Having it all sounds good, but most of the young moms in my practice would be grateful if they could just take a shower in peace. Today’s workplace is a problem, as Anne-Marie Slaughter and many others have pointed out recently, but that’s only half the story. The American family--as invented circa 1952--is not friendly to today’s parents or children.
I thought about this while sitting on the wide beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, this weekend behind a very different kind of family: two young couples, an infant, a toddler, a young teen, a grandfather in rolled-up linen pants taking photos and foraging for plums in a beach bag, and a grandmother sitting cross-legged in a bright pink sari.
It was a vivid reminder: Life’s totally different for the Asian-American mothers I see in my practice.
In the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Korean communities, the generations help each other. Parents and children live close by, not as a sign of “failure to launch,” but out of mutual support. When they do live far apart, it’s not unusual for Indian grandparents to visit six months or longer to care for little ones. Grandparents aren’t necessarily responsible for all the childcare, but by filling in the gaps when parents are late for daycare pick-up, or have a doctor’s appointment, or go away on business, they lighten the load beyond measure.
I grew up with this family structure myself, when my Italian grandparents lived next door. My father commuted to Manhattan and worked long hours, but when I brought my class’s pet rabbit home from school for the weekend, my grandfather fed it carrots from his garden. When my brother was born and my mother was busy, my grandmother bathed me and taught me to make vegetable soup.
In a recent piece on what it termed “the Nonna State,” the Wall Street Journal saw this approach as an ominous stopgap measure reflecting and contributing to European economic decline. And yet Indians are America’s wealthiest ethnic group. Grandparents often bring a groundedness and different values to childcare, born of a longer perspective and a slower day. “My father was so great with the baby,” a young, highly successful mom told me recently. “He was so calm.”
In her recent book The Immigrant Advantage, the journalist Claudia Kolker writes about the Mexican cuarentena, the custom of six weeks of visits from trusted relatives who offer care and companionship for new mothers. With the majority (67%) of U.S. couples reporting a precipitous drop in relationship happiness in the first 3 years of their first baby's birth--an obvious impediment to creating the teamwork essential to any working marriage -- it’s high time to start learning from the traditions and rituals of other cultures.