Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Declaring My Neutrality

Back during an earlier round of this summer's seemingly endless "mommy wars," FeMOMhist had an excellent tweet, in which she declared her neutrality:

I loved it then, and I still love it now, during our latest round, in which we're debating whether or not women can "have it all," spurred on by the Atlantic piece written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the title of which declared that we could not have it all even as the content argued that we should change our systems so that it would be easier to combine career and family, and even though by almost everyone's definition of career success, the author is a star.

I liked the article, but truly hated the title- and I was not alone in that reaction to the title. It has occurred to me, as I watch the back and forth and find myself agreeing with much of what people on both sides of this particular debate say that perhaps part of the problem is generational. As Slaughter herself discusses in her follow up piece in the Atlantic (which I found via this article, tweeted by @bluemilk), for her generation, "having it all" was a rallying cry. For my generation, it is more of a bludgeon, used to beat women who dare to try to have great careers and full family lives back into our kitchens. How unreasonable of us, to want "it all." How very selfish. When we talk about the societal changes that would make our lives a little easier, we're often told that our problems our own fault, brought on by trying to "have it all," which, of course, is impossible, so why should anything change?

And still, some of us are doing it. When I hear someone say that women can't "have it all" I think that perhaps the person saying that thinks that women like me don't exist. Or maybe he or she thinks that I am not succeeding in my career, or as a mother. Or maybe we're just defining "it all" differently. The phrase is useless at best and demeaning at worst. So when I read the Atlantic's headline, I groaned and thought "here we go again". The title felt like purposely inflammatory link bait, or at least extremely tone deaf.

Slaughter seems genuinely surprised by the almost visceral reaction so many of us had to that title. Her response is gracious and balanced, and I do think that she and I want the same things. I also think, however, that she isn't quite getting the full point of responses like Dana Shell Smith's excellent essay about how she manages to have a very demanding career and a full and happy family life. I liked Slaughter's original article, but I loved Shell Smith's response, due in no small part to the fact that as I read her words, I felt like I was reading a description of my life in a parallel universe, in which I work for the State Department and live in cool foreign cities. Shell Smith argues what I argue- that you can have both a great career and a great family, and be happy, albeit rather tired, doing it. She tells her story openly and honestly, describes the trade offs she's made and explains why she doesn't think they are undermining her career or her kids.

But if I take Slaughter at her word, she agrees with Shell Smith, too, and thinks they have arrived at the same result via a different path. And here, I think my generation should cut Slaughter and her generation a little more slack. The way Slaughter frames the issue is different from how we view it at least in part because she has fought different battles than we have, and has different scars. While the approach Shell Smith outlines seems obvious to me, I should acknowledge that this is because I do not have to deal with the overt sexism of yesteryear, when ambitious women were advised to hide their families and never turn down an opportunity. I, on the other hand, am completely open about the fact that I have kids, both at work and in job interviews. I figure I don't want a job at a company that has a problem with me having a family. I can do that because I am confident that I can find other, more family-favorable opportunities if necessary. Women of Slaughter's generation could not count on that, and the fact that I can is due in no small part to the fact that they were willing to do what it took to break down barriers. I should thank them for that, not snark at them for having a slightly different view of work-life balance than I do.

And I am also grateful to Slaughter for moving the discussion back to include the adults' needs, not just the children's. So much of what is written about women's choices tries to justify one choice or another based on what is best for the kids. That is, in my opinion, crazy. Children need love, shelter, food, water, stability, and adults who will help them learn and grow to find their place in this world. There are as many ways to meet those needs as there are families. Children can thrive in all sorts of family configurations. This debate is not about what is good for children, as much as some people want it to be. It is about whether or not society should support families in finding the arrangements that work best for all of their members. There is no universal right answer, only the right answer for each individual family.

I do not want to convince everyone to choose the arrangement my husband and I have chosen, only to convince them that it is a valid option. I also see many other valid options- from cutting work hours back, to finding more flexible jobs, to deciding to leave the workforce altogether for awhile. None of these choices should automatically derail a career. I hope that one day my daughters will be as puzzled by my strident assertion that I can have both a career and a family as I am by Slaughter's apparent belief that leaving one great job after two years to return to another great job is scaling back her career.  I take as a given Slaughter's argument about the need to view careers over the long term, and expect them to accommodate some ebb and flow as family needs change- and I can do that because Slaughter and her generation have shown that to be true. I want to build on that for my daughter's generation, so that they can take as a given the idea that every woman has a choice about how to arrange her life.

I do not need to belittle anyone else's choice to do that. In fact I want to celebrate the many different paths women take to find fulfillment in their lives. So I am officially declaring my neutrality in the mommy wars, and heading off to find some chocolate. Who wants to join me?


  1. I'm with you! I've been declaring that I don't want to fight with other mommies and their choices for a while now... why does someone always want to start it up again? I love the idea of mommy war Switzerland!

  2. I'm with you, too!
    And thank you so much for the link to Shel Smith - I hadn't seen that yet.

    1. Thanks, I admit I was feeling left out until you mentioned me. ;)

    2. I certainly didn't mean to leave you out!

    3. No worries, Cloud!!

  3. Anonymous4:47 AM

    "I should acknowledge that this is because I do not have to deal with the overt sexism of yesteryear, when ambitious women were advised to hide their families and never turn down an opportunity."

    This is still prevalent in my field. And as someone who bucked the trend and had a pre-tenure baby, I do not turn down opportunities. Because people still say, "Whatever happened to x? Oh, she had a baby and stopped focusing on her career." There's a small handful of us who are making a really big difference in how our field views mothers. I'm now not the only young woman with a pre-tenure baby who is still somewhat prominent. (I have chosen not to go to DC gov't in the past, but mainly because I preferred the alternative opportunities at the time. DC is usually not a good pre-tenure idea even if you don't have kids unless you're going to a think tank.) The top women in my field the generation above mine are also reproducing, and still making a huge difference to the field, which is great, but relatively recent. (With some exceptions-- but a lot of the big name women in their 50s and 60s who have kids are not at top 5 schools, probably because despite their cvs they had kids.)

    "So much of what is written about women's choices tries to justify one choice or another based on what is best for the kids. "

    We have a mini-rant on this coming up next week, inspired by Get Rich Slowly, of all places. I was a little shocked by that until I went to link to my *last* mini-rant on the subject and noticed that it, too, was inspired by Get Rich Slowly. I guess not all people who participate on GRS look at SAHP as a form of financial independence and instead look at it as something that makes them better than other women.

    And yes, I've been tired of the mommy wars for several years now... since before I became a mommy. Yet, occasionally they draw one back in, as much as one wants to take permanent breaks. And one can avoid specific blogs, forums etc. but then they show up on personal finance and academic sites. Why they gotta do that? Don't people have better things to do than talk about how horrible people who send their kids to daycare are (or whatever the flavor of the month is)?

    1. It sucks that your field is still so hostile. Academic science may be like that- I do not know. Sexism still exists in the biotech industry, as well as anti-mother bias. It is just more subtle now, and the opportunities are greater, so that I don't feel like I'd be killing my career if I turned down a great job that wouldn't work for my family.

      I'll still defend myself when someone says obnoxious things about mothers like me! Neutral doesn't mean doormat.

    2. Amen @nicoleandmaggie - it's still prevalent in my field, too: "the overt sexism of yesteryear, when ambitious women were advised to hide their families and never turn down an opportunity."

      In my experience as a VP in corporate America, "yesteryear" is actually 2002, 2004, 2007, and 2009 when I myself was the recipient of shitty sexist advice from higher ups to do things such as: not wear my engagement ring to job interviews, hide my pregnancy, not wear my wedding ring, handle my maternity leave a certain way, to space the birth of my children just so, etc etc.

      I get what you're trying to say though.

    3. Anonymous12:29 PM

      I like to think that in my way I'm part of culture-changing. One pre-tenure baby is rapidly becoming the norm, and I was there on the start of the trend!

      The engagement ring and wedding ring advice I heard from a female friend whose friend actually tried interviews with and without and got job offers for without the ring but not with. Not exactly a scientific experiment, but food for thought. My friends on the market without wedding rings (whether married or not) also tended to do a bit better in terms of first placement, though that may not have been the actual cause.

    4. Oh, I get the advice about not wearing my rings to interviews and never mentioning my kids... but I ignore it. And I know that I CAN ignore it because the generation of women before me busted their way into management by hiding those things. I have no evidence of my behavior in this regard hurting me, but I have no evidence of the opposite, either. I work in a an industry in which a lot of hiring decisions are made based on finding someone you trust who can vouch for the candidate- so perhaps my reputation outweighs my wedding ring. Who knows?

      Sexism is definitely alive and well in biotech, it is just more subtle. I agree that in some ways that is worse, but then I talk to some of the women a generation ahead of me and I think "no, they had it worse."

      I'm reading an advance copy of a book about Marie Tharp, who was the woman who discovered the Mid Atlantic Rift, and the sexism she faced is so much worse than what I face. Maybe that is influencing my opinion here. (I'll be writing a review of the book once I'm done with it.)

    5. Yep, for my friends and me "without the ring" seemed to generate the offers, or the happy male clients, or whatever we needed to move ahead. Patriarchy sucks.

    6. Anonymous1:28 PM

      I wore mine mainly because I have a high opinion of myself and figured academia didn't deserve me if it couldn't handle my dual career thing. Also didn't really want to be someplace that would disqualify me because they were worried about my husband. Also didn't want to sacrifice my family for the chance of a career-- it would suck more to not have the kid and be denied tenure than it would to have the kid and be denied tenure, so I figured I'd shoot for having the kid and getting tenure and if it didn't work out, I'd get a job in industry making 2x as much money never regretting what might have been.

      So far I've been doing a lot of showing people that things can be done if you're not willing to sacrifice yourself but are willing to select someplace that doesn't suck to work. There are higher ranked places that have more overt sexism but I wasn't able to trail-blaze in those places. (But I have better-published friends who are!)

      Man, I should be doing more work today.

  4. I like the idea of neutrality, but as annoying as the "mommy wars" are, I think it's good that we are talking about it, and it's not just women. I had several men comment on the Atlantic article on my Facebook page, and saw several other men post some (depressing but cool) infographic about how the US is the only country without guaranteed mat leave.

    The more we have men involved in the day to day parenting stuff, the more the sit up and pay attention and see these as *parenting* issues, not women's or mommy-only issues. And I think that's all goodness.

    I honestly think the people who sit in judgment of daycare, etc have their own insecurities about not working that they're trying to fend off. (Not excusing them, just saying because as a part-time working mama, I get to spy on "both sides" a bit...)

    I have several SAHM friends who will occasionally make a crack about daycare (forgetting that I use it) but they will make 10x as many comments about how they feel guilty about not contributing to the family income, they can't ask their hubbies to do any of the night duty, etc etc.

    (And they were all worried that their kids weren't learning enough when they'd see T put her own dishes in the sink, etc at 18 months...)

    I just think on the Internets it comes out as more of a proclamation because we don't see the rest of it. So I pretty much ignore it.

    1. Amen! You mean you have SAHM friends who "won't" ask their hubbies to do night duty, it is not that they are incapable of making that request, right, right? They just aren't prioritizing those conversations.

      I offer this as someone who also has been a happy SAHM in an equitable, heterosexual relationship - they exist, too, even if they're not thick on the ground everywhere.

    2. I've never understood why SAHMs think they can't ask their husband to take the night shift from time to time. Both partners are working hard all day- so why shouldn't they both help out at night?

      I think all of us- in the workforce or not- need to check ourselves and watch our judgment of other people's choices. We may feel hurt by perceived or actual judgment from "the other side" but that is no excuse for dishing judgment back. We'll stop the mommy wars when we all decide to stop fighting them.

  5. I second N&M's observation about academia (at least some disciplines) still decidedly being the province of men. And there is also a generational aspect to sexism.

    I am in a very "macho" field. When I joined the department of 40 people, there were 2 women professors. At the time, one was tenured, had twins very late in her 30's right before being promoted to full prof. The went on to receive tenure when I was hired and had a child (her only one) a couple of years later. I arrived with a kid in tow (had him when I started grad school), which was a major source of amazement and amusement during the job hunt. Had the second midway through the tenure track, and another one shortly after tenure. There were two women hired shortly after me, none have kids and I don't know if they plan to. So I am a bit of an oddity in my department, and I have received quite a few tactless remarks on my 3rd pregnancy, generally from older profs. Many of them mean well and think that they are joking, but it gets really old to be asked if you are going for a football team and if you actually know what causes pregnancy/that there is birth control available (true stories...)
    Younger male profs are either supportive (presumably because they are involved parents themselves) or not-so-stealthily hint that they think I have slowed down behind the pack (I don't think I have but whatevs). Sexism is alive and well, just more subtle. The subtlety makes it even more insidious, actually, because of the gaslight effect (don't have overt proof except your observation).
    But these are perhaps thoughts best left for another thread...

    Back from the male-dominated-field tangent and to something resembling a point...

    I don't particularly care for Connan O'Brien, but I caught his last show in Jay Leno's slot (before he was let go), and he said (I'm paraphrasing): "Don't be cynical. Cynicism is my least favorite quality. Nobody gets everything they wanted, but, if you work hard and you are kind, amazing things can happen."

    Perhaps a definition of the annoying "having it all" should be: "having it all" means that both your professional and personal lives, when averaged over the period of a recent few months or perhaps a year, are very good approximations of your ideal versions.

    As for the mommy wars... Sigh. I come from a country where it's impossible to support a family on one income, so it's expected that a woman would work (there's generous maternity leave, though). Therefore I am largely guilt-free about working, I certainly don't think daycare is harming my kids (daycare here is way better than in my home country or even in the state where I went to grad school), so no issues there.

    And honestly, how can we in earnest tell the kids, especially daughters, that they can do whatever they want and should follow their dreams and passions, if they see us quitting workforce in droves and re-enforcing the patriarchal division of labor? We say "lead by example" when it comes to teaching your kids to eat vegetables or clean up after themselves, why does it not hold for aspects such as "finding fulfillment as an individual, aside from being a parent"?

    1. The "averaging out" effect is something I take for granted, and I realized that Slaughter was arguing for as a change. I don't know if I am unusual in my generation, but I just assume that since I have another 25 years before I even hit the federal retirement age that my career can take some slow patches if I decide my family needs them.

      However, so far, my career trajectory since having kids has continued on the upward path established before I had kids. Maybe I would be higher up already if I'd never had kids or if I were a man- there is no way to tell. So I think I'll take Conan's advice and assume that it will all work out. :)

      I certainly like the fact that I am an example to my daughters of being able to do what you want with your life- but I actually think that if a SAHM is secure in herself and has made the decision to stay home as an authentic "this is what I want to do" choice, she is doing the same thing. My Mom stayed home with me and my sister until I was in kindergarten. Sadly, I have almost no memories of those early years- but she says she loved them, and watching her with my kids, I can believe that. She loves being with little kids.

      I get what you're saying, though- and agree that it is good for the kids around that there are SOME women like you and me, to model that this sort of life is a possible (and good) choice, too!

    2. I guess I have a lot to say today!

      @GMP - "... it gets really old to be asked if you are going for a football team and if you actually know what causes pregnancy/that there is birth control available."

      That's harassment, and in the US, those are legally-actionable remarks that are not only violating people's rights, but are putting your employer at financial risk. Maybe someone in your workplace who is in a position to take action needs to hear from you about it, such as an HR person or an ombudsperson. Or would reporting harm your career?

      Given that you have experienced this harsh reality firsthand in your own workplace, and through absolutely no fault of your own, I'm a little perplexed by your final paragraph and your lack of empathy for parents who choose to leave the workforce because they find it less fulfilling than the alternatives.

      It sounds like you're saying parents who want to get it right have to be employed outside the home no matter what - even if they suffer the slings and arrows of discrimination which BTW is rampant - because it is the only sure way we can "lead by example" for our own daughters. That just doesn't logically follow for me.

      Are there any exceptions to your rules? What makes you so sure SAHP's aren't following their dreams and passions? Any actual evidence for your claims?

    3. Hush, thanks. Please see my comment further below (at 1:22 PM). I guess our comments crossed...

  6. Just to be clear -- I don't have issues with SAHM's per se. There are plenty of very active SAHM's with full non-parenting lives.

    What I do have issues with those people who feel like they must martyr themselves for their children and that anything other than full devotion of one's body and mind at all times, day and night, 100%, to the children is the only way to raise them or gain any meaning in one's life. I guess I am saying that I have issues with people who consider their kids as the only means of self-realization. That's actually cruel to the kids: it smothers them, makes them carry a parent's burden that's not theirs, and gives them a skewed picture of what nurturing relationships are all about.

    1. Got it, and amen to that!

    2. Yes! The mother-as-martyr thing has gotten old.

    3. Anonymous10:48 AM

      Apparently we have a whole series of rants on mothers-as-martyrs: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/?s=martyr

  7. I was tinkering with the idea of writing about "mommy wars" and declaring myself Switzerland...but never got it together. I'm glad you did!
    I liked Slaughter's follow-up piece..yet skimming the comments, there is still so so much defensiveness---which is barring any real breakthroughs in the discussion. Its SAHM vs. WOHM and "high power" vs. "blue collar"; the 1% vs the 99%; men vs. women; parents vs. childfree; those arguing for government involvement vs. get-government-out-of-my-life..so many fences being put up and not enough acknowledgement that many of us want the exact same thing. The ability to create the life we want to live & the opportunity to pursue our dreams. Yes, there are inherent sacrifices in every decision, but what people are asking for is the removal of unnecessary roadblocks. You can't work part-time or even stop working to spend more time with your kids (or set up a missionary in Africa or tour with your band for a season) if you carry the family health insurance through your employer. You can't scale back for a couple of years when your kids are young (or your marathon-career is in high-swing or your father is undergoing chemo) if your job requires constant productivity in an up-or-out environment. You can't work & care for your special-needs children/aging parents if you don't have flexibility in your schedule and sufficient family leave. It is difficult to breastfeed or recuperate from your knee replacement if you don't establish it first with a decent maternity leave/personal sick leave. Roadblocks. For everyone. Not helping anyone. I want my sons to see it as a given that they will take time off when (if) they have children & be equally invested in the household & childcare duties. I don't want this conversation to still be going on as a "mommy" issue 20 years from now, with the same ugly side-taking. Its getting really old.

    1. Couldn't say it better than Ana, so I just want to say I agree!

  8. Reading these comments, I feel lucky that I don't face this kind of sexism. But then... I'm a secretary. Or an office manager, to be more accurate. People DO expect me to be female, but they don't give me that much respect. Well, some do. But it reminds me of a tweet I saw earlier today, by introvertedwife: "Historically professions considered unimportant fall to women, they become important men take over. Drop again and back to women." Arrrgh.


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