Ok, tell me if you think this conversation was as innocent as it seemed at first, or as fraught as I started to think it was an hour or so later:

(K and S are sisters-in-law (of each other, not me) and are both science professors with kids five and under. We went to college together, and we see them about twice a year, including this weekend at the megaplayground.)

K: So is Ingrid in preschool now?

Me: Well, our day care is a lot like a preschool. We found that the schedule and cost of a regular preschool just don't work for us.

K: Oh, I know, they're really set up for families with an at-home parent. Our son had to get dropped off at day care, take the preschool bus to preschool, and carpool back to day care for the rest of the day.

Me: I hope someday our kids will look back on this as the dark ages of work-life balance. The system really isn't set up for the way our lives work these days.

S: I know—it's ridiculous! Schools expect you to volunteer three days a week! I just want to tell them, "I don't have time for that."

K: I volunteered at my son's kindergarten this year. I actually think it's kind of important. I didn't just sit there and stuff envelopes, though. I came in and did science projects.

Me: You're really lucky to have such a flexible schedule. So many working parents don't have that option.

S: [artfully changes the subject]

It was only afterward that I realized how haughty and critical my comment probably sounded (even though I used my innocent, wide-eyed tone), and even later that I realized K's comment kind of irritated me. And then all the unspoken stuff started to seep out. Do ya like how I took the ostensible moral high ground, while actually doing sort of a mommy drive by at the same time? Also, the class assumptions? The implications about what kind of work is worth one's time and what isn't? The assumption that someone else—perhaps a stay at home mom without any scientific skills—will stuff the envelopes? My weird double-consciousness as a part-time working mom with friends in both worlds?

Am I extra enlightened for noticing all this and feeling gross about them, or is all that negated by my grousing publicly about my friends' take on things?

Sheesh. No wonder I'm so exhausted after a weekend of doing nothing but chat.


  1. And here I thought you wanted a clone for a friend ;-)
    I just requested Carl Honore's new book about hyper-parenting. Have you looked at it? LOVE the Siblings book. Must return overdue items before they cut me off....

  2. I vote for extra enlightened. (And also hilarious--not only was all the stuff you mentioned there in the conversation, but the way you described it cracked me up.) The envelope-stuffing comment would have rubbed me the wrong way.

  3. Hmmm, this one hits close to home for me. It is a very interesting post.

    I recently got myself all tangled up in a similar conversation and I think I deeply offended a friend (who is, like me, a WAHM). I was trying to explain how happy I am with my life as a WAHM- yeah, there are conflicts and things I'd like fixed, but I got enough of a taste of the alternative during my maternity leave and the modified schedule I worked afor awhile fter that (I took every other Friday off, and usually kept my daughter home with me on that day) to know that FOR ME, being a working mom is the right thing. And I'm happy with it.

    I think part of the problem is that so many of us hear someone else say that she likes the life she has and think that this means that we have chosen incorrectly in our own lives. But of course, what is right for me may be completely wrong for someone else. This is a given in so many other aspects of our life- no one thinks that the fact that my friend is happy as an attorney is some sort of indictment on my own, differenct career choice- but for some reason, it is not a given in motherhood. Why do we assume that there must be one right way to do it?

    That said, the envelope stuffing comment would probably have raised my eyebrows, too. I now look back on my early education in so-so schools surrounded by kids of vastly different backgrounds and abilities and think that one of the best things it taught me was that no one is above the grunt work. That lesson (learned painfully in 6th grade due to a botched math assignment) has served me very, very well in the working world. However, I also suspect most teachers who are presented with a scientist volunteer would ask for her to do a science demo, not stuff envelopes.

  4. What I wouldn't give for a non-superficial discussion like that! I didn't hear any drive-bys. Just actual talking, sharing ideas.

  5. I think these conversations and subliminal conflicts are inevitable. We're all so intent on doing the best for our families that people on both sides of the fence are bound to feel a bit defensive at times. And I think both sides are entitled to feel that way...