Thursday, October 09, 2008

Getting 'Soviet' and 'Honey' in the same post

Got a seat on the Metro heading home on Wednesday.  Heading home at the mom's hour now: that 4:30 to 5 pm time zone.  The DC Metro is ultra-civilized--brown and orange or blue and red covered seats, carpeting, everyone is quietly reading books or listening to music.  No one ever strikes up conversations unless they find themselves in the same car with an actual neighbor (which happens).

A woman about my age or slightly younger sits down next to me and gives this laugh of recognition as her eye catches the cover of the book I've just pulled out: "Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home," Pamela Stone's book.  She explains, 'after the day I've had, that's what I want to do.'  

I have an actual conversation with a stranger on the Metro.  She works for an art museum, has an 18-month-old son, has to head home earlier than everyone else, it feels awkward with her colleagues sometimes, her boss likes her but she knows advancement is going to be slow because she's a mom.  She worries that she'll advance enough at all.  I tell her about Stone's conclusions, that it's not about choice, it's about constraint presented as "choice."  We agree it makes you feel more sane to know it isn't just you.

I talk to one of my neighbors today.  She's trying to get back into the workforce in a serious way by getting a master's degree.  Prior to enrolling in school, she did some low-paid work to get her foot back in the employment door.  We're both raging at the public school system and the insane amount of homework our kids are supposed to do every night.  And our kids are young--3rd and 4th grade.  And it's ridiculous--they can't just read for 20 minutes and have a parent sign their assignment book.  No, they have to fill out a detailed 'reading log.'  And that's only reading--there's math and 'word study' and then special projects and assignments, all of it filled with this overlay of bureaucratic dotting of 'i's and crossing of 't's and filling out forms.  

The whole process, including whining, usually takes an hour and a half to two hours.  And often, the most significant part seems to be meeting the bureaucratic expectations of paperwork done right.  There are times I feel I'm in some kind of Soviet school, in which the process is more important than the content.  But what gets to us even more are the lengthy justifications from the school system in which the subtext is always that there will be a parent home after school, ready and available to sit down at a table with a child for hours to help with homework.

We decide this is preventing us from doing our work and our jobs and following our ambitions. Let alone helping our children explore areas of actual interest, pursue friendships, or engage in after school activities.  We talk about women we know who've made the sacrifices on the kids/school end, giving up job advancement and skills acquisition, only to have a husband lose a job.  Suddenly the family income drops by 75 percent.  We decide the school is aiding and abetting a dangerously retro mentality about women and work.

And today, on the front page of the Washington Post, in an article about the economic meltdown, a guy who works for some kind of consumer credit agency or something has a quote attributed to him in which he says, "when the American housewife starts stuffing money under the mattress, we're all in trouble" [my paraphrase, can't find the link to the article].  Housewife?  Please.  Honey, Mr. consumer credit guy, maybe if you'd figure out how to make the workplace more flexible, more women and more families would have more money.

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