Monday, October 6, 2008

Outsourced parenting: Sexism, racial inequality and ambivalence

It is probably heresy for the editor of a parenting blog to admit ambivalence about parenting, but here's the deal: I've never had a strong desire to be a parent. I like children. I enjoy the wonder with which they view the world. I love their guilelessness and energy. I like to teach them things. I enjoy baby smell as much as the next person. And I love gratuitous cute kid pics. I just never had the want, the yearning to be a mother that I hear other women describe. I never played "mommy" with baby dolls. I don't grab for the babies of colleagues and friends. I am not interested in pregnancy stories, poopy diaper stories or my-kid-the-soccer-star stories (but I listen to them politely and enthusiastically). If I had not met and married a wonderful man with two wonderful children, I would have been content to remain childless--a cool aunt to my nieces and nephews (And I am the coolest aunt.) I say all this to explain that I am the last person to criticize another woman for not embracing traditional notions of motherhood and womanhood, but "Project Runway" star Laura Bennett's article on laissez faire parenting on Tina Brown's new site, The Daily Beast, tripped my triggers, and I'm not sure whether the article is irresponsible and classist with an underlying acceptance of racial inequality, or whether I'm being done in by my own gender-bias.

Thank God for school. I never understand the mothers who get excited just before breaks, as if getting to sleep for thirty extra minutes in the morning is worth having to take care of your own kids all day. Sure, camp helps, but I have six children ages 20 years to 20 months, so there is no camp that can possibly accommodate them all. Besides, sleep-away camps don't take toddlers. Not for three straight months, anyway.

It was hard work, but as September rolled around, I excitedly got the kids ready for school. I secured the necessary color-coded folders and three-ring binders. I stocked up on reams of loose-leaf paper and dozens of mechanical pencils. I filled out all the necessary forms and artfully forged vaccination records so everything appeared up to date. I dug out backpacks with operating zippers, and rotated summer clothes, providing easy access to back-to-school wardrobes. I lined up nannies and mannies, reading tutors and homework helpers, because God knows New York City private school tuition is not enough to cover the actual cost of education. Now armed with the appropriate pharmaceuticals, I could sit back and watch my plan spring into action.

I have a genetic predisposition to laissez-faire parenting. The fact that I buy my children trampolines, go-carts and motorcycles so they stay out of my way on weekends is not my fault. I have a disease.

One month into school and I have successfully avoided stepping foot on campus. Not an easy feat, but between my husband, the afternoon nanny, and my oldest coming and going on his own, I have been able to rig it so that others have done the drop-offs and pick-ups. The problem is, today the nanny is sick; I have to pick up my first grader and don't know where his classroom is. Or who his teachers are. I spotted a familiar face, the father of one of my son's friends.

"Hi Dan."


"If I were to want to pick up a child in first grade, what floor would I be on?" I asked sheepishly.

"You don't know where Pierson's classroom is, do you?"



Now, I know plenty of "good" fathers can't be arsed to know the names of their children's teachers or to suffer through the tedious, everyday aspects of parenting, but women who treat parenting similarly get labeled "bad mommies." So, as I read Bennett's article, the womanist (and the ambivalent parent) in me fought like hell not to judge. But there is something so entitled and imperious about the piece (...which I acknowlege must be a little tongue in cheek. No?). There is an icky subtext that says it's okay to have children you have no interest in raising, because you can hire someone else to do the hard work for you. And here is the thing, in Bennett's tony New York society, it is often black and brown women who do the child rearing for privileged white women. So, the writer's blithe diregard for parenting evokes thoughts of mammies and wet nurses and the history of poor women and women of color employed to nurture and handle the details of parenting that bore and tire upper class, white women.

The end of slavery did not end the era of the Mammy image. By early 20th century, white working class households were beginning to employ black women. Yet this employment still abided by the rules of racial and gender segregation, marked by the stereotypes of who blacks and women were said to be. The racially segregated economy limited most blacks to menial jobs, with many black women being forced into domestic category to work as servants, maids and nurses (child care). Other types of jobs that were open to women were reserved for white women. Read
Today, Bennett can appear on "Project Runway," work part-time as an architect for Shelton, Mindel & Associates, be a contributing writer for The Daily Beast and be a mother of six; and her husband, Peter Shelton, can be an award-winning architect, founder of Shelton, Mindel & Associates and father/stepfather of six (He should carry equal responsibility for child-rearing.), because some less privileged woman of whatever race can be the "afternoon nanny," paid far less than either parent to do what our society swears is "the most important job in the world."

Am I being too hard on Laura Bennett, raised as I have been in a sexist society that puts all the responsibility for parenting on women and demonizes those who don't fit a rigid maternal framework? Has Bennett written an article that reeks of white privilege? Or, are we both wrong?
Image courtesy of clairity on Flickr


Elly said...

I don't think you're being too harsh on her but on the other hand I think you are reading too much into when you try to bring race into the picture - traditions aside.

The problem is that Ms. Bennett comes off as far too proud of her flaws, and self-deprecating or not, there are some things you just shouldn't be proud of.

We are more lenient on the men in such a situation, primarily because (I think) we don't expect that they could possibly understand. It's a bias on our part against the men, we're dismissing them as unreasonable and unable to know (or learn) any better. Well that and we generally assume they are abandoning their children to being raised by a loving mother, whereas here we know this woman and her husband are leaving their children to paid employees...

JenX67 said...

I don't watch Project Runway, so I'm unfamiliar with Laura and the show. My first instinct is to think she is part of this mommy-blog trend of full disclosure of raw data in an effort to be funny and, sadly, make money. The blogger Dooce has made hundreds of thousands of dollars doing this kind of thing. These kind of bombastic commentaries drive Internet traffic, increase links and/or hits to her site, etc. All of this equates to ad revenue and exposure. Here I am, clicking to her site, reading her crap and commenting on it. Unfortunatley, it is difficult to drive traffic to a site like your's that is so much more evolved and intelligent. That line about Blacks and Browns doing the hard work that White upper class women don't want to do, is true, though very painful to read. (In all fairness, I was a poor, white college studnet working for two upper class white women. They were so mean... At any rate, keep on blogging. Your stuff is great. Laura is just grabbing up fame. After all, who is going to link to a commentary written by a mommy who has picked up 10,000 cheerios with a Dust Buster over the last 365 days?

Ferocious Kitty said...

I haven't yet read the whole piece, but at first glance, from your analysis, I'm just happy that she's glib and aware of her own privilege--as opposed to whining about how very hard her mothering life is as some of her ilk do, without an ounce of acknowledgment of their privilege and the context in which they are able to mother (compared to the historical and contemporary experiences of poor women and many women of color).

Is it wrong that the bar is so long on this that I'm just glad she's not whining?

Also, she does have six kids, so I figure she just looked at the workload and said, "F-ck it!" ;-)


Faith said...

No you're right to be critical. Ms. Bennet's devil may care attitude reeks of classism and as she identified - lazy. Perhaps if she has white European au pairs working for her one could dismiss the racial tinge that comes across but if she has women of color working for her - and I'd love to know whether she's paying an undocumented woman - then she's guilty, guilty guilty. Her lack of interest in being involved in her kid's lives is also disturbing. Some mother.

Evan Carden said...

Can you really call someone who " can appear on "Project Runway," work part-time as an architect for Shelton, Mindel & Associates, be a contributing writer for The Daily Beast and be a mother of six" lazy?

I will admit though that there's something unsavory about someone who complains that the 'afternoon nanny' is sick...or, more accurately, about someone who has an 'afternoon nanny.' Does she also have a morning nanny? A weekend nanny? For that matter, why aren't her kids helping out? She's got six from twenty years old to toddlers. None of them can babysit?

tasha212 said...

Why not have 1 or 2 children instead of 6. Or hey, how about have none? It's not the worst idea in the world. Why have 6 kids that u have absolutely no intentions of raising. I think that your criticism was critical and as usual on point. I don't know if she would be judged so harshly if she were a man. Men sherk their responsibilities toward their children all the time. However, if she didn't want the responsibility of motherhood, then she shouln't have had children.


Anonymous said...

Why not criticize all the fathers in America. They get to go for their intellectual dreams, run for office etc. etc. and not one comment about it.

I can't imagine why women have children if they have brains in their heads. It is dull work, and I don't blame Ms. Bennett for hiring people at all.

It seems like the exaggerated quality of the article was just another Gen X type self-mocking article meant to shock as well as tell a truth.

People who can afford it have always hired help. Would you rather the kids be living with some drug addicted mother of 6 with no help at all?

Why is it that the mothers have to do all the child care anyway?

Me, I just don't want any children at all. I have much more creative things to do with my time, and I hate hiring and interviewing people anyway.

Anonymous said...

Anything related to child care or early childhood education is about one of the lowest paid professions in America. Men invented all that cant about "motherhood" being so important-- it is the bedrock of patriarchal reversal -- Virgin Mary, pedistal and lipservice to the "important role" women play in a child's life.

The real truth is, culture shapes a child almost more than any parents are able to, and women who want to achieve are the same as men who want to achieve. The thing is, men get a free ride to do whatever they damn well please, AND have children. No one chides Obama for being an absentee father on the campaign trail, he just leaves it to the woman of color in his life to care for the children for free (aka his wife).

Tami said...

Anonymous 1 and 2,

I agree about the whole system benefiting men. That is why my reaction to the article was difficult. No one does judge men for leaving childcare duties to someone else. One of the unfair charges against Sarah Palin is the whole "How could a mother of five raise a family and be veep...what about the chiiiilllldren?" But no one asked how Joe Biden could be a single father and a senator. Indeed, his personal story is viewed as heartwarming. What is the difference between Palin and Biden in that respect?

Ferocious Kitty said...

Correction, Anonymous 2: "Men invented all that cant about [WHITE] "motherhood" being so important..."

"Shortly after Emancipation, most rural black women attempted to adopt the cult of true womanhood, tending to home and hearth with the blessing of their husbands. But this experiment was short-lived, as white politicians and plantation owners sought to rebuild the cotton economy in the post–Civil War era. With the 1865 enactment of the federal Black Codes (a precursor to Jim Crow segregation laws), the labor of newly freed slaves was once again controlled by white people through exploitative sharecropping arrangements. As a result, black mothers and their children were forced back into the fields."

And the beat goes on: Who is minding the children of the nannies of color as they care for the children these angsty-cynical-lax white mothers aren't raising?

Source: Me!


Anonymous said...

Yes, good point Tami about Palin.
Obviously her husband really enjoys caring for those kids. Each family needs the freedom to choose who likes the outside world, and who is more inwardly directed.

We shouldn't have such rigid roles in this day and age.

I think perhaps the discomfort about the article was the shock of reading a personal account of how an upper class world really works.
It's not the same as child rearing in middle and working class homes. Mainly money dictates what people do.

Anyway, I'm glad I don't have to deal with work and children issues at all. I've always believed that if you really wanted to be the very best at an advanced profession, that you needed to focus on it 100%. Women fool themselves thinking they can work full time and raise children as well. Men don't do this, and women need to really think about this.

Anonymous said...

Hey ferocious kitty -- got news for you-- the wealthy of all lands hire out to raise the kids, from Switzerland to England to Germany to France. Go to any wealthy Saudi home and their are servants galor. Women the world over are given kitchen duty and baby duty. It's why women are so poor world wide, because women give men all the time in the world to go out there and invent things, create governments etc. The bottom line is, men really don't care all that much for children. They get easily bored, and want to do other things.

This has been going on for a very long time. Even in extended families, women somehow always get to do the caregiving and minding.

I don't know about you, but ever since I was a kid, I thought that seemed like a living hell. I wanted out of that role playing world of women doing dumb dumb work-- men assigning these "roles."

Nope. Women should have full power to choose roles. And by choice I mean a real choice, not some resignation to fate as a result of economic stagnation, marrying a stupid man and depending on that man's ability to earn, thus not taking care of your own financial health.

What do you call women who stay at home with children, don't get paid, don't get time off, and have no health benefits -- some call them wives, some call them slaves, but all races have one thing in common-- the worship of male supremacy and the care, feeding and adoration of males at the expense of women and girls. That's the big picture out there.

Tami said...

"I wanted out of that role playing world of women doing dumb dumb work."

I don't think caregiving is dumb work. It is considered unimportant, because it is work that women often do (by nature or nurture). In a society where women are unimportant, so too are their gifts and interests. It is no wonder that in this country, people who can avoid this "dumb work," often leave it to women of color, the people of least importance. Childcare is dumb work, because our patriarchal and racist society says it is. I know a lot of women who are fulfilled by motherhood and child rearing. They have every right to be. It is not my path, but I hate to hear women speak dismissively about it.

I also don't agree that men don't really care for children. At least that is not my experience. That is not true of my father and grandfathers and husband and brother and other men that I know. I think our society's views on childcare are detrimental to men as well. Stay-at-home fathers aren't taken very seriously, even by women who call themselves feminists.

The denigration of childcare keeps genders unequal (Or maybe it's the other way around.). There will always be children. We need to get to a place where raising the next generation is valued--really valued, meaning it becomes an acceptable choice for men as well as women. THEN good, affordable child care will be an important political agenda. THEN childcare workers will be paid as well and respected as much as people in other professions. And THEN I'll bet it won't be something privileged people leave to immigrant women and women of color and college students.

Ferocious Kitty said...

**Hey ferocious kitty -- got news for you-- the wealthy of all lands hire out to raise the kids, from Switzerland to England to Germany to France. Go to any wealthy Saudi home and their are servants galor. Women the world over are given kitchen duty and baby duty.**

I'm sorry that my facts got in the way of your soap box, Anonymous. What does the above have to do with your original comment--the only part of what you wrote that I responded to--about men inventing the idea that "motherhood" is all-important?

The fact remains that the "motherhood-as-important" notion you cite as a man-made invention did not hold true in the treatment of slave women nor for their daughters in the aftermath of slavery. If motherhood was so important to white plantations owners, they would not have sold babies away from their mothers, or forced mothers and their children back into the fields post-Civil War when they tried to claim the Domestic "Goddess" title,however problematic, reserved for white women.

Anyway, your posts suggest that you are more interested in declarations than dialog, so I'm out. You be easy now...


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