morning I heard the story on the radio was not much
different than many others. I had just dropped my two year
old off at daycare and was rushing to class. His parting words
me—“Mommy hold Joshua”—were still ringing
in my ears. Neither one of us had gotten much sleep the night
before, as he was struggling with his last set of molars. I hated
to leave him at day care, but I had already skipped two classes
to spend the day holding him, helping him through his teething.
I couldn’t miss any more. My husband was helping as much
as he could, but he had to be out of the house by 7:00, hopping
on the freeway for his one hour commute. As for me, I hadn’t
had a chance to get a shower yet, had no idea how I was going
to find the time to write the paper due in a few days and was
praying that the cold that had settled into my chest would eventually
go away. Then, on NPR, I heard a reporter talking about a study
that showed that working mothers are the most stressed out segment
of our population today. No kidding.
But wait a minute. I thought
things were getting better for women. Our dark days were supposed
to be behind us. In the 1950s and 60s, that’s when women
had it really hard. Now, the imaginings of The Feminine Mystique had
come to life. The doors had flung open. The world was our stage.
The feminist model, that women would leave the dreary oppression
of the home for the emancipation of the workplace, was to solve
everything. Our children would happily go to day care while men
learned how to do the dishes. We would stretch our arms and embrace
our new freedom. As I continued to drive, probably much faster
than advisable, I guess I just didn’t feel emancipated.
I would like to make a
very scary proposition. Maybe the model doesn’t work. Maybe
the idea that somewhere, somehow, there’s a woman who is
making it work, this “working and being a mother thing” is
not really true. Maybe it’s not that we just need better
time management strategies, or a Palm Pilot, or an aromatherapy
candle, or a better job. Maybe the solution that our foremothers
imagined, once implemented, just simply does not work. Perhaps
we have been trying to fit a square peg into a round whole for
a couple of decades now, and for most of us, it’s just too
exhausting for words. Can I say that? Can I have a new revolution now?
It’s not that the
feminist revolution failed. Those on the Right would like us to
believe that women had it so much better “back then” and
that going back into the home is the answer to our modern stress
(as if being a stay-at-home mother isn’t replete with stress).
Instead, I think statues should be erected all over town for those
women, some of whom I’ve worked for, who have fought so hard
to make it unacceptable for women to be fired simply for being
women, for businesses not to offer maternity leave, for pinches
on the ass to be commonplace. In those days, the idea of equal
pay was akin to socialist revolt, and women’s intelligence
was only for creating more enticing pot roast recipes. Perhaps
most importantly, women were never going to be free without their
reproductive freedom, a freedom we must continue to guard with
ferocious intensity. We certainly can’t go back to the way
Yet can we really stay
here? As it is, the way we’re living now is dramatically
affecting our health. According to the American Medical Women’s
Association, lung cancer is now the most common cause of cancer
death for women as many reach for a stress-relieving cigarette
break. Women’s rate of heart disease has skyrocketed as we
head to the drive-through, too exhausted to think of cooking dinner.
Rates of depression, and attempted suicide, are twice that of men.
A recent study stated that caretakers of children get the least
amount of sleep (an average of 6.8 hours a night) of anyone in
our society. Molly Ivins, bless her nearly-perfect soul, suggests
that women can have it all, we just have to realize that we’ll
be tired for 20 years. I can handle tired, but we’re slowly
killing ourselves. It’s beyond just being tired.
Can we have a new feminist
Our foremothers didn’t
fail, it’s just that, perhaps, there were a few things that
they didn’t anticipate. Their vision was predicated on the
idea that men would become as involved in the housework as women
were. We all know that for most of us, that simply hasn’t
happened. Their plan was based on the economy of old, in which
two incomes weren’t absolutely necessary. In the past decades,
a living wage, for men or women, which could support an entire
family has gone the way of the 8-track tape. In the 1970’s,
it was possible to let young children walk to school or take the
bus—now, more and more children are delivered to and from
school by a parent, adding another errand to our day. Our commutes
are longer, our workdays are longer, our lives are more scheduled
than ever. All of these pressures were just not part of the plan.
The feminist vision was a great one—the reality is another
The feminists of today
need to struggle for a revolution that is just as expansive as
the one decades ago. Yes, women have been struggling now for decades,
trying to make it work. Perhaps we haven’t had a new revolution
because, somehow, despite our exhaustion and stress, we seem to
get by, we seem to get our work done. I had a full class load the
term my son was born and wrote papers in between tending to his
colic. Another friend completed medical school right after her
daughter was born, without day care. There’s a joke about
a woman I know asking her labor nurse where the closest fax machine
was five minutes after her second daughter was born. Ha, ha, ha.
I think, though, that
we haven’t been able to push for a new way of living because
there is simply no easy answer. In the 60’s and 70’s,
there was a piece of legislation to support, a court case to fight,
a march to stage. Now, how can we legislate a new economy? How
can we get a court order to make men do the dishes? How do we march
for a longer day?
In the absence of a real
answer, instead we get a plethora of self-help books and magazines
that attempt to show us how to make it work. Some are just simply
laughable. Oprah Magazine just had an article on how to get out
of the house in the morning without chaos (basically, pack everything
the night before, trading a chaotic morning for an exhausting evening).
My favorite “cures” right now are the commercials offering
a variety of medications for women—if you’re exhausted
and don’t feel very sexy, take a drug, because there must
be something wrong with you. If you can’t concentrate on
your meeting because you’re responsible for at least a hundred
other things, you must have Adult ADD. If you are angry with your
partner, you must have some sort of PMS that I can’t even
pronounce. These conditions are real for some, yet the ad campaigns
all seem to suggest that simply being a working mother is grounds
for a prescription. If it was only that easy.
For too many women, it’s
all becoming simply unworkable. For single women or the impoverished,
it’s flat-out impossible. If one needs convincing, let’s
get out our pencils and add up what women are supposed to do everyday.
Exercise one hour; work for eight; commute, on average, for one;
take care of children, let’s say three; cook, clean, do laundry,
shop, etc, for two hours (optimistic); participate in some community
activity, PTA church, etc, one hour; oh, yeah—groom ourselves,
eat, get dressed—let’s say another two; sleep, as recommended,
for eight hours a day. That adds up to a 26 hour day. Yeah, that’s
workable. No wonder the fan in my car now serves as my hair dryer.
And that’s a good day, when kids aren’t sick, when
there’s not a huge project to do at work, when the water
heater hasn’t broken or the oil doesn’t need to be
changed. How many of those “good days” do you have?
Beyond our own sense of
stress, our own health, I worry for the over-all status of women
in our society. The feminist model, after all, was based on the
notion that women would be able to enter the halls of power and
thus begin to change society for the better. Yet how do we change
the world and still have families? Just look at our current administration.
Karen Hughes resigned for the sake of her family, while single,
childless Condoleezza Rice continues on. How can the voices of
working mothers be heard when we’re too busy just getting
through our day? Indeed, how do we all continue to make strides
and have satisfying careers when we’re constantly exhausted
Some women have figured
out solutions that suit their lives, and indeed, there are some
positive changes taking place. For those who can afford it, part-time
work is a way out. Ms. Foundation President Marie C. Wilson writes
in her book, Closing the Leadership Gap, of law firms
that are offering partnerships to part-time workers. Still, most
of the part-time offerings in my local paper are for those jobs
that are stereotypically “women’s work” and therefore
don’t pay well. Some women telecommute or have flexible work
hours. Some women have partners whose careers are taking a backseat,
allowing women to have fulfilling work lives and still be involved
mothers—an infrequent solution, but still, it works for some.
Others know what could
help, but those in power are not listening. Imagine if we had subsidized,
quality, day care, longer maternity leave, mandatory flexible work
hours, more vacation and more sick time? How about paid family
medical leave? (The Family Medical Leave Act was great and all,
but come on, who can afford to take 3 months off anyway?) How about
the German way, in which the government pays families a monthly
stipend for each child? Heck, how about a brand new economy?
As for now, I’ve
found that many women I’ve talked to get some element of
relief from realizing that it’s not just them, that they
aren’t the only ones who are finding that being a working
mother is just simply not sustainable. At least we aren’t
all just crazy.
Regardless what we do,
I think that we need to start talking about it. One thing I know
for sure is that women can solve nearly anything if we collectively
put our minds to it. And we need ways to start talking about it—mother’s
groups, magazines and on-line resources such as this one. The more
I talk about the possibility of a new model with women, the more
optimistic I get. It is indeed possible.
As for me, I’m going
to try to figure it out for my own life, right after I take a shower.
mmo : october 2004