Just over a year ago, I wrote The Myth of Doing it All, a confessional post (turned minor internet meme–kinda cool) inspired by an earlier post in which I admitted that working mothers can’t do it all and explained that asking us how, in fact, we do do it all, is a very uncomfortable thing to can ask a working mother.
Not as uncomfortable as questions like “if you didn’t want to raise your children yourself, why have them?” but you know. Uncomfortable. Relatively speaking.
Since then, this idea of mothers and how much we do or don’t do, has inspired the most amazing discussions in my life–here, in social media, in person, and often by email. Sometimes a reader thanks me for saying what she’s always been afraid to say out loud. Sometimes a newly married colleague is still trying to figure out the juggle. Sometimes it’s just a group of mothers like me, hard-working, ambitious, with professional success to varying degrees, sitting around a coffee or a cocktail, or whispering confessions in a quiet corner of a party about the things that are really, truly lacking in their lives.
This past week, aspects of the discussion were reignited, with a hugely popular article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic: Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. It was sent to me by no less than 16 people. (Thank you, people! You know me so well!)
It’s well worth your read. The piece is a phenomenal and very comprehensive dissection of what’s wrong with the workplace and our current system and our culture at large, while offering practical thinking on how we can create environments in which women can have more “all.” One of my favorite lines was when she quotes her assistant simply stating, “You know what would help the vast majority of women with work/family balance? MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES.”
Now I haven’t read a lot of the responses or criticisms of the article (I’m busy!) but I feel like I need to ask a question that I haven’t really seen:
Where are the men in all this?And what is their role?
There’s a lot of talk about changes at the institutional level that can better support women in their pursuit of their dreams. There’s a lot of talk about “mommy wars” – stay at home moms versus traditional working moms getting over their shit; or even now, as Lisa Belkin points out, child-free women like Elizabeth Wurtzel, who seems to buy into the myth of the selfish rich working mom and makes the tired argument that mothers are selling out feminism. (Blah blah blah. That’s another post entirely.) Still–what about the conflict that’s happening right at home?
What has to happen in our relationships to smooth the path to self-satisfaction for women?
What do men need to learn, or do, or…maybe even, give up? And, of course, what do we?
Slaughter suggests, as Sheryl Sandberg does, that “marrying the right man” is one of the essential factors in women’s success. And I think to a large degree she’s right. But do they always start out as the right men? Or do they learn to become that way?
It’s amazing the number of powerful women I speak to who confess that their relationships are tough. Sometimes more than tough. He’s not supportive. Or he’s not helpful. Or maybe he’s resentful. Or competitive. Or simply at a loss with someone so unlike his own mother.
I think, where does this come from? Are Type A women attracted to Type B men? Or, as with so many of our mothers in the 70s, do some women come into their own post-marriage, and realize they want more from life once their children get older, throwing off the formerly perfect balance of work and power in their relationships? As we grow and evolve, do the men in our lives grow and evolve with us or is that a lot to ask?
A lot of women I know don’t have the supportive husband of their dreams. Which makes me think that it’s more than simply clean dishes or pediatrician appointments or perfect, sinewy yoga bodies and enviable triceps that we give up when pursuing our personal and professional passions.
My relationship is wildly imperfect. We love each other and yet we have our issues, like everyone. I don’t use this forum to talk about them; although I did once explain the proper use of a hamper. But we do have to work extremely (extremely) hard to figure out what we can reasonably expect from one another other, and whether our expectations will ever match the reality of what’s possible.
You can’t imagine how many whispered stories I hear from women who have expressed the same. Or worse. They’ve told me that their work or their activities outside the home strain their relationship, either because of the time they put into their jobs, the cultural (or inlaw) pressures to be more traditional in their role as mother, even competitiveness with their partners, particularly if the earnings power starts to shift.
One blogger told me that her mother-in-law asked, “wait, you earn money from your little blogging thing?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I earn more than your son does at his job.”
She was floored.
And yet, it didn’t stop the mother-in-law from continuing to treat my friend like the woman whose primary job is to have dinner on the table and clean the house just the way he likes it. Her husband…well, let’s say acorn/tree.
I don’t think this just applies to mothers who have traditional jobs or careers, by the way. I think that there are mothers who run the PTA, chair the school benefits, start up the Girl Scouts Troop, or beautify their neighborhoods who have husbands that feel challenged with the time and energy spent on those things.
Shouldn’t we as a culture have evolved past this by now? For fuck’s sake, it’s now 35 years since I first starting peeking at the Ms. magazines by my mother’s bedside.
Busy women’s lives are freaking hard. But their relationships, need to help make it easier. Especially when you look at the statistics that even for those women who are primary earners, the men still do less housework and have more free time–though sometimes this is by the woman’s choice, whether they realize it or not.
(We need to get better at that too!)
Relationships take work. And work takes work. And children take work. And personal fulfillment takes work.
How much work do we all have in us?
Hopefully a little more, if we want those happy endings that Disney movies (and a few Jewish mothers) have promised us all these years.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I’m not some throwback Cold War-era conservative admonishing women for not being home at 5PM to bring their man a martini and his slippers. But I do think this all comes back to my assertion that we need to commit to raising the next generation of men who accept and honor successful women; and, just as importantly, to know that they are capable of being equal household managers and nurturing caregivers.
Not just for our benefit, by the way, but for our children’s.
How awesome to think that my own girls will grow up knowing that daddies do dishes and go on field trips and make really good eggs.
Because without men in their lives that take responsibility and offer support, how can they expect to have some of that “all” that the rest of us want? The kids and the great husband and the professional successes and the personal satisfaction of finding your bliss through your work
As Slaughter put it so perfectly:
Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But I think we can still go further.
I hope our partners can help. And eventually, our sons.