Mothers with careers are improvising their own solutions
Last summer, Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter committed heresy.
Eighteen months into her dream job as the State Department’s first woman director of policy planning, she found herself at a reception hosted by President and Mrs. Obama and thinking about her 14-year-old son back in Princeton, N.J., who was “skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math.”
“When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All,’” she told a colleague, who was “horrified.”
“The feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet,” she confessed in the article she subsequently wrote for The Atlantic. Six months later Slaughter was back at Princeton, not exactly a hausfrau, what with her professorship, TV appearances, and a now-famous piece explaining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
Cyberspace exploded. Slaughter had violated the prime directive of postmodernism: Thou shalt not place any other god ahead of equality. She was stunned by the vituperation directed her way.
The old “mommy wars” between working and stay-at-home moms appear to have been superseded by a new, generational mommy war: older women who put career above most things (justifying their choices as made in behalf of “the next generation of women”) versus that next generation of women who watch and say, “Something new, please, not that.”
Slaughter mentions in the Atlantic essay two young Manhattan professionals who spoke of successful older women who made tremendous sacrifices for their careers, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize,” such as working round the clock and hiring full-time nannies to help. I know a young Manhattan professional whose successful boss got a call to pick up her mother’s ashes, right before an important meeting in Davos. “I handed her the phone, and she told them to hold it for a week,” this young woman told me. Something new, please, not like that.
Google is a sign of our times, a company that puts pool tables, sushi bars, and child-care centers on the company grounds so that employees can satisfy their human needs with minimal time loss. All work and no play makes Jack a dull Google employee, and we can’t have that.
The woman who told me about this was boasting about how wonderful it was. I find it creepy, but then I am attached to an old-fashioned technology: procreative sexual love in marriage, formerly known as “the family.”
True, like most educated women, I have other aspirations and achievements about which I care deeply. In trying to strike the right balance between work and family, I’ve had the full spectrum of work arrangements: full-time at home for years, part-time from home, part-time in flexible office jobs, full-time as the head of two organizations I started, first as an unwed mother, later as a married mom. But in terms of identity, if not always hours, when push comes to shove, for me, family comes first.
The work/family problems Slaughter describes are a result of the cavernous gap opening up between the norms and needs of the creative class and those of the procreative class, and in the fight for public space and attention, the procreative class is losing. The “creative class” is a term coined by urban theorist Richard Florida to describe the kind of professionals post-industrial cities need to attract to reinvent themselves: scientists, entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, computer programmers, along with people who work in the arts, design, and media. He now makes a living consulting with cities on how to attract the creative class, as people with children increasingly flee them.
What we are witnessing today is the end stage of a cultural evolution launched by an economic one: The industrial revolution first separated work from the home on a mass scale and thus created the problem of work/family balance.
The pre-industrial solution to the problem of work/family balance was called “the Sabbath.” Back on the family farm, work occupied life from dawn to dusk, but you worked with your family in the shared problem of making a life together: from raising the cows for the milk to churn into butter, to shearing the sheep for the cloth to make clothing.
The industrial revolution sent men away from the home mostly to dirty and dull work. Instead of one world centered in the home and farm, there were now two worlds, work and family, which necessarily competed with each other for the time, energy, and the identities of their respective inhabitants. The Victorian solution was to keep women in the home and culturally elevate their role as wives and mothers.
This wasn’t an economic decision — factory owners were perfectly happy to employ women at lower wages — it was a Victorian moral decision (backed by laws) to create a new norm: to protect the status of family and the idea of the home by making women the moral guardians of them.
In this new cultural synthesis, the role of teacher shifted from masculine to feminine, and female education became a new cultural imperative. The hand that rocked the cradle had to be cultivated or civilization would suffer. The role of “society” also expanded; as the communal sphere became dominated by women, much energy was poured into creating a new world for women to use their newly acquired talents in, one that came to include civic reform, opening up new leadership roles for women (think Jane Addams of Hull House).
The Victorian synthesis collapsed in the Sixties as increasing numbers of educated women agitated against their exclusion from the increasingly attractive world of college-educated work. The question of how to create both homes and jobs had to be faced anew.
In the ensuing two generations, a reasonable, practical answer has emerged for college-educated wives: Stable marriage to a supportive high-earning husband gives women choices: stay home for a while, work part time, or shuttle between the two. Or couples with two full-time careers can share the family load, hiring a nanny or a housecleaner to fill the gaps.
It’s not perfect, but part-time work is what the majority of working mothers prefer. According to a March 2013 Pew poll, after five years of recession, just 37 percent of working mothers say their ideal is to work full time. If Pew had included the preferences of stay-at-home mothers, the proportion favoring full-time work would plummet.
But our new practical answer is endangered on two fronts: It is not available to most women, the majority of whom lack college-educated husbands. And we do not know how to square our current arrangements with elite women’s intense commitment to parity of outcomes. It lacks cultural legitimacy.
Are we going to pursue the cultural arrangements that maximize the likelihood women will occupy 50 percent of all positions of power? Or are we going to maximize the number of women able to set up the kind of work/family balance that makes them happy? Slaughter is no help, on either front, because the two questions lead in different directions.
As a good egalitarian, Slaughter is queasy about her preoccupation with members of her own class: “I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater,” she writes, but “the best hope for improving the lot of all women . . . is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. . . . That will be a society that works for everyone.”
I am not opposed to practices that make life easier for talented supermoms. But please, I beg you, Professor Slaughters of the world, do not pretend that solving your own problems is the key to making life better or happier for your nanny, your housecleaner, your child’s teacher, or your daughter.
The next generation of women face many problems, but the biggest one is that non-college-educated young men are doing very badly. Nothing in Slaughter’s program addresses our most crucial work/family balance issue: the fact that schools are failing boys. According to Judith Kleinfeld, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one out of four white male high-school seniors with college-educated parents scores “below basic” in reading, meaning he cannot read an article from a newspaper, compared with 7 percent of his female counterparts. And that’s just the sons of comparatively privileged parents.
We could put and keep a gazillion Professor Slaughters in every pinnacle of power and nothing important would change for average American women, any more than electing President Obama has solved the real problems of the average African American. This doesn’t mean electing the first black president was not a great thing. It means solving intractable problems of people other than glittering elites requires focusing on and prioritizing their problems.
The conflict between work and family grows more intense in a society in which the creative class dominates the procreative class. But it also grows so long as elite supermoms worship statistical equality over all other social objectives.
Good news for Professor Slaughter. She is back in Washington as head of the New America Foundation, able to control her commuting schedule in a way that allows her, with the help of her academic husband, to try to lay out a new program for America while caring for her two sons. Good for her. Good for her.
– Maggie Gallagher is a fellow at the American Principles Project. She writes at MaggieGallagher.com.