Work: Yes or No

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.


17 thoughts on “Work: Yes or No

  1. But Ryan also says that she thinks if her mother had been born 30 years later, she would have been a journalist, or an advertising executive. Mixed in with all the funny stories is the life of a woman trapped by lack of birth control, an abusive husband, and an indifferent church.


  2. Yes, Elizabeth. That part of the story is the ugly underbelly of the “idyllic” 1950’s. Women who could not get a divorce, credit in their own name, or a decent job were pretty much stuck. Opponents of no-fault divorce tend to forget that this benefits the Evelyn Ryans of the world as much as, or more, than the Donald Trumps. I read “The Prize Winner” wishing all the time that Evelyn could have given Leo a swift and well-deserved kick to the curb.


  3. Yes, of course, but what makes Evelyn really interesting is how she overcomes all those obstacles. At the end of the book, Terry asks her mother if she regrets those missed opportunities. Terry certainly wishes that her mother could have more recognition for her talents, as does the sympathetic reader. But Evelyn has no regrets. She transcends her circumstances and finds satisfactions in all aspects of her work — her poems and her kids.


  4. This reminds me of my grandmother. She was valedictorian of her high school class in Southern Utah — though it only went through grade 10. Later she married and fulfilled a traditional role as wife and mother. In her 50s, after her sons were grown, she became certified and worked as a marriage counseler.
    Someone in the family once gave her a book on pioneer women that described the hardship and limited opportunities of the environment in which she grew up. She was quite offended by it. In her mind, the social criticisms in the book disrespected the spirit and capability of the women in her life as she remembered them.


  5. This really does come back to the issue of choice that you’re discussing here at the beginning, and whether it’s unacceptable to argue that some people’s choices aren’t really “choices.” (ala Hirshman). I’m not willing to look at extraordinary women who managed to carve out a satisfactory existence for themselves in sexist circumstances to argue that things aren’t or weren’t so bad. The “jingle” mom survived, in spite of the extraneously difficult choices. She even says now that she was happy with her life (and I’m not saying that she’s not). That doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t wrong (and, yes, there’s a real danger in saying that we know better than her what’s good for her. But, I also think there’s a real danger in taking her words at face value).
    For another story, check out the story about Ulrich in the chronicle of higher education(Harvard professor, mormon, who carved out a career for herself). Ulrich apparently coined the phrase “well behaved women do not make history.” She used it to introduce scholarly work on the well-behaved women, who she felt had important stories to tell (historically). The phrase has been used by feminists, and the Ulrich article talks about how Ulrich is a “well-behaved woman” who has made her mark, at least in the esoteric world where being a Harvard prof is a mark
    My own mother is a “well-behaved woman” who went to school in India. Comparing the opportunities that were available to her and to my father is a striking contrast. Ostensibly, they had the same opportunities. But, in order to continue past the 8th grade, both had to leave their small villages to larger towns. My father bunked outside one of his uncle’s houses to continue his education. My mother stopped at the 8th grade because she (a young girl, in India) didn’t feel comfortable staying with a strange family. Choices, yes, but also one’s that were skewed and influenced by their gender.


  6. I brought up the case of Evelyn Ryan only to illustrate the fact that women who stay at home and appear to not employed, often do find ways to earn money. Some are working off the books or writing poems or starting a business or whatever. Employment isn’t a yes/no sort of thing.
    My mother’s father was an abusive drunk, unlike the happy drunks on my dad’s side of the family. The whole family would have cheered if my grandmother had ever had the strength to leave my grandfather, since they had to shelter the kids during his worst rages. But grandma got married when she was 17, had three kids, no education. She couldn’t have supported a family, unlike my dad’s mother who had a finishing school degree. Different personalities, too. A no-fault divorce wouldn’t have helped her. She wasn’t strong in the independence sort of way; she was strong in the enduring pain sort of way. It was bad and my mom still has the emotional scars from it all.
    What do we do about the Evelyn Ryans and my grandmother? Do we write them off for sticking it out as the wife of a drunk and for not being modern women? I think we can curse their lack of choices and curse the oppressors in their lives AND still admire the women for not crumbling under adversity.


  7. Yeah, Laura, but should they be our role models? I hope not.
    The thing is, all of the at-home, part-time, freelance kind of work is cool if it’s what a woman wants to be doing at a particular time.
    It’s not all right if the woman is opting out because the American workplace and education system is structured in a way that makes raising kids and holding down a meaningful job utterly incompatible.


  8. They can be our role models not because they sucked up and stayed with asshole men. We have many more options today then they did the past. But they can be our role models for remaining strong and creative, during other crises. Certainly our modern lives aren’t free from bad times. Steve and I have had to live through poverty, dissertations, and childhood disability. Who knows what else will come our way?
    I do think that the American workplace and education system are incompatible with the two career family (in most circumstances) and women are often forced to find some creative/untraditional ways to work. I am not saying it’s a good or bad thing, just a fact of life. And it makes the whole opting out numbers debate very confusing. I’m not sure if you should be counted as opting out, if you are working in one of these nontraditional ways.


  9. OK, but if the “opting out” numbers are being used to point to the fact that the system isn’t working, then shouldn’t they/we be counted?
    My mental image for where I am is professionally treading water. My career isn’t moving ahead, but I haven’t let it sink to the bottom of the pool either.
    I also sometimes say that I’m keeping it on life support until it can be fully resuscitated.


  10. Those opt-out numbers are being used for many purposes. Sometimes they are used to show what losers we are, ala Hirshman.
    I’m in a treading water mode, too. I’ve either been adjuncting or writing papers for four years now, but nothing full time. This fall, I’m adjuncting at a school that’s just perfect for me and they have a full time position opening up soon. They said that I’ll be in the running for the job. Hopefully, Ian will be doing well enough by that time, so I’ll be able to take it. So, maybe treading water isn’t really opting out.
    Oh, another reason why this Evelyn Ryan is a role model is that she manages with TEN kids to get some work done. If she can do it, I should be able with only two kids.
    I think that the reason that the Defiance, Ohio book works is that Terry Ryan is not a conservative. She doesn’t romanticize her mother’s life. She wishes her mother would have had more opportunities and been freed from the drunk husband. She isn’t looking back at a more perfect past.
    I really did think it was a good read.


  11. I think that the reason that the Defiance, Ohio book works is that Terry Ryan is not a conservative. She doesn’t romanticize her mother’s life. She wishes her mother would have had more opportunities and been freed from the drunk husband. She isn’t looking back at a more perfect past.
    I agree. And Terry’s love and admiration for her mother shines through the pages.
    I have on order from Amazon another book, by Haven Kimmel, called “She Got Up Off The Couch” and it’s another story of a mother triumphing over crummy circumstances. In Kimmel’s case, her mother pulls herself somehow out of a severe depression to go back to college and eventually get her teaching credential.
    While it’s true that no-fault divorce may not have been able to get Evelyn Ryan out of her marriage, the fact is that the feminist movement has put into place many things that enable women to leave bad marriages – access to education and decent jobs, women can get credit in their own names, etc. Also, there is less of a feeling that a man has the “right” to be “master in his house.” That was part of the worst of the 1950’s. I think someone like Leo Ryan would be much more looked-down upon today as a bad person, rather than the “well, a man’s home IS his castle” type of tolerance that was around in the 1950’s.
    A great non-fiction book on the 1950’s is by Stephanie Coontz, “The Way We Never Were.”


  12. “Oh, another reason why this Evelyn Ryan is a role model is that she manages with TEN kids to get some work done. If she can do it, I should be able with only two kids.”
    I’m currently in grading hell so can’t do my usual Google/checking out thing, but does she explain *how* she did this? I mean, Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children and wrote many books as a stay at home mom with a minister husband, but she did it in part because she had a “wife”–live-in child care, and she took “the rest cure” every so often.
    With 10 kids in the family, Ryan may have used her children as child care (reminding me a little of James McBride’s family). That wouldn’t be as feasible for you with your children and their ages/age differences.
    I don’t know–I’m just procrastinating here. 🙂


  13. Sorry, but having more kids won’t make it easier. HOWEVER, if your experience is like my mother’s (I’m one of 9 children), it wouldn’t make it much harder either. She says that after 3, it didn’t get any busier.


  14. Didya see Dooce’s solution?
    We spent a year in Surrey, just south of London, when #2-Son (the autistic) was turning one. I had a lot of fun trying to explain to a El-Lay-born, autistic, 11-month-old that even though yes, the sun was waking up, it really wasn’t his wake-up time yet and Mum would really appreciate it if he’d go back to sleep or even just lay quietly until, oh, say FIVE A.M.
    BTW, for the less-than-geographically-inclined, London is on the same latitude as Bangor, Maine. I was infinitely glad we hadn’t moved to Edinburgh!


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