These days it is impossible to escape the reawakened controversy about the roles of women and their work/motherhood conflicts. The anniversary of Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”, followed by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, has undoubtedly put a spotlight on an ongoing rumbling about these issues simmering below the surface. For despite all the emphasis on choice as an ideal in the early phase of modern feminism, the reality that choice also means giving something up has become all too clear.
The myth of “having it all” developed as a way of denying the true meaning of choice. Choice meant you could choose to have everything, which turned out to mean doing everything. And the outcome of such choice has been a painful awareness of pressures created, and sacrifices made. The conflicts created by having to make real choices stir an ongoing search for acceptable solutions. Not having found them, many women feel compelled to choose either family or work. Others choose to embrace a more workable commitment to both.
An interesting article on this subject in New York magazine has provoked much controversy. Titled “The Retro Wife”, its focus is “feminists who say they’re having it all – by choosing to stay home.” The author, Lisa Miller writes “For some women, the solution to resolving the long running tensions between work and life is not more parent- friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity.” The article makes the point that these women do not view their decision as a return to an older model but rather as a career choice, and describes the extent of their involvement with their children and domestic activities.
Although the article names this the “retro wife”, it is interesting that the women referred to do not view it that way. They see themselves as feminists on the home front, and differentiate themselves from earlier generations. I feel compelled to say that as a ‘50’s wife/mother, who lived through that period, I find little distinction between the descriptions offered of the domestic sphere, then and now. I wonder if the feeling that this is a freely chosen option as opposed to a prescribed role creates an illusion of being liberated.
A most interesting and unusual discussion of this issue appeared in a N.Y. Times Sunday Review by journalist Michael Winerip who has written “A Man’s View on ‘Having It All’.” He writes that although he definitely has not had it all, he has had a lot, namely a successful career as a journalist and author while being the primary caregiver for his four children for ten years. He and his wife, also a journalist, took turns in that role, she for the first ten years of their children’s lives, he for the second.
Winerip pretty well covers all the bases that have been touched in the discussion of how this issue impacts on women. He says that he and his wife made the same “sacrifices”, but that he doesn’t consider them sacrifices because he wanted to coach his kids’ teams and help with their homework. This required giving up opportunities to advance in certain ways in his field, and the recognition that there were jobs by their very nature that were too inflexible. “You can’t cover a war and be there for your children.”
Winerip points out that the key to his ability to have a satisfying career and also be there for his kids was the ability to work out of his home. He points to the recent Yahoo decision about telecommuting as taking away one of the most useful tools many women have for advancing their careers. But he also questions the premise that a “more parent-friendly attitude about the workplace will catapult women upward.”, and writes that he has seen very few people reach the top or close to it while working full time at home. He also responds to the idea that women are disadvantaged because of the social pressure to be at home, by pointing out that those same social pressures are on men to be the primary breadwinner, and calls that a “burden of similar scope.”
What is striking about Winerip’s article is the clarity and matter-of-fact way in which he identifies the various issues involved and the choices that have to be made. He writes that “the core problem isn’t the workplace, it’s work”, and points out that those jobs that refuse to be friendly are often the hardest and require the most personal sacrifices. He also believes those jobs deserve the best compensation and the most corporate status. However, when he sees a man who has reached the top only by making work his life, he thinks “what about the kids and wife,” and says, “it’s no different when it’s a woman.
The difference in this writing from much else that is written on the subject, is its acceptance of certain realities of life without any sense of victimhood. Perhaps the freedom from a history of gender discrimination that closed off many goals for women, makes it possible for a man to feel that the path he has chosen he was truly free to choose.
There are always going to be limits on freedom. But the struggle to stretch those limits goes on.