I have been fascinated by the many articles and books lately about parenting in general, mothering in specific, and working mothers (however that is defined) in even more specific. I have no idea if there has actually been a huge increase in articles/books/discussion of this issue, or it’s just one of those things that you notice more once it applies to you.
The internet is stuffed full of responses to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, so I figured why not try to stuff in one more. I have enjoyed many of the responses, but I always feel like something’s missing.
For me, I think it’s the underlying premise of so much of these discussions that there is some absolute truth out there; some right or wrong answer. I simply do not believe there is. Every single person is different, every mother is different, every “working mother” is different, and trying to lump people into groups is a crude and, in my mind, useless endeavor. There is no “right” way to be a “working” mother. Slaughter talks about where she came out on the very personal question of how much time to spend with her children and how much to spend on her job. Where she came out may not be where others will come out. It may change every year or even every month for any given woman, depending on the nature of her job, the age of her child, the availability of her partner, if she has one, her mental health, her physical health, and countless other factors. What’s wrong with our society – and I do think some of the responses capture this better than others – is that people are not always free or supported to choose out the solution that works best for them and their families, at any given time.
There are a lot of reasons we lack this freedom, but I think it’s easiest to focus on the economics. When I read articles that focus on the lack of paid child care leave and affordable child care, I find myself nodding my head more vigorously (incredibly annoying habit, I know – luckily usually no one else is around). Federal policies, state policies, and work place policies could be so much better in terms of allowing parents who are employed to balance their family and work obligations. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I keep hope that this can happen within the structure of capitalism. I know far too many women who are extremely smart and well-educated (to the extent that matters), who are working either far more than they want to (the key being “than they want to” – not the amount of time they work measured against some objective standard) or less than they want to. For the women working less than they want to, it seems to me that at some point the most savvy businesses are going to figure out how to employ these women and access their incredible skills and will get over the notion that women (and people in general) can only be effective/productive workers if they are in the office 40+ hours a week. I would think this would translate into many benefits for those businesses/workplaces, including simple economic benefits.
These types of changes are satisfying for me to think about because it seems we could make some progress in this regard. The societal attitudes are also incredibly fascinating to me, but so much harder to get my head around, and even harder to think about how to change them.
I also think people often forget to acknowledge, perhaps because it’s too obvious, how deeply messed up our work life balance as a society is compared to many other developed countries. To me, that’s at the heart of the issue. As long as the 40+ hour work week and being available around the clock is the gold standard for a good worker, it will be difficult to parent, whether you are a mother or a father, single or partnered. I remember reading a great article on Slate.com a while back that framed the work life issue not as a working mother issue, but a working person issue. We all have a variety of things we would like or need to do (with varying degrees of need, however you measure that) outside of work. Workplaces could allow for so much more flexibility for everyone than they do presently. I think this would require a colossal mind-set shift away from comparing reasons for being away from work, and a true understanding and acceptance of everyone’s differences, and a trust that everyone would be making as significant a commitment to work as possible. I have been pretty disenchanted with the ability of even very progressive non-profits to make this mind-set shift, but at the same time, I have seen glimmers of progress and I have faith.
I think we can make the most progress on the more specific issue of how working mothers can find work life balance if we focus on the broader issue of adjusting work life balance in our society in general. The benefits to our mental health as a society would, I think, be nothing short of tremendous. Here’s hoping.