Thursday, June 21, 2012

Disability Theory, Motherhood, and a Case for Parental Leave

As someone with a hearing loss, I've been interested in disability theory though mostly as a sideline.  If I were to try to categorize theories, especially in relation to the dominant ones on display when it comes to disability, I'd say that there are two main views people tend to hold.  One is the medical model view: disability is something that needs to be fixed so that the disabled person can function as normally as possible.  On this view, disability is a curse, something to hide (and hide from), because no "normal" person can imagine being disabled.  People who tend to hold the view that disability is horrible and must be done away with also tend look at me funny - in my case, they wonder what country I hail from (because my speech isn't perfect), and they shake their heads and note that there's this great "new" technology maybe I haven't heard of - cochlear implants.  To which I just shake my head and say, again and again, technology can't solve everything.  Medicine can't solve everything.  I don't qualify for cochlear implants.  (And by the way, they're not a perfect fix, either.... but that's for another post.)  I don't even know what has caused my hearing loss: it's not genetic, it's not disease-related, so far as we know.  And so it is just not fixable in the way we'd like to think that most disabilities are fixable.

A second view is one I've heard called the social theory of disability.  This is a view that makes a distinction between being impaired and being disabled.  It is the case that bodies might be impaired - prevent from doing the functions that they would generally do.  Impairments can be temporary or permanent, so most people have some kind of impairment, even if it doesn't count as a "disability" in the medical model. Broken ankles are impairments; having short fingers might be an impairment; perhaps even baldness could count as an impairment.

What turns an impairment into a disability, though, is when that impairment prevents social interaction. But here's the kicker: in the social model of disability, it is SOCIETY that is often at fault for preventing an individual's social interaction: doors that aren't wide enough for wheelchairs, or rampless-sets of stairs, or counters that are too high for short people and those in wheelchairs, alike. 

Even more: what some studies of disability accommodations have suggested is that these accommodations actually end up being beneficial to a much wider group of people than the target "disabled' audience.  Ramps are often used by people who can easily climb stairs, but who find a ramp to be easier to navigate, especially in poor weather, for example.  Closed captioning systems are beneficial for people who don't have hearing loss but who find that captions aid in their visual and auditory understanding.

So by now you're starting to wonder: where's the motherhood and parental leave in this post?  Here it is: yet another story about a full-time professional mother who struggles, and fails, to figure out how to "balance" it all.   This story, too, about working parents struggling to care for their sick children also strikes a chord. 

Some of the commenters at that story suggest that the problem is the babies.  Women just shouldn't have children, or else they should be prepared to take knocks at work.  I think that kind of view of children shortchanges both children and their parents, because it presumes that each one of us exists in a kind of individual packaging, and that we, as individuals, exist primarily for the good of our workplaces.  It presumes, as well, that workplaces should have no interest in societal life beyond the internal functioning of the corporation.

But neither parents, nor children, nor workplaces can exist happily with that kind of a mindset, much as we like to think that we do.

I suggest that we've been thinking about having and raising children primarily in a medical model - one that presumes it would, indeed, be better not to have them, but if we do (pesky biology!) well, there's the possibility of 12 weeks' unpaid leave.  And heaven forbid the children get sick: as the boss of the woman in the second article says: "Might as well just not come back to work."

Such a view makes it seem that a corporation exists - and is supposed to exist - on its own merits, with no reference to human society.  In this medical model we are supposed to rid ourselves of everything that is not "normal", or at least, that does not help us pretend we are high-efficiency machines.

The weird thing about that is that we, as individuals, do not think about our work that way.  It does not exist on its own merits, but it exists for some human purpose, usually involving being able to pay the bills and ensure family livelihood.  There are other purposes of work, too, including personal fulfillment, and helping communities. 

Our work is necessarily tied to our social lives, but American workplaces try to maintain distance between us and our social lives.  Indeed, a 2010 study suggests that only 16% of major corporations now offer benefits like maternity leave compared to 27% a decade prior.  Yet at the same time, companies are experiencing workers with far greater job dissatisfaction, especially because of lack of flex time, leave time, and other types of family assistance.  (See here for interesting slide show on this issue.)

What if, instead, workplaces were to envision children along the lines of a social model of disability?  Having children only disables parents insofar as their working arrangements are unnecessarily made too inflexible to be good parents and good workers, both.  We have already generated a list of possibilities: telecommuting, day cares onsite, and so on.  People in other parts of the globe have also experienced a range of options and we could learn from them. 

Being able to do good parenting can be a factor in being able to be a good employee - but more importantly, acknowledging the need to help families in terms of child and elder care also acknowledges that we are all - corporation, employee, and family, in this together.  Just as a social model of disability is found to be beneficial for those not in the target group, so too I think that flex time and better sick leave and family leave policies can benefit people beyond the stereotypical "young family" that is the target of these policies.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spirituality versus Religion: Or maybe it's not new....

I've been reading a lot lately around the blogosphere from people who find themselves at odds with "traditional Christianity," by which seems to be meant "the version of Christianity I grew up with."  One of the most interesting is here at Rachel Held Evans' blog: Kim Van Brunt describes leaving traditional worship services, in part because she felt the traditions themselves - the bulletins and Wednesday night prayer services and so on - were stilting her family's ability to hear and live the gospel.  Many of the commenters complained that she seemed to be advocating a church of one, an individual's paradisaical version of Christ's body - so before readers here jump to that conclusion, let me just say that in her own response to the comments, she now belongs to what would probably be called a "house church" - an informal gathering of people meeting to support and witness to each other.

There are others feeling compressed by "tradition".  One of the big ones, of course, is the viral video "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus" which was followed up with numerous posts about being spiritual but not religious.  In another vein, there have been Catholics thinking through the contraception debates in relation to feeling like the "hierarchy".  In still another vein, members of the "emergent church" who feel that "traditional" forms of Christianity are increasingly irrelevant.  I'm putting "tradition" and "traditional" in quotes here because I don't think all of these various groups mean tradition in the same way - so it would be a mistake to equate the use of those words necessarily.  That said, I do think all of these posters bear some family resemblance to each other - they may not mean exactly the same things, but they're each hitting a common nerve about religion.

When I read or watch these posts, I often feel some sympathy - I've been there myself, more than a few times.  For example, I've felt anger, apathy, disllusionment, annoyance, and sometimes something close to despair upon reciting the Lord's prayer for the nth time.  All the criticism of it being rote, mechanical, dry, repetitive and so on, can be, well, true.  The Lord's Prayer is emblematic of a "traditional" worship service as a whole: it can feel very much like you get to church, and you're just going through the whole show (whatever your version of the show is) again and it really does feel like a show.  The choir seems poised for a perfect performance; the sermon/homily becomes the main act; worshippers seem more like a clapping audience than actual participants in worshipping God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The thing is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is so weird and wholly, utterly different from us, that a staid old worship service just won't suit.  After all:  "My ways are not your ways, says the Lord God."

Yet - I can't help but feel a sense of deja vu about all this too, a sense that there might be a lot of fellow believers feeling like they're having to do something new - when, in fact, I wonder if perhaps they're actually reinventing the wheel.

That is to say: discontent or disllusionment with "traditional" religion has been around, well, for the whole of the "tradition."

 I think of Augustine here, grown up with a Christian mother and a pagan dad, a 5th century version of a mixed religious family - he thought that scripture and prayer and all that sort of thing were pointless nonsense - until he began to wonder if there was something else going on there, after all.  Eventually he was not only baptized but made bishop of Hippo, in Northern Africa. As his treatises and catechetical sermons bear out, on his view, while rote worship appeared the same, it also opened up to all the beauty, mystery and craziness of God's love for us.

I think of John Wesley - born into a Christian family, raised as a Christian, but didn't quite feel the significance of the rote words of his childhood faith.  He and his brother both wanted a serious faith and started a "Holy Club" at university.  Still later, he went on a mission trip to Georgia, because he thought evangelizing in a foreign land would be evidence of true desire of God, and real faith.  On that trip, he discovered that in fact, being a missionary was not his vocation - and returned to his native England. It was a couple years later that Wesley found his heart "strangely warmed" at Aldersgate and went on to convert many to an intense love of and life for God.  He brought something new: he brought new hymns, and developed something of a new structure in his small group societies -   but he also relied on some of the same 'ol - prayer books, scripture, clergy, and the liturgy of the Eucharist.

I think of Theresa of Avila, who grew up in a thoroughly Christian home, went away to a convent but spent her time simpering in the guest room - cosmetics and fine food took far more precedence than the convent's prayer.  Eventually she, too, discovered a different calling and went on to reform the Carmelite Order, especially restoring its contemplative nature and its practices of fasting, prayer and poverty.  She opened some 83 women's houses, and wrote much that has been influential up to our present day.

In particular, she describes (in her book Interior Castles) the way in which rote prayer and worship can seem so dry - and that this experience is but one of many  necessary levels of a spiritual journey toward God.  At the same time, there are other times on that journey when rote prayer is the only way we can pray at all.

There are many more people I could name, but perhaps these three suffice for now.  I have three points in bringing them up:

1) Disillusionment or discontent is not new, and those who feel disillusioned are not alone.  There are a whole host of witnesses - and not just those alive in this world at the present moment.  Just as with Theresa, John, and Augustine, above, I think there are possibilities for God to make our discontent much more radical than any of us have in mind - to the point that perhaps we might even be contributing to the development of "traditional Christianity" by founding new religious orders, or preaching more sermons and so on.  I think this means radically embracing "traditional Christianity" in all kinds of ways, which relates to my next point....

2) Disillusionment is not cause for a rejection of "the tradition" - it is cause to embrace it more fully and deeply.  Augustine, Theresa or John Wesley would never say that they had "fixed" the church; there were many times that they felt that the going was difficult.  One of my favorite of Theresa's words of wisdom: "We must strive and strive and strive, for we were meant for nothing less." Nonetheless these three remained committed to the people and places God had given them, which included parishes, dioceses, orders, and so on.  Sometimes they did this despite that the institutions gave them grief, closed down houses, brought them before the Inquisition, refused to ordain bishops headed to America, and so on.  And yet, I think it is precisely because of their commitments to people/places/institutions, in spite of everything, that enables us to see how much God worked through them.

3) Disillusionment is simply part of Christianity.  I think Theresa is right in this.  And I think we Christians are likely to experience bouts of it again and again, interspersed with more hopeful signs of community life too.  Christ calls us together to be the Body - broken and bruised as we are, with people who have been hurt by other Christians, and with all the variety of denominations and infighting that Christians "share" with each other.

But it is also "traditional Christianity", that Body of Christ, which is re-forming the way I see myself and the world.  It is where I have learned:

  • Not to objectify my body.  I know people often criticize Christians for their views on sex, which seem antithetical to the pleasure that our human bodies desire.  But I have to say: in this vamped up culture where sex oozes from most advertisements and where I often feel the need to look act and dress a certain way, it is so entirely refreshing to go to a monastery (or New Monastic community) and not be looked at in that way.  And of course - the Eucharist, the premier place where everyone gets to be invited to the table, including those I'd never invite to my house for dinner - that teaches me something about not objectifying my body either.
  • That I, too, do things to hurt others.  My experience of "secular culture" is one that by and large presumes I can do no wrong, so long as I do what feels right to me, and it doesn't affect anyone else.  But when I go to mass and I've got to pass the peace with older people and younger people and smelly people and so on, I begin to realize that it just isn't as simple as doing what feels right to me, and not affecting others.  In fact, some people need me - or need someone - to be there for them, in ways that means I can't just be about myself.
  • That I need you.  You're part of the arm of Christ, you're part of the Body that gathers.  I need you.  Including the people who raise all the pesky questions I don't ask.  And I hope I'm asking pesky questions (maybe from a different direction) of you too.  I'm not it, and neither are you.  So I need you.  And if there's one thing that joins us together - it's that we've committed to be on The Way together.
In my way of thinking, that means that sometimes, even if I don't particularly feel like "going through the motions" one more time, I'm going to do it anyway - because someone needs to hear everyone all together saying "thy will be done".  And someone else's two year old needs to see others kneeling and standing and praying and learn this way of life that is Christianity.  And someone else - maybe me - needs to some of the kneeling, because we don't kneel enough - we're not quiet enough - in this world of ours. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Plan...

Philosophy PhD Husband and I are planners.  We made it through grad school because we had a plan for how we were going to get through our respective programs, and hey, it worked!  My plan for finishing the dissertation involved writing "a page a day."  I chanted that to myself each morning, and made it a mantra in the evening; "page a day" became almost a second version of daily prayer.

So naturally, now that Philosophy PhD Husband and I have jobs, we still make plans.  Of course, now that we have kids, our planning takes on a different kind of tone, and of necessity, we have to change our plan each semester because our teaching schedules vary quite a bit.

 At the end of this fall semester,  I can give you a pretty good sense of how this semester's plan went:

THE PLAN (the Fall 2011 Version):
6:00 am: Wake up, get ready before kids wake up; dress kids, eat breakfast
7:30 am, M-F: Leave the house; drop off the kids at day care; arrive at work by 8
8am-4pm: Work a full day.  Do course prep, grading, committee work, meeting with students, writing, meetings and teaching as much as possible in this time block so that when we are home with the kids, we are with the kids and not divided in our attentions
4:00 pm: Meet at the car; collectively pick up the kids
4:30 pm: Arrive home.  Play with kids for an hour before starting dinner
5:30 pm: Make dinner; eat
6:30 pm: Play with kids some more; the parent who did not cook does the dishes
7:00 pm: Begin getting kids ready for bedtime
7:30 pm: Kids in bed; lights out
7:30-9:30 pm: Finish up on day's work, do some housekeeping, paying bills and so on
10:00 pm: Bed, for that full 8 hours of sleep

Now, as with all plans, this plan needed some flexibility and some changes - specifically about a day into trying it out.....

THE PLAN - The "Day after the Semester Started, What Were We Thinking?" Version
6:00 am: Wake up, get ready before kids wake up; dress kids, eat breakfast
7:30 am, M, W, F: Leave the house; drop off the kids at day care; arrive at work by 8
(BUT, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I am not teaching till 9am, we sleep in a bit because inevitably we get to sleep a bit too late and need a bit of extra catch up sleep. So we aim to leave the house by 8 am.)
8am MWF/ 8:30 am TR-4pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Work a full day.
4:00 pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Meet at the car; collectively pick up the kids
4:30 pm MWF/ 5:00 pm TR: Arrive home.  Play with kids for an hour before starting dinner
5:30 pm: Make dinner; eat
6:30 pm: Play with kids some more; the parent who did not cook does the dishes
7:00 pm: Begin getting kids ready for bedtime
7:30 pm: Kids in bed; lights out
7:30-9:30 pm [NB: Or till necessary work is done]: Finish up on day's work, do some housekeeping, paying bills and so on
10:00 pm as an ideal; more like 11pm: Bed, for that full 8 hours of sleep

A few days into the new, revised plan, I realized that it wasn't working for a couple reasons: a) I was writing a book; b) the baby refused to get into the act.  Half an hour of bedtime prep just wasn't her thing and we were getting more and more tired by the day.  So:

The Plan - The "Why Won't You Go to Sleep, Sweetheart, I'm Going to be Up Till 3 am" Version
7:00 am: No, really, we can get ready in half an hour....
7:30 am, M, W, F: Leave the house; drop off the kids at day care; arrive at work by 8
8am MWF/ 8:30 am TR-4pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Work a full day.
4:00 pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Meet at the car; collectively pick up the kids
5:30 pm: Make dinner; eat as early as possible
6:30 pm: Play with kids some more; the parent who did not cook does the dishes.  Philosophy PhD Husband lovingly watches kids while I madly write on my book.
9:00 pm: I surface for air.  Kids not in bed, though not for lack of trying. Husband running ragged.  Run through the "I'm going to start counting if you are not in PJs in three seconds" mantra.
10:00 pm: Four year old in bed; baby still crying.  Spend an exhausted half hour debating with spouse about whether to do "cry it out" or whether to rock baby.  Baby falls asleep on shoulder in mid-debate.
10:30 pm: Try to clear path to kitchen.  Noise of doing dishes wakes baby.  Repeat 10 pm convo.
Midnight:  Dishes done; maybe just a few more minutes to work on book.

Thankfully, the book got finished six weeks into the semester.  I had thought that would mean we could revert to an earlier plan, but Philosophy PhD Husband decided to apply for a few jobs and simultaneously we both began having to attend some evening meetings for work.  Only occasional meetings, but still....

The Plan: The Mid-Semester (Now Things Are REALLY Starting to Happen) Version
7:15 am: No, really, we can get ready in half an hour....
7:55 am, M, W, F: Drag selves to car.  Drop off harried and annoyed husband at work so that he can dash to class even later than his students.
8am MWF/ 8:30 am TR-4pm MWF/ 4:30 pm TR: Work a full day.
5:00 pm: Notice clock and wonder why spouse has not called to figure out who will arrange for the school pick up.  Call spouse.  After 5 minutes of complicated sorting through schedules and figuring out who has to do what before leaving, one of us leaves to pick up the kids, promising to "be back in half an hour to pick you up...."
6:15 pm: An hour later, spouse shows up.  Go home (finally).  One person makes dinner; the other chases after the toddler.  I mean, the other plays nicely with the kids.  Or, if spouse has evening meeting, dinner is boxed mac and cheese made while chasing toddler around.
7:00 pm: Dinner on table
8:00 pm: Begin bedtime process
10 pm: Phew.  Kids in bed.  (NB. If spouse has evening meeting, kids will not be actually asleep till spouse arrives back at home.) Work. Work like mad on the varying job apps, papers, grading, assessments, and so on.
Midnight:  Oh, heck.  The dishes.  Spend 15 minutes tiredly discussing whether to just leave the darned things till morning or not.  Finally do dishes.  (The impetus for this by the way is quite simply that regardless of lack of sleep we just do better in the morning if there is a nice clean sink there.  Hence, dishes usually done but not without some pain.)

This plan actually served us well through most of the rest of the semester.  Until, that is, it got to final exam week, wherein the whole plan had to be revised.  

The Plan: The Final Exam and Grading Blitz Week Survival Version

Ha ha ha ha ha.

Ah, well.  How nice for us that a whole brand new semester awaits in 2012 and we get to have a whole brand new plan.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A TV Flashback

While I was in the shower this morning, I had a sudden flash of insight - at least as much insight as can be had at that hour of the morning.

I was thinking about my favorite '80s TV shows, namely The Cosby Show and Growing Pains.  I had never before thought of the following fact: Both of these are families with greater-than-average numbers of kids, with moms who work in fabulous jobs outside the home, and with dads who are not only - get this - doctors, BUT they are at home for the kids.  They do their doctoring at home.

Wow.  Two career families that have the best of all possible worlds - lots of kids, immaculate house, and parents with precisely the right (aka - socially acceptable jobs) AND one of them gets to do their work at home. I've never met a doctor who had their practice at their home, but hey cool idea.  It's just that while both of these dads did depict life with their patients occasionally, their work never seemed really to conflict with their family.  Dr. Cosby could say "How far apart are they, Mrs. Herman?" and rush off to the hospital while Claire conveniently came home (no late night court cases or briefs to finish at the same time Dad had to be at the hospital).  Same thing with the Seaver family, living out there in Long Island.

It's not like I ever thought the shows were "real" - but on my childhood view, they did depict "real" things.  The fights with brothers and sisters, the attempts to do creative things that mom and dad would definitely not appreciate, were all part of my life. So was the "both parents working" motif - but not in an arrangement like that.  My experience of a dual career couple in my growing up years matches up with the experiences I have now, as an adult in a dual career relationship.  It's chaotic and a constant struggle to keep things relatively sane - just as I imagine my non-dual career friends experience - and it's also filled with a lot of joy, amid the busyness.

So I am left wondering two things.  Why the need to sugarcoat a dual-career family in the ways both of these shows did?  Why make kids believe that a doctor and lawyer can make a family of five work without (apparently) any other help?  The show doesn't need to be real, but at least it could set up some realistic expectations and expose the problems, as well as the good things, about being dual career.

Which leads me to my second, kind of related thought: people often raise questions about media's effect on culture.  Here's one where I wish media had had more influence - because I think it'd be great to have "doctors at home" or "lawyers at home" or other trades and professions operating in this way.  I think it would be healthier, on the whole, for people.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What kind of parent do they want, anyway?

As a college professor, I am very aware of the critiques of helicopter parenting.  I have seen it happen with some of my own students.  One particular gem was the time I had just finished discussing FERPA (education's equivalent to HIPAA, I suppose) with some parents during New Student Orientation, discussing how educational information is not automatically available to parents when their children are 18 and older. If they wanted to know how their kids had done on an exam, for example, instead of calling the professor, they would need to talk to their children directly.

(As a disclaimer, I don't know the ins and outs of this law, I was parroting what I'd been told to say but the basic point of the talk was: develop good communication with your children now that they are adults.)

I was pregnant with #1 at the time, and a nice, well-meaning mother came up to me after the session and pointed at my belly.  "Is this your first?" she demanded to know.  I admitted that it was, to which she replied: "Well, obviously.  Because you would never, ever say the things you just said if you had children yourself."

So apparently being a parent puts you "in the know" in a way that trumps anything else, or anyone else, including whatever the legal ramifications of becoming 18 and an adult are - including me, a professional educator trained to be aware of college students' developmental needs.

So of course the interesting thing is, now that I've had a couple children, I still don't get it.  Of course there are ways in which I know my children better than their daycare provider and preschool teachers do.  But the thing is - there are also ways they know my children better than I do - or at least they can see certain things more clearly than I can.  They see my kids for 6-8 hours a day, and they particularly see them interacting with their peers.  I see them more individually, interacting with each other as siblings, and occasionally with one or two friends for a play date.  Whole different ball game.

The other interesting thing about all this is the subtle way in which even preschool seems to reinforce a kind of hyper-parenting that I see linked to helicoptering.  Hyper-parenting: my term for trying to achieve parenting perfection while simultaneously discussing "other" ways of parenting that aren't quite mean, but that aren't quite friendly either....

Before the baby ever came, I remember having dinner with old friends who themselves have three kids: "So, where are you going to send her to day care?"  "Um, I don't know yet," I replied.  "Oh - you've got to get a jump on that, or she won't get into the good schools.  First it's day care, then it's preschool, then primary and so on.  But you have to start right, or you get derailed."

Or the nurse who was taking out my IV after I'd just delivered a 6-week early preemie who was, at that precise moment, on oxygen in another room: "You'd better be breastfeeding this baby," in a rather accusatory tone.  And then I got a lecture about how breastfeeding is better.  If she'd taken a moment to ask me nicely, I would have said, yes I'm going to breastfeed.  (Of course, this whole conversation was made rather stupid when, later, the pediatrician required us to formula feed for a while.  Just as an aside: I did eventually get to breastfeed my daughter after formula, so it is possible but difficult - and my desire to do it had nothing to do with what the nurse said....)

Believe me, I know that some things are better for my kids than others.  And I'm very aware of the fact that I could be a much, much better mother than I am - and that seeking improvement is a good idea.  But I find the hype about parenting, and especially that every choice I make is an ultimate choice where if I make the wrong move, my child is DOOMED - well, exhausting.  And I'm exhausted enough.

So I also always have in mind that college student's mother and I think too: this linking of EVERY.SINGLE.ACTION a mother could possibly take with her children is part of what gets us to that point of being helicopter parents.  When we think that our children's grades, choice of occupation, study habits and so on are so entirely linked to what we did or didn't do back in day care, then of course I'm also going to care about FERPA.

So, Mrs. Mom X: I do understand better now that I have my own kids, just a little bit. And I'm going to be pushing back every chance I get.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contemplative Child-Raising...

Most of the time, as a professor, I am busy with meetings and photocopying and reports and classroom preparation and writing and so on, and then when I come home, I am inundated with housework and cooking.  Throw in a few other non-home or non-work commitments, and you could say I have a rather busy life - non-stop.

You might think that one of my non-work commitments, working as a Catechist of the Good Shepherd at my parish, would be one of those things that just adds to the busy-ness.

I suppose in a way, it does.  My atrium started up again this week, and I am exhausted from doing the cleaning and maintenance of the space that I must do to be ready for the children.  For my readers unfamiliar with the terminology, the atrium is the name for the environment I set up for the children in my Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program on Sunday mornings.  I am a catechist for 3-6 year olds.  I hope one day to add the next level (6-9 year olds) and perhaps even 9-12 year olds.  It is an "atrium" because it is meant to be not quite church, not quite home, but a place that opens up both of those spaces.  The word is a recognition that children receive most of their catechesis from their church and home families, and only a small bit from the 1.5 hours they have with me on Sunday mornings.

Not that what we do on Sunday is unimportant - quite the contrary!  The atrium is a place where children can come and learn about the mass using small replicas of the altar table, chalice and paten that they see in church.  They think about the mystery of life and death by growing wheat seeds and thinking about Jesus's saying: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain...."  We use 2-D wood figures of a good shepherd and sheep to think about what Jesus means when he says "I am the Good Shepherd... I know my sheep and I call them by name...."  How great it must be to be known that way, to be called by name!  All of these are ultimately aimed toward helping the young child fall in love.

Ah, but it's a way for me to fall in love too.

Because the atrium is a time for me to remember to be contemplative too, to recover my practices of prayer that went out the window with all the activity of the summer.  Just as I show the children that they cannot move quickly or suddenly, so my own pace becomes slower.  And I always have to remember not to speak and move at the same time - for younger children get distracted if you do too much.  Being with the children  is an unschooling of my multi-tasking ways, which is a very good thing.  It turns out, pretty much anything I want to do turns out worse if I multi-task than if I can focus on it long enough to do it well.

At the end of each week's atrium session, I turn out the lights and light the candles; I might read a short Psalm with the children, and we just sit.  We enjoy the light and the silence and each other.

I'm always amazed that the children are able to sit still for so quiet and so long - but maybe I'm even more amazed, these days, that I can sit still for so long too....

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Industrialized children?

Last week, I was at a theology conference, hosted by Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame (yes, I brought my baby, while Philosophy PhD Husband and my three year old went to a family gathering).  This was one of those lovely conferences where the papers are good, but sitting around the table at dinner (or while sipping an after-dinner wine) is equally as good, if not better.

One of the topics of conversation around the dinner table one night was children and having parents that work out of the home.  We all agreed that the idea that a woman should stay at home and raise the kids was largely a product of the nineteenth century and that in previous centuries, both parents had worked "at home" and raised the children in more complex patterns than our modern world allows.

Then we turned to the topic of raising children.  Several of my interlocutors were pressing the point that even if women are working outside the home, one of the spouses should be staying at home taking care of the children and that this has generally been the way people have raised kids through the centuries.  It is only now that we are seriously screwing up our children.  But kids, they maintained, are only really loved by their parents and it is the parents who need to be there full time.

My initial response is that something in that history seems a bit off to me - I'm thinking not only of an upperclass world of governesses, nannies, nurses, and boarding schools, but of middle and lower class apprenticeships or being sent away to work in service.   I think there were few times and places that children were actually being raised directly by their parents every single day.

Of course I have a bone to pick here: I am paying for the modern equivalent of nurses and nannies as I drop off my kids at the on-campus daycare.  I drop in 2-3 times a day to nurse the baby and check in on the three year old; my day becomes a patchwork of nursing and day care drop off, two hours grading, nursing, two hours writing, nursing,  two hours doing more writing, day care pick up, coming home and cooking, playing with the kids, doing the bedtime routine, and then at the end of it all, another 2-4 hours of writing or other work.

As I watch other people respond to and help raise my kids, I see them often teaching them good things that I would never have thought about, and I see them giving hugs, kisses, pats on the head.  This doesn't diminish the fact that when I come to the day care, I too, will be called on for hugs.  But it isn't an exclusive thing or a limiting thing in my view: I'm not the only one who cares for and loves my daughters.  They do too.  I recognize that it's different, and that for all sorts of good reasons, I'm the one who stays home with a sick child or who takes them to the doctor.

All that said, the conversation at that dinner table got to me in later reflections, because I think they're (perhaps unknowingly) alluding to something else very important about raising children - something that has only cropped up in the past couple centuries - and that is the way children's lives are being engulfed in industrialized patterns.

Day care of the kind that I send my kids to is possible only in a world that conceives that it is reasonable to group children into classrooms by single ages - showcasing a desire for efficiency.   After all, changing a baby's diapers isn't a very efficient enterprise when I, at home with the three year old haranguing me to do puzzles, discover that the diapers haven't yet been washed so I scramble to find something, anything to cover the baby's bum.  But diaper changing is very efficient when, in a class of twelve babies, three teachers take turns in whipping down the paper diaper from the appropriate cubicle.

The work day, too, is institutionalized in an 8-5 time frame (a far better cry from the early factory days, of course, but still institutionalized).  So it is interesting, too, to reflect on the ways in which office space arbitrarily demands my time during those hours and not others; of course, there are plenty of jobs in our late modern culture that demand more (to what end, I always ask?).  (I hasten to say here - one of my reasons for going in to academia is precisely that it does not cater to those same time frames - there are good things about the fact that academia is largely based in medieval institutions.)

And I could take it further still to all of life: eating is industrialized, so is elder care, so is clothes shopping, or anything else we would want to buy.  Nearly everything we have is predicated on sleek efficient machines having brought our stuff to us.

At what point does it end?  At what point would I say, "Now I am really responsible for the care of my children" and this industrialized world has been staved off?  It doesn't happen.  Even if one of us stayed home and homeschooled, and we grew all the vegetables and raised the goats and the sheep and the chickens (I have actually long had this kind of dream and maybe someday I will buy just such a house in the San Luis Valley in Colorado), at some point there would still be points of complicity in modern culture.  The people I know who try this still have hard decisions to make - and still end up participating at some level.

I think it is highly legitimate to ask where the point is that we want to try to over turn that industrialization or at least stave it off.  I think my friends sitting around the dinner table make some really good points.  Maybe they're right and I'm too defeatist about it - maybe the way to get around the industrialization of children (and ourselves) is to opt out in just these ways.  Wendell Berry fans unite.

But in the end I'm not sure how far that goes because I'm not convinced that we can stand apart from that culture. Would it be better, instead, to try to find evidence of God's handiwork here even in spite of ourselves, in the chinks of this life?  Like, for instance, the day care worker I saw the other day - she did not know I was there, just outside the door, watching as she hoisted up my baby with a look of joy, and my baby laughed too.  I loved seeing two people laugh - it was good salve in the rather depressing times we live in.  And, laughter, thankfully, does not operate on a scale of scarcity.  For when I opened the door, they both turned to me, and I got "that look" too - and we all shared in some joy and laughter.