Re-Entry: On the Razor’s Edge of Work/Life Balance

Full Moon and Stars

(Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

This week, I went back to work.

I started a terrific new job as Legislative Director of a progressive union of nurses, National Nurses United. It was as good as it could be — welcoming colleagues, a job with real meaning and opportunity, and even based close to home in Silver Spring. It is the position I was hoping for all along.

It is also an incredible luxury to be able to keep what I believe aligned with my paycheck, which is something only a few of us get to do. And it was delightful in many ways to feel that sense of autonomy from leaving the house behind, to get dressed in the morning with purpose, to eat lunch in a restaurant without asking them for crayons, or to read something without interruption and be able to form a thought. In short, it was nice to be out again in the world, beyond the solipsism, exhaustion and solitude of caring for a child.

And yet, it was still hard as hell to leave my girl. All week, in keeping with the turmoil, she’s been angry at me. She’s lashing out physically, hitting and kicking in the intense manner she only uses when she actually intends to hurt someone. She’s also withdrawn at times, not even letting me read to her, but insisting on doing it herself, as though she’s drawing on her own reserves, thank you very much. And I’ve been short-fused as well, my normal responses to her misbehavior infused with guilt, sad understanding and my own small heartbreak.

On Wednesday night, or Day Two of the new job, she and I were snuggling in bed, everything cuddly again, and she started pleading with me to “stay home.” She incanted it over and over again, until, in desperation, I called to her dad to come in and distract us. I would have given her anything, but could not give her that.

On Thursday night I had a dream. I was exploring a beautiful, sun-dappled orchard with a friend, talking about grand topics like whether plants communicate to one another. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered I had a child, and she was nowhere to be seen. I panicked. I ran, panting hard, to the edge of the field only to see her small body under the wheel of a stopped car. “Maya,” I screamed, then broke into pieces and woke up in a cold sweat.

She was snuggled up next to me. I went to the next room and stared out the window, unable to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.

In an uncannily timely way, I had two wonderful friends from college over last weekend for brunch, both my age, and these subjects were on the menu alongside the eggs. One is married and does not want children, but spoke with genuine anger of the toll that time out to have kids took on her female peers in the academic world. Another is unmarried, and always assumed she’d have a family, but works at a law firm and has too many long hours to meet someone or to have a child on her own. She sounded sad, and not a little surprised, to find herself in her 40s without children. Knowing her, it surprised me too.

It struck me that me and my peers are really the first full generation of women to be able to work hard enough to make something of ourselves in the professional world, and to have widely internalized the expectation that we would do so. At the same time, many of us — though certainly not all — also want children, a family, and want to be good at all that as well.

I’m not the first one to notice this tension, of course. As I wrote with regard to the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece last spring, the institutions in which we work have a lot of work left to do to accommodate this balancing act, and women are equally bewildered by it much of the time.

I do know many women who seem fulfilled by not working, some of whom are home with children. I know many more who, like me, want a career and a family too, and live with the ambivalence of these half-measures — at work with an undeniable sadness in her heart, or home but stuck on the Blackberry or computer.

Talking with my dear friends, it became clear that some agonizing may be unavoidable. Women need and want to work, to be useful in the larger world. We have ambitions, and we have a right to them. But creating a life that includes the incredibly meaningful act of caring for children, should we so choose, is also so important that for many it ranks as a necessity. How to reconcile these imperatives? No one really knows, and the penalties and suffering in both directions are steep.

We can hope that someday, the political system will catch up a bit, and provide better supports for working families, including Slaughter’s proposals for more accommodations and the ideas I suggested here. But even with paid family leave and affordable universal preschool and paycheck fairness and an increase in the minimum wage and all the other things I dream about, there will be women like me and my friends:

Women who would have been amazing moms but forgot to work less so they could meet someone. Women who might have been moms if the professional penalties were less — or yet might not. Moms who give up a brilliant career to be where they are needed more.

And moms who want to work — who love their work — but love their children just as much. Those of us who live with a small but constant betrayal of some part of our heart, yet bear up under it, smiling through our confusion and loss, comforting our child however we can, and facing the nightmare of our inattention, late at night, alone.

The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

Washington hikers (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This post could just as easily be called: “Why Women Will Never Have it All, But Still Should Fight For More.”

Today’s Atlantic Monthly contains a blockbuster piece from Anne-Marie Slaughter on modern feminism, motherhood, and the demands of work, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Overall, Slaughter gives us a thoughtful discussion of the real agony working women experience in choosing between the demands of their careers and the joys and trials of parenting. The article also contains enough personal reflections to be refreshingly candid, which is a particularly welcome turn from someone with such a robust career in high-profile politics.

Like my own prior admissions of ambivalence about my choices with Maya, and my impulse to pointedly complain about the structurally unreasonable demands on women in a response to the absurd attacks earlier this spring by Elisabeth Badinter, Slaughter has decided to put down the “we-can-do-it-all” cheerleader pom-poms that sometimes obscures what should be the real goals of the women’s movement, and to keep it real instead.

She points out something about her talks with students that I’ve also found: women in their twenties who happen to be in my orbit generally observe the frantic pace of my efforts to juggle a baby, work and, lately, a blog, with a bemused and tragic smile, as if to say — how is this all supposed to work again? So we’re not fooling anyone, least of all the women coming up next who will grapple themselves with all these questions.

The truth is — if we’ll only admit it to each other — it doesn’t work very well. Like many women, but certainly not all, I’m far too invested in my professional identity to choose to “stay home,” as we all awkwardly say (as if moms “stay” anywhere for very long). But that doesn’t mean I’m not beset with regret most days, or that when the nanny and her son joined us at the pool the other night, and Maya obviously felt more drawn to play with them than me, I didn’t quietly, invisibly, seethe about it. After all, she spends five days every week with her, and only two with me, I thought, with more than a twinge of envy.

The challenge for mothers to our sense of priorities is profound, particularly when we acknowledge, as Slaughter tries to, that despite our efforts to achieve 50-50 parenting, the bonds that women have with their children are irreplaceably, undeniably deep. Whoever else they may have in their lives, she notes, for children a mother’s role is “indispensable,” and she makes a point of citing half a dozen powerful Washington moms (and dads) who agree with her or have left careers for at least some time to attend to the needs of their families.

I particularly enjoyed the criticism she has for female exec flavor-of-the-month Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose work habits have now morphed into a kind of reproachful working moms’ urban legend. She dismantles the half-truths women like Sandberg promote: that “it’s possible if you just are committed enough,” or “it’s possible if you marry the right person,” pointing to serious but no-duh propositions like the fact that the school and work day are not aligned to make working easier, and that even the ideal marital arrangements can run up against a mom’s ambivalence about leaving her child.

Notably, Slaughter fails to consider what happens to women who unluckily choose a less angelically supportive partner, women who have no partner at all (single moms are raising fully one-quarter of America’s kids, and are a much higher percentage of minority and low-income households), or parents who might imagine a life with far more balance than the work schedules she describes, which are downright punishing. Despite her critique, even she can’t quite let go of the boosterism and elitism embedded in these expectations. In fact, at one point Slaughter unwittingly, and almost comically, reveals just how much she’s lived inside the privilege bubble by ridiculously claiming, with what appears to be a straight face, that “[j]ust about every woman who could plausibly be tapped [for a high-level Washington job] is already in government.”

She also projects a bit too much from her own experiences with her child’s troubled teen years and thus understates the problem. She notes that a woman would want to be free to stay home, or to put family first, when her children “are 8 to 18,” a period of absence from the workforce which she calculates as ten years.

But the developmental stages from birth to 3 years old are at least as significant, if not more so, to a child’s growth, and any family with multiple children who are not twins would require this window of time to expand to account for siblings. And what about aging parents, or non-traditional families, or widely spread out births? Slaughter’s too-neat math fails, once again, to account for the variety and complexity of family obligations and women’s lives, and thus, the changes we need will be more far-reaching and fundamental than she suggests.

She does include a discussion of the problems that women, and career women in particular, now face with fertility at our more advanced maternal age. But even here her advice can be a bit tone-deaf, to say the least.

Given her own difficulties conceiving, Slaughter blithely recommends that women under 35 freeze their eggs. But she ignores the high costs of this advice. It seems utterly unrealistic to think that most women, or even most “career women” in their late 20s and early 30s, will have $7,000 to $15,000-odd just lying around (or double that amount if they need a second go at it). And even with all that expense and medical hassle, there is only a 40 to 50 percent chance of success, which makes it a pretty expensive gamble for most people.

As this has been an area in which people I love have experienced completely crushing kinds of disappointment, I think it’s critical that we not gloss over how hard this question of timing is for women, or, even worse, attempt to erase the problem by suggesting that an expensive scientific half-miracle is in the cards for all of us.

Last, although she casts her story as a cautionary tale for professional over-achievers, even Slaughter appears at times to need to prove to us, the reader, that despite her recent, renewed dedication to mommyhood, she’s really very smart and all. When her acquaintances cuckoo over the loss of such a brilliant mind to policymaking circles in Washington, it’s hard not to consider that for all but a handful of moms, whatever choices — and deep personal sacrifices in terms of ambition and foregone possibility — they make usually go unnoticed, remaining unremarkable except to them, or if they are one of the “lucky” ones, to their partners as well. Unless you’re Slaughter, or Mary Matalin, or that ilk, rarely in women’s lives are the costs of these sorts of decisions even added up.

Still, on the whole, the article is a timely and important account — the beginning of a picture of what really needs to change to make women’s lives more manageable, meaningful and free. While some internal agonizing about working and raising children is probably written into the script, steps to achieve wider agreement on what a “work-life balance” really means would help greatly to transform the sharp corners of our ambivalence into a cushier, more shapely set of supports.

Slaughter proposes a few, all of which I liked, including aligning school days better with work, allowing more flexible workplace arrangements, and shifting understandings in the workplace to lessen or eliminate penalties for women (and I assume, men) who would like to take a few years away from their careers to focus on family. And she closes the piece with a straight-up appeal to businesses to see new value in the many older women discarded as workers today.

I also deeply appreciated her call to all of us to stop making up fake, more “serious-sounding” excuses when we really have something to do that takes time out of work for family. If we all stopped lying and were honest about our obligations, this would give all of us, in turn, permission to have a life and work as well. And the perception of employers and co-workers that attempting this balance openly makes us “unserious” is in itself toxic to getting what we want, or even, achieving any kind of accurate picture of how hard this all really is.

To her ideas I would add more radical structural ones that still seem blindingly obvious to me, and that would lend a hand to many more women: mandatory paid parental leave of up to one year as they have in Canada and Europe; better pay for low-wage workers so that they can better balance the needs of work and family; far more accurate (read: adequate) child-care tax credits and robust funding for programs that work like Healthy Start; pay for low-income moms at a fair wage for caring for their own children (what better work program in a recession?); and paycheck fairness — the crazy idea that equal work deserves equal pay. Moreover, we must also extend every protection we have — and those we may win — on behalf of women, families and married couples to include same-sex couples and nontraditional families.

The truth is, the job of feminists in making society better for families is, at most, half-done. We don’t acknowledge often enough how partial our sense of completeness is in our own lives, and how tenuous is the wish-and-a-prayer is that it’s all constructed on. Instead, we suit up, kiss the baby goodbye, and push on with our many dutiful roles: pay the bills, send a tweet, call our own mom, plan a playdate, cook dinner, kiss our partner, work late, and somehow try to get some sleep.

A friend said to me on the playground the other day, “I never thought my life would be this hard.” I nodded. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of exploding opportunities and shape-shifting for women, and was told that anything I wanted was possible.

That turns out to be true in some ways only, and not even, perhaps, what I want anymore. In fact, it now seems like we’ve asked for so much responsibility, so much opportunity, that it’s exhausting — even superhuman — just to be us. Slaughter says that’s true of the overachievers — she misses the point that this is part of the fabric of all of our expectations, and that even “ordinary” women are now edging, however reluctantly, towards superhero status.

The next generation of women, looking up at the utter craziness that is our lives, must force governments and corporations to create the structural supports and understandings women need. What feminism will really mean is not that women can do it all — we certainly can, as we’ve all run ourselves into the ground to show everyone — but really, why should we?

Women of my generation — and older, like Slaughter’s — can help them. First, by being honest about what it’s really like to be us, as she has been and I have tried to be. And second, by raising these issues again and again, and joining the fight when the day comes — and it will come, my friends — that there is something big worth winning.