Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Raising Better Men in a Consumer Culture

I've been following the responses to a slate article about why it's better for the collective feminist good to be a working mother. It's a funny theoretical discussion, because for most women, it's not a choice. The discussion seemed to focus on upper class and lower working class families. It didn't focus on the middle class families and it definitely left out examples of many families I know where both parents have taken pay cuts or put career growth to the side in order to focus on spending more time with their kids.

Out of the Mainstream
Maybe it's just that I know more ex-punk rock, DIY, slackers who don't have high powered careers, but I know at least 10 families who have both parents working part time or as independent contractors. Stitching together a life where the corporate world doesn't hold such a huge influence over their lives. I know so many women who didn't like their jobs before they became mothers, they worked to make money and the break motherhood offered was a relief. They did the job they were trained to do in college -- teaching, law, sales, psychology, marketing whatever -- and knew that they'd have to find themselves again after the break of infancy. I have 3 friends who left Internet jobs and went back to school to find a new career (nursing, ultrasound, interior design) when their kids were in preschool because they wanted a non-corporate life.

Working outside of mainstream culture seems to allow for a more flexible, less stressful, and of course less wealthy lifestyle. It's not all peachy, health insurance is a big problem. It's also not completely stress free either of course. By being aware of the gender dynamics in the household -- training boys to become self sufficient and responsible for housework and questioning conventional wisdom, authority and stereotypes -- and by placing less importance on corporate consumer culture (which is hard to do) we can achieve the same goals of creating a more equal, family centric culture. The other day Elliot said, "I'm 100% man, I'm made of money" and this really struck home how insidious masculine stereotypes are. He doesn't even watch commerical tv. Where did he get this????

From The Case Against Staying Home with the Kids
If the women of the world unite, and get to work, they may flourish more fully in private and the public spheres. Until there are more equity in the cultural norms for child-rearing and household tasks, each time a woman decides to "opt out" she is making a political decision that reinforces an already ingrained social inequality. Meghan O' Rourke wrote this piece in Slate last week: The Case Against Staying Home with the Kids.

Hirshman attacked the sacred cow of the motherhood debate: the notion that it's a good thing liberated women are allowed to choose whether to work or stay at home—an intellectual paradigm Hirshman dubbed "choice feminism."

Hirshman thinks that the "choices" women actually have are often illusory, shaped by inequalities in the work force, and circumscribed by a cultural discourse that hammers home the message that women are failing their children if they don't stay home. Finally, many women choose to take time off without knowing very much about what impact it will actually have on their futures: A recent study found that a full 93 percent of "highly qualified" women who have opted out want to find a way back in and can't. And, according to several studies, women in the United States suffer a 10 to 15 percent dock in future earnings when they have children—a drop that doesn't affect men.

If you buy her argument, then even if you find it hard to leave your baby at home, and even if you find the workplace sometimes less-than-fulfilling, it's important—to society as a whole—that you work. This sounds extreme, but of course it's the lesson every man is taught when he's a boy: Your responsibility to society—the way to become an adult—is to work.

Until those who care about equality recognize that it will take collective action to create further change, the kinds of policy amendments most women want to see won't take place, and women will continue doing 70 percent of the housework—while men continue to do less housework after marriage than they did as bachelors.

The truth is, most men and women invested in equality do see that cultural norms aren't equal, but it's hard to set aside the rhetoric of choice. In our late consumerist culture, choice is almost always thought of as good. It also seems distasteful—and, yes, paternalistic—to assume that women who aren't forced to make their decisions are unhappy with them. But if women really do stay in the work force, even part-time, a few decades from now it may be easier for parents to opt out according to their personal preferences, rather than their gender. If one parent didn't want to assume the bulk of the child-care duties, as may well be the case, two could split it. The demand for elastic or part-time work by men and women alike would lead to more flex
ible jobs.

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