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Carey Perloff Headshot

Whither Working Mothers?

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Consider the case of Mildred Dresselhaus. According to a recent article in the New York Times Science Section (3 July 2012), she was born into poverty, learned to ride the subway by herself from the Bronx to Greenwich Village to attend music school at age 6, got a PhD in physics and became one of the world's experts on carbon while raising four children (she now has five grandchildren) and still seems to manage, at age 81, to play the violin on a regular basis and travel the world lecturing about her scientific research. Her story, and the evident sense of humor with which she related it to Natalie Angier in the Times, stands in stark contrast to that of Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and foreign policy expert whose recent lament, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," landed on the cover of The Atlantic this month and set off a frenzy of response -- both positive and negative -- across every media platform in the country.

When I began reading Slaughter's piece I fully expected to be totally sympathetic to its arguments; I am a working mother in a field (theater) that is known for its late hours, low wages and punishing schedules, not conditions that make child-rearing easy. Like Slaughter, I am concerned that the leadership ranks of most professions are still mostly male, and that the playing field is clearly not level when it comes to shared responsibility for raising children. But while Slaughter's self-involved tale of woe wearied me, I found the story of Mildred Dresselhaus extremely energizing. I know nothing more abut this woman than I read in the Times, but in some ways she reminded me of my own mother, Marjorie Perloff, another fierce and brilliant 80-year-old who lectures around the world while remaining acutely attuned to the lives and loves of her children and grandchildren.

My mother and Mildred grew up in a time when there was no expectation that women could "have it all" or even "have some of it," so they put their lives together as creatively and pragmatically as they could, without thinking that what they were doing was particularly remarkable or noteworthy (at least the motherhood part). I'm sure a lot of it was incredibly difficult, exhausting and frustrating, and low expectations are certainly not the solution to the working woman problem. But attitude helps. While my mother spent a great deal of time focused on her children's lives, motherhood was not what defined her, it was a part of her life. Her career certainly evolved more slowly than it would have had she been childless, as I'm sure was the case with Mildred, but life is long and both women made up for lost time with a vengeance as their children grew older -- while many of their quick-starting male colleagues were already burning out. In their vigorous and open-eyed approach to being passionate professionals with children, both Mildred and Marjorie were huge role models for their own offspring. My sister and I are both working women who are also mothers, and Mildred's granddaughter is a student of nanotechnology at MIT, surely inspired by her grandmother's passion for science. I have no wish to argue that things were easier for women of my mother's generation, but I do think there are a few lessons to be learned here.

As many have already commented, the first fallacy of the Slaughter argument is that there is any such thing as "having it all," even if we could be sure what "it" is. Life is long and full of compromises. We all put one foot in front of the other and carve out a path day by day that eventually makes the road of our lives. Sometimes our children are empathetic to our conflicts, sometimes not; one of my favorite female colleagues used to come to work distraught because her young son would stand on the stoop as she left for work wailing "mommy, no theater!" in an attempt to keep her at home. But she continued to come to work and to make theater, and then to go home and be the best mother she could. Her son has grown up understanding that her work is part of the landscape, and she has accepted that she's not always going to make her family perfectly happy. (Given the realities of the working environment today, shouldn't we be trying to raise children who are empathetic to the situation rather than narcissists who constantly wait for their parents to solve every problem?).

Perhaps, as Slaughter asserts, my colleague's life was made easier because she worked for a woman boss who supported her both as a mother and as a professional. I have often tried to pass along the most inspired piece of wisdom my mother handed me over the years, six words that got me through the most stressful years of work/parenting conflict: "I don't compete on that level." Those were my mother's words on that day in about first grade when I was supposed to bring homemade cookies to a bake sale, only to be handed a box of Entemann's donuts. When I wailed that the other children would wonder why I was the only one whose mother didn't bake the cookies at home, my mother serenely responded: "Tell them I don't compete on that level."

The cult of the perfect mother is the worst thing that ever happened to American women. I'm sure Mildred Dresselhaus, who learned to ride the subway at age 6, didn't spend her own days carpooling her children to and from soccer practice, piano lessons and other enriching activities, any more than her own mother had had the time or wherewithal to do that for her; it just wasn't the norm in that era. The current argument that motherhood qualifies as a full-time job is specious and disingenuous; throughout history, women have had to work to support their families, and they have also been mothers. The two things were never thought to be mutually exclusive because except for the wealthy, there has generally not been a choice. This is true now more than ever; it takes two incomes to help keep most families afloat, and even where one income would suffice, the notion that the man is going to remain in the picture as breadwinner is a wishful one, since the incidence of divorce, death and male unemployment is so great.

The cause of women is not helped by pretending that there is a choice for women between working and staying home; we would be much better off, as Slaughter says, spending our energy figuring out how to make both work and motherhood more compatible. Some of this requires a major cultural shift, but some of this has to do with how we choose to think about ourselves and about the nature of motherhood. Which brings me back to Marjorie and Mildred.

I am convinced that one reason professional women who are also mothers are unhappy today is that the definition of motherhood has become impossibly all-consuming. The current expectation that motherhood means chauffeuring, bringing snacks to sports practices, staffing the school library and generally running one's children's lives, necessarily means that women who choose to do this to the hilt inevitably have a hard time balancing that with their professional commitments. While I understand that over the past few decades, the strapped public school system has needed the involvement of parents to help under-staffed schools run, it has always struck me as unconscionable and unfair that expensive private schools (the kind that the children of high-powered professionals like Slaughter usually attend) expect parents (read: mothers) to show up constantly in the middle of the day to attend performances, drive to elite sports practices and plan school fundraisers. This is where working mothers inevitably fail. But it is not their failure, it is the stupidity of a system that privileges that kind of involvement. Having dinner as a family has proven to be a far more valuable predictor of childhood success, yet mothers are still expected to engage in the "daytime shift."

At the Jewish nursery school my daughter attended when we first moved to San Francisco, each Friday afternoon, one child led the Shabbat service. If one was unable to turn up to Shabbat at 3 p.m. on the day it was one's child's turn, the opprobrium from the school was extremely evident. This caused me ridiculous amounts of stress, as I struggled to end my rehearsals early and change meetings around to make it to the school on time. Finally my own mother said to me, "Just tell them you work. Don't compete on that level." I'm sure it made my daughter sad that I didn't always make it to Shabbat, but she knew where I was, and somehow she grew up understanding that my work was part of the family equation. She could also see that her father, who was totally devoted to her but also worked full-time, managed not to feel the least bit guilty about the Shabbat problem! Perhaps it is not such a terrible lesson for children to learn that they are not always the center of the universe and that the world asks multiple things of every individual in it. Careers get side-tracked by illness, by caring for aged parents and by economic forces as much as they get derailed by children.

Which leads me to the second lesson learned from the remarkable story of Mildred Dresselhaus. Role models are everything. When asked how she chose her professional path, Dresselhaus gives credit to Rosalyn Yalow, who taught her elementary nuclear physics and told her "you're going to do this," meaning focus on science. That is gold for a young girl. I know this is heresy to say, but all the carpooling in the world is never going to garner the kind of respect your children might feel for you if they saw you succeeding, or striving to succeed, in the professional world. It is that striving that tells girls they can do it, too. Seeing a woman succeed in the public sphere and seeing a woman make her own money are two extremely valuable lessons for young girls.

I never once saw my mother beg my father for money to buy a new dishwasher or indeed to choose private school for her daughters; she made enough money to have an equal role in making those choices. It certainly helped that she loved her work and took pleasure in doing it, as she knows I do. I have also always taken immense pleasure in my children, even when, like Slaughter, there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day to run my theater well and do everything I should have done as a mother. I tried to tell myself that if the beds didn't always get made and we didn't go on ski holidays and the snacks weren't homemade and I missed half the soccer games, no permanent damage would be done. I remember weeping on the phone to my mother after a long technical rehearsal and telling her that I feared my children would think the nanny was their mother, and I remember her laughing and saying "I think they're smart enough to figure it out."

As a theater director, my career might have been much more varied and nationally recognized if I had been able to take freelance directing jobs all over the country, but I ended up choosing to stay at a single institution because it provided more stability for the family. Even then, I was out many nights, so my husband wasn't having it all either; he was holding down the fort while Elektra or Arcadia was keeping me at work. While women usually carry more of the double burden than men while their children are young, those years are relatively short, and we should do everything we possibly can to capture that burst of energy and talent that middle-aged women are ready to deliver once their children have grown up.

The last lesson to learn from Mildred Dresselhaus has to do with humility, flexibility and a sense of humor. As the song goes, "you don't always get what you want," so you might as well be creative with the cards you are dealt. When Mildred is asked in the Times interview why she chose to study carbon of all things, she replied: "I thought it was an interesting material, and it was amenable to the laboratory capabilities we had, in magneto-optics. I liked having a problem that was not too popular. I had young children at the time. If one day I had to be home with a sick child, it wouldn't be the end of the world." There is a kind of pragmatic self-knowledge that strikes me as invaluable for today's working women. My own mother couldn't go to graduate school far away since she had small children, so she got her PhD in English at Catholic University, receiving a bizarrely Jesuit education for a Jewish refugee. But that was the landscape, so she coped; I don't remember her ever being bitter and feeling victimized because she couldn't go to the Ivy League school of her choice.

The sad fact is, even today, when it comes to working women, no one is going to ask you to compete, no one is going to make it easy for you. So how do you succeed? Pick your battles. Harness your energy. Focus on what you do well. Don't expect to be all things to all people. Be honest about what you're interested in and what you're trying to do. Recognize, as my friend Veronica kept telling me during those early sleepless years of parenting and directing, "the days are long, but the years are short." Bond with your girlfriends and cut them as much slack as possible. Don't expect to be praised for doing twice as much in a day as your male colleagues--it won't happen, because they are too stressed out themselves to notice your heroic double-duty sacrifices.

And finally, we must fight for childcare whenever and however we can. Mildred's final advice seems to be this: Hire the best baby-sitter you can find! Child care is the single biggest issue for working women, and we won't be out of the woods until sensible tax policies are implemented that make it possible, not punitive, to hire household help, and until our public kindergartens start at a younger age and our schools have class schedules and vacation times that mirror those of working parents. We have to recognize that to count on parents to carry so much of our schools' loads is unrealistic, inefficient and unfair. These are the things worth fighting for. As Mildred says succinctly, "A good husband is a vital part of it. I also had a good baby-sitter. She worked for me for 29 years." Let's stop the cult of the perfect mother and harness women's time and brains to look forward.