May 13, 2003 04:38 PM

I cannot get that blasted Marian the Librarian song (you know, from Music Man?) song out of my head now.

Darn Kerri and this week's WHB question:

What is it in our global culture that has the majority of women convinced that sacrifice and selflessness signify a morally sound woman? What do you think of the assumption that females, if mentally stable, are all willing to not only play the role of mother, but give up their own lives to do so, while men are never questioned about why they did not put their careers on hold around age 30 to start a family? I am sure exceptions to the rule exist, but what is important here is that these assumptions and expectations are the rule.

What I am asking is a loaded question: What is wrong when in a society, instead of encouraging cooperative childrearing, competition is promoted among moms to see who can, in the spirit of Marianismo, sacrifice the most [April's note - I chose consciously not to answer the competition question, as I have next to no grounding in it.]? How do we change this narrowminded thinking?

Am I allowed to disagree with the question? I used to ask that in school a lot. Kerri admits to loading her question here, but I nevertheless have problems approaching a question with so many assumptions baked into it.

It's presumptive to assume that sacrifice for one's children is primarily around the career arena. It's presumptive to assume that only women, not men, feel pushed to give their children their lives. It's presumptive to say that women who do feel that way are also competitive about it.

It's also presumptive to assume that everyone wants children, or will make sacrifices to raise them.

Let's look at the ideals of the 1950's (themselves quite loaded) around the American family. Around marriage. A lot of our contemporary notions of family and gender roles are fixed on this time period.

While we think of women as sacrificing quite a bit in the 50's, the truth is that both parties in a postwar marriage were expected to subsume self in role. Women had a certain role to play, men had another role. If you don't fit your role, tough. Deal. You have a problem, probably some Freudian thing. This doesn't just apply to women, though - it's about men, too. So. One thing baked into Kerri's question (one thing that seems to have led quite a few WHB commenters down rather a different path) is the idea that sacrificing a career is a key aspect of the sacrifice made for partnership and children.

And yet - the ideals of the fifties, which are pretty much our ideals today, as family goes, hold that a man is expected to "provide for" a family financially, much as a woman was expected to do emotionally & physically. A man who dislikes his job, would rather be an artist, whatever, is still pushed to be the Provider today. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but the mainstream ideal of family still requires sacrifice by both parents, not just by one. The type of sacrifice expected simply differs by role.

I find, experientially, that the expectation that one is eager to have an raise a family isn't limited to women. Quite the contrary - men are expected to want to play daddy while having a career (though career is, of course, also supposed to provide deep personal satisfaction). Families who'd like to play by different rules (say, dad stays home with the tots and mom works, or couples get married and don't procreate, or any other alternative) face the barrier of fit. They face things like diaper changing stations in women's bathrooms only, groups of people - including former friends - with whom they eventually fail to fit, legislation that assumes certain things about families, et cetera.

The sad thing is - exceptions and counters to the role rule existed in the fifties, too. And yet these exceptions still aren't considered in the realm of normal.

One of many challenges for contemporary families is navigating today with a map from 1952 (with little scratches and hilighted routes from points along the way). Parents face a world where two incomes are practically necessary, but women are still likely to make less than their male counterparts, rendering a woman's fiscal contribution less signficant and more easily parted with, especially when you consider the lack of community child-rearing resources most people experience. And women of my generation, despite growing up with many models for working/non-working motherhood, have to balance family and personal needs in an environment where their careers might or might not be all that satisfying. Add to that the subtle signs that family care is women's work (the magazines, hints of daytime television, advice and parenting books, all gender-biased towards mothers), and I think a lot of mainstream families simply fall into the pattern their parents or parents' parents followed.

Is narrowmindedness at work in this pattern? Yes, and no. It is narrowminded not to value the many choices of family, career and life as equal. It's a mistake, though not necessarily a narrowminded one, for families not to thoughtfully approach their decisions about how to handle childrearing. But I think the pattern itself comes down to a lack of viable options (or a lack of information about existing options).

What would need to happen to create a wider range of family structure options?

Well, first, the economic changes - a minimum wage that approached living wage, so families could survive on less work. Parity in pay for men and women, so any couple could choose whose work to survive on. Restoration of the late nineties trend towards telecommuting and flexible work schedules for people on a variety of career paths, so families and others can achieve greater balance between home and work.

And finally, cultural shifts (which we can demand, as always, with what we buy, read, and believe) - blending the gendered roles in family care (which I personally believe would result from the economic changes). Recognition that work in the home is still real work, not one person's god-given role as a result of gender. More education about education. I don't believe we can eliminate the selfless ideal of mother in a generation, but I think we can at least take some steps - via economic parity - towards removing her from her pedestal and making her less gender-loaded.

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your wicked thoughts

wonderfully put. :)

these are the thoughts of tankspackular on May 16, 2003 01:41 PM

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