‘No son of mine is going to take charity’

President Trump’s proposal to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by his tariff policy has got me thinking about where I came from. Words from an old Highwaymen song keep coming to me, slightly altered: The wind blows hard across the Kansas plains, makes some people go insane. Makes still others pray for rain, that’s where I come from.

I’ve lived in western Kansas, eastern Kansas, the New York City metro area and the Deep South. Believe me when I tell you that people’s general character varies by region, and people from the heartland are definitely not like those in the East. I know these people, and I fear that President Trump and most of his advisers don’t. Maybe things have changed since I was young, but we’ll see.

Here’s an example. As generous as he was to others, my Grandpa White had very strict ideas about taking handouts from the government. When Uncle Joe, Daddy’s older brother, was discharged from the Navy as World War II ended, he sought to take advantage of government programs for returning veterans. Part of the GI Bill was the 52-20 Club, which directly paid veterans $20 a week for 52 weeks while they looked for work.

When Uncle Joe walked out of the house to go down and sign up for the benefit, Grandpa White was working in the yard. He asked his oldest son where he was headed, and Joe told him.

“Dad hesitated a moment and said, ‘If you do, all your clothes will be on the front steps when you get back. No son of mine is going to take charity,’” Uncle Joe remembers. “I knew the conversation was over and I said, ‘I won’t go.’”


The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel.

 

The lesson stayed with Joe, and Daddy too, I guess. Uncle Joe says that when he turned 67 and went down to sign up for Social Security benefits, he was thankful he didn’t have to face his father—even though Social Security doesn’t fall into the category of a “handout.” And for all the years when I was growing up, times when we didn’t have enough to eat and couldn’t pay the rent, I’m sure it never occurred to my father to accept a government handout.

That self-reliance and disdain for anyone who takes a “handout” are ingrained in the people in my part of the country, the vast expanse of flyover country most people will never visit unless they drive west on I-70 for a vacation in Colorado. After that long trip, they’ll grimace and say the drive is awfully flat and very boring. I was born right in the middle of the United States, where the rolling prairies rise to the High Plains, inching upwards toward the continental divide at the summit of the Rockies. People in the more populous states to the east and west tend to dismiss us, repeating “Kaan-sas?” with mocking incredulity when we tell them where we’re from. That, or they immediately ask about Dorothy and Toto from Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

The treeless, windy North American steppes were the last part of the growing United States to be settled, because the landscape was so alien and barren to a people whose sensibilities were shaped by the wooded contours of first Europe and then the eastern United States. As an editor from West Virginia once told me, it feels like there’s no place to hide. The first time my eight-year-old son accompanied me to visit my parents in western Kansas, his initial reaction was terror at the immense sky and the slanting shadow of a rainstorm in the distance. His second reaction was to ask why they didn’t build some buildings since there was so much empty space.

I find most people imagine that the people who settled the region were losers pushed out of the more comfortable environs to the east. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel. The luxury of clapboard homes would come later, when the railroads shipped in wood.

The natives joke that you’ll know a Kansan because his grandmother drives 70 miles per hour in a snowstorm. In the Deep South they try not to drive at all in a snowstorm, and that’s not surprising. But they’re also reluctant to drive in New York City, where snow is common. I think that tells you something.

When we lived in the New York suburbs, a little lake up the street froze over every winter, metamorphosing into a natural ice-skating rink. The sport’s popularity was a revelation to me, because in Kansas the wind is too cold and too piercing to ever enjoy outdoor activities. I was awed to learn that below-freezing weather isn’t particularly unpleasant when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there’s no such thing as a wind-chill factor.

School tended to be canceled with only the slightest dusting of snow, however, and one snow-day my young son wanted to invite a friend to ice skate. “Oh honey, none of these mothers will drive in this weather,” I cautioned. Joe called his friend Will anyway, and a half hour later Will’s mother turned up on my doorstep, her son in tow.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I ventured.

“No—Western Slope, Colorado,” she proudly replied. I nodded in recognition of a kindred soul.

My friends in the Deep South avoided driving in the snow because of lack of experience. In New York, however, the attitude was different. People seemed to wonder how Mother Nature dared to be so impertinent. In the Kansas of my youth, by contrast, people had few illusions about their importance or their right to expect anything of the weather. They didn’t think they were entitled to anything, ever, and so were thankful when their hard work brought modest rewards.

My roots twist deep into the black prairie soil, and I’ve got dust in my blood. I was born a Kansan, and Kansas is the reddest of the red states. The Big First—the sprawling congressional district that encompasses western Kansas—is one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. These are the people liberals love to hate, and by all rights I should be one of them. 

I’m not, but I think I’m beginning to understand why rural people don’t trust those big city folks and their self-serving plans to fix all their problems. Indeed I do.

— Jacqueline White Kochak

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Celebrity mothers, this is important

This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work.


I’ve got a bone to pick with Dr. Sarah Parcak, the celebrity Egyptologist who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She annoyed me so much that I impulsively unfollowed her on Twitter, but don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’m an archaeology junkie.

What could this bright, funny young academic possibly have done to annoy me enough to forswear feeding my addiction to daily snippets of archaeology news? Nothing much, except tweet one sentence, accompanied by clapping hands. “Anybody who asks me about work and family in future will get the same response,” she said, with a finger pointing down to an excerpt from an interview with author Laura Groff. The interview appeared last week in the Harvard Gazette.

Gazette: You are a mother of two. In 10 years you have produced three novels and two short story collections. Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family?

Groff: I understand that this is a question of vital importance for many women, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.

OK, bear with me, because I know I’m swimming against the current here. The Twitterverse has been full of praise for Groff, and the Huffington Post crowed, “Pushing back to sexist questions has been a slowly emerging sea-change for those in the public eye.”

The need for family-friendly workplaces: Here’s the problem for me, Dr. Parcak. This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work. Not even a rewarding career; just plain old work to put food on the table. They need successful women who will talk about the difficulties of managing both, without sugar-coating, and talk about the need for subsidized child care, paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and flexible, family-friendly work hours.

So why am I calling out Sarah Parcak and not Laura Groff? I suppose a little background is required. I know how Laura Groff does it, because I’ve done it myself. A writer has that most necessary prerequisite for having a family—flexible time.

When my children were young, I worked from home as a contributing editor for a national trade magazine. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write and was able to get by with a babysitter for a few hours a week to conduct phone interviews and take the train into New York City to visit the office. Full-time childcare for several children would have been much too expensive. I met deadlines shortly after giving birth and kept my newborns with me while the older children were in preschool or childcare. I nursed my babies to keep them quiet while I interviewed company execs.

Dr. Parcak is different. Although her work is glamorous, she doesn’t work for herself. She is beholden to an employer; she works for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, so her situation is more like that of most women. To do what she does, she needs an amenable workplace, a supportive spouse, or family nearby who help out. Ideally, she has all three.

I work for a university in Alabama too, so I know she’s got plenty of sick and vacation time to take off when one of her children is up all night crying with an earache. Only 46 percent of service workers and 47 percent of workers in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry occupations had paid sick leave benefits as of March 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And clearly her husband, Dr. Greg Mumford, is supportive, since she works in partnership with him to survey and excavate projects in the Sinai and the Nile delta. For many women, however, Prince Charming turned out to be a jerk. They don’t have that kind of support, and the cost of daycare is killing them.

Using satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools, Dr. Parcak explores subtle differences in topography, geology and plant life to expose forgotten sites from multiple lost cultures, explains Smithsonian magazine.  “She and her team have expanded the civilization’s known scope, spotting more than 3,000 ancient settlements, more than a dozen pyramids and over a thousand lost tombs, and uncovered the city grid of Tanis, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame,” the article notes.

I admit it, she’s living my dream life. But that gives me a clue that maybe, just maybe, Dr. Parcak also gets help from her family, or at the very least a live-in nanny who likes to travel. For all my flexibility, there’s no way I could have managed a working trip to Egypt with my kids in tow, since my family lived more than 1,500 miles away.

None of this is to criticize Dr. Parcak. She’s amazing. But she is a woman of talent, intelligence and, yes, privilege. We need women like Dr. Parcak to tell the world that children need lots of time and attention. They aren’t always easy. They can be messy and inconvenient. They aren’t like wind-up dolls that can be put away on a shelf when you’re through with them.

A bigger problem: There is a bigger problem here that is talked about only sporadically, which is that the U.S. population, sans immigrants, is not replacing itself. The “replacement” fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age is generally considered enough to renew the population. In 2017, the total fertility rate dropped to 1.76 in the US, continuing a slide downward that started in the early 1970s.

Given concerns about resources, some might say that is a good thing.  This “replacement level,” however, is considered an important measure of demographic health and determines the stability of a population. Young people are needed to replace an aging workforce. And they are needed to generate stable tax revenues to continue to fund programs like Medicare and Social Security, whose costs will balloon when the population skews geriatric.

I don’t think there is any way to pretend that one of the reasons the birthrate is plummeting is because the rate of women in the workforce has soared—from 37 percent in 1962 to almost 61 percent in 2000, according to the Brookings Institute. In fact, it is my observation that men often expect their wives (or significant others) to work, valuing their role as cash cows over their role as mothers. And let me tell you, combining a career and  parenting is damn hard work, whether the primary caretaker is man or woman, and even if they completely share responsibilities.

It is interesting to note that, starting in 2000, the trend toward more women in the work force slowed, with women’s participation falling from 60.7 percent in 2000 to 57.2 in 2016. It is too early to tell if this means anything, but it is also interesting to note that the average woman today says she’d like to have about three children (actually 2.7 children, but that sounds a little scary), up from a low of about 2.3 children in the early 1990s. I’m not making this up; this comes from Lyman Stone, an agricultural economist and a research fellow for the Institute of Family Studies.

People have been talking about the demographic crisis in Europe for awhile now, but the fact is we’re starting to close the gap. Countries such as France and Japan have put pro-family policies in place to encourage couples to have babies. France now has the highest total fertility rate in the European Union (at 1.96), with Scandinavian countries and their generous pro-family also having having higher fertility rates than the EU of average of 1.6 children.

In fact, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that family-friendly policies introduced by the Nordic countries over the past 50 years, and the associated increases in female employment, have boosted gross domestic product per capita by between 10 percent and 20 percent. We need to think about doing the same in our United States.

“We need society to decide that it’s worth listening to women and easing the path to their desired family life,” economist Stone wrote in the Boston Globe, talking about the country’s “historic collapse in childbearing.”

I’m old enough to be Dr. Parcak’s mother, so forgive me for seeming old-fashioned and not appreciating how “sexist” it is to ask about managing full-time work and full-time children. I am of an age where I had friends who were discouraged from being anything but nurses or teachers. My widowed grandmother told me to never stop working, because men die or they go away. And my father told me I’d have to work twice as hard as any man to get the same recognition. I’m glad those days are over.

“Having vulnerable, beautiful, beloved dependents is like having had my own heart replicated and sent out into the world,” Laura Groff also told the Harvard Gazette. “Nothing feels more urgent to me than that.”

She gets it, and I’m sure every other celebrity mother who will stop and think about it does, too. And it would be most helpful if Laura Groff and Sarah Parcak and every other celebrity mother out there talked about the challenges, because I will certainly tell you that being a parent was the most demanding and difficult and fascinating job I ever had.

—Jacqueline White Kochak