25 December 2012

For Christmas, One of My Favorite Prayers

May God give you the grace to never sell yourself short; the courage to risk something big for something good; and the wisdom to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. 

(Prayer attributed to the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, 1924-2006)

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

22 December 2012

A Poem For the Days Before Christmas

The sky is gray, flattened, putty, for days on end, and we wonder
whether it will always be thus, or whether
spring will come as it always has,
blindingly brilliant, sweater-shedding, flowers rising from the mud.

But for now, we turn on the car's headlights
in mid-afternoon, swipe away the occasional snowflakes,
try to be kind by holding the shop doors
for those laden with packages and secret surprises.

We are not ready. The wrong chords in our heads,
the wrong song in our hearts,
the lack of money sliding smoothly into skipped meals,
skipped gratuities, panic about skipped gifts.

The doors we hold, the hands we hold, the songs we sing,
the hearts we measure, beat by beat, in the ice-laden air
should count for something, and it is that something that we seek
to define, as the year slowly rolls, once more, to a silent close.

17 December 2012

My Reaction to the Newtown Shootings

Several people have asked me when I am going to write a post in response to the shootings that occurred on Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. My response has been "when I'm ready." But the truth is, I have no idea what to write about it.

I could write about my longstanding opposition to the ownership of assault rifles by civilians, about my disgust with those who insist that their right to bear arms is more important than the lives of little children, or about the movement my husband and I are trying to start to get some intelligent dialogue going about the gun issue. (You may wish to join our community on Facebook, March on Washington for Sensible Gun Laws, to stay in touch until we have a chance to get our permanent website up).

I could write about all those children, administrators, and teachers: the fear and horror they faced that day, the loss of innocent lives for no readily apparent reason, and the community permanently scarred by fear. I could write about the grieving families and their loss, if I could even begin to imagine it. I could write about the nightmares my fifteen-year-old daughter has been having, waking up in the middle of the night screaming, under the impression that someone has cornered her and is trying to kill her. I could tell you about her extreme reluctance to go to school this morning, and the fact that I had to take her out to lunch today because she could not bear to spend her midday free period by herself in the library.

I could even try to cover the broader cultural underpinnings of the disaster. The cowboy mentality of Americans and their guns, the every-man-for-himself society in which we refuse to contribute to other people's health care costs, the bloody and horrific violence that occurs every single day in our large cities and our small towns. People are shot in so-called domestic disputes; in drug deals; in robberies and home invasions; in hospitals, schools, places of worship, in theaters, on street corners. The victims are old, with years of memories stored away, or young, just beginning to experience all the world has to offer.

I could tell you about how my husband got up in church on Sunday morning at announcement time and hollered, at the top of his lungs, about his anger at the situation. About the young mother in the pew in front of me who dashed out in tears. (I found her a moment later in the ladies' room, gave her a hug, and talked with her for a minute before she wiped her eyes and returned to the service with me. I'd sat behind her for years, but I hadn't known until yesterday that she was a teacher.)

I could write about how we have decided to unplug that infernal X-Box thing in our living room, around which teenaged boys have been gathering for weeks without a meaningful break to do other things. Or how about last night at Stew Leonard's, a giant food and garden store in Yonkers, New York, where we'd gone to buy our Christmas tree? A group of rowdy teenagers burst into the store laughing and yelling and singing loudly - just being rowdy teenagers - and we all ducked for cover, terrified at even the slightest noise or disturbance in a public place.

I could write about the anger that has boiled over onto Facebook. The neighbor who scolded me and Sam for setting up the March on Washington page before the customary mourning period in his religious sect had passed. People who suffer from non-violent mental illnesses who took offense at my suggestion that the shooter must have been mentally ill. People who suggested that if we just let God back into our schools, this would not have happened. (Did they not hear about the shooting at the Amish school, or at the Sikh temple? Do they believe in a deity who metes out punishment for having secular schools by murdering our children? Good heavens) I could write about the arguments I've had about the nature of Asperger's syndrome, or why a mother with a troubled child would make automatic weapons available to him in their home.

But I can't really write about any of this. I wouldn't know where to begin. The problem seems so complex and overwhelming to me that I am paralyzed by it. Two thousand people will die in the next year in the United States in gun-related violence unless we act quickly and decisively to change things.

They say that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. (I apologize for the bizarre metaphor, but it's the only appropriate one I can think of at the moment.) What we can do now, in the short term, is tighten up the gun laws. I have always believed, and I still believe, that no American civilian has a need for an assault rifle in his or her home. Those are weapons designed for law enforcement and warfare; they are designed to kill large numbers of people in a small period of time. Let's get them out of the hands of regular citizens. We can do this; Senators Feinstein and Gillibrand are already working hard to get something passed early in Congress's 2013 term. Please support them.

In the mid-range term, we need to do something about the troubled, suicidal loners, mostly men, who commit mass shootings. Whatever their demons - and I admit I know very little about this subject matter - we need to get them help, and fast - before they kill another room full of first graders (or college students, or worshippers, or moviegoers). We need universal healthcare that includes mental health screening and treatment. The small amount you contribute to someone else's care could save countless lives. Stop being selfish, America, and start being forward-looking. Like you used to be.

And in the long term, we need to change the way we view violence as a society. We glorify it. We worship characters like Rambo. We adore movies where some guy dressed in black shoots a room full of people to get revenge for some past wrong. We must stop promoting a violent image of masculinity to our sons. The men we want to raise are thoughtful, intellectual, physically strong, helpful to the weak, and respectful of the rules that hold our society together. We can no longer afford to raise outlaws and problem-makers. We need to raise problem-solvers, cooperators, agents of social change for the better.

I'll probably write more about this as my thoughts settle. But for now, this will have to do.

As we end our Hanukkah celebrations or move toward the beginning of our Christmas celebrations, as we press forward into 2013, our hearts full of grief, may we turn sorrow into action. It is the least we can do in memory of those lost.

13 December 2012

Reentering the Workforce in the 21st Century

I often have the radio on while I am working around the house, and the station I listen to most often is NPR (National Public Radio). This morning, I folded a few loads of laundry while I listened to the Brian Lehrer Show on NPR. One of Lehrer's guests today was the writer Judith Shulevitz from the New Republic, discussing her article "How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society." Shulevitz spoke generally about the current trend among parents to start their families later in life than the prior generation did, and what she calls the "scary consequences of the grayest generation." She took calls from listeners who both applauded and took issue with her concerns. It was actually a very interesting program, and I paused over the laundry to listen closely.

There was a time when women were advised to have their children at as young an age as possible, to lessen the possibility of age-related birth defects (which, for a long time, were considered the "responsibility" or "fault" of a mother who waited too long to conceive). My mother, a product of that  time, still thinks that anyone who has children over the age of thirty is an "older" parent. Much of that advice has been left in the rearview mirror, what with the advent of sophisticated prenatal testing and the knowledge that men's age too plays a role in the health of a baby.

But the women who were advised to complete their families in their twenties were part of a generation in which they were not expected, and did not need, to work outside of the home. The education of women and attitudes toward us in the workplace have changed. Most working- and middle-class American women are now expected to enter the workforce and to have a career other than - or in addition to - motherhood.

Shulevitz spoke a little bit about the effect on children, and on society generally, of women who become mothers after they have established careers. She spoke about older grandparents, and difficulty with conception into one's forties, and the now-familiar juggling act women are expected to perform when they have small children at home but nevertheless work full-time in an office, alongside male and childless counterparts.

But the thing she mentioned that really caught my attention was that most women who leave the workforce after a period of being home with their children find it difficult - or impossible - to reenter the workforce after their children are grown. She suggested that employers should provide, as a basic benefit of employment, the opportunity for stay-at-home parents to reenter the workforce at the level at which they left.

This idea struck me as revolutionary (and, to be honest, extremely unlikely). The working world, like it or not, penalizes women for leaving to care for their kids.

I practiced law for ten years before stopping to be a stay-at-home mother to my three. The job I left was a wonderful one in a big firm in Manhattan, and my bosses - the partners at the firm - were kind and accommodating of my needs. But my children had issues that required them to have a parent at home, and, frankly, I wanted to be that parent.

I was home full-time for seven years, and I would have stayed home longer if finances had allowed. But the difficulty of living on one income became overwhelming. I had to go back.

I called my old firm and was told that the job I left had been filled by a man. I sent resum├ęs to dozens of places, only to be told that the seven-year gap in my working history was a major problem. I asked friends and professional associates for help, but I came up empty-handed. I eventually settled on a less-than-entry-level position at another big firm, at a fraction of the pay I had earned before leaving. I worked at that job for two years, while hunting for something better.

I was eventually offered a job that seemed promising: an in-house position at a German-owned company that would allow me to use my language skills and my legal training. The pay wasn't good, but the work as it was described to me seemed challenging, and the benefits would be a great help to my family of five. Unfortunately, when I started there, I discovered that, despite my title of "Attorney," I was actually a secretary to the general counsel. My job responsibilities included taking dictation (which I was terrible at, having had no experience or training), typing and filing, and serving coffee at meetings.

My protests - that I was every bit as educated (and more) than the male boss whose office I dusted and whose plants I watered - fell on deaf ears. I stayed for a year. When I explained to the CEO, on my last day, why I was leaving, he said, "We did bring you in with the promise of being a lawyer again, but we thought that, as a woman with young children, you'd actually prefer the less demanding secretarial work."

I'm home again now, working part-time doing writing projects for my husband's busy criminal law practice. The work is sporadic, and the pay is nonexistent. Our financial issues persist, and now we have college tuition in the short-term future. I don't know what the answer is. As a lawyer, I am virtually unemployable because of a choice I made in 2001 - one that seemed correct at the time.

Ms. Shulevitz's idea of employers offering parents the option to return to the work force after a period of staying at home is a tantalizing one. Imagine if I could have had my old job - or a similar one - back after my hiatus! The seven years I spent at home were hardly wasted time. I served on the board of the local library, approving budgets and drafting resolutions; I led a Girl Scout troop where the lessons and activities were heavy on civics and fund-raising; and I raised three bright, happy, well-adjusted children into their teens, while my husband was able to focus on building his business and his professional reputation.

Surely someone who's done things like that would be a desirable employee and should be welcomed back?

Society talks a lot about the value of women in the workforce, and about jumping through all kinds of hoops to keep them from dropping out. At the same time, we are sent the conflicting message that a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and a mother. Can we raise our own children while still earning a living? Can we take the breaks we need from our professional lives without dooming ourselves to underemployment or lifelong financial struggles? If delaying parenthood to a more financially secure period in our lives is a trend with numerous negative consequences (as Ms. Shulevitz seems to think it is), what are our alternatives?