Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sisterly Advice

My little sister called me this afternoon for a chat. She calls on a regular basis during her commute to work, usually just to check in, sometimes to ask, like she did last week, what Twelve wants for the holidays (what is it with people planning holiday gifts two months ahead of time?), and occasionally for advice. 

A bit of background on my baby sister: She's twenty-six, six-foot-one, and outweighs me by a good 20 pounds of muscle. She graduated from high school as valedictorian/class president/queen of all the heteronormative celebrations, went directly to college from which she graduated in exactly four years, got married to the guy she'd gone out on a first date with ON VALENTINE'S DAY, was recruited to do the job she'd gone to college for, and had a baby approximately four days after they paid off their student loans. She's your basic poster child for doing everything by the book, and she tries to humor her crazy big sister.

I, the big sister who accidentally dropped the damn book in the toilet right after high school, try not to be condescending about her lack of real-world experience, even though she somehow manages to be condescending about the subjects of my graduate studies.

Since I am apparently the closest thing she has to a professional woman mentor, the advice phone calls started shortly after she started her job. We talked about things like not letting your employer take advantage of you and how to bring workload issues up in a productive way: I'm finding that task x is taking me longer than we anticipated, which leaves less time time for activity y.

She caught on fast, gained confidence as she went along, and successfully negotiated an acceptable part-time arrangement after the baby was born. She and her husband are able to arrange their work schedules so that, with a bit of help from the grandparents, they don't need outside childcare: He works in the mornings, she works in the afternoons.

Today, she called to talk about the fact that it's not working very well; her husband is often late getting home, so she's late to work frequently enough that people are starting to notice. My sister is Type A enough that this bothers her a lot, and my suspicion is that her husband tends to brush it off because he know she's more tightly strung in this regard than he is.

However, this whole thing is a much bigger deal than occasionally being a few minutes late to work. As I explained to my sister, working mothers are held to a higher standard than non-mothers. It's entirely unfair, of course, but it's a real phenomenon. It's not just about you, personally, either, I continued. You're representing all working women. Just as people of color understand that any social transgression - chewing open-mouthed, being late for a meeting, laughing too loudly or interrupting too much - may be taken as an indictment of their entire race, so must working mothers be particularly careful. Because society has defined the ideal worker as someone who is free of household or familial responsibility and the ideal mother as someone who is 100% focused on her children, employed women are presumed to be insufficiently committed to their jobs unless they perform perfectly. No one performs perfectly, of course, but mothers tend not to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like being late.

This isn't really making me feel any better, my sister replied with the barest hint of sarcasm. She had caught me in the act of climbing up on this particular soapbox. I chuckled, and changed course to the advice part, which is easy. The problem is a logistical one - it's not about what either of them are doing or intending, it's about the fact that they need more transition time. My brother-in-law has the flexibility to start work earlier and get home earlier, and it's time to take advantage of that. My sister just needs to initiate a conversation that doesn't accuse him of being a lazy, inconsiderate jerk and that does include a possible solution: Ya know what? We've been trying it this way, and it isn't working. Let's try giving ourselves more time! She seemed relieved to realize that the solution was so simple, and I suggested that she discuss the working mothers' unfairly higher standard as a rhetorical buttress.

I may also have offered to come give my brother-in-law a PowerPoint presentation on the social construction of motherhood and ideal worker norms.

For me, this conversation was a triple win: I love being asked for advice, I am thrilled when I get to provide a useful solution, and my sister is showing signs of taking one of my professional interests seriously.

Now I'm starting with the ahead-of-time holiday gift ideas: The Dialectic of Sex for my sister and Unbending Gender: How Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It for my brother-in-law. 

[insert sarcastically evil chuckle here]

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