Letter To A Sister-To-Be

A Newborn Baby Looking Up At The World
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Babysitting new baby and family obligations versus education?

I’ve been reading Yahoo News again, this time about a teenage college student living at home with her dad and stepmom. The dad and stepmom are getting ready to have a baby of their own, and on several occasions previous, he asked her (the student) if she would be okay with that. She had no problem with it, and indeed, wondered why he even asked her about it at all. She figured it was none of her business what they did. But a few months later, he told her he expected her to put in some major time caring for the little tyke. This came as a surprise to her; she did not realize that “being okay with that” meant a major childcare commitment was coming. Now again no one asked me for my opinion; but if I were writing her a letter, this is what I would say to the sister to be:

A New Baby Is Born from Letter to a sister to be
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There’s a wee one in your future

So your dad and stepmom are going to have a baby. You’re just getting your life together, chasing that all important college degree, and now you’ve been “drafted” to help take care of him or her. In a way, that *****. Although I don’t know which is worse, the expectation that you will “naturally” pitch in and help; or your dad’s thinking that you being okay with their having a baby automatically implies your willingness to do some heavy child care work. In essence, he asked the wrong question: not “are you okay with us having a baby” but “are you willing to do a big chunk of the hands-on care?”

The traditional system

There’s a certain tradition that defines the roles of men and women in family life. In our modern age, these roles are slowly being redefined; but it seems like your dad is a traditionalist. (And why shouldn’t he be? The system is working in his favor at the moment.) Part of this system is for women to be the caregivers; to step back from the world of career, work, and higher education; and to return to the home when their services are needed there.

You take pride in maintaining a full college schedule and holding down a part-time job to pay your expenses. But your father wants you to quit that job and cut a few college classes so you have more time to baby-sit. Perhaps he’s so traditional that he thinks a college education is wasted on women who are just going to quit, get married, and raise a family of their own someday.

I haven’t spoken to your dad, but I suppose another unspoken expectation of his is that he will step up to the plate and pay the expenses you are presently covering with your part-time job. A detail that’s obvious, except when it’s not.

Out Of Class
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Cutting classes

But cutting classes so you can spend more time at home is not workable. Most colleges have strict limits on how many times you can not show up. If you exceed that limit, you automatically fail the course. And if something’s covered that day that’s important, you’d miss out on learning something that you need to make sense out of the rest of the course.

If you simply cannot do both, you could always take a part-time load for a short while.

And if that isn’t going to work, there’s always the option of taking an outright leave of absence for 1 or 2 semesters. (It’s far from an ideal solution, as it means putting your life on hold, and delaying that degree.) That way, when you do return, you can give your studies the full attention they deserve. I understand the baby is due in June; if you could ask him to wait until after the finals that would be ideal (I’m joking!) Just be careful not to fall into the trap of delaying your return to school, half a year at a time, until it’s too late to go back.

Moving Day! from a letter to a sister
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Moving out

You could always move out. That would put an instant stop to your dad’s demands. But it may not be workable. First of all, your dad would probably see it as “quitting the family” and could refuse to give you help when you need it. You would be instantly slammed with all the costs and all the effort of maintaining a household (although sharing an apartment is an option). At worst, you would have to quit school altogether and work full-time just to afford to live. You don’t have that degree yet, so the kind of job you could get now would not pay that well. Please don’t take this route until you’re sure you can make it work. Or if you find there’s no other way.

Even moving out might not be the solution you were hoping for. If you get married yourself someday, it just might be your future in-laws who start making the same kinds of demands on you then. And it gets worse — as your in-laws get older, they just might turn to you and ask you to stay home and provide elder care for them.

(I myself needed to move out when my parents — especially my father — made what I considered to be unacceptable demands on me. But in my case I was lucky enough to be right on the threshold of graduation; I was able to delay things until I got my degree, a job to go with it, and an apartment of my own.)

If you had a brother

I’m quite certain that if you had a brother, also in college, your dad wouldn’t be asking him to put his education on a back burner so the baby’s needs could be taken care of. Per the traditional system, a man’s education is important — because it will allow him to earn lots of money to support a family of his own in style someday. While women are expected to be caregivers, men are expected to be wage earners. Rather than ask a son to help with the baby, they would just tell him to get a job and bring home the cash.

One benefit for women under the tradition is that women must never be left without a means of support. If she cannot take care of herself financially, one relative or another will take her in and provide for her. (Of course, you can always make the counter-argument that if she were allowed to earn a degree for herself in a remunerative field like engineering, she would never need that kind of safety net in the first place.) A man, by contrast, will just be told he’s a lazy bum and is not welcome here any more — so just go away — I don’t care where, but you can’t stay here. (And need I mention that in many countries, men are subject to possible compulsory military service while women are not?) I’m just saying this to show that it’s not always the woman who gets the bad end of the deal.

Your stepmom

All your discussions over this matter have been with your dad, not with her. I strongly suspect the reason is that she’s knows she’s not your mom, and therefore has limited authority over you. So she talks to him and he talks to you.

Two People Caring For One Child from letter to a sister
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And what will she be doing once the baby is born? I doubt she’s going to dump the entire load on you. But taking care of a newborn is more than a full-time job, so at least two people are needed. I think she sees herself as the primary heavy lifter, while your role would be to be her helper. Your dad will probably also help out from time to time. Although as I’ve suggested above, he probably sees his main job to be earning money to pay for it all.

But the light at the end of the tunnel is that a baby’s needs will grow less with age, and after a while can be tended to by just one person. (Even if you do take a break from school, you should be able to return after just 1 or 2 semesters. And that doesn’t mean you have to stop learning. Get the books you need for the next few courses, and read them when you can.)

A Heavy Burden
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The burden of human reproduction

The intense effort needed to provide for the next generation is not a new thing. All through human history the burden has been a heavy one. Modern contraception is only about 60 years old; prior to that, the only two choices for most women were abstinence or pregnancy. And it often didn’t stop with just one pregnancy.

And God help the older children in a larger family. The usual way large families deal with child care is to let “the older ones take care of the younger ones”. Meaning when you were barely past the age of learning how to walk, someone was ready to dump a baby on your lap. The point I’m trying to make here is that the burden is not something that was invented just for you; it’s something that’s always been there.

So what should you do?

There are a lot of phrases like “I suppose”, “I doubt”, and “I believe” in the letter above; I think the first thing the three of you (yes, all three) should do is to get all the unstated assumptions out into the open and add transparency to the debate. Perhaps you can find a mediator. A relative you all trust — to chair a discussion and help you work together. Make it clear to all and sundry that this mediator is not a judge; she is not expected to rule who’s right and who’s wrong and order what the loser should do. Her job is just to facilitate a discussion and help find a consensus.

And good luck to you all.

 

A personal note

A few days ago my aunt passed away, at the tough old age of 91. What I remember most about her is that she accepted me for who I was without reservation, and without trying to mold me into what she thought I should be. (My own parents were the complete opposite; anything I wanted they were against.) I shed more tears at the news of her death than for both my mother and father combined.

Fare thee well, dearest aunt.

Merry part; till merry meet again; and blessed be

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