I watched them closely over the years.
At first, I didn't realize I was doing it -- looking on as my mother waited until I was a teen to start commuting to a job in the city, paying attention as her hours of sleep dwindled and our number of home cooked meals disappeared.
Eventually, though, my mental note taking became more deliberate. Noticing how the mothers in the newsroom were careful not to keep photos of their children on their desks. How they worked through lunch and then quietly left (a little) earlier. How the happiest were those with the most control over their schedules.
That is how change happens, with each wave of us watching the one before -- taking notes and taking heed. All of history, personal and global, is shaped by what happens right in front of us, and directly behind.
Sometimes we joke around here that working for HuffPost Parents is a most effective form of birth control. Of the dozen of us in the Lifestyle cluster, four have children, while the others, I assume, are watching. I worry about them spending their days writing about the stress and strain of infertility, pregnancy and parenting. Our page is a place where readers come to vent and rhapsodize -- but, let's face it, venting, by definition, is much louder. Is that what they are learning? Is that the message I want them to hear?
I also assume they are watching us -- those who are a few paces ahead, whose spouses have already been chosen, whose children are actual rather than theoretical, whose juggling is furiously under way.
And they aren't the only ones watching -- my sons are doing it. The ever-closer-to-adulthood-children of my friends. A whole generation looking to the one before for clues about how to navigate the next stage.
I am not sure they like what they are seeing.
They are showing us their doubts by having fewer children, and doing so more often without the "complication" of a marriage -- the US birthrate has been steadily declining for years now while the percentage of single mothers has jumped. They are telling pollsters that they are delaying parenthood because they fear the dent to their freedom, and that they are now more ambitious than men.
Earlier this week, Alice Gomstyn, of abcnews.com, asked more than a dozen working women without children, all between the ages of 22 and 36, what they saw when they looked around at the older women, with children, at work. In an article titled "How Young Working Women Really Feel About Working Moms," she asked, "Do they see their future selves or do they see us as cautionary tales? Do they admire and empathize with us, or do they resent us when our child-related obligations leave them holding the bag?"
They feel both sympathy and resentment. We are their role models and worst nightmares. They are stressed by seeing our stress. "It looks really hard," a 31-year-old headhunter in Cleveland told Gomstyn. So she has made a plan: "The idea is to bust my butt for my next couple of years, and that will enable me from a financial standpoint and work-life balance standpoint to have kids and not have to go through what some of these working moms go through."
Taylor Lorenz, 26, who currently works in advertising in New York, also tells Gomstyn she is looking ahead: "I don't know I would want to stay in advertising and be a working mom. The hours are really long, and when you want to get home to your family, I can imagine it's tough. I can see why people take time off work and don't do the exact job they might want to do because they have these kids."
Their reactions are individual, yes, but also, as so often the case, political and social. Together all this watching, calculating and deciding is building the future of parenting.
When Professor Adrienne Pine breastfed her daughter in an American University anthropology class recently, she provided the young adults in that room a glimpse of both the difficulty and the possibility. When Sheryl Sandberg leaves the office at 5:30 every day to be home for dinner with her children, she does the same. So does your colleague whose husband is the primary caregiver, and your boss, when she works from home. (So does mine, when she urges overtired employees to take a nap in the middle of the workday.) So do you, when you bring your children to the office to play quietly in the corner because the sitter is sick. So do I when I admit to the team here that I am distracted by sending my son off to college right now.
I would hope that the message being sent is "it is hard. It is worth it." But the thing about setting an example is that what you think you are saying, and what others are hearing, are not always one and the same.
Who are your role models? What sort of role model do you hope to be?
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin