Last week, there was another op-ed in the Times, which discussed the much debated numbers about women opting out of the workforce. This writer produced her own numbers to show that women weren’t easing up in their ambitions and professional life after they had kids. "Hey, look at me and my buddy in the economics department", she writes. (Echidne liked it better than I did. Read her take.)
I didn’t link to it, because I have grown a bit weary of this debate about numbers. How are you defining work? Are you opting-out, if you work full time, but take on less responsibility? Does part-time work count? What about people who are just taking some time off? Isn’t this all about validating our own choices?
I read The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less over the weekend. I loved it, despite the fact my copy has Julianne Moore on the cover. "Now a Major Motion Picture."
Terry Ryan tells the story of her mom who raised ten kids, coped with an alcoholic husband, and entered jingle contests in the 50s to keep her family afloat. A Dorothy Parker with a working knowledge of Dial soap and Colgate Toothbrush. Dial is wonderful, gently repealing; What most fresheners just succeed in concealing.
Ryan’s tale reminds me of stories that my dad tells about growing up in the Southside of Chicago. Four kids, dead father. His mother worked as a corsetier at Marshall Fields, while her parents watched the kids. Grandpa was drunk most of the time, though a happy one. I suppose every family has stories of the hard scramble years.
In the midst of their poverty and the small hoard of children, Evelyn Ryan writes. She finds room in all that insanity to pen her little poems and send them off. She finds that she does her best work while ironing. The winnings from these little poems provide Christmas presents for the kids and even the down payment on a home.
When I’m not making boxed macaroni and cheese, writing stories for Ian, and making Daniel Boone heads with Jonah, I’m writing journal articles — four are in various stages of completion. I’m also preparing to start teaching in the fall. There’s no money in it right now, as my accountant will tell you, but I just filled out a W2 form for the fall. I’m no Evelyn Ryan, but I make room in the day for my plans.
Working isn’t a yes/no sort of thing. Even if you define it strictly as earning money. There are a lot of Evelyn Ryans out there, writing poems at the ironing board. The opt-out debate is growing increasingly mired in muddy numbers and slippery definitions.