Friday, September 18, 2009

Lack of Choices

This blog is all about choices. And like most women my age, I assumed that when I had children, all my options would still be open. That it was just a matter of making the "right" choices. Even though I was a latchkey kid myself, it never occurred to me that the fault might be with the system. When I was in college, the biggest protest on my Atlanta campus was to protest the raising of the drinking age. At the time, I secretly agreed with the legislation, seeing how many kids drank themselves sick, or a few, to death. I couldn't hook into the Sandinsta/Contra debate. ERA was a dead horse and besides, it wasn't needed any more. When my sister-in-law had a baby 18 years ago and didn't go back to work, I assumed that it was because she had a difficult child. A few years later, a friend became very involved in the National Association of Mothers' Centers, after being frustrated at the lack of opportunities available to her that afforded her the ability to work and parent at the same time. It was still years before I had my own children when she told me that it wasn't possible to have it all. "I'll do it," I thought smugly to myself. After all, I'd succeeded at everything else, why not this?

Then I had kids. Twins. My mother lived in Florida. My mother-in-law was close by and very willing to help, but she was in her 70's. And my husband started working 11-hour days. I was lucky, because at least we had the resources to hire a nanny. And still, I was frustrated. I was exhausted. For the first five months, I never slept more than two hours at a stretch. The first three years are a complete blur. I know I did some writing and worked on a few short films, but other than that, I don't remember much. I'd had friends who lost all ambition for anything but mothering when their kids were born, but the opposite happened to me. I wanted to do more, be more, have something to show the kids for my life. Not to mention that my film life feeds me emotionally and mentally. But guilt set in at the same time - am I a good mother if I still want to make films? How do I reconcile wanting kids so desperately with wanting to make films just as desperately? Especially as both are basically 24/7 jobs. I looked for other women who still made art after kids. I lost touch with most of them. People asked why I cared about continuing to make art. I didn't need to work, I could afford to stay home with my kids, shouldn't that be enough?

And that is why Judith Warner's book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety was such a revelation to me. My husband gave it to me several years ago, and I only recently picked it up. I haven't quite finished it, but the opening premise, that motherhood in America is madness struck a chord with me. My husband has relatives in France and I've talked with them about family leave policy, childcare options and listened awestruck as one cousin explained that she had the right to be out of work for three years and go back to the same or similar position in her company. Three years! Another cousin said how when she was working on a film, she was able to leave her late-life baby in a creche (nursery) until 11:00 p.m. to finish her editing. And this is a woman devoted to her child. The two things did not seem contradictory at all to her. But it didn't click until I read this book, probably, because at the time I was talking to these French relatives, I still didn't have kids of my own.

Now, I look back, and ask myself, "Why don't we have even a fraction of these supports?" "Why don't we demand these rights for ourselves?" We, as mothers, will never truly have choices until there are supports in place which would allow a woman to work and not worry about whether or not she has adequate care for her children. Not to mention the women who need to work, and have the same difficulty finding adequate care. Or can't keep a job because their child gets sick once too often. I haven't finished the book, so I'm not sure what Judith Warner proposes, but I know it's time for me to get more involved. And one organization I'll be taking a closer look at is MomsRising. And oddly enough, my current film project, "In Montauk", is about a pregnant photographer who tries to have it all and winds up dead for her efforts. I guess my work and my life aren't so separate after all.