This morning, I listened to this episode of NPR’s The Hidden Brain in which they talked about the power of advertising. The idea being is that we are being advertised to and we don’t even realize it. They discussed a unique way of advertising to people through social media accounts such as Instagram. A light bulb went on inside my head, and immediately I thought, “Those mommy Instagrammers!” Their #ads and #sponsored content and how they show up every once in a while in my feed, talking about product ABC and how much it has improved their lives. Oh, the holy trinity of marketing have appeared in the supposedly simple lives of non-famous moms around the country.
For the past few years, ever since I became a mom, I entered the world of social media where I kicked Facebook to the curb and became active on Instagram. It was through photographers accounts and links in their accounts that I found many moms on Instagram. These moms are (no surprise there) white and middle class…at least, that’s what it appears to be from their pictures. They also appear to be stay-at-home moms, although that’s not always the case. Some moms do have jobs outside the home, but they don’t talk about their jobs. Instead, they post pictures of their glamorous, well-decorated “minimalist” home with fancy floor tiles and high end refrigerators and soft, comfy couches from West Elm. Even worse is when they post pictures of the outside of their homes–it makes you feel like the house you live in comparison is minuscule and ugly, because oh my gosh these homes are HUGE. It makes it seem like all they do all the time is decorate, decorate, and decorate.
Whether or not they actually occupy the majority of their home is unknown to me. Sometimes they display pictures or other household items that are so beautiful that I’d think, “Did they just buy that for the picture? Or clean it up for Instagram?” These acts, I realize now, are all tactics of implicit advertising.
Sometimes there would be links to other Instagram business accounts or coupon codes at checkout. For example, “I love these @briarhandmade bonnets! Avery loves it too. You can get one for your little one on their website for 20% off with the code SAVEME20 at checkout!”
Yep, all this time I’ve been advertised to, and although I can’t say that I actually used any of the codes to save me money, but I have visited the business’s Instagram account as a result. And because I viewed their Instagram feed, I was tempted to follow them, so I did. It wasn’t until the other day I realized that I have followed over 100 accounts, and around 40 them are mommy accounts and/or business and mommy accounts (the ones who are moms who also have a business). And I wondered to myself, “How is this benefiting me? What joy do I get from seeing these perfect homes with their somewhat adorable children?” (Trust me, some of those kids are just downright ugly, but the moms sure know how to correctly take a photo of them in the right light so they appear to not be so ugly).
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to unfollow about 30 of them. The exception to that is photographers who are also moms whom I’ve never met and the moms that I’ve actually met in person (around five). I kept the photography-related feeds because as a photography enthusiast, I enjoy looking at beautiful pictures of landscapes and food. It gives me inspiration, whereas looking at the unattainable mom ideal in my feed gives me anxiety. After all, I am not a middle class, white mom in my mid-to-late thirties. I’m a lower class mom in my early thirties. I live in a small two-bedroom apartment, where I sleep on the couch with my husband (our kids occupy the two rooms for a reason), and our closets, bathroom, and kitchen are the size of a standard walk-in closet for most people.
Just as the advent of Facebook and how people have expressed themselves online went in a downward spiral, I feel that Instagram is becoming that way too. Oftentimes, we are shown pictures of what is, when that is not really what truly is. Take, for example, one of the moms mentioned in the Hidden Brain podcast–despite having pictures of herself using the Google pixel phone, she is still an iPhone user, she admits. It makes me wonder just how much of it is just for show, and how much money these moms actually make every time they post something linking it to a product or another Instagram account.
With the popularity of parenting blogs, it feels like the “mommies of Instagram” is its own exclusive club, one that I’ve tried desperately to portray in the past five years. I’ve learned to edit my iPhone photos to reflect the light airiness of the things that I’m portraying and used hashtags to make sure people find me. But I have yet to figure out how an “average mom” from the suburbs can garner 50,000 followers when she doesn’t seem to have a blog, a professional portfolio or a website. I wish I knew. But at the same time, I am also glad to let them fade out of my feed forever.
On a cloudy Wednesday morning last month, I signed up to do some volunteering with my coworkers. About seven of us showed up, and after our task was completed, we walked to a restaurant across the street from the volunteer site for lunch. While waiting for the food, conversations began about a variety of topics. At one point, one of my coworkers, a 29 year old female, declared out loud that she felt no desire to have kids whatsoever.
“I mean, I love kids and all, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll be a good mom, but I just don’t feel any need or want to have kids,” she said.
Another coworker, a white female in her mid-thirties, echoed the sentiment. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I feel like I’d rather be a very good aunt.”
A second coworker chimed in, “I’m still on the fence about it,” she said.
A few murmurs went around table. Of course, mine was not one of them. I remained silent. After all, I was the only person at that table who have kids. I felt like the odd (wo)man out.
When I was 23 years old, I got married. Fresh out of college, I married my high school sweetheart. We’d already been together for six years by that point. Like many smart twenty-somethings, we decided to wait a few years before having a kid. We figured we were still very young and not ready yet. Thus, we had a couple of years of childless freedom, where waking up at 9 a.m. was normal on the weekends, and we could go anywhere we wanted without having to consider logistics thoroughly, as one would often do when there is a kid involved.
When my daughter was born, I had just turned 28 ten days prior, and my husband was 26. Therefore, we thought we were pretty “normal.” We had reached at point where the consensus was, “Even though we’re not ready financially, we are ready mentally, so we’re going to do it.”
Jumping into parenthood in your late twenties was something that I thought everyone from my generation did. Little did I know that a few years later, I would come to discover that a lot of people from my generational cohort do not feel the same way.
The reality is this–more and more people are delaying parenthood. Take, for example, in a recent survey done by Discover.com illustrates this ambivalence towards parenthood has a lot to do with age and people’s perception of their maturity. They found that out of 1000 people born between 1981 and 1997, the older the person the more “ready” they feel for parenthood. Feeling like you’re ready is a major personal accomplishment. The majority of 19 to 27 year olds do not feel ready at all, whereas those ages 28 to 36 feels somewhat ready. [Keyword: somewhat… because nobody is ever truly 100% ready].
I wondered to myself if geography plays a role in child rearing. After all, where I live (the Pacific Northwest) people’s political views tend to be more liberal, and along with that comes a new wave of feminism in which women (and men) are delaying parenthood for the pursuit other goals, because it makes them feel empowered to be able to choose. Nowadays, it’s quite common to see parents of toddlers with gray hair at the playground and libraries (two places that are always filled with kids). This realization is unsettling to me. It makes me feel even more out of place in this parenting journey. Perhaps if I was a thirty-something ten years ago, I mused, I would’ve seen more parents my own age, but nowadays I do not. I see parents who have obtained higher education (masters and Ph.Ds), began their careers many years ago, and have purchased a home and have money in savings. In other words, they are more “well-off” than I am. Their gray hair gave way to the years of maturity demonstrated in their age and their wrinkle lines, the result of the careful planning of their lives.
I discussed this observation with my husband, and he agreed. We both felt like a little fish in a big body of water, who somehow managed to swim away from its own territory and are now lost in the sea of much older, larger, and more aggressive fishes.
So it’s not surprising that my 29-year-old feminist coworker feels empowered by NOT having kids. After all, statistics show that not only do millenials feel that they’re not ready yet, but they also want to pursue personal goals such as buying a home, getting a pet, having money in the bank, and having a stable, well-paying career before having kids. As if having all of those things will ensure that you will be a great parent.
Never have this evidence been so evident last year, when my daughter was in her first year of preschool. At the time, we took her to the university daycare center where my husband was a student. My daughter, although new to the social realm of preschool, made friends quickly. One day, one of her friend’s moms invited us over to their place for a play date. She also invited two other boys and their moms.
While our kids played in the other room, the four of us sat in the living room and talked. We talked about a variety of things that our children did, what they did for extracurricular activities, and so on. As I sat there and observed the other moms, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, they must be at least 5 years older than me.” Turns out, two of the moms were around 10 years older than I am. One was a lesbian mom whose partner was also slightly older. Another mom had a husband who became a college professor before the age of 30. And the mom who invited us over was in her early forties, I presumed, because she talked about how there isn’t much of an age difference between her and her husband, and when I finally saw her husband later, he resembled an older version of Homer Simpson.
The realization that these parents probably graduated college before I even began high school stayed with me for awhile.
Many of us forget that women have a biological clock. This clock certainly will not slow down even if you have a big house, your student loans paid off, a stable career, a savings account, and so on. So often I hear tales of infertility, and I wondered to myself–did these people thought that their fertility was invincible, that they can just easily get pregnant in less than a year once they deemed themselves “ready”? Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where your body and your mind may not agree. It is incredibly heart-wrenching to wait so long to have kids, only to wait even longer to have them. At that point, you just hope for a miracle of some kind.
My mom is a perfect example of a “fertility miracle.” Unlike her sisters and sisters-in-law, she was told by doctors after having her second kid that she would never have another one. This was difficult for a 27-year-old woman to hear. But she trooped on and went about with her life. So it was a great surprise to my parents when I came to the world ten years later, when she was 37.
Because I was born to an older mom, and one who worked a lot, I had an unstable relationship with her. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t like other moms who were always around, taking care of everyone, making sure I had enough kisses and snuggles. She put food on the table, and kept our family from sinking even further into poverty, but as far as the relationship factor was concerned, it was nonexistent.
Thus, armed with this experience, I knew that I didn’t want to wait until my mid-thirties to have children. I knew that waiting was the right choice, but only up to a certain point. Waiting so long because you want to achieve other extrinsic goals first was not something I considered. Simply put, I knew that I wanted to be able to relate to my kids better, and felt that I could only do so if I was a younger mom.
As millenials are projected to beat Baby Boomers as the largest generation ever, as indicated by the Pew Research Center, we must think about how these attitudes on child rearing will affect FUTURE generations. If millenials at their prime childbearing ages do not children, many family lineages will stop there. Once the said millennials reach old age, they will not have children or grandchildren around to take care of them. Instead, they will have to rely on those (other millenials’ children) to take care of them. I can imagine a certain level of loneliness will ensue when those no-children millennials realize that perhaps having children wasn’t such a bad idea after all, but nonetheless it’s too late. I imagine that a certain level of guilt will accrue in their minds, but then again, who am I to judge?
I think the best way to describe having kids as this–my husband once said, “You don’t know that you want a baby until you have one, and when you finally have one, you don’t know how you could possibly live without them.” I know I can’t convince my strong-willed, independent millennial coworkers have children, but I can definitely say that having them changed my life for the better. I know that if I had waited until I felt “mature enough” personally, then that moment will most likely never happen.
Back when I used to read Portland Monthly magazine, there was a small section in which the editorial staff listed who they would invite to a dinner party. Displayed at the bottom of the page before feature stories were names of about four or five individuals (and an artist’s rendering of that individual) who are either well known in the local community or have done something to be noticed, anyone from business owners to artists to sports players. The names change with every issue, but the point remains—these are the people who are most likely going to turn your dinner party into an unforgettable night.
It made me wonder—if I were to host a dinner party, who would I invite?
In this fictional dinner, I’m a woman in her late forties hosting with my daughter, who is in her early twenties. I’d imagine this would be a “women’s supper club” of sorts, where men are not allowed (sorry guys) because we’re going to be talking about some serious woman stuff—the kind of stuff usually discussed behind closed doors, hidden under the sheets, or tucked away in a closet in someone’s home.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about sex. Female pleasure. Perceptions and expectations. Where we get our knowledge from. Stereotypes against men and women. How society views sexual desires and activities. And most importantly, what women (young and old) think about their bodies and how that translates into their sexual activities.
But first—let me give you a little background before I reveal my dinner guests. As an adult, I can say that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about sex. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about how babies are made. Most of what I learned about sex came from books, TV shows and movies. One particular favorite of mine resonates strongly with who I was as a teenager—a book called, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” by Judy Blume. It’s a story about an adolescent girl caught in a crossroad between religion and sex. Like Margaret, I grew up in a religious home. Practically everyone in my village was Catholic and went to church every week. I was educated by nuns yielding whips and threats. But unlike Margaret, Catholicism was my only religion, whereas in Margaret’s case, her parents came from two different religions. Her mom is Christian and her dad is Jewish. She doesn’t identify with either religion but instead talks to a God. She has a lot of questions about her growing body and forms a secret club with her friends to discuss “womanly” things like getting your period, bras, boys, etc.
Besides young adult novels, I had the media to inform me about change. Shows like Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell introduced me to the world of high school drama. Now, as an adult with two kids, I feel like I have a responsibility to pave a better road for my own daughter, so she doesn’t grow up with these misconceptions about her body, or sex, or anything in between. In short, I’d rather be frank with her, no pun intended.
Lately, I’ve been doing research on how sex education has been taught in America. Not surprisingly, for the past two decades (since the early 90s), sex education has been primarily focused on abstinence-only education. For me, there was no sex education at all. Neither my middle school or high school offered it. Sure, there were health and PE classes, but none provided the information necessary for growing adolescents at their peak hormone levels. There were school nurses, yes, but I never felt comfortable going to her and asking for anything other than a Band-Aid. Sounds familiar to you?
As a teenager, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, medical exams, and the morning after pill. I went there instead of my mother because it was the only place where I knew I wouldn’t be judged. I would get the care I needed and move on, whereas if I had gone to my mother, she would’ve had a heart attack knowing that her daughter was sexually active and seeking birth control.
The other night, I asked my husband if his parents ever gave him the sex talk. He told me that his mom attempted to give him one, but it was vague. Later, as a teenager, his dad gave him a talk about the dangers of sexual activity. He was told that he should not get a girl pregnant, because if he did, then he would have the responsibility for the rest of his life. For a teenage boy, this kind of talk is terrifying. The weight of responsibility for another human being is not something that teenagers want to deal with. But then again, it was typical American parent activity—to scare their children away from having sex by translating it into a devious, risky behavior.
I think it’s time we change that. Thus, for my dinner party, the first person that I would invite is Peggy Orenstein, author and journalist. Peggy has done many interviews with young women and asked them personal questions about their perceptions and behaviors regarding sexual activity, which she outlined in her Ted Talk here. She said that a lot of women do not take into consideration their own pleasure—after all, society has dictated that male pleasure takes precedence. In her talk, she referenced a study done on 300 young Dutch women and young American women and their early experiences. Published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, this study noted that American women had engaged in sexual activity at an earlier age and were less likely to use birth control. They’re also more likely to feel pressured to have sex. By contrast, Dutch women’s experiences involved open communication with their partners about what they liked and didn’t like, along with using protection appropriately. They were more comfortable about their bodies and more in tune with their own pleasure.
The main difference between Dutch and American parents is that Dutch parents instilled a sense of responsibility and joy. From an early age, they talked to their kids openly about sex, pleasure and mutual trust, whereas American parents either provided the “risky sex talk” or didn’t talk about it at all. My experience along with my husband’s experience fits into this mold perfectly.
Speaking openly about sexual thoughts and behaviors is difficult for many of us, men and women included. But one person who has talked candidly about her sexual escapades is Amy Schumer. She is the second person that I would invite to my dinner party. In her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she talks openly about her childhood, her family, her thoughts and sexual adventures. The first chapter of her book is titled, “An open letter to my vagina,” which, as you would expect, is funny and raw. Her “openness” might be misconstrued as overzealous confidence. Whether or not that’s true, I think her “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude has helped her fit well in to the male-dominated world of comedy. As a woman, she’s had doubts and uncertainties about herself and her abilities, and I think it would be great to bring that to the table.
And while we’re at it, I’d also bring the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, E.L. James. For someone who wrote one of the best-selling series in the world, I was surprised to find that she is currently in her mid-fifties. She has truly opened a lion’s den regarding people’s sexual adventures, turning something that surely has been common (but kept secret) in America into something acceptable and extremely erotic. She has redefined female sexual pleasure to a whole new level.
Recently, I watched Fifty Shades Darker with my husband. Even though it was almost 10 o’clock, our bedtime, our eyes perked up at the sex scenes. I’m not going to lie—it was hot. This movie challenges many cultural norms, such as where pleasure should be directed to. It’s clear that outside the bedroom, it’s all about him, but inside the bedroom, it’s all about her. A woman’s desires and articulation for that desire was brought forth in this film. For example, in one scene, Anastasia says to Christian, “Kiss me,” a euphemism for oral sex. In another scene, she asks him to take her to the Red Room, a secret room where he keeps his chains and whips.
What E.L. James brought forth in her novels is that women are sexual creatures too. They want to be loved, yes, but they also want to be open and exploratory. Women’s desires are just as important as men’s. Thus, she created this young woman who is just barely out of college as an anchor for what young women should be like today—confident, self-assured, and knows what she wants.
On that same note, the party wouldn’t be complete without Anastasia Steele, James’ main protagonist, as my last dinner guest. I realize that she’s fictional, but Ana is a raunchy character who keeps up her “good girl” image in the professional world (evidenced by her refusal to submit to her boss Jack Hyde’s sexual advances), but instead allows her man to take control of her in bed while telling him exactly what she wants. She is, in theory, more Dutch than American.
As a society, particularly in American society, we often undermine girls’ self-pleasure. We don’t talk about girls masturbating; instead, the attention is on boys’ masturbation. We often make a joke out of it, saying that boys are bottles of hormones waiting to be expelled, whereas it’s lewd for girls to pleasure themselves. The result is that these girls grow up into women who doesn’t know how to articulate their sexual desires to their partners.
While I don’t disagree that you should warn your kids about the dangers of unprotected sex and sexually transmitted diseases, I do think that it’s important to give kids a straight talk rather than the danger talk or avoiding it altogether. Recently, I thought about how in approximately 7 years, my daughter will be 12 and in the swing of puberty. No doubt she will have questions about her body and boys and sex (she’s already asked me, “Why do women have boobs and little girls don’t?”) and I thought about how I would have “the talk” with her and what I would tell her about her body. So I wrote down a list of what I called, “Body Advice That My Mother Never Gave Me.” One of things on the list is about her hymen, how it will bleed the first time she has sex. Then I discovered this Ted Talk called “The Virginity Fraud” and it took me a step back. Whoa. Here I was, thinking that the hymen was like a piece of sensitive skin that breaks during first sexual intercourse, when reality, it’s more malleable than that.
After listening to the talk, I had to re-examine what I knew about the female body, and I realized that misconceptions such as the one about the hymen have been extrapolated from a variety of sources that I came into contact with growing up in America, such as books, TV shows, movies and my peers. It was then I realized that I, too, need to overcome certain misconceptions. I need to do my research before I tell my daughter that our bodies are the same, because it’s not. According to the speakers, hymens come in all shapes and sizes. Thus, hers might not be the same as mine. Lastly, her sexual experiences will not be the same as mine either.
At the end of this dinner party, I hope that we all can come to the consensus that while it’s important to give the talk, it’s more important to give the right kind of talk, the right kind of information, and be open and honest about our desires and experiences. As a woman, articulating my wants is something that I’m still working on. It is quite difficult to do when one grows up in an environment of secrecy, unmentionables and filled with abstinence-only education backed by religious beliefs. Still, I look forward to the day when I can talk to Lily about all of this.
Want to start thinking about sex education in a different way? Start with this Ted Talk.
It feels like ages ago, but when I was pregnant with James, my second child, I had a bad case of fatigue. I felt like it plagued me all throughout the pregnancy. Day in and day out, I was tired. Perhaps it was because I was working nights at a local grocery store, often flopping down onto my bed at half past midnight that contributed to the tiredness. Or perhaps it was because I had an energetic two-year-old toddler in tow, who constantly needed me and who constantly chatted, that I fell prey to the lovely technology piece called an iPad.
If the nights go well, then I’d be in bed by 12:30 am and passed out by 12:45 am. Then, approximately six hours later, between 6:00-6:30 am, Lily would wake me up. Her father is usually long gone by then. In the early afternoons while my husband was working, my fatigue settled in and told me that it wasn’t going anywhere. According to my time clock, I still had another three hours before my husband got off work, and another 9+ hours before I could go to bed. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time counting down the hours and minutes until I could go to bed. Unfortunately, my toddler was out of the napping phase at the time, so I couldn’t put her down for a nap and then take one of my own. Thus, my solution was the iPad. I gave it to her often in the early afternoon, so I could have an hour or so of quiet time. When she started playing, I’d immediately lay down on my bed, often staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open, and wondering to myself why I wasn’t asleep already.
My inability to take naps is another story. The point is, the whole time I laid there staring at the ceiling, sometimes crying (because, you know, pregnancy hormones), I felt incredibly guilty at having to use a technology device as a crutch for relief. I felt guilty at not having more energy to spend on her. I felt guilty because I wanted to do things, like clean the house, or even get out of the house, but my body couldn’t face it. The baby was draining all the energy out of me.
Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m allowing her to play on the iPad so I could write. I can hear her mumbling through the door of her room, the sound of her voice inquisitive. I know what she’s playing—a bubble pop game designed after the movie Inside Out.
This small level of parental guilt never quite diminished…until recently, while browsing the TED app on my phone, I came upon Sarah DeWitt’s Ted Talk called “3 fears about screen time for kids—and why they’re not true” and felt prompted to watch it immediately. In her 12-minute engaging talk, Sarah outlined the fears and perceptions about screen time for children, then weaved in her research and work at PBS to demystify the fears that a lot of parents face. Finally, she related the research on children with a very important idea—that what we should do as parents is engage with our kids about what they’re watching and playing.
Such insight on parental engagement in relation to children’s media has been validated through a study done at Vanderbilt University. In this study, researchers found that in order for children to learn best with media, such as television, parents need to engage in a dialogue with their kids. It makes perfect sense, because as Sarah had put it, engaging in conversation with your kids about what they’re watching opens up opportunities for discussion, thereby developing the child’s communication and critical thinking skills.
Fears about how screen time might be a waste of time and how it takes away children’s educational opportunities are valid. Fears about the content of videos being inappropriate to a child are also valid, given the recent criticism of Google’s Youtube Kids web site. Somehow Google allowed a few videos “slip through the cracks” and as a result, a myriad of videos with adult content circulated the web site, causing a lot of uprising amongst adults and parents around.
Look, I get it. Sometimes we can’t stop videos from appearing on our feeds. I recall awhile back, Lily was obsessed with Youtube Kids. It was an app on her iPad, and she was always watching. I saw a few videos that I thought were strange on the app, but never gave much further thought, until the issue with adult content on Youtube Kids came to the surface. From that point on, my husband and I decided to delete the app from the iPad.
When Lily was approximately eight months to 20 months, she was completely obsessed with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a TV show based on Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, as we know, have gone away to a better place, but his legacy lives on in the lives of Daniel Tiger and his friends. Sarah mentioned in her talk that what Mr. Rogers did was revolutionary—he started talking to the children as if they were there, when in reality, they were behind a screen watching him in front of a TV. He paved the way for other shows to follow, besides Daniel Tiger and the lessons about life that a child can learn by watching TV.
I wish I had shows like Daniel Tiger to teach me about life when I was a kid. Growing up, we had a small black & white television (this was, after all, a third world country in the early ‘90s) and we reveled in the television and what it offered. Then, when my family came to America, we stayed with my uncle and his family, who owned a large Panasonic television that was about as heavy as construction equipment hooked up to a video game system for their kids to enjoy in the basement on hot summer days. It was there that I realized televisions can be in color! (oh the excitement!) and how much of an entertainment experience that was.
The point is—whether we like it or not, we live in a world filled with technology today. It’s part of our every day lives. The truth is, many of us check our phones as soon as we wake up in the morning (myself included) and can’t stay away from checking emails on our commute to work daily. I often see many people, from all ages and ethnicities on the train with their headphones on, either watching a video or listening to music or checking social media. Technology is embedded in our every day lives, and it would be ironic if you are a person who is a frequent user of technology who revokes the same privilege to your kids. After all, what are you teaching them by doing so? That perhaps it’s something forbidden, or something that carries a certain level of excitement simply because it’s forbidden?
These days, Lily likes to play the drawing game on her iPad. She also likes to play the bubble pop games. When I’m sitting there with her, she often turns to me and gives a sports anchor’s minute-by-minute play on what she’s doing on the game. I’d often nod, smile, and listen to her words, amazed by her inquisitiveness and curiosity.
I really believe that when used appropriately, technology can be our friend. It can teach us a lot of things. Learning apps are aplenty nowadays, and as a parent, I try to choose games or apps that have an education component so that Lily gets the best of both worlds—to have fun and to learn something.
One chilly Thursday morning in January, I dropped my daughter off at her preschool. After saying goodbye to her, I ventured into the Family Resource Room, nestled to the side of the school’s main lobby paneled with wall to ceiling glass. It was there that I saw three women strike up a conversation with each other. All three appeared to be in their mid-to-late thirties with short brown hair and average height. As they talked among themselves I overheard one of them saying that they were a little early for “SMART time,” meaning reading time; hence, that’s why they were waiting in the room.
SMART stands for Start Making A Reader Today, one of the largest and most successful nonprofits in Oregon. Every year, they bring together thousands of individuals into elementary school classrooms to read books to children from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. However, it should be noted that SMART tends to focus mainly on inner city schools, lower performing schools, and schools with a high concentration of minorities and children of color, including African Americans.
The three women continued talking amongst themselves about a variety of subjects, one of which I caught was the perils of obtaining childcare. One woman noted that someone she knew had to take their kid to work once a week because of a babysitter snafu…and the talk went on. As typical as their conversation seemed to be, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “It can’t possibly be that the only type of people who care about reading are white, middle class women.” Where is everyone else?!? I imagined that if any of them had children of their own, their kids must be at least 15 years old. Perhaps their kids have already left the nest, and they’re feeling lonely. Or perhaps they’re not that old. Maybe they’re just stay-at-home moms who have the means to go volunteer every week at an inner city elementary school filled with African American children, just to make themselves feel better about contributing to society.
Later that evening, I talked with my husband about this observation. Our conversation quickly molded into the subject of storytimes at the library, something I do on a regular basis. He asked me if this racial representation also applies to storytimes. The thought of who attends storytimes isn’t necessarily something that I think about often; it was only when he brought it up that I began to realize that yes—the people who typically bring their children to storytimes are white, middle class women! Most likely stay-at-home moms, sometimes fathers. Oftentimes, they look much older than me. But then again, I look like I could be my kids’ babysitter.
I’m no stranger to literacy. I’ve been reading to my daughter since she was about 14 months old, and now at the age of four (almost five), she is a fantastic reader. She is well beyond the reading level of her peers, so much that her teacher this year was beyond surprised because she is only one out of two children who can really read amongst her 15 classmates.
Of course, I’m not here to brag about my child’s reading abilities, because that would seem selfish. Research has shown that reading to your child at an earlier age sets the stage for their academic and professional development later down the road. It enforces certain skill sets such as critical thinking and analysis, as well as written communication. The sooner the better, they say, so they don’t fall behind. That is why I began when Lily was just a year old, and why I’ve also introduced books to my son, who at 17 months doesn’t appear to be too much into books yet—however, he is slowly starting to engage with them.
According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, an organization that collects data for educational purposes, they noted in their July 2017 report that about 43% of adults read at Basic or Below Basic levels, as compared to 57% of people who can read at Proficient or Intermediate levels. Digging deeper into this statistic, you might be surprised to find out that Hispanics are part of the majority—41% of them read at Below Basic level, followed by African Americans at 24%. This is really troubling, because a large majority of minorities and people of color cannot read good enough to be able to do basic, everyday tasks such as signing a form, balance a checkbook, compare ticket prices, and use a TV guide to look for certain information, according to the National Center for Education Statistics report.
At Lily’s school, the evidence is there—roughly 34% of the student population is African American, followed by 30% Hispanic, the rest is variety of multi-racial, Caucasian, and Native Americans. On a global scale, approximately 757 million adults are illiterate. Girls account for the majority of this illiteracy rate, with two thirds of the world’s women unable to read. This is startling because there are many more girls than there are boys in the world, and girls play a pivotal role running the household as well as in the real world. Women can conquer the world by owning their own businesses, doing their own taxes, and managing their own employees.
I’m not saying that educating boys aren’t important—I’m simply saying that the gender educational gap has been long withstanding. We all know that many girls, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Africa, have less advantages when it comes to obtaining an education. And part of obtaining an education means learning how to read. It all comes down to granting independence for girls, and unfortunately, many countries are not ready to do so.
Of course, the problem is not just a global problem. It’s also a United States problem. By the age of five, one third of children entering kindergarten lack the skills necessary to be successful in school, and this number increases dramatically by the time they’re in fourth grade. The disparity comes from a lack of early literacy. Language development is the most pivotal from birth to age three, when babies’ brains are the most malleable because they’re developing fast; hence, vocabulary development plays a role in reading achievement by third grade, according to SMART.
Reading was a big thing for me growing up—I had a father who was a voracious reader. Despite the fact that we lived in a poor country with limited resources, he read the newspaper every single morning, and he’d read books every chance he got. Thus, I can attribute my love of reading to him. Both of my parents believed in the value of an education, but my dad was key in developing me into a lover of books.
Luckily, the skills that I gained from reading at an earlier age helped me in my English studies after my family immigrated to America. Due to a miscommunication, I was enrolled in a regular classroom, not an ESL class, and it was there that I sat with a volunteer reader (none other than a blonde hair, blue-eyed white middle aged woman whose name I’ve long forgotten) who read books to me as a way to help me learn English (this was after they figured out my lack of English skills and it was too late to put me in an ESL class), and later on, encouraged me to read by myself.
It was that kind of support that gave me the confidence to further learn English on my own. During my free time at home, I watched TV shows with subtitles on, listened to American music on the radio, and read as many young adult novels as I could possibly get my hands on, always with a dictionary in tow. That method proved successful, for I became proficient in about a year and a half. It’s still my preferred method of language learning today—to immerse oneself in the culture and language with as little assistance as possible. I believe that an average person like me has the brain capacity to figure things out when I didn’t have too many resources, like an after-school tutor.
After the conversation I had with my husband, and the realization about the scarcity of non-white parents showing up at story times and children’s events, I began to question why. WHY are there hardly any people of color volunteering to read in schools? Despite what I do, why am I still a minority, both at the physical level and the cultural level? Are there any underlying reasons as to why this is happening?
I read that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for language development. Babies learn from the words that they hear and the touches that they receive from their caregivers. Research has shown there is a link between vocabulary development and socioeconomic backgrounds. By the time they’re three years old, babies from poor families will have heard 30 million words less than their more affluent peers. A Stanford University study found that amongst 18 to 24-month-old children, there is a language gap between the rich and the poor. The rich were defined as those with an average annual income of $69,000 per year, and the poor with an average income of $23,900 per year. The study found that children who came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds understood more words by the age of two than children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The reason why? They speculated that children from lower income families had parents whotalk less to their children, hence the 30 million word gap by age three.
“The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” – Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times “The Power of Talking to Your Baby.”
Unfortunately, this word knowledge disadvantage continues well into fourth grade. Kids from lower income backgrounds tend to fall behind their more affluent peers, and the struggle becomes harder as they get older. More children continue to fall behind by the time they enter grade school, with minorities and people of color fall into this category the most.
Now, let’s think about this for a second. Is it really true that white, middle class parents talk more to their children or is it because they have the means to hire nannies, and require the nannies to speak and play with their children, thereby relinquishing the responsibilities of teaching their children about language? I may not be rich, but I am aware that “rich” parents are rich for a reason—they work long hours to be able to provide for their families, and unlike their lower class peers, they actually have the ability to hire help. Tutors, nannies, enrichment classes—you name it, they can afford it, whereas low income parents are struggling every day to pay for the bare necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.
It’s not to say that low income parents don’t have the time to talk to their children—it’s how they talk and what they say. Parents who are on welfare typically have multiple children, and oftentimes, their talk involves an authoritative or scolding tone, such as, “Stop hitting your brother!” or “Clean up your toys!”
I’m going to declare right here and now that I do not consider myself part of that trend. As with many parents, my husband and I exhibit a certain level of authority when it’s necessary, and other times, we talk a lot as a family. I’m not a big talker but my husband is, and this was passed down to my daughter. So, while I think there are some truth to the study and the statistics above, I also think that it is not representative of a lot of families in America, especially ones who are minorities. Just simply talk to your children more sounds great in theory, but one must take note of the privileges that rich kids have—being that their parents are more educated and have less children; therefore, the stakes are higher for these kids.
I wondered to myself –what would’ve happened if I didn’t have a parent who was so into reading? I would’ve become a statistic, a stereotype. Of course, the statistics mentioned above do not reflect wholly on the number of low income parents out there who are avid readers and writers. And my experience at my daughter’s school is in no way reflective of the reality of literacy, but there is some truth to it, I believe.
In a way, I am a statistic, but I’m trying not to become the obvious statistic—that because I don’t make that much money means that I don’t have the time or money to give the gift of reading to my children.
As an adult or parent, regardless of your socioeconomic background, I believe we can ALL play a role in supporting children’s literacy. We need to. Our future depends on it. For birthdays and holidays, instead of giving them the latest gadgets or toys, give the gift of books instead. And instead of going to the mall, a compendium of material things, head to the nearest library for story time—they’re free events that allow children to socialize with each other and hear stories. Finally, instead of simply tucking your child in bed at night, make time to read to them. They say that it only takes 20 minutes of reading each night to a child at least 3 times a week for it to make a difference in their life.
Every night, we ask my daughter to pick out books—usually 3 books, because that takes up 20 minutes of reading—from the stack of books that I choose based on her reading level at the library. It’s a ritual that we’ve done for years and will continue for many more. As a working mom nowadays, I don’t have as much time to take her to the library as I used to, but I make an effort to go at least once a week for story time and other children’s related events. She gets incredibly excited each time, and I believe it’s a culmination of the hundreds of times that I’ve taken her in the past.
This past Christmas, we gave my newest nephew a book—his first one. Even though he’s only three months old, I’m hoping that his parents will read to him, thereby instilling a sense that reading is important for learning and developing the mind.
Remember that kids don’t care where you get the books from. You can scout the library stacks, go to Barnes & Noble children’s section, browse through Amazon’s enormous selection, or get it at Goodwill—it doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that you are giving the gift of books that matters more. Lastly, when gifting books or reading to a child, it’s important to be as excited as possible and allow them to ask questions. You may not realize it, but kids do model their behavior after you (the adult), so if you’re not excited about books, then why should they be?
Reading sets the stage for future success. We can’t allow kids, especially ones from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to fall behind simply because we don’t talk to them enough or read to them enough. It’s our job as adults to propel them towards common core skills that are going to be useful for them to function in society.
How the work landscape has changed in the past few decades
It’s an obvious path — you finish high school, go to college, finish college and then start working. Then you work for a certain amount of years before you get married and have children. Once the children come, what happens next?
I’ll admit, I never gave much thought to the decision on how or who should be responsible for the upbringing of my kids once I have them. Because my path was so typical (as mentioned above) it wasn’t until I had my first child that the thought of going back to work was incredibly difficult for me. The thought of being away from my child for many hours in a day was terrifying, but the thought of not having enough income was also daunting, now that I have another mouth to feed.
At that time, I had the help of my mother. Thankfully, she came to my rescue. She watched my daughter for eight hours a day while I went back to work full time, even though she was still working herself — she did the graveyard shift four days a week at a food production company and came home in the early hours of the morning, babysat my child and slept whenever the baby slept. This was incredibly difficult for her as she was nearing her mid-sixties and almost at retirement age. Luckily, she did retire several months later.
Whereas I feel like I had a choice to back to work or not, my mom has been working her whole life. For more than thirty years, she braved a variety of manual labor jobs, from being a food vendor, carrying all her pre-made food in two large baskets straddled between her shoulders, to working in a freezing cold environment preparing meals for airlines, she has done the hard work, the kind of work that I simply cannot imagine doing for more than a year. And that is simply because educational opportunities weren’t readily available for her during her youth (we lived in a third world country); hence, when one doesn’t have the education to obtain office or administrative jobs, one ends up doing manual labor that is a test on their physical self.
But for many women like my mom, who chose to go to work, the choice to go to work isn’t so much of a choice — it’s a necessity that is detrimental to their personal life. In a recently published HBR article, written by a professor at ESSEC Business School France, it identified four different perspectives on work-life balance — a hot topic in today’s world.
The author states that our perceptions on work & life are impacted by what you saw your parents do while growing up. Based on what people experienced, they typically fall into one of four categories.
A) Intentionally adopt their parents model completely
B) Intentionally reject their parents model completely
C) Unintentionally adopt their parents model
D) Unintentionally reject their parents model
While I do agree with the findings of the author, I also think that is quite skewed in the scheme of studies. She only studied 78 parents and conducted 148 interviews to people who work in two specific industries — law and accounting (ahem, only people who are middle or upper middle class) and between the ages of 30 to 50 years old. This study clearly does not take into consideration people like my mom, who fell into the “lower income” category for many years and did not have an appropriate educational level to be qualified to work in law or accounting.
Now, it doesn’t take a college degree or research to tell you that the results are clearly and blatantly obvious. While I don’t believe that I fall directly into one of the categories, I do believe that I have had mixed perceptions about work and life balance. Several years ago, when my first child was born, I would’ve fallen into the “Unintentionally reject their parents model” scheme of things. My perception of my parents’ choices to generate income was skewed in the fact that I had more time with one parent versus the other, and I equated that with their level of love for me.
You see, because my mother worked a lot, more than ten hours a day, six days a week (because we were so poor), I saw my father a lot more. He was always around, but there was always a sense of disdain coming from my mom because my dad was what you would call “a starving artist.” He was a poet, a writer, and a comedian (not a professional one though). He could make everyone laugh, write fantastic poems & stories, and be the life of the party, but when it came to making money, he wasn’t so good at keeping jobs. Needless to say, my mom was the more reliable person who could keep on going with her job. It’s the type of tenacity that took me awhile to appreciate.
When I was young, I felt a sense of resentment towards my mom because she was never around. This feeling lasted all the way through early adulthood. It wasn’t until I became a working mom myself that I understood the need for her to work — because my dad wasn’t the main breadwinner in our family, she had to be. She was forced to be in a position that wasn’t so typical in our society back then. I don’t think she wanted to be a working mom at all. I think she wanted to be like all the other mothers, her sisters and sisters-in-law, who relied on their husbands to make the money so they could stay home and take care of their children.
So, yes, my perception of work-life balance is truly impacted by what I saw growing up. I knew that I didn’t want to be away from my kids all the time, but at the same time, I enjoyed going to work. I still do. It took me awhile to realize that going to work and being away from my kids is actually a beneficial thing for me and for them, for it allows me the opportunity to provide for them — you need money to pay bills and provide food & shelter, after all — plus, as the cliché mentions “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” I’ve found that I truly miss them and want nothing more than to be with them at the end of the day.
But back to the study — while there were valid points made, I also think there needs to be more studies done to broaden the horizon for work life balance perception from all aspects of life. To only ask a person who makes $80,000 a year whether or not it’s a challenge for them to work all the time is frankly, not great data to rely on, especially for those who only completed high school and are struggling to get by with a small income and a family to raise. To speak only to the privileged is to do a disservice to the underprivileged.