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

 

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9 thoughts on “Celebrity mothers, this is important

  1. I think that your onto something about the importance of discussing the challenges that go into juggling work and family, but I also think you miss the point that men should be asked these questions too. In a world in which many if not most mothers are working mothers why are we the only ones asked about how to manage it all. When discussing having kids with my partner we discuss the fact that he has significantly better parental leave than I do and a more flexible work schedule which means there are a lot of responsibilities that are going to fall to him. He too is going to have to figure out how to juggle kids with work. In fact the only reason that we can even discuss having kids is because between the two of us we have supportive enough work environments to do so. It’s not that we should stop talking about the need for supportive workplaces, it’s that the burden shouldn’t fall exclusively to women. Men should be asked about how they manage work and kids when interviewed. Perhaps if they had to answer the question too we might see the problems of unsupportive workplaces or partners who don’t pull their fair share of the weight highlighted and addressed. More importantly we might as a society stop viewing child-rearing as an exclusively female burden.

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  2. Excellent article and points made.  Did you publish it any place else for wider exposure? Remember, I was a single father for 3 yrs.  Being told after 12 yrs in the Navy as a senior petty officer that I had my choice of Aircraft Carriers when I re-enlisted is why I got out with only 8 yrs left to retirement.  Kissing my children goodbye for huge chunks of their life for the next 6 yrs just wasn’t an option.  Most people just don’t get that. That decision certainly wasn’t the best for me, career wise but I measure my success through that of my children.  All 5 have a college degree, 4 are teachers.  All are happy and well adjusted. My favorite proverb, (I think Russian)  “Show me your children and I’ll tell you who you are” Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

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  3. You make some excellent points! Interesting statistics that give hope that pro-family policies will reverse the trend. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. My son splits time exactly with my granddaughter’s mother. They were never married. My son did not make the money his partner made and her mother watched my granddaughter for free. After they split, the grandparents refused to watch her on my son’s days.

    Well this was a struggle for him and happily now I live here to help him with kid sitting. He has received lots of promotions and raises in his job and is better off financially than he’s ever been. He still doesn’t make the money she does but they share expenses for my granddaughter equally. So women aren’t the only ones who should be addressed bb

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    1. Absolutely! I’ve got a son in a similar situation, and I couldn’t agree more. I guess the point I’m really trying to make is that children are a big – and important – responsibility, no matter who is doing the “parenting.” That needs to be acknowledged more often when talking about work.

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  5. I’m going to start by warning you that I don’t actually have any conclusions here… just thoughts that go round and round and have trouble landing anywhere in particular. I will share them basically in the order that I had them.

    My first thought was that I agree with the two celebrities with whom you take umbrage… It is complete bullshit that nobody ever asks men “how they do it all.” I have experienced this firsthand as a mother who works full time and attended graduate school (while pregnant!) – I got this question a lot. I am quite certain Joey Mello has never been asked this question. What’s more, think about how the answer – that I have a supportive spouse who is an active participant in the raising of our children – would fall on your ears if a man said it about his wife. “I’m able to do it all because my wife is so actively involved in the raising of our children, enabling me to pursue other interests while balancing work.” It sounds odd to think that a man should have to be grateful for his wife’s part in the childcare load, and indeed she wouldn’t receive any special recognition for doing so…. it’s expected. So yeah. I’m on board with those sentiments.

    My next thought is very much aligned with yours…. those issues are exactly WHY we NEED to hear from these women who “do it all!” Lift the veil! Call out the hypocrisy by diving deeper than just explaining “how you do it.” YOU CAN BOTH TELL YOUR STORY AND DISMANTLE THE PATRIARCHY!!! ✊✊✊ Being silent about your struggle never effected change. Bringing issues to light is how shit gets done.

    Then you get into the stuff about the declining birth rate, the work force aging out, not bringing in enough government revenue to pay for medicare, social security, etc… and I think it’s a really interesting point, but not one that I find myself overly concerned about, because A.) It feels very far away for me, and B.) Having more babies doesn’t seem like the answer. To me, this points to the need for rethinking that whole structure, though admittedly I have no leads on that.

    You argue that the burdens of being a professional women prevent these women from having children, and you point to European nations’ adoption of more family friendly policies. This is absolutely necessary. We are literally TORTURING new mothers in this country, expecting them to do it all mere WEEKS (sometimes even only DAYS) after turning their whole world upside down by producing and birthing another human.

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  6. As a single, working mother, you make very valid points. Childcare and the cost of living is killing me financially. I am thankful I have very supportive parents who allow me to rent from them. I say this to say, I totally get the point Dr. Parcak is making. I don’t think she fully understands the struggle of working mothers, with little support.

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