Atlantic Stirs Another Sideline Scuffle over Moms
Credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)– Here we go again.

Women, work and motherhood are back in the media boxing ring, thanks to the current Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”

Media narratives about women, we have noticed, are generally negative and usually introduced by headlines or sound bites that often seem hysteric. They fall into a few familiar categories:

No. 1: Women can’t have it all. When they try, they are exhausted wrecks.

No. 2: Women are so high-achieving that they are destroying men.

No. 3: Women are in a big cat fight over motherhood. One camp advocates child-destroying careerism and the other promotes soul-destroying 24-hour sacrificial motherhood.

Most of us in the real world know that plenty of women have good jobs and good family lives and respect a spectrum of work-life-balance decisions and necessities in themselves and each other.

But the reactionary media scuffle continues. And we have to pay attention because research tells us that this stuff is not harmless.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology finds that when young women read about how quickly women are advancing in the workplace they assume that all the battles have been won and feel no need to bond with other women. After all, if “The End of Men” is upon us–to quote the title of Hanna Rosin’s forthcoming book –why worry?

On the other hand, the stories that focus on the catfight and the Mommy Wars create the impression that women are always torn between the workplace and the family and it will always be thus. This myth distracts from actual policies that could make work and family balance easier–for men and for women.

In fact a recent report (“The New Male Mystique; Families and Work Institute”) finds that these days men are facing even more work-family conflicts than women. Why isn’t the Atlantic’s cover story about that?

‘Women Can’t Have it All’

Instead, the way the Atlantic editors handle the current cover piece places it in category No. 1: Women can’t have it all.

Anne Marie Slaughter’s actual article is a thoughtful analysis of the pressures women face in high-level jobs in a society that makes few accommodations for parenting or family life. (Slaughter was the first female director of policy planning at the State Department under President Obama.)

But the packaging by the magazine, with the silly title, undercuts the serious tone of the author. “The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals,” reads the top blurb, “are superhuman, rich or self-employed.” Which is, of course, nonsense. Women hold good jobs in a wide variety of fields, and very few of them are superhuman or rich.

The New York Times responded quickly to the Atlantic cover with a story that falls into category No. 3: Women are in a catfight over motherhood. The Times pits Slaughter’s call for less pressure and more options against Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, who worries publicly that women may be giving up too much too soon. She urges women not to curb their ambitions out of fear that they not be able to balance work and children.

Here’s how the Times frames that discussion:

“The conversation came to life in part because of a compelling face-off of issues and personalities: Ms. Slaughter, who urged workplaces to change and women to stop blaming themselves, took on Ms. Sandberg, who has somewhat unintentionally come to epitomize the higher-harder-faster school of female achievement.”

It’s the OK corral, with two women, guns drawn.

Stories pitting careerist mothers against the “opt-outers” proliferate, in which, respectively, the “good-enough” mothers jostle with the “perfectionists.”

Elizabeth Badinter, a historian and professor of philosophy, sometimes called France’s “most influential intellectual,” touched off one of these storms here this year with the English translation of her 2010 book, “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

Badinter argues that the cult of the perfect mother turns childrearing into a full-time occupation that tethers women to the home and creates “mommy tyrants.” She describes as crushing a new style of motherhood marked by doing the “right” thing even if it means child birth without an epidural for the “natural” experience; co-sleeping to enhance the mother-child bond; using only washable diapers; feeding only organic foods, lovingly prepared by the mother; and being on the ready to fulfill a child’s every need.

Scary Women, Failing Men

Then–aside and somehow apart from all that–there’s the modish narrative of scary women and failing men. Time magazine featured its version in a cover article several weeks ago that called women the “richer sex.” The forthcoming book (generated from another Atlantic cover article), “The End of Men,” argues that women are taking over the powerful jobs in society while men are falling behind, destined to become second-class citizens.

Both these narratives are highly flawed.

In the Time article, author Liza Mundy says 40 percent of married women out-earn their husbands. That’s false. Only among couples in the lowest 20 percent of U.S. earners do women substantially out-earn their husbands.

As for the end of men, look around. Do women really run the world? And what about the future? Women’s representation has not grown significantly in corporate boardrooms, executive suites or among companies’ top earners, reports the think tank Catalyst. CEO Ilene H. Lang said in 2011, “This is our fifth report where the annual change in female leadership remained flat. If this trend line represented a patient’s pulse–she’d be dead.”

Women’s representation in Congress, meanwhile, remains stalled at 17 percent in both houses.

Last week Women’s eNews ran a commentary by a young woman who was amazed to find that her company didn’t offer any paid parental leave.

A huge number of workers in this country, meanwhile, have no paid sick days, so when they or a child fall ill they have to make a horrible social and personal choice between losing money or taking proper care of themselves and their families.

Why can’t we see more major media discussion of these topics?

Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, and Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers are the co-authors of “The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children” (Columbia University Press).

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