Sunday, September 24, 2006

Am I a Feminist? Part III--An Industrial-Aged Man's Definition of Success

Background: Part I, Part II, Part IV

I’ll admit that I’ve had existential crises over the nine years I’ve been at home with my children. Why the hell did I get all this education if my chief accomplishment today was washing one load of laundry? Why would I encourage my daughter to educate herself only to be at home wiping a pint-sized ass? I should throw on the burqa and be done with it. At least I wouldn’t have to fret about what to wear today and taking a shower would be optional.

But to say that stay-at-home motherhood is only the sum of the servile labor involved is to miss the point. No one would suggest that an executive sitting in meetings all day and trading 200 emails is working to make a better meeting and perfect the art of emailing. Their time-consuming, and some would say demeaning, busywork serve greater goals (at least in some cases).

Hirshman and many women (more here) are arguing that the only way to truly advance society is to adopt male notions of achievement. Success is being in that banal meeting. Success is throwing a sales pitch. Success is holding a hammer. Success is waiting that table.

Let’s face it: not everyone in the work world is changing society to any great degree. Men face existential crises every day. This job sucks, what the hell am I doing? So is her argument that it’s okay for the lower class women to stay home because they’re not making much of a difference anyway, but the upper-class women need to get out there to …. What? Is it just sheer numbers in the workforce that will help? 75% of women are there right now as it is.

What needs to change more than it has? And how does a woman who stays home while the kids are small destroy women’s advances? As I sit here, I’m reading this article about “on-ramping”—companies helping women get back into the workforce after being home when the kids are little.

Women are doing well in the executive ranks. But leaving for childrearing does change the road and speed of their corporate ascent. Many women leave the path for a time to follow a biological imperative not just because they want to be with their children but because they believe they are changing the world more profoundly by staying at home with their children than they ever did in the work world.

Is it impossible for today’s feminist to allow that mothering children impacts society? Must motherhood be diminished into a position of servitude and male-dominated oppression to serve the political purposes of equality? Does doing this assuage the anxiety and guilt one feels when choosing to pursue career to the exclusion of mommying?

And I write this, knowing full well that it will piss some working mothers off. But let’s face facts: when a woman puts in a 60-70 hour workweek—needed to succeed at the top of a corporation—she is not giving her best hours to her kid if she gives any at all.

But neither do the men who choose this life. They are trading family for fortune or fame or influence. And maybe, depending on the job, it’s worth it. Really, the only jobs I see where it might be worth it is public service—like the President of the United States, for example. Even still, look at the shit Reagan took from his kids for choosing that life--they resented the hell out of it.

Forget educated women staying home to have kids, many men are opting out of the insane standards of success, too, or significantly reworking their lives to make it more family-friendly. Our fathers sold their soul to the “society changing” corporation. My husband’s father worked the long hours, made the big bucks, got transferred and uprooted over and over, for what? For downsizing in middle age when his kids are gone?

The time is lost. It’s over and it won’t come back. And it's not just fuzzy, misty-water colored fantasies about mothering and parenting. Every day with my children, I have conversations, interactions, connected moments that would not have happened in the same way had I not been here to experience them. While I'm confident I can get back into the work world, I know without a doubt, I can't shrink my children into toddlers againt to capture this time again. Prioritizing motherhood over career (for now) is about redeeming the time. It's that simple.

But I'm not alone making this choice. My brother-in-law has refused promotions (and influence? over whom?) because he didn’t want to move. He wants to be home for dinner. He wants to have a relationship with his kids. His wife stays at home (a speech pathologist) because she wants to know her kids. She has worked part time. She has found a balance. They both have made sacrifices.

Is my brother-in-law wasting his potential because he refuses the corporate fast-track? And why isn't anyone chiding him over taking a job where he can be home (he works from home) when he could be tearing it up on the corporate ladder?

Why must women make the same stupid mistakes men made in order to prove their worth? Why must women define success by a man’s terms, and manly terms circa 1970, to be considered feminist? Why must a woman deny what is essentially feminine (birthing and breastfeeding) to be a feminist? Does anyone else see this as backwards?

Many women have found compromises that work, too. A teacher friend tutors children and has a nice business. Another friend left a real estate investment firm, had kids, helped her husband expand his home-building business and started a real-estate empire of her own.

Another friend made a mint in investment banking, decided to stay home and is called every year, and begged to come back. She could name her terms. Anything she wants she gets. She declines every year. Why? She’s an all or nothing lady. She knows that even part-time work will end up being full-time for her and she wants to be with her kids now. Focused.

These women have choices. Some don’t. Some have to work and find child care and household help because they must. How does feminism help these women? Are they to be ignored because some women are relegated to less influential roles publically and privately? Feminism isn't especially concerned with the plight of the working-class woman.

And then there are women who believe that their calling is finding the cure to cancer or astrophysics or politics or architects. They love their work. They want to “make a difference.” In that statement, the assumption is that by caring for a child one doesn’t want to make a difference. And therein lies some of my frustration with feminism.

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