Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lunchin' Ladies

This week, I went to my first grad-parent luncheon that P's university puts on monthly for graduate students who are parents and/or their partners. I found out about this program at some point in the fall and frankly, it was then, when I was feeling particularly disconnected and lonely, that I really could have used the contact. However, I just could never pull it off-- it was set directly in the middle of F's nap time, and I had been picking up S & C at 1:20PM until they went to a 3PM day in December.

I truly appreciate that this university has such a program. It is simply nice to know there is some acknowledgment that there are, in fact, graduate students who are also moms and dads. When P was deciding on which program he would ultimately chose, family life was a part of the equation. Let's face it-- sure, he may be the one taking the classes and writing the papers, but the truth is that we all are going to divinity school in some ways. Some schools he looked at were very candid that they didn't have much in the way of support for student-parents. Often the support was by chance, depending how many folks were in like situations where they would self-organize.

This was not the vibe we got from his current university. At the open house for admitted students, there was actually a session for graduate students who were parents. It was printed in the program and everything, and we both agreed that this was a good sign. We met a few current students who had young children who assured us that this was a supportive community, that their children were included in events, and other community members took an interest in their kids and looked after them. Having raised our children on a boarding school campus for the past four years, this was exactly what we were accustomed to, the closest place we could find to the whole it-takes-a-village adage. When I heard this university described in this way, I was sold and gently pushed P in this direction. He was genuinely happy with the program and faculty so it wasn't that he took much pushing.

I moved here with great expectations that we would have instant community, that my children would suddenly have a new cohort of aunts and uncles, and I would feel welcomed and a part of things. With childcare provided during orientation, it all looked promising. The few of us who had younger children immediately found each other and became bonded quickly. However, I can't say this true across the entire student body.

It amazes me how young many of P's classmates are (and remember, he's studying to go into the ministry) and it seems that they, just like many 23-year-olds, don't even think about what it might take to be a parent or how a partner/spouse might feel when joining the community. Often at campus events, advertised as 'community-wide' events, I spend the time corralling the kids off in a corner, never meeting anyone or having anyone approach us. Now, if Peter were in the business program or attending law school, maybe I never would have had an expectation that it would be a warm and welcoming community--unfair stereotypes, perhaps-- but this was the impression we got from the open house. Also, I guess I had different expectations of folks in div school. Not all the students are on the ordination track, but a good number are, and if they are in training to become ministers and priests, I would think it would benefit them to become aware of other folks in the community as good practice for their ministry. A church without kids or families may be a sign that it is not a particularly healthy church. So even if these students are far away from having a partner, spouse or child of their own, it would be good training for them to think about how these other folks fit into such a community.

There are times at the school specifically includes kids and we appreciate it greatly. We appreciate it so much, in fact, that we try to attend all such events even if the timing is not great for our guys. Take tonight, for instance, where there is a huge Easter celebration with cool drumming, etc. There is a part specifically for the children and we received emails intentionally inviting our kids. This is great-- just the kind of stuff we were hoping for-- except for the fact, that the service begins at 7Pm and will last longer than an hour. My boys are normally in p.j.'s at this time, tucking in for a story. I am all for bending the rules for special occasions, but the truth is that my guys are tired at 7PM and if they get to bed at 8:30Pm or after, we will all feel the effects of that in the coming days. We just will. So normally, if there were a 7PM invitation, we would politely decline until they get a bit older. However, since kids are specifically included and were specifically invited and we've been yearning for inclusion, the five of us will head up to school and so be it. I don't mean to whiny about this: something like I want to be included, but only included when it works well for my kids.

So back to this grad student-parent luncheon. It was not well attended but the folks running it were kind and included some kid-friendly food on their lunch menu. They didn't mind F's missing-his-nap fussiness. We got some good information about this area's summer programs for kids so this was helpful. All-in-all, I was glad we attended. While we were packing up to head back home, one of the program's directors got into a conversation with another grad student-parent. The student was saying that she lives in a town where the schools do not have any formal after-school care. "Oh," the director nodded knowingly "that must be because there are so many stay-at-home moms there-- all those ladies who lunch."

Whoa--that comment struck me, and while walking the mile or so home, pushing sleeping F in his purple jog stroller, it played over and over in my head. So here was a director of a family-friendly program, but only friendly to families with working-out-of-the-house parents? Was I worried that she was talking about me? Was my sensitivity to these comment indicative of my own struggle in this role?

I don't think her comment was about all stay-at-home moms per say, more just about families of a certain upper-income bracket. P & I have been fortunate that at various times, one of us has been able to be the primary caregiver. Our boys also attended some daycare. However, through it all, we made intentional choices about work and its implications about family life. Yes, we financially could pull it off with one income, but we made choices so that could happen. Those choices included moving and living relatively simply. Yes, not everyone can make such choices nor do they want to. But just because a family has a stay-at-home parent and the family can afford to make such a choice, does that put them into the "ladies who lunch" category?

I, too, struggle with a prejudice against stay-at-home parents who seem rarely at home with their kids because they appear to have all sorts of help. This is something I need to work on. But still, the director's off-hand remark has stayed with me. Don't we have enough of this judgment and sniping in the parent community? Why can't we all just say that parenting is humbling and hard and each family needs to make its own choices about what works for that family in terms of childcare and work? And thumbs-up to the programs and people who support parents and families and our very diverse, complex choices, and even, at times, invite us out to lunch.


Anonymous said...

A few things:

I think you would find a business school community would be much more supportive, actually. We were unmarried and without kids when my husband was in business school and we were definitely left out of a huge cohort of students/partners with kids.

In terms of the comment -- There is a group (and we all know it), whose kids are grown and they have not gone back to work, and they DO need to fill their time with something. However, those are typically not mothers whose kids still nap.

Terra said...

That's interesting - I heard that phrase last when a colleauge of mine quite to do her own consulting work and take a break. She jokingly called herself a "lady who lunches". When I was unemployed briefly (and child-free as I still am), the lunch with a friend was part of how I kept sane. It allowed me to plan some structure in my day, and things plan "pre-lunch" and "post-lunch", have interaction with another adult, and stay in touch with friends. But, there is that other "ladies who lunch", as wheelsonthebus said, of women who do not work outside the home whose children might be older of fully grown. There is a very, very interesting book that touches on ane explores a lot of these issues. I think you all might like to pick up. It's called Everyday Revolutionaries : Working Women and the Transformation of American Life
by Sally Helgesen.