How Books Helped Me Move On
I grew up moving around. We moved at least once every few years, and I hated it. I was always the new kid at school and was thus forced to integrate into the social milieu over and over, try to convince teachers I was smart over and over, and find friends over and over. And, with each move, just when I found my footing in the school, had the attention of teachers, and had established a core group of good friends, we moved again. That describes my life growing up. I went to a total of eleven schools from Kindergarten through 12th grades, an average of almost one a year.
As a kid and even into early adulthood, I blamed my parents for moving me around so much. The straightforward reason we moved so often was that my father’s employer transferred him from one location to another every few years. He was a store manager for various small retail variety and discount stores, all now defunct, such as Woolco, Pamida, TG&Y, and Alco. He was either the store manager or assistant manager, moving up and between companies in a way that other managers also seemed to do. My dad was not home much—he worked about 70 hours per week—and I was always proud of how everyone at the store he managed treated him with respect. But, I hated that we moved as a result of his job.
I took for granted that companies’ transferring managers was just the way things were. I never questioned why the companies moved him so much. I was in graduate school before I came to appreciate the underlying structural reasons why we moved so much. I can still remember reading the classic book Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century by Richard Edwards. In this book Edwards discusses the transformation of labor control—the way employers control the behavior of workers to maximize their output. He traces the development from direct supervision in the era of mom-and-pop stores to technical control embedded in machinery such as assembly lines to bureaucratic control that embeds control in the rules like promotion requirements. It hit me while reading this book that my father’s constant transfers were a mechanism of labor control: by transferring managers their allegiance remains with the company and not with the community in which the store is located. Constant transfers assure that the managers and their families do not develop strong community ties that might make the managers more vulnerable to empathy to shoppers and employees. Company loyalty was promoted over community loyalty. In other words, the negative effects I felt as the perpetually new kid, was a result of corporations trying to control their managers.
The reason that my family emphasized my father’s career also became clearer to me as I delved into feminist literature in college and graduate school. In high school, I had begun to wonder why we continued to move, even though the moves disrupted our lives so much. I was angry because the moves seemed so easy on my dad—he had a job to go to and employees who respected him. The rest of us, my mom, brother, and I, had to find our place without such advantages. Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique and Simon De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex made it clear to me not only the gendered inequality in society but how deeply that inequality becomes embedded in culture and values. Growing up, it just seemed normal that my family prioritized my dad’s career over my mom’s work and my and my brother’s need for stability. That “normality” was embedded in a culture that prioritizes men’s interests.
These realizations led me to a narrative on my life that made sense and, I guess, provided me with someone other than my parents to blame for my mixed-up childhood. These books fostered my interest in thinking about how political-economic and organizational structures affect people’s lives, especially women’s lives, a theme in my research. For example, my book Cut It Out (NYU Press 2013) examines high cesarean section rate in the U.S. and how it is due to a failed malpractice system that puts the blame on doctors for negative birth outcomes that, more often than not, are not their fault. Women sue the doctors when their babies are not perfect and need medical care, even if it not the doctors’ faults, and sometimes win; yet the women sue often because our country does a very poor job of funding the care of severely disabled individuals. Malpractice insurance is the safety net that allows for this care. My second book (Delivering Obamacare, under review at NYU Press) continues this theme of individuals’ lives being shaped by political, economic, and organizational structures. This book focuses on how obstetrical nurses at a community hospital have been affected by almost three years of corporate turmoil and failed acquisition attempts, which I argue are ultimately the result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. We are all products of our environments—political, economic, organizational, and cultural—and that truth for my own life came to me from reading books.
Theresa Morris is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M. She is the author of Cut it Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America, published by New York University Press