I don't know who did the dishes at Barack and Michelle Obama's house before he became president, and maybe I don't want to know. But I've been thinking about what President Obama has to teach us about how to negotiate who stays home when the kids are sick or tells their boss they just can't make that 6:00 PM meeting. These issues are as intractable as containing health care costs and more fraught than bailing out Wall Street, and for many of us, they're the air we breathe. No wonder so many Americans have respiratory problems.
Still, it's hard not be inspired by Obama's tenacious optimism that, by working together, we can make things better. When he says it, it doesn't even sound like a platitude but rather like a sensible idea. Optimism is in short supply in the articles and books I've read lately about women and work. We're familiar with the endless mutual bashing of the Mommy Wars: the grim statistics about how few women hold leadership positions in business or the professions, how feminism is its own worst enemy, and how the glass ceiling is as solid as ever. I'm happy to say that a new book with a more Obama-like spirit came out recently: Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have it All by Sharing it All (Bantam) by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober.
Meers and Strober -- a former managing director at Goldman Sachs (and a product of the Obama children's school), and a managing director of a private equity firm respectively -- are well informed and clear-eyed. They've compiled the research and done a lot of their own as well, but the lessons they draw from it are refreshingly upbeat. First, though, the bad news. The authors show convincingly that women are not opting out of the workplace in large numbers (though certainly some women are genuinely happier not working) but rather being pushed out by a variety of factors. These include employer assumptions that mothers are less competent, women's own fears that working and motherhood are incompatible, the contemporary workplace's 24/7 culture, and the failure of women who are managing to juggle work and family to share their stories and strategies. That's something this book does well: share the stories of many women who have found ways to successfully (and even joyfully) combine work and children, and to offer strategies for everything from changing your boss's attitude toward your commitment to your job to getting your husband to see the house and kids as truly his responsibility as well as yours.
Meers and Strober also reassure. The first three chapters of their book are devoted to studies and statistics that show that when women work it's good for the kids and the dads as well as for the women themselves. Kids benefit from having involved fathers and happier mothers; dads benefit from sharing the stress of supporting the family and from spending time with their kids; moms benefit from using their minds and earning their own money and learning how to let go of some control and perfectionism. Much of this is common sense stuff, but the authors have the numbers to back it up.
How, then, to make work work for mothers? The key, according to Meers and Strober, is for women to stop sniping at their husbands and second-guessing the way men put on diapers or what they serve for dinner when it's their night to cook. Instead, women have to engage their partners in serious conversations about money and responsibility and how to figure out who does what. They can't unilaterally make decisions without consulting their allies; they need to issue an invitation to the table even if the other side hasn't proven trustworthy in the past: " 'I do' is not merely the response you give before the ring goes on your finger. Ongoing negotiation about what 'I do' and 'you do' often determines the fate of a marriage.' " Then -- as in America under Obama -- everyone will live happily ever after.
Okay, maybe not. But some people will live somewhat more happily (and more fairly), and surely that's worth a lot. As for the "ever after," real life doesn't have endings, but I am a novelist by profession (as well as a mother of two), and part of my job is figuring out what happens on the last page. My recent book, Lady of the Snakes, is about a woman caught between her passion for her work and her love for family. This young Russian literature professor has to deal with childcare problems and workplace pressures and sick children -- all that stuff -- and I spent a lot of time trying to decide what kind of ending to give her. Should she succeed? Too easy and romantic. Should she fail? Too depressing and cynical. What then?
After the birth of her first baby, things go badly for my protagonist. Her marriage almost collapses and a powerful competitor nearly derails her career and she struggles with a difficult child. Still, you can see she's trying. I decided to give her a second chance. Toward the end of the book she gets pregnant again and reconciles with her husband. I can only hope her experiences in the course of the novel have given her -- and her husband -- the tools to do a better job the next time around.
Maybe that's the best any of us can ask for -- the best the culture as a whole can ask for. It's true we've screwed things up pretty well till now. But with some new ideas and some new leadership, surely we'll do better this time.