Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Join the Union!

        I’ve been thinking about my grandfather a lot this past week, as I’ve watched the country wrestle with the questions raised in Wisconsin as Gov. Scott Walker seeks legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for public union employees. I wish I could hear my grandfather’s take on events.

        My grandfather was a staunch Republican, a fan of Ronald Reagan and a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of guy. He believed government shouldn’t buy what it couldn’t afford, and was deeply suspicious of government “giveaways,” particularly programs that he thought promoted dependence.

        He was also a union man, through and through. A small businessman, he ran a union shop, and was proud to be a member of the printer’s union. His advice on almost any subject was to “join the union,” so much so that it got to be a running joke in his old age.

        I am not certain how he reconciled those two things, because I was in my early 20s when he died and did not yet have the wisdom to see that they needed reconciling. Our political arguments (and there were many, because Grandpa taught me to love a good political argument) were mostly about his commitment to self-reliance and my youthful enthusiasm for using government to fix what is wrong in the world. As I’ve watched events unfold in Wisconsin and elsewhere, though, I’ve been thinking more about that question, and I think I have an idea of how being a Republican union man might have made perfect sense to my grandfather.

        Unions level the playing field. They help balance the vast differentials in power that occur when one side has all the cards -- money, influence, desperately needed jobs to offer or take away. Unions are the only way the working class can play the one card they have -- the fact that without their toil, everything the company’s owners have built is worthless. Unions brought us the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, disability insurance for those injured on the job, and industrial safety standards so there would be fewer injuries. In other words, unions made it possible for hard-working people to gain a toehold and build better lives for themselves. The union movement gave them bootstraps to pull themselves up with.

        Sadly, unions do not always champion such righteous causes. Sometimes they stand in the way of needed change, and become champions of mediocrity, defending the jobs of people who probably deserve to lose them. They have sometimes carried an “us vs. them” mentality into a world where there’s now a much bigger “them” out there than company management. Public employees’ unions have sometimes championed the good of their members at the expense of the good of the people.

        Alas, that’s the problem with human organizations -- they are never perfect. But getting rid of the unions is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It favors those who already have power and influence, and if you think *that* doesn’t lead to greater problems than flawed unions, you need to read up on 19th century American history. Be sure you place yourself firmly in the working class, unless your last name is Rockefeller or you come from a long line of Boston Brahmins. I doubt you’ll come away wishing the world were the way it was before the labor movement.

        I think we need *more* unions, not fewer. I listen to my professional friends talk about working 60 hours a week while being paid for 40, because they are afraid they will lose their jobs if they don’t. I hear them griping about the loss of benefits they feel powerless to stop. I hear about paid vacation time that “expires” because management refuses to approve vacations, again and again, because there’s too much work to get done. I read constantly about CEOs and upper management who collect multi-million dollar bonuses on top of their multi-million dollar salaries, while talking about “shared sacrifices” and insisting workers making $50,000 a year pay the cost of their health care.

        These are just the kinds of corporate greed and individual powerlessness that unions empower workers to address, fairly and equitably, through collective bargaining. Unions force companies to share the benefits of their success with workers as well as shareholders. So I say, let’s have more unions, not fewer. Let’s have unions for engineers and accountants, as well as assembly line workers and electricians. Let’s force those with money and influence to sit down at the table and figure out how to fairly and equitably share out the pie. Let’s work on fixing union short-sightedness and greed, instead of simply handing the whole pie to those who are already getting the biggest piece of it.

        I sympathize with the frustrations of those who have come up against immovable unions, and spent too much time defending against ridiculous grievances. There’s no doubt that we need to keep working on better ways to maintain a balance between the needs of employers and employed. But if an occasional shift in the balance of power towards the employed is the price we pay for keeping a place at the table for those who otherwise have little influence or voice, I’m willing to live with the union system’s flaws. I guess that makes me a “union man” through and through. I think my grandfather would be pleased.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tiger Moms and Me

When my daughter was born, I held my tiny baby girl in my arms, and hoped she would one day play Little League baseball.

This is particularly strange when you consider the fact that I did not think about future baseball teams at all when my son was born, two years earlier. Eric could play baseball or not, and I would be content. But my daughter... I wanted sit in the stands and cheer my daughter on as she helped lead her Little League team to victory.

The reason is that I never got a chance to play Little League baseball. I loved baseball when I was in third grade. I had a baseball glove, which my father taught me to use, and I practiced hitting and catching with my cousins and best friend’s brothers. I watched the Red Sox every chance I got. But I didn’t play Little League, because in the 1970s in my hometown, girls just didn’t. My mother suggested that when I got to high school I could play softball, like my cousins, but no one ever suggested I challenge the boys-only assumptions of Little League, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if they did. By the time I got to high school, it was clear I lacked my cousins’ athletic prowess, so I never did play organized sports.

So when my daughter was born, the first thing I wished for her was the opportunity I hadn’t had. I imagined myself sitting in the summer sun cheering her on as she deftly fielded ground balls and hit line drives that made the boys duck out of the way.

As it turned out, Becky had other ideas. I convinced her to try T-Ball when she was 5, and she hated it. She was bored by the waiting and discouraged by the difficulty of hitting and catching. What she loved was gymnastics and dancing, those eminently girly-girl pursuits, with pink leotards and cute little skirts. Sigh. So I dutifully sat outside the dance studio and the gymnasium at the YMCA while Becky took her lessons, and have had to content myself with sitting in the baseball bleachers to watch my son play Little League -- because baseball turned out to be his favorite sport.

This probably tells you a lot about my parenting style -- and it’s not that of the Tiger Moms everyone seems to be talking about right now. If I were a Tiger Mom, my daughter would have played baseball, by gum. And she’d have been good at it, because I’d have thrown balls at her for hours, and spent all winter with her in the batting cages at the local indoor practice arena. I’d have sent her to baseball camp for weeks on end. I wouldn’t have let her wimp out after that first season because baseball was “boring.”

It is quite possible that if I had made her stick with it until she got good at it, Becky would have come to like baseball. And I’m betting she would have learned a lot by being the only girl on her team, and beating the boys at their own game. It certainly would have been good preparation for a successful career in a competitive world. Maybe the Tiger Moms have a point. These are, after all, the parents who produce concert pianists and Olympic swimmers, not to mention students that get into Harvard, which is currently one of Becky’s ambitions. It may be that in my lack of Tiger Momishness I am failing her -- that if I’d just pushed her harder when she was in kindergarten to excel at baseball, she’d have a better chance to fulfill her dreams when she’s 18.

But the truth is, I just don’t have it in me to be a Tiger Mom. I am just not very good at the kind of intense, demanding, fiercely detail-oriented, utterly child-centered approach Tiger Moms are supposed to adopt. I’m lucky if I remember to check and see if Becky has remembered to practice the piano at all, much less give it the kind of intense focus that perfection demands. The reality is I’d just be a bad Tiger Mom, because you can’t be a Tiger Mom if you sometimes forget to take the child to piano lessons.

Does that make me a failed parent? It occurs to me that the question, itself, is what’s wrong with the whole debate. The furor over the Tiger Mom is just another example of our national obsession over the “right” way to be a parent. Working vs. stay-at-home, demanding vs. relaxed, strict vs. not, Tiger Moms vs. whatever I am: Inherent in all these arguments is the assumption that one way is right and the other is wrong. And while there are clearly some parenting approaches that are wrong -- abuse and neglect are never OK -- I think a lot of our parenting controversies are less about right vs. wrong than they are “it depends.” I think the best parent you can be is the one that reflects who you are.

I may be a lousy Tiger Mom, but I think I'm a pretty good mom-who-plays-D&D-and-talks-about-almost-anything-you’re-interested-in. My parenting traits are curiosity, willingness to engage in discussions about almost anything, and eagerness to learn new stuff. I’m the mom who delights in museums and travel to new places, and doesn’t get upset when creative exploration in the backyard results in mud-covered children and a knee-deep hole. I may not be a mom who produces Olympic athletes or concert pianists, but I am the mom my son's friends hang around the kitchen with because they know they'll be taken seriously. They complain that every topic ends up coming back to religion, but they keep coming back with new questions.

In other words, maybe instead of the "right" way to parent, what we need to know is who *we* are as parents. Maybe there is no "right" way to parent anymore than there is a "right" way to pray. Will my style of parenting shape my children in particular ways? Absolutely. But what if there isn’t a “right” shape for human beings, either? What if it doesn’t really matter if they go to Harvard or become Olympic swimmers?

Little League was my dream, not Becky’s. She will be a different person because I didn’t force her into fulfilling my dreams, for better and for worse. It may be that her dreams will have more power because of it -- Becky is already mapping out how she will get into Harvard, after all, while I bemusedly look on. And whatever college she goes to, she’s learned to dream her own dreams and take responsibility herself for making them come true. And I’m really proud of that, even though sometimes I feel guilty that she’s learned self-reliance because I’m so bad at even the basic Tiger Mom stuff.

In the end, parenting is more about relationship than it is about a puzzle to be solved, or clay to be sculpted. And just as all the other relationships in my life have good parts and not-so-good parts, so does my relationship with my children. Parenting, for me, means giving my children the best I have to offer -- and letting them learn to cope with me at my worst. And really, that’s all any of us can do, Tiger Mom or not. Maybe we are so anxious about parenting styles because we are so afraid of that “worst,” so afraid that our children will end up the sum of our weaknesses. But we cannot make our weaknesses go away by trying to be something we’re not: Mostly, doing so only accentuates our weaknesses and buries our strengths. And one thing my children have taught me is that sometimes, my weaknesses allow them to develop their own strengths.

Ideally, in parenting we learn how to be what we truly are, and to teach our children to be what they truly are. So I think it will turn out just fine that Becky and I muddle along while we figure out what it means to be a Priest/Writer Mom and her Tiger Daughter. And I’ll wait for a granddaughter to come along who loves baseball as much as I did.