Editorial: Minding the Kids While Minding the Store

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 12, 2006

At a birthday party for a 4-year-old recently, a youngish mother of my acquaintance, in between bouts of chasing her very active baby who was just learning to walk, wondered why no one had ever tried to figure out some good way for parents to work part-time at interesting and responsible jobs with future promise. Of course, I told her, we did try. But it didn’t work as easily as we might have hoped. Why? she asked. 

She’s somewhere in age between my second and third daughters, born probably in the late ’60s, raised in the ’70s at a time when girls were being strongly encouraged to believe they could have it all, all at the same time. I applied for law school for the first time in 1970, and was personally rejected by an assistant dean of admissions who told me candidly to my face that the University of Michigan Law School had never admitted a mother of small children and wasn’t about to start.  

Soon thereafter deans learned not to say that to female applicants, but the assumptions that underlie his statement are not completely illegitimate. There is an inherent conflict between the demands of kids and the demands of schools and employers. It hasn’t been solved, even by the privileged classes who can afford the help of legions of undocumented immigrants. The New York Times Magazine has been dining out on the dilemma for 10 years or more, chronicling touching sagas of female Princeton graduates who have decided that there’s more to life than making partner in Manhattan. Berkeley’s own Caitlin Flanagan, the self-satisfied daughter of a stereotypically over-qualified earthmother/facultywife/nurse and a professor in the English Department, who is raising twins as a stay-at-home mother, is on her book tour right now. 

In law school with me in the mid-’70s (I finally did get in) were a number of women who were trying to raise their children before taking up demanding careers. I recently asked a friend, the graduate of a higher-prestige school than mine, qualified for the best jobs on the career ladder, why she, like so many women in our law-school cohort, had elected not to practice law after all. “Because it’s soul-deadening,” she said. “If you want the truth, it’s because I couldn’t figure out how to do it and not drink too much.” Beginning lawyers (and physicians and other well-paid professionals) are still expected to put in 80-hour weeks. Parents who care about how they carry out their parental role, not just women, don’t want to do that any more.  

And those parents, both men and women, who opt for the interesting jobs which pay less can’t even afford servants like Flanagan’s to help them out. Parents who are stuck in the dull poorly-paid jobs with no future are just desperately trying to figure out who’s taking care of the kids while they’re at work. 

My youngish mother friend is a faculty wife—her husband is on the lowest rung of a competitive tenure track ladder. She has an interesting three-and-a-half-day-a-week job, seemingly perfect, but she still worries about how they as parents can do justice to both jobs and their one child. The self-sacrificing faculty wives, who were putting gourmet meals on the table in Berkeley when Alice Waters was still in graduate school and editing their husbands’ books in their spare time, are just about extinct. 

Is there a middle ground? About the time I finished law school there were earnest meetings in Berkeley progressive circles about concepts like job-sharing and on-site day care. I remember then-Councilmember Loni Hancock as a leader in such discussions, which never came to much. Loni found some good part-time jobs over the years. I skipped practicing law and my husband left academia. Instead we raised our kids in our own mom-and-pop software company where they could do their homework on the conference table of our Telegraph Avenue office. Loni’s kids and our kids and other people’s kids grew up while we were struggling to figure out how to raise them and keep our own sanity. Many of them turned out well despite us.  

Many young people are putting off having children or deciding not to have any because they see that it’s not easy to balance kids and jobs. The world is crowded—there’s no reason to have kids if you don’t do it for fun. I’ve had a variety of interesting jobs which I might have spent more time on and gotten farther at if I’d been able put my full energy into them, but for me the kids were the fun part, and the rest was just work.  

One salutary difference between now and the ’70s is that many fathers as well as mothers are now concerned about doing their best for their kids. It’s not assumed by everyone any more that Mom will do it all without help. Since we took over at the Planet two men in the office have become parents, and both of them are taking their kids very seriously—one quit to stay at home with his baby. We aren’t big enough to have a day care center, but we’re always pleased to see kids, including our own grandkids, in the office. Not all workplaces can as easily be child-friendly, however.  

For most parents doing both jobs well—parent and breadwinner—will always be a constant struggle, even in families where there are two parents both doing their best. That’s just how it is. 

Parents, mothers and fathers both, will have to continue to balance costs and benefits in their own lives. They’ll set priorities as best they can, and the kids will probably be fine. Those of us who are able, not just official grandparents but everyone, should try to give parents of young children a bit of help from time to time. In case you haven’t figured it out by this time, this is our Mother’s Day message.