Sheesh, am I tired. The backlash, and backlash against the backlash, over Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean-In, is getting exhausting. Of course, since the blogosphere thrives on conflict, we’ve also had the concoction of a Mommy War between Sandberg, whose book advocates for workplace feminism, and Yahoo’s Marissa No-You-May-Not-Work-in-Your-Jammies Mayer. This is good news for both executives because it is helping Sandberg sell books and is creating buzz for Yahoo. (And now, for comic relief, New York Magazine has jumped in with a report on privileged stay-at-home-moms, thus triggering predictable indignation.)
The truth is that parenting is in crisis because our work culture still ignores the huge upheaval that’s occurred in how we organize our home life. Most couples depend on two incomes. Money is tight. Modern kids are by definition high-maintenance (no longer can you let a 5 year old roam the neighborhood until dinner’s ready). Mom and Dad are both wiped out, as detailed by a recent Pew poll which found, for example, that at least 50% of working moms and dads are stressed by the attempt to balance work and family. Cue the ridiculous, internet boxing matches in which exhausted moms lash out at each other because they are filled with worry and self-doubt over the impossible choices they’ve had to make. Let’s. Just. Stop.
No more judging other parents. No more assuming we know what’s best for them and their kids. No more insisting that our way is the only way to do it right. The truth is that many of us change our minds more than once when it comes to how we perform this impossible juggling act. We may have preconceived notions of whether it’s best to work full-time, part time or to spend our days scrapbooking at home. But other factors inevitably intrude. Including:
The other parent. Unless you are a single mom or dad, work/home decisions require input from the other team player. Are you both going to work 60 hours a week? Are you going to live on one partner’s Etsy-based pottery business while the one with a STEM degree stays home, pureeing kale for baby? It would be great if couples could iron out all of this ahead of time, but many do not. That’s understandable. Having a baby is such a life-altering event that it can change your value system and throw all of your assumptions and goals into question. But know this: whether you’re married, shacked up or divorced, if your child has another parent it’s not only what you want out of work and family life that matters. Sometimes something has to give. Sometimes someone has to give. And sometimes, that person is you.
Your resources. Is there any doubt that most of these decisions are economic ones? Do we really need to waste our very limited free time debating whether the wealthy should hire nannies, build nurseries next to their offices or just stay out of sight at home, where they won’t be a visual trigger to the jealousy and dark thoughts of other, bleary-eyed parents? Not everyone is going to have a career. Some of us do jobs that leave us unfulfilled. Others wish they could just find an unfulfilling job that offers a paycheck. Sandberg’s book centers on workplace advice for women seeking leadership roles. I like to think that a surge in female CEOs would lead to companies with greater sensitivity toward the challenges facing the parents they employ. But whether you yearn to be a Corporate Overlord (Overlady?) or just want to get home by 5:30, virtually all parents have the same longings: to be respected, appreciated and get a full night’s sleep. Modern life makes all three of these elusive. Criticizing other people’s choices doesn’t help.
Your limits. I know astonishing mothers who also work full-time doing things like cancer research, running advertising agencies and advocating for people with AIDS. I am made of weaker stuff. “Thanks” to struggles with infertility, the anguish of a stillbirth, and 5-months of bedrest during my two subsequent, successful pregnancies, I had plenty of time to reflect on my priorities and the outer-limits of my capabilities. I knew I would not be a good juggler. No way could I mindfully attune to work and then children in an easy flow. I would be a mess, both on the job and as a mother. Fortunately, at the time it was financially feasible for me to mostly stay home. So I did. Meanwhile, I had friends who went back to work soon after giving birth, and not always because the salary was crucial. Some of them handed over their babies to relatives, babysitters or daycare because they knew that being a full-time mother would make them a worse mother.
Meanwhile, over in Egypt…That country’s ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, just blasted a U.N. women’s rights declaration because the party opposes such notions as “giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment,” “equal inheritance,” “removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges,“ and “canceling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception.” Elsewhere in the region, female-hating extremists still target girls and their schools. Rather than engage in draining work vs. stay-at-home debates, let’s give our spare time and energy to supporting programs that protect and lift up those women and girls around the globe who would so love to have our problems. Some groups to consider: Center for Women’s Global Leadership, the Global Fund for Women, Equality Now, and Women in the World Foundation. Other suggestions welcomed!