January 11, 2008

Women's Issues Are Family Issues

The recurring reference to women's issues in the media needs to be clarified. Most of these are better described as family and caregiver issues. However, vitally important women's issues exist. These include the availability of abortions and the morning after pill, the scandalous C-section rate, and the obscene harassment of nursing mothers. Too many companies expect breastfeeding mothers to pump in filthy toilets for 20 minutes and refuse to provide a comfortable room for them to pump and adequate short-time storage for breastmilk.This is a health issue as well since the American Academy of Pediatris recommends breastfeeding for at least a year. Working mothers of infants are heroic, incredibly dedicated to making sure their babies only get breastmilk and not formula. Encouraging, supporting, and facilitating breastfeeding is an integral part of wellness and prevention.

The best way to reduce the C-section rate is to to use nurse- midwives for normal births, but obstetricians fiercely resist giving nurse-midwives hospital privileges. At this point in New York City, the first question after how big is the baby is did you have a C-Section? It appalls me that the most educated professional women in history are allowing that to happen to them. When I was pregnant with my first child 35 years ago, baby books advised not considering a doctor with a C-section rate higher than 5 percent. Obviously the human race would have died out long ago if a 30 to 40 percent C-secton ate was the norm. I crusaded for natural childbirth and had my two youngest daughters at home with a nurse midwife.

Virtually all nannies and human health aides are women. In New York and Long Island they are almost always women of color. They can't afford to own cars. They have to struggle to work on public transportation that doesn't necessarily get them where they need to be; some take three different subways and buses. Agencies fail to even provide a mapquest to the client's home. Some caregivers have left their own children in the Islands with relatives, so the moms can make enough money to rescue her own kids from abject poverty. How shamelessly they are exploited is certainly a vitally important women's issue. Caregivers who are illegal immigrants can be virtually slaves, too afraid to complain or quit because they will be deported. Home health agencies charge the clients more than twice the amount they pay the women who actually doing the caring. They have absolutely no job security. Most have no health benefits, no disability benefits, are not eligible for unemployment. How we treat these loving, warm, compassionate, kind women is a national disgrace.

But almost all other "women's issues" are parent issues, caregiver issues. We seem to have made no progress on parents' sharing equally in child care and elder care responsibilities. The oldest daughter (if there is one) is usually her parents' caregiver, no matter how many siblings are in the family. Caring for aging parents disrupts women's work schedules even more than caring for young children.

The mommy wars drive me round the twist. In the 70s the feminist agenda was that society and the economy would change fundamentally so that moms and dads could share equally in child care. Now everyone seems to work longer than a 35- or 40- hour week; grandparents are either employed or too far away; day care centers are not staffed by professional teachers with a career path, so the turnover is constant. How dedicated can anyone afford to be at $8 to $10 an hour, often with no benefits? Excellent day care, where teachers are educated, accredited, and paid like grade school teachers, is very expensive, and the state would have to offer considerable support.

Men almost never work in day care or nursery schools; the sexual abuse day care hysteria ended that. People don't want to hire boys as babysitters or men as nannies. That is revoltingly sexist. Misogyny is hatred of women; sexism applies to both sexes. Women seem to have made more progress than men in bursting through gender stereotypes. So guys, you might be entitled to call your mate a "female chauvinist pig," though you might spend the night on the couch. Men rarely seem to complain about the sexism inflicted on them since such criticism would be seen as girly.

When I was struggling to practice nonsexist childrearing in the 1970s and early 1980s, I noticed that parents of boys have a much more difficult time. Strangers abuse mothers on the street if the boy's hair is too long, his colors are considered girly, he is carrying a baby doll, he is crying. They are frequently accused of making their sons gay. I have five brothers and four daughters; my mother raised my brothers to share the housekeeping and the childcare. I love to take care of my 8-month-old grandson three days a week. He greatly resembles his adventurous, world-traveling mother, who has lived in places like Niger, Kosovo, and Rwanda. I eagerly await defending this enchanting bundle of rambunctiousness from sexist constrictions of his creativity and determination. Together we could run a childproofing business. When I put him down on any floor, he immediately crawls toward the most dangerous object in the room. even though there might be dozens of more suitable things for him to play with.

When I lamented the lack of male participation in the blog, Unfogged, I got this discouraging reply:
"It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem; as long as childcare (and kindred professions) is seen as feminized, it will be a pretty small minority of men who will consider this kind of work, and therefore the proportion of perverts in that sample is going to be way above average. Anecdotally I would say that the same is true, for slightly different reasons, of scout masters, camp counselors, and wrestling coaches. In a sense, it's not irrational when people look askance at a man interested in taking care of children; there is an inclination to ask oneself whether there is some nefarious ulterior motive at work. A result of sexism? Of course. But the motives of the individual are not necessarily sexist".

My answer: My brother has been an elementary teacher in Portland Maine for about 20 years. He laments that male teachers would be terrified to touch or hug a 5 year old who had hurt himself or herself, although a female teacher would be glad to do so. It is outrageous to say the perverts are more likely to care for young children. I doubt that perverts are more likely to choose to work for peanuts. What possible proof can you give? How can men tolerate such assertions? What message does it convey to young children if they have no male teachers. Boys learn that only girls are caregivers. People speculate the boys have more trouble adjusting to the feminized environment of school.

Things were different in the 1970s, at least in New York City. Nursery schools and kindergartens tried very hard to recruit male teachers. When my daughter went to a Montessori nursery school down by the world trade center, she had a wonderful male teacher. Fathers spent lots of time taking care of young children and to the best of my knowledge their willies don't fall off. Whoops, I am married to an Englishman. Taking care of young children is incredibly exciting and fascinating. They are the best learners and the most creative free spirits you will ever encounter.

Every industrial Western nation has more family centered government policies than we do. American families no longer believe that government could make it more possible to be good parents, good caregivers of the elderly, and good workers. I hope the first woman president can implement significant change.


Julie Pippert said...

I no longer believe this, true, "Every industrial Western nation has more family centered government policies than we do. American families no longer believe that government could make it more possible to be good parents, good caregivers of the elderly, and good workers."

More than anything? it is because my government has told me REPEATEDLY that they CANNOT. And then proved it by making it worse.

As with any head of the body, they set the tone. Corporations have taken their cue from the Head of State and now believe their wishes supercede all others and the almighty dollar is most important.

So women leave the workplace in droves, men work too many hours and get not enough family time, debt is hitting astronomical portions, and it's all on our heads because it is our choices.

As to the elimination of men in caretaker roles, it not only harms the male-child relationship...it cements the disparity between men and women, women who are the caretakers.

Not good.

And yet, I see a power in my girls.

So although the cultural message and delivery is bad, somehow, there is overall an individual message making it through to PLENTY of girls.

Perhaps their generation...

Excellent post.

bitchphd said...

How can men tolerate such assertions?

Exactly. But when they do object to statements like this, they blame feminists. It's infuriating.

You'll be happy to hear a story from my life, though: the other day, PK and I took his mouse to the vet. There was an older man there, a big beefy ex-marine (according to his leather jacket and baseball hat) with his "unneutered" Dachsund puppy, as he made a point of telling us. He had a very short buzz cut. He said something to PK about the puppy, clearly referring to PK, who has waist-length hair, as a girl. PK said "I'm a boy," but the man misheard him, thinking he was (surely!) referring to the puppy. A minute or two later he asked me, "how old is your daughter?" "He's my son, actually--he's seven." I said. "That's a boy!?" the man asked.

But what he said afterwards was really interesting. "You need a haircut, son!" he said. "You'll put barbers out of business!" Then he told us that he used to be a barber, and that his daughter owned her own salon now up in the bay area. He *didn't* focus at all on trying to shame PK, though he was obviously startled, and when I sort of smiled and said, "well, he likes his hair long," and we weren't put off by his mistake ("I'm not the only one that makes that mistake, am I?" "Oh no, people do it all the time, of course."--PK, thank goodness, isn't bothered by it except that he just gets a little tired of it), which seemed to help.

In the end, just before we took the mouse back to see the vet, he said to PK, "well, you *do* have beautiful hair."

Some things might be getting a little better, slowly.

Lawyer Mama said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with Julie. The U.S. government *could* make it easier to be good caretakers, but it doesn't. In the past, conservatives have been too successful at making care taking solely a "personal responsibility." Of course that's ridiculous. Care taking has value. And not just an emotional or societal value, but a real economic value. And it's also a societal responsibility. But things will never change until corporate America and the U.S. government understand that.

I keep hoping that as attitudes change, public policy will change but I'm afraid it's going to have to be the other way around. I don't think corporate America will change until the government orders it to do so. Most companies certainly aren't listening to their workers. Hopefully, once policies change people will come to accept the new status quo.

Great post!

wheelsonthebus said...

There's a lot to respond to here.

I fear we've fallen into the old trap of making "women's issues" about upper-middle-class women. We give lip service to poor and working-class women, but then we go on about the choice to work, paid maternity leave, etc. The fact is, you only need a breast-feeding room if you are in the same country as your child. When you have left your child to come care for someone elses', whether she has a good place to pump must seem absurd.

That said, I think some of these are easy issues to solve if people just wanted to. Workplaces could be mandated to have a small, clean space for women to pump, and it would be easy.

Things like affordable, good child care? Much harder, but not as hard as the government would like us to imagine. I for one would gladly pay more taxes to create public, good day care centers.

The problem is, as you say, that this is seen as a women's issue. Well, let me tell you, men need their children looked after, too. Or, I guess you already told us :)

This is a great post. I always save your posts till I have the time to devote to reading and commenting properly.

(Oh, and thanks for heading over to Chris's blog on my suggestion. I knew you would have something to add.)


Yankee Tirade said...

Many people complain to me that this a negative bitter anti marriage site, and it may appear that way in certain dialogs. So I will discuss where I stand on this issue.

I am completely for the institution of matrimony, 100% and then some. I think there are aspects of it that should change, but the overall premise of commitment is important.

The issue of contention I have is more of a New England regional problem then a national one in my opinion. Keeping males dis empowered is about equal to the burka in my opinion, and that tradition needs to go the way of the arranged marriage. Throwing restraining orders around like candy is nothing more then enslavement.

Should ownership be prerequisite for matrimony? No, but it sure helps.

The act of showing commitment to another is good for the overall community if it is recognized and respected. I recently went to wedding for a woman who is essentially my sister, It was her first time at 40. She married a man 10 years younger then her, I was happy for her.

My own wedding was over a decade ago, but I still remember it fondly. The act of giving a diamond is one great moment, no ifs ands or buts.

I hope this clarifies any misunderstandings.