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Living Full-Throttle
Motherhood, Balance, and Another Women's Movement

page four

At heart is the suggestion that if something's amiss in your life, the way to fix it is to fix your attitude. (In the case of the inspiration books, you should adopt the attitude of a very low-key Martha Stewart, finding peace in a beautiful dinner table and letter-writing.) Hardly a new idea, it's the basis for every self-help movement from improving one's self-esteem to kicking alcoholism.

Funnily enough, I found some of the most interesting thoughts on life balance and attitude in a self-help-for-businesswomen book, Michele Kremen Bolton's The Third Shift: Managing Hard Choices in Our Careers, Homes, and Lives as Women (Jossey-Bass, 2000). The title is a play on The Second Shift, the famous book by Arlie Hochschild on working women's second job: taking care of home life. The third shift, Bolton writes, is the time we take to reflect on (and often beat ourselves up over) the way things are going. The book isn't without its flaws. Bolton takes certain controversial beliefs as truths (like there is a feminine style of doing business), and her prose suffers a bit from the self-help model of writing.

Still, her perspective is an interesting one. With anecdotes drawn from women living in boom-time Silicon Valley, the book's target audience is clearly women who are or have been part of the corporate world. Yet it's The Third Shift that presents life balance more broadly than the old work-versus-the-kids dichotomy (although, to be fair, these seem to be the major components of many women's lives). Bolton defines life balance as the tension between personal achievement and service to others; although she generally attaches personal achievement to work and service to home life, this new definition of balance seems to me to be more open to all mothers--those with paid work and those at home. Personal achievement can come in the form of making a thriving garden with the kids; service to others can be some mundane filing at the office.

In fact, redefining the events of your life is a big theme for The Third Shift. Bolton makes the distinction between compromise (which is good) and sacrifice (which isn't). And one mother's sacrifice is another mother's compromise, she finds. She compares two mothers, Laurel and Juliet, both of whom left careers to focus on mothering. Laurel is unhappy; Juliet is thriving:

"Laurel is more vulnerable to social expectations for a successful modern woman. She can only imagine one kind of satisfying life, which includes full-time, challenging work. It took more than a year for her to reexamine this somewhat rigid model and open herself to other possibilities and their unanticipated rewards. In contrast, Juliet realized her life could encompass both types of satisfaction, but not necessarily at the same time. Juliet and Laurel are different . . . with respect to their innate flexibility. Juliet's life and overall perspective favors shades of gray, while Laurel's depiction of her choices involves starker trade-offs."

Bolton and all the other experts agree on this point: Laurel's expectations to have a very involved career and a very involved role in her child's life are unrealistic. In an attempt to have both, Laurel was simply picking up the pace of her life. Bolton suggests she change her attitude.

Bolton knows it's not easy: "Even if you're not a classic overachiever, managing balance is difficult and stressful because it speaks to how you measure your own worth as a woman." In other words, what your life's balance looks like is a shorthand: it tells you and the rest of the world what you value most.

According to the 2000 census, 24.8 million households in the U.S. are made up of married parents and children. So where are the guys in all this?

Whether or not this time crunch is solely a mothers' issue is a matter of controversy. In 1989, sociologist Arlie Hochschild came out with The Second Shift, a book that detailed all the labor women--even women who work full-time--put into maintaining the household, as compared to men; the book showed women with paid jobs doing, over the course of a year, an extra month of childcare and housework. In 1999, psychologist Francine M. Deutsch published Halving Equality: How Equally Shared Parenting Works, her National Science Foundation-funded study on gender roles, housework, and childcare; it chronicled the difficulty the study's subjects had breaking out of gender roles into truly equal domestic life.

Still, the Families and Work Institute now reports that fathers put in seventy-five percent of the time that mothers spend on childcare and housework--up from thirty percent in 1977. And as Lisa Belkin says, how we feel about the amount of work we do has a lot to do with "whatever model we're holding ourselves up against." Women may, on average, still do more of the work at home, but men are doing a lot more than their fathers did. "Men are patting themselves on the back--and rightfully so," she notes.

And really, no matter how much the men's statistics have improved, it makes no difference if your particular guy is doing it 1977-style. In Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (Doubleday, 2001), Naomi Wolf devotes much ink to the inequality in her marriage and those of her friends after the baby comes. She writes of one guy in her circle of friends, a "Gen-Xer with a goatee," who had adjusted his work schedule to accommodate his family:

No one else's husband among the couples we knew had been able--or willing--to make any kind of change in his work schedule. The women around me, I noticed, began to treat this young man as a demigod. "Dan takes Fridays off," they would say meaningfully to their husbands. To the women, Dan's having taken even such a small step toward sharing responsibilities at home gave him an aura of desirability: he was a winner. To the other husbands, I began to realize, the fact that he could take Fridays off meant his job wasn't that important. To the men--these egalitarian, pro-feminist men--Dan was a loser.

I'm married to one of these Gen-Xers (no goatee, but admirable sideburns). I think we have a pretty equal marriage: we spent the same amount and quality of time caring for our son. We both cook; we share the mental work of whether we're out of Pull-ups or if someone gave the dogs their heartworm pills this month. We both ignore the Christmas tree on the landing. We both feel the time crunch. What equality means around here is that we're both pretty fried.

Ann Crittenden notes that it's not the housework or the childcare that's the real issue. Equality on the homefront will come when both the domestic and business worlds are accorded equal respect, and when the sexes achieve economic equality. She points again to Swedish families. "When two spouses bring home close to the same income, the family stands to lose almost as much financially when the mother cuts back on her paid work as when the father does," she writes. "This changes the conversation about who stays home and who remains employed, who picks the children up after school, who takes the child to the doctor, and so on."

Back here, it's more often than not the women who do the compromising, for a lot of individual reasons. And those reasons are reinforced by the fact that that's the way it's been since home and work became separate realms. But if we had our druthers, research suggests, that's not the way it would be. Crittenden cites a study at Williams College that concluded, "Of all the possible work situations for married couples with preschool children, the women rated highest the marriage in which both partners worked part-time." That's one fantasy, and a few families are achieving that here.

The reality, Crittenden writes, is there aren't many real choices for the majority of us. Job-sharing and telecommuting positions are fairly scarce. Married working mothers, she asserts, pay the highest taxes on their earned income. It's a gamble whether your spouse will support or sabotage your goals. Paid, quality childcare can be difficult to find. And then complaining about these facts is taboo because--even mothers say--we chose this.

I think these are relevant facts for fathers, too. Wolf's example above suggests that some men are caught in a machismo-riddled world where being a "winner" means sacrificing involvement at home. It's another version of off-kilter life balance (granted, tipped in favor of the work that brings a paycheck and a cultural pat on the back). I just find it hard to believe that the majority of men would rather work ridiculous hours than be a vital part of their kids' lives; it's hard to believe that most men enjoy the work-heavy balance of their lives. My perception, of course, may be skewed. My family lives in an area that prides itself on being family-oriented; no one at the pharmaceutical plant where my husband works complains when he leaves early for a Valentine's Day shindig at our son's preschool. There is an understanding here in this blue-collar, unionized area that your real life occurs at family pig roasts and church gatherings, not within the chain-linked fences of the manufacturing site.

a matter of time

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