Category Archives: Parenthood

You are Harming Your Child with Your Words

Article first published as You are Harming Your Child with Your Words on Blogcritics.

Listen to the endearments parents and other adults use for children. There are two kinds: the ones they use for girls and the ones they use for boys.

Girls are sweetheart, sweetie pie, sugar, honey, dolly, princess.

Boys are champ, chief, buddy, pal, kiddo.

These differences follow the children as they grow up. Sales clerks and doormen (and doormen are nearly all men) call women “sweetheart” or “honey.” Men are “buddy,” “pal,” or “chief.” (The exceptions are ma’am and sir.)

These differences matter. As children, girls learn to be sweet and ingratiating because they have learned that cuteness and niceness make them lovable; boys learn that they can be leaders, in charge of and superior to others — even on an equal footing with adults (“buddy” and “pal”).

Perhaps even more interesting than the effects of these endearments on children is adults’ reflexive use of different endearments for girls and for boys. Whether or not you believe that the names parents and other authority figures use for their children affect those children, it is undeniable that adults instinctively think of their girls and boys differently. Do they not think their sons are sweet? Do they not think their girls are champs? Do they expect different behavior from girls than from boys? And where does the reflex to use different endearments come from?

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The Legal “Fast Track” and Feminism

This Careerist article about women who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993 contends that women who step off the law firm “fast-track” have been derailed and may be “anti-feminist.”  This is startling news to me, a 1999 graduate of Harvard Law School who stepped off the fast-track.  I’m as dedicated a feminist as ever, and far from feeling derailed, I’m happier than ever.

The thesis of the article is that “some of the brightest [female] legal minds in the country” can’t or choose not to hack it on the legal “fast-track,” generally because they prefer to focus more on their children and feel they can’t do both.  The article bemoans the low rate of Harvard women who are partners in firms and calls it “astonishing” that 60% of the women who graduated Harvard Law in 1993 have “dropped out of the fast track.”

I am more astonished that more men haven’t left the law firm “fast track.”  At mainstream corporate law firms, the fast track is an outdated, inhumane, pressure cooker system, and I just can’t believe that many of the men on that track aren’t wishing they could hop off themselves.

I got to where Chen wants women like me to be: I made partner (although I did it at a smaller and far friendlier, more humane public interest firm).  And then I gave it up.  I am now a part-time independent contractor for the same firm and spend the rest of my time writing, for one reason: that is what I want to do.  I work from home, I’m doing what I love, and I have never been happier.  And it had nothing to do with my kids or work/life balance: I don’t have kids, and I’m working more now than I ever have before, but I am doing it on my terms.

My experience suggests a couple problems with Chen’s thesis.  One is her implication that the “feminist” goal should be for more women to succeed (i.e., rise up the ranks to partnership) in the legal system as it exists.  The other is her suggestion that women are leaving the fast track because it isn’t possible to give it your all while also raising children.  As to the first one, women have the opportunity now to redefine success to encompass not just money and status, but also happiness, creativity, even self-actualization.  If we can pull that off, it will benefit men, it will benefit non-lawyers, and it will make for a happier nation.  As to the second, many women have multiple reasons to leave the fast track, and many men do too: maybe they discover that practicing law is not what they want to spend their lives doing, or maybe they tire of the competitive and stressful law firm environment.

Still, there is no arguing that being fully present for your children while sprinting the law firm fast track is at the very least a challenge.  That alone proves that there is something rotten at the core of the law firm business model.  As long as it forces parents to choose between working and raising their children, it is anti-feminist, because it will almost always be the mother who leaves the workplace (which is a whole other phenomenon that merits its own discussion), and it will almost always be the father who misses out on his kids’ childhoods.  It’s not the Harvard women who are anti-feminist; it’s the business model of the major employers in our profession.

The Preachers of Parenthood

My friends have begun to breed. Some have children, some are pregnant, some are trying. They are all excited, but I have begun to feel like a heathen in a convent.

I don’t want children myself, and I don’t usually enjoy other people’s children much. But I’m learning to keep all that to myself, because so many people seem compelled to convert me.

When some people discover that I am not down with the parenthood program their inner Jehovah’s Witness surfaces, intent on delivering the Good News. And like Christian evangelists, they have two tactics: first they preach joy, a joy so profound I just can’t imagine it until I have my own children. When that doesn’t work, they tell me I am a sinner, selfish, immature, and destined for the eternal hellfire of a lonely old age.

I’ve heard a couple of theories about these mommy missionaries. Some people who do not want children posit that misery loves company or, in a more nuanced variation on the theme, that my happy, childfree existence undermines the belief of unhappy parents that having children and making the attendant sacrifices is inevitable.

Some parents never did ask themselves whether they wanted to have children; it was simply the next step after marriage. And some of them must regret it, if only in a small, quiet corner of their minds. If having children is the right thing to do – even the only thing to do – they can suppress that regret, because they really had no choice. But if I have a choice, then they did too, and maybe they made the wrong one.

Another theory is that parents are so happy they can’t help but proselytize when they see me making what they believe is a terrible mistake. It is undeniable that many people consider parenting the most rewarding thing they have ever done, but that doesn’t explain why otherwise rational and open-minded people feel compelled to force me to do as they do.

Whatever their motivation, these preachers of parenthood are guilty of extreme arrogance, or at least a lack of imagination. Otherwise, how could they believe that whatever makes them happy will satisfy me as well? It is obvious to the point of triteness that different people have different tastes, and most folks understand that well enough: suburbanites don’t try to convince me to leave New York City, though they might tell me what it is they like about their lawns and attics and isolation; SUV drivers can usually see the thrill of a speedy sports car, though they personally consider Camaros too dangerous and impractical. But when it comes to parenthood, some are convinced that one size fits all.

The most compelling reason I have for not wanting children is that I simply don’t want children. I lack the desire. Babies don’t make me coo or squeal; I don’t fantasize about having my own children. That leaves me with no motivation to do what it takes to be a parent.

And it takes a lot. Sometimes when I am lounging in front of the TV after a long day at work, or completely absorbed in a 900-page novel, or heading out for a spontaneous shopping spree, it occurs to me that if I had a child I would have to be doing something else – driving to soccer practice, or providing the voice for a stuffed animal, or saving money for orthodontia and tuition. Those who want children may be happy to spend their time cleaning up bottoms and apple juice and Legos, but that’s the thing – I don’t want children, so why give up the things I do want?

There are many advantages to lacking the mommy gene, if such a thing exists. I don’t face the family vs. career struggle that so few female professionals manage to resolve to their satisfaction. My husband and I have as much intimacy and spontaneity in our marriage as we did when we first wed, and we don’t have conflicts over carpool schedules, curfews, or whether to send the kids to private school. I have the time and money to learn how to make stained glass or travel to Italy.

I don’t find the threatened disadvantages of not having children particularly persuasive. One popular threat is a lonely old age, but there is little evidence that spending my prime years raising children would improve my final days. My children would be more likely to put me in a nursing home or to live several states away from me than to live across town and bring the grandkids by every weekend. In fact, studies have found that elderly people who affirmatively chose never to have children are just as content as those who reproduced. This makes sense to me – they probably have more money to spend enjoying their retirement, less obligation to stay anyplace they don’t want to be, and maybe even better health thanks to all the child-related stress they missed.

Another threat I sometimes hear is that I am somehow preventing the world from becoming a better place by withholding my offspring from it. The argument, which I have heard far more often than you might expect, is that I would raise children who would share my beliefs and join the forces for good in the universe. But given my liberal politics, my money says that I would wind up with a bunch of fur-wearing Young Republicans. In any case, I wouldn’t want to raise children with the selfish expectation that they would be just like me, because I would be unfairly disappointed in them if they were not.

While I do think there are reasons other people shouldn’t have children (the planet is overpopulated, and Americans consume and pollute more than the citizens of any other country), I don’t expect to convert anyone who feels that powerful, bone-deep longing for children. I just wish that fewer parents believed they could convert me.

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