mothers combining work and family
Credit: gwilmore/Garry Wilmore on Flickr under CC 2.0

(WOMENSENEWS)– In a recent column for Women’s eNews, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett–two feminist media critics–dismissed the now infamous article in The Atlantic about the tricky balancing act between work and family as a “sideline scuffle.”

I, for one, was grateful to read author Anne-Marie Slaughter’s account. “Wow,” I thought to myself. “A prominent feminist is actually brave enough to debunk the myth of work-life balance in a workaholic world.”

I agree with Rivers and Barnett that The Atlantic article title–“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”–is a feminist-baiting red herring designed to sell magazines rather than spark real, honest debate about the substantive article inside.

But Slaughter makes a very important point about the difficulty just about every parent I know–fathers, and my own husband, included–have in balancing work and family responsibilities. And this needs to be looked at honestly and candidly. Yes, some will use it to argue women should be barefoot and pregnant. But plenty more, I wager, will see it as a problem crying out for policy remedy.

The American workplace is designed with the idea that a stay-at-home spouse is minding the children and tending the home fires, and it has not changed to accommodate the reality of dual-income families in modern-day America.

And that causes real problems for parents, for women, for children–even for employers who pay for their unnecessary rigidity when they lose great female and occasionally male talent who need time and flexibility to care for their families.

At one point Rivers and Barnett dismiss as media hype the idea that women who try to have it all are exhausted wrecks. Really? They charge Slaughter with not being in the real world, but I’m here to testify to the wreckage that is out here in the family trenches.

Long Hours, High-Tech Leashes

Professionals are expected to put in long hours at the office, technology makes it easier for employers to make incessant demands on their employees while at home, and the gap between the rich and poor has widened, making it harder for parents to shoulder the exorbitant costs of raising children on one or even two salaries.

I know a lot of parents, and it seems to me that very few of them–women or men–are satisfied with the amount of time they are able to spend with their children. My single and child-free friends often aren’t happy either with the stingy amount of paid time off they have.

How could they be, in a country that–unlike the rest of the civilized world–has no federal laws ensuring paid leave to care for new babies, aging parents, or sick children–or even themselves. Where part-time work is undervalued, where commuting times eat into mealtimes and bedtimes, and where “face time” is more important than work product.

Rivers and Barnett do see this point, I grant, but not from the nose-rubbing sense of exhaustion many parents feel daily and that Slaughter tries to discuss. This was the substance of her argument, and Rivers and Barnett attacked it on the basis of editors’ styling.

The struggle to find balance is often more challenging for low-income parents, who are more likely to have jobs with little flexibility, face mandatory overtime and unpredictable work hours and lack critical benefits like paid sick and vacation leave.

I agree that Slaughter’s piece has its flaws. But her core message doesn’t: working parents in America need more time with their children, if only to take them to the doctor, meet with their teachers, prepare healthy meals, or even just to tuck them into bed. And in my opinion, most working people–regardless of their parenting status–need more time too.

But here’s what’s truly revolutionary about Slaughter’s piece: she states that she wants to spend more time with their children.

When’s the last time you heard a feminist say that?

I’ve spent the past year reading as many contemporary books on motherhood and feminism as I could possibly squeeze into the few minutes before I collapse in bed after putting the kids to sleep at the end of a usually very long day.

I’ve read about a dozen, ranging from Linda Hirschman’s “Get to Work” to Leslie Bennett’s “The Feminine Mistake” to Arlie Hochschild’s “The Second Shift.” There is often little discussion of the long hours parents need to put in to rearing children, much less a discussion of an actual parental desire to do so.

Take the “Feminine Mystique,” the touchstone of second-wave feminism, as one early example.

In Betty Friedan’s world, traditional motherhood is all about boredom and vacuuming and being a “putter on of pants” as she so famously wrote.

Friedan Was Right and Wrong

In many ways, she’s right on. But she’s also way off: in my experience, child care has been all of that (minus the vacuuming–wink, wink), but it’s also been laughter, sunshine, swing sets and wonder. Some of the best stuff life has to offer.

It’s also been some of the hardest stuff life has to offer: the excruciating pain of nursing a newborn, holding an unconscious toddler whose lips are turning blue, dropping off a young child at school who doesn’t want to be there, and attempting to explain “why mommy works.”

I’m a product of Friedan’s 1970s, and I was lucky to be raised by a pair of working parents who encouraged me to achieve my full potential as a professional, and I’ve immensely enjoyed the arduous and rewarding journey toward that ever elusive goal.

But even more than that, my parents wanted me to be happy. I never defined child care as part of that equation. I now do.

I was surprised–shocked even–to discover that I actually enjoyed being at home with my children. I was fortunate to have the choice to do that thanks to an extremely understanding and family friendly employer–an incredible rarity in today’s world.

I made what at the time was a difficult decision to scale back my hours so that I could spend more time caring for them in their early years. A former reporter on the intersection of women and politics, I’m well aware of the financial risks of making that kind of a decision, and I know many men and women do not have that choice.

My husband has made similar kinds of sacrifices, although, as our family’s main breadwinner, to a lesser degree. He took nearly two months off after the birth of our second child, works an alternative schedule in which he takes one day off every other week, and, like Slaughter, has turned down entreaties to take positions that would demand more of his time–tough decisions in the conservative environment in which he works.

Like Slaughter, neither of us regrets making professional sacrifices for personal child care reasons.

It’s time more feminists–of both genders, of all incomes and at all levels of the professional spectrum–join Slaughter and articulate not only a need to reform our outdated workplace, but also a need, and desire, to spend time with our children, our families and even just ourselves.

And it’s time for feminists to listen.

Allison Stevens is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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