So Mother’s Day is coming up. And what I really want to say out of the gate is that I once had a mom, and she was the absolute best. And I am a mom, and I have loved every second of it. Still do.
That said: I debated writing about the media perceptions of moms. You know, the greeting cards, where we are all perceived as saintly (but slightly out of touch). Or the TV and movie stereotypes where, most of the time, we are portrayed as over-bearing and annoying.
Or, given the Mother’s Day emails that have no doubt flown into your inbox this week: we prefer brunch to dinner; our fashion sense could best be described as “mom jeans”: or, what the hell, what we really want out of life are scented candles you can buy in a Hallmark store.
I could go on. But what I really want to write about is time. Because that’s what we women need, whether we happen to be mothers now, or ever were, or may or may not ever plan to be one.
We’ve been fed the message since most of us were little girls: We can have it all! We can do everything! We can do anything! But the reality is that, until workplace and societal structures change, we absolutely cannot. At least, not at the same time. And yet, we believe. And so we make ourselves crazy in the trying.
Partly the idea comes from the media that feeds us with images of beautiful movie stars who have babies then return to work a few months later, skinny and vibrant as ever, and smooching with a new leading man. We watch TV shows and movies that lead us to believe that we can/should be killer career women, cupcake-baking mommies, svelte and sexy vixens, and with granite kitchens to boot. But what the media rarely shows are the freak-outs when the kids are up all night with croup — or the full time nannies and housekeepers who manage it all — or the days when we have an impossible deadline and, oh yeah, there’s nothing in the refrigerator but junk that’s long past its expiration date. And fun? Had any lately?
And yet, we try to manage it all, thinking we can and that we should. Smiling all the while.
The problem is, we’ve been sucked into a workplace that was designed by and for men — guys with someone at home to take care of business. And that someone, sisters, has traditionally been us. Men can go full-speed ahead with their careers if the little woman takes charge of the second shift. But who lives like that anymore? With two high-level careers, it becomes very difficult to manage a household, much less a family, without a lot of outside help, or without one of the partners stepping off the career ladder. Even given a good day care situation: exactly how does someone with a killer career get to the day care center before it closes at 5 or 6?
And so, here’s what I think: The greatest mother’s day gift of all — for all of us, men or women, and whether we happen to have kids or ever will — might have to do with the clock. The stark reality is that, given the American workplace, where the 40 hour week is defined as 52, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Or in fact, the year. Take a look at this chart, which graphs the amount of time that various countries allow for mandatory paid time off:
Austria tops the chart at 30 days per year. The U.S? None. As in, not one.
So on this Mother’s Day, let’s work for change, shall we? And, rather than smile through breakfast in bed, let’s shout: Until “work-life balance” is defined as more than work at work/work at home balance; until workplace structures adjust to accommodate the realities of two-career families; and until women are no longer assumed to be responsible for the second shirt, something has to give.
And wouldn’t that be the best Mother’s Day gift of all? Smells a hell of a lot better than a Hallmark candle. At least, if you ask me.