A Work-Life-Balance Roadmap for the 99%

By Laura McKenna

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.

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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.

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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.

It's not easy to make these transitions. Many careers simply do not allow deviations from the traditional work style. Midlife career switches are nearly impossible. Few people have an Ivy League position lined up as the Plan B. Slaughter may not recognize her good fortune and her unique work-life choices.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT FEMINISM?

So, how we increase the number of women at the top levels of politics and business? With the pull of the children, it would seem to be impossible to do everything well. How do we make it easier for those with non-elite jobs to remain employed, while coping with life pressures?

Wurtzel's solution is to bully women back into the office and to disregard family pressures. Slaughter says that women can achieve this success by demanding flexible work arrangements and by postponing career success until after the children are in college. Sadly, few workers have the authority or job protections to demand anything. Others have said it is possible to increase the number of women in the workplace by providing universal preschool, free childcare, and a full year of school. (And a pony, too!)

Increased part time job opportunities, greater career transparencies enabled by technology, and more men taking on the role of SAHP might increase the number of women in elite and non-elite jobs. These solutions would benefit everyone, including childless single people, who need more sanity at work.

We need more meaningful, part-time jobs that involve serious responsibilities and maintain skills or provide new ones. Workers could take these positions when family responsibilities became overwhelming and then return to full time work later. Businesses would benefit because they will retain the knowledge and skills of the employee and not have to train a new one. Most working mothers (62%) say that they would prefer to work part time.

Unions and full-time employees have perceived part-time workers as a threat, because they work for less money and without benefits. However, part time work should be seen as a perk that everyone might take advantage of during life emergencies.

In order to help people make better decisions about work and plan for their future, we need greater transparency about career demands through technology. Does the first year grad student know how many hours are required in a tenure track job? Does the pre-law student know how many women make it to a full partner position?

Like the many salary calculator websites, other websites could provide wider information. Young college students could compare various career paths on one website based on several variables, including average work hours, opportunities for part time or flexible employment, and ratio of genders in top positions.

It may be useful to have information on particular companies, as well. A "Rate Your Boss" website could enable workers to anonymously pass along information on companies that do not provide personal days for family emergencies or to praise companies that allow for telecommuting.

ELITE JOBS REQUIRE A STAY-AT-HOME-PARENT

For those with truly elite jobs, it is difficult to manage more than one career. State department directors, neurosurgeons, and managing directors of investment banks will always work around the clock with blackberries resting on their pillows at night. In those cases, the other spouse must manage the children, extended family, and the household, at the expense of a career.

Now, there's no reason why women must always take the career hit. In fact, I would like to see more men taking on the role of SAHP and more women with elite jobs. Slaughter would have been able to handle the DC job, if her husband quit his job and the entire family moved to DC, instead of commuting from Princeton. Perhaps women can have it all, if men have less.

To make the option of SAHP more appealing to men, then parenting can't be denigrated by people like Wurtzel. Parenting needs to be rebranded and repackaged. Contracts could protect the financially vulnerable SAHP in case of divorce. Existing groups that support SAHMs would have to be more open and accepting of men entering their arena.

In a better world, families armed with more complete information and increased work flexibility could make rational, long-term decisions about work and family. These reforms would not necessarily lead to more women paying their own bills or more women opting for Ivy League professorships. It would mean more time to raise children and care for life's demands without shutting out opportunities for employment.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/a-work-life-balance-roadmap-for-the-99/259017/