Friday, July 6, 2012

Having it all

This essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter has been linked--oh, everywhere--and I've commented on a few other blogs about the question of whether women can "have it all" (and if not, why not). But I've felt a lingering pressure, a nagging, a suspicion that I still had more to say. So I stopped to figure out what it was, what splinter still stuck in my skin. It's related to these lines:

"I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet."

"Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career ..."

Both of these lines seem to equate feminism with having it all, and imply that the unreality of having it all signals an unreality in feminism. That's it, that's the implication that bothers me.

A staunch feminist myself, I have never equated feminism with having it all, nor do I find the failure to "have it all" in the real world to be a failure of feminism. Well, let me rephrase that. I have never equated feminism with having everything all at the same time. I don't believe any human being, male or female, can do that.

I do agree with Ms. Slaughter's points that we could structure our society in a more flexible way, a way that preserves quality of life, a way that doesn't always put workplace success above family. I don't think the answer is to make our overscheduled children's school hours mirror our long office hours; I think the answer is to make workplaces more flexible. After all, does it matter whether most office work, which is increasingly computer-centric, is done from an office computer or a home-office computer? Does it matter whether the employee is sitting in an office wearing a tie or at home in a bathrobe? Does all work have to be done between eight and five?

But I digress. I was talking about the human impossibility of having everything at once. This is not just a problem for women. Traditionally, men bore the burden and benefit of paid work, while women bore the burden and benefit of child care. There were many exceptions, of course, but these were the stereotypical gender roles. Feminism was about asking why both sexes couldn't play different roles: Why couldn't men share in the joys and hardships of child care and household chores? Why couldn't women share in the responsibilities and rewards of the paid workforce? Why couldn't women wield political power; why couldn't men spend more time with their families? We ought not to be shunted into one role or another simply because of gender. In my view, feminism was not about women having to play every single role at every single moment; it was about sharing or shifting traditional roles.

The fact is, it's hard work to cook, and clean, and diaper a child, and help with homework. It's also hard work to be a plumber, a roofer, a surgeon, a judge, a firefighter. And people like me, who feel the call of an avocation like writing, have yet another element to fit in there. Can any one person fulfill all his or her life's roles simultaneously and indefinitely? Or are we sometimes the model employee and sometimes the devoted parent or caregiver, always making choices, always juggling and seeking that elusive balance, sometimes dropping everything just to take some much-needed rest or exercise?

Instead of this workaholic must-do-everything mindset our culture seems to prize, I'd rather see our society being a little mellower, a little more forgiving, a little less burned out. I'd rather see time valued a little more and money valued a little less. I'd like us not to think of ourselves as failures just because we're human rather than superwomen and supermen.

6 comments:

  1. A human BEing rather than a human DOing. ^_^

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    1. Yes. Maybe we need "to-be" lists as well as "to-do" lists?

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  2. Really great thoughts, Jenn! I think you've hit it on the head that it's about shifting roles, not doing everything at once. I am trying to be a mom and have a career right now, and quite honestly, it's killing me in a lot of ways. My health suffers because I do not have time to exercise. My marriage suffers because we are both so darned busy. My daughter feels ignored much of the time. My writing feels more sloppy. I don't know what is going to need to happen, but I have a feeling the public school system will help once my daughter is there for a portion of the day instead of climbing the walls while I'm trying to get work done. We can both be in a good place and then come back together when our work is finished. :)

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    1. So often, spending time on one thing means not spending time on something else, and feeling guilty about it. These choices are difficult, but it's OK to be human! And to ask for help.

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  3. Great points! You pinned it when you said 'sharing and shifting'. I think what's happened is that women have decided they want careers, but many are still also doing all of the housework and childcare, and their husbands are not fully sharing that (or not sharing it at all). Which is total crud. Women need to insist that men take an equal share in the importance of family duties.

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    1. Probably the best solution is for each family unit to come up with its acceptable distribution of work, depending on who's available, who likes to do what, who has what skills, etc. It can take discussion and negotiation. Oftentimes people enter relationships with different expectations, and if they don't discuss it and get on the same page, their different expectations can clash.

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