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Posts Tagged ‘parenthood’

Lest you thought feminism‘s battle was over, let me reassure you, we’ve only just begun. And, despite all the work we’ve left to do, many facets of feminism, facets that are, by all proper measure, actually settled by now continue instead to rerun, like so much sitcom syndication. Consider: How is it that, in the very same week I find myself reading another spot-on piece by Ann Marie Slaughter – this time in Foreign Policy magazine, expounding on the many reasons why we need more women involved in high-level foreign policy (and why we need to change policy around parenthood and attitudes about non-linear career paths if we want to see them there… and why the people most likely to make said changes happen to be women) — and a throwback piece of “feminism ruined everything” hysteria claiming that women reallyreallyreally want to get married but can’t find men to marry them because, thanks to feminism, “women aren’t women anymore.” (This by one Fox News’ Suzanne Venker, a woman with a career–who is also married with children. Just… seriously?) Oh, and a lengthy Washington Post piece dissecting, in full hand-wringing anxiety about What It All Means, the fact that women newscasters can now sport long hair and ditch the blazers.

The blogger in me can’t help but wonder: which one got the most clicks?

I jest, but also not. Because the thing is: Scare tactics can be compelling. You’ll never get married, you with your dirty career ambitions, you’re not woman enough! And an article about fashion (even newscaster fashion) might generate some interest, likely of the screwing-around-at-work-by-consuming-mental-junk-food variety. Whereas real, substantive discussion is a far harder sell. Which makes sense. But it leaves me wondering: given what’s “clicky” and what’s not, how many women are left with the false impression this junk “news” sells–that feminism is about making women unwomanly and pitting them against men, or having a right to bare arms while delivering the 5:00 news–as opposed to the stuff that is real, and that really matters, and really affects you and your girlfriends and sisters and coworkers, your mothers and daughters. Like reworking work for the new–nay, the now–reality, the reality that includes unmarried women who work to support themselves, married women who work to support (or help support) their families, and women of all stripes who simply want to work, because they’re smart, ambitious, and interested in being productive members of society?

Feminism is not about being “angry,” “defensive,” or an ethos of “men as the enemy”–I kid you not, this is the language Venker used. And the calls for “returning to a simpler time,” lamenting the loss of the good old days (Hi, Republicans!), are about as useful as pining for the return of Beverly Hills, 90210 The Brenda Years. They’re over. They’re not coming back. Time doesn’t go backward. Brenda has moved on. The more you moon over bygones, the more you render yourself irrelevant. Out of touch. And yes, even kinda pathetic. (Though I’ll happily go on record as a fan of the Brenda years, I certainly don’t expect them to come back.)

Worse, though, is that all the yammering about bygones keeps us focused on the bygones, arguing about things that aren’t even issues anymore, that are just reality, the stuff that, by comparison, just doesn’t matter that much. Whether or not women should work and be independent is not a question any longer. We do, and we are. And that’s, as many of us believe, as it should be. (And, once and for all: the men that don’t want to marry someone who’d qualify as an independent woman… is that a guy you really want to spend every bleeding night with, foresaking all others, from here until Ear Hair and Depends, so help you God? Hint: No. No, it is not.) Feminism should be looking forward, not behind, considering what’s happening now, and what will come after that.

Time, after all, only moves in one direction.

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I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

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So have you heard about the big dust-up caused by the Wall Street Journal essay written by Erica Jong in which she castigates what she calls “motherphilia?”  I’m sure you know exactly what she means, but let’s let her spell it out:

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you know that we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades. Movie stars proudly display their baby bumps, and the shiny magazines at the checkout counter never tire of describing the joys of celebrity parenthood. Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life’s greatest good. Never mind that there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary. Professional narcissists like Angelina Jolie and Madonna want their own little replicas in addition to the African and Asian children that they collect to advertise their open-mindedness. Nannies are seldom photographed in these carefully arranged family scenes. We are to assume that all this baby-minding is painless, easy and cheap.

Ms Jong, she of “the zipless f*ck fame” then goes on to talk about the new mommy bible, “The Baby Book” that advocates attachment parenting.  Not just a clever phrase:  Your baby is your life.  Back to Jong (we love her, by the way):

You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. How you do this and also earn the money to keep her is rarely discussed. You are just assumed to be rich enough. At one point, the [authors of the book] suggest that you borrow money so that you can bend your life to the baby’s needs. If there are other caregivers, they are invisible. Mother and father are presumed to be able to do this alone—without the village it takes to raise any child. Add to this the dictates of “green” parenting—homemade baby food, cloth diapers, a cocoon of clockless, unscheduled time—and you have our new ideal.

All of which reminded me of a thank-you note I received from the daughter of a friend for a baby gift of green baby stuff that noted, just slightly sardonically, exactly that:  you not only have the obligation to be a good parent these days, but you have to be environmentally conscious while you’re at it.  Whew.  Another ideal to live up to and other way for women to be judged.  But that’s beside the point.

You can surely predict the fallout to Jong’s essay.  Over on the Motherlode, the responses were hot, heavy and not at all surprising.  This came in, an essay cowritten by Katie Allison Granju,  the author of “Attachment Parenting”, and mommy blogger Jillian St. Charles:

Jong’s stock in trade as a writer and a cultural observer has always been to provoke outrage via the outrageous. These days, however, her ability to shock via suggestions of sexual boundary-pushing have become more than a little passe. Thus, she’s apparently now decided to attempt to stir the pot by singing the praises of some sort of detached, Jongian-style “zipless parenting,” in which — as she says — “there are no rules.”  It’s a convenient position from which she can throw bombs at any target that doesn’t reflect her own choices.

Okay, point taken.   As for the “no rules” part,  wait for the punch line.  But what made me cringe was this:

I do not sleep with my baby because some “guru” told me I should. In fact, lots of experts continue to tell women that we absolutely should NOT do this very thing. No, I sleep with my baby because after a day spent away from her at work, I enjoy feeling her snuggled next to us at night. And while I feel guilty about a whole lot of things as a mother — as Jong admits she  also does in her essay — I don’t feel one iota of guilt about my decision to breastfeed or spend plenty of time with my kids. I am not imprisoned by my parenting. I enjoy it, most of the time.

Sleep with my baby? After a day spent away from her at work? That’s what made me think.  Is all this trophy parenting, this uber-attachment, this need to spend every sleeping moment with your baby, the inability to spend any time away from your child when you get home from work,  a reaction to the fact that our culture, our policies, our work-life structures have not evolved to the point that there’s time for both work and life over the course of daily life?  That mom is still the one doing it all and doing it obsessively?  And where the hell is dad?

All of which led me back to a “big think” interview with the glorious Gloria Steinem a few weeks ago, where she said, as always, a lot of smart stuff.  But check what she says related to this issue, specifically:

For instance, we’ve demonstrated in this and other modern countries or industrialized countries that women can do what men can do, but we have not demonstrated that men can do what women can do therefore children are still mostly raised, hugely mostly raised by women and women in industrialized modern countries end up having two jobs one outside the home and one inside the home. And more seriously than that children grow up believing that only women can be loving and nurturing, which is a libel on men, and that only men can be powerful in the world outside the home, which is a libel on women. So that’s huge step we haven’t taken yet.

Right?  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved having kids, and (ahem, fishing here), I think I did a fairly decent job of it.  One reason may have been that I also gave myself permission to have a life that was attached to neither work or parenting.  But back to where we started.  Let’s give Erica the last word:

In the oscillations of feminism, theories of child-rearing have played a major part. As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the “noble savage” view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.

Amen, sister.  I’ll be happy to say it.   Do the best you can.  There are no rules.  And that, dear readers, goes for everything.  Not just parenting.

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