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September 04, 2008

Not Actually So Much About Palin

Agia_licensesigning02_large Ever since we had our daughter, Kavi, fifteen months ago, Kevin and I have been enmeshed in conversations about our careers.  He's a mathematician; I'm a writer; we're both academics.  He has tenure -- I have a short-term, part-time visiting faculty position.  Both of us worked 60-100 hours a week at our jobs before we had a kid.  Because Kavi was born in May, right at the start of summer vacation, both us were able to take three months off when she was born, which was essential as we attempted to cope with breastfeeding failures, lack of sleep, incessant crying (more on my part than hers, but still), etc.  I can't imagine how we would have survived if even one of us had had to go back to work right away, much less both of us.

But of course, people do cope.  Maybe they're younger than us, or just more energetic.  Maybe they have more family around to help out, or more money to hire childcare (and more willingness to do so).  Maybe they don't have any of those things, but they just weren't lucky enough to have a choice in the matter, and so they cope, because they have to.

We had waited so long to have children (I was 36, he was 37) that we thought that we wanted to spend a good amount of time dedicated on just her at first.  We were able to do that -- but surprisingly, I quickly found myself wanting to work again.  If it hadn't been for the breastfeeding thing, with more childcare, I would have happily been back at work within a week.  I realize not all women feel this way, but babies are just not so much my thing.  I enjoy my daughter so much more now that she's a little older, and even now, Kevin has far more patience with her than I do.  If one of us had to stay home full-time to be primary caregiver, just in terms of who would do a better job of it, he'd be the clear choice.

But we didn't choose to have a stay-at-home parent.  We manage with the combination of a flexible work schedule, some of which we can do at home while watching her (or while she naps), and 25-30 hours of babysitting a week.  Some parents don't feel comfortable with that option, I know, but we love our babysitter Jarmila, and are so grateful that we can afford her right now.  In January, we'll probably be switching to daycare, and I admit, I'm worried about that transition.  I worry that Kavi will get sick more often, that she'll be overwhelmed by all the other kids, or neglected by the daycare providers.  I worry that she'll end up sitting in front of a tv all day, instead of going to the park or sitting on the floor with a nurturing adult who adores her, playing blocks and dolls and trains.

Still -- I love my work too, and so does Kevin.  In the end, I think we'll be okay with daycare, and she will be too.  She's strong, and sturdy, and generally a good-natured, resilient toddler.  She needs her parents, but I don't think she needs us every waking hour of the day.  I think we'll be able to keep working, and working more like our old hours, which will make us happier too.  We both love our work, pretty passionately.  Now that we have a child to love too, we're trying to balance those needs and demands, finding the choice that works best for us.

I wouldn't dare make that choice for any other parent, though.  Some children (special-needs or otherwise) need more intensive care.  Some adults are happier spending more time with their children.  Some adults have big networks of family, or have found excellent and extensive childcare.  Every family has its own individual circumstances, and politically speaking, the main thing I want to do is make it easier for every family to make the choices that suit them best.

But all that said -- I do think there are probably some jobs that are so demanding, so time-consuming, require so much travel, that they just don't mesh well with a) having infants at home and b) being a primary nurturer to them.  If you're in the military, for example, and overseas in combat zones for long tours.  If you travel much for work at all, more than a long weekend or two each month.  If you're a resident on call, overnight in the hospital one night out of three, and working 80-120 hours weeks for three years running.  I have friends who did all of the above with infants, and even with supportive spouses and childcare, it was insanely difficult.  It shredded them.

Sometimes you don't have a lot of choice in your timing.  Maybe you got pregnant at a bad time and weren't willing to abort or give away the baby.  Maybe you found a partner late, or were dealing with infertility issues, and pregnancy didn't happen until you were in the midst of the most time-consuming part of your career.  That happens to academic couples a lot -- the timetable is such that most academic women seem to have their first child in the first years of a tenure-track job -- absolutely the worst possible time, career-wise, for them to have a kid.  The best years for procreating and the best years for your career are often the same, and when they overlap, you just do your best to cope.

Maybe Palin feels that what she can do as vice-president for this country is important enough that it's worth the demands it will place on herself and her family.  Maybe she feels that she's efficient and hard-working enough, with a strong enough support network of spouse and finances that it won't even be very difficult.  I don't know what she's thinking, but I feel that as a feminist, I have to support her right to make that choice for herself, with her intimate and private knowledge of her situation, without being second-guessed by every other mother across the country.

I say all of this as someone who despises most of Palin's policies, who thinks a Palin presidency would be disastrous, tragic for America and especially for women.  But if we're going to condemn Palin, let it be on her policies and politics, not her personal life and family choices.

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