New Mama Musings

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Good Life for Humans

After writing my last blog entry I stumbled across a provocative article by Linda Hirshman that appeared in an issue of American Prospect late last year.

In it Hirshman says that an alarming number of college-educated women are leaving the workforce to raise their children, a choice that is "bad for them" and "bad for society."

She defines "a good life for humans" as "using one's capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, ...having enough autonomy to direct one's own life, and...doing more good than harm in the world." By such measures, she says, these moms "will be leading lesser lives...bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste."

Furthermore, society loses, she states, because these women are wasting their education: "Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals?"

The solution in Hirshman's mind is to return to feminism's radical roots, in which staying home and raising one's children is not a valid choice for women. In order to avoid shouldering an unequal share of maintaining a household and raising kids, a woman needs to keep this foremost in mind when choosing a marriage partner.

In addition, a woman needs to keep money as the goal in seeking employment, as "it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to yield power, including within the family." She faults idealism for directing some women into lesser-paying jobs: "[I]dealism on the career trail usually leads to volunteer work, or indentured servitude in social-service jobs, which is nice but doesn't get you to money."

Hirshman's last "rule" addresses the heart of the family itself -- children. She says you can have a baby, but only one: "A second kid pressures the mother's organizational skills, doubles the demands for appointments, wildly raises the cost of education and housing, and drives the family to the suburbs."


Let me begin by saying that I understand the problem Hirshman is addressing. Women are still a long way from being equal to men in the workplace. And that's a problem, I agree, as far as women being taken seriously and being given equal opportunities in all facets of society. We need to be represented in all areas in order to be validated in all areas.

However, her idea of what makes "a good life for humans" -- despite the definition she gives -- seems to be about making money and avoiding domesticity at all costs. In Hirshman's world you don't marry simply for love, or work just to make a difference in the world. And god forbid you should have more than one child.

I have problems with this on so many fronts:

  • The article focuses on well-educated women who can afford to stay home with their children and dismisses domestic chores as work for the lower classes. I won't go into how insulting this is, but I thought it needed to be mentioned.

  • Personally, I find "a good life for humans" to be about fulfilling one's potential, making connections with others, doing good in the world and striving to learn and do better. It has nothing to do with acquiring money and avoiding domestic tasks.

  • Being a mom (even for seven short months) has enriched me in ways no job ever could. The things having Henry has taught me -- about myself, my relationship with others, my own parents, and how we grow as people -- is not the kind of thing I would ever learn in an office. One could argue that I could learn these things while also working outside the home, but I disagree. My time would be too divided; I'd be too tired and stressed out to pay attention to the lessons that being with my baby 95% of the time present to me.
  • Despite Hirshman's dismissive view of stay-at-home moms, I'm not just sweeping floors and wiping up poop. I take this job very seriously. There are a lot of tough decisions to be made as a parent, and I research each of them carefully. So far -- in seven months -- I've addressed circumcision, vaccinations, television viewing, exposure to plastics, homeopathic care, and sign language, among other things. And I'm pretty sure my research will continue until Henry is off to college.
  • If Hirshman is so concerned about the future of our society and how women are treated by men and represented in our culture, why does she not look at how the next generation of women and men are being raised? Does she think such lessons are better learned in a daycare center than in one's own home, with one's own (well-educated) mother? And is education a waste if you are an influence on society's future?

  • Also, does this woman have any children of her own? Has she ever been a child? I grew up with a working mother. According to Hirshman, I probably learned that women can do it all, right? Nope. I remember my mom coming home every night too exhausted to do anything but fall asleep on the couch. My parents retired wealthy and now take trips around the world, but from my perspective, the trade-off was definitely not worth it. My take-away (to use a business term) was that working just for money was something to be avoided, especially when it comes at the cost of personal relationships.
I have to wonder if Hirshman wrote this article merely to spark a debate. If not, I feel sorry for any woman who takes her advice to heart.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I recently began and quit an almost-new job, all within just a few weeks.

I say "almost-new" because it involved taking care of the little girl G. I used to nanny for (now three-and-a-half), but with the addition of her baby brother C. (two-and-a-half months younger than Henry), and at my house, not theirs.

My reasons for taking this job were noble. I'd become good friends with the parents and wanted to maintain ties with them, especially since we plan to move to their end of town in a few years. Also, it was only one (ten-hour) day a week and I figured I could handle anything for just one day a week.

The mom had told me that G., always a high needs baby, had started playing on her own for long periods of time since I last cared for her and that C. was a really mellow baby who liked to hang out in his bouncy seat.

Neither proved to be true for me.

To be fair, they're sweet kids and totally normal developmentally. I just underestimated how much attention and work three kids require, and more importantly, how overwhelmed and stressed out I get when I can't do things the way I'd like.

G. would be asking, "Who will play with me?" and Henry would be making his tired moans and C. would start wailing urgently (which would in turn freak Henry out)...and I would look at the clock and see that only an hour had passed. I felt like none of the kids were getting what they needed from me, which was especially hard since one of them was my own.

Also, there were little things, like I found myself cracking and turning the TV on for G., something I vowed I'd never do with Henry. And we had stuff all over our house -- a swing for C., a playpen, preschooler-appropriate toys -- and while I realize that this happens when you have a child, it was too much clutter for my highly sensitive personality to deal with.

Okay, I sound like a big whiner. The money was good, it was just one day a week, and they brought the kids to me. And I just couldn't do it.

I did learn something from this whole mess, though, which is that no one takes care of your child the way you do.

Sure, I have a bond with G., and her baby brother was sweet, and even though I responded to their needs as best I could, when I heard them cry I didn't feel the same way I feel when Henry cries.

When my baby cries there isn't anything I wouldn't do to make him feel better. When another baby cries I just want them to stop crying, already. It's not that I wasn't loving and comforting; it's just that I was forcing it more than I ever have to force it with Henry.

So I've officially given up the working world to focus on raising my son. And aside from the guilt I feel in letting G. and C.'s family down, I'm pretty happy about it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me

Last Saturday I turned 35, the age my mother was when she had me. There must be something meaningful about that, but damned if my mommy brain can articulate it. (Hey! I just used a four syllable word!)

The day was pretty mellow as far as birthdays go. It didn't help matters that it was the coldest day of the season so far -- the low temperature was 11 below Fahrenheit. So we stayed in, my husband made pancakes for breakfast, I made pizzas for dinner, and we both loved up the baby.

On Sunday my parents took the three of us to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. Normally when we take Henry out to eat my husband and I take turns holding him, and he gets progressively more and more squirmy so that by the time the check arrives it's definitely time to go. We can eat, but it's never a nice, leisurely experience.

My mom offered to hold Henry when she was done eating so my husband and I could finish our meals, and I was stunned to see Henry lean back against her, pop his thumb in his mouth, and zone out. After a while my dad held him, and actually had him laughing. Both of them fawned over him like, well, doting grandparents.

On the way out my dad said to my husband, "Cherish them while they're little. It goes so fast."

Who are these people? And what have they done with the ones who raised me?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

There's nothing better than waking up to a (co-sleeping) baby making little preverbal vocalizations, yawning, and reaching out to touch you in the morning.

There's nothing worse than the same baby resisting sleep for hours the night before -- crying, coughing, flailing -- especially when your husband is at band practice, drinking beer and yukking it up with the guys.

But I guess you take the bad with the good in parenting. I try to keep in mind that Henry really needs me at those times, and although he may not consciously remember it, my being there for him is something he'll carry with him for the rest of his life.

After he finally fell asleep last night he continued to cough for a while, and he clung to me like his life depended on it. Which in a way, I suppose, it did.

Edited to add: I just noticed that Henry has a tooth! He pulled my thumb into his mouth to gnaw on it and I felt something sharp. It's one of the bottom front ones. Can I just say how very, very glad I am that I was so patient with him last night? Poor little guy was probably in a lot of pain.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

To TV, or Not to TV...

It's amazing how having Henry has made me examine so many of my previously held ideas. I mean, I never gave much thought to circumcision, and now it seems absolutely barbaric to me -- on par with the genital mutilation of girls. And vaccinations? Kids have to get their shots, right? (Stay tuned for more on that subject...I'm still doing research.) The latest target of my laser-like focus is television. Yep, TV.

Now, my husband and I have never been the types to have the TV on constantly. And we've never had cable or satellite TV -- we get your basic free channels and that's it. But we do own five televisions, I'm ashamed to say. I'm sure it doesn't make any difference that two of them were given to us, and one of them is a tiny TV/VCR combo we bought to watch while using our treadmill, but I'm saying it anyway.

And I won't lie to you and say we watch nothing but news and PBS. We love The Simpsons, The Office, Seinfeld reruns, and the occasional Saturday Night Live. I'm also hooked on Gilmore Girls and The O.C.

So this is a big, big decision for us. To be honest, we probably would not get rid of our TV's entirely, but replace them with one TV/VCR/DVD combo that we keep in a closet and pull out occasionally after Henry is in bed.

That's our main agenda: keeping Henry TV-free. Making a set less accessible would help ensure we (mainly me, as the stay-at-home-parent) don't rely on TV to keep Henry occupied. It's a slippery slope, as I learned in my years as a nanny and stepmom. It's almost like using drugs: first it's just a little Sesame Street in the mornings so you can drink your coffee in peace. Then the quiet is so nice that you tack on Mr. Rogers. Before you know it your kid is watching the entire PBS children's programming line-up, morning and afternoon, and they're so hooked on TV that they don't want to do anything else.

As is my modus operandi, I started doing research on the effects of television on children. What I found made me realize my gut instinct to keep Henry far, far away was right on. The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life by Marie Winn is particularly eye-opening. She asserts that it's not just what a child watches that matters -- it's that they watch at all:

"Parents may overemphasize the importance of content because they assume that their children's television experience is the same as their own. But there's an essential difference between the two: adults have a vast backlog of real-life experiences that colors what they see; children do not. As adults watch television, their own present and past experiences, dreams, and fantasies come into play, transforming the material they see into something reflecting their own particular inner needs. Young children's life experiences are limited. They have barely emerged from the preverbal fog of infancy. It is disquieting to consider that hour after hour of television watching constitutes a primary activity for them. Their subsequent real-life activities will stir memories of television experiences, not, as for adult watchers, the other way around. To a certain extent children's early television experiences will serve to dehumanize, to mechanize, to make less real the realities and relationships they encounter in life. For them, real events will always carry subtle echoes of the television world." (Bold mine.)

She also discusses how television watching displaces human interaction for children, and why this is so noteworthy:

"According to...neuroscientists, among the most important of the environmental factors that might affect neurological development are the language and eye contact an infant is exposed to. Indeed, some researchers say that the number of words an infant hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success and social competence. But there's one catch. As a New York Times science writer concluded, 'The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to determine, radio and television do not work.'" (Bold mine.)

Winn says that television viewing also keeps children from playing, which serves a vital role in their social, emotional, and intellectual development. In the "more complex forms of imaginative play they...find ways to work out difficulties and adjust the realities of life to their inner requirements.... In play they expose, and perhaps exorcise, fears that they cannot articulate in any other way."

She also explores the difference between reading and television viewing, which often displaces reading: "At the same time that children learn to read written words they begin to acquire the rudiments of writing. Thus they come to understand that a word is something they can write themselves. That they wield such power over the very words they are struggling to decipher makes the reading experience a satisfying one right from the start." However, "[a] young child watching television enters a realm of materials completely beyond his or her understanding.... They take on a far more powerless and ignorant role in front of the television set than in front of a book."

Winn addresses television's damaging effects on the growing-up process, too: "There's an evolutionary purpose to [the] behavior progression from parent-centered, passive, receptive orientation to an environment-centered, active, learning style of life: the individual's survival in society is necessarily a function of active, adaptive behavior. It is precisely at this point in a child's development, somewhere between the ages of two and thee, that parents are most likely to begin turning on the television set for their young children. While watching television, young children are once again as safe, secure, and receptive as they were in their mother's arms. They need offer nothing of themselves while watching.... Just as they're beginning to emerge from their infant helplessness, the television set temporarily but inexorably returns them to a state of attachment and dependence." (Bold mine.)

Television also negatively affects something called inferential reasoning, Winn says: "One particular skill...that [has shown] a significant decline [among schoolchildren] -- an advanced reading skill called 'inferential reasoning' -- has caused particular concern.... Inferential reasoning is the ability, beyond the mere mechanics of reading, to draw conclusions, form judgments, and create new ideas out of what one reads. The ability to make inferences is essential to meaningful reading in literature, history, science, and other subjects. Without this complex ability, reading becomes a superficial exercise." She gives the example of a project carried out by a Harvard University research organization called Project Zero that connects the decline in inferential reasoning with children's television watching.

The final point I found so compelling in Winn's book is the connection between television and a growing lack of community-mindedness. She says that "[s]tarting in the late 1960s or early 1970s, Americans seemed to grow considerably less community-minded than they had been in years past" and that in "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard social historian Robert Putnam points out that the first television generation was precisely the one that marked the beginning of the decline." Putnam's conclusion was that "'[a] major commitment to television viewing -- such has most of us have come to have -- is incompatible with a major commitment to community life.'" (Bold mine.)

So there you have it. TV makes real-life less real, displaces human interaction, hampers development only produced by play, replaces the power of reading and writing with the passivity of viewing, promotes dependence when independence is crucial, limits the ability to reason inferentially, and narrows the scope of one's involvement in the world. There's more, I'm sure; I've only just begun to research. But isn't that enough?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Keep On Rockin' in the Free World

Henry and Daddy jamming together recently.

I really hope Henry grows up to be a famous rock star, because we have a lot of video footage of him playing guitar and keyboard as a baby. If he gets famous enough we can sell it to fund our retirement. Keep your fingers crossed.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Sometimes all you need is your firetruck sweatshirt and a thumb to suck.

It helps if Mommy has very strong arms, too.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hey! I'm Six Months Old!

A few things about this picture, taken this morning.

First, notice that Henry's in his crib, wearing his pajamas. This is deceiving because he actually spent the night -- as usual -- in our bed. He merely hangs out in his crib to play on occasion.

Second, said pajamas are famous in our house because of the following exchange:

My husband, to Henry: Oh! You're wearing your dinosaur pajamas.
Me: Umm, I think those are supposed to be polar bears.

Luckily my husband has always been able to laugh at himself, because I'm not about to let that one go anytime soon.

Back to baby is six months old today. Can you believe it?