Monday, November 01, 2010

Career women vs. SAHMs round II: There Can Be Only One True Choice!

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.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I think you can count Europe out of your feminist equation. Or at least channel 5! Them bastards. Sorry, but I'm really pissed off at this blogger, Catherine Jones

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I think it's possible that a great deal of our problems in this area is that was have set up this construct of the nuclear family: mom, dad, and kids; and basically cut out the idea of a community of loved ones being involved in the raising of children. Why does this have to be either/or? Why either mom or dad (or "strangers" - nannies, daycare, etc)? Why not aunts, uncles, grandparents (who might be retired and have a lot of time on their hands!), and close friends? As a childless (and currently unemployed) aunt, I can't tell you how much I'd love to see my niecephews on a regular basis. I think the restriction of the nuclear family is one factor at the root of this problem.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Suz!!!

I realize that prostitution is an emotionally-charged issue, but jailing journalists for writing about it? That seems a bit much...

Hey Carla!!!

That's a good point -- the nuclear family is probably a big part of it.

But then that naturally leads to the question: What cultural forces led to the rise of the nuclear family?

I can think of a couple of guesses off the top of my head:

1. Mobility. In general, I think it's a good thing that people aren't stuck living in the same tiny village where all of their ancestors lived as far back as anyone can remember. However, when it's easier (economically, technologically) to move, it becomes harder to maintain strong extended family ties.

2. Wealth. Again a double-edged sword. It's great when the parents can expect to command enough resources to feed and clothe their kids without the aid of the extended family. OTOH, it's work to get along with the extended family, so if you don't have to do it, many people won't, and next thing you know, it's a cultural trend...

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

I agree that's part of it, but I guess what I was getting at was the idea that there is only one setup that can be termed a "family," and people feel forced to conform to that standard - see: shotgun weddings, anti-gay marriage organizations, etc. That's what I think is the problem - that people won't do something that works if it doesn't fit the mold, or they do something that doesn't really work to fit in.

A young mother living with her mother, and not with the father of her child b/c they don't want a relationship, is seen as inferior to two young parents scraping out their existence on their own, with no loving relationship, just a child conceived unexpectedly.

The idea of depending on your parents past age 20 or so is seen as childish, because of our society's glorification of independence, individualism, and self-sufficiency. So grandma, mom, and baby aren't a "family;" it's just an irresponsible/lazy mother who can't take care of herself and her child and now her poor mother is "stuck" with two "leeches." That mindset really bothers me, that even if everybody is happy with a situation society will say it's wrong because it doesn't fit into their definition of "family."

Anonymous said...

I've always thought of feminism as, at its core, being about the freedom to choose your path in this world, rather than being artificially constrained to one path or another. It's amazing, though, how the busybodies of each generation fail to get the message that their criticisms of other's paths are not welcome. And it's especially amazing when those busybodies pretend to be feminists!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey CafePhilos!!!


mathmom said...

Hi Chanson! You might be interested in the debate about Erica Jong's piece in the New York Times. I got there from the parenting blog:

(if that doesn't get you to the three articles in question (Jong's article, a response, and then Jong's response today) then I'll try to get you more data)

The first comment on today's post by Jong seems to be at least some of what you are saying:

"When are we going to understand that the incessant mommy wars are really what's oppressing us? I think we should collectively decide to rebel against the guilt constantly being manufactured for us. If your kids are happy and healthy, then whatever you're doing is right, and bully for you. Mind your own business and tend to your own family, and stop dumping on the mom next to you!"

Thought you'd be interested.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

Thanks -- that is fascinating reading! It's definitely along the same lines as what I'm saying here.

It's funny how other parenting choices seem to lead to this same sort of conflicts as you get with the question of whether/when to work after having a baby. It must be human nature or something to decide that your own way (if it worked) is the only right way (and everyone who does things differently must be wrong, bad, stupid, lazy, etc.). ;)

Honestly, I think the situation for modern parents is dramatically different than any other human society. The fact that people can choose to have a small number of children and essentially expect to see them all grow up to adulthood means that parents have much more time and energy to invest in each individual child. People sit around obsessing over whether you should (or absolutely should not!) let your baby sleep in your bed with you because they can. Today we have the luxury of having tons of options.

It's possible that kids today are getting a degree of parental attention that is actually pathological. However, it's also possible that the extra attention is a positive thing, and it's even more likely that it has a host of consequences, some positive, some negative, some neutral, etc. Longitudinal studies can provide fascinating perspective on the effects of different parenting styles. But I have no patience for screeds that are based on nothing more than "My acquaintances [or some ladies I saw at the playground] are doing some horrible thing that I think is wrong and I am just horrified by how wrong they are!" Again, I think it's human nature to do that, but I find it about as useful as news about celebrity marriages (eg. not at all).

Unknown said...

The theme of my reading today has been that we women tend to judge each other a lot and tend to feel judged by each other a lot. Not sure how we're supposed to cut that out, but it would be better for everyone if we could be happy for each other instead of pitying or feeling smug. I'm just as guilty as the next lovely lady, I'm sure. I wonder how we can stop!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Katy!!!

Yeah, it's difficult to avoid. I feel like just being aware of this dynamic helps you to avoid falling into it. :D