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We Need a Playground Revolution

It’s a bit crazy and a big surprise. Am I really a stay-at-home mom who spends five afternoons a week at the neighborhood playground? Nearly every day, for years, I pack my young daughter into the stroller. I load the sippy cups and snacks and balls and toys, the bug spray, extra diapers, baby wipes, sunblock, and a bottle of water for me. When we arrive already it is filled with strollers, preschoolers who run, climb and swing, and their parents. We will stay until rain, sundown or mealtime takes us away.

Much of the time, it’s moms only at the park. The women I meet are there because they have quit their jobs to care for their children in a hands-on way. At the playground, day after day, we talk about almost everything—local preschools and morning- out programs, what’s happening in the world and the city, our pasts, our families, our travels, restaurants, breastfeeding, weaning, potty training, how we put our kids to bed at night and how little sleep we had the night before. We discuss the weather and hope for rain, sun, warmth, cooler air, lower humidity, or whatever we don’t have at the moment. When I need advice about the parenting life, I head to the playground and from the women there I learn much of what I need to know.

My daughter was born early in the fall of 1998. Before that. I was a university professor. I worked hard. I taught and researched and published voraciously. I received fellowships, awards, and prizes. I worked evenings and weekends. I lived in one city and commuted to my job an airplane ride away. When I grabbed the brass ring of tenure, I was not yet 35.I was on the fast track, just like my husband, my best friend, and, more or less, everyone I knew.

Just as I was awarded tenure, I learned I was pregnant. My leave turned into a resignation.

Just as I was awarded tenure, I learned I was pregnant. Eight months later, I had taken a two-year leave that would, in the end, turn into a resignation. We had left our apartment, moved into a little Craftsman bungalow, and I was a mother, learning how gender really works in our society. All my academic writing had been on feminist topics. My training prepared me to be aware of how gender works in our culture. That same training had largely bypassed any critical information about motherhood and parenting and children. Could anything have prepared me for the real-life lessons I was about to receive in how gender works? In what happens when a woman faces her society and her workplace with a small child in tow?

So I wander about in a daytime world composed primarily of women and children. One question starts to take over: “How did we end up here?” We are college-educated women, raised in decades of massive social change that opened up opportunities for women in higher education, the professions, and public life. We are mostly in our 30s and older, have held interesting jobs, traveled and adventured. We were brought up to be economically independent. Certainly no one really expected us to end up chatting with each other about how to start a baby on solid foods while our husbands work at the office to bring home the family wage. This was not supposed to be the end of the story, and it won’t be. The question becomes my obsession. I ask everyone I know. I interview total strangers, new acquaintances, close friends.

Mothers at the playground toss around reasons they are at home. Often these come in a negative form. Someone passes on a horror story about daycare. Everyone shudders and says how glad they are to be near their kids. It’s harder to talk about the positive reasons for working less and being with our children: the everyday sweetness of it, the commitment and love amid an ongoing sense of ambivalence and the downright oddness of learning a new way of life, resisting a culture that would have us work all the time.

The statistics tell us that we will never make up the lost pay, and that as mothers we will earn much less in our lifetimes than had we not had children. For some women this is true. When they want to return to the workplace, their opportunities are fewer, and they find themselves stuck in mommy-track jobs.

The world of work is open to us as women, but not set up to accommodate us as mothers.

But other women take five years off and jump back in with no problem at all. When we quit our jobs, we have no idea what will happen. We don’t know whether this sojourn at the playground last six months, a year, or for life. We take a risk.

When I left my full-time job, it felt simultaneously like the right decision for me, and a move that was entirely retrograde and violated every value I believed in. It’s no longer 1952. Women with college degrees aren’t supposed to routinely give up their jobs to take care of their children while their husbands bring home the breadwinner’s wage. I worried constantly about my decision. Can this be me? Should it be me? Many of us choose to be with our kids not because we have to, but because we want to be near the children we bring into the world. This is a truth that is hard to voice. It comes so close to statements that in the past have limited women’s options and opportunities. It risks being misunderstood as anti-woman and anti-feminist. It seems like a dangerous retreat.

Yet, it is real. Something new is happening, something that in my more optimistic moods I think might just give us a little more wiggle room, to break out of the old gender divide that separates work from home, male from female, mind from body. When the media discuss mothers, they tend to divide us into working moms and stay-at-home moms. I can tell you that at the playground, life is more complex. The numbers, too, tell a different story. Roughly speaking, about 40 percent of American mothers combine parenting with full-time jobs; 25 percent are fully at home with their children; and the other 35 percent, combine parenting with some kind of paid work. Mothers in this third group may work five hours a week from a home studio or 30 hours a week at an office. They may take three years off and then build a small business from a spare room. They may work on a consulting basis for a former employer They may switch fields altogether. The stories are endless. The reality for American mothers, though, is that most of us don’t work full time. We need media attention, social policies, and corporate attitudes that acknowledge this. And we need men generally and fathers in particular to share in the labor of children, much as we all share the labor of work.

The playground moms are always talking about work. One woman is a former social worker Now she leads internet-based support groups for the caregivers of Alzheimer patients, and she does this one evening a week from her home. Another woman has been a flight attendant, and we all know when she has to take a flight or find someone to cover for her, in order to keep open her chance to return to work in the future. Another sells real estate; several times I offer to watch her girls while she goes to a closing. “The attorneys get mad when I bring them,” she jokes. Another woman is a nurse, and every Tuesday she docs a shift at the hospital. I teach a course each semester at a nearby college. Many of the playground moms work. Still, all call themselves stay-at-home moms, not working moms. Their part-time labor remains invisible. We need words to describe life in between, the real life of parents who want to parent less than full time and to work, also less than full time, despite the societal pressure to do one or the other.

This third group is of mothers are refusing to choose between being solely at home or at work, fully private or always public. We know that the system does not work for us. We know that if we want to spend more time with our children, we do so with great economic sacrifice. Part-time work is not well rewarded, and it mostly comes without benefits, advancement, or fair wages. We know that fathers, too, should be making these sacrifices so they don’t fall so heavily on a generation of women. The world of work is open to us as women, but not set up to accommodate us as parents, as mothers. The feminist revolution that made the workplace and some of our laws more equitable to women is going to have to expand to include us mothers, too. The next feminist revolution may just come from the playground.

Miriam Peskowitz’s book Playground Revolution will be published by Seal Press in 2005.