Sunday, March 14, 2010

seeking home

Another thing I fret about is settling and where we as a family should do that. When I quit my job last year to focus on my own writing and family, the Dean responded to my letter of resignation with a stunned "Wow!" One simply does not leave a tenured and promoted position at a college just like that.

Well, guess what, I did. It's not like it's solved all of our problems or even many, aside from eliminating that one component in my life that was really stressing me out. Which was a rather substantial one at that, regularly amounting to about seventy hours a week, of teaching, grading, prepping, developing new courses, committee work, advising, endless meetings, and so on and so on, leaving barely any time for my own scholarship. Though this was supposed to be one of the three main components of my position. If I couldn't find time to write, how on earth would I find time to take care of a child?

Of course, it's not like being home with a child has opened up a vast space for my writing. Like my juggling academic friends with kids, I too find myself much like a clown at times, desperately trying to keep the different balls flowing, including words down on the paper or onto my laptop whenever I find the chance.

The fact that my husband and I have had no help taking care of our daughter is of course a significant factor. During her first year of life, I was her primary caretaker. In this her second year, my husband, who's completing a Master's degree, and I take turn writing and being with her.

While I often would have liked more time to myself last year, this proved a challenge not just because of our lack of help, however. Firstly, our daughter would not take the bottles of milk I'd so painstakingly pumped, and secondly, I seemed as attached to her as she clung to me. I wanted away, but could not quite bring myself to do it, at least not when she wouldn't take the bottle.

The timing of sharing the care of our daughter between my husband and I from when she was one was perfect for me; I'm not sure I would have been willing to let go before (though I would have been quick--and still will be--to gripe about how hard it is to be the primary caretaker of a child).

Now, however, both my husband and I find ourselves craving more time to ourselves and our writing, and at lest willing to have our daughter in the personal care of another adult caretaker whom we trust. But we don't have the luxury of family nearby that could help, and we cannot afford paying someone for it. Especially since we've been living off savings these last couple of years.

At this point we're running out of savings; this phase must come to an end, and turn into something else. We need money, we need health care, and we need help with childcare. We knew it from the beginning, from when our daughter was born, my husband enrolled in a graduate program, and for at least the last year or so, we have found ourselves consumed by the question of where to live: what would be the safest, financially viable, and most practical place to live? Should we stay here in the US in a small town just south of the Twin Cities where we have a community of good friends, but only a minimum of public support and a precarious economy, or should we move to my native Norway where we do have some friends in Oslo and also can depend on the padding of a strong economy and the benefits of a social welfare state. Oslo has been rated the second most expensive city to live in after Tokyo and before New York. But even minimum salaries in Norway are quite decent.

One of the big issues we obsess the most about, is where we can get affordable quality daycare and schooling for our daughter.

Here in the US, daycare is much more expensive than in Norway, at least until the child is ready for preschool. In Norway, daycare is relatively cheap and all children age one and up are guaranteed a spot.

But in a city like Oslo, the quality of daycares doesn't always measure up to the quality of the daycares in our rural college town. Norwegian schools on average rate lower than American schools. No doubt there are better and worse daycares and schools both places.

Recently, however, the question I've really been struggling with, is what would be best for mama?

While my husband is American, I grew up in Norway and took for granted one year of paid parental leave in conjunction with the birth or adoption of a child, as well as subsidized daycare from the child was one. I found the lack of paid parental leave in the US abhorrent (and I still do), and the high cost of daycares an appalling obstacle to the progress of gender equality. Often it makes more sense financially for one of the parents to stay home and take care of the child, because this parent's salary--typically the mother's--would not or just barely make up for the cost of daycare. In other words, the lack of affordable daycare reinforces traditional gender roles in the US.

On the other extreme, there is in Norway a growing support for enforced equal sharing of the parental leave. This troubles me too. Because realistically, how well can a mother continue to breastfeed the child through his or her first year of life if she were to go back to work after only half a year? Certainly, it can be done (by some), but by the majority?

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to two years or beyond. This has been my choice. Could I have done it if I had to leave home for work everyday? Certainly not with my daughter's frequent nursing pattern, every two hours. I'm lucky that I can have half the day to work on my own writing at home and thus be available to my child whenever she needs me.

Attachment parenting is a related key issue. Psychologists point out the importance of nurturing attached relationships in the child's first two to three years of life between the child and its primary caretakers. Which is not necessarily just the parents; it could also be relatives, friends, even paid caretakers that are able to dedicate focused care and attention to the child, building a sense of strong secure bonds for it.

Recently, Norwegian journalist Simen Tveitereid caused quite the uproar in Norway with his book Hva skal vi med barn? (2008, Why do we have kids?) in which he asks why we have children if we're not up for the task of taking care of them ourselves and instead dropping them off at understaffed or poorly staffed daycares, when what they really need is to develop a few attached relationships. Critics admonished Tveitereid for making parents feel badly about the way they raise their children. If this is tantamount to saying that, if your thoughts and findings could cause others to second guess and feel guilty about their choices, you should keep what you've found to yourself, it comes dangerously close to censorship.

I never questioned the Norwegian model until I became a parent and suddenly found myself evaluating different parental approaches, comparing and contrasting different ways of parenting in different cultures.

In the US, my husband and I probably couldn't afford daycare without me getting a fulltime job, which I'm unwilling to take on, because I want to be available to our daughter for at least half the day. So in a sense we don't have a real choice here. Perhaps we could make it if my husband got a fulltime job and I a part time job, but when then would I write? And what would we do if we have another child?

In Norway, we could possibly make it if my husband gets a fulltime job, or both of us part time jobs, while having our daughter in daycare for half the day (while paying for fulltime daycare: half-day daycare is not an option, but technically we would be able to pick up our child earlier). If we have another child and choose not to have him or her in daycare until he or she is three, we would be eligible for a monthly cash support from when the child is one to three years old. This cash support has, however, been repeatedly attacked since it was instituted in 1998 for reinforcing traditional gender roles (typically it's the mom that ends up staying home taking care of the child); class differences (when parents end up spending the money to hire nannies or au pairs); and cultural differences (the moms who take advantage of it, tend to be immigrants from non-Westernized countries). It's been cut several times and may soon be discontinued.

In her bestselling book The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn't (1999), Dr. Susan Maushart recommends both parents work part time in order to support greater gender equality and mutual understanding between the parents; allowing the child to draw on each parent's individual skills; and for both parents to nurture attached relationships with the child. Maushart recognizes that, in the US at least, this remains an impractical solution: there are not many actual half time jobs, and typically only fulltime jobs provide benefits, such as health care. In Norway health care is universal and the job market stronger, making Maushart's proposed scenario a safer and more realistic alternative financially speaking here.

Indeed, Norwegians value their free time off work and will religiously not work overtime. As a friend of mine in Oslo said, working 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. would certainly be a great improvement from my seventy hours workweek in the US.  But it's not enough; I want more time for my family than mornings and evenings. I might be perceived as a reactionary old-fashioned mama for not pursuing a career fulltime (seeing that care for our own young and elderly is not defined a "career"). I would have to take the risk of being dismissed a goner who doesn't know what's best for her. In return, if my husband and I both could find part time jobs to support our family, and work in the morning while our daughter is in daycare, we could alternate taking time in the afternoon to write.

If we stay in the US, I would join a large community of other stay-at-home moms, many of them highly educated. But while the rewards of community are invaluable, they invariably fail to translate into any currency that could help us pay for our living expenses here. Ultimately, I'm afraid that's what it comes down to in the end; the brutal fact about life is that it costs. Or am I missing something here?

1 comment:

  1. It seems financially impossible these days to have children and raise babies in a family-friendly way. It sometimes makes me think our U.S. society was better off a few generations ago when families could generally quite easily survive on one income. (Of course that still does not address the issue of part-time work being hard to come by, if both parents want to be home half-time with their child.) These days it is very challenging. We make do on one income so that one of us (me) can be home full-time with our children, but I know there is no way we'd be able to find part-time work (with benefits) for both of us if we decided it was not acceptable for only one of us to be home with the girls. We rely on Christopher's full-time job and benefits, even though it doesn't even always cover our bills. (He works a 2nd part-time job when he can.) So hard!!!


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