We recently got our hands on a copy of the new documentary Who Does She Think She Is?, by director and producer Pamela Tanner Boll. Boll is the co-executive producer of the 2005 Academy Award winner Born Into Brothels, which tells the tale of one woman working to help children in India's "red light" district through photography. In Who Does She Think She Is? Boll again tackles a story that revolves around art, women and children, but this time it is the women who need the helping.
Who Does She Think She Is? takes an in-depth look at what it really means to be an artist and a mother. Big deal, right? Wrong. The stigma against mothers that prevails throughout the working world ("they'll take time off," "they'll always have other priorities ...") seems exceptionally strong in the art world, which is notoriously difficult to penetrate to begin with. Yet, the greatest challenge that these women face is much closer to home. It is the expectation that taking care of house and home, and the kids inhabiting that home, are primarily a woman's responsibilities.
Lisa Belkin's June 15th, 2008 article in The New York Times Magazine, entitled "When Mom and Dad Share It All," reminded us that the idea of shared parenting is a rather novel one. Women still very much shoulder the brunt of the domestic burden in American society -- even when they are working as hard as their men-folk. According to Belkin, when both husband and wife have full-time paying jobs, "The wife does 28 hours of housework, the husband just 16 hours. Just shy of 2 to 1, which makes no sense at all." Once childcare is brought into the picture, the ratio becomes close to 5 to 1.
No doubt about it: American society continues to view women as the "natural" caretakers. In the case of the female artists featured in Who Does She Think She Is?, the struggle to maintain a creative career while living up to the demands of being the family's primary caretaker is often agonizingly difficult. For instance, one of the women, performance artist Angela Williams, begins the film in a happy marriage and ends it as a divorcée. Her husband simply couldn't handle her growing desire to devote time and energy on her budding career.
With its title and its female focus, Who Does She Think She Is? risks scaring off a great deal of viewers, simply because a lot of people have an instant negative reaction to anything smelling ever so faintly of "feminism." Even we began the film with a skeptical air. As we watched, however, we became increasingly engaged. In an interview with The Lattice Group, Boll said, "I don't think I would have been as persistent, as caring, as careful with each of my subjects, getting them to open up, if I had not had the experience of being a very present and very listening mother." The nurturing touch defines the film. And thanks to it, Boll is able to capture the deepest, and most conflicted, desires of several women.
Who Does She Think She Is? underlines how far we really are from "equal parenting" of the kind described by Belkin. Personally, I read Belkin's article with interest, but also with worry and...amusement. According to Belkin, the idea of "equal parenting" is so foreign to most people that there are coaches you can hire to show you how to do it -- detailed descriptions of excel spreadsheets dividing daily labor included. It all seems rather absurd. Then again, a spreadsheet or two might not be a bad idea for the over-worked mothers in Boll's film.
The interviews with Generation Yers that The Lattice Group has been doing over the past year give me hope that our generation, who will become parents in the next decade, might do things differently. As a young medical student we interviewed recently said, "Sure, the mom carries the thing for nine months, but as soon as it comes out the dad has just as much responsibility." Perhaps, for Gen Y parents, the caretaker-expectation will finally be de-mystified and duties -- and joys -- divided fairly. As one of the "equal parenting" fathers in The Times Magazine article comments in regards to his and his wife's seemingly exceptional choice to split caregiving straight down the middle, "'Why isn't this just called parenting?'" Good Question.
But, if things don't actually change by the time we start procreating, perhaps the question Gen Y mothers should be asking is, "Who does he think he is?"
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.