It’s a hot August night in 1991 at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and the delivery room is filled with bright lights. A film crew is documenting a woman giving birth. After almost 12 hours of active labor, it’s time for her to really push.
A few anxious rounds of counting to 10 and many deep breaths later, the doctor says, “Ooooh there you go, lots of hair.”
“That’s it, the baby’s coming!” the red-haired nurse says with excitement.
That’s when I enter the picture, with a head full of red hair of my own.
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I know this scene well. It’s my own birth. Not many people can say they’ve watched their own delivery, but I can.
In fact, I’ve watched myself be born more times than I should probably ever admit to. I’m doing it again tonight for the ninth time this week, sitting on the floor in my studio apartment with my eyes fixated on the television. The sight of my fiery red hair making its debut will never fail to amaze me.
The video of my birth in no way resembles your typical home video. It’s more like a documentary, with my parents and family, and then finally me, as its subjects. Every single reaction of theirs is recorded in the truest manner, and edited as well as early ’90s technology could allow. That’s because it was not shot by a proud father-to-be, but instead a professional film crew. I was paid $300 to be born (the check went directly into my first college fund, I’ve been told), and the footage was used to make an educational video for other expecting parents to watch during Lamaze birthing classes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have watched me be born, too.
In the early months of my pregnancy, when practical concerns still floated out on a distant horizon, Matt and I talked endlessly about our first official parental duty: Selecting baby names. We understood that whatever name we chose would plant a flag in the soil of our daughter’s life, binding her to a set of associations that would follow her around for the rest of her days. Matt, Matt, the big fat rat, and Paulette Portolette would strive to choose a name that would be nearly impervious to ridicule and would guarantee our child was well liked by her friends.
We tried family names, like Royal, after Matt’s beloved grandfather and Sophie, after my grandmother. We toyed with Summer or Alabama because they seemed cool. Walking around our apartment, we repeated our favorite names, one after the other, to hear what they sounded like coming out of our mouths. Part of what I enjoyed about this game was that it allowed us to jump past the pregnancy to some point in the future when we were already a family of three.
But just after the six-month mark, things went south. We learned the baby girl I was carrying had a rare, life-threatening heart condition, and suddenly our attention jerked sharply from issues of social ease to survival.
It’s dark and I’m sitting beside the smoldering remnants of sausage fat and cocoa powder. My kids roll around noisily in a tent behind me. I can hear my son try to reason with his younger sister, a bedtime dialogue marked by grunts and half-English. She cries out every now and again, fighting the sleepiness which, by god, must surely win out.
I’ve ventured into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to go camping with my kids — ages 1 and 3 — and I elect to do this without the help of my wife. She’d started working full time as a nurse several months before, including back-to-back 12-hour shifts every other weekend, while I was working a standard Monday-to-Friday schedule. And so for the first time since my children were born, I was left to solo parent for two days every other week. How hard could it be?
After several weekends, the answer was clear enough — it can be incredibly hard. Set aside the notion of treating time off of work as time “off.” Understand that your days are no longer your own, that time is marked not by numerals on the clock face but by bouts of wakefulness and sleep, of meals, snacks, playdates, shitty diapers, baths, and bedtime stories. Of course, anyone who spends their day as the lone supervisor of small children knows this instinctively, and should probably be awarded a fucking medal. This includes my wife.
So in my naiveté, I decide hastily that on this Saturday in early September, while my wife spends her “days off” from watching the kids working the telemetry floor at the hospital, that the children and I will do something that I enjoy and that perhaps they might get a kick out of as well.
Later that night beside the fire, while we haven’t technically been out of the car for more than five or six hours I realize this is not the purposeful experience I’d imagined. I’ve spent the majority of those hours in a state of frustration as I roll back the tape in my head. I lie in the dirt, push my sleeves down, and stew on all of this — my misguided preparation, my skewed expectations, how little sound is muffled by tent walls. I wonder, What the hell was I thinking?
I worked retail, selling art supplies, when Friends was insanely popular. I lived in a tiny studio — they’d call it micro-housing now — and I got by. I quit when I was hired as a caption writer. It paid three times what my retail job paid, though it was still not a lot of money. I moved into a two bedroom duplex with a friend, and I continued to get by. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I didn’t have a lot of expenses, either.
But it was not New York City, it was Seattle on the front edge of the tech boom, and it was still cheap. It always bothered me that Monica, a line cook, and Rachel, a barista — and not, I think, a very good one — had that spectacular apartment. Joey and Chandler’s place seemed a bit more believable, though I imagine Chandler was always having to front Joey at least part of his rent.
And now I’m on about Friends, when I mean to be on about Girls, which has the same maddening practical issue. How do they pay their rent?
Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.
In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)
Below is the story of a single mother and her daughter. Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect their identities.
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By the time Olympia picked up her 6-year-old daughter Raina from the babysitter she was tired. She works a 10-hour day satisfying the various needs of two young siblings in Brooklyn’s affluent neighborhood of Cobble Hill, shepherding them to and from various classes, camps and playdates, making sure they get food when hungry, rest when tired and are properly stimulated when bored.Read more…
In Bloomberg Businessweek, Claire Suddath reports that there are only two countries in the world that don’t have some type of legally protected, partially paid leave for working women who just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S. The result is another big gap between the haves and have-nots:
The policies vary widely across industries and pay grades. A BLS survey of “business, management, and finance” workers—basically, those in white-collar jobs—found that 26 percent of them get paid leave. At many Silicon Valley companies, which compete for talent, new parents have it made. Facebook offers a little more than four months to everyone. Google offers five for mothers and three for fathers or new adoptive parents. The company developed its policy a few years ago when it noticed that many new mothers were quitting their jobs. After it added two more months and offering full pay, the number of new mothers who left the company dropped by half.
Some older companies also have generous policies. Goldman Sachs offers four paid months, and General Electric offers two months to moms and two weeks to dads or other parents. Waitresses and sales clerks are often out of luck; only 6 percent of service workers get anything at all. That means the ability to adjust to parenthood, learn to breast-feed, and manage a newborn becomes a luxury only certain people can afford. “We have these policies set up from the Mad Men era when dads worked and moms stayed at home. But that doesn’t reflect the American workforce anymore,” says Gillibrand, who as partner at the Manhattan law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner wrote the firm’s maternity leave policy in 2002.