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Erasmus B. Dragon: Inequality Is a Joke to the New York Times

Posted: 11/09/11 11:45 AM ET

The staff list at the website for the radio show "Car Talk" includes an entry for the "Head of Working Mothers Support Group" -- Erasmus B. Dragon. Because working mothers spend so much time running around that they're exhausted all the time!

It's a cute pun, but is it actually funny?

The New York Times seems to think so. An article in SundayStyles Sunday presents a whimsical look at why three out of four insomnia patients at the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta are women.

The article begins by joshing about one "working mother" who takes Xanax several times a week: "[S]he worries about addiction so some nights she just doesn't sleep at all rather than take it. I think she saw the irony in not sleeping because she was anxious about taking an anti-anxiety medicine in order to sleep."

Oh, those silly women. The article quotes a doctor faulting women for their failure to prioritize. It quotes women faulting themselves for perfectionism and for worrying about "Stupid stuff, when it comes down to it."

And yet somehow the relevant issue is relegated to a parenthetical: "One of the cruel jokes of motherhood is that the sleeplessness of pregnancy, followed by the sleeplessness generated by an infant (a period in which a staggering -- truly -- 84 percent of women experience insomnia), is not followed by a makeup period of rest. It is merely the setup for what can become a permanent modus operandi."

Women still do roughly 80% of household management work, which most of the women in the article mentioned as their primary concern. One woman runs "down the menu, from kid to kid": "Did I send in a permission slip by deadline? Should I chaperone the field trip? Am I green enough?" "I need to call that guy about fixing the car. I think I run out of my daughter's favorite snack. Should I change the batteries in the smoke alarm?" This kind of management is integral to managing a modern family -- and the kind of work husbands typically do very little of. And household managing is anxious work: after all, managers get paid good money for a reason.

Not a word about any of that in the article. Instead, we hear a novelist positing that mothers' wakefulness reflects the vigilance of a "mother listening in the woods for the bear." So I guess there's no problem, and no solution needed, if it all just stems from inevitable biological drives buried deep in the mythic past.

Except what the Times is reporting on here is gender inequality. As a cute, funny lifestyle piece. These women are anxious. They are overburdened. They do three-and-a-half times as much routine housework as their husbands. The performance burdens put on women aren't a punchline. They're unrealistic and have real consequences.

What we see here is women struggling -- struggling to keep their households and careers going while they are competing with men whose wives do the second shift (just as they are doing for their husbands). When my kids were young, I frequently woke up in the middle of the night so anxious about everything I needed to get done that regularly got out of bed and worked for a couple of hours. The 2 am to 4 am shift that I and the mothers in the Times article have found ourselves doing isn't a silly quirk. It's the direct result of a society that expects men to work, and allows women to work -- as long as they fulfill all of their family responsibilities at the same time. Women are struggling in a society that marginalizes mothers and so makes both women and children economically vulnerable. Children are the poorest group in the United States. Women are two thirds of the elderly poor. The paradigm poor family in the United States is a mother and her children.

I thought the Times's coverage of gender inequality had improved since Lisa Belkin's 2003 NYT Magazine cover story on "The Opt Out Revolution," which attributed the dearth of women at the top to many women's discovery of their own inner housewife. (Lisa's main point -- that workplaces are hostile to mothers -- was magically lost in the subsequent shuffle.)

Things were certainly looking up last year, when David Leonhardt wrote an article exploring why none of the last three women nominated to the Supreme Court were mothers. He didn't argue that women have to make hard choices, but that the labor market was hostile to mothers. This shift may have been in response to uproar over Belkin's article, including my report, "Opt Out or Pushed Out."

So this article comes as a particular disappointment. Call me a killjoy, but I think inequality is no joke.

 

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