There’s a debate raging on the Internet about the conflict between work and mothering. The debate itself certainly isn’t a new one, but in the last month it has coalesced around a long article published in July in the US magazine The Atlantic. In the article, headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” its author Anne-Marie Slaughter examines the dilemma of powerful, educated women who struggle to balance their careers with the demands of parenting. Slaughter is a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for the US State Department. She is also the mother of two adolescent boys. She writes about working long hours and keeping up a demanding travel schedule while trying to be a good parent:
“[T]he minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be […]. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.”
She concedes that many other women who have less education, less powerful jobs, or less supportive partners (indeed, sometimes no partners) also have it hard, and questioned the feminist myth that women can “have it all”—ie, career and family at the same time. She adds that if this is to change there must be shifts in women’s access to positions of power, changes in the way we think about careers (do we really have to go to an office every day to advance in a career?), and changes to the structure of families so that more men play an active role in parenting.
It is the last part of the equation that I want to engage with here. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering night assignments, working weekends, I was generally too busy with work to spend time with my first daughter. Thank God I had the support of friends and relatives, but there were still too many evenings when my daughter was left in school until sunset because that was when I finished work. She suffered while my career thrived.
Women today take it for granted that they can be educated and have high-level jobs outside the home. These gains have been hard-won. (And there is still much to fight for: pay gaps between men and women persist and, as our recent Cabinet reshuffle has proven, just because there are educated, competent women available doesn’t mean that they will get put into those positions of power that exist.) However, I maintain that instead of giving women a choice between being working at home as wife and mother and being in the paid workforce, feminism has made it seem that women have an obligation to do both. As Slaughter points out, women who choose to do the former despite being equipped to do the latter are often looked at with scorn and condescension, as if they were inadequate or betraying the women’s movement. This has to change. Until there is a mass of men willing to wash dishes and wipe away tears, shuttle children to and from school and football practice, supervise homework and comb hair, working women will continue to do this double duty and they and their families will suffer for it. Of course women should be encouraged to work outside the home if they want to; but there must be a corresponding push for men to work within the home or we risk leaving our children without nurturing and support. Children must have parents. They need people who will see to their physical and emotional wellbeing, not from afar but right there in the home with them. Parenting by telephone cannot be a satisfactory alternative. Until there are enough men willing to do this “women’s work” of parenting, women will always have to choose.
Women must be involved in making and implementing policy at all levels, or we squander half our human resource and ignore the different solutions women might bring. But men have found out the hard way the cost of working 12-hour days: poor health, early death, and lack of engagement with their families. Asking women to blindly step into men’s shoes without changing these patterns is foolish and will ultimately benefit no one.
[This article was first published in the Trinidad Guardian on July 3, 2012. You can find it here.]
My younger daughter, The Lady, announced some time ago that she wants to be an inventor. I am not sure where she got the idea but she has been consistently coming up with inventions since then, some zany and some really practical. (If I told you what they were it would be copyright infringement. Sorry.) I’ve always encouraged both my girls to love science as well as the arts and humanities. We have books on biology, physics and general science all through the house and there’s a couple of science kits floating around the house, so it’s not completely out of the blue, but there aren’t really a lot of role models for her, especially in the Caribbean, and most of my friends are artists and writers, with the exception of her godmother, who is a petroleum engineer. That’s why I was so excited this week to hear from a friend of mine that a Trinidad-and-Tobago-born scientist was coming here for a visit.
The scientist is Camille Waldrop Alleyne, and she went to Mucurapo Girls’ RC, The Lady’s alma mater, and St Francois Girls’ College, the school for which The Lady passed in this year’s SEA. The bio sent to me by NIHERST, the organisation hosting her visit, is tremendously exciting:
“For the past 15 years, Camille Wardrop Alleyne has been dedicated to the advancement of aerospace and space technology. She is currently Assistant Program Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS), based at the NASA–Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with responsibility for communicating the ISS’ scientific research and education programmes to stakeholders and the public.”
Wow! I couldn’t ask for a more tailor-made role model for The Lady.
A little background: because her elder sister Miss Thing and I both went to Bishop Anstey High School, The Lady was disappointed to have passed for St Francois. I didn’t share her feeling; I was over the moon. St Francois, a government secondary school, is a very sound educational institution with a brilliant track record and I’ve heard nothing but good things about them for the past few years. I hope that, as a business magnet school, they will understand The Lady’s forceful temperament and know how best to shape that bold spirit so that she is a leader and unafraid of her power while still compassionate and human. I think this is where she is meant to be and I intend to do everything I can to support her and her school as long as she needs me to. And that includes bigging up a St Francois alum!
While The Lady won’t be at the lecture because she’s visiting family abroad on a well-deserved holiday, I hope to go and make copious notes. If she wants to be a scientist, I have her back.
Here’s the flyer for Camille Waldrop Alleyne’s lecture. Here’s hoping other little girls and boys from T&T can get inspiration and guidance from her too.
Of all the annoying things I read in today’s Trinidad Express (and there were several stories and ads that caused me ire, can I just say?), the most irritating was a call for the dismantling of the Government initiative to give laptop computers to all incoming secondary school students. Today’s story followed up on one written earlier this month detailing problems faced in implementing the initiative. In the first story, students said the computers were not being used in classrooms and were, in fact, being used to play games and record fights–and surf Facebook, a site that had supposedly been blocked on all the Government-issued laptops. Teachers said they hadn’t been properly trained and there was a big gap between the plan and its implementation.
The follow-up in today’s Express, the story that got me so mad, extensively quoted a parent identified as “Mrs Leacock”, whose views, presumably, represented the voice of parents. “The reality is that 12- and 13-year-olds are not responsible, nor prudent enough in their thinking to take care of, far less, use the laptop and harness its power to influence and access both good and bad at this tender age. We are being unfair in our expectations, and at the same time curtailing their opportunity to learn, by giving them another technological toy to entertain themselves with, and expecting better results in the long run,” she’s quoted as saying.
“A peep into any household whose child has their laptop at home would reveal the parent’s mantra of ‘turn that thing off’ with increased frequency, because now, in addition the Xbox, iPod, cellphone and TV to compete for our time and attention, our Form One children can now be mobile and walk into his bedroom/ bathroom and spend hours on the Internet or playing games, simply because they can, as it is their laptop.
“So in addition to more unsupervised use of this communication technology, we are fostering an increase in obesity. If before we had a hard time getting our children outside to play, this makes it all the more difficult, and the reality is that they have these laptops for a few years, so these bad habits are not going to change anytime soon.”
Well, Mrs Leacock, I beg to differ.
There might be great reasons to take those laptops away from the kids, but there are even better reasons to let them keep them. Here are some:
• Children don’t learn responsibility unless they’re given it. In other words, if they have nothing of value, how do they learn that they must take care of the things they have? I struggle with this on a daily basis with my 11-year-old (soon to be getting a laptop herself, once she passes her SEA. We’ll know by next week, God willing). Do I worry that she’ll mash up the laptop she gets, or lose it? Sorta. But I also recognise that the only way for her to learn to take care of things that are important is for her to TAKE CARE OF THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT. Parents ought to be teaching their children responsibility from small–doing chores, taking care of pets, taking responsibility for their books and toys and so on. Getting a $5,000 piece of fragile technology shouldn’t be the first time they have responsibility. But it is an excellent opportunity to teach them consequences. Hold them personally responsible for the condition of the laptops and enforce consequences for damage or misuse. Let’s see how many keys go missing then.
• Internet access isn’t a privilege anymore. It’s a necessity. I lived in the library when I was a student. Now, as a writer, I live online. Every time I write one of these useless blog posts, I spend time researching what I write, or finding pictures to illustrate the posts or videos to emphasise my points. Young people in schools have to do much the same thing. Education is increasingly project-centred, an approach that puts the onus on the child to find and present information. They could do this in libraries like I did thirty years ago, but why should they? Any teacher would tell you that they expect projects to be typed and neatly laid out–usually on a computer. (Can I get an “amen” from all the parents who ordinarily have to go to their offices to type and print projects for their kids?) To force children to depend on Internet access at schools or public libraries would be putting them at a disadvantage. Who would suffer most? The kids whose families already have computers and Internet access at home? Doubt it.
• Technology is part and parcel of the modern world. Giving students computers at an early stage in their development makes them more comfortable and familiar with the tools they will have to use anyway. It’s true not everybody’s going to be a writer or a scientist. But have you been to a mechanic lately? Even they use computers for their office management and diagnostics. Face it: computers are not going away and we need them more each day. Give a head start to children who otherwise would not be able to afford them.
• Computer-assisted learning can help certain kinds of learners. Chalk and talk doesn’t reach everybody. By nature computers are multi-media and therefore could be a great tool in teaching those who are more kinetic or visual learners. For more on the benefits of computers in classrooms, read this.
• Social networking is not the devil. Well, maybe this is a shaky point. I know they can be addictive, but sites such as Tumblr and Facebook are one of the ways the adult world now communicates. I once read a comment from someone who said that Facebook is today what a cell phone was ten years ago. Hands up if you have a cell phone now. I’m sure even Mrs Leacock has one. The idea is that they are a weapon in our communications arsenal and they can be useful. Teachers can and do use Facebook to post assignments and communicate with students. It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.
• Who’s in charge of our children’s habits and lifestyle? Parents, or the computers? Mrs Leacock’s argument is a cop out. Until that child turns 18 he or she is your responsibility. Go back to my very first point. What did we say about taking care of the things that are important to you? Get the child off the computer. It’s your right and your job.
• As for the finding in the first story that teachers hadn’t been properly trained, this is eminently fixable. Train the teachers. When I teach I use my computers to teach (sometimes I use PowerPoint presentations, I find resources online for students, I show videos, I give quizzes, I make them do blogs). I also use my computer to communicate with students and do things like lesson plans. You don’t need a computer to teach. But it is a very useful tool. Show the teachers that and they might find it less onerous to be trained in using computers.
I’m not trying to oversimplify the problems inherent in giving students computers for use in schools. They are many and large. But we can and should solve them. Our children, no less than any others, deserve to reap the benefits of progress.
My younger daughter just sat the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). The exam, which used to be called the Common Entrance, is the be all and end all of every Trinidadian and Tobagonian child’s primary school career. All seven years of primary school lead up to SEA; it determines what secondary school you’ll attend, and by default, if you succeed in school or not.
That’s a pretty harsh and extreme position, you might say. Well, it’s not. While anybody can succeed in life given the right tools and encouragement, the average secondary school child in this country isn’t given either. Most go through the system like a dose of salts, as one aspiring education minister unfortunately said on the hustings during the last election. This year about 17,000 students sat the exam, which starts at 9 am and ends at 12.30 pm and covers English grammar, creative writing and mathematics. Of those thousands, about two or three thousand will end up in schools their parents consider “good”–either the denominational schools that by and large top the secondary school scholarship lists every year, or a well regarded government school, of which there are a handful. Each of these schools takes in about 120-150 students, tops. What happens to the rest of students?
The government some years ago instituted a rule that no child would fail the SEA outright. Instead, the lowest scoring pupils who sat the exam would either return to primary school for another–and another, and another, if necessary–chance to sit it. Those who aged out would go on to government secondary schools with remedial curricula. Those who sat and passed with better scores would go to mainstream or tech/voc government schools. The government also paid for places for students in private secondary schools. All children now go to secondary school. But it remains an unfortunate truth that the majority of those innocents who sat SEA Tuesday will not have the secondary schooling they deserve.
Overcrowded classes, understaffed schools, a curriculum that does not seem to meet their needs, and lack of parental input conspire to leave many of our youths still at sea when they go to secondary school.
As for my child, The Lady, I hope she passes for my alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School. If she doesn’t, I will send her to whatever school she passes for, support, guide and love her and hope for the best. Your schooling is not the sum of your education.
But maybe I get ahead of myself. The results don’t come out for another three months, so she has a nice break from academia–she had lessons before and after school, Saturdays and all through the holidays. She gets a break from hours of homework every single night and the horrible pressure of knowing this was the biggest exam she has ever had to do in her nearly 11 years. And I get to sleep late again. Until she starts Form One, anyway.
I had a tempestuous relationship with my mother for most of my life, possibly because I didn’t understand anything but my own needs and desires and had no patience with anyone else’s, but when that was over we were great friends up until she got senile dementia. I lost her in 2004. I remember her as a flirt, a practical woman who knew how to cook and how to beat children, a voracious reader, a loving mother who did the best she could. She always said she preferred boys to books and that is how she came out with three A’s and six O’s (one son named Abraham, a son and daughter named Allen, and six children named Ollivierre); she had no passes and no qualifications of any kind but managed to find ways to feed and clothe us all, even if it meant leaving some of us for her own mother to mind.
Barbara Jenkins has written a wonderful story about her own mother’s struggles to make ends meet and what she learned from her mother; I don’t mean to repeat that in this post. The reason I’m writing this is because Miss Thing, my eldest, said to me today that she is slightly afraid that once she turns 18 in two months I will stop doing all the things I do for her. Miss Thing is spoiled, to some extent. I drive her around, buy her the things she needs and some of the things she wants, listen to her, talk to her, do her hair, give her tips on makeup and clothes, and generally make myself available to her as much as she needs (even if it’s not necessarily as much as she wants all the time). Parenting like I do it can be exhausting, physically and emotionally, and I think she now recognises that. Turning 18 might mean, she thought, that I wouldn’t have to do any of those things for her anymore.
Well, the truth is that I’m not legally obliged to do most of those things for her even now. I do them because I want to, and because I can. My own mother stopped taking me shopping when I was barely a teen; I was given money and sent on my way to do what I wanted or had to with it. Our contentious relationship meant we were not confidants–far from it. My mother was the last person I would talk to about anything, small or large. All my big decisions–what to study, whether to marry, what to do with my life–I made on my own or with the input of my siblings, boyfriend or friends. In fact, my mother actively resisted being drawn into my life: when I was a teen and downed a bottle of Tylenol in a melodramatic attempt to end it all, it was my boyfriend who held my hand while I was wracked with stomach pains and despair. My mother refused to take me to the hospital and we never discussed it again.
While I’m not blind to her faults, neither am I consumed with bitterness over my childhood with her. She did the best she could with the resources she had and so do I; but what I do for Miss Thing and her sister The Lady is a direct consequence of the childhood I had. For every taxi I had to take alone at any hour of the day or night, I drive the girls to their destinations and pick them back up or arrange for them to be picked up. For every pair of shoes or panties I had to pick out myself, I go with them to buy theirs. For each decision I had to puzzle through on my own, I give them the tools and advice to make the best choices they can. For each dodgy character I befriended and *shudder* dated, I vet their choices of friends in subtle and sometimes obvious ways. I want them to be independent and powerful women, but I don’t think they need to learn those skills the hard way, as I did.
I loved my mother and cherish her memory, but I am not my mother. I hope my daughters one day look back at their childhood and say, “She did the best she could with the resources she had and she did a damn good job.”
Friday last week saw me on the edge of my seat at The Lady’s school Spelling Bee finals. The school has just started this school-wide competition and they hope to make it an annual event. The inaugural event was short and decisive; The Lady took the Std 5 championship after stumbling over “magnanimous” in her second round (but all the competitors also missed their words so the round was discounted).
I was overwhelmingly proud of her, not just for winning, but for actually learning over 300 spelling words in preparation for the tournament. (The last round in the finals, however, included words not on the list.) She stuck to it and was rewarded with the win.
Most of the girls who took part in the finals did so under the gaze of at least one parent or guardian, except for one girl who had no parent there to cheer her on. I wonder if that made a difference to her?
In my childhood my parents rarely, if ever, attended my school events. I might come home and announce I had won something, or taken part in something else, and they would be happy in an abstracted kind of way. Coming to those things was not a priority for them.
I wonder if it made a difference to me? I can’t remember. But I know The Lady wanted me there at her Spelling Bee and I made sure to be there on time as she requested. I sat up in front and beamed loving attention to her all through the contest. I think it made a difference, my being there.
Two women I know are embarking on first-time motherhood and it got me thinking: what are some of the things I wish I knew when I was about to have a child?
Maybe the number one thing was that some of those old wives’ tales are true. Every time I look at my very round belly I think, “Why didn’t I band my belly like my big sister told me to?” The short answer, of course, is that I thought that idea was rubbish. Muscle springs back once the baby’s out, doesn’t it? (Uh, no, it don’t.) The truth is unless you’re into some kind of regular exercise with an intense ab workout component, you’re going to end up with at the very least a pooch, or in the worst case, a pot belly. Band it. It won’t kill you.
Breast feeding is not over rated. Do it for as long as you can. It’s the best thing for the baby, it’s cheaper than formula, it’s less work and more sanitary and it’s definitely better for the environment. Breast feeding also helps with your post-partum tummy. (See above.)
Relax. Motherhood is hard, hard, hard. Make sure you take time for yourself and get some sleep. Don’t make your job or husband a priority right now. They’ll keep. The baby needs a lot of attention and he or she will get it, but you won’t unless you make yourself a priority.
You’ll miss stuff in The World while you’re getting used to being a mother. Even when the kids get big, it might happen. Don’t worry about it too much; The World will still be there when you are able to and interested in going to see what it’s up to.
Love your baby. Trust me, this is harder than it sounds sometimes….
Get support. Your mom, in-laws, friends etc will all be lining up to help you. Don’t be proud, and don’t let their alternate ideas on parenting put you off accepting their help. Gently but firmly let them know what you prefer, but by all means let them come and help. It makes life a million times easier.
Babies are expensive. But the money always comes.
What are some of the things you experienced parents out there learned about that you wish you’d known when you were a first-timer?
So the last few weeks of my life–nearly a month, now–have been consumed with moving house.
I lived in Diego Martin for about six years and my rent increased pretty much annually. This year I knew I had to make some changes, because, despite quitting my regular job to take a chance on the NGO I founded, I plan to send my elder daughter off to school in Foreign. Do the maths: less income and more expense. Something had to give and that something turned out to be rent.
My new apartment is still a work in progress. It is a two-bedroom in Petit Valley (in the kind of neighbourhood that had the kind TSTT lady saying, when I called to change my service address, “You sure you want to live there?”) and so far, so good. My younger has school friends in the area and, to be honest, once the DVD player and the computer are working, she’d live in the pit of hell for all she cares. My elder, ditto, except you can substitute flushing toilet for DVD player.
We haven’t fully unpacked yet. The dozens of boxes, bin liners and reusable HiLo bags into which I packed up my life are mostly empty, but since one of things we haven’t got yet is shelving, there are some key items still wrapped up in cardboard and packing tape. The amenities are not what I’m used to, but then I have to remind myself that I grew up sharing a bedroom with two sisters, my mother and my brother, without indoor plumbing or a TV for most of my childhood. It’s all relative. You’d be amazed at what you can get used to, either way.
As I wait for the completion of our apartment, grimy from concrete dust and ducking the damned bat that refuses to understand that humans live here now, I count my blessings. Health, happiness, a life mission, good friends and a lot of family support are not all I have. I also have a roof over my head–even if I do have to share it with the bat for now.
George Monbiot, whose blog I enjoy in spite of the criticisms of his detractors, this week blogs about the UK government’s planned deregulation of the food industry, in the context of the government’s seeming tendency toward deregulation generally. This, he says, is a bad idea, because it unduly penalises the poor and the rich don’t feel the brunt of it. As he writes about deregulation, “The referee is government. It is always biased and often bought, but in principle in a democratic society it exists to prevent us from being fouled. More precisely, it is supposed to prevent those who have agency – the rich and powerful – from planting their studs in the chests of those who don’t. When the government walks away from the game the rich can foul the poor with impunity. Deregulation is a transfer of power from the trodden to the treading.”
In the case of food and obesity, he says, “Last week the health secretary Andrew Lansley sought to shift responsibility for improving diets and preventing obesity from the state to society. He blamed the problem on low self-esteem and deplored what he called ‘a witch hunt against saturated fats, salt and sugars’. In future poor diets would be countered by ‘social responsibility, not state regulation.’ From now on, he announced, communities will be left to find their own solutions. The companies which make their money from selling junk food and alcohol will be put in charge of ensuring that people consume less of them. I hope you have spotted the problem.”
Indeed. Speaking as a consumer, I can tell you the cheap fix is always much more enticing than the healthy diet; to eat healthily on a consistent basis requires dedication and dosh in equal measure. In my mother’s generation it was cheaper to cook your own food than to eat out; that may be true in the wider sense because it still costs $8 for a bundle of bhaji and $23 for a box of KFC, but you have to cook the bhaji (with other ingredients, naturally), and the KFC is right there in the box, eat it and go.
We have had some campaigns in Trinidad & Tobago encouraging people to eat well. Not enough. And the price of fresh fruit and veg seems to me prohibitively expensive, even taking into account seasonal fluctuations with drought, flood, etc. It’s now $15-22/lb for tomatoes. Tomatoes? I kid you not. Same thing for sweet peppers.
This fluctuation and the generally high prices speak to a national agriculture policy failure, in my mind. There is a need for subsidies (all the cool countries are doing it!), for better infrastructure for farmers, and for help with getting them to develop their markets. Farmers is folks too and if they aren’t feeling the love, so to speak, is we to catch–and pay through the nose for their produce.
As for encouraging people to eat well, there must be some way to do it; whether through increasing the already present attempts of the School Nutrition Co to educate children on diet; through pumping up the Health & Family Life Education curriculum in the area of diet and nutrition; or through a tax on fast foods. I sure don’t want to have to pay more for fast foods but if you’re taxing cigarettes and alcohol you might as well tax them too; obesity is linked to enough lifestyle diseases that it should warrant about as much attention as a fag or a beer, not so?