is spot on:

if we moms continue to ACT AS THOUGH we are marginalized, if we expect such treatment, I daresay we will get it. If you expect to be not taken seriously, you run the risk of falling into that predetermined role by acting like someone who doesn’t deserve to be.

I never even considered my position as a mother as an issue. I thought of myself as a graduate student. I might have done things slightly differently than my single colleagues. For example, I always began working on big assignments early. I knew that daycare, illnesses, and other unforseen child issues might sidetrack me. But I didn’t discuss this way of working with anyone. I typically came into my little grad office, worked from 9-5 and went home. And yes, there was often more work to do when I got home, which does get old. I never felt marginalized. I was offered work as a mentor and in the writing center. I won awards. Perhaps this was because I wasn’t the only parent in the program or because the program isn’t highly ranked. But I always felt that the program was supportive of my work as a grad student.

I started grad school with a 2 year old. I had my second child after I completed my masters. I restarted work on the dissertation after both kids were in school. And yes it’s easier to handle, but I also have a full-time job, which I think makes it much harder. I have to work around the edges of the regular work day. With young children and reliable childcare, at least you can work during semi-normal hours and carve out some time for yourself and your family.

I’ve seen friends who waited until they finished grad school and got tenure before starting to think about kids. Some of them were unable to have kids. Some adopted. All are in their early 40s. I knew I couldn’t do that. So I had my kids when I wanted to and worked everything else around it.

I also think it’s okay to try and if you don’t make it, that’s okay too. Part of why I didn’t finish earlier was because I found it difficult to juggle everything and I had no support. And plenty of people without kids never finish. Now, in the push to the finish, I’ve let a lot of things go–real cooking, laundry, free time, reading books for fun. Depending on the kind of program you’re in, you and your family will have to be prepared for living in less than ideal conditions (possibly financially too).

The other, semi-related issue I was thinking of is the way we push people to work in the *best* program with the *best* people. Such a program might be good for someone who wants to go on to a prestigious position at a good school. And although I do think there are programs whose existence might be questioned, I also think there are perfectly decent jobs for people from *lesser* programs–community colleges, satellite schools, high schools. And some people want those jobs; they’re not just settling for them. Just as you can get a good B.A. education from a school without a reputation if you put your mind to it, I think you can get a good Ph.D. education from such a school too. And I know all the caveats about the academic hierarchy and how people look at the school and all that. And I think that sucks and we should resist it and let a person’s work speak for them instead of the degree. We all know that a Yale degree doesn’t necessarily mean that person has learned anythng. All it means is he gets to run our country.

Putting everyone else first

Mr. Geeky called last night–as he has every night since he’s been gone–to check in. He asked when I was planning to leave for the funeral.

Well, I said, I have a meeting at 3 and students coming at 4, so probably not till 5:30 or 6.

Are you crazy? he said.

Well, it’s the students’ first paper. I feel bad.

Look, he said, you’re always putting other people first. Reschedule the meeting and the conferences and leave early so you’re not driving in the middle of the night.

Okay. You’re right.

And then we talked about some other things and we hung up.

He was right though. I often have a tendancy to put others first, especially in a work environment. I need to stop that. For one thing, I don’t think it actually benefits anyone. I get frustrated because “No one appreciates what I’m doing for them.” I don’t have time to be proactive and put programs in place, etc. And then I’m burned out and resentful and I don’t even *want* to be proactive. It’s ugly.

Actually, Mr. Geeky does this sometimes too. The difference for him, though, is that some of that has paid off–in terms of getting tenure, a nice grant, and other rewards for his hard work. But some stuff doesn’t always pay off. Spending hours with students is not always rewarded. All the little administrative stuff he does, the email lists where he helps people well into the middle of the night. The thing is, we both care about our work. We care about it in selfish ways, sure, but mostly, we want to help people and we want to make a difference, whether that’s locally or globally. And so we keep at it.

But sometimes, you have to let go of that and take care of yourself and your needs. You have to put your own oxygen mask on first. I need to do that more often.

A Case in Point

As if academom had willed it, I had one of those days where my worlds clashed. It’s like that Seinfeld episode where George’s world with his friends is about to meet up with his world with his fiancee. I’m checking my son’s homework this morning and find a note from his teacher that says he hasn’t been doing his homework. Instant guilt. I find my son, begin giving him a stern talking to. He breaks down, misses the bus and I have to drive him to school which makes me slightly late for work. I bring this guilt and anger (a little) to work with me.

At work, I e-mail the teacher, apologize profusely for my slacker son (and his slacker parents) and promise we’ll do better. I manage to put all of that aside and do real work until I’m sidetracked by a talkative co-worker. Post-lunch, life gets bad when I find out because of a programming glitch, several people have dropped out of Blackboard. I spend time manually adding them back in and dinging the programmer. I don’t understand the programming and feel powerless–akin to the way I felt in response to the teacher’s letter.

Flash forward a little, I’m plugging away again, getting ready to read some blogs and post something in my professional blog when I am dragged into the lab because a woman’s life work has been erased. (The lab I maintain is a video lab and nothing is supposed to be removed without my permission.) We spend hours trying to recover the files–no luck. We will have to import over 100 clips again.

I go home defeated, thinking I should just have been a stay at home mom, so that I could make sure my son does his homework and I wouldn’t have to deal with all of this stuff. Sigh. Do men have these tensions? It’s not like I was angst-ridden all day about the homework thing, but it was there nagging at me. I know in my heart of hearts, I would not be satisfied staying at home, but I think about it. It’s very tempting on days like these.