Why Some Women Still Can’t Have It All

Some moms stay home, some are CEOs, but class and politics make either option impossible for many.

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Is part of the problem in the United States who is in office? Women in Switzerland didn’t get the right to vote until 1974. But today women hold 27 percent of the seats in the Swiss legislature. Child benefits there are regulated by cantons (regions), but nationally, kindergarten is free of charge.

The United States ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, nearly a hundred years ago. Today women make up 17 percent of the U.S. Congress, and trend lines of women’s participation in our federal legislature have dropped slightly since their peak. Ethiopia, Somalia and even Afghanistan have laws mandating paid parental leave at birth. Not so in the United States.

Returning to the media frenzy over the “have-it-all debate,” I see the need for policies that reshape women’s ability to work and have families. I don’t blame second-wave feminists for raising my generation’s expectations. They were and are women of their time who believed that the horizon stretched farther than the local grocery store. And they were right … just not about how far that horizon went or how much it took to reach the next city, town, job or understanding husband or partner.

I disagree with but don’t blame the traditionalists, who think that all would be well if women let men earn the money. Men have taken a bigger hit in the Great Recession than the so-called weaker sex. As we are constantly reminded, marriage and family are a team sport.

I have more issues with the Sheryl Sandberg types, who don’t work class, race or political analysis into their exhortations to go for the brass ring. Yes, there are power moms at the top of their game. Take Shonda Rhimes, an ace television producer (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy). She’s African American and a mother of two children she adopted. Sister is doing it for herself. But it takes a mix of brilliance, persistence, good luck and timing (plus steady child care) to make the businesswoman and mom worlds blend smoothly.

I’m not a mother yet, but I plan to be, hopefully in the next couple of years. There are a lot of ways to mother adeptly — some very different from others. I do not believe that mothers who work long hours or travel often are necessarily making bad choices. The point is that parents always have to make decisions within the context of options they cannot always control, like federal policies supporting families.

For my part, I appreciate more than ever my mother’s learn-by-doing style of parenting and her focus on thrift and self-sufficiency. There’s much I’d like to emulate some day. Kids watch you do things. Even when you don’t see them learning, they learn.

The fabric of life sometimes means producing things that nourish us, clothe us, support us. And most of the working mothers I know also want to leave their own footprint in the world, making it better — through art, education and business, just to name a few means — for other adults and children.  

It’s a balance, right? And balance is always imperfect — leaning one way and then the other to find the middle path. Men have been allowed to walk the family-work line without undue judgment. Don’t women deserve the same consideration? (And politicians, how about throwing in some child care, too?)

Farai Chideya is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute who has hosted television and radio shows and written four books. She was a spring 2012 fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Follow her on Twitter.

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