Can Women Writers Have It All?

suffragette-marchers-carrying-portable-speaker-rostrums-new-york-city-1912I’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.

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7 thoughts on “Can Women Writers Have It All?

  1. That balance is so hard. I made a conscious decision to put away my writing when my children were growing up, when I discovered I resented how they took me away from the writing when they returned from school and needed my attention. I didn’t want to be that woman, who put her work ahead of her children, and I was lucky enough to be able to be a stay-at-home mom then. I know so many moms today do all three, care for children and work and write. I never had that ability. So I chose to leave the writing alone until they grew up, and now I’m writing again. I don’t regret that choice. But I so empathize with women who are still making those choices or trying to have it all.

  2. This is all so true. I wanted to write and publish my work but only really got started last year in my mid 50’s when work and family commitments allowed. But with the longer life expectancy now I’m hoping I still have plenty of years writing ahead of me!
    Thanks for the like.
    Dorinda

  3. Add to that problems the mother can develop, as I did, possibly from stress, possibly from being too old when they finally get around to having children.

    Success in some fields, such as research physics, have a distinct career path: accelerated college, PhD early, postdocs, tenure-track academic position, junior researcher, senior researcher…

    These happen at the exact same time women’s fertily peaks, and interference between long hours in the lab vs. babies who need their mothers, is a major problem.

    I almost managed it – and crashed. Maybe it was a factor. Maybe I was unlucky. Maybe I’m a genetic weakling somehow.

    But getting a brain, and not at least trying to use it is soul-killing.

    There ARE no perfect solutions, even with lots of money, but money and facilities help some. Cooperative husbands help even more – but they’re doing the same thing at the same time (in two scientist families like ours), and I’ll have to say I got the lionesses share. And he’s a good man – but the other men in his environment were destabilizing.

    You do the best you can, cut back on all the non-essentials (parking lot duty at the kids’ school), and pray. And sometimes win, but mostly it is impossible to do three 24 hour jobs (wife, work, and kids), much less add a fourth (writing), and do them even remotely well.

      1. Some people have more energy than others – I used to. You cut corners in all your responsibility areas, pray it doesn’t come back to haunt you.

        Also, some kids are easy. I didn’t get any of those. Some babies actually sleep a lot!

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