“Having It All” Revisited

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.

4 thoughts on ““Having It All” Revisited”

  1. Thank you for a thought provoking article Elaine. Much has been written about the work/life balance. Yet as you mentioned, from generation to generation, the perspective inevitably changes. I for one have been elated to finally witness the paradigm shift of parenthood as a shared responsibility in which each parent’s contribution has equal importance not prescribed by tradition. The media still falls back on the stereotypical “clueless Dad” but thankfully there’s been an increase in articles such as the ones you cited which provide a healthy dose of reality to to the mix. I agree with you about the “acceptance of certain realities of life without a sense of victimhood” in respect to those fortunate parents who actually have a choice of who will be the primary care provider. In many ways, having a choice has become a privilege as opposed to adhering to tradition.

    Lisa Miller’s “retro wife” article detailing a feminist viewpoint on being a stay at home mother seems almost comical in the 21st century. Is there really a need to politicize and therefore justify the choice to be a stay at home parent? As stated above, it really should be seen as a privilege if the choice was made without having to be concerned about any financial impact.

    Mr. Winetrip’s take on work/life balance offers what I believe to be a well rounded perspective that reflects the emerging mindset of modern parenthood. There’s been a corporate push back to reclaim work as the focal point in their employees lives. They’re taking advantage of the dismal employment opportunities to return us to a “retro work/life balance.” Once the economic pendulum swings back in the employees favor, it will be breathtaking how quickly these same corporations will reverse their stance.

    Truth be told, freedom requires sacrifice. That’s true for any generation. – Vincent via CuteMonster.com

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    1. Vincent, thank you for this thoughtful comment. I shared it with my husband who also found it extremely interesting. Do you really think there is pushback from the corporate world because they are taking advantage of the economy? Most of the fuss has been about Yahoo and from everything I’ve read it sounded like that decision was related to the specific problems of that company. However, in general I agree that there is considerable resistance to parent friendly policy. Unfortunately,it’s always the bottom line that counts most.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      Elaine

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      1. In a former place of employ, I set a precedent by taking Paternity leave via The Family Leave Act. Most of my colleagues were supportive but there was a lot of passive aggressiveness from management. Generally speaking, companies exist for profits, not for philanthropy. Any favorable changes in parent policy are made due to competitive market pressures to retain outstanding productive employees who might be poached by other companies, especially during an economic boom. See late 1990s internet bubble for reference. 🙂

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      2. Thanks for that clarification. I know fathers are reluctant to take the leave they are allowed concerned that they will not be taken seriously even if the leave is granted. You have added another dimension. I agree that companies are not eager to do anything that eats into their profits. Pressure has to be brought to bear.

        Elaine Heffner, Goodenoughmothering

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