the illusory trend to return to traditional women's roles, and what we can do about it

Poor Louise Story. The young Yale graduate who wrote a story for yesterday's New York Times which landed on the front page is getting pummeled throughout the blogosphere (even in the comments), in Slate, and probably, by "many" of her friends. Yes, I pity her, even though I know that the critics speak the truth, because I remember being just out of school and having the sense that the trends among my peer group were newsworthy, without realizing how circumscribed a peer group I had constructed around myself.

I do not remember talking much with my college friends about our plans for marriage and family. I just assumed that I would work and raise a family with my husband. I knew that I needed to stay employable, in case of divorce or an illness that might incapacitate my husband. I had the sense that my mother had not been happy when she was not employed (she returned to the workforce part-time when I was 10 or 11), and I couldn't imagine living a life without a public role of respect. The problem is that parenthood is still not seen as a role of public respect in our society.

The New York Times article subtly implies that... why should women take up space in elite colleges if they are "only" planning to stay home and raise children? Hm.... I thought that undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts were valuable in and of themselves, to prepare students to be thoughtful citizens and lifelong learners.

I remember a time, a few years before my daughter was born, when an older, unmarried staff member made a snide comment about an MBA student's paper, in which the student announced her plan to stay home while her children were small. I was shocked that the staff member felt it was OK to judge someone else's choices. That has been an unfortunate legacy of 1970s feminism, and I would have hoped that it had faded away by now; apparently it has not, though, at least among recent Yale graduates like Louise Story.

I won't whine about the challenges that employed mothers face which might lead them to cut back on paid employment for a while -- because it doesn't solve anything, and Wendy Hoke and Jill Miller Zimon have all but ordered me not to whine anymore. They want us to stay constructive and highlight solutions.

As I see it, though, the solutions are not just individual ones. We must challenge the popular wisdom is that parenting is primarily one person's responsibility -- the mother's. We don't highlight the dads like my husband enough; they are the ones reinventing parenting as an equal-opportunity adventure. My husband doesn't answer his office line between 5:30 and 8:30 at night. He cooks dinner and reads the bedtime stories. In the morning, he makes lunch, and often takes my daughter to preschool. He does most of her laundry. On Saturdays, he takes his girl to music class and dances and sings with her, and then they come home and work with tools on home improvement tasks. We need to give dads like him credit for the small ways that they swim against the tide of corporate culture pulling them into ever longer work hours.

Where are the stories about dads who take advantage of paid family leave, and those who switch into less travel-intensive jobs so they can coach a team or teach a yoga class? Where are the stories about dads like Ned Powley, who is a very active coparent, and arranged his schedule part-time during much of his graduate school years so that his wife could continue her career as a nurse? We must hold up these models of the new man, so that our high school boys and college men will be encouraged to follow their lead.

We still swim in the soup of a sexist society, and we don't show young people the success stories of new egalitarian families -- the families who find innovative ways to integrate work and family, like Halle and Benjamin Barnett, who started a business together and work from home. The invisibility of these possible solutions influences girls' majors. Only about 25 percent of the students in our introductory management sequence for undergraduates are women. I know we don't discriminate against women (or in favor of them) in our EMBA program, but still, only a few apply, resulting in a 20 percent female class. (Last year was closer to equity, at 33 percent.) They forces that create these patterns of choices can not be changed just by chastising individuals who make choices different from our own.

Those forces cannot even be changed only by working at the organizational level... Not every company can make the top 100 list of best employers for working parents. Still, this list presumes that paid family leave is a perk, and not a right, and is something that the corporation has the option to provide. Other countries ensure universal access to preschool, and require employers to offer parents the option to work 80% while they have small children. These are the kinds of changes that need to occur so that parents can truly have choices, rather than just reverting to the 1950s model of family life when the stress of balancing two full-time paid jobs and the work of family care becomes overwhelming.

The change must occur at the societal level. It's a cultural and political change that is needed, and we can all participate in making it happen.

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Comments

Aww. I won't speak for Wendy, but I know I'll keep whining. As I wrote yesterday to my friend and mentor, local journalist Margaret Bernstein, I recognize that we see ourselves and are sharing with one another when we hash this stuff out.

But, as I also wrote, the expectations - as you allude to Sandy, are all out of whack. What the dads do, don't do, should do, shouldn't do is out of whack. What we expect of ourselves as a result of who we use as our models is often impossible and, I know because I've checked with my mother - everything wasn't as placid as it looked. Margaret and I actually met because she was writing an article on that very subject over five years ago (and spoke with me and my mom for it).

I've just hit the point where I feel as though the media is exploiting our angst to produce more drama rather than provoke us to change.

You know I know Halle and Ben are you are correct - they make what currently are nontraditional choices - and those choices work for them. There should be no barrier to more families doing the same - but so far, that's not the cry we're hearing. We're only hearing the crying itself - at least, that's what I feel like, and am reacting to.

VERY respectfully yours - Jill

Posted by Jill on September 21, 2005 02:36 PM

Hi Sandy,
There will always be complaining, but I think this kind of book pitting one group against another for choices either made (or lack of having choices) is simply unproductive.

Motherhood is tough, no doubt about it. So let's use our collective smart strong voices to make the societal change we want to see.

I am not immune to my own attacks of angst. On Monday I wrote about feeling overwhelmed and it's largely because of choices I've made and my reality. I have three school-age boys and they keep me very busy. My husband helps with driving, cooking, etc., but when it comes to the mental "stuff" of being a parent, he's largely absent.

You are fortunate to have a husband who contributes so readily. I love my husband, but did I expect more from a modern guy? You bet. So after years of feeling as if I've gotten short shrift, I've decided to embrace my role as a positive.

Does it get me down sometimes and overwhelm my brain? You bet. But I guess I no longer have expectations that either motherhood is perfection or that I can attempt to come anywhere close to perfect mother, despite the messages we receive from our culture.

I agree with Jill that I hate to see mothers of varying stations in life pitted against one another for the sake of selling a few sensational books. It doesn't get us anywhere closer to addressing the real needs of modern mothers.

Best,
Wendy

Posted by Wendy on September 21, 2005 08:08 PM

Here's another discussion of this article among employed mothers:

http://www.livejournal.com/community/employedparents/105870.html?nc=20

Posted by Sandy on September 27, 2005 09:29 AM

Your description of the role your husband plays in the family reminds me of my grandfather. Although he was the sole earner while my mother was growing up, he played an active role in her life. He made a point of being home for dinner, he took her to her ice skating lessons and competitions, and he even took my grandmother's very fluffy cats out in public for walks on a leash.

I don't think these were standard masculine behaviors of the day, but he simply chose to contribute to the family in whatever way seemed to make the most sense. My mother was an only child and was raised by both parents to believe she could do anything. They maintained such open communication with her that when she was in college she would send drafts of her papers home for review. He was a financial analyst and she was majoring in economics, and in his letters he would ask her questions about each project in a way that helped her to find her own answers rather than just relying on his knowledge base. All was done to encourage her to follow her own path.

I don't think they ever worried about the notion of gender roles, but only worked to support each other. Perhaps if we learn to accept that we each must customize our roles to accomodate our own unique personalities and desires, then we can find a way for society to accept and respect such a plethora of options.

Posted by cool on September 27, 2005 02:42 PM

I'm glad that the younger generation of women are more open about the work/family problem than we were 10 to 15 years ago. Then it was an "unspoken" issue -- one that employers would not directly deal with. My boss at the time I had small children told me he "had never had a part-time" person in my position. Later, when he became chairman of our department, he learned that virtually all the other women in other divisions were part-time!

Demanding, traditionally male professions like medicine, and in particular surgery and hospital-based specialities, are still not amenable to part-time or mother friendly schedules.

Fortunately, I see some changes there in the last few years. We need to integrate the natural life changes that occur with mothering children into the pattern of employment of all workers, including professionals. Women who stay home or work part-time during their children's early years will eventually need to be reintegrated into the workplace. Our society cannot afford to lose highly educated women permanently from the workplace because they "take a few years off" for childbearing and childrearing.

Posted by Robin Benis on October 25, 2005 03:17 PM

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