Mama bears unite

Education nowadays is topsy-turvy.

I ran into a friend in a Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday after dropping off my youngest at kindergarten. She asked how I liked the teacher, and we ended up launching into a fiery discussion about the schools. Issue after issue arose, and we resolved to get more involved and have a say by going to school board meetings.

This isn’t the first time the education of my little ones has caused me to rise up in righteous indignation. Before we moved to California, we lived in a small town in the South in which there were a number of problems with the school system in town. One big problem was that of “white flight,” quite honestly. Even though the town was maybe half and half whites and blacks, with a very small sprinkling of other minorities thrown in (which included our family since my husband is Filipino), a huge percentage of the students in the system were black. Now I had no problem with that at all except that things basically had split along economic lines. Many whites and the more educated and better-off-economically blacks had moved to different neighboring towns or the county (which all had separate school systems: don’t get me started on the craziness of that: what a waste of resources), and most families left behind were poor. Again, not a problem in terms of how I viewed them, but it definitely had an impact on the system and how things ran. Before I end up having to write a lengthy discourse on all the issues, let me just cut it short here by saying there were many issues, and I started going to school board meetings and speaking up. I didn’t want to just join in the “white flight”; I wanted to see if I could stay and make things better.

Needless to say, I realized that it was a fight I simply couldn’t fight alone. We ended up moving to California, where we found a great neighborhood to live in and in which the school setup is a much better one, with small neighborhood elementaries that seem to work well. But that doesn’t mean that all is great.

First off, the economy is bad. Like THAT’S a piece of news for everyone. But it certainly has affected our schools. In California, the economy and the schools have been hit particularly hard. What once was a wonderful, thriving system is now scraping by.

I could write a whole doctoral thesis on each of the facets of the larger issue here, but let me just say a few things as I see them.

First, there is no question that the breakdown of the nuclear family has contributed to the difficulties we face in schools today. Divorced and single parents have it harder in terms of trying to parent their kids and be available for them when it comes to schools. The economy has made it incredibly challenging as well. When every parent out there is working and no one is able to stay home even part-time, it makes it difficult to have the parental support needed for great education (volunteering, fund-raising, time just spent teaching children at home casually). Collapse of family structures has led to children not being taught or modeled all the things they need to help them be secure, (somewhat) well-behaved citizens of society. What has happened is that schools (and teachers) are now expected to teach young people EVERYTHING they need to know to be good members of our society. And that is impossible. Historically, families have nurtured and taught children, and schools have simply focused on making sure they know how to read, write, do math, know history and science. Now the schools have to teach citizenship and get kids to learn to behave, when that should have been a priority at home. Again, simplifying here tremendously, but this is the Cliff’s Notes version. Suffice it to say I have heard so many stories from teachers about the issues they have to deal with and what they are expected to do to, basically, parent children. Teachers have never been paid enough for the work they do, and they certainly aren’t paid enough to parent 30 or 100 kids.

Second, I have had to conclude that the more the federal government has tried to get involved, the worse schools’ situations have become. It’s been well-intentioned, I’m sure. But as more and more laws and guidelines have been created and passed down (with badly needed federal dollars attached by a thousand strings), the more hamstrung districts, individual schools, and teachers have become. They’ll do anything to qualify for those federal monies. What infuriated me yesterday was learning that our school system had instituted a new teacher-inservice time that’s incredibly inconvenient for just about anyone (parents and teachers alike, as far as I can tell, and any parents, whether working or stay-at-home) just because having the meeting every Monday morning from 8 to 9 a.m. would allow fewer kids to arrive late to school. Yes, they’d had such problems with students arriving late that the district then could not count the students as present. And an absent child means no money that day from the government. So the district thought, “Hey, we’ll have this meeting at this precise time so kids won’t be late and we’ll get the money.” I can appreciate that in some way, but it just riles me up that 1) the district had to inconvenience everyone with this new stupid plan and 2) the district is in such dire straits and in such desperate need of every penny from the government that they’d have to do this. Again, the government should not have such power over the schools as to cause this kind of stuff to happen.

I could write pages here. But what makes me angry is that as a parent who cares deeply about my children’s education, I have had to put in a ton of time and effort to make sure that it’s a decent one and they’re getting all they need. I shouldn’t have to check up on every little thing or be mightily inconvenienced. Education should be something that I can trust in. But I have to figure out how to squeeze in yet another thing in my already heavily-loaded schedule (which, might I add, is not full because of trips to the spa; it’s loaded with things that benefit my four children, who range in age from high school junior down to kindergartener) to just be sure that crazy things aren’t going on.

Sure, there are definitely places and people who have it worse. Sure, I’m grateful that we have a free country and one in which it’s a priority to provide a free education to all citizens (and non-citizens…). I’m generally glad to participate in the process and do my part to volunteer. But my mama-bear instincts sometimes make my claws come out when I find out about all the problems that exist.

I don’t know for sure how to solve the problems. I know one solution would be to strengthen families. But that’s certainly a big one, isn’t it? Another is to get the federal government less involved in education and cut a lot of the strings tying funding to a ton of regulations. I’ve learned that No Child Left Behind has flopped. There are still tons of children being left behind. More testing of students, more teachers being judged by frankly meaningless numbers, and more oversight by big government isn’t going to fix anything. It’s just made things worse.

Yep, this mama bear is super-busy already. But now I’m going to figure out how to find some time to get even more involved. I wish it were possible for more people to do the same.

Ann Romney and moms who ‘don’t work’

Well, the latest crazy statement by a political commentator has made its way through the blogosphere today. Since it is such an integral part of my life, I feel compelled to comment.

Here’s the basic info: Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, said Ann Romney wasn’t qualified to talk about women struggling in the economic downturn because she “hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Naturally, this opinion has ignited the ire of many women, stay-at-home moms or not. Rosen made this comment while trying to make the point that because Ann Romney hasn’t held a job in the paying workplace, she can’t be qualified to have an opinion about economic issues that affect women, and can’t be a useful advisor to her husband. First, I must point out that it isn’t necessary to be the one in the family holding down a paying job to be concerned about how the economy is going and how it affects your family, no matter how much money your primary wage-earner makes. Second, and the real ignition for the fire, the comment then belies Rosen’s derisive attitude toward women who choose to stay home to raise their children.

I always find it a little absurd that women who are generally of a liberal slant, who shout about the need for women to be able to “choose,” such as about their own reproductive lives, then turn up their noses at women who make a different choice than they would in family matters. “Choice” implies that there are varied options available, and that it is an individual’s right and privilege to decide among those very different options. It also implies that any of those options are ones that should be respected by others. But in our society today, if a woman chooses an option that others frown on, that woman is often derided and called “old-fashioned.”

I am a mother of four, and my daughters’ ages are in a wide range, almost 16 down to nearly 5. I have two teenagers, an elementary schooler and a preschooler. They have very different needs and schedules and temperaments. I chose from the beginning of my reproductive life to be a mother who would stay at home with her children, and I have held to that. Over the course of 16 years, I have worked part-time out of the home (15 or 20 hours at the very most) for perhaps 3 years total, when financial realities have indicated that my income would be necessary. Right now, I work from my home office on the computer for pay for maybe 5 hours a week. The opportunity to copy edit online has been quite welcome, has added a little extra income, and has kept my skills fresh. I feel blessed not to have to leave the house to do it. I also have various projects I do in the hopes of earning pay from them in the future and/or because they are intellectually and creatively stimulating and satisfying. I also feel blessed that I have the freedom to be able to pursue these projects.

There is no doubt that our economy right now has forced many families, two-parent or otherwise, to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise have made. Both parents might have to work outside the home; single parents have to work. Wives may work and laid-off husbands stay home with the kids while they continue to search for employment again. It’s not a happy time. Even in brighter economic times, families made decisions that were either “modern” or more “old-fashioned,” according to their needs and wants and interests. Sure, I’d like to see more women able to stay home with their children, at least not working out of the home 40 hours a week, because I personally believe it benefits the kids when that situation is possible. But I know how it feels to just be home with the kids ALL THE TIME. Getting out of the house to a job where you’re appreciated, patted on the back, given breaks and more immediate gratification than a 20-year-long project is definitely an enticing prospect. And a paycheck? It can mean college tuition for your kids, a car that isn’t 15 years old and in the shop every other week, or just a reflection of a job well done that other people in society relate to and recognize. But mothering at home full time? No paycheck, no regular gratification, no guaranteed breaks, no good reason to put on a nice blouse and makeup.

But we still live in a society in which women are just not that great at respecting each other’s choices. Hilary Rosen is just a case in point. Why can’t we just admit to ourselves that we’re all very different and have very different backgrounds, life experiences, needs and wants, abilities, interests, weaknesses, and capacities? Whether we as women are married or not, have children or not, we are going to see the world in very different ways. We also aren’t just polarized to one “side” or the other: we might be working full time but wanting to stay at home; we might be staying at home with kids but really wanting to get out into the workforce. Or we might be working outside the home part-time or working from our home offices. There are a variety of flexible options available so we don’t have to be “one side” or the other: full-time workers or full-time stay-at-homes. (At the same time, our society definitely needs to figure out ways to make more truly flexible options available to both women and men to support families and children.) So we can’t expect everyone to make the exact same choices we do.

I know it took me ages to get used to being the mother of an infant, then a toddler and an infant and then more. It just made me crazy to be at home 24/7 with a very demanding little human being. I wanted to get out and work, do something for me. Even now, the demands of a home and husband and four daughters of varying ages can at times be super-stressful and overwhelming. And my own expectations of what I’d like for my daughters, what I’d like to be able to do for them, are usually more than I’m possibly capable of fulfilling because of time and energy limitations. I can’t possibly be in the high school band boosters and the elementary school PTA and the middle-school PTA and work from home and do my projects and volunteer in church and be in charge of other things and write a book and make muffins every day for breakfast and four-course meals for dinner and shop for food and clothes and do laundry and clean. I can’t be two places at once, which sometimes comes up with four kids. Choices must be made, and they’re rarely easy ones. It’s all about balance and constantly reprioritizing and rebalancing.

At the same time, despite how different we all are, I know that any mother, working outside the home for any number of hours or not, faces similar concerns and struggles to keep balanced, to keep all her balls in the air. So why in the world should we criticize and demean and make nasty comments, rather than using those energies to support each other in our choices and figure out ways to make our society better for everyone? Let’s let “choice” mean something.