When I was a radical young feminist in the late 60s and early 70s, I was profoundly disturbed by the middle-class nature of New York feminism. Only a tiny minority of women could afford to become doctors, lawyers, college professors, corporate executives. The needs of women of color were ignored. African American women had always worked and taken care of their children. They were more dubious about abortion, since the babies of teen mothers were often cared for by relatives.
Unlike many women with my intellect and education, I stayed home with my four children full-time for 14 years. I also cared for my mother in my home 24/7 during the last four years of my life. Both my husbands and I made career and financial sacrifices to make that possible. Certainly my career has not been the success I dreamed about. But I am not sorry. I involved myself in nonsexist childrearing, childbirth education, breastfeeding counseling, parent education, toddler playgroups, babysitting cooperatives, cooperative nursery schools, school libraries, a campaign to save the local public library, the nuclear freeze movement, mental illness support and advocacy, parent advocacy for playground upkeep and a preschool playroom, the War Resisters League, Pax Christi (Catholic anti-war group)–the list is endless.
When I made the mistake of attending library school and social work school, I naively assumed my qualifications would be obvious and no one would dare to treat me like a beginner. Instead, I was given the the salary, benefits, authority, and respect of a beginner and the responsibilities of a long-term employee. Several bosses seemed threatened I wanted their jobs. I recall one infuriating incident during my first social work placement; my childless supervisor earnestly instructed me how to interview a client with her two year old present. I had frequently run La Leche Meetings with 20 moms and 30 babies and toddlers. Women social workers who had taken very short maternity leaves and worked full-time during their children’s childhood too often acted like all my knowledge and wisdom had been attained by cheating. I got more respect from male professors.
The situation has worsened; women are terrified of taking only a few years off from work. And yet the men who fought World War II left their jobs for several years and did not suffer economic consequences. The government even paid for their college and grad school education. When my mom went back to college in 1963 and work in 1968, after having raised 6 children, she was accorded more respect and her experience was more honored than mine was 20 years later.
Full-time childrearing is frequently belittled as beneath the time and attention of intelligent, well-educated parents, who presumably should have exploited immigrant women of color to love and understand their children while they pursued their more important jobs. In the 70s parents were going to have flexible work schedules so both could raise their children. Instead , in New York City both child care and elder care are lovingly performed by women of color, mostly immigrants, some with irregular immigation status.. When I take care of my grandson in the same New York City playgrounds where his mother frolicked,. my companions are mostly nannies from all over the world. An older white woman with a toddler is assumed to be his grandma, not his nanny. I am often appalled how little highly successful two-career couples pay their nannies; many fail to provide the caregivers with any benefits, Social Security, least of all health care. They think nothing of calling the nanny on Sunday and telling her they don’t need her that week or forever.. As one dedicated women from the Dominican Republic told me, “the more I love the children, the more it hurts my heart.” Imagine loving a child as your own for three or four years and then never seeing them again when they go to school full-time or the family finds a cheaper nanny.
The aides who helped us take care of my mother during the last years of her life had tragic stories. We paid the agencies about $18 an hour (2001-04); the aides got less than half of that. Most did not have cars and might have to take two buses and a subway to reach their client’s homes. Many had left their children in the Caribbean with their families. I agree that most women with college degrees, graduate, or professional degrees have made enormous strides in most major professions and in the workplace generally. It is only when women have children or have to care for aging parents that they fully realize that women have mostly gained the right to follow the traditional male life style, emphasizing work over relationships, caregiving, community activism..
As women chose to have children at an older age, the realization is late in coming. At that point their lives tend too become too frenzied and exhausting to leave any time for political activism. Nothing has changed to make full-time or even part-time child care by fathers more financially possible. My four well-educated, successful daughters are only having their consciousness raised as they begin to have children. Before they became mothers, they believed feminism had won its battles. You might make over $100,000 a year, but you might still have to pump breastmilk for your infant in the toilet One daughter was told she could not store her pumped milk in a company refrigerator for a day because it was a biohazard. If you work at Walmart’s or a department store, you won’t be able to nurse at all, no matter how vehemently your doctor argues that breastfeeding is best for your babies.