The only thing I have grown to hate more than the term “having it all” is the debate about whether or not women can have it all. To be clear, I have been roped into this debate myself on more than one occasion, but I usually find myself doing what I just did: critiquing how pointless it is in some ways.
But in a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation. She reminds us that for it to ever truly be effective, more women of color need to join the conversation, and more white women and men need to be willing to listen when we do join the discussion. But for me, the greatest takeaway from the piece is just how poorly the news media have covered the having-it-all debate for so long. Either black women are ignored altogether, or the many facets of our challenges are mischaracterized or oversimplified. As a result, our needs don’t end up driving policy discussions on issues such as work-life balance.
Here’s what I mean. In the past few years, debates about stay-at-home motherhood and having it all have often been painted in media accounts as follows: Elite women, often white, have the luxury of having the debate, while poor women, often minorities, are too busy working to spend time debating.
And as I once explained to my white editor while finishing up a chapter on the impact of class status on politics in the black community for my book Party Crashing, most upper-class blacks will continue to experience something that few upper-class whites will: an ongoing, regular reminder of poverty. This reminder could come in the form of a sibling who loses a job and needs substantial financial help, or a cousin who still lives in the neighborhood that our education allowed us to leave behind. As a result, black women, including successful ones, face a measure of financial and familial pressure we rarely talk about with one another, and certainly not with our white friends.
As Martin writes so eloquently in her piece: “What’s different, in short, for so many minority women, is that they cannot help but see themselves as a part of something larger—perhaps because they know there are obstacles in their lives and the lives of their family members that no amount of ‘grit’ will overcome.”
Black women, including successful ones, face a measure of financial and familial pressure we rarely talk about with one another, and certainly not with our white friends.
Reading that line, I was reminded of an encounter I had just a few months ago, after a speaking engagement, when I was approached by two young black female students nearing graduation, who asked for career advice. As we began to chat, one of them appeared to be on the verge of tears. She talked about struggling to finance her education while hanging on to an unpaid internship—struggles I knew well, having endured them myself. But one struggle she was facing that I was fortunate not to encounter at her age was immense family pressure. Although only 22, she was contemplating forgoing her career goals to select a job that would allow her to immediately begin helping her family financially.
I’m not saying that no white student has faced similar pressure. What I am saying is that statistically, on the basis of the wealth gap, a black student is more likely to face such pressure. Which means she is more likely to grow into a woman who works herself to the bone to “have it all” because she has no other choice. If she fails at having it all, her kids won’t eat, won’t succeed, will never have a shot at equality. And the health bills of others who are counting on her—a mother, grandmother or sibling—may not get paid.
What I’m also saying is that in my years working in media, I’ve lost count of how many people I know in the field who come from a measure of privilege that most Americans cannot fathom. Their parents are not just doctors or lawyers; some are also moguls, presidents, presidential candidates, prominent media figures, entertainers—and the list goes on. Many went to fancy schools. I’m not knocking that—I did, too. But unlike me, many of them did not have to go to hell and back to finance their educations.
My point? It’s not surprising that in 2005, the New York Times covered the choice to become a stay-at-home mother as a significant trend among female students at elite colleges. The woman who wrote the article was a student at Yale, and the limited sample of women profiled did not sound like most of the women I know.