Behind every working man

As part of my efforts to multitask, I read while I work out. It works well for me: if the reading material is interesting, I hardly even notice I'm schvitzing while reading. An unfortunate consequence of this habit is its magnification of my tendency to talk to my reading material, as when I yelled "Oh, no you didn't!" at the article on workplace discrimination against caregivers in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. I was provoked by the part where the author, Eyal Press, unflinchingly writes that "becoming a parent is a choice."

Let's be clear: In the United States, half of all pregnancies are unplanned. In those cases, becoming a parent is a choice if you are a dude: you have the option to either bolt, or to hang around and be considered some kind of superhero by many. Yes, it's still technically a choice to have a baby if you are a pregnant woman, but that choice requires a different and more complicated set of considerations than the man's does. And don't forget, this is a best-case scenario, as we live in one of the most empowerful countries in the world, where abortion is still legal, and rape is not (unless you were asking for it, duh).

This might seem like a minor nit to pick, but it's not. Biology has given one half of the population the capacity to incubate offspring prior to birth. A healthy chunk of social norms worldwide are structured around the assumption that this capacity, especially when exercised, results in a natural predisposition to and preference for caregiving among women relative to men. But if parentage is intended in only half of the cases in which it happens, it's hard to argue that all women who become mothers have caregiving as their top priority.

Our workplaces already assume that behind every working man is a woman to care for the children and the aging parents. Imagine how much more frustrating this construct becomes--for men and women, both--if the children were never intended to begin with.

I'll fully admit to having been part of workplace resistance to caregiver-centered flexibility. As an intern, I was on service for a very painful few weeks with a resident who was pumping breast milk every 3 hours to feed her new baby. I remember saying, while complaining to a colleague, that it's impractical to be a ward resident and a breast-feeding mother at the same time. And when picking up extra shifts for a resident who got knocked up in the middle of her intern year, I confess to grumbling, and maybe a little potty mouth. In both situations, a small part of me pled that it takes a village to raise a child; all the other parts just wanted to get their work done and go home.

Oddly--or maybe not--I was whiniest about the inconvenience when it was related to planned pregnancies. I felt that if the urge to procreate was so strong that people would allow it to disrupt their residency training and so many others' schedules, it had to be motivated by a self-interest I just couldn't understand.

I realize that this reaction occurred during the tumult of my intern year, in the context of uncertainty about my own reproductive plans and a significant degree of sleep deprivation. Although I can't say I feel very differently now, I am still pretty tired.

And my reproductive plans are still uncertain. That probably won't change until I stop talking to magazines in public.

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Well, it _is_ a choice, even if it isn't a straightforward one. With the important exception of rape, not using birth control _is_ a choice. Not having an abortion _is_ a choice. Not putting the infant up for adoption _is_ a choice. The alternatives (birth control excepting) may not be easy choices, but that is not the same as saying the choice does not exist.

And yes, from underage single mothers to professional couples with a planned child, they all do make sacrifices for their choice. It is a tribute to the strength of our procreative instincts that so many people choose this in the face of so many and so obvious negative consequences. SOme of those consequences are clearly not acceptable and something we as a society need to remediate. But it is not at all clear that _all_ negative consequences of that choice are unacceptable.

I've always loved the expression, "Pregnancy is like a egg and bacon breakfast. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed."

As a mother whose child stays at home with J-dad, I get some slack about this. It is really shocking to me when folks tell me that J-Dad couldn't possibly be as good a caregiver as me. In reality, if I had to stay at home most likely the child and I would both be sitting in a corner crying most of the time. Not every woman is designed to be a full-time mom, and some men are just better at it.

Even if we all agree that becoming a parent is a choice, where is it written that anyone should have to decide between that and complete and utter devotion to an employer? I find the idea that the workplace should take precedence over our personal lives -- whether we have children or not -- VERY disconcerting. After all, as my husband says, they call it work because they have to pay you to go there...

Heather, I'd have less trouble with that if the "mommy's rights" types were willing to fight for the rights of all employees, not just parents, to have time off. Just because I don't have children does not mean my time not spent at work is less valuable than that of a parent.

By Reginleif (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

I think people differ greatly on this issue. For example, if it were completely unidentifiable as my own, I would have no problem with a picture of my naked ass being posted on the Internet. Others would be absolutely horrified by the prospect.

And the irony of the mandatory mindfulness lecture is hilarious - the mindfulness lecturer demonstrates his own lack of awareness by not allowing you to do something more helpful like sleep for an extra hour. One day you'll look back and laugh. I promise. :)

Thank you. Heather, I'd have less trouble with that if the "mommy's rights" types were willing to fight for the rights of all employees, not just parents, to have time off.