Archive for the ‘On children and childrearing’ category

Book Review – Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering

March 28, 2011

Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, by Cameron Lynne Macdonald. University of California Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-520-26697-1.

By Susan Sapiro.

Shadow Mothers, by sociologist Cameron Lynne Macdonald (moderator of this blog), examines the complicated personal negotiations between employed mothers and the childcare providers who work in their homes. In this fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking study, Macdonald examines what it means to both mothers and childcare workers to be a “good mother” and what it means to outsource some of this role.

Macdonald’s study focused on the delegating of “motherwork” – the physical and emotional tasks involved in caring for children. Since a large part of motherwork are these emotional tasks – soothing, stimulating, forging strong bonds – outsourcing these tasks can be controversial and challenge “the fundamental understandings of motherhood” (10) and the idea of the self-sufficient nuclear family. Macdonald studied in-home childcare as it would demonstrate how mothers dealt with childcare services directly with the provider, as opposed to being mediated through a center and multiple caregivers. At home, a mother supposedly has more control over the quality of the care, and “how she selects and manages in-home care reflects what does and does not matter to her as a mother” (11).

The original research for Macdonald’s study took place at cultural moment when the American media was focused on social anxieties about women’s’ roles, women’s work outside the home, and childcare. The Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood scandals over undocumented immigrants they employed as nannies, the Louise Woodward case (the British au pair who was charged with the death of the baby in her care), and the resulting media frenzy displayed Americans’ ambivalence about employed mothers and non-maternal childcare.

One of the inspirations for Macdonald’s book comes from a personal caregiving experience. When she was 16, she was a summer babysitter/mother’s helper for a family. She had worked with the family for some time and had grown close to their children, especially the baby. One day, something happened that upset the baby and she reached for Macdonald for comfort, not her mother. Almost immediately, Macdonald was “frozen out” by the mother. Shortly after, the family paid her for the summer but let her go from the job. It wasn’t until many years later, as she started the research that became Shadow Mothers, that she understood the mother’s reaction and the complex emotions and relationships between mothers and their children’s caregivers.

The research is based on data that Macdonald collected in the late 1990s, based on interviews with 30 mothers who employed caregivers and 50 caregivers. Most of the mothers (called “mother-employers” in the book) were in high status professional jobs, had children under school age, and two thirds were white. The childcare providers were a mix of au pairs (some European), U.S. born nannies, and immigrant caregivers. They worked between 30-70 hours per week, and earned between $100-300 per week (live-in) and $80-$500 per week (live-out).

The book has four thematic sections: a) the cultural and structural restrictions that influence the mother-caregiver relationship; b) how the mother-employers try to solve the contradictions between the conflicting “ideal mother” and “ideal worker” ideologies in their lives; c) the caregivers’ perspectives on their employers’ mother and management strategies; and d) alternative and more egalitarian mother-caregiver interactions. Each chapter begins with a prelude, which presents observations and excerpts of interviews with a mother-employer and a caregiver, or a linked pair of mothers and the nannies they employ. These stories relate to the relevant theme of the chapter and give voice to the hopes and anxieties of two types of women, both of whom are caught between jobs that they are devoted to, and children they love.

Macdonald notes that with the increase in the number of women in the paid workforce, the cultural expectations around childrearing and mothering in particular (cf. the work of Sharon Hays and Judith Warner, among others) have become more rigid and extreme. Professional-managerial class women are highly influenced by the ideology of “intensive mothering,” the expectation that mothers are solely responsible for the social, emotional, educational, and ultimately professional development of their children. The professional mothers Macdonald interviewed were highly successful in male-dominant fields. Yet even after having children they were put in the impossible position of having to be completely career-focused. At the same time, the mother-employers held themselves to similarly high standards as mothers, insisting that they should be utterly child-focused. The women expressed the resulting tension from these competing expectations in both ambivalence about their careers, and in how they managed their relationships with their caregivers. The caregivers Macdonald interviewed were skilled workers who were frustrated that their jobs were seen by their employers, and society in general, as “unskilled,” “natural” family work. Macdonald relates a number of situations in which, because of the strong relational component of their work, the caregivers’ often seemed to place their young charges’ needs, and their own desire for recognition of their role, over their own financial needs.
Macdonald analyzes how the mother-employers chose a caregiver, a “shadow mother” to act in their place when they can’t be present. These choices often involved ethnic and/or national stereotypes (e.g. “nurturing“Caribbean women, white, “fresh-faced” Midwestern farm girls, too-worldly British au pairs). Once the mother-employers chose the nannies, they used different types of monitoring and management strategies, which Macdonald labels either “puppeteer” or “paranormal.” Some mother-employers were “puppeteer managers” who had detailed written schedules and definitive opinions on how caregivers should interact with their children in order to mimic the mother’s own communication and parenting style. Mothers who were “paranormal managers” felt that they had hired a caregiver who would intuitively act as the child’s mother would. This type of mother-employer didn’t consider their nannies’ unique relationship with their child, and they seemed to believe that that their caregivers were infinitely moldable, flexible, and ultimately, interchangeable. Mother-employers also revealed to Macdonald that in order to shore up their self-concepts as mothers and preserve their primary relationship with their children, they expected their trusted caregivers to “fade away” at the end of the workday, once the mothers returned home.

Not surprisingly, the paid caregivers often had strong reactions to their employers’ management strategies. Nannies also believe in a different version of “good motherhood” which was often critical of their empolyers’ lives and mothering techniques. In Macdonald’s interviews with nannies, they often yearned to be seen as a “third parent” in the family, a recognition the mother-employers were reluctant to give. In response, the caregivers used different strategies to either resist or succumb to their employers’ limits on their roles.

In the final section of the book, Macdonald describes a second phase of research that revealed a more positive and balanced (if not egalitarian) mother-employer/caregiver relationship. These “partnerships” most often occurred between caregivers employed by mothers who worked part-time or had flexible work arrangements and more equal childrearing responsibilities with their spouses. These mothers also specifically acknowledged how much the paid caregivers helped their families. In welcoming the influence of other adult caring figures into their children’s lives, they disputed the ideology of intensive mothering.

In the final chapter, Macdonald calls for campaigns to socially and economically re-value carework. She calls on carework advocates to describe both the skill and emotional care inherent in their work as worthy of fair pay and societal recognition. Macdonald also argues that class issues also need to be addressed in order to reduce the tension between middle-class mother-employers and their working-class nannies. Class transmission was the basis of most of the conflicts between the mother-employers and nannies. Mother-employers need to resist the ideology of “intensive motherhood”, the idea that they alone are responsible for their children’s emotional, social, and class-based cultural development. As long as upper middle-class mothers continue to hire working-class caregivers, the mothers will need to accept that their children will be influenced by the class-based values of their caregivers, not only of their families’.

I found Macdonald’s book enlightening and depressing at the same time. The book is unique in that it focuses on the experiences of both mothers and childcare workers and their linked relationships. Yet the gendered nature of its premise troubled me and reminded me how much further we have to go to de-gender carework. Nannies, au pairs, and other types of childcare workers are hired to replace mothers, not fathers. No one criticizes a “working father” for having someone who isn’t his children’s mother take care of them. It’s only employed mothers who are condemned and censured, and their children scrutinized for any negative effects of non-maternal (not non-parental) care. As a parent who has used center-based childcare, Shadow Mothers re-affirmed for me what I knew I would find emotionally difficult about in-home care, despite its conveniences. While it was sometimes painful to read what the caregivers thought about their mother-employers (especially when I realized that my children’s daycare providers might feel the same way), it’s made me more aware of my quick judgments of both sides of the relationship. When I hear my friends complain about their nannies, I now realize that they may be ambivalent about their roles as employers. When I see nannies chatting in the playground and reprimanding the children in their care, I remember that social support and recognition is essential for caregivers of young children.

I appreciated Macdonald’s observations of how the nannies interacted with the children in their care, and the small details she noticed, such as that virtually all of the families had no photographs displayed of their children with the caregivers. The only thing I found missing in this very detailed study is an ethnographic account of the interaction between mothers and caregivers. The voices of both “sides” come out strongly in the quotes from the interviews, but it would have added an even richer layer of nuance if Macdonald would have recorded her observations of how the mother-employers and caregivers related directly to each other and to the children. It would have obviously been a challenge to find a time that both women would be present and interacting, especially since when the mother-employers returned home from work, they wanted their caregivers to “disappear”. I wonder if some more observations would have helped with the delicate issue of conflicting accounts among mother-employers and caregivers, such as one mother-employer claiming that their nanny cooked and ate with the family, while the nanny stated that she always ate alone, and was never invited to eat with the family.

This book would be a welcome addition to courses on carework, mothering, the sociology of labor and sociology of gender. I would also recommend this book to anyone who is negotiating a relationship with a paid caregiver.


Parents as Safety Nets and Scaffolds for Young Adults

March 22, 2011

Contrary to popular anxieties about slacker young adults who refuse to grow up, or indulgent helicopter parents who stifle their adult children’s development by continuing to support them, my colleagues and I have found that parental assistance in early adulthood aims to promote progress toward autonomy and self-reliance.

The fact that young people depend upon their parents well beyond the age when most people from earlier generations had already started families and had dependable jobs has triggered a great deal of public anxiety over whether these trends signal young adult immaturity and stunted development. Yet today, the road to adulthood is much longer and more arduous than it was thirty years ago. In the mid-twentieth century, young adults could reasonably expect to find work that would pay enough to provide for themselves and their families shortly after finishing their education, often times directly after high school. Today this is no longer the case. Stable, well-paying jobs for high school graduates are rare, and young adults often require extended education or credentials in order to land a job that will provide an income and benefits to provide a decent life, let alone that will provide for partners and children. As young adults take longer to establish careers and set up independent households in more challenging and unstable job and housing markets, parents have stepped in to help support.

But are parents enabling their young adult children to delay growing up by supporting irresponsible lifestyles, such as passing days playing video games in the basement or evenings out at expensive trendy restaurants and bars that they really can’t afford? Or are parents targeting their help to support young people as they build skills, credentials and experience that will make them more marketable in the long run, even if it mean foregoing salaries in the short term.  Or are parents helping out in times of crisis, so their kids don’t fall too far behind when they encounter a major bump in the road?

Together with colleagues Minzee Kim, Mayumi Uno, Jeylan Mortimer, and Kirsten O’Brien, we looked at survey data from 712 adults ages 24 to 32 from the Youth Development Study to understand what circumstances led to parental housing or financial support. Although almost half of the respondents received financial or housing help in their mid-20s, only 10% to 15% received such assistance in their early 30s. The likelihood of receiving money for living expenses declined by 15% each year and living with parents declined 18% each year, suggesting that these adult dependents do eventually become independent.

Beyond the effects of age, we also found that young people were more likely to receive help from their parents if they were students or had encountered recent difficulties such as a job loss, a serious illness, or a divorce. Parental aid serves as ‘scaffolding’ to help young people who are working towards financial self-sufficiency and as ‘safety nets’ for those who have experienced a significant crisis or set back. In an economy that requires advanced education for good jobs, parents are more likely to aid their children when they are students. As the labor market offers fewer opportunities for stable, full-time, well-paid work for the young, parents often fill in temporarily when needed. The current economic conditions and labor market may warrant thiskind of help more than before and for longer into young adulthood

We also found that parental support tapers as young adult children take on adult roles such as earning higher incomes or forming families, regardless of their age. Forming intimate partnerships, in the forms of marriage and cohabitation, appears to signal to parents that their children have moved into adulthood and should now be on their own. Although marriage, partnership, and childbearing are largely understood as ‘choices’ today and not viewed as essential for achieving adult status, it does appear that parents and/or adult children themselves interpret forming a family of one’s own as an indicator that adult self-sufficiency is appropriate.

The findings provide evidence that families are adaptive and responsive to family members needs and troubles, and that parents are more likely to support adult children, even those who are older, to help them get through hard times and to help them attain independence. The instability and rapid pace of change during early adulthood may make young adulthood a particularly vulnerable period necessitating a safety net more frequently than other stages in life.

The full article can be read in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Much ado about (Tiger) mothers

January 30, 2011
Tiger mom and cubs

Tiger Mom and Cubs

Amy Chua’s recent memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,”  produced a maelstrom of outrage, fear, and a bit of nervous guilt among American mothers.  As is now well-known, Chua boasts that her traditional Chinese and highly authoritarian parenting style has produced daughters who have and will succeed as she did, leading commentators to both rail against her for cruelty to her own children and to cringe at the thought that parenting is one more area in which the Chinese are superior to Americans.

But what is the fuss about, really?  Who cares if a Chinese-American law professor from Yale drives her daughters like a banshee?  We do.  The rules of one of our favorite spectator sports, competitive mothering, are at stake.  If she is correct, then the legions of “helicopter mothers,” who have carefully organized their children’s lives to reinforce their self-esteem and sense of entitlement, have failed.  Instead of encouraging their children’s innate giftedness, they should have berated them to do better.  Chua is the Simon Cowell to a nation of mothers who truly thought their children were talented, only to learn too late that they are tone-deaf.

And yet, is the agitation produced by this little tome really about competing styles of mothering, or is it simply one more reflection of the culture of competitive motherhood that has taken over middle- and upper-class life? As Stephen Colbert noted in his hilarious interview with Chua, “Moms alone determine how our kids turn out.  Couldn’t be dads because we’re never there.” He holds up his hands, “No fingerprints!” 

I continue to be astonished that as the number of mothers working outside of the home continues to rise, and the number of hours fathers spend with their children rises too (though not as quickly), Colbert’s joking statement continues to ring more true than it did when my mother stayed home during the first few years of my life.  Sure, mom was important in the 50s, and 60s, but so were factors like innate temperament, IQ, and the influences of other children.  I’m not suggesting that we should return to measuring children’s abilities based on these other influences, but that maybe we need to lighten up on mom.

This is no small task.  Even though advice books and magazines euphemistically use the word “parenting,” we know that they really mean mothering.  And in every bit of advice on cognitive stimulation, socialization and proper nutrition, there is a hidden caveat: “if you don’t heed this advice, your child won’t get into Harvard.” 

We laugh at this well-worn trope, but there is no question that the stakes have never been higher for childhood success.  The Millenials are the first generation since the Great Depression who are likely to be worse off economically than their parents.  The gap between the middle-class, the rich, and the super-rich are expanding like never before.  Like it or not, Americans view mothers as the last bastion against downward mobility.  Producing upwardly mobile or at least economically stable children is hard work, and it is women’s work.

In my own research on nannies and their employers, Shadow Mothers, the central tension between employer and employee was the paradox of upper-middle class mothers trying to reproduce their cultural capital via working-class or poor nannies.  The belief in child perfectibility combined with long hours away from the children  turned otherwise intelligent, reasonable women into unreasonable employers.  If, as Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has stated, the family is the ‘shock absorber’ for changes in the economy, the mother-childcare provider relationship is the shock absorber for the gap between working mothers’ aspirations for their children and reality.

Chua is similar in many ways to the mothers I interviewed.  She hired a nanny who speaks Mandarin in order to increase her children’s cultural capital.  Likewise, the mothers I interviewed strategically employed particular types of Spanish- or English-speaking nannies to broaden their children’s language skills.  Their mothering practices differ not in intensity or anxiety, but in tone. 

Our blame-the-mom and fear-of-children-falling obsessions get in the way of successful childcare partnerships.  They also create the kind of hysteria that met Amy Chua’s somewhat silly and self-indulgent book.  More importantly they place relentless pressure on both mothers and children to live up to unattainable goals.  Ultimately, is the practie of making children the primary product of their mothers’ time, energy and money healthy?  Is it good for mothers to spend less time with their friends, their spouses and themselves in order to invest more time and energy in producing the perfect child?  This relentlessness may be no good for anyone, regardless of whether it takes the form of the Tiger mother’s threat or the helicopter mother’s micromanagement.  Fair or not, both sets of mothers face an all-consuming job in which their children’s long-term success will be the measure of their worth.

Helicopters With Nowhere to Land: From Context Crawler by Shannon Golden

July 30, 2010

The Washington PostP1010741 recently ran a column written by Middlebury sociologist Margaret K. Nelson. Nelson reports on potential implications of “helicopter parenting” (the constantly hovering style of super-involved middle class parents) in the lives of the parents themselves, especially mothers.

Helicopter parenting is, to put it mildly, more time-consuming and more emotionally demanding than other parenting styles. And much of its work falls (as the work of parenting always has) on women. Since 1965, the amount of time mothers spend on all child-care activities has risen, even though the majority of mothers are now in the labor force; the increase has been particularly sharp among highly educated mothers.

So it’s not just that today’s professional mothers are holding down what would, in the 1960s, have been two separate jobs — one inside the home, the other outside it. It’s that the first of those jobs is a lot more taxing than it used to be. Mothers who try to live up to the new parenting standards of the professional middle class seem to have few options: They can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce.

While some mothers do leave the workforce, many do not. Their intense devotion to building a relationship with their kids and working outside the home can be understandably taxing on their other relationships, such as friendships, marriages, and community involvement.

For those helicopter mothers who don’t leave the workplace, personal relationships seem to be the first thing to go. Working a demanding job while paying painstaking attention to one’s children leaves little time for maintaining a marriage…

[A]ccording to sociologists Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson and Melissa Milkie, adults in 2000 spent less time with their spouses than adults did in 1975, as they spent more time at work and more time with their children. The higher divorce rate among women with high-pressure careers could therefore be both a cause and a consequence of intense devotion to one’s children: These mothers may find that the only reliable, and persistent, relationships are those with their kids.

When people turn inward to their families, their communities also pay a high price. In a series of studies, sociologists Naomi Gerstel, Sally Gallagher and Natalia Sarkisian have shown that, parenting practices notwithstanding, marriage is a greedy institution. Compared with singles, married people are less likely to visit relatives, less likely to take care of elderly parents and less involved with neighbors and friends.

I suspect that the tendency to turn inward must be even more intense among hyper-vigilant parents. And this withdrawal may extend to parents’ broader social and civic engagement…

And to friendship. The time married parents spend visiting with friends and relatives outside the nuclear family has declined dramatically: Married fathers spent almost 40 percent less time and married mothers spent almost a third less time socializing in 2000 than they did in 1965, according to Bianchi, Robinson and Milkie. I can’t help but think that the new intensity of daily life is part of the problem. Parents seem to have few opportunities to pursue friendships unless they are friendships that take little extra time (as with co-workers or other parents on the sideline of a child’s sporting event).

Many of the helicopter mothers I’ve spoken to have told me, often with pride in their voices, that their daughters are their best friends. At first, I wondered why these women — some of them in their late 40s or 50s — wouldn’t prefer to spend their free time with people their own age. But as I looked more closely at the way they are tackling parenthood, I understood: They have no free time.

Blog post from Context Crawler by Shannon Golden

All In the Family: Rise in Multigenerational Living

August 25, 2009

Last week’s issue of Newsweek magazine reported that multigenmultgenerational3erational living in the U.S. is on the rise. According to the U.S. Census, households with three or more generations increased by 38 percent between 1990 and 2000, to about 4 million multigenerational households in 2000. Since then, the trend appears to have continued with the number of parents living in the homes of their adult children having increased by 67 percent between 2000-2007, as well as more adult children moving back home with their parents.  Part of this trend may reflect an increase in immigration to the U.S., with many immigrants preferring extended-family living.  Also, these changes likely stem, at least in part, from tough economic times. As sociologist Frances Goldscheider points out in the article   “It is so much less expensive to have one kitchen, one living room, one dwelling to heat.”  Furthermore, changes in young adulthood with the extended time it takes for young people to complete their education and attain financial independence may partly explain young people’s “failure to launch” and prolonged coresidence with mom and dad.  On the other hand, increased longevity may mean that more elderly parents are moving in with their adult children as they are healthy enough to live without intensive medical care, but may need or prefer family help or care.  But in addition to these economic and demographic changes, there is likely a cultural shift around intergenerational relations toward closer, friendlier connections between generations that may make multigenerational living more appealing. As family scholar Stephanie Coontz remarked  “Over the past 30 years, more democratic methods of child-rearing and delay of marriage have resulted in deeper friendships between parents and children.”

Certainly multigenerational living  may present some challenges to family members, particularly those who do the bulk of the household work and caregiving.  But this also may offer new possibilities for lifelong family relationships, shared care and pooled resources that may benefit all family members, particularly those in the younger and older generations.

Support from the Sidelines

June 25, 2009

I spend a lot of time at youth sporting events.  Standing in cold ice arenas watching my daughter and her teammates skate down the ice in their bright yellow jerseys determined to put the puck in the net. Or sitting in the bleachers as my son and his buddies dribble and pass the ball around the court, trying to find the open player to take a shot.  Now that it is summer, you can find me most weeknights at one of the local parks, sitting in a lawn chair with the other parents, cheering on the neighborhood kids.

My children do other activities as well.  As Annette Lareau has pointed out in her book Unequal Childhoods, middle-class children participate in a great number and wide variety of organized, adult-directed activities.  My kids do music, art, chess club, and so forth, but it is sports that dominate our schedule and time on a regular basis. Game schedules often determine our meal times, our social lives, and even when my husband and I leave from work or whether we toil into the wee hours of the night because we had to take off early that day to get to a game.

No doubt there are times when we recognize the absurdity of it all.  In fact, all of us parents do. The other night another one of the parents told a joke to the group of 11 year old girls after a softball game: “How many kids who play sports does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The girls looked up waiting for the punch line, but really did not get it when it came: “One, and the rest of the world revolves around her.” The parents, of course, got the joke and let out exasperated, but knowing groans.  Indeed, in Unequal Childhoods, Lareau argues that middle-class families are harried and stressed out by their children’s schedules.  Bill Doherty, Family Social Science professor and director of the Families and Democracy Project at the University of Minnesota points out the problematic nature of today’s “excessive parenting” that he sees as parental over-involvement, the intensification of youth sports, and a displacement of other important family practices such as shared family meals due to demanding athletic schedules. Psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld also offers his critique of what he calls “hyper-parenting” of “the overscheduled child.”  (Although for evidence to the contrary see Cohen’s “The Myth of the Overscheduled Child” in the current issue of Contexts).  So, when we head to the ball field tonight will we be contributing to our family’s stress level and reproducing a kind of warped, pressure-filled childhood over-directed by adults?  Probably, at least to a certain extent.

But we will also be doing something else. We do this because we see it as a way to show our support and interest in our kids and their efforts. Showing up at our children’s games has become a part of the carework that we do as parents. I am not suggesting that it should be, and there are certainly problems associated with it as Doherty and others have pointed out. But in our contemporary culture, especially among middle-class families, becoming a parent-fan is an expected way for parents to express their care and love for their kids.  Just yesterday, my daughter confirmed that she viewed our attendance at her games as an expression of care. “I love to see the parents at the games,” she said. “It makes me feel support.”

And although it may make us rush around to get the kids to the games on time, it also, ironically, becomes a way that we take care of ourselves and each other. In truth, once we manage to get there, going to the games gives us all a chance to unwind and socialize with some pretty fun folks. We can escape our jobs, housework, and the general worries of life and just relax. We build community and connection. We exchange good books, phone numbers of trustworthy mechanics, as well as an odd variety and frightening quantity of flavored sunflower seeds. We also share our troubles or offer a listening ear to those who need some support.  Last night one mom vented her frustrations with her ailing mother’s medical team. Of late, many have told stories of job loss and financial worries.  And we jointly cheer on all the children, creating for them a “village” of perhaps “excessive parents.”

It is likely that this phenomenon is largely associated with class and culture. But there are some signs that it has become embedded more generally in our expectations of childrearing. Earlier this week I was analyzing transcripts for a research project of Hmong adolescent girls talking about their parents.  These girls were talking about how they felt their immigrant parents did not show them as much affection or love as they thought American parents did. This is a familiar theme among Asian American second-generation youth as has been pointed out by sociologist Karen Pyke. These girls used the example of their parents’ absence at their sporting events as a sign of their lack of affection.  As one girl recalled “I played badminton and I always asked my mom, are you going to come? ‘But do I need to go?’  Of course you don’t need to go. But I will always ask her to come see. Come with me.  ‘Do I need to go?’ you know.  Of course you don’t need to go.  But I want you to come.  Every other American kid’s mom is there, you know.”   Another girl concurs “I used to be really sad. Look up and not see any one Hmong person. All their parents show up. And parents getting involved shows the kids that they care. Encourages them.”  While their poor and immigrant parents had not yet taken on this cultural expectation that they needed to demonstrate their devotion through coming to their children’s sporting events, it was clear that their daughters had.  If this becomes expected of parents in a general, parents whose work schedules or other caregiving obligations prevent them from having the flexibility, time and resources to go to games or enroll their kids in sports may limit their access to being viewed as, or viewing themselves as, good parents.

The other night one of the other parents rolled her eyes as she approached a group of parents at the playground.  “Why are we here?” She asked. “Why do we keep showing up?”  Our critical view and self-questioning about showing up is healthy, I think.  It keeps us in check and from becoming one of those crazy parents who flips out over a referee’s call or who yells at the kids.  But despite all the real problems associated with youth sports and “excessive parenting,” we show up because we care, and we want to make sure our kids and communities know it.

The Intersection of Care and Need

May 3, 2009

I remember a disagreement between two of my graduate faculty advisors. Should people who provide care be called caregivers or care workers? This argument reflects a longstanding debate regarding care. There are those who emphasize the work in the caring and those who emphasize the caring in the work. I’ve always interpreted this, to some extent, as debates over whose needs should be emphasized, the care providers or the care recipients?

But it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve begun to understand how closely these needs can intersect. I have yet to bear significant financial and health costs associated with raising my daughter, but the emotional price is becoming clear. Generally, I’ve defined the emotional costs of care work as higher rates of depression among long term care providers, which are triggered by the heavy demands of care. But as a parent of a child with a cognitive disability, the emotional costs are related to things I never really imagined. I’m not depressed. And while I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to hurl myself through varying bureaucracies, from hospitals to the welfare system, what causes the most pain and stress, the thing that keeps me awake most at night, is triggered by the realization that people will be cruel to my daughter as she grows up. Yes, most children have to deal with cruelty, but my daughter will have to deal with more of it.

Negative reactions to those with cognitive disabilities are often strong and seemingly unconscious. President Obama’s slip regarding the Special Olympics is a striking example. He clearly felt badly and I would guess that if he had thought about it–for even a minute–the comment never would have slipped through his lips. Indeed, he apologized profusely, without caveats. But the sentiment is lurking beneath the surface—even among the best of us. And even more concerning was the number of times I heard others excuse the comment by arguing that he was being self-deprecating. The fact that it was self deprecating is not going to make that kind of comments any less painful for my daughter.

So it is here where I’m finding that my needs and my daughter’s needs are one in the same. When she feels pain, I feel that pain. I think this blurring is part of what underlies the stress that many care providers face.