Sunday, March 19, 2006

Book Review - The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?

This week's book review is The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? by Miriam Peskowitz.

I'm way behind on this one. Elizabeth at Half Changed World reviewed this nearly a year ago, and Rebel Dad has been trying to googlebomb the term "Mommy Wars" to this book as he is convinced it is the only sensible commentary on the topic.

I was really looking forward to this book, as I had read a lot about it (all favourable) about it when it was first published. And really, it is far more sensible than most, because it talks about how the real issue is how difficult it is to raise children in an environment where the workplace just doesn't believe in the family's existence (except as a photo on someone's desk).

The book weaves anecdotes with the many women (and some men) Peskowitz interviewed about how they were raising their children, and combining that with the need for a family income. There are as many solutions as there are families, but nearly all of them suffer from the difficulty of combining work with a family in any meaningful way. I really enjoyed the book - it was an easy read, and it was nice to read something that I mostly agreed with. And it was great to read something that didn't just assume that work and family issues are only about upper-class New Yorkers and whether they drop out of the workforce. And yet...

I read this immediately after reviewing Kidding Ourselves, by Rhona Mahoney. And, for me, it suffered by comparison. It was covering similar ground, but Mahoney's book was chock full of statistics, with a bit of anecdote, while Peskowitz's book was all about the anecdote. It's unfair of me to criticize it for that - that's how she set out to write the book, and she interviewed a lot of people from all different races and classes (in the US of course, but you can't have everything!). But still. I'm an actuary. I like statistics.

For me the book suffered also from what felt like an airy conclusion that the workplace needs to change to make it more family friendly, and part-time work more feasible for all kinds of jobs, without really giving any kind of concrete way in which that will happen, except for really US-specific things like making health care not so dependent on full-time jobs. From a country like the US where there isn't a lot (legally) different between part-time and full-time jobs, just how many hours you choose to work, I think it's easy to be seduced into the idea that part-time jobs will magically appear once you remove the obvious barriers.

It's not that easy - the way in which professional (which is a broader and broader category these days) work has changed in the last 30-odd years in ways that make it less family-friendly, but the reason is not just an unreasonable conspiracy against the family. Some of the changes involve the greater proportion of workers who are "knowledge workers" - the more you can engage their brain and keep them thinking about work every waking moment (preferably at the office, but even at home), the more productive they are.

I would love to work in a more family-friendly world (and the average Australian workplace is more family friendly than the US, at least in a legislative sense, if not in actual flexibility), but too many of the articles and books I read about this topic seem to think that if we ask for it enough we will just get it.

I found Better than Sex - how a whole generation got hooked on work, which is much more of a business book, to be a more interesting exposition of how we got into such a family unfriendly place. It doesn't have solutions either, but it does acknowledge some of the problems - the reasons that employers find it easier to employ people who will put their life and soul into a job and don't have a life outside the office. You have to acknowledge these issues to fix them.

But back to the "mommy wars" - the main point of this book is that the "mommy wars"* should really be defined as parents against the workplace - what creates the animosity is the sheer difficulty of being a parent, seeing your children, and anyone in the household having a job that demands your life without giving anything back. And it's a point that needs to be made often, so I'm very glad this book was written.

*actually even the name says that this war is about the US - I've found it very hard to write "mommy" numerous times in this post


At 9:02 am, Blogger Elizabeth said...

The "better than sex" book sounds interesting, but doesn't seem to have been published in the US


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