Whenever I think I have a handle on this parenting thing, one of my kids does something that shows me how wrong I am. Petunia's refusal to go to sleep continues. Here I was, feeling all smug in with my "do whatever it takes to get everyone in the family the sleep they need" mantra... and now I can't for the life of me figure out what, exactly, it takes to get Petunia to sleep. Her bedtime has suddenly moved 1-1.5 hours later, and I can't get her down without a fair amount of crying. I hate making my baby cry. Hearing my baby cry short circuits something in my brain, and I can hardly think straight until I can get her to stop. So we're not exactly good candidates for a cry-it-out sleep approach. And yet, that is what Petunia seems to be doing.
Anyway, posting is likely to be even lighter than usual around here until we get Petunia's bedtime back under control. However, there is something that I really want to get out of my system. Lately, the science blogs I read have been buzzing about "work-life balance" and the division of household labor. Dr. Free Ride and Zuska have good wrap-ups, and I think it all started with posts by Dr. Isis and Scientist Mother.
It is mildly ironic that I haven't had time to write this post until now because it was our week to clean the house, and we therefore had chores to do every night and extra chores to do this weekend. I am pausing to write this post even though the office remains unclean... the majority of the cleaning needed is on my desk, and I'll get to it tomorrow night.
The "work-life balance" issue matters to me for reasons that are not evident in my own life. I actually feel like I have a decent handle on things. Hubby and I have a chores schedule that we mostly follow without too much angst. We have a cleaner who comes once a month, and I feel exactly zero guilt about that. We send our kids to day care and I feel a little more than zero guilt about that, but not much. I have a career I like, but usually work between 40 and 45 hours a week, and I feel fine about that, too. I am, on the whole, a very happy working mother.
But the issue still matters to me, because I think it is being used against women. The difficulty of achieving work-life balance in science careers (or, I suspect, in any demanding career) is often cited as a reason for the infamous "leaky pipeline". To make matters worse, "difficulty with work-life balance" is often code for "this career is incompatible with motherhood". I have written before about the fact that I do not think a career in science is incompatible with motherhood- and have found plenty of examples of scientists who are mothers.
As an explanation for the gender imbalance in science, "it is too hard to combine with motherhood" is at least better than "women just aren't as good at science"- but only just. The idea that a demanding career is incompatible with motherhood is sexist B.S. because it assumes that the need to combine a career with responsibilities at home is an issue only for women. (I know, I know... there is a biological difference between mothers and fathers, blah blah blah- but I think that is bunk, too. The actual biological difference boils down to a 9 month pregnancy, a day or two in labor and delivery, and maybe two years of breastfeeding- these are time-limited, usually manageable within your career arc, and can be readily balanced by a partner who views himself as an equal parent. But I digress.) The need to balance some sort of home life with work is not a woman's issue- it is a people's issue.
The data do indicate, though, that in practice, it is more of an issue for women. There are many studies that show that women, even women with demanding careers, continue to do more of the housework and child-rearing than men. While this is deeply unfair, and I am very much in favor of both personal and public action to change this fact, I don't think it should give hiring managers or committees much pause when they consider hiring a woman. I also don't think it should give women much pause when they consider choosing a demanding career. I posted about one such study about academic scientists not too long ago. As I wrote in that post, the statistic that struck me most in the study was the finding that the partnered men (who did on average 28% of the housework in their homes) and the partnered women (who did on average 54% of the housework) were working the same number of hours- 55 +/- 11.
So the men may be getting a free pass on housework, but they aren't spending that extra time at work. I postulated that they were at the pub drinking beer. Comrade Physioprof had a less PG suggestion, which should surprise no one who is familiar with his unique commenting style. Regardless of what the men are doing with their free time, the key point is that the "extra shift" pulled by some women at home is not impacting their work so much as their leisure. It isn't that motherhood is incompatible with a demanding career. It is that motherhood and a demanding career are incompatible with having hobbies and a selfish partner. Something will have to give. I personally recommend finding an unselfish partner, but I have to admit that even with a partner who does his fair share, my hobbies have taken a serious hit. The funny thing is, though, that I manage to find time for the things that really matter to me. But I digress again.
I also think the "this career isn't compatible with motherhood" explanation does a disservice to all mothers, be they working or stay at home, because it implies that there is somehow an easy way to be a mother, or at least an easier way. I don't think there is. I regularly joke with one of my (male) coworkers that we go to work to rest after our weekends. Caring for young children is hard work. (Which is probably why humans have always had help with it. But I digress yet again.)
The three things that I find hardest in my life right now are: (1) Petunia's sudden bedtime freak out, (2) the difficulty of making dinner while also watching two small children, and (3) the fact that the only way I get any quiet time at home is to load the kids in the double stroller and push them around for a walk while they nap. I don't see how quitting my job would make any of these things better, and in fact, I suspect it would make dealing with them even more difficult.
So I think any woman who wants to work outside the home but also wants to be a mother should go for it. It certainly isn't easy, but neither is the alternative. Therefore, perhaps the best thing to do is to aim high in your career- so that you can afford to hire help.
Bad Mom, Good Mom has a couple of interesting posts on related topics, which imply that I may be re-evaluating my opinion on combing work and motherhood once the girls reach school age. It will be interesting to see what happens. If I've learned anything in the last three years, it is that I really can't predict how this motherhood thing is going to go, so it is best to just roll with things as they happen.