Well, I didn’t expect my return to Scroguedom after six months would be in the form of a personal screed, and on domestic topics no less (as in “household”). However, as the feminist mantra of the 1970s claimed, “the personal is political,” a statement as salient today as it was then.
I’d like to be writing about clean energy or debating health care policy. I wish I could add something astute to the discussion about the future of democracy in Iran. But to do so would mean investing the time to follow these issues closely enough to have something worthwhile to add. And then there’s the time needed to actually write something. I’ve already got four or five unfinished posts languishing on my laptop.
Yet, in the words of my 14-year-old son this morning, who is angry at my asking him to pitch in around the house prior to the arrival of weekend guests, and who can’t understand why I won’t just drop everything to pick him up from the lake with his friends later today, I don’t have a “real job” — so why can’t I be like a good stay-at-home mom and craft my life exclusively around his? If I didn’t have work to play at, I could keep the house up by myself and still have time to provide unlimited taxi service. He can’t understand why, if Dad is a doctor, I still “have to work.” (Never mind that my husband is a family physician in a small, self-owned private practice in a very affluent community – which makes us solidly middle-class amid the wealth of Boulder). My son thinks I ask him to do too much in exchange for offering too little – at least in comparison to most of his friends, whose mothers are not so audacious as to work.
No doubt his barbed comment struck too sharp a chord in me. It is too often I who question whether I have a “real job.” I mostly freelance, as a copywriter and editor. This past year, it’s been full time, which is why I’ve had to shortchange this blog, despite the gratification it’s provided for me intellectually and as a really-wanna-be journalist. On top of that, I teach off and on as an adjunct at the University of Colorado, where I finished a Ph.D. over a decade ago. No, I don’t have a “normal job with an office,” as my son pointed out. Nor benefits. Despite protestations, I don’t even get an “exclusively mine” desk at home – everyone’s always encroaching on it. Unlike more highly esteemed grad school peers, I did not pursue a tenure-track position, since I did not see how it could possibly fit with the life I had by the time I graduated, with a toddler and an infant and a husband who was often on call and never gets home till 6:30 or 7:00.
As a high school political junkie I had a T-shirt that said “A woman’s place is in the House…and Senate.” I grew up in the heady feminist days of the 1970s believing that, and believing that I could be a success in the house (small “h”) and the public sphere as well. Both, I felt, were integral to the life I wanted to craft as a woman.
I’ve done my best to cobble together a sorry-looking version of “having it all,” which means a half-assed pseudo-career; a lot of guilt about being a mother who is only half there, half the time, for her children; a house that despite my best, often solo, efforts to keep semi-ordered, usually looks like a small tornado blew through – and a chronic level of stress and sleep deprivation, not to mention perpetual frustration over not being able to do any of what I do as well as I could have if I were more singularly devoted.
Why didn’t I get a full-time nanny so I could pursue the full-time career? Which, theoretically, I might make enough at (though likely not, as an academic or journalist) to afford a housekeeper to do all the scut work I resent? I didn’t, because I chose to be a mom, and I felt it was better for my kids if they had at least one parent available to them at more than just breakfast and bedtime. And since my husband makes substantially more money than I am able to, it makes sense for him to be the primary earner. But what I didn’t know, when I made that seemingly obvious choice back when to “do it all,” is how hard it would be, and how little valued I would feel on every front, not least in my own estimation. (And yes, I realize these are the quandaries of a privileged Western woman – but that is my culture.)
The struggles that American women – and we are still talking primarily about women — continue to face as they pursue a multiplicity of identities, particularly parent versus professional, are every bit as relevant, entrenched and seemingly insoluble as they were when I graduated from high school nearly three decades ago. My conclusion, almost 15 years into parenthood, 11 years post-Ph.D. and the entirety of that time spent negotiating the “juggling act,” is that little has changed for women. I bought that whole ‘80s bill of goods that you can have it all and do it all well, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a load of crap. The reality is, in the vast majority of situations, that as a woman today you still must foreground either family or work or suffer the fallout of trying to combine them.
My husband gets to leave the house every day and go to a job that, while taxing, is still gratifying and comes with a good measure of status. He doesn’t worry about whether there’ll be clean underwear for the next morning or (imagine!) whether the kids will have clean underwear. He doesn’t think about what they’ll eat for lunch or negotiate daily battles with them over fruits and vegetables versus pop and ice cream. He doesn’t have to interrupt his day multiple times to admonish them to turn off the TV or the computer and do something more productive, or summon the emotional energy necessary to brace for yet another conflict if he dares ask them to unload the dishwasher, vacuum the cat hair off the sofa, or wipe the splatter off the bathroom mirror. He doesn’t stress about how he’ll make his 5:00 deadline if he has to leave to go pick up his son who accuses his mother of being a “micromanager” if she has the gall to ask him to pin down what time his social occasion might wind up, so she can work around it – even though she doesn’t really “work,” in his youthful appraisal.
I’ve had well-meaning individuals give me two versions of advice. The more traditional set says, “This is just a season. The kids will be grown before you know it (they will – and that’s also why the attitude issues and constant conflict hurt so much); make them your focus, don’t worry about work – there’ll be time for that” — as if it’s just a little hobby. The others say, “Just don’t do it.” Let the house go. Let them worry about their own laundry. Let them eat as much junk as they please. Forgot about monitoring grades; it’s their future. Don’t worry if your husband’s parents get birthday cards or Christmas presents – it’s not up to you.
There is truth in both perspectives. But I can’t seem to embrace either. I remain torn in a maelstrom of expectations: to nurture these children I’ve brought into the world and to keep a semblance of domestic order, since I have this flexible schedule and work at home. And also to use this able brain I was born with, this analytical mind, this creative energy that, even if I were to try to subordinate, will not be repressed. Despite my son’s puzzlement, I don’t work because I “have to,” to make ends meet. I have a luxury in that regard (though he might not be skiing and traveling like his peers, were that not the case).
What I’m holding out for, I guess, is that it won’t be all over for me by the time I hit 50. Once my kids are off to college, my time-balance should shift. What I’m clinging to is the hope that society might have changed enough since the early days of feminism so that midlife women can make fresh, vital contributions and be rewarded for them with the pay and status they deserve, even if they’ve chosen, by default, the silly-sounding Mommy Track.
Am I a fool to have such faith? If the past 30-40 years of feminism’s limited accomplishments are any indicator, maybe so. As long as we live in a culture in which privileged 14-year-old boys see their mother’s choice to work as self-indulgent, progress seems elusive. But I’m also holding out hope that by making the choices I have – not to abandon my children, as so many in my generation were through divorce or neglect, and not to forsake my own gifts and goals – my son and his younger sister may grow up to see the value of both sets of commitments. Whether society will evolve to support women so that they can combine them more effectively is another matter.
Wendy Redal hopes to post more regularly in the future, with a focus on the politics of everyday culture.