Saturday, May 24, 2008

Eighth Diaper, and Eight Billioneth Synapse for the Day

There is a lot of joy, but also a lot of female angst on a daily basis when you have decided to stay home with your children. After being a professional for years, I have the benefit of knowing what the relentless pursuit of professional success and accolades brought to my life; the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. In many ways it has made me appreciate this time in my life all the more, and I learned a thing or two about myself and the world that I feel do and will make me a better parent. But there is unease as well. I also know the risks and prejudices that women today have to factor into their future working life for making such a choice. I know from talking to those who chose, or have to work, that the feelings are very similar. Their careers are changed, and their upper management forever watches for signs that they are distracted by mommyhood. Added to that is the angst that their children will suffer for their decision. There are few debates more heated, and more prone to bring out the, let's face it, nastiness of the competitive female culture. There are no easy answers, and it still remains a very personal decision. But we distract ourselves from the real issues in the battle between camps.

My former professional colleagues never thought I would make this decision, and actually I think they didn't expect me to want children at all. But I understood that to show this desire in my professional life, was to raise a red flag. I repeatedly heard a particular upper manager counsel their management group about the importance of having a clear succession plan and a strong staffing bench because you just never knew when one of your best assets (the unspoken, not so subtle intimation being a female asset) would "have a baby." I could appreciate on one hand the brutal reality of this statement, because whether you are the most consumed, or even ambivalent of new mothers, you can not deny the top to bottom alteration to your mind, body, and indeed soul, once you add a new child to your life. But the blatant sexism of the statement still takes my breathe away. It just never would be said in relation to men in the workplace.

For me, however, another brutal reality got my attention, and made my decision if not easier, at least more clear cut. On the days I have changed the eighth diaper of the day, and craved an intelligent conversation that did not include "poopy," and "please don't pull the kitty's tail," I also remind myself of the sheer wonder of my young son's development, and the short window of opportunity that I have to nurture his body and spirit before he becomes one in the world. In an article on chronicling the emerging awareness of the toddler, I am struck by the absolutely cataclysmic changes that take place between the ages of one and two, known as "synaptic exuberance:"

Between ages 1 and 2 the cerebral cortex adds more than 2 million
newsynapses — the connections between brain cells — every second, according to
Zero to Three, a nonprofit educational group. By age 2, your toddler willhave more than 100 trillion synapses — the most she'll ever have in her life,and part of the reason why she has such an incredible capacity to learn. Thisperiod of "synaptic
exuberance" can last until age 8, but it's also accompaniedby the constant
pruning of unused synapses. By the time your child reachesadulthood, more than
50 percent of those neural pathways will be gone.

From: Your amazing child: 'Wow!'-worthy development facts by Dan Tynan andChristinaWood

What an amazing and ephemeral moment in the life of your child, that will literally lay the neurological framework for their future! Even in the mundane details of daily life, I am reminded that this time is crucial and fleeting, and so I make the tough choices that in my family have meant redirecting resources, reevaluating our goals and needs and re imaging what my life, working and otherwise will look like. But it's not easy, and the pressure of the culture weighs heavily on me some days.

It is a sad travesty that our culture has gotten to the point of pushing parents into a corner, forced to make untenable choices between their livelihoods and the quality of life of their families. But change can come from a collective "push back." Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner have been there, and they have articulated the dilemma and needs of today's mother in their book The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want-And What To Do About It. Together they founded, an organization dedicated to educating, and harnessing the power of the voices of mothers to advocate for the changes needed to support families. They point to the need for improved maternity and paternity leave policies, more open and flexible work, products that are safe, health care for kids and families, available and quality childcare options, and realistic and fair wages.

The argument between choosing to stay home and whether to work needs to shift to meaningfully address the real issue of enabling a balance of healthy family and productive and fulfilling work. Instead of tearing each other down to defend and justify our choices, we need to unite to support the needs of our children and families, and the aspirations and contributions of talented women who are also mothers. We may be changing our eighth diaper for the day, but we are also literally growing the brains and bodies of the youth needed to carry our legacies and aspirations forward. It's important work, and needs to be treated as such with more than just meaningless platitudes.

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