I have already downloaded (on my iPad, remember?) Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College. The book was published yesterday, and she was interviewed in the New York Times over the weekend and wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Superwoman Myth.” She seems poised to continue the conversation started by Anne-Marie Slaughter last June in The Atlantic in the controversial piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s equally controversial Lean In. Both Slaughter (whose book stemming from The Atlantic piece will be published by Random House next spring) and Sandberg have helped me rethink — and have encouraged me to change — my attitude and approach toward working full-time in a competitive industry with small children. And even in just these two articles Spar has suggested intriguing (and undoubtedly also controversial) theories about the modern woman in the modern workplace. I cannot wait to read the book.
To summarize Slaughter’s nuanced Atlantic article: she was director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton; ultimately she felt she couldn’t mother her teenage sons while working such a time-consuming, long-distance job. And so she set out to look at why that was and why even women as educated and accomplished as she faced similar frustrations. Amidst her many anecdotes, a very small quotation in the article had a disproportional impact on me. Slaughter wrote of “a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ is reflexive.” I interpreted this as: biology plays an undeniable role in women’s actions in the workplace, yet it is largely ignored. But the reality is we get pregnant and tired and then we are mothers who are torn (at times) and tired (at all times). Moreover, so what if we have a biological predisposition to assume more of the physical parenting of small children? Instead of a working culture that says, “Women have proved that they are smart enough and capable enough of working in the same ways as men – so they should. Exactly the same,” why not value biological differences and, as a result, as a culture make it easier to both work and caretake?
Sandberg, in Lean In, urges women to speak up for and fight for policies that promote their success in the workplace. To tackle the demanding jobs and to change from within. To not be afraid to work hard and to like it, and even though the quotidian worry about two important things — the job you love and the children you love — is exhausting and frustrating, to admit that is not a weakness or a failure. This last point was a revelation for me. I had long wondered if my anxiety at work meant that I made the wrong “choice” and might actually be happier at home with my children, or, worse, that I should be able to handle both worlds and because I couldn’t I was a failure.
Instead, I realized the ambivalence and I anxiety I felt at work was simply because working full-time with children is difficult — and the entrenched powers that be make few real allowances for that. I didn’t make the wrong “choice” in the work/stay-at-home dichotomy — rather, this particular dichotomy doesn’t even apply to me. (Which is a relief, too, because I have long been uncomfortable debating a “choice” that is actually not a choice for so many women; one of the things I thinks Sandberg does in Lean In is to move the conversation well beyond this privileged “choice”, although I know many will disagree. ) So though in many moments of despair and exhaustion I have been tempted to light my law degree on fire in favor of an idealized (and yes, I know, unrealistic) alternate reality of Lululemons and perfect playdates, that is not actually what I want. In fact, love my job. I just don’t love the attendant parent-specific stressors of full-time work, both micro (getting up for work after a night of puking kids, false client deadlines, commuting) and macro (the stigma of dark under-eye circles, snow days, sick nannies, nonexistent maternity policies).
Whereas Slaughter’s intellectually probing article legitimized that which frustrated me about being a BigLaw lawyer, by identifying the source of my anxiety, Sandberg inspired me and re-energized me and began to restore some of the confidence I had lost. My frustration was neither (a) because I was actually meant to be home with my children and thus was failing them nor (b) because I was a slacker mom because I stayed home with a barfing child when none of the men I worked with ever did and, as a result, I was a sucky lawyer.
Should allowances be made for women who want to stay home with the puking kid, though? Or for pregnant or nursing women who might be nauseous or exhausted and need to work from home? For years I have argued that if we, as a society, value families, the answer is yes. So in the Chronicle piece when Spar wrote…
To begin with, we need to recognize that biology matters. Women are not in any way physically inferior to men, but they are distinctly and physically different. They have wombs and breasts and ovaries, physiological attributes that—for better or for worse—tend to affect the course of their lives.
…I almost jumped out of my chair. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I have long been greatly influenced my brilliant, progressive-thinking aunt, who was one of Spar’s predecessors as president of Barnard. And, related: if this is the conversation that young women are having at women’s colleges – remember, Barnard was also venue for one of Sandberg’s viral speeches on “leaning in” – sign me up. Or, rather, sign my daughter up!)
Just as important, however, Spar tackles the post-feminist need to be perfect. We haven’t been able to make a dent in the overall workplace attitude, so we’re focusing our energy — and our frustration — back on ourselves. We beat ourselves up because we have been raised to “do it all” — and we can’t.
She’s right. I have been raised to think I can do it all — and I want to. I do! In contrast, a wise mentor at my former law firm told me during my first week, “Outsource everything.” When she made partner three decades ago (one of the first women to do so, working full-time while her husband was chief of surgery at a prestigious hospital), she didn’t think twice about day-nannies and evening-nannies, housekeepers, cooks, dog-walkers, tutors. Making partner with two children was difficult enough. Now, it seems that because making partner is “easier” — because women have the same opportunities as men — whipping up Gwyneth’s kale and quinoa stir fry shouldn’t be an issue either. (Do you know how freaking long it takes to chop kale?)
Spar writes: “Feminism was never supposed to be a 12-step program toward personal perfection.” In the Times piece she suggests that we give up the PTA. Or a perfect body. That second-best is OK. We should learn to pick our battles. (PTA or the body. Kale or PTA.)
It is going to take me awhile to internalize this one. I don’t really practice settling (“satisficing,” Spar calls it). As I point out to my non Type-A husband often, “Being driven and committed can be a good thing !” I want to train for a half-marathon. I want to go on the Tuesday morning field trip to the fire station. I want to chop and sauté the goddamn kale. I don’t want to do all these things because I’ll be perceived as a “perfect mother” – but, rather, because I enjoy them. I love to cook. I love to run. I enjoy my children and being involved in their daily routines when I can be. I also love my job.
But, frankly, I also get down on myself. Not because I’m not perfect (well, sometimes because of that). But also because sometimes — though now, thanks to Sandberg, I can articulate this — It’s. Just. Difficult. I know that being home with children all day is difficult — I know that. Believe me, on school holidays when I’m flailing without a set at-home routine, I know it. But in addition to the undeniable stresses of modern parenthood, there are the undeniable stresses of the modern workplace with its 24/7 connectivity and economic instability. That endemic unease of something else tugging at our attention, always. And, always, always, there is the potential for a full-blown panic: the babysitter is sick, or an unhappy West Coast client schedules a 9 p.m. call, or there is a snow day. Or eight snow days. Or the croup. Things that would be annoying but not a crisis in another context, in another life. We feel anxiety, and then we feel panic — because we love our jobs and don’t want to be the slacker colleague. And because we love our children and don’t want to be the slacker mom. We’re going to be both, likely even at the same time. And that doesn’t mean we should thus quit our jobs but…it’s still just hard.
And thus, ultimately, Spar — like Slaughter and Sandberg — suggests we turn our focus outward to the issues that present the greatest challenges to working moms. If women are not worrying about every volunteer meeting or waking up in time for CrossFit every morning (i.e., worrying about themselves), but instead spend that time both with our children and collectively changing cultural norms, perhaps the result will be a workplace that doesn’t instill a baseline level of panic — panic borne from the fear that by embracing motherhood we are not living up to either professional expectations or potential.
I think about all of this, all of the time. And so I’m grateful to women with the experience and platforms — and success — of Slaughter, Sandberg, and Spar for using their positions to share their stories and opinions. Undoubtedly, another conversation has begun – a conversation that includes the phrases “have it all” and “lean in” and, now, “joyous feminism”. Indeed, I hope these three phrases are the beginning of a new phase of feminism, one which embraces biology and ambition.