Paradoxical Expectations of the Working Mom

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Working moms today are often harshly criticized because we are held to almost impossible standards—we are expected to work like we don’t have kids; and we are expected to raise children like we don’t work. Even when fathers are assuming more child rearing and household responsibilities, they are praised as doing extra while mothers are seen as only doing par. The home is still seen as our primary domain, and it’s up to us to figure out how to level the playing field if we want to be with the big boys in the corporate world.

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Like many female colleagues of my generation, I was encouraged to “have it all” and look up to women who seemingly found a way to balance work and motherhood. I found myself struggling to sustain my career momentum, however, once the Dumpling come into the picture. In a fast-paced city like New York, where nine hour days are the minimum and anything above is normal, the grind can be especially gruesome. Compared to my colleagues who come in earlier, leave later, and participate in after-hour social events, I often feel like I’m not a team player because I dart out of the office at 5:30 pm.

While other moms are more understanding, there are a few who think every woman should make the same sacrifices they did. There’s the successful female executive with the “I-did-it-and-so-can-you” attitude who thinks the rest of us are just a bunch of complainers. Then there’s the stay-at-home mom who questioned my judgement in putting the Dumpling at daycare when she was only six months old.

Although progress is headed in the right direction, corporate America still isn’t too family friendly. Maternity leave is not mandatory and left to the discretion of the employer. Americans also clock in more hours per week (special shout out to New York!), have fewer holidays, and vacation days compared to most of our European counterparts. While taking holidays and long lunches are culturally acceptable in Europe, it carries a negative stigma in the U.S. The higher up the corporate ladder the we climb, the more we are expected to be accessible 24/7 and available to travel regularly.

Meeting the Demands of Modern Day Motherhood

Even if moms are willing to grind it out, childcare is a common challenge. The core U.S. household is typically made up of only the parents and their children. Therefore, extended family members, like grandparents, do not play major roles as caregivers on a daily basis, and most working parents are forced to seek outside help. Day cares often have long wait lists, are expensive, and penalizes heavily on late pick-ups. jigg and I pay $270 a week, and we are fortunate to have our in-laws do the evening pick ups and babysit for about an hour until I get home. Otherwise, the current local rate for a nanny runs anywhere between $15-$25 an hour. While live-in helpers are common in Asia for many middle-class families, they are entirely out of reach for most in the U.S. For example, a cost of a live-in helper in Hong Kong, who helps with not only childcare, but also cooking, cleaning, errands, and general household chores six days a week costs approximately $4,010 HKD per month, or $514 USD. That’s about a week’s pay for a nanny in the U.S.

Modern parents also need to be very involved. Child experts recommend a barrage of activities that parents should do with their toddlers to develop their sensory, gross motor, fine motor, social, and communication skills. Once school starts, parents are expected to review homework assignments, attend parent-teacher conferences, volunteer for funds raises, etc. Most of these responsibilities inevitably fall onto the mother.

Society in general has expectations (often hidden in a form of unsolicited advice) of how our children ought to behave by cherry picking from the best practices across different cultures. My elders brag about how they managed to put dinner on the table every night, do chores by hand, and raised kids without the fancy gadgets. I’m told to admire the French, who cook sophisticated meals for their children and are firm in their discipline. Compared to Americans, we have raised a kiddy population of obese, picky eating dictators. My Chinese relatives bring up how so and so enrolled their children in swimming, piano, and Mandarin classes and advised I should look into them as well before my daughter falls behind.

Time Scarcity

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It’s no wonder that I always feel like there’s not enough time; I’m working two full time jobs on a daily basis. In the span of 24 hours, “work” and “commute” take up approximately 12 hours of my day; there’s not much I can do to easily change these unless I quit my job or move closer to the city. “Sleep” takes up eight hours (Do I really need eight hours? Yes, I do), which leaves me with the remaining four to do everything else under “other”.

“Other” is a category that includes getting the Dumpling ready for daycare in the morning, then feeding, cleaning, playing and putting her to bed at night. Somewhere in between, I also have to eat, tidy up the house, and make time for jigg and me. I’m scratching my head trying to find time to do everything else I’m supposed to be doing as a “good mother.” If I attend that happy hour, I would miss tucking my daughter in bed. If I cooked in the evenings, being in front of the stove would take away from time spent reading to her. If I enrolled her in weekend classes, she would be spending even more time with outside caregivers than her parents.

Learning from my elders and parents in other cultures should serve as an inspiration. But when their best practices are used as baseline comparisons of how I ought to parent, it’s easy to become disheartened. I remind myself that while they face challenges that I cannot relate to, I have career aspirations and societal expectations that my mom didn’t have, or work hours and childcare costs that my mommy friends from other countries don’t face. As a result, I pick and choose my parenting battles and accept that I do some things better and fall short on others.

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