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Combining Work and Motherhood
This chapter turns to a third group of women—those who chose to combine committed work with parenthood. This group differs from both groups discussed in Chapter Six, albeit in contrasting ways. Unlike domestically oriented women, these women were committed workers who viewed children as potentially costly to their work careers. Unlike permanently childless women, however, they decided over time that childlessness held greater costs than motherhood. These women thus neither wholeheartedly embraced motherhood nor rejected it completely. Rather, they approached parenthood reluctantly, aware of the problems it posed, yet fearful that a different course would hold even greater dangers. This chapter analyzes the process by which this group of work-committed women became, or planned to become, "reluctant mothers."
The reluctant mother's approach to childbearing was one of deep ambivalence, which is well illustrated by this thirty-year-old married worker's struggle to develop enthusiasm for childbearing amid fears that motherhood would upset the delicate balance of her professional and personal life:
Q: Over the next five to ten years, do you plan to work, raise a family, or do both?
A: I think I plan to combine working with raising a family. And the reason I say I think is that, if I want to have a family, I'm sure I'll want to combine working with a family. I'm having a little trouble wanting a family. I'm not quite sure where that'scoming from.
Q: Where do you think it's coming from?
A: I'm not sure that I like children. It's more than that. I'm stretched so many ways now, in terms of demands on my time. And I feel that a baby, if I commit myself to a baby, I can't let it go for a week like I can the garden. I'm a little afraid of that extra commitment. That's just going to be a little more than I can take. I'm not sure yet what has to give where. I'm afraid of having kids, and yet that's hard because I know I'm going to hate myself when I'm sixty if I don't have any kids. It's a real up-in-the-air situation in terms of what I really want to do.
In contrast to those whose ambivalence about children led them toward childlessness, however, these women planned to add, or had already added, children to their lives.
Reluctant mothers confronted different constraints and brought different resources to bear on the decision to have a child than did their childless counterparts. They were more likely to find themselves in relationships that would be seriously jeopardized by childlessness. They were also in a better position to minimize the negative impact children threatened to have on their lives. This group thus faced cross-pressures that lowered the perceived costs of childbearing and raised the costs of childlessness above a tolerable level. Childlessness became harder to choose and less attractive, leading these women to add children to their already established commitments at the workplace.
These features of their situation also made reluctant mothers less inclined to discount and more inclined to focus on the potentially dire long-term consequences of childlessness. They then developed coping strategies to reduce the perceived costs of motherhood and discounted instead the costs of combining work and family. In contrast to their childless counterparts, they came to believe that they could integrate mothering into their lives without significant sacrifice to themselves, their work, or their children. This upwardly mobile office manager concluded, for example, that bearing a child would pose no major obstacle to achieving her rapidly rising work aspirations:
Q: Why do you plan to have children and work at the same time?
A: I don't want to have to give up anything to have children. I don't want to have to change my life-style at all. I look at it as an addition to my life. I'm not planning on changing anything.
Several factors led these women to decide that they could successfully combine work and motherhood without "giving up anything." First, as in the cases of childless women, men played a critical role in shaping these women's responses to the motherhood dilemma. Unlike the pressures men exerted on childless women, however, the pressures exerted on reluctant mothers by their male partners pushed them toward motherhood rather than away from it. Second, given the social and emotional pressures they faced, reluctant mothers were less able than childless women to discount the costs of childlessness. They were also better positioned to develop contextual supports for combining work and motherhood.
Men's Parenting Motivations
The women who chose childlessness lacked a committed relationship or, paradoxically, had a valued relationship that children threatened to undermine. Reluctant mothers generally faced the contrasting situation: Forgoing children threatened to undermine a relationship more than did having them.
Reluctant mothers typically had partners who, directly or indirectly, encouraged and pressured them to bear children. In contrast to the stereotype of the manipulative and overanxious wife coaxing her reluctant husband into parenthood, these respondents found themselves being pushed toward childbearing by husbands impatient to become fathers. This computer programmer explained:
Q: So you're feeling a lot of pressure at this point to have a child?
A: Mostly it's from my husband. Not because he's deliberately doing it, but because I know he wants to make babies, and he has been very serious about talking about it. When are we going to do it, this and that, until finally I said, "Please back off because I'm not ready for this yet."
Q: Do you think it would affect your marriage if you decided to never have children?
A: Yes, because if I decide I won't have children, my husband has to decide if he wants to keep me.... Because he wants a family, and I think that's really important to him. I would prefer not to do that, having a baby just because the husband wants it, simply to please him. If I'm to go through being pregnant, I prefer to be deliriously happy about it.
The male desire to have children and the prospect of losing a spouse or partner if one opposed this desire were often decisive in opting for motherhood. In the context of personal ambivalence, pressure from her spouse pushed this secretary to decide in favor of parenthood:
Q: What are your plans regarding children?
A: Doug and I are really at odds over it. He has always said he wants children. I never really see children in the future, but I don't see them not in the future either. The few times we have really talked about it, he's said they are very important to him; so I don't know. If I were to get pregnant now, I would be, I'm sure, unhappy about the situation when I first found out, but I would deal with it and make the best of things.
Q: So you feel that your husband is a major factor?
A: He could be maybe a deciding factor. If I'm getting closer to it, he might bring me over nearer the edge. I think if I were with a man who did not want them, it would be definitely no. But the more we have talked about it, and it has been recurring more often, Doug has said he really does want children; so I think that would be a major factor in our relationship. For me, I don't really foresee it. It boils down to how much he really wants to push me. I don't really have that much of a desire.
Such male pressures did not apply solely to those who planned to become parents. Reluctant motherhood was often a fait accompli because a spouse had already succeeded in his circuitous, but effective, efforts to gain his wife's acquiescence. Although unable to consciously decide to get pregnant, this thirty-one-year-old office worker abandoned contraception in the face of her husband's pressure:
Q: Was this child planned?
A: Not exactly. As you probably gathered, I have difficulty making some of these decisions. My husband wanted to have kids. I was unwilling to make a conscious decision to have one, but between all the scary things they say about being on the pill, I was willing to take chances. My number came up much sooner than I ever expected. I made a decision only to the extent that I wasn't absolutely going to prevent it from happening.
Q: So your husband was important in the decision to "take chances?"
A: Well, if he wasn't really all that interested in having a kid, I probably would have had less ambivalence about not having one. You know, my ambivalence, my thinking that I might regret it if I don't.
Pressure from a spouse also operated in more subtle ways. Just as an uninterested partner pushed some women away from motherhood, mild forms of support pushed others toward it. Male support became especially powerful when it led a woman to equate a committed relationship with children. In this context, children implied costs and problems, but they also expressed the value of the relationship itself. Thus, at twenty-seven, this lawyer viewed child rearing not as a form of individual fulfillment, but rather as a biological and emotional extension of her commitment to a man:
Q: What would you say are your main motivations for having a child?
A: I see it closely as an identification with my husband. He wants them. He's very family-oriented. It's never been discussed, but it would bother him if he didn't think he was going to have them. But if I found I was biologically unable to have them, I don't think I would adopt. Having kids will really be a hassle and complicate life. It's going to be very inconvenient, and I think a strong reason I want children is to have a child with my husband rather than to have children per se.
Finally, even though reluctant mothers did not define children as the fulfillment of their identity or nurturing needs, they often viewed them as a way of fulfilling their spouses' needs. Depriving their partners of children meant depriving themselves of the pleasure of giving something important to the person they valued most. Her spouse's enthusiasm for parenthood assuaged this secretary's ambivalence:
Q: Is there anything about not hiving children right now that bothers you?
A: I miss parts. Children can really be a job, but I miss [it during] the times Steve is with other children, and I watch him. He's really good with them, and that makes me feel sad or whatever that he does not have a child of his own. I think he would be very, very good, and that part does bother me at times. That would be a major thing for me. I would feel a lot of satisfaction for him to have satisfaction in that type of relationship.
Just as an uninterested or openly hostile spouse dampened the desire for children, so an encouraging or assertive one led other nondomestic women to overcome or at least act against their ambivalence toward childbearing. These accounts suggest, furthermore, that theories that picture men as universally uninterested in children and uniformly underdeveloped in their nurturing needs, capacities, and desires oversimplify both men's orientations toward parenting and women's experiences with men. These male partners' parenting motivations went beyond the desire to reproduce offspring merely to prove manhood or to perpetuate the family name and genetic structure. At least in the eyes of their female partners, these men possessed a genuine desire and ability to nurture children. (Recent research by Pruett, 1983, on a sample of primary caretaking fathers supports this conclusion.) Were these parents or would-be parents not of the male gender, one might be tempted to label their motives as a need or desire to "mother." Similarly, reluctant mothers' reasons for wanting babies resemble those commonly attributed to men for wanting to father children.
As the strength and legitimacy of the nondomestic path for women have grown, men have faced added pressure to acknowledge their parenting motives and to push for children in their marriages. Because men do not typically view their options as a choice between work and family, they are less likely to focus on the negative consequences children might exact from their work careers than are their nondomestic female partners.
If we credit these reluctant mothers' perceptions, we must conclude that both men and women vary significantly in their desires to bear children and in their reasons for doing so. We must also conclude that men's and women's parenting motivations are related and interactive. Reluctant mothers appear to have responded as much to their partners' desires to procreate and nurture as to their own. Despite their own ambivalence, reluctant mothers were propelled by their partners slowly and haltingly toward motherhood. These accounts challenge the tenacious view held by social theorists, psychoanalysts, and ordinary people alike that women uniformly become mothers primarily to fulfill strongly felt needs to nurture and men typically seek parenthood grudgingly.
Perceived Consequences of Childlessness
Because these respondents experienced strong contextual pressures favoring motherhood, they were less able to insulate themselves from their fears of what childlessness implied in the long run. They therefore tended to focus on the negative consequences of childlessness rather than discounting them.
As pressures mounted, reluctant mothers were increasingly haunted by the costs of permanent childlessness: social disapproval, consignment to a lonely and desolate old age, and the loss of a major life experience with intrinsic value beyond its social measure. The fear of these costs had powerful psychological ramifications for childless women facing pressures to parent. An upwardly mobile worker facing pressure from her spouse worried:
Q: How do you think you'd feel if you never had children?
A: Guilty, guilty. I really think that my approach toward having children at this point in my life is more based on what is expected of me than what I expect of myself. I think the only reason I'm considering having children right now is because it's heresy not to consider having children. The strongest thing will be the guilt and putting up with the disapproval. I don't think there's ever an end to the push. You get the pressure all your life from one place or another. It's just incredible.
Although childlessness had been the path of least resistance in early adulthood, fears of the negative consequences of never having children took on greater significance as respondents entered their thirties. At thirty, this same respondent conceded:
Q: But the negative consequences of not having a child also bother you?
A: That's right. I'm going to hate myself when I'm sixty. I won't have any grandchildren, nobody to take care of me in my old age, all that kind of stuff.
Thus, although children were not welcomed in the present, the long-term consequences of childlessness grew increasingly more ominous for these reluctant mothers. They gradually came to see parenthood as their best chance for establishing intimate, enduring interpersonal bonds. Some even concluded that rejecting motherhood would foreclose the possibility of meaningful human relationships altogether. A lawyer, for example, viewed children as her only protection against an otherwise impersonal world:
Q: What are your main reasons for wanting children?
A: I think it would be really sad to be forty or fifty years old and not have a family. I think families are extremely important. Our society is getting so splintered as it is that I think it's really nice to have this close group of people, besides just your spouse.
Despite parenthood's drawbacks, reluctant mothers began to switch their focus from its costs to its intrinsic benefits. These included not only the continuation of the family unit but also the experience of creating a human being and adding balance, fullness, and renewed purpose to a life skewed too heavily in favor of work. Although strongly committed to work, this accountant came to view child rearing as the ultimate challenge:
A: When you go into life and everything, you're living day to day. You can have one job or another job, you can do something, but whatever you do is not an influence as much as raising a family. So I think it's really important. It's the most challenging thing that anybody can do.
And this lawyer rejected the traditional imperative that would deny her the right to build a life structured around both work and family:
Q: What are your main reasons for wanting children?
A: It's more of a family unit, a continuation of life. I don't think it's fair that professional women can't have kids. They make things fuller, more complete. I think it rounds out your life better.
In conclusion, reluctant mothers responded to social and personal cross-pressures by focusing on the costs of childlessness rather than discounting them. Torn between fears of the disruption that children would cause and offsetting desires to please their spouses and affirm their interpersonal commitments through children, these women mustered a variety of reasons, some positive and some negative, to bolster their halting commitment to motherhood.
Consciously and unconsciously, they developed coping strategies designed to lower the costs of children and ease the way toward childbearing. Some strategies rebounded on male partners who exerted pressures in favor of parenthood. Because their partners desired children, reluctant mothers could bring more leverage than their childless counterparts to the process of negotiation with their partners about how to rear their shared offspring. Spouses and male partners thus found themselves pulled more fully into the parenting process and pushed to redefine both their beliefs about proper child-rearing practices and the actual sexual division of labor within the home. Reluctant mothers acted back upon the dilemma they faced, using whatever material and ideological leverage they could muster to control and limit the costs of motherhood.
Reluctant mothers rejected childlessness and were unable or unwilling to loosen their work commitments, so only one viable response remained: lower the costs of children. This group developed three strategies to accomplish this task. They decided to limit the number of children they bore; they struggled to bring their male partners into the parenting process; and they redefined their traditional notions about how to rear children. Each of these strategies represented some form of change—in how they organized their lives, in how they dealt with the people around them, or in how they theorized about mothering.
Limiting Family Size. A common strategy for holding down the costs of children was to hold down the number. Historically, this response has led to the rise of the so-called typical family of 2.5 children, with a concomitant decline in the percentage of larger families (Masnick and Bane, 1980). Reluctant mothers joined this trend despite their earlier hopes of having larger families. Some stopped at two children even though they had originally planned for more:
A: Two is a manageable number. My husband would have liked a larger family, but at that point, for financial reasons, I would have not been able to work. And I would not have felt right having three of them.
Despite the historical decline in family size, until recently, a pervasive aversion to families with fewer than two offspring has prevailed. Many following a nondomestic path, however, found themselves settling not just for smaller families but for one-child families. Fifty-three percent of those who planned to combine work and family also planned to limit their family size to one child. This decision was reached by a number of routes, but it was usually made for the same reason: One child became a convenient compromise between a reluctant mother's determination to avoid a life defined primarily by domestic responsibilities and the pressure she felt to bear a child. This alternative became especially attractive when motherhood appeared foreboding, but childlessness looked even worse. Many reluctant mothers agreed with this thirty-three-year-old academic that one child would round out their lives, but more than one would overcrowd them:
Q: How do you respond to a woman who has decided to never have children?
A: When I look at them, I feel like they've missed something. I don't know if it's necessary to have a child to have a fulfilled life, but somehow I see that they could have another dimension in their life they didn't have.
Q: So you don't want to never have children any more than you want to be a full-time homemaker?
A: I don't think so. Actually, when it comes down to it, I probably want to have one, just so I can have that experience, too. In a way, it seems more attractive to me than having two because there are fewer complications .... It's not that I don't like children. It's that life is complicated by so many other things. It would be hard to pay enough attention to more than one.
So reluctant mothers concluded that one child would disrupt their work far less than two. Indeed, they came to believe that, although two children would invite disaster, one child posed no threat at all. From this high school-educated reluctant mother's perspective, one child imperiled neither her work nor her personal well-being:
A: I know one child won't drive me crazy, and two might. I know I couldn't work and have two; knowing me, I don't think I could handle it.
Q: How do you think having a child will affect your work plans?
A: I don't think it would affect it at all. More than one would; that's one of the reasons I only want one.
The decision to limit fertility to one child almost always involved a downward readjustment from earlier plans. This change required letting go of old beliefs about the need for siblings and the pitfalls of being an only child. This change allowed reluctant mothers to reconcile their rising work ambitions with their similarly high standards for mothering. This office worker concluded that there were offsetting economic benefits for only children:
A: I feel I can be just as good a mother working as staying home. That's why I want only one child. Before I felt you can't just have one; they need a little brother or sister. I feel now that one child can be just as well adjusted, and a person should have what they can afford.
For some, the decision to bear only one child was part, and often an unintended part, of a strategy of postponement. As time passed and work ambitions rose, deadlines for childbearing neared and the previously unthinkable became not only a probability but a likelihood. This administrative assistant past thirty unwittingly backed into the one-child strategy:
A: I've always thought you should have at least two children. But the chances are strong we'll have one. I'm too old, and work is too important.
Others found that the experience of motherhood itself sparked the decision to impose a permanent moratorium on childbearing. The experience of rearing her son alone convinced a divorced mother that one child was enough:
A: The kid has influenced me to the point that I don't want any more kids ... with just the responsibility, the burden of raising kids. It's kind of held me back to a certain degree, being a single parent, not getting to do what I want to do, having to worry about him first.
In some of these cases, the decision to curtail childbearing plans after only one birth reverberated within the marriage itself. As frustrated mothers clashed with disappointed fathers, marital discord ensued. This high school-educated single mother, for example, chose to divorce rather than to fulfill her husband's desire for more children:
A: I had my daughter from my first marriage, and [I was] haphazardly wondering if I could hang on to the marriage in the tradition like everybody did. I was raised Catholic, and we didn't believe in divorces. My husband wanted [me] to stay in the marriage, but he wanted a lot of children and I didn't; so we made an understanding that eventually, when I can financially support myself and my daughter, that's what I want to do. And if he wants more children, we would have to think about separating, and his continuing his life with more children, which he has.
Divorce also limited family size even when more children had been planned. Divorce curtailed childbearing not only for childless women but also for those with one child. Mothers who were invariably left to care for the first child concluded that another child would erode the financial security, personal autonomy, and work prospects they had fought so hard to gain:
Q: What are your main reasons for having only one child?
A: I wouldn't want to raise one out of wedlock, not because of the social stigma—it's nobody's business but mine—but I couldn't see raising two kids on the salary I'm making. It costs a lot of money to raise a kid. Also because I have things that I want to do. I have plans.
As the number of women exposed to increased work opportunities, affected by divorce, or engaged in a strategy of postponing childbearing grows, the one-child alternative appears likely to grow as well. The one-child family has never been a popular choice, and some experts (such as Blake, 1966, 1974) argue that neither childlessness nor having only one child is likely to increase substantially with this generation of women. Certainly, many who plan to limit their fertility to one child may find that, once a child arrives, earlier ambivalence and reluctance subside with the pleasant reality of motherhood. The opposite, however, may also occur, as some who plan for two or more children ultimately decide to stop with one after the first is born.
The larger forces at work make the one-child family a sensible choice. As long as growing numbers of reluctant mothers find themselves caught between the costs of children and the costs of childlessness, a substantial number will be motivated to keep the costs of motherhood down without rejecting it altogether. (Bird, 1979, makes the same prediction.) Having only one child, whatever the historic social biases against doing so, is a reasonable and readily accessible strategy for accomplishing this end.
Bringing Men In. Reluctant mothers also lowered the costs of children by bringing men into the parenting process and the domestic work of the household. Although this entailed a conflictual process that typically produced mixed results, many reluctant mothers made male participation a precondition to accepting the responsibilities of parenthood. Without a participatory father, this professional reasoned, the benefits of parenthood would not be worth the price:
Q: What if Phillip were not willing to participate equally?
A: I don't know that I would want children under those circumstances. I want the emotional support. I want it for the children, for myself. I want the participation, and without it I don't want children. I don't think it would be a fulfilling experience. Without two people doing it, I think it would be a burden on one person. It's no longer a positive experience; it has lots of negative aspects to it.
Of course, wanting—and even demanding—a partner's equal participation does not guarantee securing it. Inequality in the household division of labor has persisted despite the rise in the proportion of committed women workers with young children. Time budget studies collected over the last thirty years unanimously attest to the intransigence of an unequal sexual division of labor in the home. Recent studies confirm what older studies also found: that whether or not they work, married women tend to perform most of the tasks associated with running a modern household. Working wives generally get more help from their husbands than do full-time homemakers, but the couple that shares household tasks equally remains rare. (Male participation in housework and child care does appear, however, to be on the rise, and the trend is toward increased participation; see Badinter, 1981; Shinn, 1983.)
With historical precedent and structural arrangements organized against it, the struggle to bring men into the process of parenting and caring for a home is thus not likely to succeed unless a woman is both sufficiently motivated to struggle and armed with enough leverage to extract consent from her partner. Domestically oriented women had little reason to push for fuller male participation, and childless women generally lacked the leverage.
Reluctant mothers, however, were more motivated and better positioned to carry out this struggle. These women gained leverage primarily from two sources: their spouses' desire for children and the benefits male partners gained from having a work-committed wife. The husband who pushed his reluctant wife toward childbearing usually found he had to give something to get something. This reluctant mother expecting her first child explained:
Q: Will you be able to depend upon your husband's participation when the baby is born?
A: I think so. We're in the process of changing. We're even now starting to switch the load, and I think it will be shared much more equally when the baby comes. I was kind of cocky when we first got married, and I thought I could be the perfect wife that I envisioned my mother being and also work. We're having to retrain each other's psyches on that.
Q: And he's going along with that?
A: With the kid, he really is. He wanted this kid more than I did.
The financial benefits men gained from work-committed wives gave reluctant mothers additional leverage in the negotiation of domestic equality. Their important contributions to the economic stability of their households provided a base for demanding fuller male participation in parenting. This accountant found that mutual financial dependence promoted mutual arrangements at home:
Q: How does your husband feel about whether you should work, raise a family, or do both?
A: He feels that you can combine both, and he's willing to help and stuff. I think probably, too, he's thinking of the monetary end of it.
In one rare case, the wife was able to command a greater income as a lawyer than her husband did as a house painter and aspiring novelist. Because she was the primary wage earner, they were preparing for an arrangement once considered unthinkable—a father as primary caretaker:
A: I sort of entered law thinking this is the kind of work you can do on a part-time basis, but I think I might have been wrong. But I'm sure by the time we have a child, Larry should be in a situation where he's mostly writing, and he should be at home. So theoretically, it ought to work out fine. I think he realizes that I will have to work, and I think he also thinks it's important to have one of the parents around most of the time. So I think we're going to have to make some sort of trades and really figure it out well at the time.
Although unusual, their situation demonstrates the powerful impact economic arrangements have on domestic organization. Mothering "predispositions" aside, when economics makes exclusive motherhood too costly, fuller participation by fathers is likely to follow. Analyses that define male interests primarily in terms of male dominance via breadwinning supremacy generally overlook the fact that economically independent women such as these offer men benefits they often cannot afford to ignore. Reluctant mothers, moreover, could convert these benefits into increased decision-making power within the home. The husband of this upwardly mobile high school-educated woman, for example, supported her independence because it increased his independence as well:
A: My husband is very, very understanding. I never have to listen to anything about "Oh, you're never home; you don't cook for me seven days a week." He's very happy that I'm accomplishing what I'm accomplishing. He doesn't want to be burdened by having to make me happy. When I met him, he knew I had a lot more ambition. He helped me along. He's a manager, and I'm a manager, and we just share ideas and help each other out.
Male partners were thus enlisted in what was once considered "women's work." Few reluctant mothers expected to gain complete domestic equality or to shift the primary child-care responsibility to their spouses, but all became involved in a negotiated process to garner increased male participation in parental caretaking. The more responsibility their partners assumed, the less costly children appeared. Negotiating greater male participation in child care and household work was often an unpleasant process, but it was essential to making motherhood an acceptable choice. Initial male resistance confronted female determination. This aspiring linguist explained:
A: When we were first living together, I did most of the housework. But I think I changed more and more. I feel like [I wanted to be] very, very certain that nothing happens to me again like what happened in the past with other men, including my father. So at first I would ask him to do half the housework. We would argue about it, and finally I would get him to do half of it. And now I can usually get him to do it by asking him about five times, but we don't have to argue so much about it any more. It's coming to be more fifty-fifty.
Q: Do you think you'll be able to depend upon him for help rearing the children?
A: I think by then we'll have those kinds of things worked out to the extent that he will do half. I don't ask him to do anything alone, including financially, to support the child, but I want half. It's going to be a struggle for me to get him to do it.
Thus, despite initial resistance and the intractable nature of old habits, grudging, but nonetheless significant, change in male partners' behaviors and assumptions usually followed. As these men confronted the terms of the implicit bargain they had struck with their work-committed partners, they began to accept and even take pride in their new responsibilities. This manager described the process of change:
Q: How do you think he'll feel about helping out?
A: I think he'll learn to love it. It's been a shock for him. He never expected to marry anybody like me; but he was attracted to me because of the things I am, which is not the little woman who is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. His initial response is to rail against it because he never grew up thinking he was going to have to fold his own underwear. As soon as he understands that that's part of the bargain, he even gets to the point where he develops some pride in doing for himself; but it really takes a while. I am sure that with a baby it will also be an educational, development time called, "You want me to do what? No, okay, all right." We go through that.