Working Mother Smackdown? Moving This “Debate” Where It Needs to Go

Anne-Marie Slaughter meet Sheryl Sandberg. No, that’s not them in the photo, but the latest working mom discussion makes me wonder how long it’s going to be until we’re all at each other like these two lades.

Not so long ago, Facebook exec Sandberg announced to all working mothers in America than if she can have it all, then so can they! It’s easy-peasy — just leave work at 5 p.m., take some paperwork along home with you and VOILA! — more time with the kids and you can stay on top of your profession.

Except that Sandberg missed one little point — that about 99.9999% of working women in our country don’t have the luxury or job security to just pack up at 5 p.m. and make a show of breezing out of the office. If they did, lots of them would find themselves out of work or, at the very least, on the wrong end of the promotion list. As for ths vast majority of moms who don’t have offices? They risk losing their jobs even if they want to take off an hour from work to take a sick child to the doctor.

Even a Princeton professor and former Obama administration official knows there’s no way to manage the situation American working women face and she’s written about that in The Atlantic. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article is an excellent one — except for the title, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — the title sends the wrong message because because last time I checked, no one ever promised that anyone could have the infamous “all” — the ability to have a satisfying, full-time career and the chance to be a mother who is around for all of our kids’ childhood benchmarks, as well as their needs.

To say that Slaughter is an accomplished professional woman is a massive understatement. But as her children got older, she learned something that many of us already knew — there will be times when your children’s needs trump any parent’s professional ambitions. Slaughter hasn’t abandoned her working life, but she talks about choices she’s made that fly in the face of cultural expectations that real professionals will choose job over family — the “having it all” conundrum.

I’ve thought many of the same things as Slaughter. We are both “women of a certain age,” raised to believe that, thanks to the women who paved the way for our generation, that we’d be able to be committed professionals, as well as a hands-on mothers who could “have it all” in both of those fulfilling roles with no problem.

Not surprisingly, that turned out to be a fantasy. I had to reassess at some point, because the needs of my daughter changed and those needs were challenging at times. Like Slaughter, I became a mother later in life as a result of spending time pursuing my education and career. I thought if I survived the baby and toddler years, I could figure out how to find my way back to professional fulfillment, knowing that the heavy lifting of motherhood was done.

But adolescence is tough and it just might be more important to take a step off the professional track when our children are in that phase of life than when they are toddlers, and that can throw a real monkey wrench into a professional career. Slaughter writes about the worries she had about her middle school son while she was attending a high-profile professional engagement as one of the moments that prompted her to take a small step back in order to create a life that would allow her to focus more on the needs of her children.

I gave up the world of crazy billable hours and nice-sounding titles to work as a writer from a home office so I could have the flexibility to do the “mom thing” partly because of my internal struggle about wanting to be a mother, especially since I didn’t become one until after I turned 40, as well as wanting to keep and nurture the professional identity I’d spent the better part of two decades nurturing.

I know there are many people who say that my decision makes me a traitor to the sisterhood, but in the end it was a good one for everyone in my household, especially our daughter, who had a challenging few years with night terrors and attachment issues that required a lot of attention. As we head into the teen years, I can see that some of those issues may be coming up again. And it will take a completely different approach and amount of time to work through them with a seventh grader than it did with a preschooler.

While this is a discussion worth having, the one question we rarely debate is about whether or not men have it all. Do they want it all? Do they care? And how do we create a society where the questions about tackling the issues of parenting are ones that are shared equally by mothers and fathers? I know that my husband, the guy I affectionately call “Mr. PunditMom” doesn’t have the same expectations of where and when he’s supposed to be at work vs. doing the dad thing. And he doesn’t struggle with it. There’s no question that parenting is a team sport. And my husband has definitely done his share of all sorts of parenting duties. But someone needs to stay in a job with insurance benefits and that has a salary to pay the bills. And, yes, that could have been me if I’d stayed on the professional path and he’d been the one to step off. But we made a decision that worked for us, without me realizing that there would be a whole lot of judgment going on in the world of moms and the media.

I’m just glad I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t take it to heart (much) anymore when others share their disappointment over how my personal life decisions impact the feminist movement and the advancement of all women.

Image via iStockPhoto/Marco Cariglia

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4 Responses to “Working Mother Smackdown? Moving This “Debate” Where It Needs to Go”

  1. Debbie Owensby Moore Says:

    I think what Katharine Hepburn once stated, still rings true. “Only when a woman decides not to have children, can a woman live like a man.”

  2. PunditMom Says:

    Debbie, those are such true words. But do we want to live like men? I think that’s where the conundrum comes in. Somewhere along the way, we’ve allowed ourselves to internalize the idea that we can be all things to all people all of the time. When I succumb to that it feels like my head will explode.

  3. Redstocking Grandma Says:

    The Mommy Wars just helps maintain a workplace suited to the 1950s. The consciousness raising groups of the Second Wave were intended to help women realize their problems could only be solved by political change, a reshaping of society. Tragically, we seem to have forgotten that.

    I am going to be 67 a month from now. Having 5 younger brothers, I probably became a feminist when my first brother was born. I have always been preoccupied with integrating feminism with motherhood. I blog for a nonviolent revolution for a family friendly society, perhaps even more sweeping than the civil rights movement.

    I do not admire Anne Marie Slaughter. She is a hawk, an avid supporter of the war in Iraq. Between the lines of her article, which has good suggestions, is the confession that she has looked down on most mothers most of her life. http://www.salon.com/2008/03/21/slaughter/

    Women don’t want to be like men. Men want to escape the breadwinner trap. Sexism hurts women, men, and children.

    I am profoundly discouraged that my four daughters have the same work/family conflict I struggled with when the oldest was born in 1973. What is different is they are expected to work far longer hours than I was as a book editor.

  4. Jane Bonner Reitmeyer Says:

    While I believe the conversation re the Mommy Wars is important, the main thing I find lacking in the discourse is the children themselves, the very beings that make us Mommy. I do not suggest that we should continue on the current, damaging child-centered culture but we must recognize that parenthood, whether you are the mother or the father means that some, if not most (ok, let’s face it, some days all) of your personal rights become secondary to the needs of the children you’ve decided to bring into the world and parent. Parenthood is a profound responsibility, the Divine Burden, as Dickens put it. I think its imperative that parents protect their own social/emotional state. After that, all bets are off. The kids come next on the priority list. Of course work plays into this. I do believe women can have it all. This may require changing what “having it all” means or accepting the notion that having it all at the same time will most certainly leave deficits some where else in your life or the life of your kids.

    As far as the concept that women may need to become more masculine in their work life in order to get ahead – I would like to suggest that women will succeed when we truly embrace that which makes us female, and because of those wonderful and frustrating feminine traits, not in spite of them, make it to the top of the proverbial professional mountain top.


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