Excerpt From Jan. 17 Newsletter

Here’s an excerpt from my latest newsletter. Please subscribe, folks!

It’s January Jersey. Which means the sky is a greige color that all the designers are putting on their walls.

I know all about griege, because we’re in the middle of a painting project at home. Between being grounded in the house with various medical testing for Ian and a dull spot in between writing projects, I have some time on my hand. I decided that it was time to rent a steamer from Home Depot and tackle the last two rooms in our home that still had the previous owner’s wallpaper on the walls.

So, our bedroom furniture is covered with plastic tarps, and my office is inhospitable, until we can finish the job. When we embarked on this plan, I expected to finish off in a week or two. In reality, we are still a month of weekends away from applying any paint — griege or otherwise – on the walls. 

I have a writing topic on hold. The topic is all approved by an editor, but we’re just waiting for one of the presidential candidates to bring up a specific education topic. The candidate is not cooperating, so I’ve done a little background research and am just waiting. And catching up with my other job, which is housewifery. 

I never planned on being a stay at home parent, who works gigs on the side. I planned on having a prestigious job in the university or a policy think tank. That’s why I wasted most of my twenties in graduate school and finished the PhD. But here am I. Drinking rosé with the soccer moms and spinning away the muffin tops on Monday mornings. 

On most days, that’s just fine. I have time to paint walls, check in on my mom, make sure the college kid has filled out the right forms for next year’s dorm assignments, attend IEP meetings, talk with the lawyer about the guardianship papers, and arrange appointments with a contractor who has to fix the hole in the foundation by the garage. 

Other days, I get impatient with my situation. Freelancers don’t get the choice assignments or get paid very well. I miss teaching college classes, even six years later; though I don’t miss grading papers, which always sucked. I miss the identity of a full time job. 

As a neurotic progressive, I also feel guilty. Others don’t have the option to have a flexible job. I’m able to support my kids, both the special ed and the typical one, so they’re two steps ahead of kids who don’t have a parent like me. Which is totally unfair. In a world that is falling apart, I’m staring at Benjamin Moore paint colors so long that I have actual opinions on Grey Owl grey versus Metropolitan grey. I should be out there in the thick of things, making changes, instead of looking at Pinterest boards. 

I handle the guilt by writing. Writing is a source of guilt, too, because writing is becoming more and more of a rich person’s game; there are fewer and fewer traditional journalism jobs. But it is an effective soap box. I also join local political organizations and progressive parents groups. 

There is a growing parental political movement happening. Parents — okay, mostly women — are showing up at board of ed meetings and state house protests. They’re forming letter writing committees. They’re organizing fundraisers for political candidates. Not all of them are progressive, of course. One group of parents in New Jersey just pushed back against a new vaccination law. Other groups are too focused on changes in our own privileged town, and aren’t advocating for all kids. But there are other parent groups that line up more with my political leanings. 

This situation isn’t getting a lot of attention from the press, because most journalists have full time jobs in the cities. Even the education reporters aren’t showing up to Board of Ed meetings. I am. And so, weirdly enough, being a stay at home parent gives me a professional advantage. Life is funny that way. 

So, on this greige day, I’m working and not working at the same time. At noon, I’ve got a date with Lauren at the hair salon who will make my hair a more uniform red and give me a good Jersey blowout. And we’ll talk. She’ll tell me about her mixed race family and her husband’s contracting hustles. We’ll talk about her middle school son and his struggles in school. I’ll walk out of the salon with sleek red hair and some fodder for half a dozen articles. 

At some point, I’ll figure out how to make more money from all this working and not working, but that’s for another day. 

Having It All, Means Having No Sleep

Helaine Olen writes a great column about Ada Calhoun’s new book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.

…Calhoun’s subject is exhaustion and anxiety, experienced by all too many women who were brought up in the 1970s and 1980s to believe we could somehow “have it all” — domestic harmony and perfection, children and fulfilling, lucrative work that mattered.

It turns out that promise was a fairy tale for the early years of feminism’s second wave. But, as Calhoun recounts, the myth was accompanied by a simultaneous ratcheting up of expectations placed on women, even as government and societal support crumbled. Parenting turned into a vocation, with the result that, even as the number of mothers with jobs has swelled over the decades, mothers of today spend more time with their children than the mothers of 50 years ago. The millions of Gen X women who have given birth in their 30s and 40s have found themselves confronted by the double whammy of needing to care for those children — as the cost of child care has surged — while also caring for older parents. (Let me note here that men, on the other hand, rarely fall for the tripe that they can do it all. Gen Xer Beto O’Rourke claimed his wife, Amy, raised their children “sometimes with my help,” while Andrew Yang, of the same generation, routinely references his wife, Evelyn, “who’s at home with our two boys.”)

My Fitbit measures my sleep. I have never scored higher than a “fair.” Usually, I get a poor. Partially, it’s due to hormones. But when I’m wake up at 2:00am, I find that I’m thinking about the chore list. I’m making lists in my sleep.

I do a lot. I’ve got a various writing projects — some for fun, some for money, some for promotion. I’m managing kids’ issues. Even the college kid still comes with responsibilities, because college has way fewer supports than in the past. It’s terrible to think of our loved ones as ticking time bombs, but our parents will need more help soon.

As Helaine’s article sort of points out, some of this is our fault. Do we really need to putting so much time into parenting? Do we really need cool, but poorly compensated jobs? Why can’t we just admit that we can’t “have it all” and make some compromises?

I still do “want it all” though. I’m not ready to give up yet. So, after an hour of sponging off wallpaper glue off the office walls, mapping out the weekend schedule, and signing up the younger kid for a sports program, I’m heading to the coffee shop to work for a while. All with about five hours of sleep.

Where Women Work and What Unemployed Women Do

The Upshot is one my first reads of the day. Best new section of the New York Times by far. They had two great articles in the past two days. There is so much data to be unpacked. Loves it.

Yesterday’s article was about the differences in time-use studies between unemployed women and men. There’s a lot of info in that chart, but the main take away is that unemployed men are unhealthy, watch a lot of TV, and spend a lot of time looking for a job. Unemployed women spend most of their time caring for others and doing housework. They are healthier than when they worked.

Today, they have a map of where working women are most common. The upper mid-west and New England have the highest proportion of working women.

These numbers are tough to unpack. Are women unemployed, because they live in wealthy communities that support stay-at-home mothers and have spouses with high paying careers? Or are they full time parents, because the obstacles to work are too high? Are they caring for elementary aged children with relative ease or are they caring for multiple aging adults and special needs kids?

If unemployed women have a full range of choices and are financially affluent, then there doesn’t seem to be a problem. Choices were freely and happily made. If unemployed women are facing the same dismal job market as men and can’t afford childcare or eldercare, then there’s a real problem. The fact that the employment of women has a geographic pattern makes me think that childcare policies and job opportunities are major issues. The Upper Midwest and New England have more progressive policies for parents.

The Impact of Low Investment in Family-Friendly Policies

Compared to European countries, the United States has minimal investment in child care programs and maternity leave policies. All this means, that the U.S. has fewer women who stay in the workforce after they have children. That’s not news. What is news is that the percentage of prime aged women in the workforce has declined dramatically in the past few years. “After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.”

The sharpest drop in labor participation is among low skilled, unmarried mothers, but there has also been a dip in higher skilled, married women, too.

It’s hard to work when you have kids. Schools are not set up for working parents. Maternity leave policies are too short. Child care is insanely expensive. If a child has special needs, then the system is even more hostile.

There is no urgency to make reforms in an economy with a 16 percent unemployment rate for men. I think that we’re going to see a lot more small businesses and entrepreneurial work by the higher skilled women in the next decade. Lower skilled women are going to work in the shadows for extremely low wages. Sadly, they are lining up at my dad’s food pantry three hours before opening time in the cold.

All the Single Mothers

In the Atlantic, David Frum explains that abortions rates have gone down and the number of single mothers have risen is because of “the Bristol Palin Effect.” Social conservatives have succeeding in changing American morality about abortion and inadevertantly legitimatized parenthood without marriage. Nearly half of all first births are to unwed mothers. “Single parenthood has become the norm for non-affluent Americans of all races.”

This is the fascinating irony of the pro-life movement. The cause originated as a profoundly socially conservative movement. Yet as it grew, it became less sectarian. Women came to the fore as leaders. It found a new language of concern and compassion, rather than condemnation and control. Most radically and decisively, the movement made its peace with unwed parenthood as the inescapable real-world alternative to abortion.

Given these unexpected outcomes, Frum says that social conservatives have to talk about policy solutions. Wonkbooks has some suggestions.

Egg Freezing as a Dubious Benefit

Last night, the evening news announced that Facebook and Apple were subsidizing the cost of egg freezing for their female employees, and I rolled my eyes. It’s a good thing for many reasons, don’t get me wrong. Younger eggs means less risk for all sorts of disabilities. But really my first thought was that the women in those companies need to have their eggs frozen, because they don’t have a chance to start a family until late in their 40s. The work-life balance must suck at those places.

And sure enough, lots of other women had the same reaction to that story.

The Brutality of Agism

As I reach the pinnacle of my 40s, my conversations with friends and family about jobs has shifted. For many years, it was all about how incredibly difficult it was to manage a new career and a new family. I hear less and less of those conversations.

People who stayed in the workforce are settling down. The professor friends are going to fewer conferences, writing less stuff, have stopped dreaming of better jobs. My friends who don’t have the tenure security blanket are more worried about keeping their jobs, but have also stopped striving for more. If it hasn’t happened yet, it ain’t gonna happen. There’s a brick wall in front of them. My friends who are in fields that are dominated by younger, flashier versions of themselves are actually frightened. Will the young boss fire them?

Then there are my friends, mostly women, but not all, who didn’t follow the traditional career paths. They became the flexible parent. The ones who went to the parent-teacher conferences and the after school music classes. They made sub-optimal career choices or stopped work entirely for a few years. Now, they want back into the wold of work, and their job applications are immediately dumped in a trash can. There’s a thread on my Facebook page about this right now.

I’ve had a terrible cold for the past couple of weeks. There’s nothing like a lingering cold to make you feel old. The kids shook it off in two days, and I’m still hacking up a lung and watching cable TV on the sofa in the evening.

One of things that I’ve been watching on the sofa wrapped in a blanket is the Shark Tank. Five venture capitalists listen to five minute presentations from wannabe millionaires who are looking for cash to fund their protein drink and purse businsesses. One of “sharks” is Barbara Corcoran, the real estate mogul from New York City. Barbara is smart, good looking, rich, and in her 60’s. Her age is a running joke on the show. It’s pretty distasteful.

Seems like such a waste to me. Whole groups of people being discounted and overlooked and insulted. Is 40 the new 65?