How the 'Having It All' Debate Has Changed Over the Last 30 Years

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A new grandmother catches a glimpse of what parenting looks like today.

fallows_jacktime_post.pngDeborah Fallows

I recently cleared my calendar for nearly a month, deleting it all: work, meetings, appointments, dinners, movies, and even workouts at the gym. It felt at once liberating and luxurious, and a little bit scary. I had done this a few times before, twice for much longer times when our sons were born and once for a sad, open-ended time when my father was dying.

This would be a happy time. Our son and daughter-in-law had arranged to bring their first-born across the country for two separate two-week visits. They would both have work; could I take care of Jack? "He's really active for a one-year-old!" warned our son. "You forget I raised you and your brother at the same time," I replied.

Grandparental leave, I thought, and I leapt at the chance.

I spent lots and lots of at-home time raising kids some 30 years ago. That was during the very first wave of honest discussion of home vs. work. I planted my stake then with an article in The Washington Monthly called "Mothers and Other Strangers," which was bannered on the cover as "The Myth of the Superwoman," followed by a book, A Mother's Work. I argued that raising children full-time was a legitimate choice, not a capitulation to falling short or failure, and that no matter which road women took, there would be costs to pay. (And yes, yes, I did talk about the luxury of having a choice.)

From my book in 1985:

My desires and feelings about the way I should raise children and be a mother suddenly seemed to place me at sharp, and unnecessary, odds with the women's movement, whose campaigns to offer women the chance for stronger and more independent lives were, along with the civil rights movements, the most important social developments of my lifetime. I thought of the women's movement as my friend, and still do; yet its positions on motherhood and child rearing made it seem as if I would be failing the movement if I took the steps I thought necessary to care for my children.

A torrent of response followed. The mailman delivered bins and bins of typed or handwritten heartfelt letters, an image that now rings as quaint compared with the barrage of easy, instant digital responses. I was embraced or vilified, quietly and publicly, more or less equally, by both sides.

Time marches along, but witness the response to recent articles around the theme of "Can women have it all?" The topic fans a firestorm. In fundamental ways, the debates are familiar: women, work, children, dads, time, balance. But it also seems to me that the emphasis has changed. It used to focus more on "What does this mean to the kids?" and now it is, "What does this mean to women's careers?"

Much now said and done, I do not regret a moment I spent raising our children. Not a moment. Well, OK, there was a learning curve and there were those times; I have sometimes regretted missing a professional career with a clean trajectory and recognized milestones. Instead, I cobbled together an eclectic (and interesting!) career of linguistics, writing, Internet technology, and academia.

So, that history established, you can imagine that I was very interested to time-travel and try out modern life with children. Here's what I learned, in three parts: the sociologically interesting, the surprising, and the highly improved.

Dads. I should have seen this one coming. There was no missing the appearance of more young dads with kids at the playgrounds, in the grocery stores, on mid-day outings, or the announcements of paternal leave and dads' support groups over the last generation. But old habits die hard, and when I was laying in supplies for the baby visit, I unthinkingly asked our son to ask our daughter-in-law what size diapers and what kind of bottles I should get. Without missing a beat, he replied, "Size 3 Pampers Swaddlers and Medela bottles."

My first reaction was: a misstep by me. My second reaction was: He's a good dad. Later, I even indulged the idea that maybe something about our sons' own upbringing had rubbed off on them. My husband, a writer, has primarily worked from home. He saw, heard, and, to a much greater degree than most fathers of our generation, was part of the everyday scramble of life with kids. The lucky break of the workstyle of his profession allowed a participation in and empathetic appreciation of family life that is, I think, a version of what many young families aim toward today. Something has changed demonstrably in the functioning of modern young two-parent families: Both parents are there in the elemental sense of the word. Finally.

Language. One of the things I love about my academic training in linguistics is that knowing about language often pops up as something useful or revealing. Here's what took me by surprise in this case as I strolled around our neighborhood: Moms and babysitters and nannies, who used to push strollers in pairs and chat between themselves, now push strollers alone and talk into mid-air. Cell phone conversations are prevalent in the stroller-pushing set, and they change the nature of the language and linguistic interaction that babies hear and experience. Just listen to normal "parentese" and you hear slow talk, long drawn-out vowels, repetition, high pitch, simple grammar, and lots of inflection. Many of these elements help babies learn language. This is not cell-phone chatter, which is one-sided, disengaged, truncated, and begs for context to make any sense. That doesn't help babies much. Even two-way conversations between adults, while different from one-on-one talk with small children, offer a relative wealth of information about body language, style, engagement, reinforcement, etc. that are missing in one-sided cell-phone talk.

I don't want to make too much of this; after all, how much of babies' or small children's time is spent in the company of an adult who is in phantom conversation? Nonetheless, it is something to notice. One way of taking a walk with a baby is akin to turning on the TV or background music—it provides relief for the caretaker and some form of distraction or engagement for the child. Another way of taking a walk is to talk to her about the world around her—the planes flying overhead; the raindrops shaking loose from the trees; the bumpy ride along the sidewalk; the shadows from the clouds; the trucks, dogs, other strollers, joggers, workmen, bikes, and on and on.

Technology. A quick catalogue of support, gear, and technology for daily life with kids. Please try to remember or imagine the day without the riches of Internet, recording systems, DVD players, or videos-on-demand (although there was a balcony level crying room for babies-and-parents at our local theater, which has since become a CVS pharmacy). Back then, collapsible strollers occasionally collapsed onto children, particularly when traversing sidewalk curbs, and there were no changing tables in public places. Recommendations came solely by word-of-mouth for kid-friendly places to meet, products to purchase, and childcare, as did advice on behavior, activities, hormones, moods, doctors, etc. That is the world today's young parents were raised in, even if they don't remember.

The accumulation of changes is staggering. I found that once I had mastered the array of snaps, levers, buttons, straps, and assembly routines, the total effect made for a much easier and more versatile texture of everyday life with children. My personal favorite is improved diaper effectiveness. I can imagine how digital resources, which have transformed my adult life, would transform life as a parent.

Two final lessons learned. The first was trivial but fun: I didn't need to worry about missing the gym classes. Tending a one-year-old is a total-body workout and bonus weight-loss program. It builds strong biceps and quads, and it melts away 2 pounds per week. Guaranteed.

The second was delightful: Occasionally in life, the chance to experience something essential and exquisite comes along. For me, this time with Jack was one of them. Time stopped and everything else was eclipsed.

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Deborah Fallows is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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