There has been some interesting discussion on Historiann's blog about whether or not it is reasonable to scale back your career plans as a young woman, looking ahead to anticipated difficulties balancing work and children. You know I have opinions on this, so of course, I left some comments. Nicoleandmaggie (who have two excellent recent posts on related issues) convinced me that I should turn those comments into a post, so I've decided to do that, while also pulling in some thoughts raised by Blue Milk's recent post on the upcoming "I Don't Know How She Does It" movie.
In a perfect world, I'd pull everything together into a neat little package, but, well, this isn't a perfect world. We're coming up on our second attempt to release a major new tool to the other scientists at my company, and I've got a lot of responsibility on that project, which means that I've been very busy and am spending quite a bit of time at home working. But, I'm taking a cue from one of the quotes I love to use at work and refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and posting my comments from those other blogs pretty much as they were originally written. (The quote is from Voltaire, so is in French, but translates roughly to "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" and is a quote every project manager should learn, because it is an excellent argument to stop futzing and just release the damn software already.)
Anyway, I first waded in on Historiann's post long after the thread had mostly gone cold, but a commenter called Emma had been so snotty about "mommies" that I couldn't stop myself from posting. And once I started, I apparently could stop myself from writing a really long comment:
I’m almost afraid to comment given the venom in some of the other posts, but hell, I’ve defended a PhD so I should be able to take it. Or I guess I could just not come back and read any flames.
Anyway, first of all- @Emma: the only people who get to call me “mommy” are my kids. Calling us mommies and daddies is unnecessarily demeaning. I get that you don’t like a lot of us, or the decisions we’ve made, but you might find that we could have a more civil, productive conversation if you didn’t start out belittling me.
FWIW, I don’t think anyone should have to work an 80 hour week. And frankly, the time use surveys say that mostly, no one does. When people log their time, they usually max out at about a 60 hour week. Which isn’t great, but is a lot less than 80. (I log roughly 45 hours/week on paid work, if you’re curious.)
But what I really want to say has nothing to do with the majority of the debate here. I want to go way back to the original post.
I liked the quotes from the commencement speech- I don’t have time right now to watch the whole thing. I think the quotes make perfect sense in the context of a commencement speech, and they are something that a group of presumably ambitious college grads need to hear and think about.
I remember being in grad school and agonizing over whether or not I could combine kids with my chosen career, which is at the intersection of science and IT. I plowed ahead, and I’m glad I did. Because now that I am here, it is nowhere near as bad as I feared. Also, from where I sit, the other option for motherhood- that of being a SAHM- doesn’t look “easier”. I am friends with some SAHMs, and they are just as tired and stretched as I am. I think that the tired, over-stretched feeling is a function of having small children, not necessarily of combining small kids and demanding careers. I actually feel very little angst about being a WOHM, and I don’t really see much evidence that my career is suffering. I’ve gotten raises and promotions post-kids, I’ve also applied for and been hired into new jobs, even though I don’t hide my status as a mother in the job interview.
I don’t really know why I am a happy WOHM when so many others are not. I’ve mused a lot about it on my own blog, so anyone who is interested can click over there, click on the “working motherhood” category and read away. But if pushed, I would put it down to a few things:
1. My partner is absolutely in this 50-50, without argument. We both eased off a tiny bit on our careers after our first was born, mainly in the “extras”- I don’t network as much as I should, he’s dropped his non-work coding projects. We both are starting to ramp things back up now that our youngest is almost two. Neither of us have seen negative consequences yet. In the grand scheme of things, 5 years or so of less intense career focus is not a big deal.
We both eased off a huge amount in the area of housework. We used to split that 50-50. Now we split it 15-15-70, where the 70 is a wonderful housecleaning service we pay. I look forward to the day my kids are old enough to factor into that split!
Of course, I’m not in academia. I can see how the slight easing up isn’t as much of an option there, given the timing of tenure decisions.
2. I don’t go in for guilt, either from the parenting side or the working side. I think guilt can become self-fulfilling. My kids see plenty of me. My work gets plenty of hours from me. Would each like more? Probably. Do they need it? No.
3. I happened to have my kids later. I had my first when I was 35. This was largely because I hadn’t met their father until I was 30. By the time I had kids, I was established in my career and in the position to request accommodations that made things easier for me. Also, it meant that I was making enough money so that there was never any question about whether it makes financial sense to work and so that I could do things like hire the housecleaning service I mention above.
4. I live in California. Seriously, say what you want about my screwed up, bankrupt state, but both my husband and I used our FMLA, and the right of women returning to work to have pumping space and time is protected by law, and has been for quite some time. No one batted an eye about me pumping at work.
(Not to fan the breastfeeding flames, but I breastfed my first for 23 months and am still breastfeeding my second, who is 20 months old. I pumped until 18 months and 17 months, respectively. I did not use formula for either. I believe the science that indicates breastfeeding is the best choice when it is possible, but frankly, the main reason I’ve committed so much to breastfeeding is that I like it. I honestly do not care if other mothers choose formula, but I do care if they’d like to breastfeed and are thwarted by work considerations. As @Nicole says, if the stars align, it is no big deal to work and nurse. Let’s stop bickering about whether or not breast is best and put in the institutional changes that would make it a genuine choice for anyone who wants to make it.)
I say all of this in full knowledge that I am privileged and that many, many women are not as lucky as I am. The answer to that is, in my opinion, not to dismiss my experience, but to take a hard look at our society and figure out how we can make my experience the norm, not an exception available only to the privileged few.
And part of that change is for young women not to do the sexists’ work for them. Charge ahead. Reach for it all. You might just get it. I did, and I’m so very grateful that I didn’t preempt that possibility 15 years ago, when the future looked so scary.
You'll see that I tried to fend off the inevitable charge that I am just an over-privileged woman who has only succeeded by squashing the less privileged women who work at my day care and clean my house... but it didn't work. (As an aside, why is no one ever worried about whether I have squashed the presumably less privileged men who work at my day care (yes, there are men working at our day care) and fix my car?)
Anyway, an anonymous commenter took exception, particularly because she is certain that my housecleaner does not have access to the benefits I had like paid maternity leave and time off to pump. I disagree. Both Nicole and Historiann had actually already done an admirable job refuting anonymous' concerns, but I was grumpy last night and replied as well (this is three replies stitched together:
Anonymous, you made a faulty assumption. I did not get paid maternity leave, either- just FMLA, which is paid in California and the usual 6-8 weeks disability, depending on mode of birth.
I’ll give you, though, that it is a lot easier to absorb the lost income (FMLA does not cover 100% of income) at my higher income bracket. But it has a cap, so I got a lower percentage of my income covered than a lower income person would have had.
And, not that you care, but I shopped around for a cleaning service that gives its employees paid time off and benefits.
Also, if the cleaning service has more than 50 employees, they are required to provide pumping space and time, just like all other employers with more than 50 employees.
In practice, they come and clean my house while I am not there. A lactating cleaner could take her pick of private rooms in which to plug in a pump and take the 15 minute break the law requires. Heck, she could take 30 minutes. I pay a flat rate, not by the hour.
[An aside added after the fact: I'd fire my cleaning service without hesitation if I ever got wind of them not giving their employees time to pump. I am not super activist on many things, but that is one I feel strongly about.]
I guess my last comment is unclear. The cleaning service pays their employees by the hour. I pay them a flat rate. I happen to know, from the few times I’ve been home during cleaning, that they finish my house in less time than the service sets aside for a cleaning- it is a small house and we aren’t utter slobs. So in practice, for the one particular woman anonymous chose to attack on this issue, in fact there is no reason that my cleaner couldn’t pump if she needed to.
And I’ll also say, because I’m having a beer while I do some work, and my programs are taking longer than I expected to run, so I’m cranky AND a little less guarded than usual…
The sort of comment that anonymous left is one of the reasons I don’t hang out on feminist blogs.
I’m your natural ally- I’m a professional woman who has benefited from prior generations’ feminism and knows it. I work in a male dominated field so I get frequent- almost daily, really- reminders of how far we have left to go. I’ve thought about what makes it possible for me to enjoy my life as a working mother, and I’m well aware that a lot of that comes down to the money I have- and I think that is wrong. I’m left-leaning and I cast my vote and even occasionally write my congresspeople with an eye towards extending the benefits I’ve received to women in other income brackets.
But apparently, I’m not feminist enough for some of you guys. I am wallowing in privilege and entitlement and I should be… what? Cleaning my own damn toilets? Piously refusing to take my paid FMLA because it is not available to everyone, just to people who work in California for companies that employ at least 50 people? Storming the barricades and yelling loudly to get this fixed? So cowed by my knowledge of the great weight of privilege that I have that I never post any comments?
How does any of that help?
I keep posting because I remember being a grad student and everyone and their freakin’ dog was telling me that I “couldn’t” combine my chosen career with motherhood and that work-life balance was impossible in the sciences. It scared me and almost made me drop out. I had no role models to look at to counter what I was being told- my professors were mostly male. I was the first (and so far) only person in my extended family to get a PhD. Most of my female classmates were saying they weren’t going to have kids or quietly making plans to go into the science-related careers that are perceived as more family-friendly. So I believed what I heard, but for some reason, I stuck it out, anyway. And now, here I sit, happily combining my chosen career with being the mother of two adorable little kids… and I’m so very, very glad that something made me stick it out. So I post to be the counter-voice for other young women who might be where I was 10-15 years ago.
But that viewpoint doesn’t feel welcome on feminist blogs. It seems to me that there is a large subpopulation that is so busy waiting for perfect solutions that they won’t accept the partial progress we have made, and just want to make women like me feel guilty. Well, no thanks, I’m too busy for that.
I know! Crankypants. But really, I'd honestly like an answer to what the commenters who seem to reflexively call privilege on me and any other woman like me who posts want us to do differently. Because I thought that I was living the life that previous generations of feminists fought hard to make possible. How does it honor their fight if I refuse to accept that life until everyone can have it? I, too, would like to see that life become available to more women, but just pointing at me and saying I'm privileged doesn't really do much to make that happen. What would?
(And anyway, how is this privilege defined? I get that I have white privilege, and now have upper middle class privilege, but I didn't grow up upper middle class, more like solidly middle class, so do I get some sort of privilege discount for having gone to average public schools instead of tony private ones until I hit college, and having gone through that college on scholarship? Or is it all pegged on my current income? How is this nonsense helping anyone????)
As I said back in my first comment on Historiann's post, I actually think that we should look at my experience and the experiences of other happy working mothers and try to figure out what makes our lives and happiness possible- and then try to figure out how we can extend that to as many women as possible.
But I guess it is easier to just call "privilege!" and be done with me. So I stick to the few feminist blogs that I find that don't have that dynamic- or at least don't have it often- like Blue Milk. Who happened to have a recent post about the "I Don't Know How She Does It" movie (and by extension, book). Full disclaimer here- I've never read the book, and I haven't even watched the movie trailer. I heard an interview with the book's author on NPR, and that is my sole direct knowledge of the subject.
But that didn't stop me from commenting! I was responding to a comment that mentioned the disturbing "working mother = unhappy household" vibe in all of this:
Yeah, I’m getting that, too. I’ve heard the author of the book interviewed and don’t remember thinking I’d run out and read the book. She was talking about the pressure to bring homemade baked goods to kids’ parties and I knew right then that we weren’t in the same sphere- we have take out food and big buckets of cheese puffs from CostCo and our kids’ parties. Maybe I’m not high-powered enough? Or is it because we hang out with the kids from day care, who by definition have two working parents?
And the “women in workforce = everyone unhappy” thing just pisses me off. We’re all pretty happy here at my house. Tired, but happy. I saw a great quote from Anna Quindlen on that- something along the lines of “Just because we say we’re tired, that doesn’t mean we’re unhappy. It just means that we’re tired.”
And then Erin had an excellent comment about the particular subculture of motherhood that seems to be on display in this book/movie, as well as in just about everything the NY Times ever writes about the subject, and how that doesn't match her experience. It doesn't match mine, either, so I replied:
You just explained why I can’t stand reading anything about motherhood from the NY Times and why Rosin’s articles generally make me angry. Maybe I would like them better if I viewed them as anthropology? Because they sure doesn’t describe my life. We, for instance, show up places with a 6 pack of beer not a bunch of homemade brownies. (But its good beer!)
I wonder how much is driven by a class of really smart, ambitious women who have chosen to channel all of that into their husband’s careers and their kids’ success? I’m just speculating, though.
@anna, I do remember that the book was set in London. But I wonder if it is the same subculture? Some aspects of NYC are more similar to London than to my locale…. Again, just speculating.
I find the different subcultures of motherhood fascinating. Does anyone know if there is anyone studying this and writing good books on it?
To me, these two threads are closely related, which is why I put all my replies into one post. That, and I'm lazy. I think that the building up of unrealistic (and unnecessary) expectations and requirements around motherhood contributes to the cultural atmosphere that makes young women freak out a bit and start easing off on their career before they have even found a partner, let alone had kids. It feels like another giant self-inflicted wound, closely related to the guilt issue I've written about before.
So, wow. This post got long. But I'd be interested to hear what you all think about the "leaning back" phenomenon mentioned in Historiann's post, or the (frankly ill-defined) issue of privilege and how to extend the benefits I have to women who don't have as much privilege as I do, or the subculture of motherhood that seems to demand that you bring plates of homemade brownies to play dates. Or anything at all, really. Have at it in the comments.