Friday, February 18, 2011

Precipices and canyons

Since I last posted in early December over 7ft of snow has fallen in Campusville; one American President has come back from the precipice; two Middle Eastern Heads of State have been pushed over the precipice; and a little person I know has started skating a little too close to the edge for my liking.  
Little Teadrinker has officially reached the ‘pre-toddler’ phase. In many ways its been a magical whirlwind.  Where there were gurgles there are now genuine giggles; where arms reached out there are now heartfelt cuddles; where there were indiscriminate smiles, well remembered friendships are now formed.  Every day a new word. From the fragile helpless little baby, a multi-faceted human being is emerging and I feel myself falling deeper in love by the hour.   
Yet in spite of this, the idea of continuing as a stay-at-home mom is losing its appeal. In my naivety I’d imagined that bumptiousness, bossiness and bloodcurdling tantrums were reserved for the ‘terrible twos’.  The reality of mealtimes with a just turned one-year-old evolving into forty minute food fights, and attempts to put snowsuits and mittens on being met with a head butt has taken me by surprise. In peacetime the job is only marginally less demanding - the library visits and toy-shop sing-alongs that used to pleasantly break up the days now involve complex negotiations, chasing up and down isles and frantic efforts to put things back on shelves. To top it off, the nanny who we have been sharing with another family for a few hours a week has quit, citing artistic differences...  
So, where do we go from here?  Mr TD and I have concluded that the best scenario would be for one or both of us to go part-time and combine this with part-time nursery care. This would allow me my sanity, not to mention the chance to reclaim salary and career, and give LTd more of the social stimulation she craves whilst maintaining the one-to-one time she still seems to rely on.  
But if I’m looking for a decent part-time position anywhere round here, my luck is likely to be out.  In contrast to the UK, where workers have a legal right to request flexible work (albeit limited) and the most common pattern in two-parent families with children under-14 is that one parent works part-time, most American moms - and dads - face a stark all or nothing choice when it comes to combining work and family life. 
Other than for a few high income occupations such as pediatric medicine, most part-time opportunities offer vastly inferior pay and conditions. There is no requirement for parity of pay for part-time work and it has been proven that, for the lip service corporate America pays to ‘family friendly working’, even those women who take-up offers to take more flexilble or shorter hours find themselves discriminated against and overlooked for promotions.  Under these conditions, it is little surprise that most  moms feel they have little option than to bite the bullet, going back to work full-time and accepting the long hours (often 50+pw), limited holiday and family sacrifice that entails.  Meanwhile, the minority of educated professional moms who choose to stay at home have long been fetishized in the American media as self-sacrificial ‘opt outs’ - a trend started in 2003 with a NYTimes article by Lisa Belkin  which ignited major feminist debate. 
In well-to-do Campusville, the cultural divide between stay-at-home moms and worker moms is plain to see. I have a vague memory of this dynamic from when my own mum used to complain about the ‘worker mums’ who’d patronise her at North London dinner parties in the early 80s.  But I’ve not encountered anything like it at home yet since reaching the motherhood age, and can only think that its disappearance must be down to the rise of part-time working as a life-style choice in the UK.  Here, by contrast, it can be hard to escape the group politics (small ‘p’).  Feminist stand-points aside, each camp has their own set of support groups, their children often don’t mix until they reach school age and if you raise the subject of the ‘other’ with either it won’t be long before disparaging or perplexed comments are muttered.
Of course, the stay-at-home/worker-mom chasm is not the only division that is made wider by the poor prospects for part-time workers.  New analysis from UMass shows that low income women face the greatest ‘motherhood penalty’ in terms of earnings - and largely this is down to dropping their hours.  The authors speculate that low paid women who overcome the initial childcare conundrum and stick it out at work often quit altogether later on to accommodate family crises, lacking sufficient paid time off. Interestingly, the same study finds that there is a fatherhood income premium which is also linked to hours worked - in other words, as women drop out of the labour market, or accept poorly paid part-time work, dads are having to work longer.  It's the traditional breadwinner model plus.

Improved part-time work opportunities would help our family out, but I don't pretend they offer a panacea for gender equality - just look at the state of the remaining gender pay-gap in the UK.  Yet if US employers and regulators could get to grips with the issue they'd be swiping a significant blow at gender, class and cultural divisions all in one shot.


  1. Well, I think you summed it all up! And I must say that it is often true about the stay at home/worker mom camps. I never saw it quite put into words like that. But it is true, and sad.

    My daughter is also very advanced, obviously, and has started her tantrums and food fights early.

    I wish you good luck in finding it all! You are right, not on this side of the Pond.

  2. Speaking from sunny West London this is all so true. Women so seldom understand the enormous sacrifice they are making when they move to stay at home status or part time. The earnings gap widens as do the opportunities. Yet for those of us that remained in harness (I have three children) keeping up a top job and making sure your kids have pressed uniforms and security has at times been more than I could manage. Yesterday I was at a reception at the House of Commons where roughly 300 middle aged white men and me were greeting a new piece of legislation. I am a rare bird in my world, but knowing what it has taken to get here, I don't know that I could wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. Wether you plough on or give up the price is a high one. But for individual women, I guess if women don't press home their careers nothing will change. You have to be in it to win it.

  3. Thanks for comments Anonymous and Allison - Allison, you give a salutary reminder that things aren't all rosey for parents trying to juggle all balls back in Blighty either, especially once you reach a certain level of career seniority.

    I get the occasional reader from the Netherlands here - I know that part-time working is totally mainstreamed there and women report high levels of satisfaction with work/life, but have also heard that the gender pay-gap is huge. I'd be interested to hear more...