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Lisa Belkin

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Why The Workplace Doesn't Work For Parents

Posted: 06/22/2012 10:46 am

Readers here are exploding with opinions about women, work, and parenting. Several high-profile articles in the past few days have created one of those crystallizing moments -- a spotlight on the on the fact that work just doesn't work for so many of us. The more of these moments we have, the greater the chance that things actually change, so let's seize this one and keep talking.

Actually, Elizabeth Wurtzel, took exactly the opposite view in her essay last week on the website of The Atlantic titled "1% Wives Are Helping to Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible." Women choosing to leave the paid workforce, she writes, are not signs that something is wrong with the workplace, but that rather something wrong with women. She is mortified and depressed by those who would waste their brains and education and choose to be supported by a man. This is not what Feminism is for, she writes. As an "ism," she argues, it is an economic principle, like Capitalism, and Marxism, and Communism, and therefore its sole measure of success is economic parity.

Using the scores of comments on my Facebook page as a barometer, it seems more than a few of you disagree. "I remember the 70s," writes Shannon Stoney, "and feminism was about many things besides the workplace. There was a lot of talk and writing about preventing violence against women; about patriarchal religion and 'God the Father'; and even about wages for housework! The right to be a CEO and make a lot of money seemed actually like a minor part of it."

Or, as Heidi R. Miller wrote: "Why shouldn't feminism be about choice and trying to forge a world that suits our wildest dreams?"

There was disagreement over mostly everything else Wurtzel said, too.

On her focus on "1 percent mothers" -- giving the impression that all mothers who leave the workforce are home with their nannies and personal trainers -- Amy Markoff Johnson wrote: "I don't have a nanny or get pedicures or have fancy lunches. Our family has had to cut back a lot to insure one of us (happens to be me) is able to be home for our child with special needs. My husband and I consider ourselves a unit, doing what we need to take care of the family as a whole, some of that work paid and some not. One full time paid job between the two of us makes the most sense for our family. Two full time jobs would not allow for adequate care for our son, and two part time jobs would provide less money and fewer benefits."

On how Wurtzel doesn't recognize that the construct of the workplace is a relic of the dawn of the machine age and contributes to the "choice" many women make to "opt out," Sabrina Alfin posted: "Motherhood is the single biggest obstacle to women getting waylaid on the way to the boardroom. Instead of chastising women who have opted out because they can afford to do so, how about lobbying for change in the way corporate culture pretends families don't exist?"

I agree that a narrowed lens is Wurtzel's primary mistake. She is just plain irked by women who have not made the choices she's made -- to remain single and childless -- and she defines her terms to reinforce her disapproval. All those "isms" she uses to make her point? They are economic principles, yes. But they are also social contracts. In part they exist to count money or assign work; more than that, though, they define the role of work within a culture.

And it is in the social contract that the current system is failing workers. Perhaps the "ism" Wurtzel should be taking into account is "egalitarianism" or maybe a "post-technological-revolutionism" -- a reflection of the many ways work and workers have changed since the last overhaul at the start of the industrial revolution. Before that moms stayed home and worked. Dads too. Most of this took place on farms or in family-owned shops, where husbands and wives worked side by side while raising children.

Then factories grew up, and men left every morning and returned at night. Work and home became markedly separate spheres, assigned to different genders. That made sense (sort of) before the women's movement, and the economic shifts that mean most families rely on two incomes, and technology that allows us to work from anywhere, and a global interdependency that demands work around the clock.

Wurtzel needs to read -- actually, we all should read -- writers like Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson, whose prescription for overhauling the workforce is based on a career model that allows for stops and pauses and lateral moves during periods when life gets in the way, then ramping up and surging forward when those family obligations lessen.

Or Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, who have been shouting in the wilderness for years about a new corporate paradigm that doesn't define a worker's value by time spent in the office but rather by work produced. "Work wherever you want whenever you want," they say, "as long as the work gets done."

And she should certainly read Anne-Marie Slaughter, the other Atlantic writer whose work is reigniting the life/work conversation this week. While Wurtzel simplifies the dilemma of working mothers to a cliche, Slaughter paints a personal and nuanced portrait of her reality -- one in which she reached what she would once have described as the pinnacle of success -- a high-powered job at Hillary Clinton's right hand -- but left because she felt torn by the amount of time it took from her family. As much as my Facebook followers were furious with Wurtzel, they were solidly behind Slaughter.

Wrote Liz Yablonicky: "For me the best part of the article was her admission that she wants to spend time with her children -- that it refreshes and energizes her. It's not solely (or even mostly) that they need her, but that it's something she chooses, like marathoning, for happiness."

Slaughter used the marathon analogy to which Yablonicky refers in order to make the interesting point that the qualities that an employer will assume in a worker who spends his off-hours training for a marathon ("That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself to get out there even after a long day... That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance... That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in...") are not the ones that same manager will assume in a worker who spends off-hour time caring for children ("Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children's day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have a housekeeper--and does much the same work at the end of the day").

But the marathon analogy is apt in another way too. In the latest, hypothetical, yet-to-be-named "ism," life should be seen as a marathon, not a sprint. With varied speeds, and support from the crowd, and breaks for water along the way. You go farther that way, no? And get to admire the scenery.

If an "ism" accepts the marathoner, then parents who alter their pace for awhile and take advantage of pauses, technology, and an understanding that their most intense working years might well be when their children are grown look like competitors, not slaggards or disappointments. And in that kind of an "ism," Elizabeth Wurtzel is likely to feel much less disappointed and cranky.

 

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