The last two generations have lived through quite an evolution in thinking about the “role” of women. The attempt to address the potential conflict between a domestic and a work life has taken changing forms. The old vision of a clear cut division of labor and roles between men and women, while giving way to changing behavior, remains the ideal for a segment of the population. The outcome is several kinds of conflict, within women themselves and between those with different points of view.
Recently, the New York Times had a story about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, which had the heading, “The $1.6 Billion Woman, Staying On Message”. Potentially one of the richest self-made women in America, her message to women according to the story, is that they “must take responsibility for their careers and not blame men for holding them back.”
The article refers to an earlier interview in which Ms. Sandberg spoke of talking with a female candidate to whom she was offering a job. She told the candidate that in case she was thinking of turning down the job because she was thinking about getting pregnant, she shouldn’t worry. “There was no need, Ms. Sandberg told her, to choose between having children and a career – both were possible.”
The Times story points out that Ms. Sandberg is married to a successful entrepreneur, and while having two children, doesn’t have to worry about money or child care. The point is also made that some criticize her for seeming to suggest that women should just work harder while failing to acknowledge that most people haven’t had all the advantages that she’s had.
Despite Ms. Sandberg’s reassurance to her job applicant, there is no question that the question of child care remains a major issue for both those pursuing a career and those who work out of financial necessity. This is the unresolved question that has, as yet, not been addressed in a satisfactory way. One reason it has not been resolved is because of the still existing strong belief that children should be cared for and raised by their mothers. That belief persists even for many of those mothers who work outside of the home by choice.
This brings us back to last week’s post about French parents. Pamela Druckerman in the article cited refers only in passing to the public services in France that “help to make having kids more appealing and less stressful. Parents don’t have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance or save for college,” among other benefits. Undoubtedly, such concrete support that reduces financial strain on families is an important factor in the choices French women are able to make in their lives.
But there is a less obvious way in which this support system has an impact on women and families. The very fact that this kind of concrete help exists is itself a statement of recognition that women are not limited to being wives and mothers and that this reality is publicly supported. The point is that the society as a whole values family life and gives permission to women to pursue other goals without sacrificing family in the process. The responsibility for children and family life does not rest solely on women.
This is important because for many American women that permission does not exist, for some externally and for many others internally. What this means is that not only do women here feel criticized by others for their choices, they feel conflicted within themselves, particularly in relationship to their children. Ms. Druckerman writes about French parents in her article, “They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.” The point is that they live in a society that tells them they don’t have to feel guilty. They are offered the kind of help that relieves the need for 24/7 care from parents.
In my contacts with parents I have found an idealized view of mothering that influences the feelings and behavior of many women. Too many women still have as their ideal the old picture of the self-sacrificing mother for whom children always come first. Much of the criticism that has been leveled at American mothers reflects behavior resulting from an unrealistic over- investment in children. The ideal of motherhood is supported by our society as a whole – just look at the Mothers’ Day cards – while the reality is not.
So Ms. Sandberg’s message that you don’t have to worry, or choose between having children and a career, needs some modification. No need to worry if you have enough money and/or a good support system. Perhaps more importantly, you will worry less if you give up a particular picture you may have of the “good mother”.
Achieving the goal of “having it all” may depend on what your definition of “all” is.