Monday, May 14, 2007

Mojo Mom's A-Ha Moment: Cracking the Privilege Code

After all the years of researching and writing Mojo Mom, reading the Mothers Movement Online, working with and reading the Mothers & More POWER loop, I believe that sitting on the Today Show couch with Leslie Bennetts and Lisa Belkin and reading Pamela Stone's new book, Opting Out? have pushed me over an important tipping point of understanding.

I have cracked the feminist code and I understand why the Baby Boomers are mad at us younger women who have opted out. The text is about money and career, the subtext is about power and privilege. Boomer feminists worked to give us a place in a man's world, the world of power and privilege. That world is built on a foundation of a lower class, low-paid support system that is assumed to exist but rendered invisible. This could be the unpaid work of wives or the low-paid wages of service workers.

In the 1970's, women were given begrudging access to this kingdom, as long as they "played like a man."

Fast-forward to our generation. The invisible work, the second shift is still there and "playing like a man" just isn't working for many of us. We are able to eke out egalitarian relationships before we have children, but gender roles haven't changed that much. Men still don't expect to divide that work 50/50. When babies arrive, this invisible workload shoots through the roof. The truth is that someone has to do it, and we don't have a social infrastructure that lifts this burden off women's shoulders. So in the most privileged couples, the "opt-out" dynamic becomes very apparent when a high-power woman leaves her place in the man's world to go home.

Boomer femininsts are mad that women would leave behind the position of power, privilege and money that they worked so hard to earn on our behalf. One woman leaving the corporate ladder signifies gender failure when one man leaving the corporate ladder is just a guy making a choice.

Privileged men are generally glad to see women move home because this allows the men to have more time and energy to focus on their careers, thereby exercising their male privilege. Egalitarian marriages become more "traditional" to some degree when women stay home.

Women who leave the workforce are frustrated to see that they lose their previous status and become socially invisible and devalued in their role as a mother. Work at home is necessary and important but it is not admired, valued, and privileged. Sometimes this work it is only noticed when it is NOT done perfectly, which is expecially frustrating. We mothers see the value of the invisible work we are doing. We certainly see how much of life is made up of that work. Our eyes are opened to this big picture and we can't comprehend why others don't understand it.

So I finally understand why opt-out women are truly radical: we expect to be able to leave the world of privilege, take the blinders off our eyes and see the whole picture of life, expect others to do so, and return to the world of privilege on our own terms. Although we say in our democracy that "all men are created equal," the last thing the world of privilege wants is to be asked to see the big picture that includes caregiving, poverty, and discrimination. This is why I want more mothers in public life. Nancy Pelosi may play the political game with the best of them but I love knowing that she knows understands what it means to be a caregiver.

The younger generation of mothers hopes that we are reclaiming power in a new way by creating a career spiral to replace the old career ladder. Our plans challenge the whole system. With Mojo Mom I aspire to be more than just a writer telling individual women how to cope within an unfair system. This is why the short-lived Total 180! magazine and the book Happy Housewives drive me crazy--they are at best gallows humor that helps women adapt to the current system of privilege without challenging it.

For the first time I feel like our generation is attempting something truly radical. In Mojo Mom I consciously traced a path from self care to women's leadership and that trajectory continues to soar. We have to keep working to get caregiving counted in our society. As Pamela Stone says in Opting Out? mothers are the canary in the coal mine for an often inhumane workplace. We are cracking under the double-bind pressures of being an ideal worker and and ideal mother and we are finally demanding that something has to give. I want to be a good mother and a good worker. I want to work on my own terms and have paid opportunities to contribute even though I've taken time away from work. I am determined to make this happen even if I have to create my own path, in a manner that I hope paves the way for other women to do the same.

There is a tsunami of caregiving need coming our way. We are the ones who will have to shepherd the older generations through 20, 30, 40 years of retirement and elder care. Many of us will spend more years worrying about our parents than we will caring for our children, and as I have written before, that is not a matter of choice. If parenting cracks us, will elder care crush us? There is only so long we can get away without making the invisible work visible and dividing it fairly. We'd best get started now.

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Blogger PunditMom said...

That is the conundrum. As one who straddles the boomer/Gen X line, it's still a hard dilemma. But ultimately, don't we have to find a way to balance what those who before us provided in the way of opportunities, while still trying to find our true path? Not all of us were cut out to ignore all in life to the exclusion of getting the corner office, which is how many men do it.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Grrrlfriend Jess said...

You've made a really valid point here and I have a prime example of this all with my feminist, Boomer mom who was a full-time teacher when I was growing up. She is very challenged by the choices I've made to stay-at-home and then work from home, not only because of the radically different working world (with so much telecommuting and online-based careers that were not options in the 70s) but also by the choice to opt out. I do think there is some sense of betrayal for all that the previous generations work for rather than a focus on the choice of it all. It is a tricky gap to bridge.

By the way, I thought you were a great balance on the Today show and was really excited to hear what you had to say. Thank you for offering up your perspective on the couch!

2:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

This is the first post I've read by you, and all I have to say is -- Wow!

You really helped me to define exactly what it is that has happened to me starting when I decided to have a child.

I look forward to reading more of your blogs and information.


5:10 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Thanks for joining us on the Mojo Mom blog, Tracy. You picked a good day to read for the first time! This was a major moment coming together for a long time.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Sarah Zeldman said...

"With Mojo Mom I aspire to be more than just a writer telling individual women how to cope within an unfair system."

That's why I admire you so much.

As a woman who loves to find solutions for the here and now (minus the gallows humor and, hopefully, the holier-than-thou attitude), I know that I'm not doing enough to change the system. Maybe we balance each other out in the universe somehow :)

Anyway, I enjoy learning from you and expanding my vision of what could be, and how I can participate in making it happen for myself and my children.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

Great post and very well said. I've thought this for the last 6 months, which is how long I've been on the "opt out" path. I wish the media's stories would dig a little deeper into the actual reasons behind staying home -- which I will continue to call it because I can't stand the words "opting out."

6:46 AM  
Anonymous LisaG said...

Another significant difference I've noticed between Gen Xers and Boomers is the value we place on family. So many of us grew up with workaholic parents and in divorced families. We place a greater value on intact families and realize that both marriages and children take time and work. My husband shares my values--work will always be there, in some form or another, and let's face it, we're going to be working well past age 65. Our children and the time we spend together will not...

12:36 PM  
Blogger Florinda said...

I think you have a terrific insight here. Like PunditMom, I'm on the Boomer/Gen X borderline. I'm sometimes befuddled by my friends who seem to be putting aside years of investment in education and career-building when kids come along, thinking they'll be able to jump back in when they're ready. I hope they can, when and where they want to. It's not a chance I felt myself able to take, and I may be a little envious. But at the heart of this, we need to get past the either/or dynamic that often frames this discussion, and your thoughts here can help us move toward that.

This is my first post here, and I'm enjoying your blog.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Business Her Way said...

I am coming to this post very late and as a 1971 college grad, having been on the edge of the postwar (WWII) feminist movement. I agree with Shawn that opt-out is negative, much as is work/life balance. Words do have impact. Part of cracking the code is saying "life balance" and "opting-in." We opt in to a life choice that provides time to raise a family (why bring those kids into the world if we are not there to instill values, traditions, and care). Not everyone has this choice, of course. It is a goal to work toward and your blogs on MomsRising and here are moving us all in that direction.

I don't have daughters, and do sense that my generation may appear "betrayed," but it might just be envy and a bit of guilt. Make the 60's generation valued for their choices -- our goal was to give your generation the choice to choose.

6:14 PM  

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