Loneliest Job in the U.S.: Motherhood

May 5, 2006

I hate to pile on the wet blankets, but that’s what happens when you are on the rag and reading books about the state of motherhood today. Heh!

Amy brought up a good point about how U.S. women are expected to tackle it all. I know I feel guilty about hiring a nanny 15 hours a week because it somehow implies that I couldn’t “cut it” with all my duties — even though both my mother-in-law and parents are 3,000 miles away and my husband travels often for business.

But there is another phenomenon contributing to the isolation of American mothers: the separation of generations. Lakshmi Chaudhry, a native of India and columnist at AlterNet.org, wrote a compelling essay for Maybe Baby (I am loving this book!) about why she is reluctant to have children in the U.S.:

In India, children are everywhere. There is no escaping the crying babies in the movie theater, the toddlers stumbling around the French bistro, the clutch of high-decibel kids playing on your street in the evening. And everyone — surly teenagers, hip singles, and crabby senior citizens included — is happy to have them around. Take your baby to a party in India — or to an all-Indian get-together in Silicon Valley, for that matter — and the chances are you won’t see her until the end of the evening, as she’s passed from one doting stranger to another.

Raising children in America seemed so daunting to me because of all the barriers between the adult world and the children world. Sitting at my favorite restaurant in San Francisco one evening, I noticed that there wasn’t a toddler in sight.

She, too, addressed the fact that American women are expected to do it all — alone.

No, I didn’t remember motherhood as drudgery in India because it wasn’t — at least not for educated, middle-class women. The extended-family network made child-rearing a shared responsibility. My sister-in-law, Dharini, a manager at a clothing company, happily went back to work six months after giving birth to my niece twenty years ago — long before a full-blown career became a legitimate goal for middle-class Indian women. Every morning, she handed off my niece to the maid, who would then tend to Shivani and her own two-year-old until noon. My mother and grandmother would hold down the fort until I got back from school in the afternoon. Then the baby was in my charge until her parents returned in the evening.

Of course, there is always the risk of locking horns with family members you don’t like. But Chaudhry — who, by the way, used to work with me at Wired News — cast a spotlight on a barrier preventing mothers from having lives. Because Americans are so meticulous about drawing “no children” zones, mothers are restricted from going to the movies or a nice restaurant. Unless she has the money to hire a sitter or is resigned to spending her meal hushing her kid rather than eating. I admit, that even when I bring my son to a kid’s movie, I worry that we will offend a childless couple.

What a difference from El Salvador where we visit my mother-in-law. Kids are milling about restaurants, parties, the mall, anyplace where people go to have fun. As for attending a late-night concert or dancing at a nightclub, we feel no qualms about leaving Ari with housekeepers — who are like mothers to Markos — and have been with his family for decades. We always pay them though, despite their protestations.  

Markos and I used to joke how you could blindfold us and we would be able to tell a Salvadoran airline from an American flight. Our return trip home on Taca Airlines is always marked by the smell of fried chicken — Salvadorans love their Pollo Campero, boxes and boxes of it! — and screaming children, lots of them. But you know what? Even when we didn’t have Ari, we didn’t care. It just seemed natural that parents would want to come up for air every once in a while.