Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mr. Feminist

When we found out that our baby was going to be a girl, one of my colleagues at work said, “Oh good, you can raise a little feminist.” Then she looked at me, paused, and added, “not that you couldn’t raise a boy to be a feminist as well.”

I work for an academic journal called Feminist Economics. People are often surprised that I can, as a male, even work for a feminist publication. They imagine that feminists always want women-only spaces. Then people ask what feminist economics is. A feminist stance on reproductive rights or domestic abuse, a feminist reading of a novel, or a feminist critique of magazine advertisements – people are accustomed to these sorts of feminism. But feminist economics, why would feminism matter in a world of graphs, charts, and statistical models?

Feminist economists look at all kinds of issues like women’s participation in the labor force, pay gaps, wealth gaps, marriage law, inheritance law, unpaid work, childcare, eldercare, and informal labor that are often ignored by mainstream economics. They question mainstream assumptions which are collectively termed homo economicus or the economic man. They contribute to groundbreaking models for understanding poverty, globalization, diseases, and trade. And they try to use this understanding to improve the lives of men, women, and children through public policy efforts like gender mainstreaming.

I’m not a feminist economist myself, I work on the publishing side in the editorial office. The first issue of the journal that I helped edit was a special issue on lone mothers. The cross-country comparisons were the most eye-opening. Once you see how much state support can help parents and children, the situation in the US seems immoral. The numbers are really compelling. Access to childcare, paid maternity and paternity leave, and welfare can mean the difference between well-being and poverty. Yet generous state-mandated maternity leave, like in Scandinavia, can lead to really low rates of working women and discriminatory hiring practices. That issue taught me how profoundly parenting is shaped by social norms and laws.

What I have noticed in many of the parenting magazines and parenting books is that they focus exclusively on how to raise a healthy baby. The parents’ well-being is usually in terms of the baby. You need to take care of yourself to take good care of the baby. Yeah, MaGreen and I are consumed by the desire to raise our baby well in a nontoxic environment. But I want to be vigilant about falling into patriarchal traps. Being stuck at home without the engagement and financial security of work can be bad for mothers. Working all the time and becoming emotionally distant isn’t great for partners either. I don’t want to be trapped into the male-breadwinner, female-caregiver model. And I don't want to be trapped in the relentless life of the two-income, baby-raised-by-a-nanny-from-Panama-whose-own-children-are-growing-up-without-a-mother model either. I have hope, but I'm not sure what we will do.


Laura said...

Raj, you totally rock my world. This is an awesome post.

cake said...

i'd like to have more discussions about these issues. when we talk about women being kept out of the workforce (in order to stay home and raise kids, for instance), shouldn't we also be questioning what the workforce really is? since i became pregnant, and even more so, now that Cosmo is here in my life full time, i can't think of anything that is more important than caring for him. i do not want to turn over the care of him to someone else. it makes no sense to me. this is the most important project of my life. this is the way in which i, as a feminist, as a peace activist, as an a person who cares about social justice and human rights...this is the way in which i can make the biggest impact on the world...or at least it is a very important way, and it deserves my attention. raising a person who knows how to love and who can be sensitve, caring and care-ful...i think this is very improtant work. this world is full of fucked up people, and we get that way from our childhood experiences. now, i am not blaming mothers for the state of the world, but i am blaming a society that does not value the care of children, and the kind of attention that they require, especially in the early years.

I personally want to raise my child, i do not want him to be raised by other people. furthermore, i cannot afford to pay other people to raise my child. however, i also cannot afford to stay home and raise my child. so what am i supposed to do, as a single mother? i have education, i can get a better paying job so that i can afford childcare...but what is the cost of that choice, really? more than likely the job will be more demanding and stressful, and will affect our relationship significantly. Plus, Cosmo will be spending most of his day with other people. I don't want this.

i am looking for a way to earn enough money doing something that does not require me to put cosmo in the care of other people. stay-at-home-mothering is something i used to scoff at as a radical feminist. my how things change. i resent the fact that none of the choices available to most working class women or poor women make sense for our lives.

and yet, in so many ways, i am so privileged...
ok. that is my rant.
thanks for raising these important issues.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks "Cake" for your rant. One of the most prominent feminist economists who works on the issue of childcare is Nancy Folbre. I haven't read all of her work closely yet, but one of the areas she writes about is the valuation of the work of raising children, which is usually done by women. She has a book called The Invisible Hand, which reviews and contributes to the literature on how the economy as measured by the GDP is basically underwritten by the free labor of women raising children. As you pointed out, it's not just the economy but our whole social structure that is built by unpaid parenting. Once that is acknowledged, the question of what to do isn't clear.