Stop Paying Lip Service to Poor American Mothers and DO SOMETHING!

fAffecting change from a position of privilegeWhen my parents had me – their third, unexpected child in 1978 – we lived in a small, three bedroom duplex in the small town of Kearney, Missouri. My Dad was a highschool science teacher. For extra money, he coached track and drove the school bus. My Mom had a college degree, but was staying home because that was more cost-effective than paying for full-time childcare. After I was born we were bordering on poverty. My mother had no choice but to return to work so my parent’s moved our family to an even smaller, cheaper town where we had family who could provide free childcare while my parents commuted an hour and a half each way to work for two years. To make more money, my mother also completed her Master’s Degree in those years.

My parents scraped by for a long time. Ten years or more. My Dad told me that he considered himself a lucky man if he had enough money at the end of the week to buy a six-pack of beer. My parents did not buy their first home until they were in their mid-thirties, when I was two. Even then, it was with a hefty loan from my grandmother (which they paid back in full, with interest).

Over the years their income steadily increased and we had more things. Not much, but enough. We owned a black and white television until the late 80s, drove rusted-out, second-hand cars and we never took a single family vacation. But my parents stressed the value of an education and all three of their children went to forgettable state universities, each of which my parent’s paid for by working summer school and moonlighting. My parent’s are hard workers.

I have been steadily employed since I was 15. I bought my own car at 18. I lived at home all four years of college and when I got out, I was $5000 in debt. After graduation, I paid off my debt in two years, moved out and focused on my career. My first job paid $25,000 per year and by the time I was 25 I made a six-figure income. That year I also bought my own home. When I was 31 I had my first child and when I was 32 I sued my very large company where I worked full-time for sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Since, I’ve been keenly interested in modern motherhood and feminism and what all this “lean in” “opt-out” chatter means. Since then, I’ve also been a full-time stay-at-home-mom of two small children, and now I work part-time from home. I understand the dynamics of the motherhood/ work dilemma from many angles.

It’s an important discussion. Not only for me, but for my children and yours. It’s one I’m passionate about having as a nation and culture. But do you what gets me most riled up about it all? It’s not the disparity in wages between men and women working the same positions. It’s not the meager maternity leave and the non-existent paternity leave. It’s not the fact that a woman loses 18% of her lifetime earning potential for taking 2.4 years off to raise a family. It’s not the fact that only 16% of C-level positions (CEO, CFO, CCO) are women or that only 19% of Congress is women or that we’ve never had a woman President or Vice President. Although those thing need improvement.

What burns me up the MOST is when women feel the need to sideline the conversation by making sure everyone knows this is a problem for the “privileged” class.

There are articles gone viral screaming that most women don’t have this problem and let’s not dare forget about it. It’s as if the women having these discussions and writing these articles feel the sudden knee-jerk reaction to assuage some elitist guilt and divert the topic so that everyone knows that we’re thinking of all the women in America. Particularly those who don’t have the choice to step back from their jobs because of economics.

Yes, choosing to step away from the workforce to raise a family is primarily a decision of highly educated women with well paying careers and spouses. I know, I am one of these women.

None of what I have was handed to me and I did not have a connected network of important people or a degree from an Ivy league school as a magic ticket either. I am one of these “privileged” women, simply, because my mother was not. And if I’m not striving to be a leader, if I’m not committed to excelling in my career and making sure more “privileged” “elite” women reach the upper rungs of corporate America and government, then I do not honor her… or any other woman out there who does not have this same choice.

I would rather us stop talking about the women who have NO choice and start DOING something to make sure that their children, our children DO have one, or ten, or twenty choices.

Malcolm Gladwell, the New York Times bestselling author of four books on cultural phenomenon, says in The Tipping Point, that you need roughly a third of the total power to affect change in a system. If corporate America needs to change their policies and attitudes toward work; if the government needs to institute programs that ensure women have support when it comes to the demands of family and careers, how is this going to happen when women do not hold even one-third of the positions of influence? And how are women going to hold one-third of the positions in power if they are not capable of getting there? And isn’t THAT the focus of this conversation?

If you are a women of privilege who gets to participate in these conversations of “opting out” and “leaning in”, then stop talking about the women who don’t have the luxury. They know it, and I’m sure they don’t appreciate being reminded of that fact. If you want to truly help the plight of underprivileged women of America, then DO SOMETHING from atop your pedestal of privilege in that ivory tower. Use your abilities to affect change on behalf of all women everywhere. Take a stand. Don’t waste the privilege that life and hard work has afforded you, because if WE can’t get there, (which is what this conversation is truly all about anyway) what chance does she have?

Don’t Just Lean In, LEAP IN: Choosing Family or Career

Breastfeeding & RegretLess than a week after I brought my first baby home, after the post-birthing euphoria wore off, after all the relatives had cooed, cuddled, and given back the baby — I fell silently, like a deflating balloon, into a bout of despair.

I had nothing or no one to blame, really, for this free-fall into depression. It wasn’t postpartum (although I’m sure the spiking hormones didn’t help). It wasn’t sleeplessness, (although that wasn’t necessarily a positive either). My sudden drop into sadness was all about me slamming head-long into the realities of my ill-informed decisions.

You see, I decided to breastfeed. Prior to deciding to breastfeed I hadn’t fully realized the consequences of this choice until after my daughter was born and already latching and loving the experience. At that point, it seemed too late to make another choice. That first week post-birth when the realities of this enormous responsibility sank in — the 24/7 on-call body, the milk-management, the constant clock-watching and ounce checking, that f*cking mooing sound of my pump — I was breathlessly overwhelmed. I knew I was in over my head and I doubted every second of everyday if I was up to the task.

A doubt which extended its claws all the way to the first choice I made regarding my child — conception. Why did I do this again?

Before the day my daughter was born I had changed a hand full of diapers and babysat a hand full of children. I had very similar ignorance toward breastfeeding. I had no concept of the reality of breastfeeding or parenting in general, but in theory, it all sounded terrific and doable. But so many things sound good in theory: marriage, scuba diving, shots of tequila… your first tattoo. It looks good on paper, but put to the test of reality, it’s something else entirely.

I saw this intelligent, humorous, thought-provoking play last weekend titled Rapture, Blister, Burn by a gifted playwright named Gina Gionfriddo. It was about so many things but perhaps most prominently, the plight of women and feminism and what all that means in the year 2013. Among Gionfriddo’s topics she so expertly portrayed through Rapture were: generational perspectives on men and women, promiscuity, motherhood, marriage, love, success, betrayal, loss, pornography, reality television and horror films. It was fast-paced and oh, so, funny.

The lead character is Catherine. She’s in her 40’s. She never married or had children but instead, a wildly successful career as a published academic in the area of cinematic theory and feminism. Then there’s her old college roommate, Gwen. Gwen married Catherine’s old college boyfriend, Don. The two of them had two children and still live in their hometown where Don is dean of a small liberal arts college. The last two principal characters  who round out the generational perspectives on feminism are Catherine’s mother, Alice, who has recently suffered a heart attack, and Avery, one of Don’s young, college students.

Catherine has come “home” to take care of her only living parent, her mother. While dealing with feelings of loss and the possibility of becoming an “orphan” she reflects on the choices she’s made in her life. Specifically, the choice to pursue her career and forego a family. She smacks up against all the “what ifs” when she starts to have an affair with her old boyfriend, Gwen’s husband, Don. Gwen, on the other hand, has lived this life of motherhood and marriage and envies Catherine for her choice to pursue a career. Gwen ultimately condones this affair for the offer to move into Catherine’s posh Manhattan apartment and return to school. Catherine and Don will raise the youngest child, while Gwen takes the older one to school in Manhattan.

What’s brilliant about Gionfriddo’s Rapture is that she does not favor one woman’s life decision over another. She outlines the positives and negatives of both paths. She doesn’t even propose that it’s and either/or sum game but rather a mix of personal ideals, socio-economic status,  and cultural-generational perspectives. Complicated and murky and simply brilliant.

I won’t spoil the ending but the dilemma of modern motherhood, the pursuit of a career, and what all that means in terms of feminism and our media-driven society is profoundly dramatized and utterly hysterical. One could draw several “conclusions” from Rapture but the one that spoke most loudly to me was this:

“Have the balls to live with your decision.” 

Because life is a series of choices, one after the next. Many of them are hard and sacrificial, but at some point we all must choose something even if that choice is not to make a choice. But once we do… we must have the nerve to stick to it without regret, or complaint, or lamentation of what might have been. Same goes for those choices that are thrust upon us. If you constantly live in a state of regret over the past, you minimize your potential future.

What’s most important is that we must always walk, run, LEAP head-long into life with passion. But we cannot wear blinders as to where we will land. We have to try hard to fully understand all that we are giving up when we choose one thing over the other, and then make our choices from the most informed position possible.

And then ultimately, when the choice is made…  we don’t look back. We keep walking, running, LEAPING head-long into life because looking back will only slow us down, trip us up.

And that is where my post-birthing bout of despair came from. I didn’t fully understand the commitment of breastfeeding or even motherhood before I ran head-long with passion into this abyss. I smacked up against consequences I wasn’t fully prepared to handle. But here’s the thing…. in my 35 years of life I have found that most of life’s lasting gifts, joys, memories, excitements and opportunities have been things I couldn’t FULLY comprehend until I was already immersed in them, doing them. Often times, after it’s too late to go back — things like breastfeeding, marriage, motherhood and multiple shots of tequila.

Perhaps the reason is that I tend to get paralyzed and anxiety-ridden when there is too much information and at some point, I just have to take that leap of faith.

So here’s what I say: Stay informed. Knowledge and awareness is a bridge to freedom and the antidote to regret. Don’t stick your head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the consequences of your most important decisions. But for all those consequences that you cannot foresee, or understand, don’t become paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. Don’t lean out to stay safe. You must always run head-long into life no matter what. As Joseph Campbell says, have faith that if you leap, the net will appear.

And when you make those important decisions, have the balls to not look back — and even harder — not to shame those who chose the other path. These things will only prevent you from seeing the next LEAP into your life’s greatest moments.

I kept breastfeeding my daughter until she was seven months. That’s when working full-time and traveling was too hard for both of us to manage. But by then I had grown to cherish the bonding moments it gave us. With my second child, I was much more informed of the enormity of the choice and I chose to breastfeed him, too. Now, the memory of sitting in a darkened room nursing my children in the wee hours of the morning are some of the most gratifying, sacred, holy, transcendent moments of my life.

So let your leaps be ones of information AND faith. 

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