Monday, November 01, 2010
See Round I
Throughout my life, I've been happy and pleased with how much our culture has improved from a feminist perspective. [When I say "our culture" here, I'm sticking to my own experience, hence I'm talking about the US and Europe.]
The kids of my generation (Gen X) were brought up with expectations that were dramatically different than the expectations that our parents had been raised on. If a girl decided she wanted to grow up to be a scientist or an astronaut, she could expect to be encouraged, not shot down with "Honey, don't you think you'd rather be a nurse or a mommy?" Boys, too, were finally brought up with the expectation that a father is responsible for his share of the childcare and housework. In the fifties, if a man was pushing a baby carriage, it was the set up to a joke -- it was almost the equivalent of dressing him in a flowery dress. Today, you constantly see men taking care of babies and children, taking them to school, etc. It's expected.
In my feminist world, the women of the twenties and earlier showed that a woman could do a man's job, but they typically had to choose career or family because back then -- to have a brilliant career and a family -- you needed to have a wife back home. The natural next step (for a feminist born in 1971 like me) was to try to build a world where a woman could reasonably expect to have both a successful career and a successful family. With the right support network, it's possible. And -- as an added bonus -- the father gets the opportunity to play a more hands-on role in raising his kids, rather than just being expected to bring home the bacon and then go smoke his pipe in his den while the mom rears the kids.
As much as things have changed for the better, traditional roles have obviously not been thrown out completely with yesterday's trash. Traditional expectations about men and women are alive and well, even among liberals and feminists. Here's my impression (and feel free to disagree with me in the comments):
I think that -- even in our enlightened day and age -- men are judged more for their career/worldly success and women are judged more for their marriage and family.
Here's a taste of what I mean: If there's a couple who are both doing great in their careers -- and they have a baby and toddler at home -- nobody is going to say to the man "Don't you feel guilty or selfish spending so much time on your career while your baby is raised by strangers in day care? Don't you think maybe you should take a year or two off from work, or switch down to part-time?" Whereas you can bet your bonnet that the wife will be getting that critique from some of her peers, friends, family, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, if both parents are unemployed (or underemployed), and they can't afford decent food, clothing, and shelter for their kids, the man is the one who will be judged as a failure for it. As for women who choose to remain single, your career has to be pretty spectacular before people will stop pitying you as the poor, old maid who was too unattractive to land a man.
Now, many men do take time off and/or reduce their hours when their babies are small, and many women are largely or primarily responsible for paying for their their kids' food, clothing, and shelter. But it's like those things are often viewed as a charming plus, and not viewed as being your real responsibility.
This whole elaborate prologue has been to explain why I hate it when people pretend that career women and stay-at-home-moms are mortal enemies, locked in some eternal, petty cat-fight.
If you're a straight woman with career dreams and ambitions, you might magically get lucky and find a husband who will take primary responsibility for child-rearing and who will put his own career on the back-burner in order to support your career more fully. But don't count on it. A successful man, OTOH, can absolutely count on finding a wife who pick up whatever slack is needed to allow him to "have it all" -- the happy well-cared for family and the brilliant career. (The men on the bottom end of the success spectrum can count on having neither one.)
If you're a straight woman who wants a family, then, in our current society, you're almost always faced with a balancing act. You might want to devote yourself full-time to your career and also devote yourself full-time to your kids, but you can't do both. Whatever balance you come up with, you're almost certainly going to feel some regret about the things you chose not to do. You'll occasionally feel like "I wish I didn't have this proposal due tomorrow morning -- I should be reading my daughter a bedtime story right now," or "If I weren't stuck at home covered in baby vomit 24/7, I'm sure I could have earned that promotion!" (Naturally the balancing act is that much worse if you're not in the privileged set, and you need to work to put food in your baby's mouth, when meanwhile people are judging you as a negligent mother for working when you should be taking care of her.)
Regret often leads to defensiveness. You hear a woman at a party talking about her exciting new project at work (respectively, talking about all of the amazing educational activities she did with her kids last week), and you start to think she's talking directly to you, judging you and your choices as inferior. Occasionally, this defensiveness can lead to a vicious circle where some women start to believe that their own choices are the only valid choices for mothers period, and career women are all selfish bitches (respectively SAHMs are all brainless layabouts).
I don't like to take it there. If you feel good about your own choices, then you have no reason to feel defensive about other women's choices. (And if you really regret your choices, lashing out at other women is certainly not going to improve the situation...)
I have so many friends who are moms, and they're all over the map when it comes to working outside the home. Some work full-time, some are full-time SAHMs, and some -- like me! -- have reasonably successful jobs outside the home, but choose to work part-time in order to devote some time to homemaking. All of these ladies are intelligent, responsible, fun, etc. I'd rather say, "Look, we all have a difficult balancing act to perform, and how we manage it depends on our opportunities, skills, and temperament. The right choices for me and my family will almost certainly be different from the right choices for you and your family, and that's OK."
I'm glad when there's a variety of possible choices. Even if not every choice is equally empowering or "feminist," it's feminist to respect grown womens' ability to make good choices for themselves and for their families.