Bashing our Heads Against the Brick Wall of Reality

The headline was pure clickbait.

“A Viral Google Memo Alleges Retaliation Against A Pregnant Manager.”

At least, that was the headline back in August when I first noticed the article. The headline has since been changed to,

“A Leaked Google Memo Exposes the Fallacy of ‘Generous’ Parental Leave”

That’s a lot less clickbaity, but the first paragraph is still pretty damning for Google:

On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.

op. cit.

Let’s find out what these sexist and derogatory things were. I am going to give you my take on this article, and you are welcome to click on the link, read it yourself, and draw you own conclusions.

 The writer of this latest viral memo … was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.”

op. cit.

Hmm, the third party was “overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant?” Does that sound like a thing that ever happens? Do you suppose it’s ever happened before? Oh, yes, it must have happened, to this very person, because the manager said the Googler was “likely pregnant again.”  So perhaps the manager is speaking from direct, even recent personal experience. And perhaps his or her words are, in some sense, true.

It is well known to all people with a brain that many women become emotional and forgetful when pregnant.  We also become easily fatigued. This could make us difficult to work with, especially in a high-pressure, fast-moving, competitive work environment.

This is not a slam on women. Pregnancy is a major life event. It drains the energy from your body, often makes you physically miserable, and messes with your hormones and, yes, your emotions something fierce. It is, in fact, a full-time job. It would be surprising if such a major physiological event weren’t.

 She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the member of my staff off of the team.”

She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”

op.cit.

Wait a minute. Her? Her??? The evil, pregnancy-retaliating manager is a woman??? Don’t you think this might be relevant?  Yes, yes, I know that women can be sexist against other women too, but given what we’ve already heard, I can’t help but think there might be more going on here.  Like maybe this female manager wasn’t looking forward to having to manage an emotionally unstable employee, and now she finds out she’s got another direct report who is complaining to HR, calling her a sexist, over remarks she made in an unguarded moment. Remarks which, perhaps, she expected that another woman would understand.  Clearly, she was mistaken.

At this point, I no longer trust the author of the memo accurately to describe her manager’s behavior.

After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.” Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ​‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”

op. cit.

Maternity leave might stress the team and rock the boat? You mean if the team manager had to leave for several months? Nah, that doesn’t sound at all likely.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.

When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.” 

op. cit.

OK. It’s time for some reality here.  Maybe, just maybe, the childbearing years do not mix well with building a high-powered, team-managing career at Google.  Maybe this is the elephant in the room that is being ignored by everyone in this story, heroes and villains alike.

Obviously it is not good to discourage a pregnant woman with a life-threatening condition from going on bedrest when her doctor has recommended it. Nor is it good to tell someone else how to care for their own health problems based on your own personal experience.  What could be causing all this bad, arguably sexist (though I prefer the term anti-pregnancy) behavior from another woman?

Maybe it’s the cultural expectation that prenancy is not a big deal and should not in any way affect a woman’s ability to “meet the expectations of a manager.” Which, of course, it is and it does.

This is a subset of the bigger problem of wanting to pretend that men and women are exactly the same and should behave and been seen as exactly the same at all times. Or, rather than being a subset, this is more like the real road test of that idea. Can women behave and perform exactly the same as men … even when pregnant? Even when on bedrest?  And if they can’t, does this make them inferior? And if you say they can’t, does this make you anti-woman?

One Google employee who dared to say “men and women are not the same” was James Damore. Adding insult to injury, he is now used in this article as an example of sexist attitudes within Google. 

Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.

op. cit.

The only part of that sentence that is accurate is the phrase “then-engineer.” That’s because Damore lost his job for writing the infamous memo. But the way the article quotes him is extremely misleading. He did not “argue against the company’s diversity efforts.” He suggested that there might be a natural limit to the number of women Google was able to recruit and retain. He didn’t say that “women are less competent in the field of tech,” at least not that all women are. He said that, in general, women tend to be less drawn to that field.  This is not “scientifically inaccurate.”  It’s extremely well-documented. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, in countries where people are allowed the maximum freedom to choose their careers, women tend to gravitate toward the helping professions and men tend to gravitate toward the hard sciences. 

What is scientifically inaccurate is the idea that women and men are exactly the same in mind and body, that pregnancy is a minor exception to this sacred truth, and that in the service of “equality,” pregnancy should at all costs be minimized, ignored, and if possible avoided altogether.

Certainly, goes the reigning orthodoxy, pregnancy shouldn’t be a big deal, shouldn’t change a woman’s work performance or lifestyle in any major way.  And if it does, somebody is due for some blame. Usually it’s the pregnant or newborn-having career woman, who “needs to figure out how to balance work and family” (translation: how to care for an infant without any help and without anyone else ever having to see or hear about the infant).  Occasionally, as in this article, the person who gets blamed is the woman’s manager, who dares to point out that her childbearing might have some impact on what she’s able to do at work.

People are flawed and sinful, and often, when we are blamed for something, it is at least partially justified. Not in this case. In this case, people are being blamed for not being able to enact a completely false picture of reality.  

Expecting women to combine their child-bearing years with their prime career-building years is unfair to everybody. As we see in this article, it puts managers, co-workers, and teams in a bad position. It also, of course, puts the young moms in a bad position, guaranteeing them a bad experience at work and robbing them of the ability to focus on their bodies and their babies during those childbearing years.

I’m not trying to guilt anybody here. Some young moms need to work so the family can get by. I get that. But we need to stop insisting that this arrangement is desirable for everyone … no big deal … easy … possible without something having to give, something having to suffer. Until we stop pretending, we’ll continue demonizing people (like the poor manager in the story above) rather than question the flawed doctrine.  That attitude, and not James Damore, is the real sexism.

Recommended reading: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn

Re-Parenting in Fiction

“It takes a village to raise a child.” 

When Hillary Clinton says this, it means your children actually belong to the State, and the State has a right to intervene if they don’t think you’re doing it right (which, trust me, you’re not).  When normal people say it, it means only that in order to grow into healthy, functional adults, kids need more than just a mom and a dad.  They need a whole community around them.

In the past, I’ve blogged about how living in a small, isolated community consisting mostly of extended family limits the options when a family must deal with abuse.   That is still true.  But it’s also true that living in a close-knit community can provide some benefits for children whose own parents are lacking in some way.  They can receive re-parenting, or supplemental parenting, from aunts, uncles, grandparents, older cousins, and others.

Re-parenting in Harry Potter

Re-parenting occurs in Harry Potter.  Harry, as we all know, does not have a proper family and lives as the unloved stepchild of his aunt and uncle.  When he meets his best friend, Ron Weasley, he is introduced to Ron’s family.

From Ron’s point of view, the Weasley family is not all that great a place to be.  It’s a large family, Ron is the youngest of many brothers, and he often feels overlooked.  Also, the Weasleys are poor, not in the sense of starving but in the sense of wearing hand-me-downs and being subject to taunting from snobbier wizards.

From Harry’s point of view, Ron’s family is paradise.  It’s an intact family with a loving father and mother.  Mrs. Weasley is a great cook, and Harry’s wizarding gifts are accepted as a normal part of life instead of being hated, feared, and suppressed.  Even the large number of siblings makes the household a fun place to be.  Harry stays with Weasleys many times and eventually ends up marrying into their family.

Imperfect Parenting and Re-parenting

Over the course of the series, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, also provides a father figure to Harry.  However, it takes Harry some time to realize that this is happening because he has been conditioned to mistrust authority figures. 

Harry is also re-parented by his father’s childhood friend Sirius Black.  This brings out the point that all of us need re-parenting from a variety of people, not just one person or one family.  Neither Dumbledore nor Black is perfect (Mr. Weasley might be perfect though!), but between the three of them they give Harry a decent composite father figure.  That’s why we say “it takes a village,” not “it takes one perfect person other than your parents.”   

Ironically, sometimes someone who is a flawed parent themselves can be an ideal supplemental parent.  This is true of Dumbledore, who is a wonderful mentor to Harry even though he let his own family down in significant ways.  We also see it in how Ron experiences his family as a place of being second-best, whereas Harry has a great experience in the same family.  In some ways it’s easier to be a good parent to your child’s friends than to your own child. Thus, the need for re-parenting is not necessarily proof that our own parents failed us completely or were more than usually flawed. It takes a village is an expression that, properly understood, simply takes into account the fact that everyone is badly flawed. It’s like the interpersonal version of the need for checks and balances in government.

Re-parenting in Voyage of the Dawn Treader

In C.S. Lewis’s classic sea story, Eustace Clarence Scrubb has parents who are neither neglectful nor directly abusive, but they have raised him with an inadequate set of values that is rapidly forming him into a sluggard, a coward, and a snob.  Eustace, when he is whisked into Narnia, is re-parented not by any one adult per se but by the total experience of being in Narnia.  And ultimately, of course, by Aslan Himself. 

In Eustace’s case, getting re-parented is painful.  At every turn, he is asked to work harder, put up with more hardship, and complain less than ever in his life before. Then things get really intense when he turns into a dragon and, to cure him, Aslan literally rips away his dragon skin.  Eustace’s experience shows that re-parenting is not just about lots of love, hugs, and healing emotional wounds (though of course it can include that).  It’s also a process of re-training, being challenged and held to higher standards.  We see this in Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry in the later Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore starts giving Harry difficult assignments and holding him accountable whenever he doesn’t get on them.

Re-parenting in The Strange Land

Ikash, the teenaged protagonist of my novel The Strange Land, has an abusive father and a mother who because of her circumstances is barely functional.   Early in the book, before Ikash ever notices his crush, he “falls in love” with her parents, who have an imperfect but warm and loving home.  They demonstrate to him that there is another way to have a marriage besides the one his mother and father have.  It takes a village.

His crush’s father doesn’t immediately accept Ikash, seeing him for the at-risk teen that he is and a potential danger to his daughters.  Ikash is re-trained and challenged when he sees that Hur does not trust him, and is motivated to become worthy of that trust.  The relationship grows through a series of tragedies and setbacks, and by the end of the book, the way those two re-parent him is really a sight to see.

Ikash also finds father figures in his paternal uncle and in his older cousin Ki-Ki.  In both cases, it takes him some time to trust them because of his previous bad experiences with authority.  I didn’t consciously copy this dynamic from Harry Potter.  It’s just a natural dynamic that often repeats itself because of human psychology being what it is.

“Found Families” versus Re-parenting

Once or twice while reading book blogs, I have seen the term “found families.”  I take this to mean stories where a character is orphaned or rejected for whatever reason and goes on to find or create a “family” for themselves from friends they meet along the way. 

Clearly this is related to what I’ve been saying about re-parenting.  I am not sure that it’s exactly the same thing because I don’t know the details of what people mean when they say a “found family.”  My sense is that found families might more often consist of peers, whereas when I say re-parenting I am thinking more of a character being brought under the wing of a mentor (or, ideally, a couple) who are older and wiser.  Also, re-parenting can happen without the characters really being considered a family, as in the case of Eustace.

In the comments, please tell me what you know about the term “found families” and also what you love and/or hate about found families and re-parenting in fiction.