I didn’t realize the privilege I had growing up in Washington DC in a middle class family. I come from a family of proud Irish and Italian immigrants who can trace their family back over one hundred years and over the ocean (which can not be taken for granted in a country with so many descendants of enslaved people). My family immigrated to the US between the 1920s and 1950s with empty pockets but soon benefited from many of the US programs that enabled millions of white Americans to thrive. My grandfather was the first to go to college on the GI bill, my other grandfather worked in the New Deal labor programs, and many of my relatives escaped the crowds and smog of NYC for the subsidized suburbs of Long Island. By my parents’ generation, it was expected that you would attend college and even be able to visit the European countries where some of their ancestors still lived.
Today the work landscape is much different than generations past. I think of my Grandmother, who passed away in March, who would have loved to work outside of the home. She was a lifelong learner who self published three books in her 80s and 90s. Yet, my Grandmother lamented the current reality of the dual working parent household. “How do you raise children, that is a JOB!” So now we find ourselves searching for the elusive work life balance which has become even harder during these times of COVID. Now that many working families do not have childcare, the gender inequities are laid bare within the home. Women are leaving their jobs at alarming rates and we wonder if the gains of our generation will be erased.
The concept of the modern nuclear family is relatively recent in world history. I think of my ancestral home of my Italian family in Brooklyn on 70th Street in Bensonhurst. So many family members lived in the home and on the block that the running joke was- “be careful when you open a drawer, there might be a baby sleeping in there” (insert Brooklyn accent here). Everyone took care of each other- shared cooking, income, childcare. My parents and I have tried to bring a small slice of Brooklyn to DC. We live four blocks away from each other and they see my kids every day (this afternoon they are making pasta with my mom and learning about WW2 from my Dad). That is my ace in the hole, the glue that makes our working family work. Of course there are complications and compromises, but the shared family economy works for us.
I grew up learning about US labor history which is also the history of my family. My grandfather was the president of the Typographical Union (Local 10) in NYC for 50 years and led one of the largest strikes in the history of the city. My father and many of my relatives followed in his footsteps to work in organized labor. While some children went to sleep away camp, I went to Union Summer where “labor babies” marched on picket lines and learned about organizing. My first job was with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Employees union in DC where I cut my teeth as an organizer (I was not that good). I think this is why I relate to “changing dominant institutions” theory of change. I was taught how working people in this country came together to fight for dignity in the workplace which translated into political power. I also have been influenced by the co-op lessons from Spain and Italy and been lucky enough to meet some of their leaders at conferences. Policy implementation was a catalyst for cooperative scale and growth. I believe policy and subsidy can also be a tool for economic change in the US, as it has been for the rural electric and agricultural sectors in the past.
I am in the process of moving this week so my next post will be longer and more in depth. I appreciate you taking the time to read my post and looking forward to commenting on others.
What great comments and feedback, I am really enjoying this.
I will address the questions on gender and division of labor with the household. I do not have answers but have thoughts. I have been pondering this so much since COVID, as we are all thinking about historical and systemic inequities. First let me point out that race and gender are separate but intersectional, I do not feel like I can relate to what it is to be a black person in America because I am a woman. Let’s get that out of the way. But I do think that we are at a point in society that the scales have fallen off our eyes and we can clearly see the racial/ gender inequities and point to the historical structures- yet this does not solve the problem. It is depressing at times but change is gradual and generational.
Since Covid, we are seeing women taking on the lion’s share of the educational and childcare responsibilities (which were not equally distributed in the first place). Desperately needed health workers, a field that is predominantly female, are leaving their jobs due to a lack of childcare. These realities are much more stark for women of color and single mothers. In my own home we have named and discussed the problem at length but this has not solved it. I think of our familial examples: My father worked all the time and his job was the priority, my mother taught part time but always wrapped her schedule around my father. Dinner was at 6:30, ravioli with a bolognese, be on time. My husband was the only person in his family born in this country. His parents arrived in the US from Korea in the late 1960s; my father-in-law worked up to three jobs at a time and was never asked or expected to change a diaper of any one of his five children. When things got really bad and my mother-in-law had to clean houses but in general she was home with a herculean task of raising 4 boys and one take-no-prisoners girl. So there you go, that is our family baseline and example for gender roles. In one generation are we expected to shed this? Someone asked how living intergenerationally has impacted my worldview; it has in every way and most of them are positive but there are some things that have been passed down that are a barrier to equity.
The good news is that there is progress. My husband can not count the diapers that he has changed and I have decided that cooking really isn’t my thing (and I am not even trying to beat my mother’s bolognese). But in one short generation are we supposed to shed all of these examples that were set for us in our lives? How can I not feel pressure to organize my kids calendars, check in with the teachers, have healthy food in house, volunteer at school- often at the expense of work? How can my partner not feel pressure to stay laser focused on work and provide for the family when that is all he ever saw his father do? What does it mean to be a mother and a father nowadays (or a woman or a man)? How much pressure are we getting from ourselves vs society? How can we make shifts so the next generation will be more equitable? How can we have these conversations at home without being confrontational and starting with blame (OK that one was for my partner)?
Naming the problem is not solving the problem but it is a step in the right direction. I speak about this a lot with my partners, with my kids, with my peers. And I will throw this question out to my male-identifying peers: what can you do to shift this power dynamic and break these historical norms? What role are you playing right now to uphold the structures in place? I have been working and talking about this for as long as I can remember so I need allies to step up and take a role (I need a nap). I have spent a lot of time and energy navigating how to be a racial ally, it is an imperfect lifelong journey but it is serious work. We need to collectively think about the micro and macro level. As a country, we need to change the social paradigm of what type of work is paid and valued in our economy. Policy issues like paid parental leave can help keep women in the workforce and put value to the job of parenting for both parents. We need to explore some of the models that are used in other countries to combat the gender and racial wage gap. There is so much more to write but I am already a day late with my comments so I will sign off for now.