Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The (Not So) Mystical Mom

I would have missed this piece about Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique (a snippet of which is below) had Gayle not posted about it.  I'm glad to have read this Gail Collins essay because it sets in contrast so much of my upbringing.  I also did a quick look up about Friedan's early life.  She was about a half year younger than my mom (my mom was born in 1920, Friedan in 1921), Jewish, but from Peoria, where she must have felt the outsider because of antisemitism.  Much has been made of Friedan's attending Smith.  One wonders if some of her revulsion was about WASP life more broadly, not just about the MRS degree aspect.

My mom was not a housewife, this in spite of the constraints on women's careers that Friedan describes.  Where the word demure might aptly describe the housewife, my mother was pushy.  Bulldozer might be a better description.  

She became something of a money making machine, with a tutoring business in foreign languages.  At the time New York (can't remember if this was the city or the state) offered three different diplomas from high school.  The Academic one required a foreign language.  There was a Regents exam that had to be passed after the third year of language.  This provided the necessary ingredients for a Stanley Kaplan approach before Stanley Kaplan (the test prep company) ever existed.  

I know that other teachers tutored on the side (and as a kid I did a little in high school).  But this was likely idiosyncratic work tailored to the particular kid's needs and of low volume, a sidebar, nothing more.  My mother had algorithms that she adhered to, for both the business model and the pedagogy.  These were of her own creation and is what made it into an ongoing business, where demand was fed by word of mouth recommendations among the satisfied clients. 

Our house had a den and there was a side entrance from the backyard directly into the den. So the den, which doubled as our family room and had a TV in it, served as my mom's office.  There was a card table which my parents used for playing bridge (they did that quite frequently with friends on the weekend).  The card table provided the working surface for the student and my mom.  There was a couch along the west wall of the room.  If a student for the next lesson arrived a few minutes early he'd sit on the couch till the current lesson was over.  There were no group lessons.  So a student could start with the tutoring at any time.  Students were therefore at different points on the trajectory in the tutoring and the lessons would be individualized that way, but otherwise not tailored to the students.  At the end of the lesson the kids paid - either cash or by check. There was no buying in bulk ahead of time.  I don't remember what the deal was for no-shows, obviously if the kid was really sick that was that, but there weren't many no-shows.  This was a serious business and since a parent had to drive the kid to and fro it had that supervision built in.

The lesson was based on learning grammar - perhaps not the best approach for learning to speak the language but a structured way to get at passing the test.  For example, the very simply sentence in French, je vais, can be translated into English in three different ways: I go, I do go, and I am going.  For translation in the other direction, particularly for the last form, my mother would say what became an incantation. "The word is helps make the sentence progressive and is not translated into French."  The student, most of the time not a high achiever at school, probably had at best a vague notion of the various tenses in English.  My mother's method was based on constructing a mapping of English tenses into tenses of the other language.  As a consequence, the learning of verbs dominated the lessons.  (In addition to French she taught Spanish, German, Latin, and once in a while Hebrew.)   So the kid learned some English grammar while becoming more proficient at the foreign language.  That I remember this all these years later is a testimony to how many times I heard it when I was a kid.

When we were young this was the only work I recall my mother doing.  As tutoring is an after school business, my mother had free time during the school day.  Much of this she spent playing tennis, which was her passion and which she did to great excess.  (Years later this excess exacerbated problems with arthritis.)  She returned to College as we got older to earn credits in Education so she could get a teaching license.  She substituted for a few years and then around the time I started high school she got a permanent job at Jamaica High School. (I went to Benjamin Cardozo High school, which was within walking distance. Jamaica was about a twenty minute car ride.)  She continued with the tutoring in earnest in those years.  Business, in fact, was booming.  During this time (I started high school in 1968) my mother surely was earning more than my father, a lawyer, the junior partner in a firm with his brother.  As lawyers go, my dad was pretty ordinary, or so is my understanding.  My mother, in contrast, was exceptional in her line of work. 

Before I turn to how superwoman did as a mom, let me make a brief aside.  I've recently finished watching the BBC TV series, The Hour.  The show is cast in the late 1950s, historical fiction about a BBC News program of the same name.  Interestingly, and relevant to the topic at hand, many of the gender issues come up as adjunct plots to the main theme of the show.  There is the bored out of her gourd housewife, who starts out in the Donna Reed mold but becomes increasingly angry and frustrated, particularly because her husband, the show's news anchorman, is cheating on her and she knows it.  There are women in very important production roles in the show and one of them, Bel Rowley is the character's name, is the female lead of the show.  These women are extraordinarily bright, very good at their work and passionate about it.  I don't know if this represents the actual reality at the time or is entirely revisionist history to attract current day audiences, but my surmisal is that not all paths were completely blocked for well-educated women then.  In any event, they also try to juggle romantic relationships along with the work, and on that front they do a less good job.  (The issue of children comes up only peripherally and then only about a kid given up for adoption far in the past.  So parenting really is not part of the show's storyline.)  In spite of the fact that women do play important roles, very senior management, entirely above the production level, is an exclusively male province.  

There is one character, the idealistic hero of the show whose character's name is Freddie Lyon, with a bloodhound's nose for where the next important news story will manifest.  He is pushy to the extreme, a virtue in the role of news reporter.  Apart from the investigative legwork, an important task of the reporter is to get power to speak the truth, especially when power would prefer to conceal things and deflect the reporter by offering a bone, one that may have a little meat on it but surely doesn't tell the whole story.  The good reporter, understanding the dynamic fully, has to push back to get at what is really going on.  In this sense, being pushy and obnoxious as a consequence is part of the job description. 

Let me get back to talking about my mom.  I believe that several other credible people who have argued that excellence as parent and high level job performance in a demanding executive position is well nigh impossible.  The time demands are too great and it is very hard to split attention between work and home in a way to be really good at both.  One can try and perhaps over a short period of time truly be superwoman, but in the long term the answer is to find the better tradeoff, not to propagate the myth that the woman can do it all and without sacrifice. (If a reader of this piece has a good current source on this please send it to me and I'll include it in a revised version of this essay.)  The obvious answer, then, for the mother who wants to have a rewarding career is to find surrogates to handle part of the parenting function.  

Every family has a baby sitter that they rely on occasionally.  On the matter of parent surrogates, the issue is not yes or no, it's extent of use.  In the case of my family the various surrogates appeared in different flavors.   I went to a private nursery school (all day) rather than a public kindergarten (part day).  I went to public school starting in first grade, when that went the full school day.  We had a live in housekeeper/cook who could also watch the kids now and then. There were many different women who filled that role over the years.  (We lived in a middle class neighborhood, so within this community the practice was quite unusual.  Our house wasn't that large and there was no bedroom for the live in.  She slept on a convertible couch in the basement.)  On the weekends my dad played an active role in our out-of-school education and unlike the parents of my friends played with us kids, particularly association football in the street.  As we got older we switched to a day person as housekeeper and then it went to once a week.  We kids took on some of the responsibilities.  Part of the time when I was in high school I made the dinners, not great food preparation but edible, and I served my mom her dinner in the den while she was tutoring.  When we were younger and my mom couldn't find somebody else to care for me and my brother at home (my sister was older and could take care of herself by then) my mom would schlep us to the tennis court and we'd sit on the ground outside the fence for the hour or two when she played.  It is the one memory I recall of a time where my interests were subordinated to my mother in a way where my welfare didn't benefit at all.  As we got older, my brother and I were home alone a fair amount.

Let me draw a perhaps surprising conclusion based on this experience.  By and large, certainly there were exceptions but I'm talking about overall, having the surrogates rather than my mom or being without adult supervision altogether was a blessing rather than a curse.  I developed more in accord with my own inclinations as a result.  Everyone should have their Walter Mitty moments and this way I was able to have mine. Plus, and unlike my younger brother, my best friend lived right across the street so I wasn't lacking in companionship. If a kid doesn't have close friends then a mom's absence may be harder to substitute for.   In my case, it worked out reasonably well.

The big issue between me and my mom wasn't about her absence in my day to day stuff.  It was about her pushiness in making my life decisions for me, where as with her tutoring she set the goals by algorithm somewhat oblivious to my personality and intellectual strengths, instead following the same path she had pushed on my sister some years earlier.  My sister is 5 years older than I am though was only 4 years ahead of me in school, because I started first grade early.  The gap is sufficiently great that I can't say whether this pushing on my sister was really for her benefit or not, but I'm quite certain in my case it was pernicious. 

It started in junior high school with French.  Overall I really was quite an excellent student and probably didn't need much parental interference with regard to school whatsoever.  Friendly suggestions, sure.  Absolute commandments, certainly not.  Nonetheless, in French I got the tutoring my mom provided, without having any choice in the matter.  One consequence is that I dropped French after tenth grade, the minimum time necessary, and never really learned it.   That experience speaks to the current preoccupation with helicopter parents.  If you're going to push the kid in some direction, the kid better have his say in the matter, and then try to base the decision partly on that and partly on where the kid's interests/inclinations appear to be.  In my case this lesson was learned the hard way.  It was very hard indeed.

My guess is that during adolescence many kids go through a disillusionment period about their formal education.  So much of it seems to be about impressing others and these others seem to care only about high level performance, not about the kid himself irrespective of that performance.  Recently in my teaching many of my students have written about going through such a period when they were in high school.  So I'm sure I wasn't unique in that respect.  And if my experience is typical of bright kids, it is something to reckon with. The feelings of anger hit me really hard, in 10th grade, when I was 14-15.  I had a very difficult time then, got some help outside of school, and though out of balance emotionally somehow got through it all.  In large part I blamed my mom.  We reached an armistice of sorts at the time though true peace wasn't obtained til years later.  Once she could no longer exercise control over me then she could just be my mom again and I responded accordingly.  When my parents had retired (1982) and I'd see them in Florida, I was fully able to surrender myself to their needs and wants.  I understood the necessity of doing that, as the dutiful son.  I was able to fulfill that role since there were no longer any larger psychological issues at play.  Yet some of those thoughts from high school lingered, even now, and it made me more emotional than I otherwise would have been after her passing last December.  

Let me bring this to a close by trying to tie what my mom did to Gail Collin's remarks about The Feminine Mystique.  I think there are two different dimensions that are being rolled up into one in the denigration of the MRS degree and the housewife aspiration.  One dimension is making money from paid work.  Here worth is equated with earnings, so a housewife is a very low status job, dependent entirely on the husband for spending money.  This dependency is something to lament and something to change.  It is where my mother had early success and where the women's movement has accomplished quite a lot since the 1960s, even if complete parity remains a ways off.  (In higher education, parity has been achieved within the learning technology arena, I believe, and perhaps also more broadly within the information technology domain.  It hasn't been achieved across the board.  The life of an assistant professor is extraordinarily stressful in any event and the prospect of tenure creates a heavy burden.  Often the environment isn't very nurturing of folks on the tenure track.  In such a setting parity will be very hard to achieve  even if out and out gender discrimination can be monitored and thus restrained by the EEO Committee.) 

The other dimension is the fear of boredom and the demand that work be relevant and intellectually exciting.  As an aspiration, it's fine.  As an expectation, however, I believe it excessive and unrealistic.  My mom, for example, actually was quite bored with the tutoring,  one piece of evidence to support that claim is that she knit incessantly as she taught the students.  She needed other things to occupy her mind.  There was insufficient novelty for her in teaching the same thing over and over again.  My current belief is that the realistic expectation is given by the 80/20 rule, where the 80% part is work done out of obligation and the 20% part is self-directed and creative.  In jobs where that is the norm the employees should be satisfied.  Beyond that the employee risks being regarded as a prima donna and thus will not earn the respect of her co-workers.  

There is also one silly bit in the Gail Collins piece, about who drove the family car.  For some reason Collins fails to recognize that the answer is largely determined by geography, not gender roles.  If you lived in Bayside, Queens like we did then the mom drove the car, not because she wore the pants in the family but because the dad rode a train to work, where we lived either the LIRR or the subway.  (My dad walked 3 blocks from our house, took the Q27 bus to Flushing, and then road the number 7 IRT line into Manhattan.  When we ultimately got a second car, my dad drove to Shea Stadium, avoiding the bus part of the trip but still took the Subway after that.)  Collins grew up in the Midwest (around Cincinnati).  Maybe there you could drive downtown from the suburbs as a reasonable trip.  In the Northeast, surely in the NYC area, the car was not driven into Manhattan.  That would have been both hugely stressful in the commute and very expensive in paying for the parking. There are enough other ways that the parent roles were unequal in the 1960s that there is no need to bring the car into the discussion at all.   It might have been a symbol for Collins.  But it is the wrong image to represent the struggle.

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