Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A little fanboy moment

So this morning I had a nice fanboy moment at, of all places, Liam's ECFE class. We started way back in September going Tuesday and Friday morning, and today was the penultimate meeting for the Tuesday class. The first hour the kids and parents are together (Fiona has been hanging out in the sibling care room since Katie went back to work and I bring both of them on my own), and the second they are separate, with the kids doing more directed play and the parents going off to a discussion group where we have talked about various aspects of child development and the challenges of parenting 2-3 year-olds. Today's discussion group started a little earlier than usual because our parent educator Leanne had brought in a guest speaker. The woman looked familiar, and when she introduced herself my hunch was confirmed, even though we had never formally met in person. Leanne knew the guest because she and her son attended another of Leanne's ECFE classes, but I knew her because she spent several years with that most excellent Twin Cities vocal music outfit The Rose Ensemble.

Our guest is also a music educator, and appropriately enough she was there to talk about how to integrate music into the daily life of infants and toddlers, and also to dispel some of the myths about how musical aptitude is solely based on innate ability. She used an analogy that I found quite compelling: reading is a learned skill, and although some people will be better at it or pick it up easier than others, we do not tell those for whom it is difficult to abandon it altogether. Yet that is often what happens with music. Some children will have a knack for it, and it will rightly be encouraged, and they may one day make it to Carnegie Hall. Other children will struggle mightily, and unfortunately will be told by society to give up and move on to something else. There are those who might say that we should tell children to focus on developing the things they are good at, and I certainly agree, but the process by which children figure out what skills or subjects they are more adept in is more often than not framed by the language of being a failure, which can have harmful psychological effects far into adult life. These effects can be especially damaging when it comes to music, given that it is an element of every human culture (at least every culture of which I have knowledge). As our guest reminded us, it was not so long ago that making music was a part of almost everyone's daily life, and it was only with the invention of the phonograph and recorded music, and the subsequent rise of superstars, that western society got away from that. In fact before the late 19th century the analogy with reading was pretty much the reverse: literacy was considered a skill for the elite few and music one that everyone could and should develop as far as they were able. Thankfully, I learned, my wife and I are doing a lot of good things to make music part of Liam and Fiona's everyday experience, and even if neither of them go to Julliard they will be encouraged to pursue any musical aptitude they might have to the fullest.

I waited until after the formal presentation to out myself as a squeeing fanboy, and our guest was quite pleased to know that Jordan (Sramek, Rose founder and artistic director) and co. had a groupie. Now go and buy some of their CDs, you won't be disappointed.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Thoughts on parental leave

Late last week my wife returned to work after spending nearly four months at home following the birth of our daughter Fiona in January. She has a pretty prestigious job, and her employer has one of the more generous maternity leave provisions you will find in the US labor market. When she went back after her leave with Liam I was in the second and final year of my graduate program, and the plan was that after graduation I would find a full-time position in my field and Liam would then be in day care three days a week while continuing to spend two days with my mother-in-law (grandma will not be denied!). For this to make financial sense any job I would take would need to pay me at least what it would cost to cover day care, the other incidentals that come with being employed, student loan payments, plus a little extra left over (else why go through all that trouble?). Given the extremely weak market for state and local government jobs at the time I graduated in August 2010 (my masters is in public policy), one which has not improved much in the time since, the plan did not come to fruition as hoped and I continued to be the main caregiver for Liam through all of 2011.

Now that the leave for Fiona is over, I am returning to this role for at least the next several months, with the only difference being that on the grandma days I will be at my part-time gig, which sort of fell into my lap late in January. I realize that my situation puts me squarely within a couple of growing male demographics, those being men who are primarily stay-at-home dads and men whose wives bring in the majority of the household income. I imagine that in many cases the latter enables the former, as it certainly does in mine, since if your wife has the higher earning potential it makes sense for her to remain in the labor force while you take care of the kids. However, I also realize that for a variety of reasons not everyone can afford to have someone stay home as a full-time caregiver, a situation I was reminded of yesterday when I read that the best friend of one of my sisters was going back to work after having her baby a mere six weeks ago. Combine this with the front page feature in the Sunday Star Tribune being about the disturbing rise in infant day care deaths, and the subject of parental leave is very much in the forefront of my thoughts today.

The article was framed using the story of a couple in one of the more rural MN counties whose infant son died in a home day care after being put to sleep face down. As anyone with young children knows, this is completely against all current recommendations on how to position an infant for sleep, but the provider did it anyway and then also failed to check on him every 15 minutes, which is the licensing standard for a home day care. While there is no way of knowing whether the infant's death could have been prevented if the provider had just followed the recommendations, the other, just barely mentioned tragedy is that his mother was already back at her $9/hr job less than two months after giving birth, with the father having already returned to his job sometime before. Now there is probably some heartless bastard out there who will ask "If a couple needs to rely on the income from a $9/hr job to get by, why are they having children in the first place?" To which I would reply: so that there might be someone around to take care of your old cranky ass when the callous kids you raised (if you had any) unceremoniously leave you at the nursing home. But seriously, though I agree that there are plenty of people out there who should not have kids but do, one cannot base someone's fitness as potential parent solely on their paycheck.

It is wisdom like this that has been absorbed and implemented in policy by pretty much every high-income  country out there, and some middle-income ones as well. The EU, Japan, and other OECD members have at least some government guaranteed paid parental leave (some countries have separate maternity, paternity, and parental leave provisions, others roll it all into the same system), except for the good old US of A. While there are some state-level leave requirements and supports, the only thing at the federal level is unpaid FMLA, and you'd better hope grandma doesn't get seriously ill in the same year. Employers thus have a great deal of discretion in deciding whether or not to offer paid leave as part of their benefit packages, and so they run the spectrum from the relatively generous leave my wife was able to enjoy to none at all. Thus situations like the one in the Star Tribune article and that of my sister's best friend are relatively common, and on the whole we all suffer for it.

What the rest of the rich world (especially the Nordic countries) has learned that we choose to ignore is that children whose parents are able to stay home with them in their early years will on average be much more likely to be socially well-adjusted, fare better in school, and grow up to be productive members of society than those whose parents are forced by economic necessity to be away earning income. The initial investments to support generous parental leave may be large, but they are paid back several times in the form of lower crime rates, improved mental and physical health, and a generally happier citizenry. In short, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to set up a system like they have in Sweden, where its benefits are already evident, or else we will continue to pay up the wazoo for not having it. Businesses will of course protest as they are dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but we give the child the vaccination even though we know they will cry as it is being administered.      

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So there's this book that I'm in...

It is not entirely a coincidence that the last time I posted here was just a few days before my daughter Fiona was born. A few weeks after that I started a new part-time job, and as such I haven't kept this thing up to date for a while. Today happens to be the final day of my wife's maternity leave, so starting tomorrow I will be taking care of both children three days a week and working the other two, which I imagine will leave even less time for casual blogging, but even so I hope to start making it worthwhile for my few readers to stop by a little more often.

In addition to the other recent changes in my daily routine, over the past few months a growing amount of buzz has been generating around a book that will be available later this year. That book is Atheist Voices of Minnesota, an anthology of essays written by people who, unsurprisingly, consider themselves a) atheists, and b) Minnesotans. Some of the contributors are widely known figures within the freethought movement, such as P.Z. Myers and August Berkshire (whom I've known for many years), others are card-carrying members of the atheist blogosphere, including Greg Laden and Stephanie Zvan, but the majority are people who just wanted to share their story (or at least part of it) with the wider world. As you have probably guessed, I happen to be in this last group, and while my essay is not long, it will be the first time any work of mine (not counting the occasional letter to the editor) will appear in print for a mass audience. Thus you can understand why I am eager to promote the book, and hope you will all purchase it when it comes out on August 28th (you can pre-order it on Amazon right now). I submitted my essay gratis, and all profits from the book's sales are going to Minnesota Atheists (a fine organization, if I may be so bold), so I won't be deriving any direct financial benefit, but if the discussion and feedback it generates lead to other opportunities I won't complain.

And I've got to say, after just watching the Twins get no-hit (and thus shut out for the second game in a row, and thus swept) by a thus far mediocre Angels club, it will be nice to have something to look forward to this summer.