I’m sitting here sipping my afternoon cup of coffee after having put my son James down for a nap. Normally, he lays in his crib and babbles on for an eternity, sometimes as long as an hour and a half, before falling asleep. But today, he is surprisingly quiet right after I put him down.
After making my daughter her lunch (PB&J, cut into small cubes, and pretzels), I proceeded to finish the last eight pages of my book. Ten minutes later, I’m done, and I can smell the banana bread that I just put in the oven wafting its lovely aroma into my nose. Outside, I can hear the rain trickling down in small droplets. The house is quiet. This is our normal weekend routine.
As I sit here, my daughter is playing games on her iPad while she eats her lunch; the dishes need to be done and the laundry needs to be folded, but that can wait–I feel accomplished already. After all, I’ve gotten the kids out of the house, even on a rainy day, to the mall’s play area (our default outing location), and I’ve done some baking, took some pictures, and finished a book.
Several years ago, I never thought that I would be able to get this much done in a day, or even a weekend, because weekends meant that I was working nights. Four nights a week for almost a year. I’d get home at midnight and go to bed at 12:15 a.m, then around 5:30, my husband leaves for work, and by 6:15, Lily is up an running. Needless to say, I was very tired.
Perhaps because I was pregnant with James or because I was in the midst of the “terrible twos” I didn’t feel like doing much during the day. It was just my daughter and I, so normally we’d take a walk down to the park nearby. She’d throw rocks into the pond while the ducks glided by while I sat there, counting down the minutes until her nap time.
Back then, nap time was everything to me. It consumed my thoughts. Nap time was time for me to recoup, relax and enjoy some peace and quiet. However, at two and a half, Lily became less interested in napping, so much so that the only way I could get her to nap was to take her in the car (sometimes bribing her), and go on a drive until she fell asleep. Usually, this took about 25-30 minutes.
In the summer, it was tough. Back before we bought our current car, we drove an old Mazda that was not only a gas guzzler but had a broken AC. Thus, I rolled down the windows as much as I could. Then, when she finally fell asleep, I’d park the car in a quiet residential corner about five minutes away in my neighborhood and sit there…and wait.
Sometimes I’d marvel at the beautiful tall trees that loomed over the block. Other times, I’d wince at the thought that my bladder was acting up again (pregnancy woes), and I had to figure out how to relieve it without waking my daughter up.
Most of the time, though, I would sit there and read…or try to, anyway. I never finished any books, but finished many articles on my phone. Finally, at around 2:30 p.m, an hour and a half after I parked the car in the shade, Lily would wake up, and we’d drive home to greet daddy, who was usually home by 3:00 p.m.
On days I had to work, I’d leave at 3:15 p.m, and didn’t come home until midnight.
This went on for awhile until I had James. This little boy has surprised me in so many ways as a parent. For one, he is still napping at 2 1/2 years old. Besides his babbling tendencies, he goes down without much of a fight. He is the exact opposite of Lily in terms of napping.
That’s what came into my thoughts today as I’m sitting in the car and driving home with my kids in the back–how different can two kids be? I’m not just saying they’re different because they’re different genders; they’re different in so many ways.
You see, that is a revelation that I had today.
As obvious as it seems, it never occurred to me that the second (or subsequent) kid will be different than the first kid. If and when you have a second child, you should take whatever expectations you had with the first child and throw it out the window, because they will be nothing like each other. James, for example, will kick me in the face as I’m trying to change his diaper. He can be tough sometimes, but he gives me more hugs than I can count in a single day. Lily never kicked me whenever I changed her. She’d lay there quietly and wait until I’m done. I don’t recall any major struggles with getting a diaper on and off her.
Today, he kicked me as I’m trying to change his diaper. He also babbles incoherent words, which I assumed was something to do with the bottle that I promised him. As soon as he finished the said bottle, he grew so angry because I only gave him a 9-ounce bottle, and he was hungry. He screamed at me, asking for more. I managed to calm him for just a minute, then I asked him, “Can I pick you up?”
“Yes,” he said. So I did.
A few minutes later, he’s quiet. His head is resting on my shoulder. I’ve burped him. Finally, I asked him if he’s ready to be put down, and he replied, “Yes.”
And the house is quiet again. For a few hours anyway.
As a newly immigrated adolescent in the late ’90s, I attended a public middle school, then went on to a public high school. It may have been 15 years ago since I graduated from high school, but I can remember a particular teacher named Mr. Harvard, who taught choir and band (RIP, Mr. Harvard) and who made a profound impact on me, so much that when I began college, I decided to major in music… only to realize that I couldn’t read music. Eek. So my plans were thwarted to another “artsy” subject–apparel design, then finally graduating with something more practical that my mom would approve called “a business degree.”
These days, I am an accountant, a position that I never really saw myself doing, mainly because I didn’t know any accountants in my circle of family and friends (or families of friends) and thus I didn’t know what they do, and how I would go about seeking information on their jobs. What I did know a lot of, and was exposed to, were teachers. Now that I think about it, Mr. Harvard was an incredibly passionate teacher, perhaps the only one that I’ve ever met in my entire life, who loved music, and extended that love in the classroom every day. He was a jolly man who were prone to give big bear hugs and had a big, boisterous laugh. You couldn’t help but love him. He was an extremely likable person. Clearly, he chose the right profession, I thought.
So when I found out that he died several years ago, from post-surgery complications, when he was just barely 40, I was incredibly sad. I wrote a letter to his family, telling them about the impact he made on my life and of so many more out there who they may not know.
Mr. Harvard is a rare breed of teachers in the overall scheme of public school teachers. I recall other teachers that I had in high school, the majority of which did a fine job, but overall was not as enthusiastic about teaching as Mr. Harvard was. It’s the kind of enthusiasm about teaching that truly resonates with the students, for it is one thing to be a good teacher, but another thing to be an enthusiastic good teacher. Many of us don’t come across enthusiastic good teachers. I was one of the lucky ones.
That’s why I was disheartened to come across three recent articles about teachers in America. The New York Times magazine dedicated an issue to education, and in one of the articles, What Teachers Are Doing to Pay the Bills, I read about eight teachers who are working a second (one works a third) job to pay the bills, because their teaching salary is insufficient to cover living expenses. In another feature by Time magazine, I read two more stories about teachers, this one and this one. The solemn faces of 13 teachers are profiled (why 13, an unlucky number, I don’t know), standing or sitting in their dark, grimy classrooms (or hallways) provides a reflection of the current state of teachers in America.
To add to the depressing tone of the articles, almost all of the teachers profiled appears crestfallen and sad, like they’re about to give up teaching, period. Only three are smiling, and I wonder how many of those smiles are actually genuine.
This is the kind of media coverage that would put me to shame if I were a teacher in America. As someone who has seriously considered teaching as a career (as a kid, I admired my teachers greatly, and would always answer, “A teacher,” whenever an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up), I feel a personal conflict with how teaching has evolved over the years but also how it’s perceived as a career. Teaching is a noble profession, and those who chose it have varied reasons, but can all agree that they value education greatly. However, stagnant wages, rising living expenses, and battles over state funding are the reasons for why our educational system is failing to retain good teachers.
It’s a shame that the media has chosen to portray teachers this way. Surely, certain facts are not being disclosed. We ALL know that teachers don’t make a lot of money, and that they have to deal with the politics of unions, benefits, and compensation that makes it difficult to teach, but at the same time, these people chose the profession in the first place, knowing full well that they will never get rich from teaching.
Certainly, it doesn’t help to profile the most depressed-looking teachers in America. So what happened?
I think in general, teaching became a depressing career because as a country, we don’t regard teachers as highly as we regard other people who are also public servants, such as police officers, firefighters, and military. We don’t have a solid system in place to recruit and hire the best teachers (even the “best” system for hiring teachers, Teach for America, still relies on recent college graduates with no prior teaching experience). There are no hiring bonuses, reduced tuition programs, free housing, or reductions in other costs, as evident in the nursing profession. The only thing offered is a student loan forgiveness program for five years of teaching at an inner city school. It’s no surprise then that a lot of teachers quit within the first five years.
I’ve always regarded teachers as people who deserve a high level of respect, simply because they are public servants. Teaching is one of those difficult professions in which one can say, “If someone doesn’t do it, then who will?” Without teachers, who will prepare the future of America? Who will lead the kids who will eventually grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, businessmen and journalists who will write these articles? I wonder if there will any future Mr. Harvards?
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.
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.