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Work-Life Balance: Why Can't American Women Have It All?

05/21/2010 12:26 pm 12:26:15 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's graduation season, and at major universities everywhere, CEO's, news anchors, politicians and others are making commencement speeches and offering guidance to young people on how to achieve their dreams. "In your focus on career, do not sell short the fulfillment of starting a family," UN Ambassador Susan Rice wisely said at Spelman College, a historically all-female, African-American liberal arts school. As we encourage young female graduates to pursue the kind of balance that can lead to genuine fulfillment, we also need to empower them with the proper tools to attain both personal and professional aspirations.

We live in a country where there's a lot of talk about the value of dreams and family, yet we do not equip our young women with the necessary support to pursue both at the time in their life where they are most able to. Motherhood and self-determination are inalienable rights, yet most women today are often forced to sacrifice their 20s to one or the other, and limit their dynamism by doing so.

Manuela Schwesig, a leader of the opposition Social Democratic party in Germany, said in a January 17th, 2010 New York Times article: "I am a more fulfilled mother for working and a more motivated politician for having a child."

The cross-pollination of motherhood and career did not even occur to me as an ambitious but wildly naive college graduate. I remember imagining living the Bohemian lifestyle of a writer in New York City, establishing my reputation and literary voice all while wearing fabulous Laboutins and attending the Zac Posen show at Fashion Week. "Love, marriage and the baby carriage," would come at 30 after I had won a Pulitzer, of course.

But very quickly my Sex and the City-inspired fantasy was replaced with a hunger for something more fulfilling, and for me, something more complete. To my careerist chagrin, my biological clock had begun ticking 10 years before I intended it to. Luck delivered my now husband, and before I could blink, I was 24, married and pregnant. No Vanity Fair spreads or witty New York Times Style pieces, just me and my bump. I was simultaneously thrilled for new life and devastated over what I saw as the death of my dreams. I felt panicked and very disconnected from my generation. They are getting married and having children much later in life in some cases because, unlike most other countries in the developed world, our system does not give us the social benefits or network to do both.

My mother had me when she was 26 years old, working all day and getting her MBA at night. She got two weeks of maternity leave and missed out on my entire first year. It was so hard on her that she vowed not to have another baby until her career was settled. Ten years later it was too late for her biologically and no form of IVF could help. Although my parents later adopted, I know this broke her heart.

No woman should have to hear that she can't have babies after working her entire life to create a situation where she finally can. Other countries have taken steps to make work-life balance easier on women while ours continues to stall.

"In Europe, Nordic countries have the biggest share of women in the labor market and also, with France, high birthrates. All offer a continuum of support for parents with young children from subsidized care and paid parental leave to all-day schools with off-hour programs," said Willem Adema of the O.E.C.D., according to a New York Times, January 17, 2010 article.

In Germany, the popularity of afternoon school programs is rising and domestic businesses, such as Siemens, offer extensive on-site day-care programs, according to the article. America has enacted some legislation to help working mothers, but what about younger women just starting out in the workforce who do not have a professional home that gives them generous maternity leave or on-site childcare?

My mother relied on her parents, and my Bolivian friend was able to pursue a medical degree because in her country raising a child is a communal effort and everyone from aunts, to teachers, to neighbors help. President Obama has called for a sense of communal responsibility to educate and protect our children, and has expanded the Family Leave Act, but more targeted progress is necessary.

Cheaper day-care, child care tax credits for stay-at-home mothers and a more open approach to breast-pumping are suggestions. Being a breast-feeding mother in the workplace can be "crazy at times," as Ambassador Rice admitted, but it is the healthiest option. Some females on Wall Street are able to have access to tony lounges or have their nannies bring their infants to the office for a breastfeeding session during lunch. All women, not just the ones with six-figure paychecks, deserve the right to "express" themselves with dignity, sometimes 10-12 times a day.

If you think this is hyperbole, you should meet my breast pump. We initially hid our torrid affair, but we were seeing each other so often that we began to do it in the car, on airplanes, and in front of stunned passersby, just to satisfy the need. Thankfully after 10 long months we ended it.

Some may not get the joke above or the need for breast-pumping legislation and this is just the problem. There are only 18 women in the Senate and only about 17 percent of Congress is female; out of that tiny pool, very few have young families. Women like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently had another baby, are calling for progressive laws geared toward women. Gillibrand advocates tax-credits for part-time students, which would give young women much more flexibility.

As a young mother, I feel fortunate to have a supportive husband who helps give me flexibility at home so I can go after my goals. Every single woman deserves the opportunity to have it all. Our gender's pioneers gave us the right to finally be able to choose, but making the choice between family and career mutually exclusive defeats the purpose. If we really believe in family and country, not family or country, we need to start walking the walk.