July 28, 2013
I’m a feminist who believes with all her heart that women can be anything they choose to be. I grew up in an era when most mothers, including mine, gave up their careers to be full-time housewives. Were those the good old days, and if so, for whom? I can’t deny it was reassuring to have my mom at home all the time. Whether or not she was happy with her life is another question. She never said she wasn’t, in so many words. But I suspect she and many other full-time moms of that era suffered a fair amount of frustration and resentment.
That said, I’m not sure the present-day determination of women to do and be everything is totally wonderful. Is it really possible to “have it all”? I would have loved the freedom and wherewithal to write novels to my heart’s content while also nurturing a family. But it didn’t happen, and not because of any conscious decision I made. A long series of separate choices led me to where I am today. I know if I were trying to do everything, I’d be doing a half-assed job at everything. I spend half my time earning a living, and the other half in a fictional cloud, manipulating imaginary friends. Where would a real child fit in?
Women who manage this balancing act may be paying a heavier price than they’re willing to admit. Many years ago I knew a local politician and housewife who wrote poems on the back of a shopping list while waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket. Kudos to her. In college I became fascinated with Sylvia Plath, who literally went crazy trying to find this balance. She described childbirth as an incomparably wonderful experience. Yet in her final, poetically creative days, close friends of hers had to intervene when they realized she had lost the ability or desire to care for her two small children.
Lately we’ve been hearing from female CEOs like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer who declare to the world that they’ve conquered this conundrum. “Having it all” for them is defined as being a hot-shot executive on call 24 hours a day while fitting in some parenting. How useful is their advice to the rest of us, when we all know it’s their tremendous wealth and connections that make this perfect lifestyle possible? Sandberg blithely tells women to “lean in” at the conference table as she did, but she runs no real risk to her job security in doing so. For my money, it’s Mayer who hits true heights of arrogance by building a nursery at the worksite just for her own baby and nanny, while refusing to provide daycare and telework options for her employees. There’s also her presumption that she would have a perfectly normal child with no particular needs that the onsite nanny couldn’t fulfill. I certainly don’t wish her any ill luck, but birth defects and developmental problems are no respecters of class and wealth.
I’ll go even farther out on a limb and suggest that the heavily maligned Paul Tudor Jones had a point when he questioned the suitability of mothers for top Wall Street jobs. He didn’t state it very delicately, and it isn’t for him or for me the declare that a woman shouldn’t try to do both. But if a baby suckling at the breast isn’t a major distraction, I can’t help thinking something is wrong.