Thursday, August 25, 2005

The New Balance

Within the parameters of my family, I am witnessing one of the most powerful forces in the movement for gender equality. It is the new balance of family life:

These past few days have been hard for my sister. She is a nurse and has a successful career. Monday was her first day back to work since giving birth to my nephew earlier this summer. Imagine my surprise when I called her cell phone and didn’t reach her. She left her phone at home, where my nephew’s father, Derek, stayed throughout the day watching the baby. He picked up the phone and I could hear the baby cooing in the background.

“I thought the baby was going to your Mom’s house today,” I said confused.

“We just couldn’t leave him,” he replied," so I stayed with him."

Immediately, I had a flashback of my first day at Kinder Care. It was the year before I went to kindergarten. My parents sent me there for a few hours a day to socialize and let my Mom catch up on some sleep from working the nightshift as a nurse. A couple of hours into my first day, my Mom called to check in on me. The manager of the Kinder Care told her, “Your son is fine. Your husband, however, hasn’t yet left the parking lot.” Like my Dad couldn’t leave me, Derek couldn’t leave my nephew.

Coming back to the conversation, I asked Derek, “What about work?”

“I will go in when your sister gets home.”

I couldn’t help but be proud. Don’t get me wrong, I wish that all families could have finances that allowed one or two parents to stay home all day with their kids. But that just isn’t reality. Interestingly, most of the families I can think of that have a husband who makes enough income for their wife to stay home only got through their intense and long professional study because their wife worked to help put them through the study.

Of course, women don’t have to be the only ones who can stay at home and raise the family so their husbands can work. There is the situation of my friend: Her Mom is a vice-president of a private, prestigious liberal arts college. When they first moved to the school, her father, who was formerly a journalist, stayed home with the two kids for a few years. My friend refers to those years nostalgically. She recently told me, “Stay-at- home Dads rock. My brother and I had so much playing with my Dad after school and getting to spend so much time with him.”

These stories show that we can have an affect on this world in at least two ways. One is by raising and caring for children. Another is by contributing to the worlds of work and volunteerism. Women shouldn’t be excluded from the latter. My Mom has touched many lives as a nurse. When she was leaving her position as a nurse in a prison, she got a note from an inmate explaining how she gave him hope during his incarceration. (The warden used to tell her that if there was a riot, he was standing behind her!) When she worked for a corrupt nursing home where nurses were mistreating patients and stealing drugs, she worked with the state government to expose the corruption. These examples show the special ways women can contribute to society outside of their families.

Those who argue that the natural role of women is in the home should look more closely at the exceptional ways women influence society. Women who choose to be stay-at-home mom are making a wonderful contribution to society. Women who choose to be mother and worker are also making wonderful contributions.

Increasingly, families need to rely on two incomes to live comfortably. Of course, one cannot forget the difficult and vastly unsupported domain of single parents. However, my sister and Derek’s situation, I think, is indicative of the situation faced by many Americans.

The way Derek and my sister juggle takes me back to the years when Mom worked night shifts to spend time with us during the day and Dad rushed home from work to make sure we had dinner and did our homework. It takes me back to the time when Dad left his incredibly successful and lucrative consulting career because he wanted to be home for dinner every night.

These times weren’t easy, but my parents put their heads together to make things work. Now my sister and Derek are doing the same thing. These simple examples of families trying to “make it work” constitute a striking affirmation of the goals of feminism. The women in my family were able to balance career and family because they were in supportive, egalitarian, mutually-dependent relationships.

As I watch my family grow, and my sister and Derek begin to find ways to balance, I am struck by the new balance of family. As much as I cherish the moments I receive with my Mom and sister, I am proud of the ways they have influenced society. Just as proud as I am of Dad and Derek for supporting them.