The Trouble With Illness

So, I am sitting here feeling utterly miserable (and perhaps a tad sorry for myself). My nose is running, my sinuses are throbbing and I feel like I have been hit by a Mack truck. Of course, my kids feel fine. And that is the trouble with illness.
It is a little bit of a tangent from my normal postings, but illness is a relevant topic when discussing parenthood and work relations in this country.
You hear in various studies and news reports (the most recently being the 20/20 HR Rep’s True Confessions) about how employers want to go out of their way to try and avoid hiring parents of young children. The supposition is that they will need extra time off to take care of the children when they are ill, and apparently it is assumed that all young children are ill A LOT.

Now, while it may be true that children are exposed to more at school, it may not be true that they are sick more often. The problem lies in how long it takes a single cold to go through a family.

For the purpose of this blog I am going to give my three little munchkins pseudonyms. My oldest daughter, let’s call her Snowflake, graduated from kindergarten this past Friday. To ensure that the ceremony was uninterrupted we were encouraged to leave little ones with the PTA sponsored child care, which sounded good to me. Now, my baby boy is 7 months (let’s call him Starman) is at that stage where he want to move all the time, so child care was a great choice.
Then Sunday night came and I realized that Starman had caught a cold. I did a quick incubation calculation and immediately realized he must have caught it at the elementary school. Starman was sick Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. My husband caught it Monday night. He got sent home from work on Wednesday because no one wanted him around (can’t blame them, but we needed the money…I will get back to that point in a minute). My middle child, a four-year-old daughter (let’s call her Raindrop) came down with the sniffles on Tuesday night. Last night, thinking I may have dodged the bullet along with Snowflake, realized that I wasn’t feeling very well. By the middle of the night last night I realized I was sick. Really sick. And that got my mind working. As colds go, it has been fairly short lived, but it will have taken this small cold a week to work its way through our family. No wonder people get excited about families with young children and illness. Depending on how many children a family has and how virulent the illness is, it can cause families to miss fairly large chunks of time.

Now, before you get worried that I am arguing against my own employability, I am not. With a large enough social network (ie: social capital), time off can be mitigated. However, I believe there is a better solution. Not just better for families, but better for ALL American workers. The answer: more sick time. You see, the American worker works more hours per day, week and year than almost any other worker in the world. We have less sick time and less vacation time as well. By providing more sick time, we would actually get sick less. If people stayed home when they were sick, others wouldn’t be exposed. We could reduce the incidents of illness. We could also provide more support for those with serious illness. My husband and I have gone to work many times when we knew we shouldn’t just because we knew we couldn’t afford to stay home. And how many stories have I heard in my work in children’s ministry of serious illnesses contracted by children in child care because parents can’t afford to miss work and take their kids to child care sick.

Would this cost companies more? Possibly, but, they might spend less on healthcare costs. They might spend less on lost productivity. And it would make America healthier as a whole. A great resource to explore those ideas was written by Joan Williams in 2000 called Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About it. I was excited by some of her ideas back then and felt some were very promising, and it makes me sad that there has been little to no headway made on most of the issues she addressed in the last decade.

It is a fascinating book and has shaped a lot of my current theories and in my opinion definitely worth reading:

Sneak Peek!

Last month I focused on an introduction to myself as well as an introduction to some of the issues that are facing mothers who are trying to combine motherhood and income producton. By using an anthropological framework I am attempting to analyze the socio-economic factors that have created some of the current conditions for families in America.

Looking forward to next month, June is going to be dedicated to exploring the creation and continuation of what is popularly termed, "the mommy wars." Coming up next I am going to explore the various media representations of mothers throughout the last 100 years and how those representations have affected women's "choices" when it comes to work and motherhood. I will also be examining how the rhetoric of "choice" as fueled by the media is perpetuating the tension between women and creating conflicts in opinions on how to "properly" mother. Lastly, we will be epxloring real solutions that are currently being promoted to improve relationships between all mothers.

Thanks to everyone who has supported me so far in launching this crazy idea. I am looking forward to healthy discussions on improving the lives of every mother in America.

My Job Loss, A personal view from the frontlines of the child care crisis

In September of 2010 I was forced out/resigned from my position with a company I had worked for on and off since early 2001. This is the story of how that came about, and how child care issues played a crucial role in cutting me off from more lucrative income production.

Upon graduating from college with a double major in Anthropology and English I was unsure on what direction I wanted to be heading in so I secured a job with a local financial institution. Over time I came and went, eventually securing part-time as I put myself through graduate school. As my thesis neared completion I approached my husband and made the argument that while I had such an awesome part-time job (22 hours a week with full benefits; 401k, paid-time off, health insurance and maternity leave) it would make little sense to leave it for a full-time job only to seek part-time work when we decided to start a family. It was as that point we decided to start our family. For the next 5 years (and two children later) I had the one thing many mothers dream about. I worked 22 hours, allowing me to take a break from parenting two and a half days a week while spending the rest of the week with my children. I was even blessed to have family nearby so that when I was at work my girls were either with my mother, my mother in law, or my husband. In other words, I didn’t worry about them when I wasn’t there and we were granted the gift of financial security. There were thousands of times over those years that I thought to myself how lucky I was to have the job that I had. So many times I would stop and marvel at how grateful I was, despite the fact that the work was not my ideal career choice.

Then came the summer of 2010. My husband and I still refer to that summer as “the summer from hell.” In spring my beloved grandmother became ill with pancreatic cancer. By June she was gone. The first funeral was held towards the end of June with plans to travel back east in July with the entire extended family to lay her to rest with her husband of 50+ years and conduct a second funeral for the small town in which she grew up. After the first funeral, but before the second, my family and I were packing up to go to the fireworks display on Fourth of July when we found our new puppy collapsed in the backyard minutes after we had let him out. Turns out, he had been poisoned in what was suspected to be a random dog park poisoning. Despite a grim prognosis he managed to pull through, but with a hefty price tag attached. My girls were thrilled but my husband and I were worried about the cost. The very next week, before I left for the second funeral, I received a letter in the mail. The church where I worked a second job as a coordinator had disbanded the program and was letting all the moms know (apparently they had forgotten that employees needed to be notified, so I found out I had no job through an impersonal form letter). And that was where we were at when I left for the second funeral, feeling snowed under and stressed out.

Now, I only bring all this up so that I can properly set the scene for what came next:

Upon returning from the second funeral and coming back to work, I was called into the conference room late in the afternoon. I was anxious because it wasn’t review time and I couldn’t think of anything I could have possibly done wrong, I nervously inquired, jokingly, if I would need a box of Kleenex or not. My boss assured me it was nothing bad. She sat me down and proceeded to tell me, “I have an exciting opportunity for you…..”

As it turns out, the opportunity was neither exciting, nor really an opportunity, although as a childless career woman I am fairly certain she was utterly baffled by my reaction to what came next. The long and short of it was that our new head honcho disliked part-timers and had decided to eliminate all the part-time positions from our area. I was not being let go, but instead being offered the “opportunity” to take on a full-time position.

I will admit I handled the next part poorly. I cried my eyes out. I cried all over the big conference room table much to the confusion of everyone in the room. I kept thinking, “This isn’t fair! What am I going to do about child care? How am I going to break this to my husband? What on earth am I going to do?” My boss was perplexed by my outburst and said so after all, more hours meant more money she told me. I blinked at her with frustration at her utter cluelessness of how badly this little “wrench” was going to mess up my perfect world. My child care, previously conducted by family members couldn’t stand up to a full time schedule.

My husband and I agreed that there was no way we would be able to afford for me to stay home, so I began looking for child care. I had been given almost 3 weeks to make a decision, but we had plans to leave on vacation in two, so they gave me an extra week. I did EVERYTHING I could think of. Our problem lay in the fact that my husband worked similar banking hours of 8:00 to 6:30 or 6:45, so we needed childcare that went to at least 6:30 or 7. This was not so easy to find. I looked and called and researched and came up empty handed. I then called the local government child care referral program only to receive their deepest condolences that while they have never had to tell someone this, they were unable to find anyone. I called our HR department and had them interview employees with kids to find out how they were managing. In ALL cases they either had a spouse with a 9 to 5 job who could pick up at a normal time or a spouse at home or a family member who took care of it. Apparently our family was a unique case. Finally, in an act of desperation I placed an ad on Craig’s List, “Bankers need child care too!” requesting a personal nanny a few days a week from the hours of 8-7 for X number of dollars. We received ONE response. Luckily we interviewed her and she was fantastic. Her references checked out, hooray. Problem solved and my full-time start date was set. Two weeks after the bad news we left on vacation.

Three days before the end of vacation I received an e-mail from the nanny we had hired (she didn’t even have the decency to call) informing me that her husband had lost his job and she was going to have to take a full-time job that paid more. That was it. Three days away from my start date we had no choices left. We had to leave our vacation early and drove 22 hours straight through with the kids just so I could get home by Friday morning and have at least one business day to salvage the situation. By Sunday we knew it was hopeless. Monday morning they gave me an extra week, but I knew that I had already exhausted all my resources and that child care open that late did not exist in our price range. I tendered my resignation that day. I didn’t want to. I was angry. I had no idea how we were going to provide enough income for our family to pay its bills (we had nothing to cut out, we didn’t even have cable), but my employers weren’t willing to bend on hours and there was no other choice.

The saddest thing….my story is far from unique. Every day in this country a mom is marginalized, forced to pick between her job and her kids, forced to resign because care doesn’t exist for her personal situation. The same problem exists for elder care as well. We have a real problem that demands a real solution. Work/family balance should not come down to hard choices, or in many cases, no choices. We should have options for caretakers to maintain roles in income production and we should have options for care for both elders and children that are not relegated to certain hours and price ranges. How we get there is what we, as an American society, need to start discussing.

If I may illustrate my point....

Just when I began to worry that I hadn't made my point strongly enough, the following map made its way to the internet. The image and accompanying article illustrate my point very succinctly that we have a woefully pathetic system of support after birth for parents in this country. Even more so when you compare them to other industrialized nations.
Here is the link so that you can read the article

Working Like a Man, or How American Feminism Failed: Part 2

As the 1960s dawned, so did the birth of feminism in earnest.  Many arguments exist in regards to how the women’s movement gained steam. One theory is that the jobs were there waiting, so the women’s movement was a reaction to market pressure combined with a loss of national focus on families and childbearing (such as Marvin Harris in his book Why Nothing Works). Another theory, associated with Joan Williams in her book Unbending Gender argues that the women’s movement was a reaction to an actual loss of status of women as homemakers toward the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s which was caused by women exiting the home and entering the workforce in increasingly larger numbers. It was at this time that the seeds of what we now refer to as “the mommy wars” was born (Anticipate an extensive exploration on that topic throughout the month of June). As the movement gained steam in the 1960s, American feminists focused more on redefining and redistributing gender relations which involved challenging the roles that women and men performed in the home and at work on both a public and private front. This in turn gave birth to the concept of equal rights, equal pay and being treated as equals in the workforce. Women at this time began challenging their entry into traditionally male professional positions as well. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote in her book, A Lesser Life: the Myth of Women’s Liberation in America;

The slogans of the day were extraordinary: Marriage was hell, sex was political, coitus was killing, married women were prostitutes, babies were traps, intercourse was rape, love was slavery, families were prisons, and men were the enemies. 

The problem with this push for equality is that the workplace was not asked to conform to the addition of women, specifically mothers, but that the mothers were asked to conform to the workplace. As a result, women ARE treated equally. They are expected to work 40+ hours, they are expected perform at the same levels with the same time commitments as men.  In many ways they achieved their dream of equality:  they compete equally in a workplace that still assumes that someone is at home taking care of the children and the home but without the supporting addition of the family wage. Now there is the assumption that most households subsist off of two incomes, unless the family has enough economic advantage (or is disadvantaged enough to secure assistance) to subsist off of one.

At the same time in Europe, in the 1960s, women and feminists were challenging things on a drastically different front. European feminists contrasted with American feminists in that while they experienced a similar shift of mothers into the workforce it has been supported through government benefits while the United States offers less governmental support for child care than does any other industrialized nation.  European women focused their movement on the difference rather than equality and reconfiguring what would be considered the public and private spheres (what is considered private responsibility and what is considered public responsibility) rather than the American re-distribution of gender. In other words, they challenged that the family belonged in the public sphere and that instead of assuming that childbearing belonged within the privatized sphere of the family they fought for the idea that child care should be a publicly supported endeavor. As a result most European countries have generous, paid maternity leaves, easily available part-time jobs , subsidized child care and subsidized preschools for all children. The economic costs of these programs are offset by the reduction in turnover and the wider pool of labor looking to remain in the workforce (Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood).  In other words, few of the choices that European women make create an undue burden on their long-term financial future, at least not in the way similar choices would affect women in America. For example, when a woman in America chooses to stay home, she does not just lose salary, but a long-term security because she is not paying in to social security, thus becoming economically dependent on her spouse.

In conclusion (just in case you were wondering if I would ever get here) there was American feminism and its focus on re-coding gender stereotypes through “equal rights”  and  European feminism which focused on providing specific help for women’s unique gender positions. The result for American women was that they are expected to compete “equally”  in a work environment that still operates under the assumption that all domestic labor (child care, domestic chores, house cleaning, laundry and other family maintenance) is being performed by someone who is still at home (an extensive subject to be addressed in future posts). So women are supposed to work 40hrs a week and compete equally without any compensation for having to place children in child care, or having to either hire a housecleaner or add a second shift. Meanwhile, in Europe, women are enjoying their “special status” as women and are much less conflicted in their roles as both mother and employee, seamlessly passing between the two.

Working Like a Man, or How American Feminism Failed: Part 1

The majority of the information for this post was pulled from a chapter of my master’s thesis Social Capital and the New Motherhood (2007). I tried to condense what is a complex argument, but felt I couldn’t make my larger point if I cut anything else. So, I have broken this argument up into two posts. In addition, look forward to further future individual exploration of many of the topics introduced here.

Images of American motherhood have changed drastically over the last five decades.   From the extremes of the Donna Reed image of the 1950s, to the career mother images of the 1980s, to the present images of the dedicated, self-sacrificing mothers (see the recent “Are You Mom Enough” article in Time Magazine), the way women have approached motherhood over these decades has been characterized by its place in the larger context of the women’s movement.

Early feminism, such as the nineteenth-century feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony held motherhood in high esteem and felt that it was a noble pursuit specifically suited for women. Even the unmarried, childless Anthony was known for elevating parenthood to an almost sacred level. It is significant to acknowledge that the early suffragists belonged to the middle-class almost exclusively, which at the time had the benefit of an extended domestic staff. As such, their focus on equal rights seemed rational and legitimate because from their experience motherhood represented a marginal time commitment and little physical labor. They did not see motherhood as a burden or a legitimate focus around which a women’s movement could be organized in order to alleviate those burdens.

The early women’s movements were in many ways swept under the rug by the success of the women’s suffrage movement. Because of a depleted male labor force in World War II, women were pulled out of their homes to help in wartime factories and other employment opportunities. After the war, however, an ideological campaign to send women back to the homes began. The 1950s was dominated by the traditional male breadwinner/homemaker model.  As a rule, middle class women cared for the home and the children full-time while men worked. This “traditional model” was largely made possible by the economic reality of the family wage. A middle class man could make enough money on his income to not only own a home but also many new, modern time-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, and second cars. It was a time of economic boom and prosperity. The American dream was alive and well with a “can do” image permeating every aspect of life. (As a side note, the loss of the family wage is partially responsible for the current need to maintain a two-income family which places increased economic pressure on parents of young children who require child care, more so than families with school aged children)

It was during this time in the 1950s however, that many home-bound women began to develop their own economic independence. The memory of wartime women in the workforce was fresh and their re-invigorated participation was motivated by both a desire to afford more consumer goods and as a way of providing some economic independence from their husbands. In almost all cases the addition of even a small income was enough to elevate a family enough economically to secure a middle-class status. These incomes came from crafts and hobbies, Tupperware parties and sometimes part-time jobs.

Family Values or Valuing Families

Once again, as I do every year, I found myself increasingly irritated and embittered as Mother’s Day approached. The media's habit of trotting out mothers who are sacrificing themselves for their families, celebrities toting their adorable, well-dressed children and expounding on the difficulties of motherhood (REALLY? You have a cook, a maid, a nanny, a gardener and a personal assistant, how hard could it be!?), the constant barrage of heart-warming commercials extolling their products as the perfect gift for “the mother who has given you everything,” all of it just makes me angry. I mean let’s face it, Mother’s Day is as American as apple pie and Uncle Sam. It’s the day when we can be idealistic and feel good about ourselves and how much we love dear ol’ Mom.  If we truly want to value mothers (and not just on one token, commercialized holiday a year, but all year round) we need to make sure that every mom has the resources to raise and educate their children, care for themselves and promote a culture that truly values families. How do we do this? How do stop paying lip service to terms like “Family Values” and get around to valuing families? This subject is way too broad to try and address all in one (or even ten) blog posts, but I will do my best to outline it as best I can.

 Starting off it is important to look at how the concept of family values has unfolded in the fabric of American politics. Today’s blog entry will be dedicated to the political catchphrase, “Family Values.” The term “family values” is typically associated with political discussions, specifically a Christian conservative position.  The term is a catchphrase for a set of moral values which are thought to promote healthier families throughout the nation. The main focuses of the “Family Values” movement, according to the blog;, are upholding traditional marriage/excluding gay marriages and promoting legislation that is pro-life/anti-abortion.  They also stand behind the abstinence movement and prayer in school. This is a simplistic breakdown, but it synthesizes the issues that end up being hotly debated topics in every election, and issues that I believe to be currently superfluous to more pressing issues involving families. In my opinion we cannot debate values until we first tend to the immediate and pressing needs of families with children in America. Therefore, in this discussion I do not wish to debate the legitimacy or virtue of the family values position, I would merely like to point out that it actually does very little to promote the valuation of families in our society (a fine line to be sure, but an important distinction).  To clarify, for the purpose of this blog, the term “families” is used to address families with children, school aged and younger, who are too young to care for themselves.

The position of Family Values attempts to define what a family should look like and promote a general structure to which all families should be held up against; a two-parent, Christian household that maintains the sanctity of sexual intercourse between spouses with an eye towards procreation.  This attempt at defining a family, in my opinion, is actually just another puzzle piece in what can be argued is the routine devaluation of families in this country. The fact remains, whether you agree with it or not, families come in all shapes, colors and sizes. There are children out there that are living in nuclear, heterosexual households for sure. But, there are also families with two moms and two dads, no mom or no dad, blended families, inter-racial families, families affected by death or divorce, foster families, adopted families, mixed religion families and so on and so forth. The tenant of my argument is that in order to promote programs that reach real families who have real children with real needs we need to get past the emotion of what is “right” or “wrong” and find a solution that provides a valuation for all families, regardless of their make-up. I mean, what does a family need to have the tools to be successful? A well-tooled family should have a roof over their head, food on the table, access to adequate income production and affordable, quality education. Sounds simple, right? The fact is that those basic things are not always easily achievable for all families, and even less so for families with young children or families that don’t fall under the larger umbrella of “traditional.” In order to provide for those families we would first have to be brave enough to face a full-scale cultural shift that would value all families and what they are trying to do, which is raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted, and hopefully successful children.  So if I can dream for a moment, I envision all parents bonding together in a “Valuing Families” movement to promote the betterment of ALL children regardless of the home that they were born, fostered or adopted into.

Framing an Argument for Change

When my husband and I first got married, almost 8 years ago (which blows my mind that it has been that long already) I had just graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder and was sporting a brand new BA with a double major in anthropology and English. I had just spent a year abroad in England (which I loved) and had NO clue what on earth I was going to do with the rest of my life. Moving from Boulder I was somewhat stereotypical of “Boulder” in my thinking; liberal, environmentally conscious, health conscious, highly idealistic and let’s face it, pretty darn “crunchy.” My husband, on the other hand, when I met him was a fairly focused, logical, right-wing leaning cultural main-streamist, so to speak. During the first few years of our marriage we often got into heated arguments about politics and there were a number of occasions when a stuffed animal or two may have been launched across the room at one another in frustration (ok, mostly by me). We came from totally different political viewpoints. However, it was this constant head-butting that helped forge my arguments on things that I felt were important into much more complex and persuasive arguments. Because of that we have since found ways to meet much more in the middle. And it is that process which gives me hope that there is a way to meet in the middle on America's political front in a way that would improve the situation of families in America.

I clearly recall the primary incident that was the tipping point for me although the specific details have long since escaped me. It was an environmental controversy that had been published in the paper shortly after we were married involving Oregon somehow, if I remember correctly. As I was pouring the milk onto my cereal, I shook my head from side to side and said, somewhat sanctimoniously, “Isn’t that such a shame. That is so wrong. I can’t believe they are allowed to get away with that.”

To my horror my husband responded, “Why not? What’s wrong with it?” As I stared across the table at the now stranger who was my husband, I began to yell, “How on earth can you defend those monsters? What they are doing is so clearly wrong!”

“Why is it wrong?”

“It just is! How can you even be saying that? What’s wrong with you?”

Now, this argument went on for quite a few days. Periodically I would press my point, “It just isn’t fair!” “It’s wrong” “It is unconscionable” ”You HAVE to agree with me” etc…. But, my stoic husband, unfazed by my near hysteria just kept asking, “Why is it wrong? How should it happen? What can be done to fix the problem? How would you persuade the people with the money to change their minds?”

Finally I was so utterly disgusted with his obvious lack of empathy I just stopped talking to him, full stop. Two days ticked by as I stewed in irritation and disgust. Then slowly, so slowly it began to dawn on me what he was trying to get me to do. He wanted me to set aside my emotions on the issue and give him a rational argument for WHY it was wrong. *DING* A light went on in my head and I began to think.

It is here in the story that I cannot properly recall all the details, but the issue we were fighting about had something to do with trees and water rights and environmental impact and I very clearly remember my final argument. “Ok honey, if company X proceeds with their plan….they will not just be impacting their own state, but they will be impacting the surrounding states water and environments in ways that they will have no say in. This in turn might affect their economy and therefore it is clearly shortsighted and myopic for Company X to proceed”

A huge grin broke out on my dear husbands face and he responded, “FINALLY! A real argument! You figured out that emotional rationale gets you nowhere. It may be great motivation and is important for you to get a fix on your passions, but does very little to further your goals since we do not live in an idealistic society. You have persuaded me. I agree that what Company X is doing is wrong.”

  It was a huge growing up point for me and I have never forgotten it. Whenever I start arguing something I am passionate about (and there are so many) when I find myself slipping into the “because it is wrong” argument (and I do), the face of my husband looms up in my mind’s eye and I immediately stop, back-track and begin seeking a more persuasive and reality-based argument.

Now just imagine what an impact we all could have if, in discussing emotionally charged topics, we could remember to step back, set emotion aside and instead brainstorm a workable solution to the problem. We could be a real force for real change!

Scattered Interests or Just an Anthropologist?

I will be the first to admit that I often have too many pans in the fire. I have so many interests and passions it is often times hard to buckle down and focus on just one. That is why when I was deciding what to study in college I quickly focused in on anthropology. Literally it is the "study of man," and could you get anymore all-encompassing than that? The great thing about anthropology is it embraces culture, communication, linguistics, art, history, artifacts, behavior, psychology, literature, architecture, archeology, biology, genetics, museum studies, just to name a few. There are physical anthropologists, workplace anthropologists, educational anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archeologists, museum curators, linguists, ethnologists, ethnographers, Marxist Anthropologists, feminist anthropologists and so on and so forth, all under the larger umbrella of “anthropology”. To steal from one of my favorite sitcoms, Big Bang Theory, What is anthropology? Anthropology is everything (although Sheldon would argue it was physics). If a human being has made it, done it or believed it and you want to study it, you may just be an anthropologist. According to the American Anthropological Association:

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.

So, while on the surface it may appear that I have a variety of interests, really they all fall under the purview of anthropology. It is through this frame of reference that I approach all things in my life, including my family, my social life, my hobbies and my professional life. In fact, if you were to ask me, I would tell you anthropology holds the key to all the world’s problems, but, then again, I might be a tad bit biased.