Friday, October 3, 2008

What we did right without knowing it, Part II (aka Accidental Economic Advantages)

Along with putting the slightly more communicative of us on the less traveled parenting path (i.e. me as the non-bio-mom, see Part I), another thing we did right without knowing it, was to have the mom with the most economic power bear the child.

In a straight family in which mom gives birth, mom is pulled towards primary care-taking due to both economic pressures and biological pressures (and a whole lot of socialization). Women still make less money in general than men, and women tend to marry men who will be "good providers." Thus, even if a straight couple heads into parenting with ideals of sharing parenting equally (and there are studies that show many modern parents often intend just this), countering both an economic gradient that values a men's work more, and a biological gradient in which women understandably take on the work of pregnancy and nursing, and thus become experts in baby care early on, most straight families fall into a traditional division of labor (Lisa Belkin's NYtimes Magazine article on Shared Parenting sums up some of this nicely).

In our case, the biological pressures pushed Gail towards care-taking, but the economic pressures pushed me towards care-taking. I was still in grad school, but was through courses and on research support. I needed to write my thesis, but that can be pretty amazingly flexible, and no one really cares if you need to add a year to grad school anyway in my corner of academics, so it made economic sense for me to bear a lot of the care-taking burden once Gail headed back to work, to her nice, real job with benefits. As a result, I got LOTS of time with Leigh. We seriously bonded. Really fast. Because I was with her a lot. I quickly caught up to Gail's slight head start due to pregnancy and nursing (and to be clear, I was "behind" while Gail was home. I hadn't realized how much I was deferring to her until she wasn't in the house anymore during the day, which is not to say it wasn't wonderful that we were all home together for a time). It would have taken much longer to get to a point where we were both competent caretakers, who really felt like parents, without my having that extended one-on-one time. Not impossible, mind you. Just not as fast, and not as likely. That counterbalancing of "gradients" (economic and biological) pulling towards care-taking, ended up pulling us exactly to the middle. We are able to truly share Leigh's care, and love doing it. Now we wouldn't have it any other way, but I'm not sure that would have happened if I had headed back to work immediately after the birth, or if I hadn't stood up for my own role as Leigh's mom, and requested leave time and flexibility in working arrangement from my advisor.

As a result of this experience, one of our biggest pieces of advice (should anyone ask...and sometimes they do...) to both queer and straight parents who want to truly share parenting is for the non-birthing parent to take a SOLO parental leave, even if it means a financial sacrifice, and even if it is frowned upon at work. Many companies have paternity or parental leave policies that are simply never used by dads or other non-birthing parents. For a two-mom family, where the legal situation is more precarious, if you are in a state with second-parent-adoption, non-bio-mom is entitled to FMLA leave (though probably unpaid). Even if you aren't in that position, some employers will be reasonable if you ask. My advisor was under no obligation to support me financially for a parental leave, since I wasn't technically an employee, FMLA didn't apply and my institution didn't have any parental leave policies on the books for grad students, but she did. She wouldn't have offered though. I had to ask.

Should this hopeful June addition stick around (we're a week out from the positive test, and so far so good), we plan to do something similar on this round, with Gail taking on more of the infant care duties after I head back to work after leave, but this time we'll do it on purpose instead of accidentally.


Anonymous said...

you know what? Klove and I also did this without knowing it. Klove had the higher paying job, and she was the one with the more secure job (as it turned out). We didn't think of that when we planned who would go first, except that she was the one with the health insurance.

Though I ended up getting a job that kept me away from home for long hours, her job was more demanding and then she started school which meant that I had to become the primary caregiver while she was doing school and work.

Now that I have a much lower-paying job, but one that is incredibly flexible, I'm the one doing all the pre-school volunteering and interfacing with the teacher -- to the point where no one there questions my parentage of Sassa. Which is good, because I've got nothing to prove that I'm her mother, whereas if Klove gets challenged, she's got the birth certificate to back her up.

While we move toward having a second child, it's the same story -- she's the one who needs to go back to work soon for our economic health, whereas I have the flexible job so I'll be the one doing the caring.

Thanks for articulating this!

Lyn said...

I'm so glad you came by Chicory!

I think there may be a couple extra economic factors that make this "opposite" economic gradient possible in lesbian families even if you don't plan it (and let's face it, most of us won't, how could you ever think of such a thing ahead of time?). One is what you mention, health insurance. In many places, we can't insure each other on family plans, so it is possible that the mom with greater economic power is, indeed, the only one with health insurance (I'm not saying this is good, obviously, just something peculiar to our families in this legal climate)

A second factor is age. Since it's harder for us to have kids, and we usually need more money than straight people to do it, we often wait longer. In our case, Gail's clock was ticking faster because she is older, but since she was older, she also had more years in the workforce. So in our case, unbeknownst to us, age was actually a useful proxy for economic standing.