Recently, at the wedding of my middle son, the speech by the best man had the room in laughter and tears. My eldest son gave it. He talked about their childhood, how they're only 18 months apart, deeply connected in their memories and experiences, how he liked to drive Dinky Toys on his younger brother's newborn body, how they fought and wrestled, and how, as adults, they have grown to love one another.
At one point, the elder son recalled something I had started with all three of my boys as children. When we were somewhere special, on holiday or on an outing in the country, I would ask them to take in their surroundings and together we would create Memory No. 1 and Memory No. 2 and so on. It might be the way the leaves of a tree looked against a brilliant blue sky, the feel of the sun on the skin, the title of the book I was reading to them and the closeness of lying in a hammock together. Remember this, I would say, notice the exact details, how it feels, so that when we're back home in Toronto, in the middle of the winter, slogging through homework and struggling through snow, we can invoke the memory and be transported. It worked. And it became a bit of a larky tradition. At the wedding, he relayed this story and then, looking at his brother and new sister-in-law, told them that right now, surrounded by friends and family, this was one more of those moments to mark indelibly in the mind. To do so, time slows down, he said. You realize what matters; what endures; what creates happiness.
Well, I was crying at that point. I was surprised (and delighted) that something I had done spontaneously in a quirky mom moment with rambunctious toddlers had stuck with them through the years. (And I was relieved that he chose to recall one of my better moments as a parent.) It underscored why I feel largely defined by motherhood, even though I would never have said that's what I wanted as a young woman.
I thought about the role of caregiver recently when reading two new books on the subject: Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter and Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution by Antonella Gambotto-Burke. They both argue that caregiving should be more valued in society. But their approach is different.
Slaughter is the mother of two teenaged boys who famously left her high-profile job as the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department to return to her full-time tenured position as a professor at Princeton University so she could have more flexibility to spend time with her family. For her, the role of caregiving should be freed of gender expectations. Slaughter exhorts women to let go of cultural assumptions that children need their mother most and that only she does it best. (Her husband was the primary caregiver when she worked in Washington and was fully supportive of her career choices.) She suggests a number of changes – a continued movement for men to define masculinity as more than breadwinners, more government-supported, quality child care, less stigmatization in the workplace about parental leave, more emphasis in the social realm on who we are beyond the job title. But the thrust of her book is about gender equity in child-care responsibilities so that women are free to pursue their careers should they choose to.
Gambotto-Burke, on the other hand, puts the responsibility of quality child care squarely on the shoulders of mothers. Her book, comprised of memoir essays interspersed with a series of interviews with child-care experts (such as Steve Biddulph on the outsourcing of care; Lysa Parker on how attachment parenting prevents societal violence; and Canada's Gabor Mate on the influence of childhood experiences on the brain and later outcomes such as addiction), is about mama – not about how mama and papa can share caregiving responsibilities. An advocate of attachment parenting, she wants an attachment society, one that resolves its paradoxical approach to motherhood, which is sentimentalized in popular culture at the same time as it's undervalued as a "menial job," a sort of consolation prize for women who can't cut it in the workplace.
This juxtaposition of mother as all-powerful caregiver versus the call to share the role with others is interesting and points to something few women want to admit. Motherhood is not something you can organize ahead of time like buying a house. It is an emotional upheaval and a connection of deep, fierce, unconditional love that is not the same as you will find in any other relationship. Maybe part of the problem in achieving gender equity is that some mothers don't want to give that up.
Even Slaughter acknowledges the devastation she felt the first time one of her sons woke in the middle of the night and called out for daddy, not mommy. She thought she might have been feeling guilt. "I'm his mother," she writes (her italics). "Kids are supposed to call for their mother. If he's not calling for me, then I must not be a good mom." But upon reflection, she realized she felt envy. We all want to be needed.
For all the talk about wanting a great career outside the home, perhaps some women are reluctant to completely let go of the one role society has long said only they can inhabit. It's their domain, their area of proclaimed expertise in a world where men get top spot at everything else and now they have to share that, too? Certainly, one can read Gambotto-Burke's book as a celebration of the biological bond between mother and child, an epic journey of exclusive love and intimacy. And sure, this intense mothering (aka the Mommy Mystique) can be seen as a guilt trip for working moms and a justification for the choice to stay home. But if we can set aside her emphasis on "mama," and step outside the heated stay-at-home versus working mother debate, this book could also be interpreted as a deep dive into the role of caring for offspring – one that gives us a better understanding and a new-found appreciation for this, yes, historically female occupation.
I write that and I laugh at myself. I went to Smith College, for goodness sake, a feminist all-women's institution where Betty Friedan, also an alumna, did her famous survey at her 15th reunion to discover "the problem that had no name," which became the basis for her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. Being a mother would not be my primary identity for a meaningful life, I had thought. It wasn't a matter of not wanting to be a mother; I simply saw it as something that could be added on to an interesting, professional life – an added value, I suppose. Some mother-feminist writers (Angela Barron McBride in The Growth and Development of Mothers, published in 1973, for example) criticized Friedan for skirting motherhood and its value. But few took notice. The die was cast. We had concluded that it was a cultural construction of gender, marriage and motherhood that was to blame for keeping women at home. As a result, the notion of emotional attachment or the intellectual inquiry and personal exploration that caregiving can invite was rarely discussed.
When I married and began having children, three within five years, starting in my mid-20s, it didn't take long for me to realize what many women do: I had a great job outside the home, but I wasn't paid enough to make it worthwhile to pay for good child care. Still, I believed in the hope and promise of equity; I persevered. I worked full-time through all their early years, taking only a few months off with each birth, and then, with the third, came home to develop a freelance career with a combination of babysitters and occasional daycare, when required. I could have chosen not to work outside the home. But I didn't want to abandon my ambitions and career interests. I simply leaned out, opting for work that was still intense, still competitive, but which also allowed me to keep home as the epicentre of my life as a writer and mother (and occasional baker of cookies). Later, when I divorced, I had no choice. I had to lean in again. But I never regretted those years of being the primary caregiver.
Societal expectation may have had something to do with it – mothers who have little to do with their children's upbringing are treated with deep suspicion if not as social pariahs, and Lord help them if their children turn out poorly – but fundamentally it was a personal, emotional decision for my own well-being. And it made me who I am, teaching me more than any other activity in my life, not just about myself, strengths as well as shortcomings, but also about the stuff of life – compassion, generosity, motivating others and the effort to develop people into sound human beings. And that only covers a fraction of it. Being a caregiver, you see the charm of life, too, explaining to a toddler why the world looks upside down in the puddles on the sidewalk, for example. And you get to witness the profound beauty of innocent curiosity – about death, about the world, about how to navigate it.
Which makes Gambotto-Burke's desire to value motherhood understandable. Many can contribute more to the world as mothers of the next generation than they ever would selling Dentyne gum and other consumer products by writing television commercials for an ad agency (my first career). Once, during a contentious work issue, I told a female friend, who is childless, that I felt like descending into domesticity. She clucked with alarm, as though my comment had been about wanting to wimp out. But it wasn't. It was simply that I felt there was more meaning in the rough and tumble of the home scene than there was in some stupid power dynamic at work.
Still, it's regressive to think that only mothers have the capacity to love and care for their children. If they choose to, fine. But no one should feel that their children are as good as doomed unless they breastfeed them for years, co-sleep, home-school and lavish them with exclusive maternal attention (as Gambotto-Burke suggests). Please. Slaughter convincingly defeats this way of thinking by pointing to same-sex marriages, in which child care is never a gender issue.
The point is that no matter how you choose to accommodate the desire and need to care for others in your life, it should be valued. It should be acknowledged with more than lip service and vague promises from politicians for a social infrastructure of quality, accessible child care for the 3.8 million families with children in Canada. The grey tsunami is coming as well, so it's not just child care but elder care that will necessitate a shift in what we deem important.
And if we saw care as more than a wimp-out, non-ambitious option, no matter who gave it, then society could get closer to the gender equity it purports to want.