Nanny speak & “choice”

I spotted this article in the New York Times about communication between mothers and their children’s nannies. As someone who hosts a nanny share & at times has difficulty articulating my wishes (or even remembering to try to articulate my wishes) to my son’s wonderful nanny, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, the article portrays women who employ nannies as nitpicky (complaining about the nanny feeding the kids dinner for lunch) and detached from their children’s lives (not noticing that the nanny had potty trained the child). And absent from the picture were fathers (apparently, according to the author, men play no part in the relationship with childcare providers …).

More interesting, and slightly more disturbing, were the comments. I knew it was going to be good when I read the first comment: “Why don’t you raise your own kids ??….. Or maybe you should have thought about birth control if you really don’t want children. Obviously the message is you can’t or don’t want to spend time with them.”

Or, how about: “Giving up motherhood for ambition and drive….our children are screwed!”?

Then there’s the mother who bemoans that not working is not an option for her or “most women” and “if I could stay home, I would, in a heartbeat.”

OK, being the NY Times there were other points of view as well and plenty of happily working moms did chime in. But, come on… really!?

It got me started thinking about how these readers were throwing around the idea of choice in their comments. And it seems that on the issue of working moms the idea of choice is grossly abused. Those that feel they don’t have a choice may be ignoring the fact that the supposed lack of choice is the result of other choicse (I’m thinking lifestyle choices, though this is clearly not always or even usually the case). Those that criticize moms for (supposedly) choosing career over baby (a) clearly don’t understand that humans are complex beings that make all sorts of choices all the time without necessarily hierarchizing or neglecting important aspects of their lives and (b) make all sorts of problematic normative judgments that are just silly and even historically inaccurate (for example, that women have always stayed home to raise the kids while the men-folk were working out in the world…).

The one “choice” that seems to be the least challenged is the choice to stay at home and raise your babies… I know, I know… we moms are supposed to support one another and not be critical of one anothers’ choices… well, I AM going to be critical… not of other moms, though. I am going to be critical of this so-called “choice” to be a stay-at-home mom. My claim is that it’s less a choice than an automatic reflex.

Yes, I’m one of those feminist wackos concerned with the mommy brain drain. I see it all around me — highly educated women “dropping out” and staying at home to raise the children. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was a choice freely made, but it’s not. While many of my girlfriends are making this so-called choice, none (I mean NONE) of my guy friends are doing the same. These are not manly men who frown on anything remotely feminine. No, these are sensitive guys, many of them would claim to be feminists themselves. They partnered with strong, intelligent women. Those of them who have daughters would cringe at the thought of those daughters being destined for full-time mommy-hood.

So why the disparity? I can’t pinpoint it, but it’s systemic. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. No one raises an eyebrow. Men still have more earning power. There are social pressures at work. Pick your poison. … Whatever the reason, the decision to be a stay-at-home mom is not a choice. Women end up in a position in which it’s easier, more convenient, less disruptive for them to stay at home. It’s situational.

Some women, I’m sure, would choose to stay at home to raise their children in a world with perfect parity between the sexes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m equally sure that more men would do the same, given the real chance. REAL choice would be refreshing. If we had real choice there’d be fewer barbed comments like the ones in reaction to the “nanny speak” article — instead of angst and self-consciousness in the face of a chimera of choice, we (might) be more confident in our choice & respect the choices of others.

Until then, I’ll keep working at equality & understanding in my own family and encouraging other women to do the same in theirs. Things clearly aren’t going to change on their own…


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