So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

13 December, 2009

Space To Be A Family

Raising My Boychick put up a post about what changes we would look for to make the culture safe for families. More or less. Noodling ensues, and I said I'd write it here because gods know I do ramble on.

This isn't a simple damn problem. The anti-family shit is deeply ingrained in the culture. (A Salon article about just some of the more overtly misogynistic bits.) I can look to Europe and see things that are better, though not all of them are what I would want.

After Little Foot was born, I had what is probably one of the best of all possible situations in this culture, because I'm a weirdo with a fantastic family. I could spent the first month of recuperation time almost solely recuperating - because I had three other people who were taking care of Little Foot while I could heal. Which meant that people could take basically an eight-hour shift of babycare and not be too shorted on sleep. And I could pull that off because of my family structure, because I had the luck to give birth near the beginning of the break between summer session and the fall semester, and because people took staggered leave so I wasn't alone with Little Foot until sometime in September. In among that we had a constant stream of visiting relatives who did some assisting in varying levels.

But note all the caveats in there. Most women giving birth do not have two husbands and their wife to help out. We had to stagger leaves from work, and if I'd given birth a week earlier ("on time") there would have been finals to contest with; later gets into the rolling beginning of the semester, and one of us is in grad school and another on staff at a university. And I think that having the four of us there was pretty much a bare minimum to maintain reasonable levels of sanity through my recovery.

I literally have no idea how smaller families do this without losing their shit.

On the other hand, I have no idea how I manage to be sole caretaker for Little Foot during the daytime during the week without losing my shit, so presumably people with smaller families are tapping the same wellspring that gets me through the day until I get relief as people drift home from work, from school, from classes, from errands.

The isolation of taking care of small children is inhuman. Much as I hate all those biological-essentialist notions that go along with How We Are Meant To Be, this is not how we are meant to be. I worked at home prior to Little Foot's arrival, and was more than content, as an introvert, to do so; now, I find myself feeling isolated and sunk into a morass from which it is difficult to escape. I walk down to the gas station to buy snack food solely to leave the house - with Little Foot tucked into a wrap if I'm entirely alone, leaving her in the care of one of her other parents for ten minutes if I have the help. Perhaps it would be easier if we had a second car and I my driving license, but I have no freedom to just go somewhere; even with help getting her into the car is a small project (check diaper bag, get jacket on baby, get wrap for carrying her at destination, get baby out of house, into carseat, buckles all done up). Perhaps it would be easier if we still lived in the city, and I could climb down the two flights of stairs, hop on the trolley, and go somewhere. But even so, my abdominal muscles have still not recovered from pregnancy, and carrying her for too long, I learned yesterday, means that when we extract her from the wrap I fold in half as soon as her weight isn't countering my muscle strain.

But how do we fix this? We can't put the culture back to a place where all the huge extended families are all settled in roughly the same place - even for those of us on good terms with our bloodkin have had reasons to move. Local crunchyparent gatherings have largely been scheduled during daytime hours in places I would have to travel to by car, as if all crunchyparents have one stay-at-home, and that stay-at-home can drive half an hour because they have a dedicated mommycar and no issues that interfere with its use. (I kind of fear noncrunchyparent gatherings, and haven't looked into them at all.) Subdivisions aren't communities, really, though part of that is my lack of any knowledge of how to really get to know my neighbors in any useful way. Childcare services are a bandage, whether it's an in-house nanny or dropping the kids off somewhere, and has its own intrinsic and complicated class issues.

But we don't see mothers (or other caregivers, but like so many things, this falls on the mothers) going about their daily business with a kidlet in a babypouch. Hell, we don't see those mothers going about their daily business - not shopping, not going to the park, I mean going to the office or sitting behind the cash register or whatever else - with baby shoved in a bucket carseat under the counter either. Employers who have in-house childcare are still a minority. The childcare work is invisible and unintegrated. It's done by magic invisible people. We expect the fairies to raise the children, and then we wonder why the children are fey, elf-touched, and unintegratable with the ordinary world.

It needs to be okay to bring the kids in to work, to have that part of life integrated with everything else. But that's not enough. Parents like me have to be able to not be alone all the time. Which means community building, and fucked if I know how to do that. It means stuff like commercially-zoned spaces within walking distance, parks, and spaces that aren't parent-and-child hostile: places to sit and nurse other than bathrooms, sidewalks that are broad enough to accomodate strollers without driving other pedestrians into the street, having public social gathering places that are open to children.

It also needs to be okay to have work have delineated edges. Every so often I hear people complaining about how parents get to take time to take the kids to the doctor, to their lessons, whatever, that parents aren't expected, necessarily, to do more than their nine-to-five, that there's this tidy cultural excuse that means that parents are only expected to do the work they're contracted for and can't reasonably be expected to do more. This is the sort of broken that's why I have a tag 'sixteen tons' on this blog. (And that's just dealing with exempt employees - hourly employees have a whole different set of problems to deal with, and one I'm actually less equipped to speak to despite having all of my life employment being on an hourly wage basis. Class is complicated.) It would be to everyone's benefit - not just parents - if work was not presumed to trump life unless one has a signed permission slip from overculture excusing our absences. (In a culture where only paranoia about swine flu makes taking time off for illness currently acceptable - despite the fact that infecting the office with that cold will cost a lot more than two days off - what the hell do we expect?)

And that's not getting into the whole needing to scrimp and save up vacation time to do parental leave. My lion had the flexibility to take time off and then do a week working from home; most people don't. We had more people than most to do staggered assistance for me. And, even with all that, I was still bleeding out lochia when I settled in to being her primary, and usually sole, daytime caregiver. And see above about the isolation thing, where I have it pretty good since every so often my liege is about when he doesn't have classes and can provide the amazing relief of "Could you pick her up so I can rearrange" or "Could you handle this diaper change" or "Could you mind her for five minutes so I can go buy a donut" - not even, usually, doing primary caretaker (though sometimes he takes her for the morning and lets me get some more sleep), more "a momentary hand with this makes my life an order of magnitude easier".

Most industrialised countries have longer maternity leave times. Some have parental leave that is available to presumed-both parents (adoptive or biological, even). (And even for families like mine where more parental leave might be wanted, those countries also have more than two weeks of vacation time available at all, which goes back to the whole work-trumps-life rant about being expected to work more than one's hours by default.) I don't know where other countries are on flex-time working and telecommuting; getting those widespread would be a help to more parents than me. (When my lion does a telecommuting day, again, my resilience goes up a lot.)

(And, of course, my health and Little Foot's depend on my lion maintaining that pretty nice job that lets him telecommute sometimes including for a week after he took vacation post-birth. Because of the way employment links to health care, and the way that one's quality of job therefore links to one's quality of life. And if there were an NHS here, how much of a difference would that make to people who have to work shitty jobs for the health care, or who needed prenatal care, or post-partum treatment? Who wouldn't have the money to hire the homebirth midwife we had or handle the not technically last-minute transfer to the hospital?)

And I think long-term, too, like the friend who was enraging me a while back (who apologised, by the way), and think, y'know, the time that people spend raising kids should count towards Social Security or something. I don't know if I'm as optimistic as one of the commenters on Raising My Boychick about some kind of parenting wage, but hey. That'd be cool. (Did you know that Norway counts breastmilk production in its GDP?)

Let's see if I can summarise this into something reasonably tidy:

* enabling community support, whether larger families, extended families, chosen families, I don't care, more people available to help with kids for more time
* walkable communities with basic stores and public spaces near residential areas
* death to the Company Store - shorter hours, more vacation, no expectation of overtime as default, flexible scheduling, telecommuting, available to everyone, not just to parents
* universal health care access (here, this'll make up some of the pain to the companies that are being required to treat employees better)
* recognition of parenting as ... I don't want to say 'economically productive' because I dislike the whole 'it has to be qualified as Real Work and quantified monetarily for anyone to take it seriously' shit, but somewhere in the direction of, y'know, noting this happens, we don't get new taxpayers from the aforementioned childrearing fairies
* parental leave available for all legally recognised parents (acknowledging that families like mine are unlikely to be accomodated here but), whether biological or adoptive
* integrating caregivers with the community, not separating off and isolating paid caregivers (more in-house childcare in companies, etc.)

How's that for a start?


thene said...

I've a feeling it works the other way around, too - that isolating and institutionalising childhood is not good for children and not good for the adults we have become, and that children need more social contact with more adults than they get.

I'm braintired today so am being bad at thinking things through but I've a feeling that the concept of privacy is lurking at the back of this somewhere - families are so often cast as 'private' in spite of the fact that their problems are very public concerns. And so children are meant to stay out of the part of the world where we put on our public faces, etc.

Arwyn said...

I think that's a fantastic start.

One idea I've been playing with that could address both the first and second-to-last of your points is the idea of making paid family leave available to X (say, 4, or 2 primary and 2 secondary) people -- any X people, not just governmentally-blessed relations. So families with many parents can all get time off, or a single-parent family can get friends and grandparents to stay and help (and a 2 parent family like mine could have time off AND get help, probably staggered).

The earning of Social Security credits is one of the more reasonable ideas (especially given that many I know work not because they need it now, but because elsewise they'd be completely hosed when it came to retirement). Personally, I think it's criminal that we don't get that -- true, we're not paying in to the system, but we are helping raise the persons who will pay into it later. And heck, higher income families could even CHOOSE to pay into it, and help fund the system that will support those who couldn't afford to.

Universal health care (a truly universal single payer system), and more reasonable and flexible work hours would also help everyone, in addition to making our lives so much easier.

I also just want to say hell yea to the comments about even just having someone around for a five minute break (or hell, just to fetch something to drink) makes a HUGE difference, even if one person continues to be the primary care giver.

Anyway. Thank you for such an in-depth response to my question.

Unknown said...

Good one on Letters from Gehenna - it helps a lot!

We clearly share similar parenting experiences and views.
I've been reading one that I'm hooked on -
I have a feeling you'd get a lot out of it.

Incredible job on your blog; keep it up.


Dw3t-Hthr said...

thene -

That's a whole other thing, too, I could do a whole separate post on the isolation of childhood and the way the separate spheres idea, stranger-danger and paranoia about child abduction, and similar stuff make for broken shit. Maybe I'll do that later.

Arwyn -

Transferrable family leave! Yes! Fucking brilliant!

One of the ways our culture is broken is this notion that "paying into the system" is done solely with cash on the table. Unpaid labor (done mostly by women) and underpaid labor (done mostly by racial minorities and the poor) form an unacknowledged backbone of the economy. Social Security for caregivers and health care for everyone is the least we-as-society can do to acknowledge that.

What gets me about this stuff is so many of these social changes would improve for everyone. I mean, if the culture changed so that people doing the nine-to-five always clocked out at five except in a crisis, all those people who piss and moan about how the parents get to clock out at five while they're doing their unpaid overtime would ... not have to be working overtime at all, let alone by default. Health care would help everyone. Accessible communities help everyone.

It's just, as they say 'round where I live, we can't get theah from heah.

lizw said...

I don't know where other countries are on flex-time working and telecommuting

In the UK, both of those fall under the legal heading of "flexible working arrangements", which any employee with children under 16 is entitled to request. That's request, not receive, so some employer's routinely turn them down - but anti-discrimination legislation applies, so they can't discriminate on any protected ground (religion, race, nationality, sex, disability, orientation or gender identity) when making the decision. The need to demonstrate lack of discrimination means companies tend to record their reasons very carefully, and that in turn at least somewhat discourages blanket refusals. It is beginning to have at least some effect on the culture here, I think, but I'd like to see a default presumption that reasonable requests will be granted and a corresponding duty on employers to justify refusals.

Anonymous said...


mamacrow said...

'We expect the fairies to raise the children, and then we wonder why the children are fey, elf-touched, and unintegratable with the ordinary world.'

oh WELL SAID! but then we home educate, so you can guess what I feel about locking children away from real life and the community in schools and day care :D

I used to be the full time worker and hubby was the full time carer (he also did some part time work, in the evenings for example). I worked for the NHS, and yes, there are lots of bad things about having the NHS as an employer, but lots of good things too - decent maternity leave policies for a start. also I worked in the cleric side of things which is mostly populated by women, the great majority of which have families, so there was support and understanding.

'Every so often I hear people complaining about how parents ... aren't expected, necessarily, to do more than their nine-to-five,'
noone should, unless they're getting overtime or time off in payment. I learnt that one real quick!

on post partum support - couldn't agree more. I'm very lucky, we both have lots of family, that we a) get on with and b) live locally - some next door in fact - we always have a babysitter when we need one, and have never had to leave the children with anyone other than a well known family member - I appreciate that SO much.

Also it's so much easier having older children too, I must say - people look at me and say 'how DO you cope with 6' personaly, i wonder how on earth I managed with out the older ones to help out!

Murre said...

Thanks again for your musings, D-H, and thank you so much for your kindly response to my earlier comment. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the culture of privacy and fear surrounding [all? white? middle class? American?] childhood.


Rosemary Cottage said...

I keep meaning to respond to Arwyn's post too. So many thoughts going round in my head about what I actually could have done with. Much of it is pretty much what you've said here, to be honest.

Stone Fox said...

hum. you're all over with this one. i don't feel qualified to speak to much except the part where you wonder how you make it through the day. all i can say is: ME TOO! i know it's not politically correct to say my precious angels make me want to stick my head in the oven, but sometimes, they do. having small babies IS terribly isolating. because my husband has always worked away and/or worked long hours, i have been raising my children on my own for the most part. because of this, i cannot not carry on with life as needed. i must take all three grocery shopping. i must take all three into town if i have errands to run. yes, it sucks as bad as it sounds.

i know your situation is a bit different as you don't drive and (i'm assuming) there is not quality public transit around to allow you to go willy-nilly. it may come down to having to pretend to be "normal" (gasp!) in order to meet your neighbors.

part of it, i think, is a natural tendency to not want to be CONSTANTLY tied to a baby. just to get away for a half an hour or a morning. to talk to grown ups. i completely understand this.

i don't agree that bringing your child to work is a better option than sending them to daycare. i am a nurse by trade; i doubt my patients would want my kids running amok while i am trying to do an in/out catheter or clean a wound. it would be near impossible to get any work done, in any job setting, with children who are crawling or older. they are distracting and disruptive and how would that work? daycare centers, the ones i have sent my kids to, often have a curriculum and a mission statement, goals, and are learning-centered. (sending your child to Joe Stranger's house to be babysat maybe isn't the best option, but it's definitely not the only option.) daycare forces children to become socialized. preschoolers tend to have a 'kill or be killed' mentality, and i think daycare helps take some of the rough edges off - or at least teaches the little savages decent manners.

what you said about nursing "only in bathrooms" makes me want to grab you and shake you and say, "DON'T BUY INTO THIS BULLSHIT!!" breastfeed your baby WHEREVER you want. if prissy folk don't like it, they can move their eyes away. if anyone has the nerve to comment, ask them if THEY would like to eat THEIR lunch sitting on a toilet in a bathroom stall!!

mamacrow said...

'daycare forces children to become socialized. '

but only if 'socialised' means interacting with people your exact age and stage of development, and being controlled minutely by authority and having no say on your day... i could go on but i'm not going to hijack the comments, honest.
Daycare can be great, but not for sociliastion - you have to be out and about in the comunity interacting with a wide range of ages and backgrounds to achieve that, imho

' if prissy folk don't like it, they can move their eyes '
read a great quote recently by, David Allen I think, saying - if people are offended by breastfeeding then they're staring too hard!

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Stone Fox -
The 'only in bathrooms' thing is talking about cultural shit, not me. I carry a little card in my wallet that has the statute that says that people who hassle nursing mothers are legally required to fuck right off. ;)

And I'm not so much about "everyone should be able to take their kids in to work" as making the options open more places where it can be done, not requiring this kind of sequestering of the one away from the other.

I'm reminded of a story my ex told me, about how his mother was talking with a school official at one point. She mentioned that her sons were homeschooled, and the school official said something like, "Oh, your children must have amazing social skills! We just can't do that."

Eemp said...

Oh hey! I'm all over that second one. The big lean in landscape architecture nowadays is toward building exactly that, a walkable community that does not require commutes or cars. If you want, I can ramble about this stuff for a good long time, but I'm not gonna do it here.

Kristin said...

I like what you've got here.

My previous university ended all paid family leave for staff members while maintaining semester-long family leave for faculty members. It was sickening. And not one among even the "progressive" faculty members protested.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Fucking wow.