Am I guilty of enabling?

I am thinking about the recent review of Motherhood, in American Scientist. Londa Schiebinger, author of the review writes, “The women who succeed—and there are many in this volume—are those whose partners take an equal share of the responsibility for raising a family and making the household function..”

Although grateful for the positive review, I am also realizing that once a book is on the loose the interpretation is up to the reader. While I guess I knew this for fiction, it never occurred to me for a  collection of nonfiction essays.

One goal I’d hoped for the book was that it’d begin some discussion about science careers in general – and what makes or defines a “successful” science career. According to Schiebinger, as a mother whose husband has the full-time job, I have not succeeded, only enabled. Perhaps. Maybe there is some truth to this that I have suppressed. Or maybe I really did want to be home for the kids after school, or maybe I didn’t want to relinquish control over the kids day-to-day lives to my husband (yes, I’ve been known to be something of a control freak when it comes to household minutia) – if there is any enabling, I think it’s that I accepted the consequences. That isn’t my husband’s fault. So if I’m guilty of anything – it’s in accepting that my career isn’t as illustrious as it could have been (or not – I could have worked full time and still be on the same “level” in terms of ladder climbing that I am now.) Perhaps had I picketed outside of the local colleges, or federal agencies carrying a sign something to the effect of, “Took time off, but I’ve still got a brain!” I wouldn’t be so guilty of perpetuating the all or nothingness of academia and research.

I do however, fully agree with Schiebinger that I’ve been “complicit” in allowing my husband to “shirk [his] responsibility,” although here I might suggest using the word partner rather than husband or even spouse. I am guilty of perpetuating the idea that my part-time career is less important than my husband’s full-time career, leaving me and “only me” open to doctors appointments, picking sick kids up from school, and sticking around for snow days. This doesn’t mean the work doesn’t get done – it gets done – but what I’ve lost is my own time. To be honest this has always been a sore point – a place for resentment to build – and so I will try harder to claim my time on the job as just that – my job my time.


5 Responses to “Am I guilty of enabling?”

  1. 1 Chris August 22, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I found your post very interesting because I read the review in American Scientist and it was the point about enabling that impelled me out to buy the book! I do think that enabling is a major, major impediment to women juggling work and family. Not to blame the victim, but inequality often begins at home.

    Anyways, really looking forward to reading the book!

  2. 2 tcs August 22, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Sounds like a thought-provoking book!

    In addition to the enabling that you described, I think there are also negative factors that discourage men’s participation in child-rearing. In the coffee shop on Saturday morning a man walks in with a baby in a stroller. A stranger remarks, “Oh, giving Mommy a break this morning?” Maybe some men don’t want to be treated as though parenting is a cute little hobby for them.

    Despite the many social problems that women and moms fight every day, I think there is also a “mommy privilege.” I didn’t give birth to my son (I’m a non-bio lesbian mom) but at the playground, the daycare, the lab, no one questions my need to care for him, or my right to do so.

    I could say (along with the responsibility-shirking men) that my partner should naturally take the lead in parenting because she has that “special bond” that comes from bearing a child, but I honestly never think of making that excuse. Society expects me as a woman to mother my child.

    I think this is weird, because as a gay mother I expected to face far more questioning of my legitimacy, but instead — so far — I find myself part of a vast Mommy club, even with the conservative religious women in my neighborhood.

    Women predominate and bond in environments where children are. I fit in (albeit somewhat guardedly) with the other moms better than many men would. In the disingenuously named “Parents” magazine, most articles are explicitly addressed to women. And the remainder are implicitly so addressed. (I know, Parents magazine is 10% useful and bad in so many ways… my favorite article: save oodles of time by reducing your makeup-donning regimen to just 15 minutes a day!)

    A woman might be accused of lacking focus on her career because she has kids. But imagine a man who actually put in 50% of the child-rearing duties. How would he be viewed by male colleagues, most of whom have trailing or simply overburdened female partners doing that work for them? How often have you heard “oh, he has a family” used to excuse a man leaving at 6 pm every day?

    Interesting that in English “fathering a child” means essentially sperm donation, while “mothering a child” means doing everything tender and caring that a parent can do.

    We should be aware of all sorts of institutional and social barriers to equally shared parenting.

  3. 3 Vanessa Fogg August 23, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Dr. Monosson,

    I admire your book, and the work you are doing on women-in-science issues.

    I thought you would like to know that a new review of your book was published in Friday’s edition of “The Scientist”

    It is indeed interesting how different readers bring very different interpretations to bear on a book. At least everyone seems to agree that your book is indeed of great interest!

  4. 4 David August 24, 2008 at 5:35 am

    Interesting article — and an interesting issue, which was on my mind this evening because I spent a few hours babysitting a friend’s eighteen-month-old so she and her husband could have a much-needed “date” together, and it struck me how strange it was for me, as a straight single man who doesn’t intend to have kids, to do this, from a societal standpoint.

    We have a bizarre disconnect between the idea of men and the idea of domestic and family responsibility. We also assign degrees of importance to what people do based on whether it’s in the house or out of it. A career writer will end up taking on a disproportionate amount of domestic/family responsibility, simply because it’s not “out of the house” work in most cases. It’s weird, and unfair.

  5. 5 Emily August 24, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you all for these insightful comments. It’s all really interesting and I am grateful for the discussion. As I’d pointed out, the notion of equal-responsibility in childrearing wasn’t the main message I’d intended with this volume (although I can’t speak for all contributors and know that, for some it is an important issue) but I’m glad it came up.

    As tcs and David point out – just as there is a societal expectation or pressure that women are the ones best suited or most responsible or whatever one would like to call it – for raising the kids, there is the opposite for men. I know my brother-in-law finds this at times, as he home-schools his daughter while my sister-in-law pursues a full-time career running a community medical clinic. While I’ve found support from the local-moms who are caring for the kids, working other jobs part-time, and whose partners work other jobs full-time, it’s not the same for him. Additionally I wonder if some figure the dads who are there on the playground are there because they can’t find a job, while the moms are there because they choose to be?

    The other issue that David brings up is that those who work at home tend to take on a greater burden when it comes to domestic work and child care. And it’s true. I can’t get to work until the path from the kitchen, past the living room and the kid’s rooms to my own office are clear of clutter. If I just exited the front door I’m sure I’d be doing a little less housework – but I am learning to look past the clutter, and to quiet the voice in my head that says “what would mom think if she saw this mess in my house?”

    When it comes to those who work at home taking on more child-care (dentist appointments, picking up the sick kid, snow days) I wonder if or how things might be different between the freelancer who works out their own schedule, versus the telecommuter who is still tied to an office somewhere outside of the home?

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