(The Root) — Before women had it all, they did it all. My mother — married when my sister and I were young; later single — held together a household with two children by doing urban farming and canning, window glazing, carpentry, painting and electricity. She brought home the bacon, fried it up in a pan and taught me how to assemble furniture and edge the wall-and-ceiling line when changing the colors of my bedroom. She came from a family that included a long line of Virginia builders and farmers, people who expected to work to make money, work at raising children and also make house and home literally by their own hands.
I bring this up not as a counterpoint but as an inflection point to the rekindled debate over whether women can have it all. An Atlantic-magazine article gone viral — written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department administration official and now a professor at Princeton — is being framed as a salvo in a debate between two groups of privileged women. The women in the first class (Slaughter included) are taking a step back from high-powered jobs to parent more effectively.
The second (let's call them the School of Sheryl — i.e., devotees of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sandberg, who leaves the office every day at 5:30 p.m.) publicly urge us to power though all gender barriers. Sandberg, as she began to go public with her exhortations about women's leadership, hired a researcher to back up her facts. But did she spend time thinking about the race, class and political implications of her words?
My mother's life would have been immeasurably easier if our federal and local political systems supported working mothers the way some other Western nations do. I remember her worrying about the quality and cost of day care after my parents separated and she returned to full-time work. She had a graduate degree in communications, but as a black single mother in Baltimore, she needed cash on the table, and the work she took often did not reflect her full credentials.
What would another type of world for working mothers look like? In her recent book, The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, author Sharon Lerner outlines just how behind the curve the United States is in providing for children, working families and mothers. Sixty percent of American women who work full time would prefer to work part time. Benefits, of course, rarely accrue to part-time workers here (and sometimes not to full-time ones).
Parents in Sweden (male or female) can get partial financial benefits for up to 16 months after the birth of a child and be guaranteed their job upon return. A third of Swedish women work part time. And perhaps most important, parents of children under the age of 8 can work a three-quarter schedule and still have benefits. U.S. women have few federal protections or benefits after childbirth, and certainly not a federal option to work part time with benefits.
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.