The economy could use more part-time jobs to accommodate working parents. But beyond that, we need to recognize that some elite jobs simply require a stay-at-home-parent.
Is it possible to talk about parenthood and work without stepping into "Mommy War" territory? Is it possible to have a reality-based discussion on this topic? Two recent articles in the Atlantic took very different stances on parenthood and work. While both made interesting points, I don't think either discussion was entirely relevant to the lives of most women.
BOXED IN BY REALITY
Elizabeth Wurtzel's article, "1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible", typified the "Mommy War" genre by trafficking in stereotypes, generalizing based on personal experiences, and ending with the pronouncement that large groups of other women were Feminist sinners. Wurtzel said, "real feminists don't depend on men. Real feminists earn a living and have money and means of their own." She described stay-at-home-mothers (SAHM) as primarily wealthy women who live in Los Angeles or New York City.
Wurtzel gets some statistics wrong. According to Census data, Hispanics and lower income women primarily make up the ranks of SAHMs. The wealthy woman who spends her day at the gym honing her biceps and lunching with friends, while the nanny does the parenting work, is not the norm.
Wurtzel's claim that all feminist women must pay their own bills is also problematic. Reality boxes feminism (or at least Wurtzel's version of it) in the corner. The fact is that many women, even those who work, cannot pay their bills without their husband's contributions. Other women need government assistance. Wurtzel imagines a world where the only Feminists are single, childless Manhattan lawyers like herself.
The reality is that there are no warring groups of moms outside of sensationalized magazine articles. We're all coping with various demands - the kids, a 180 day school year, spouses' careers, aging relatives, side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner, bouts with the stomach virus, mortgage bills, the leaky toilet on the second floor - and trying to do right by everybody. Every family handles those demands differently. Sometimes we can squeeze in a fulfilling career for ourselves and sometimes we can't.
THE NEED TO BE WITH CHILDREN
A second article by Anne Marie Slaughter explained her decision to step down from a DC power player job in order to spend more time with her teenage sons. Moments after its release online, several writers complained that this was yet another "Mommy War" story. They said that Slaughter made false claims about feminism, did not come down hard enough on men, and was generally a downer.
Slaughter's article was significant, because her work credentials are top notch. She's not a semi-employed blogger complaining about the system, but a woman who made it to the top of her male-dominated field as a policy director in the State Department. She is the Feminist Role Model. That makes her statements about the limitations of the office extremely damning and uncomfortable for people who try to minimize the struggles.
Slaughter says that women want and need to spend time with their children - a nearly heretical statement in those circles. (I would broaden and qualify that statement to read "Most (not all) parents (men, too) want and need to spend time with their children.") Elite jobs do not allow this to happen. People who work those jobs have hours that few experience. In households with two elite jobs, parents may not see their children for days at a time. All household chores, from house maintenance to bills to homework help, is outsourced to others. A time management consultant tells you how to squeeze in some contact with your child for an hour per day.
Now, very few of us are cut out for those elite jobs in the first place, but I do want to see more women in those positions. Is it possible to be an adequate parent when you see your children for an hour a day? Or not at all?
While Slaughter's essay may be primarily directed towards elite women and their jobs, her discussion is useful for the rest of us, because regular jobs aren't that flexible either. With the exception of education jobs, most employers expect you sitting at a desk at least from 9 to 5. There are two weeks of vacation. With the downturn in the economy, fewer workers are doing twice the usual jobs. Those workers might be home earlier than Slaughter, but their lives are still very complicated. Parents constantly complain that they don't get enough time with their children.
Last week, I spoke with a school teacher who wept as she explained that she chose to leave her current position where she had tenure and deep connections with the staff and students in order to take a position in another school district with much lower pay and no tenure. She made this career shift, because her current position required employment through July. Her new job would end in mid-June. She said her family would be eating ramen noodles, so she could have four extra weeks with her little daughter.