Sunday, November 6, 2011

Woman's Work

I'm not cut out to be a stay at home mom.  And I have mad respect for the moms who do it and do it well.  I know that it may seem like an obvious thing to say, but taking care of a baby is hard!

Imagine for a second:  You are an intelligent person.  Maybe you hold one, two, or even three college degrees.  Maybe you once had a job that paid a handsome salary, maybe even a six figure salary.  People you worked with came to you for advice.  You were lauded among your peers.  You were good at your job.

But that was another life ago.

Today, you have spent your day with a small person who doesn't talk or walk . . . you're not sure, but that could be poo under your nails and somehow you got sweet potatoes in your hair.  And you have to do that every day.

And not only do you have to do that every day, but because your salary isn't there anymore to, perhaps, pay for outside help, you also have to clean the kitchen, vacuum the floor, do the laundry, cook dinner, and, in between, try to do something edifying with the little person at your feet.

You can understand why stay at home moms might need a mommy's day out every once in a while.  Sometimes, after a particularly difficult weekend with The Boy, I feel a sort of guilty relief to be going to work on Monday.  My husband said that some weekends feel like you've been working 48 hours straight for a tyrannical boss who never really communicates to you exactly what he expects of you and, nevertheless, is rarely satisfied with your work.  Yes, and for stay at home moms, there is no break on Monday morning.

Betty Friedan described a housewife's plight half a century ago:  "Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- 'Is this all?'"  Friedan also said that men were not the enemy, but fellow victims of the roles thrust upon us by a society that defined a woman's domain as the home and a man's as the office.  She advocated that we strive for an equal partnership between the sexes.  One last epigram from Aunt Betty:  "A woman is handicapped by her sex, and handicaps society, either by slavishly copying the pattern of man's advance in professions, or by refusing to compete with men at all."

Here's the heart of the modern woman's dilemma:  We have not moved past that point.  It's 2011. Friedan wrote those words in 1963, and professional women like me still know that the pinnacle of the profession is very rarely attained unless we foreswear our families.  Not wishing to do that, many of us opt out all together; we stay at home.  It's a choice, yes, to stay home, but I do wonder if it's a choice foisted upon some moms by the very stagnant shape of professional advancement.  True, more of us can get into law school, more of us are engineers, more of us are doctors, but when we start to have families, the same walls emerge as existed in 1963.  And the choices are difficult and career-threatening.  This is the choice some stay at home moms make:  the choice to chuck her career because the height of professional success is incompatible with motherhood, even 48 years after Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique.

Even I made a choice, long before I was ever a wife or mother, that limited my professional progress.  I saw early on that life in a law firm was not compatible with my hope to one day marry and have a family.  The female partners I worked with or around were, by and large, single or childless or divorce or some combination of the three.  The one female partner who was married with children had her mother-in-law there constantly to fill in.  That's fortunate for her, but it is not an advantage available to all of us.

Why does the choice have to be binary:  successful career or mommy.  In fifty years, we've come no further than this?

Friedan alleged that women handicapped society by copying the pattern of male professional advancement or by refusing to compete at all with men.  What choice is there?  Choosing the middle way, like I have, endows women with no power to change the paradigm for professional success.  That was established by men.  So electing, as I did, to eschew the big law firm life, I chose not to be as powerful or as rich as I might have been had I stayed.  If women want that success, and the power that comes with it, they must compete in the house built by men.  To allege that adopting the man's path to success handicaps society suggests that women can shift society all on their own.  To shift the paradigm, we must have the power.  To get the power, we must follow the established path to the top.  Or it must be given to us . . . or taken by us.

And that's it, really.  I suspect that Friedan would have liked to see women take to the streets, like the temperance movement, or the Suffragettes, or Occupy Wall Street.  Take the power that way.  Demand more flexible working conditions.  Demand companionate marriages.  Heck, demand a different way to think about professional success.  But by the time you are a 41 year old lawyer, wife, and mother, finding the time to hold a sign on a picket line really is not the first priority, even if it would benefit "the sisterhood."  And would I want to do that anyway?  No.  Because by the time you are 41, and a wife, and a mother, most people are also far, far from their passionate youths.  If I ever had radical, protest days (and I think those might have been the days in 1992 when I decided to vote for Bill Clinton), they are far behind me.  I hope, though, that incremental steps over the past 50 years -- more women lawyers, more women engineers, more women doctors -- will mean that by the time The Boy is grown, there will be better options for the little girls his age, and for him too.


The wind was brisk and cold.  Forty-two degrees outside.  I pulled my jacket around me, my hat down over my ears, and I stood on the seafoam green platform waiting.  About half a mile in front of me was the highway I would otherwise be taking, already choked with cars at a bit before 7 a.m.  The sun rose behind me and I peered down the track, like my fellow travelers, looking for the flicker of the headlight.  Five minutes passed and the train arrived, with a modern whir of electricity and speed.  I boarded.  I sat down.  I opened my Kindle and turned it on.  Thirty minutes later, I was downtown, two more chapters into Parrot and Olivier and with no traffic-knots in my shoulders.  I love taking the train.