By Judith Warner
(Riverhead, 327 pp., $23.95)
How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-At-Work Moms
By Wendy Sachs
(Da Capo, 205 pp., $19.95
White House Nannies
By Barbara Kline
(Tarcher/Penguin, 238 pp., $23.95)
Midway through my first pregnancy, I began to receive mailings from a company called “One Step Ahead,” which promised “thoughtfully selected products to help with baby … every step of the way.” My son’s needs were still simple, satisfied by umbilical cord and placenta, but once he arrived, I came to understand, matters would get more complicated. I had been told to put him to sleep on his back to lower his risk of SIDS, but for this I would apparently require a “unique memory foam pillow” to prevent his skull from flattening. I had heard about turning down the hot-water heater to avoid accidentally scalding him, but I didn’t know that the “safest, most comfortable” temperature for his bath was a precise 93.2 degrees, which I could monitor with a floating plastic thermometer for the tub. Eight pages were devoted to safety, featuring baby gates to block off every opening in the house, a shield to keep curious fingers out of the VCR, and a toilet-lid lock to guard against drowning. I could also outfit the backseat of my car with a mirror so as to keep an eye on the baby while I drove, stock my diaper bag with a fabric contraption to protect him from germy shopping carts, and cook up tasty first purees created by a Cordon Bleu chef.
But soon I discovered that taking care of a baby was not all that complicated. My son, defying his pediatrician’s sternest warning, quickly demonstrated his preference for sleeping on his stomach, and we found we could test the bathwater adequately with our hands. He has yet to drown himself in the toilet. And those backseat mirrors are actually said to be a safety hazard, because if the car gets in an accident they can dislodge and hit the baby in the head. Still, I nervously peruse each new edition of the catalog, half amazed by the sheer number and specificity of the products, half wondering if I should finally invest in the elephant-shaped faucet cover before my son splits his head open in the tub.
Apparently I’m not alone. Over the past few years, at least a dozen books have attempted to analyze the miserable, manic, obsessive-compulsive state of contemporary motherhood. This trend took off with I Don’t Know How She Does It, a satirical novel by Allison Pearson that established Kate Reddy, the book’s protagonist, as an icon for sleep-deprived, sex-starved working mothers. A hedge-fund manager whose efforts to both succeed at her job and enjoy time with her children take on Homeric proportions, Kate must continually (if comically) debase herself to prove her mothering bona fides, “distressing” store-bought pies to pass them off as homemade or moving heaven and earth to change the color of the frosting on her daughter’s birthday cake. Another volume, called The Bitch in the House, assembled personal essays by women writers on a variety of subjects, but the ones that attracted the most attention focused on the nexus of work, parenthood, and perfectionism: Kristin van Ogtrop’s “Attila the Honey I’m Home” (in which one of her children tells her, “You’re too mean to live in this house and I want you to go back to work for the rest of your life!”), Jill Bialosky’s confession that her and her husband’s once-delirious sex life ground to a halt after the birth of their son, Hope Edelman’s expose of “the myth of co-parenting.”
More flutterings of distress followed in The Mommy Myth, in which Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels coined the term “the new momism” to describe what they saw as the current cultural ideal: “a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet”—namely, that a mother devote herself to her children body and soul, day and night. Daphne de Marneffe, in Maternal Desire, focused on the flip side of this phenomenon: while all women feel pressured to compete in the “Mommy Olympics,” stay-at-home mothers are generally perceived as intellectually or personally lacking, which creates a tension between a woman’s natural desire to care for her children and the expectation that she ought “not to be emotionally susceptible to, or professionally derailed by, the inconvenient passions or practical exigencies of hands-on engagement with children.” As if to prove de Marneffe’s point, the media all but ignored Maternal Desire, and those reviewers who did acknowledge the book misrepresented it as a polemic for stay- at-home motherhood.
The controversies refuse to recede. Every few months there arrives a new novel about the joys and travails of staying at home with the kids, a new study warning of the deficiencies of day care, a new article lamenting the harried state of the American family. The most successful and most incendiary example is Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, which, like The Mommy Myth, argues that contemporary mothers are living in “an age of anxiety,” a joyless, airless world in which each homemade Elmo birthday cake symbolizes the “widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret [that is] poisoning motherhood for American women today.” A journalist and mother of two girls, Warner gave birth to both her children while living in France, where the prevailing assumption, as she describes it, is that women need to enjoy a rich life separate from mothering. On her return to the United States, she was appalled by the current culture of “total-reality motherhood,” which she blames for, among other social ills, the rise in methamphetamine use by women, the current “epidemic” of sexless marriages, and even the tragedy of Andrea Yates, the Texas stay-at-home mother who drowned her five children.
The motherhood chronicle is a genre defined by its solipsism, and Perfect Madness is no exception. The concerns of Warner’s subjects—her book is based on interviews with fewer than 150 women, many of whom appear to live in her neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C.—have the nasal twang of bourgeois entitlement. One frets that on the day of her son’s fourth birthday party, “I didn’t have the perfect ‘mother of the birthday boy’ sweater to throw on over my jeans so that I looked chic yet casual.” Warner herself sees the inclination to enjoy a nightly glass of Calvados as an alarming indication of her own rising blood pressure. More importantly, her generalization that “all mothers in America” are caught up in the cult of perfectionism fails to persuade, especially since her book, as she acknowledges, focuses almost exclusively on the upper middle class.
Still, Warner’s wildly popular screed has obviously struck a nerve for many women. And, in a broader sense, the issues that agonize her privileged neighbors are indeed universal. From “the mommy wars” to “the opt-out revolution,” the new debate about American motherhood is really the old debate about American feminism. More than forty years after Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem encouraged women to step out of the kitchen and into the workplace, the implications of this shift, and the resulting tensions between life at home and life at work, are still incompletely understood. Is it possible to “have it all”—in the words of Wendy Sachs, the author of a new book about working mothers, “to have a fantastic career and still be a great mommy”? Or, as Warner claims, has feminism betrayed today’s women, who were brought up to believe they could have any job they chose, only to be forced onto the “mommy track” once they had children? Can a mother who stays home with her children defend the decision as a feminist choice? And is the “intensive parenting” that Warner deplores a guilt-induced by-product of the demands of the workplace or an inevitable consequence of society’s love affair with consumerism? Mommy’s evening cocktail may not actually be poisoned, but it induces a haze of confusion.
For the mothers in Judith Warner’s book, misery is the norm. Whether they work outside the home or care for their children full-time, all are driven to the breaking point by “the parenting pressure cooker.” Stay-at-home mothers center their entire beings around their children, acting as “camp counselor and art teacher and pre-reading specialist,” spending hours organizing play dates and birthday parties. Mothers who work have it even worse: they must meet the same impossible standards and at the same time “shoulder the burden of Guilt, a media-fed drone that played in their ears every time they sat in traffic at dinnertime: Had they made the right choices? Were their children well taken care of? Should they be working less, differently, not at all? Were they really good enough mothers?”
In their “angst,” and their “obsession with trivia,” and their “push to be perfect,” these women remind Warner of the dejected housewives of The Feminine Mystique. Yet instead of obsessing over the minutiae of housework, they are burdened by a different but equally soul-draining perfectionism, which she calls “the Mommy Mystique.” Warner diagnoses this in a variety of forms: the current fad for “attachment parenting,” a hands-on style that promotes exclusive breastfeeding, wearing the baby in a sling as much as possible, and “co-sleeping” (parents sharing a bed with the baby); the popularity of “developmental” toys and educational videos marketed as stimulating babies’ brains; the increasing prevalence of food allergies or restrictions, which she sees as another manifestation of “control-freakishness.” For a mother who buys into this regime—and the role of buying should not be underestimated—every parenting decision becomes a political, social, and emotional minefield:
The Mommy Mystique tells us that we are the luckiest women in the world—the freest, with the most choices, the broadest horizons, the best luck, and the most wealth. It says we have the knowledge and know-how to make “informed decisions” that will guarantee the successful course of our children’s lives. It tells us that if we choose badly our children will fall prey to countless dangers—from insecure attachment to drugs to kidnapping to a third-rate college.... We are convinced that every decision we make, every detail we control, is incredibly important.
Obsession with minutiae benefits no one, parents or baby. But the difference between Warner’s mothers and Friedan’s housewives, which Warner does not seem to recognize, is that the concerns of the modern mothers as she represents them are entirely superficial. The women of The Feminine Mystique are consumed by primary doubts about their own personhood: “I want status, I want self-respect. I want people to think that what I’m doing is important.” The doubts that consume Warner’s mothers are less momentous. “First, there was the whole debate about whether to have the whole class or just a few friends” to a birthday party, one says. “Then there was the whole debate about whether to do the party at home or whether to go to some place that does package deals. If we stayed at home, would we have the magician, the clown, the musician, the Moon Bounce? ... I felt great angst about whether this measured up.” It is more than a gulf of forty years that separates the existential crisis from the Moon Bounce. This isn’t a crisis of parenting, it’s a crisis of consumerism.
The Mommy Mystique is just one aspect of what Warner calls America’s “Motherhood Religion,” which advocates the now-familiar paradigm of “a woman so bound up in her child, so tightly bonded and fused, that she herself—soul, mind, and body—all but disappeared.” The 1990s soccer mom, who took off work early to cheer at her kids’ games, has been replaced by the post-millennial “minivan mom,” who has “opted out” of the office to spend her days shuttling her children to and from various enriching activities. But life at home turns out to be governed by a paralyzing set of strictures that would appall even the most unforgiving boss. Virtually no one can live up to these standards of parenting perfection—Warner cites a study showing that 87 percent of parents ignore the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under two watch no television at all—”but they hung over our heads like a sword of disapproval.” Add in the glamorization of housework and crafts in magazines such as Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple, and the paradigm looks even more regressive.
Warner never explicitly states her bias, but her portrayal of the stay-at- home mother—an automaton with no independent beliefs, a pastiche of primary colors and popular child-development theories—is downright cruel:
The ideal Mom, as glimpsed in Parents, in Brazelton, and at Gymboree, had no boundaries. She wore kids’ clothes—overall shorts, and sneakers, and jumpers or smocks. She decorated her home in bright-colored plastics.... She played “synchrony games.” She bought the Phonics bus. She read Spot’s Big Book of Colors, Shapes and Numbers for the ten thousandth time, with gusto, because, if she didn’t, her child might “mirror” her lassitude.... If she didn’t, she risked finding her child one day staring out from his or her crib like the babies in her old psychology textbook, their faces frozen in a rictus of grief, some of whom died of despair over their separation from their mothers.
Her scorn notwithstanding, Warner herself shows signs of the rictus. Believing she must provide non-stop entertainment for her child, she feels herself transformed into a “human television set, so filled with twenty-four- hour children’s programming that I felt as though I had no thoughts left of my own.” The women she meets on the playground are superficial and more than a little neurotic; one of them needs a therapist’s advice to negotiate play dates. Warner cites the rise of food allergies and health disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome as examples of “the New Neurasthenia” (the book is full of official-sounding new terms for basically the same thing), the result of a generation of control freaks internalizing their anxiety. A newspaper article names methamphetamine “the drug of choice for supermoms,” highlighting the story of a working mom who just needs “more hours in the day.” The ultimate victim of the cult of intensive mothering, the mother who really tries to do too much, is none other than Andrea Yates.
The first problem with Warner’s analysis is her assumption that the parenting behaviors she describes are unconditionally pathological. She calls the AAP’s recommendation to breast-feed for at least a year “cruelly insensitive to mothers’ needs as adult women,” apparently unaware that many women enjoy nursing and find that its benefits outweigh its inconveniences. She does not admit the possibility that the mother reading a book aloud for the “ten thousandth time” acts enthusiastic not out of the fear that her boredom might damage her child, but out of the confidence that her child enjoys it. Citing a lyrical passage by a new mother who revels in her daughter’s “smell, her feelings, her needs,” she condemns the woman for a “desperate attachment” that at any other point in history would be seen as “something that a good mother would get over and control.” Is it so hard to imagine that mothers might be motivated by love?
Warner cannot quite imagine it. Her myopia-inducing perch in an elite suburb, and her lack of perspective in separating the truly unbalanced from the vast spectrum of normal parenting behaviors, cast considerable doubt on her ability to diagnose a genuine crisis in modern motherhood. After more than three hundred pages of her breathless, italics-laden prose, it is easy to get caught up in her hyperbole. But her fevered pitch drowns out the other side of the story. “Attachment parenting” and the other intensive-mothering ideals against which she fulminates have the support of a vocal minority, but they are hardly universal. The proponents of the “cry it out” school of sleep training (also known as “Ferberizing,” and recently featured to great comic effect in Meet the Fockers) debate the “no-cry” partisans on the parenting Internet groups every few months, with neither side in the clear majority. The books in the famous What to Expect series, which take a considerably sterner approach on hot-button issues such as extended breastfeeding (wean by a year at the latest) and sleep (it should take place in a crib), outsell the attachment-parenting guru Dr. Sears by a comfortable margin. As Ann Hulbert demonstrated in Raising America, each generation of parents has tended to vacillate between two conflicting camps of experts. The present age is no different.
What is different about the present day is its public celebration of self- absorption. The deluge of “mommy madness” books is just part of it. According to a recent article in The New York Times, there are now nearly ten thousand parenting-themed blogs, most of them by stay-at-home mothers and fathers who in a previous age might simply have kept a journal but now are able to publish their thoughts for all to read. In one extreme example, the stay-at-home dad Ben MacNeil chronicled his daughter’s every bottle and diaper change until she was a year old (the diaper total reached well over three thousand). “Parents have been parenting for hundreds of thousands of years, but this is the first time I’ve ever done it,” he explained to the Times. But there is an irony here. What looks like an intense focus on one’s baby is actually an intense focus on oneself.
More often, however, these blogs reveal not obsessed, neurotic “intensive parenting” but the reflections of mothers and fathers caught up in the normal vicissitudes of life with babies and toddlers. In her blog “Bringing Up Ben and Birdy,” parts of which have just been published as the book Waiting for Birdy, Catherine Newman muses on “the great barftastrophe” (a family-wide stomach flu), her son’s first cavity, and similarly non-earth-shattering themes with humor and level-headedness. Other blogs, by working moms or stay-at-home dads, have an explicitly political focus, seeking to bring attention to America’s relative lack of social structures supporting either group of parents. Perhaps anyone who spends fifteen hours a week (that is one blogger’s estimate) doing anything other than looking into her baby’s eyes is by definition a “slacker mom.” But if the women in Warner’s book were even a fraction as aware of their own inner lives, they might be able to recognize the difference between mothering and smothering.
As Warner endlessly drones on about the difficulties of mothering in America- -”A year went by and I could not find a reliable babysitter.... Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I broke out into hives”—an oblique reference to her book deadline makes it clear that the entire time she is arranging her children’s toys and books by color and size she is also trying to work, apparently without any help. (Her husband never appears in the book, not even in the chapter sarcastically titled “Wonderful Husbands,” in which the women in her focus groups castigate their partners for their “learned incompetence” at child care.) This, more than the pressure to teach preschoolers to read or the waiting list for the right violin teacher, can drive a person crazy. When Virginia Woolf wrote that what a woman needs to work independently is a room of her own and a small income, she left out something equally important. If the woman is a mother, she needs child care.
It is a common fantasy of mothers on maternity leave that they will be able to do their jobs from home, working while the baby naps and stashing her in a bouncy seat by the desk while they tap away at the computer. My own such fantasy evaporated with the single article I tried to write during my leave. “Is this a bad time?” my editor asked coolly over the phone in her sophisticated drawl as my three-month-old howled in the background. “Oh no, not at all,” I replied, trying to latch him on with one hand and locate my pen and notes with the other.
This fantasy—I have heard it expressed by dozens of professional women— says something important about mothers’ feelings about leaving their children. I know women who are thrilled with the enrichment that their toddlers receive in top-quality day care centers or who are convinced that their nannies provide more loving care than they could manage after ten hours nonstop with a baby. But many others regard child care as nothing better than a necessary compromise. They need to continue working—for economic, personal, or professional reasons- -but they also miss their children and wish they could spend more time with them. Can child-rearing merge more or less seamlessly with one’s professional hopes and dreams, or are those priorities subsumed by a new imperative? For most women, I have come to believe, the answer lies somewhere in between.
The “mommy wars” of recent years have pitted stay-at-home mothers against working mothers. (A notorious New York magazine cover depicted a stay-at-home mother in sweats and a working mother in a business suit with the caption “Who’s the Better Mom?”) But the dividing line between the two groups is thinner than you might think, with women frequently crossing it in both directions. The distinction seems to be more a matter of identification than of practice, as both “stay-at-home mothers” and “working mothers” are likely to work part-time. In a local poll recently conducted by The Washington Post, 63 percent of the women identified themselves as “working mothers,” but one- quarter worked less than forty hours a week, and half of the “stay-at-home mothers” (36 percent of the total) have worked at some point since having children. National statistics are comparable: according to data from the Department of Labor, cited by Warner, in 2000 64 percent of American mothers worked, but only one-third of married women with children under six worked forty hours a week or more. Wendy Sachs reports in her book that 55 percent of new mothers return to work—in other words, nearly half stay home. And a recent study conducted by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce analyzing the career paths of an elite group of professional women showed that 43 percent of the mothers in the group had left work voluntarily at some point during their careers.
It seems undeniable that many women, given the option, prefer not to follow the traditional career trajectory. They would rather scale back their working hours in order to spend more time with their children or even “opt out” of the workforce entirely. (The term “opt-out revolution” comes from a New York Times Magazine cover story in 2003 by Lisa Belkin, which was among the first accounts of wealthy, educated professional women leaving their jobs to become stay-at- home mothers.) The question is why. In Warner’s view, social pressures and the regressive standards of the professional world are forcing women out of the workplace. She cites one woman who is literally blackmailed into taking a lesser post after her return from maternity leave, and then must stay home after an accident leaves her in chronic pain. Another woman, who finds her career as a physician “incompatible” with being a mother, complains that feminism has betrayed her.
Warner blames society, which she sees as heading down a regressive spiral since the heyday of feminism. In the 1970s, she says, the media supported working mothers, and there was a general faith that fathers would help, good babysitters could be found, and “work and motherhood could be balanced.” This trend continued through the 1980s, with women’s magazines “keeping the happy story of liberated motherhood alive,” including a poll by Ladies’ Home Journal in which more than half of employed mothers said they would keep working even if they didn’t need the money. But now the icon of the fulfilled, guilt-free working mother has been replaced by the conflicted mommy-trackers of today. The pressure of “total-reality motherhood,” Warner believes, has corrupted women’s psyches, pressuring them to quit work so that they can devote their entire beings to their babies.
If women are determined to keep working, they do so in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles, according to Warner. During the recession of the late 1990s, she writes, women began to discover that just as they hit their professional pinnacle, their lives became “unmanageable.” The government required no mandatory maternity leave until the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993, and there are still no public subsidies for day care. “Some (in fact, relatively few) women could now choose to stay home,” Warner observes. “Many more women were effectively put in the situation of having to stay home— either because their now sixty-hour workweek was incompatible with family life or because their husbands’ seventy-hour workweek meant that if they didn’t stop working there would literally be no one at home with the kids.”
Is the working mother’s situation really so intolerable? The negative rhetoric notwithstanding, there appear to be women who do manage to “balance” work and family. In her relentlessly upbeat book, Wendy Sachs culls nuggets of inspiration from interviews with women pursuing prominent careers. As always in such books, her motivation is personal: Sachs, a former television producer, writes that after the birth of her first child, she was stunned that only two of the highly educated women in her mothers’ group planned to return to work full-time. “We’re the women who were raised in an environment where anything was supposed to be possible. We’re the ones who had the doors to advancement jimmied open for us to waltz through, so why were so many women turning on their heels and leaving once they became mothers?” she asks. “I felt desperate to find moms who weren’t dropping out but who were staying in—and I was equally desperate to discover how they were doing it all.”
Sachs’s subjects are celebrity fashion designers, psychologists, journalists, teachers, bankers, and other middle-class professionals who are largely working for personal satisfaction rather than financial necessity: “I’m not working to put food on the table, I’m working to put Whole Foods on the table,” one of them tells her. While the very idea of such self-indulgence sends Warner’s mothers into paroxysms of guilt, Sachs’s subjects do not torture themselves when they get caught in traffic at dinnertime. “Many women have to work, and others choose to work, but the theme remains the same: having a career is not only good for women; it’s good for mothers,” Sachs states. The implication—that what is good for mothers is good for their children—is so self-evident as to be left unstated. And Sachs is one of the few commentators to recognize the impact of divorce on women’s choices: “In the year following divorce a woman’s standard of living plummets 45 percent while a man’s rises 15 percent.... Yet when the pop cultural conversation turns to motherhood, work, and ‘choices,’ it usually leaves out the very real and scary possibility that women may have to support themselves and their children.”
The women Sachs interviews strike realistic, rational attitudes toward their lives as professionals and mothers; the air they breathe is markedly free from angst. At the same time, the juggling involved would make a clown blanch. Despite the positive spin, there is a sadness to these tales that cannot be ignored. The accommodation of mothers’ needs is still relatively rare: Sachs writes that she stopped nursing her first child the day she returned to work at CNN, because she was embarrassed to ask whether there was any place for her to pump breastmilk. (There was, but she found out about it too late.) An undercurrent of regret courses through the book. Sachs claims that most of the mothers she asked (“more than 100”) feel guilty not about working but about taking time out for themselves rather than spending every second of their non- working lives with their children. If they have so little time at home that they begrudge each moment away, that is not enough.
While part-time employment is commonly perceived as the best of both worlds, mothers who work full-time or more are often subject to the hostility of cultural commentators. These attacks can come from the unlikeliest sources, as Barbara Kline’s book reveals. The owner of a nanny placement agency in Washington, D.C. has written an ostensibly humorous memoir of her years in the business that proves to be an astonishingly mean-spirited attack on the working mothers who are her clients. Kline, who falls into that category herself, writes that she quickly became disillusioned with stay-at-home motherhood. After a series of disappointing babysitters, she launched her agency, White House Nannies, “to solve our common problem.”
But most readers won’t have much in common with Kline’s super-wealthy clients, who pay their live-in nannies upwards of $750 per week and may hire two or even three of them to ensure round-the-clock supervision. Kline’s book revolves around a certain “VVIP” family: “Janette Huntington,” a White House correspondent for “ABC, CBS, NBC, the initials don’t really matter”; her lawyer husband David Wilder; and their son Spencer. Kline has nothing but scorn for these parents and their demands: “Like a lot of other ber-parents, Janette and David are determined to do everything perfectly for their child, as if that were possible. (Everything, that is, except being with their children when they’re awake.)” To Janette’s insistence that Spencer not be exposed to television, she snorts: “How will Baby ever see Mommy if he can’t watch her on TV?” At one point, Janette is stunned to find herself alone with her son for an entire Saturday—for the first time. He is nearly two.
Kline does acknowledge that “because I was fortunate enough to work for myself while my kids were young, I didn’t have to make the excruciatingly difficult choices that my clients like Janette face.” But this is a rare moment of sympathy in an otherwise bilious book. One “biotech executive mother” puts her children to bed by intercom. Other “workaholic parents” enforce no discipline at all; one “elected official (who’ll remain nameless)” and his wife regularly feed their son M%amp%M’s for breakfast. The book’s hero is David Wilder, who finally quits his job rather than fight to become senior partner. “I finally figured out what success is,” he tells Kline. “It’s knowing I can get home every night by six-thirty—OK, sometimes it’s more like seven.” These clueless, heartless caricatures reinforce only the most negative stereotypes.
Working mothers face a double dilemma: the material, which comes down to flexible, or not-so-flexible, working conditions; and the emotional—the difficulty of leaving one’s children in the care of another, regardless of how comfortable or justified or necessary that decision is. And for many women Judith Warner’s analysis of the professional landscape clearly rings true. Pulled by the conflicting desires to fulfill their professional ambitions and also hang out at the playground, they may indeed find that there is no perfect solution. “As young women, we had choices—endless choices,” Warner writes. “But motherhood made it often impossible to act on our choices. Or gave us choices on the order of: You can continue to pursue your dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate day care.”
But this is not precise. It is not “motherhood” that makes it impossible for some women to realize their plans; it is a combination of professional demands, child-care options, and one’s own personal needs. If a mother has no day care or babysitter, she will be physically unable to do her job. (No working woman, it seems, is immune to this problem: many of Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother from the last few months of her life lament that she would be able to get back to her writing if she could just find a good nanny.) If she has an inadequate child-care situation, she will be able at least to leave her house, but the mental anguish of worrying about her child will take its toll at work. And women outside Warner, Sachs, and Kline’s demographic—that is, most of America—who for economic reasons must settle for long hours of substandard child care are in a truly torturous position. But my guess is that they worry about bigger things than the integrity of their feminism.
Even with the best care, one’s own sense of how much time away from home is too much turns out to be an unpredictable and important factor. It disrespects no one to recognize that certain careers requiring, say, sixty or more hours a week—most medical specialties, positions at many law firms, investment banking- -are likely to cause discomfort in mothers who wish to spend more than one or two waking hours a day with their children. By the end of I Don’t Know How She Does It, even the indomitable Kate Reddy quits her job, after a humiliating visit to the emergency room with her infant son where she is forced to admit to the doctor how little she knows of his symptoms over the last twenty-four hours.
This complicated discomfort has largely been ignored. An economist quoted by Daphne de Marneffe reports that the majority of her female undergraduate students “express no doubt that they will, at age forty, earn the same amount of money as men with similar education credentials. Yet they also plan to have two children, and (unlike the men in the same class) they plan to take time out from their careers in order to raise them. When I point out that something is wrong with their calculations they aren’t entirely surprised. But they seem almost embarrassed by having to consider the issue.” That may be changing. De Marneffe also cites a lawyer who worked fifty hours a week during her first son’s infancy and quit to stay home with her second child. “Before you have kids, you have the almost swaggering attitude that you won’t fall into the mommy trap,” she says. “You don’t believe that once you’re there, you’ll genuinely want to be with your kids. Now, whenever I’m in a position to counsel younger associates, I tell them, ‘Set up your marriage, finances and domestic life so that they don’t depend on your continued wage earning, because hard as it is to imagine, once you have kids, you may not want to do what you’re doing anymore.’“ But while the advice sounds good, for many it is not realistic. Unless they are blessed with high-earning husbands or independent wealth, most women find that two incomes are necessary to keep their families afloat, and not just because they drive a BMW or live in a McMansion. Good school districts, safe neighborhood playgrounds, and low crime rates cost money.
For the most recent generation of professional women—women now in their twenties and thirties, the daughters and the granddaughters of feminism— acceptance into the workplace seems perfectly natural. And with the ability to take one’s career for granted comes the possibility of questioning whether it is worth the sacrifices involved. “Even though much has been made about our generation expecting and wanting to ‘have it all,’ women today are redefining what ‘all’ means,” Sachs writes. “Definitions of ‘success’ have more to do with job satisfaction and flexibility than with prestige and position. Women want to be respected and compensated fairly in our jobs even if we work three or four days a week at the office. We want flextime, part-time, and job-share to be viewed not as a privilege but as an integral part of the work culture.” Women want to work, in sum, but not if it means not seeing their kids between dawn and dusk.
Unfortunately, what women want and what employers want are not entirely the same. The parameters Sachs describes are unusual in most professions and unheard of in others. Opting out is relatively easy for women who can afford it, but opting in—returning to work—is more difficult. In the study conducted by Hewlett and Buck Luce, only three-quarters of women who wanted to rejoin the workforce were able to do so, and only 40 percent returned full-time. (Tellingly, 93 percent of the women who took time off wanted to return at some point to their careers.) When they do return, women who have opted out can be penalized by a cut in earning power of more than one-third. The economist Jane Waldfogel notes that women in their mid- to late twenties earn nearly as much as their male counterparts do, but when they start having children their wages drop. By the time they reach their early forties, they are earning less than three-quarters of the wage for men.
There are signs, particularly in the corporate world, that the traditional attitude is changing. During the mid-1990s, the consulting firm Ernst & Young implemented a program of flexible work policies and other incentives designed to appeal to women, and it has succeeded in raising its number of female partners. But what is needed is more than new programs. (Jack Welch recently admitted in Newsweek that “bosses know that the work-life policies in the company brochure are mainly for recruiting purposes” and have little relation to actual practice.) A society that has grown dependent on a greater number of workers will suffer the costs of losing a significant proportion of them. Already economists are speaking of a female “brain drain.” For more than twenty years, as Sachs notes, women have earned more undergraduate degrees than men; last year more women than men matriculated at Harvard. The graduating classes at some elite law schools are 50 percent female or more; medical-school classes are nearly half women. These are precisely the professions that women are deserting. “Given current demographic and labor market trends, it’s imperative that employers learn to reverse this brain drain,” Hewlett and Buck Luce warn. “Indeed, companies that can develop policies and practices to tap into the female talent pool will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage.”
So the current situation for women in the workplace can look bleak—but only until one realizes that the very existence of this public debate means that, for all the negative talk about how little things have changed, the landscape for women today is radically different than it was for the housewives of The Feminine Mystique. Even Warner has to admit that mothers really have come a long way:
We do have so many more options than did the women of Friedan’s generation, who, if they didn’t leave college altogether to get married, were herded, afterward, into the main female professions of teaching, secretarial work, and nursing and were subject to condescension and ridicule if they tried to branch out further into the typically “male” professions. We do not have to leave work now when our pregnancies start showing. Day care does exist—which it did not, for all intents and purposes, in the 1960s. We have antidiscrimination laws, access to contraception [and abortion, though Warner doesn’t mention it]. The ideal that Betty Friedan dreamed of for women, that we’d be able to reach our “full human potential—by participating in the mainstream of society,” is possible for us.
This, finally, is what the debate comes down to: women’s ability to reach their “full human potential,” to contribute actively and meaningfully to society, in whatever way their natural ambitions and inclinations drive them. And for most women this seems to mean pursuing some sort of professional life, regardless of whether their families could manage without their salaries. There are signs that this is not the scandal that Warner believes it to be. A recent poll in Parenting magazine drew 22,000 responses to the question “Is it okay for moms to work if they don’t need the money?” Seventy-one percent of the responders said yes. By this logic, of course, it is also “okay” for mothers to stay home, for a few months or a few years, if that constitutes the fulfillment of their ambitions. Even Warner recognizes that the reasons stay-at-home mothers give for their decision are often not much different from the reasons working moms give for theirs: “At base, they spring both from a psychological need for self-fulfillment and an effort to meet the material needs of their families.”
Of course, the impediments to free choice can be real. Some women leave the workforce out of the desire to care for their children, but others are pressured to do so by external influences: they cannot find or afford good child care, or they are unable to change work situations that require more from them than they are willing to give. Ironically, the cultural conservatives, who would most be expected to support freedom of choice without government intervention, have stood in the way of the kind of reforms that would make such choice accessible to more women. A standardized system of public regulation for day care, plus generous subsidies to lower-income families, would help to ensure that children would not have to be left in substandard care. (Studies have shown the benefits of good day care on children’s social and intellectual development, so presumably such policies could be justified also in terms of future economic benefits.) But bills in support of child care have come before Congress at least five times since the 1970s, and all but one either died there or was vetoed by the president. (The bill that passed, part of the 1990 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, was the weakest one, offering improvements for only about 220,000 children.) And the benefits under the current Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandates up to twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave, are paltry compared with similar laws in Europe; and many companies are exempt.; “
Ambivalence about leaving one’s children nags even the most committed working mother.” Ambivalence about leaving one’s children nags even the most committed working mother. The most poignant moments in I Don’t Know How She Does It come when Kate’s love for her work rubs up directly against her love for her children.
There have been times over the past year when I have tried to explain to my daughter—I felt she was old enough to hear this—why Mummy has to go to work. Because Mum and Dad both need to earn money to pay for our house and for all the things she enjoys doing like ballet lessons and going on holiday. Because Mummy has a job she is good at and it’s really important for women to work as well as men. Each time the speech builds to a stirring climax—trumpets, choirs, the tearful sisterhood waving flags—in which I assure Emily that she will understand all this when she is a big girl and wants to do interesting things herself.
Kate has a brilliant mind, a talent for managing money that is a source of great pride and accomplishment. Working is not a business arrangement for her; it is a calling. But on the next page Kate is powerless against her daughter’s pleas:
“Are you putting me to bed tonight? Is Mummy putting me to bed tonight? Are you? Who is putting me to bed tonight? Are you, Mum, are you?” Do you know how many ways there are of saying the word no without actually using the word no? I do.
I don’t mean to imply that motherhood is not an “interesting thing.” But any woman who feels the tug of the intellect as well as the tug of the heartstrings has to find some way to manage both. “American women—can-do daughters of their country’s optimism—still secretly nourish a poignant hope that there is An Answer to the dilemma of work and family,” Marjorie Williams wrote several years ago in response to Pearson’s novel. “On a personal level, and as a matter of social policy, we often seem to be waiting for the No-Fault Fairy to come and explain at last how our deepest conflict can be managed away.” We are still waiting. But we must not wait for a salvation that can never come. It is time to recognize that there is no inherently perfect balance of work and family, and that no amount of intensive parenting can take away the sadness of not being with one’s children as much as one would like. Children’s needs and desires, and parents’ needs and desires, are constantly in flux. If we are fortunate, we will be able to adjust our lives in accordance with them; and like any contortion, it will require some stretching, some groaning, and some pain. The tension that we feel is not the problem afflicting mothers in America today. It is the solution.