Here it comes, moms: the last day of school. Like every year, my daughter is out of her mind with anticipation. I’m just out of my mind.
After stepping out of the regular labor force when my daughter was born, I went back to work—the kind with an office and a consistent paycheck—when she was seven. The day my prospective boss made me an offer, I countered not with a higher salary request, but with a gauntlet: I’d forgo more money if I could get the flexibility I needed to put my family first. Yes, I’ll make my deadlines. But if I sometimes sub out weekends for weekdays to do it, or work at home when my child needs a midday ride to summer camp—I don’t want to have to go defensive or do penance.
To the credit of my family-friendly bosses, this arrangement has worked, and I’m grateful. But: I shouldn’t have to be.
Sometimes the zeitgeist uses a bullhorn, and here’s what it’s been bellowing for the past 12 months: Feminism hasn’t penetrated the workplace. A year ago this month, The Atlantic published what became the most-read article in its (website’s) history, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Because getting ahead in the current workplace butts directly into the realities of caring for children, the author writes, the feminist goal of “having it all” is a preposterous fiction.
A few months later, right on cue: Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer issued a salvo barring her employees from working at home—the most frequently used tool in a working parent’s arsenal. Then, this spring, came the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a book addressing the realities that keep women from moving into the highest echelons of politics and business. Overrepresented among college grads, women head up just 17 of the world’s 195 countries; just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
Sandberg ticks off the myriad social and economic drivers for why—including the appalling fact that the U.S. is the only first-world country without paid maternity and paternity leave. But what made Lean In dominate the news feed was Sandberg’s brazen assessment of how women keep themselves down: aspiring low, prioritizing likability over success, leaning away from leadership.
Hard as this is to swallow, I wince at the reality check. Would a man have bargained away a higher salary for the “perk” of parental flexibility? (Sandberg, who apparently knows me, cites a Carnegie Mellon study, which found that 57 percent of men negotiate salaries for their first job—as opposed to 7 percent of women.) Still—stop the presses—women don’t have the same balls men do. Could that be the reason why the ones who have the babies make just 73 cents to a man’s dollar?
No, comes a cry from our own backyard. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, cofounder and CEO of the Kirkland-based national lobbying and activist network Moms-Rising, says the “maternal wall” keeps most women from even getting close to that fabled room with the glass ceiling. “In our nation, 81 percent of women have a child by the time they’re 44 years old, three-quarters of moms are in the labor force, and most families need two breadwinners to make ends meet,” she says. “When millions of people have the exact same issue at the exact same time—we have a structural problem.”
Rowe-Finkbeiner became a mothers’ rights advocate when she quit her job to care for a sick child and got to wondering how many other women were home with their kids. She called the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Nobody was tracking us,” she marveled. “We were missing from the data.”
At-home moms are an untracked force of unpaid laborers: It was a relief just to hear my old occupation accorded a job description. Mothering is hallowed, after all; nearly always spoken of in terms of its virtue, nearly never in terms of its measurable societal value. Thus romanticized, mothering rises to the plane of the uncompensable—priceless, like sainthood.
Summer is a similarly romanticized word, sparkling with images of romping children and carefree mothers, enjoying picnics under beach umbrellas. For this working mother, here’s what summer really is: 12 weeks of balmy perfection to tame under a punishing regime of music camps, dance intensives, and time begged from Grandma. Mothers know the drill: Pay exorbitantly for a nanny or acclimatize your children to a different camp each week, hawking family heirlooms to afford mystifyingly random programs that teach kids to fly on trapezes or make Victorian robotics.
That’s why summer represents feminism’s great, untamed frontier. I’ll never forget when my favorite college professor, the late political theorist Susan Moller Okin, opened every mind in the symposium with this pronouncement: Any political theory that doesn’t include provision for the care of its next generation of citizens is untenable—period. (That was every political theory theretofore existing, mind you.) This was during feminism’s beta version, when we all agreed that workplaces can no longer be built on the assumption that someone’s home taking care of the kids.
I am hopeful this recent buzz in the zeitgeist heralds feminism’s next phase, in which we finally do the work to make those equitable workplaces real. School schedules fixed to match work schedules? Bring it.
Published: June 2013