EQUAL PARENTING

By Ana María López ’82

Nothing prepared me better for the sleep-deprived quick decision making and multi-tasking skills necessary for life with children than an Internal Medicine internship. Nothing prepared me better for thinking about problems and addressing them than my years at Bryn Mawr.

When I graduated in 1982 I was full of possibilities. I was committed to what I described as “a life of thoughtful action” based on my experience as a philosophy student. I was committed to women’s health but unsure about a career as a physician, and I knew I wanted to experience motherhood. After choosing to attend medical school my path was clearer and narrower. There were to be four years of school, three years as a resident, and perhaps three years of fellowship. My life until the 10th reunion was already planned—with the thought of maternity in there as well. Perhaps it’s that “in there somewhere” approach that bothers me. My experience and my education hadn’t prepared me as well for motherhood or even wifehood as they had for medical school.

When I entered college I saw myself as a humanist. As I learned more about and experienced the differences in privilege that occur for no apparent reason other than gender, I began to identify as a feminist. I do not see women’s issues as being more important that those of race, class, age or other isms. But feminism was for me the first lens through which I could clearly see and experience the power differences that exist within our culture. For me it is also the lens that can offer solutions to these problems. Feminism opens options, accepts that we may make different but equally valid life choices and demands the development of whole human beings, women and men. By engaging both genders in the care of children and in the “keeping of the hearth,” the health and welfare of our children and our families is enhanced.

When I entered medical school, I was in a long-term relationship with the man I later married, and we began to think about when and how children would fit in for me. I spoke with my dean, one of the few female medical school deans in the country, whose advice was: “You hire someone to do those things for you.” We all have employed this solution to some extent but it fails to address the heart of the problem, which is that the work-place is often inflexible for families with children and that as a mother, as a parent, you want to “be there.” When I looked to one of the few female professors in psychiatry, she replied that a father needed five minutes a week to remain a significant father-figure in a child’s life but a woman needed to be present for the first five years. The maternal guilt began to set in.

I became pregnant in the second year of my internal medicine residency.

The department, confronted with a pregnant resident and no maternity leave policy, asked me to draft one. I wrote a parental leave policy that allowed for two months of paid leave. It remains in place today. Since the Family Leave Act, many women have requested an additional month at home with their newborns. New fathers generally take, at most, a week’s leave. I have supported women as they try to make decisions about how long to be at home and have served as a resource for information on childbirth, nursing, returning to work and child care options. I have never had an expectant father ask me these questions. It is my experience that it is largely the woman who gathers the necessary information, confers with others, and ultimately makes the decision that will be confirmed by her partner.

As a resident I was asked to speak to medical students about “doing it all.” I did several workshops about “balancing” roles until I realized that even in the 1990s only women were attending these workshops. This is not to say that men don’t help. The italics betray the differing meanings of parenting for each gender. Men help women with their job of caring for children and home. Men, in general, do not see those activities as their primary role. Similarly, when a man makes a meal, picks up children, or otherwise does “women’s work,” he is appreciated. A woman is simply performing an expected function. In the professional arena, a woman who leaves a meeting early to pick up children is often perceived as less committed to her work. A man who leaves to pick up children is perceived as “a good father,” a “ ’90s man.”

What to do? I have come to realize that change comes slowly and needs to be addressed at different levels. Even today I hear male residents in surgery comment on the inappropriateness of a woman in medicine because she will not be available to her children. Clearly they do not see their role as fathers measured by their availability to their children.

I feel it is important to speak out. My voice, that of an attending physician, a woman, a woman of color, needs to be heard. I remember a student telling me years later how important it was that in a discussion with other students I had affirmed that the experience of a female medical student was different. It is important to support on-site child care, job sharing and other family friendly policies and, by supporting education and educators, to affirm the value of children as the planet’s most precious resource.

I want to be a role-model not only to my students and patients, but most importantly to my children. Our children need to see men and women making cooperative decisions, valuing home life, and nurturing them and each other.

The other day, as he was getting ready for bed, my 4-year-old son said, “Mami, when I get big and my baby is cold and comes to my bed at night, I’ll hold him and cuddle him just right, because you taught me how to cuddle.” The changes we make now will be built upon by the children we are raising.

As a woman, I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to choose motherhood, to experience pregnancy, childbirth and child care. I am amazed by the power of the love I felt when I discovered I was pregnant, felt my children move for the first time, and looked upon them on their birthdays for the first time. The power of that love clarifies my perspective on life. There are women I know who have chosen to fully give up their profession while their children are young. I honor and accept that as the right choice for them. I love my work outside the home. I know that my parenting choices may delay my academic mobility and I was resentful for a time that I was not more productive. I felt I should be doing more for my career. I have since learned to give up the goal of becoming Superwoman. Superwoman is a cartoon character. I will wait for the time when I will be able to finish a cup of tea, read a novel for hours straight or have grown-up conversations at the dinner table. What will make that future time so much more special is that I will be carrying in my spirit the memories of those tiny hands, those contagious smiles, and those eyes of wonder.

Author’s note: Ana María López is a medical oncologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she is assistant professor of clinical medicine and pathology, medical director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program, and medical director of the Women's Health Initiative.

TIME AND MONEY

The day comes when we send our children out into the world. And, before then, someone—sometime, somewhere, somehow—has to go out into the marketplace and get the cash to pay for their support. Some of us dream of the fabled North European welfare states with great longing. We fantasize about lengthy paid maternity and paternity leaves, free quality day care and parental allowances. Maybe someday these things will come to pass in the United States. Today, however, how to support our children is a personal problem everyone solves in her own way. The solutions are usually pieced together from various resources and like the pictures made by a kaleidoscope, they can come undone and change as quickly as one can twist a wrist.

Life’s inevitable changes are disorienting in all families, no matter how affluent or stable. (Even the comfortably middle class Bankses were upset when the wind shifted to the East and Mary Poppins left). But changes are particularly burdensome for single parents, parents of children with special needs, those living in small towns with limited job opportunities, and those in low paying occupations. These parents may not have time to think about questions like “Who am I as a parent?” or “Whither my career after motherhood?” That doesn’t mean these are unimportant questions. But those of us who have the time and the money that makes for time to ask them and to work towards answers, might remember how privileged we are.

—ASHLEY DOHERTY ’71

FROM THE BELLY OF THE FAMILY BEAST

By Kelly Helm Smith ’84

My senior year at Bryn Mawr, for an application to graduate school, I wrote an autobiography. It’s long since lost, but what sticks with me was my mother’s observation that nowhere was she mentioned, even though my father came up several times. Oops. At the time I said something to her like, “Well, you know, Dad helped set the broad outlines of my life, goals and all, and you helped give me the strength to reach them.” I didn’t stop to reflect much more than that.

I became a newspaper reporter, worked in corporate communications, and, for the past four-and-a-half years, almost as long as I’ve been a mother, have worked part time in science communications. I should confess that I’ve consciously used motherhood as a chance to step back and try to figure out how work could be more meaningful. Oh, and did I mention my husband? He’s the one who’s balancing the tenure track pressure to work constantly with his own desire to be an involved parent, and with a wife who, it turns out, doesn’t function well without some time to herself.

Mom! Help! Now that I am a mom, I find that I want my mother like I haven’t since maybe a really bad day in second grade. We’re replaying my parents’ lives as academic nomads, living 400 miles away from the nearest grandparents. What I want to know is who made up this system of moving just for a job? Didn’t they realize that parenting is the hardest job of all, made harder by no grandparents in the neighborhood? Don’t they know how much an extra set of loving arms, even for an hour, can boost the sanity index? Whoops! What am I thinking? We don’t live in a culture that knows how to measure happiness, or that knows how to value what it can’t measure.

So Much for Cussed Individualism ... It Takes a Village. I actually contemplated being a stay-at-home mom, but it was easier to work part time. Our days needed more structure, and my daughter and I needed more connection to the world than one mom in a new city could provide. Kids like to be part of a purposeful group. Day-care, especially good day-care, is a nexus of community. Besides, peer pressure can be a good thing. I credit day-care with my daughter’s willingness to eat with utensils and wear clothing; at home she seemed to regard these as special torments devised by her loving parents. And if I’m really honest, I’d probably admit that the money from working helps.

When Do I Get A Raise? Ever since I became a mom and reordered priorities, I’ve felt as if I’m living with no context—not only did I have to build a whole new kind of support network from scratch, I had to learn to function off-resume. Motherhood is its own reward, but I’m still learning how to do it. The rewards of the working world—bylines, paychecks—are gratifying and comparatively easy to earn, because the expectations are so well-defined. One of my biggest mistakes as a new mom was to care too much about my daughter’s official milestones. We both survived potty-training, but just barely. With kid No. 2, I have resolved not to take it personally. This sounds ludicrous, but, to quote Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” Now, instead of focusing as much on their externally defined accomplishments, I try to be in the moment with them, able to help focus creativity, celebrate triumphs and kiss “owies,” cherishing the processes of loving, growing and nurturing. It may sound easy and idyllic, but it turned out to be much harder than I thought to sacrifice all my daily rituals, rewards and routines—especially sleep—so that I could nurture new life.

Make Way for Mommy. I work in natural resources planning, trying to get governments interested in planning for drought. The scientists I work with are doing their level best to advance the human condition. But it’s fairly obvious to me that the institutional culture of science precludes communication with broad audiences, and that there’s some serious work to be done to ensure that the needs and preferences of mothers and other diverse groups are well-understood and well-articulated in the netherworld of value assumptions where science and policy crisscross.

After a period of intense frustration with my current job, I decided to stick with it because I think the questions are too big and too important to leave up to the guys, or to any other homogeneous group.

The Mulan Syndrome. You know that male bonding thing, being part of the team and all that? It’s definitely addictive, but the working world has to learn not to devalue people when they become parents and develop a superceding allegiance. I’m still amazed at how many work cultures evaluate employees based on loyalty as demonstrated by willingness to work long hours, rather than on quality of work, consistency and reliability. It’s about keeping up appearances rather than results.

What Else Parents (and all human beings) Need. Up to six months’ leave, with health insurance if not pay, and an option to return to work part time. Flexibility. Five or six weeks of vacation a year, and no hassle about taking it. Family planning. Choice. Child care.

Speaking of Child Care. You can spot good child care by the devoted support of parent communities. My observation is that parent cooperatives, lab schools, church-sponsored preschools and good corporate day-care are all more likely to create and sustain a good dynamic than for-profit commercial child care. I don’t know what widespread government-sponsored child care would look like, but it’s easy to imagine it being contracted to private, for-profit companies.

What Children Need. Love, involvement, connection, hugs, birthday celebrations, ice packs and TLC, the chance to make mistakes and learn from them, places where it’s OK to make messes, daily routines, unstructured time, art supplies, music, dancing, attentive adults, discipline.

Maybe what children need is what we all need—more time for loving and learning, less time spent on getting, having and keeping.

How BMC Can Help. BMC could probably bolster its offerings for Thirty-Something alumnae. Twenty-odd-Somethings leave armed with the M. Carey “Our Failures Only Marry” Thomas attitude, ready to enter the world on its male-dominated terms. Empty-nesters and others with time and resources can go on guided tours to Greece. But for those of us in the belly of the family beast, I’d settle for web-based course offerings such as Domestic Ecosystems: Life Forms, Habitats and Food Chains Inside and Outside the Contemporary American Home; The Cosmology of Disney: Where Did Mufasa Go?; Temporal Dissonance: Polychronic Living in a Monochronic Culture; Those Amazin’ Amazons: Recreating Matriarchal Utopias Reconciling Feminism and Motherhood.

I knew when I was at Bryn Mawr that I’d eventually appreciate the experience. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills, but I think the time-release effect of a BMC education is giving me courage to face this next step—challenging how the world thinks. I don’t want to write news stories, press releases or Internet content; I want to rewrite paradigms. We need to acknowledge the limits of what people can achieve as individuals and to discover what we can do in community.

Author’s note: Kelly Helm Smith is the communications specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, a non-profit research group based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has a master’s degree in journalism and is working toward a master’s de-gree in community and regional planning.

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TABLES TURN

The pendulum swings; the tables turn. Does anyone know what’s what? In the late 1950s, when my children were young, a mother who worked outside the home was a rarity. She was for the most part regarded with pity, resentment, or envy. There was little accommodation for her multi-focused life from pediatricians, teachers, carpool drivers, and all the other mothers who readily volunteered to lead the Brownie troop. The working mother was usually defensive and apologetic—to her children, friends, spouse, colleagues and herself.

Nowadays, a mother of young children who doesn’t work is a rarity. She is, for the most part, regarded with pity, resentment or envy. Her life is as multi-focused as she allows, yet she is frequently defensive and apologetic—to her children, friends, spouse, colleagues and herself.

This takes place at all socioeconomic and educational levels, going far beyond the desire to “use one’s education” or “make ends meet financially.” What’s happening?

—ELIZABETH KAPLAN WOY ’57

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