Because my husband and I are comfortable breaking traditional gender roles with regard to family and work (except for the fact that he’s a lousy housekeeper and I think I have to handle too many invisible tasks), I wanted to understand why so many working women were still hampered by housework and child care, why they couldn’t break free of that role in order to focus more on career. But as I started to talk to more and more women, I realized the answer was obvious and the question was irrelevant. It’s what we do about it that matters.
Avital Norman Nathman, a freelance writer and mother to one, believes stereotypical gender roles are ingrained in our minds. “I think a lot of it is society and societal expectations. It’s going to take more than ten, twenty, thirty years to provide an alternative of what a family should look like, what a breadwinner should look like.”
Of course it is. How many of us were raised in traditional homes, where Dad worked and Mom took care of the kids and the home? And how many of us whose parents are still alive see our parents living out the same roles today, even though Dad retired years ago? If Dad’s not out at work all day anymore, then why is Mom still waiting on him? And who’s planning family holidays and buying gifts for the grandkids? Most likely it’s not Papa. “My parents had a very traditional marriage,” one female primary breadwinner tells me. “And now I feel that pressure of home, hearth, and kids.”
And even women who come from different backgrounds are affected. Meghan, whose husband opened an auto body shop after losing his job, says, “I think, too, it’s stressful because [my husband] wants to provide. His mom worked all the time. She was a single mother. She did sometimes two or three jobs to make ends meet. Even with that, though, he still has this mentality that the women should be home.”
Lynn works part time, is married to a commercial real estate broker, has two teenage children, and describes herself as an ex-feminist. Her decision to not pursue a full-time job was influenced by her working mother. “My mom wasn’t around when I was growing up,” Lynn tells me. “My mom was the only working mom I knew. I like that I’ve been to every one of my daughter’s cheerleading games. My mother always said, ‘I had to work.’ ‘No, no. You didn’t have to work. You chose a lifestyle. To say you had to work is a cop-out.’ I often talk to my friends who are working moms and they are racked with guilt. They get…I don’t want to use the word bitter, but there’s definitely a form of resentment that comes. I think if you can do it without regret it doesn’t matter what you do. My mom was racked with guilt and I can play that guilt card anytime.”
Michelle’s childhood inspired her to want to work. The PhD student says, “What I saw my mother go through I didn’t want to go through. [My father] was an abusive man. But my mother was incredibly paralyzed by an anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. She did 100 percent of the house and child care. She had to clear buying shoes. It was really pretty abusive and restrictive. They divorced when I was twelve. She had married him when she was eighteen. She had been out of the workforce for years. Suddenly she had three kids to support and Dad refused to pay child support until the court ordered he pay some. She was completely on her own. I had to help with the bills when I was fifteen. I remember thinking very clearly, this is never going to happen to me.”
We Are Not Our Mothers
We cannot underestimate how much what we see and hear growing up influences the decisions we make as adults. At some point during my childhood I dropped my plans for Unicorn Enterprises and decided to study writing in college. My father told me writing was a hobby, not a career, and so I went off to corporate America in pursuit of that “good job.” As clearly as I remember his advice, I remember my mother volunteering in my classroom, walking me home from school, playing dodgeball with my sisters and me in the driveway after dinner, and drinking tea at our kitchen table with the other mothers in the neighborhood. Those are the images I recall when I think of a mother—a woman who is always present and part of a child’s day-to-day routine, a woman whose life revolves around the kitchen and neighborhood. As the sole breadwinner who hops on the commuter rail at 8:17 every morning and returns home at seven o’clock every night, that is not the mother I can be. Still, some weekends I notice I’ve exhausted myself trying.
“The thing that is hardest for me,” says Elizabeth Amorose, the owner of a branding firm and primary breadwinner for her family, “is that my parents are very traditional and raised me to be a housewife. I have this very successful business and my parents in some ways think that I’m a failure. Sometimes I’ll call my mom on the way home from work. It’s eight o’clock…my parents are white collar, very Catholic. I didn’t even know my dad as a kid because he worked all the time. And I think that because I saw my parents have these two very strict gender roles…even though I do expect my husband to do most housework, I will make an effort to give my husband a break now that the shoe is on the other foot. I was raised to be the housewife and he wasn’t. My husband had a similar upbringing—very traditional. I have a lifetime of how you take care of the house, so I have to manage him sometimes, which is not good for either of us.”
Alison, the writer with four daughters, dropped out of college freshman year because her father wouldn’t cosign her loan for tuition. “I only found out later that he didn’t think girls should go to college,” she says. She met a cadet at West Point and got married. “One of my brothers had gone and my mother made such a big deal of, ‘They’re such nice kids. They’re all achievers, blah, blah, blah.’ So I guess when I was that young I figured, well, if I ended up with one of these guys I’d be doing okay.” Alison went back to school and finished her degree after she had children and while she was working both on staff at a magazine and as a freelancer for a newspaper. She and her husband recently divorced, and she worries about what advice to give her daughters. “I am very concerned about the whole princess concept, you know. ‘Oh, this is it. I’m in love. I don’t need anybody else for the rest of my life.’ Stupid.”
Fairy Tales Aren’t Real
Liora Farkovitz knows fairy tales aren’t real. She is divorced and remarried, and she and her husband are both working while building a business together. “Louis has a lot of very traditional ideas about a wife and I use very traditional roles to express my love,” Liora says, “I like cooking things he likes, and the fact that he really enjoys what I cook feels great. But, when I get really busy he might go a week with deli takeout and deliveries, and he always gets very unhappy about it. He doesn’t necessarily say anything, but I can tell there’s an internal sulk. While he was ensconced in the breadwinner role and I was at home most of the time, he expected me to take the laundry to the cleaners, fix dinner, run errands, etc., but this was never spoken. It was fine until I started having more demands on my time and noticing that there’s a list inside their heads of things we ‘should’ do and they feel entitled to our roles. The truth is, he believes I should cook, even though he truly sees himself as the modern man. Meanwhile it was dawning on me, ‘Just because I have boobs and a vagina you think I should cook!’ Doing it because I love him and doing it because I should are two different things! We both have these ideas about what we should or shouldn’t have and when our ideas fail to realize—that’s when you get into the complexity. Women have a sense of entitlement about a man too—he should earn a paycheck or fix the toilet, and definitely catch any renegade mice. It just depends on where we’re from, what our norms are.”
I’m Your Coworker, Not Your Wife
If our ideas about gender roles affect how we judge ourselves, we have to expect it will affect our relationships not only with our spouses, but also with the men we work with. Research out of the University of North Carolina, New York University, and the University of Utah suggests that married male employees who have stay-at-home wives are “more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are harmful to women in the workplace” than men in more modern marriages where the wife works.
In their paper “Marriage Structure and the Gender Revolution in the Workplace,” researchers Sreedhari D. Desai, Dolly Chugh, and Arthur Brief illustrate how the men with wives at home “undermine the role of women in the workplace” and tend to view women’s presence in the workplace unfavorably, view organizations with female leaders as unattractive, and “deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.” This research speaks to the need for changes to be made at both the personal and the institutional level. Because even if we’ve bucked our childhood images of what a good woman and mother is, even if we’ve sorted out who’s doing the laundry and the cooking at home, freeing us to focus on our careers, and even if we have our spouses on board with our desires or need to work and find some semblance of balance and sanity, we can still face subtle and ingrained biases at work from men whose ideals of women are clouding their professional judgment.
I’ve seen these biases surface in my own professional experiences over and over. I was startled when a client, sitting next to me on a plane, asked me, “Does your husband mind that you’re taking this trip with me?” I was twenty-six at the time and didn’t know what my husband had to do with the meetings I had worked so hard to arrange in New York. I spent the next five hours of the flight wondering, was my client hitting on me? Was he judging me? Or was he merely expressing some kind of fatherly concern about a young woman traveling across country? I wasn’t interested in him thinking any of those things; I only wanted him to be impressed with my work.
In another incident, I stood stunned and slightly embarrassed after a male coworker pulled a pocketknife away from me in front of our coworkers when we were dismantling an exhibit booth after a trade show. “Women shouldn’t use knives. They could cut themselves,” he said. And I smiled with glee when he proceeded to slice his finger.
And a few years ago I was furious when a client, over lunch at the very expensive hotel where he was staying on business, told me he could no longer pay me for my marketing services but wanted to know whether I would continue to work for him for free. Right before our meeting, he had introduced me to his attorney from a very prestigious firm and joked about the lawyer’s hourly fees in the $500 an hour range. In exchange for my services, my client said he could offer me, a professional with twenty years in the industry, “exposure.” I politely declined his offer, but to this day I wish I had told him what was going through my mind: I run a business. I feed my family from that business. Exposure doesn’t pay for groceries or the mortgage. I am not a recent college grad just starting out and trying to build a portfolio. I am not a housewife with a hobby. I am a breadwinner. And would you ever, ever ask your male attorney to work for exposure?
We Are Making Progress
Despite the very real biases working women face both at home and at work, we should acknowledge and find encouragement in the fact that women are making progress. We may be pumping breast milk in less than ideal conditions, but we do have the opportunity to return to work after having a child. My aunt, just one generation before me, told me she and her coworkers were fired from jobs at the phone company when they announced their pregnancies. Realizing the women who raised us worked in such different cultural climates than we do should spur us to work for even more advancements for ourselves and the next generation.
“I have this great oral history,” says Jen Deaderick. “My grandparents had been married for fifty years and my grandmother was complaining that my grandfather didn’t do dishes. Years later he started doing the dishes. It took fifty years for him to really get she was upset about it. So clearly they were talking about this in the ‘70s.”
While we should never become complacent about the obstacles and discrimination we may face, and no one wants to wait fifty years for some help in the kitchen, some patience and perspective can help to keep us motivated so we can focus on how we can model new behaviors for ourselves and the generations that will follow us.
“My parents are not even that old and they’re so outdated,” says Elizabeth. “They were raising me to be a housewife when a lot of my friends weren’t. My brothers were forced to study finance in college. They were raised to be businessmen. My sister is a very successful career person. Her husband takes care of their kid. Neither of my brothers ended up being driven businesspeople, yet my sister and I are, even though we were the ones who were essentially raised to be housewives. Kids have to be raised different so everybody can do the house stuff.”
It can be done. “I grew up in a very traditional home,” says Jan Risher, who works in corporate communications. “If there wasn’t a remote control, [my mother] would get up and change the channel for my father. I changed the model from my parents’ generation to mine.” And Avital grew up in what she describes as a gender-neutral house, and today she and her pharmacist husband split household and child-care responsibilities fairly. “I grew up watching [my father] vacuum and clean and do dishes. And my mom was out in the yard too.”
Is Staying Home Antifeminist?
Still, when Avital had a baby, she says, “I felt the pull to stay home. It sounds so antifeminist. But I kind of had it in back of my mind. I’ll only have this one child; this is going to be my chance.” Wanting to stay home with your child may feel antifeminist to Avital, but it’s hardly countercultural.
Women are conflicted. Through our friends, neighbors, family members, coworkers, and the media, we see so many different images of women going to work, staying home, working part time, opting out, leaning in, climbing the ladder, and jumping off, and we’re trying to figure out where we fit in. It’s why some women still tread carefully in their role as breadwinner.
Hope, a director at an investment firm, works long hours and is the primary breadwinner for her family. Still, she finds herself having to tone down her role outside the office. “Sometimes I feel like I have to thank [my husband], like ‘Thank you so much for doing this at home and that at home and that at home.’ No one is ever thanking me for going to Phoenix and being gone for five days and getting home and going to the supermarket because there’s no food in the house. But I do feel like, you know, it would be nice if you thanked me every once in a while. And it’s not…like I said, we are very much in love with one another, but it’s almost like going back in time.”
Tania, the managing director on Wall Street, despite her clear expectations about responsibilities, finds she too sometimes treads carefully at home. “As a woman, you can’t get on [your husband]—maybe it’s going to crush their masculinity or whatever. You can’t say, ‘What do you mean you didn’t put my clothes away?’ So the woman holds back because you don’t want to damage their ego. Men don’t care.”
She says the holding back also extends to the way some women describe their stay-at-home spouses. “Everybody’s husband who stays home, we run a front for. He’s a ‘day trader’ or an ‘investment advisor.’ He’s not running the PTO. But, oh, okay, your husband’s a managing director and he makes plenty of money so you stay home. Nobody would question it for a minute.”
Tania says it’s worth it to play along. “I also think the women who have the stay-at-home guy, they’re protecting him because, one, they need this arrangement to have the job they have. And so they protect his status. The women with the stay-at-home husbands are still so much better off than the person who’s coming home and trying to frantically microwave burritos. They’re shutting up because this isn’t optimal but it’s more optimal than the alternative. Now I’ve got a better deal than the other people. The best deal in town would be a real wife.”
I Can Talk Kids
Outside our own homes, breadwinners are often conscious about blending in. Hope recounts a party she attended when she first moved into her neighborhood. She said she asked the women what they did but none of them worked. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I work, and I do this, and my kids are at the preschool,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, you should go talk to my husband about that.’ I can talk kids; just ‘cause I work, I can talk kids. And then they’re pissed that I’m talking to their husbands.”
Some women feel the pressures of what Tania refers to as the Michaels Mafia, a reference to the arts and crafts store chain Michaels. She talks about women who have “These psychotic roles at school. They devise these craft roles that are completely ridiculous and unnecessary that cause me to jump through hoops.” She recalls looking for googly eyes in the aisles of Michaels at night after work. “Or they have a Thanksgiving feast the day before Thanksgiving in a middle-class community.”
“The schools do the same thing,” Tania says. “They set up activities in the middle of the day and then you send your husband and they treat your husband like he’s a freak.”
It’s interesting, in talking to women about their careers and families I, refreshingly, didn’t hear a lot of guilt about women working and being away from their children as a result, but I did hear guilt referenced several times in relation to not helping at school. However, I don’t believe guilt is really the right word to convey what these women are feeling. I think discomfort in saying no while other women say yes is more accurate. “Regarding the PTO,” says one woman, “I write a check. I get e-mails about ‘Come stand at the craft table or go to Michaels to buy stuff.’ So now I feel really bad. I don’t want to take a day off. But if I don’t take a personal day will they think I’m a jerk?” Women, perhaps because so many of us are raised to be helpful and accommodating, don’t want to miss work, but don’t want to let down the volunteers either.
You Can Say No, You Know
Alison says women have to find a way to accept not being the chair of everything and not being the overachiever. “For so many years I was spreading myself too thin, and as much as I enjoyed spending time with my kids, my priorities were skewed and it became way too much work and not being home enough when they needed me.”
Sheila, a regional president for a development company and mother of two, says, “There are so many women who feel like they have to be on the PTO. They have to be on this committee. They have to go on every field trip. You can’t do it. You just can’t do it all. And the kids, ultimately, they’re going to be okay.”
Sheila’s husband is chair of a nonprofit organization, and his board of directors is made up of four men and nine women. “The women are completely overcommitted. They get on [the board] because they say yes but they are so overcommitted they can’t get anything done. So they meet for all this time but it’s not really getting done as quickly as it should be,” says Sheila.
A friend of mine, another working mother, only participates on her own terms. “I spend so much of my life in meetings, and for a lot of folks PTO is very social,” she says. “And I can appreciate that but that’s not why I’m going to be involved. Give me a task and I’ll run with it and get it done and you’ll be psyched with the quality, but let’s talk for two hours and no one leaves with any to-dos? It makes me frickin’ nuts.”
My personal strategy is to organize a raffle every September for my children’s elementary school. I let everyone know that is all I am willing to take on for the year. It’s the first PTO fund-raiser of the year, and it’s something I can manage without any help and on my own schedule. By the beginning of October, I’ve raised a significant amount of money and I am done for another year. I still have to say no throughout the year as different volunteer opportunities arise. But I’m comfortable with my response because I know I’ve done what I could do and so I don’t worry about what others might think I should do.
Sybil, who works full time for a major mutual fund company, is married to an attorney and has two sons. She simply says no to unnecessary tasks. “I’ve loosened up. I don’t do goody bags at birthday parties. I don’t do Christmas cards, no birth announcements. Unless [my husband] is going to take the lead, I’m not doing it.”
The research consultant says thinking in terms of “yes and” is helpful for her when she assesses the additional activities she is willing to take on. If she wants to volunteer, she says, “Yes, I could do that and this is what I need to be successful.”
Pinterest Makes Me Feel Bad
In order for women to get comfortable knowing what they really want to take on outside of work and family, and to say no to the things they don’t want to do, they need to stop comparing themselves to other women. That’s always been difficult to do when the media is constantly bombarding us on television shows, in movies, and in magazines with images of beautiful, well-dressed superwomen who appear to cruise through life with ease and grace. It’s become even harder with the proliferation of social media. At least with mainstream media, women can tell themselves that the celebrity women they admire and the lifestyles they covet are carefully crafted and well staffed. But with social media, we see our friends, family, and acquaintances lives up close and personal—or at least we think we do—and we wonder why can’t we have what they have.
A random peak at Facebook tells me one former colleague’s business is booming, another’s husband surprised her with tickets to a concert, yet another threw an elaborate, pirate-themed birthday party for her son, an old college friend has purchased an oceanfront summer home, and my cousin took her family to Puerto Rico on vacation. I, on the other hand, didn’t get home from work in time to see my kids, my husband is upstairs snoring, and I am sitting alone working in my very messy living room wearing pajamas purchased at a discount store.
Monika says, “Things like Pinterest and Facebook and seeing what the stay-at-homes I’m friends with do, like planning these elaborate parties for their kids and celebrating these special moments, that I just can’t get it together to do for my kids…There’s that struggle of seeing all of that and thinking, ‘How do they make it work?’”
Avital Norman Nathman says, “In an age of social media, where people put forth a Photoshopped ideal of their lives on Facebook, Pinterest, and mommy blogs, it perpetuates this myth.” The myth, of course, is that of the good mother, the ideal woman who lives a perfect life with a perfect family in a perfect home. We have to tell ourselves that these images don’t reflect everyday life. And more importantly, we have to tell each other the same thing.
A survey of four hundred women conducted by daily deal company Eversave in 2011 revealed that 85 percent of women report feeling annoyed by their online friends, with 32 percent annoyed by their friends’ bragging about their “seemingly perfect lives” and 40 percent describing a friend as a “poser” who projects a picture-perfect life online. But while we know on one level that most people share only the best moments on sites like Facebook and Instagram and that the images they curate on Pinterest aren’t necessarily reflective of their actual homes, craft skills, or wardrobes, we still can’t help but feel the way Sharon feels when she says, “Pinterest make me feel worse about things.”
Lifestyle blogs aren’t much better. Holly Hilgenberg wrote an article for Bitch magazine in which she explained why the proliferation of lifestyle bloggers—women who blog about parenting, decorating, food, and crafts—is so disconcerting. “Forms of media that have glorified and promoted the home front as an exclusively female domain, after all, have never been in short supply, from sitcoms to shelter magazines to store catalogs. But an accumulation of such choices promotes a homogenous narrative indistinguishable from those that have come before.”
With former coworkers on Facebook throwing elaborate parties for three-year-olds, feminists who want to be home with their kids, and investment executives thanking their husbands for cleaning, it’s easy to be confounded by all of our choices as modern women. On one hand, we have so many choices that we are both lucky and overwhelmed. On the other hand, we ascribe choice to situations where what look like options really aren’t—situations where women are forced out of the workplace because of barriers, both overt and subtle, both at work and at home.
Should We All Be Moms-in-Chief?
For every fictional Alicia Florrik of The Good Wife, who returns to a successful law career after quitting to be a stay-at-home mother and political wife, with only enough stress to fill a sixty-minute drama, television gives us a Julia Braverman on Parenthood, who quits her law career after she misses her daughter’s dance recital due to a work crisis. We have as role models both former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who left public office with more political clout than, arguably, any woman or man in this country, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama, who told us at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, “At the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.” These two women spin vastly different images of themselves, yet both top the Gallup Poll’s list of most admired women in the world.
Both women attended Ivy League schools and practiced law. Both women are mothers to daughters. Both women are politically savvy. But perhaps learning from the flak Clinton received after saying during her husband’s presidential campaign, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,” Obama has been presented by the president’s political team as more mother than working mother.
Working mothers were a political hot potato in the 2012 political cycle. After Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney positioned his wife, Ann, as his political advisor on women-related issues, CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen ignited a firestorm by saying Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. Ann Romney responded on Twitter, saying, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” The First Lady defended Romney with her own tweet, which read, “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.” The commentary almost sparked a full-out mommy war that even the president himself weighed in on when he said, “There’s no tougher job than being a mom.”
Given the sensitivities around the way women are perceived and the ways the media pits those of us who work outside the home against those of us who do not, it makes sense for Michelle Obama to remind us she’s mom-in-chief first. But what message does it send? Following the First Lady’s convention appearance, Lisa Belkin wrote about Michelle Obama on The Huffington Post, “Here we have…A woman whose political instincts…clearly tell her that her bona fides, her palatability, is still tied to being seen as mom and wife. I am not disappointed because I think she is wrong. I am worried because I fear she is right.”
A Zero-Sum Game
Is it any wonder women often feel like their two domains—work and home—are zero-sum, when that’s the message we receive from our political leaders, the media, and even our peers? This false dichotomy creates feelings of confusion and ambiguity. And it’s one of the reasons women need to talk to each other about the challenges they face and the choices they make. Because it’s among the women in our everyday lives that we will find everyday solutions to managing work and home.
When Marissa Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo! women celebrated. There are so few women running Fortune 500 companies, let alone technology companies, that we saw her appointment as progress. Plus, she was pregnant. But then the thirty-seven-year-old CEO announced she would take a very abbreviated maternity leave, and the reactions were mixed. Avital felt that Mayer missed an opportunity to make it easier for other women who want to take leave. “You might not want to take leave but there are plenty of women who do,” she said in reference to Mayer. “There is a responsibility of women in positions of power and also for men. We can’t say jobs are only important.”
Marissa Mayer Let Me Down
Julie, a public relations executive with two children, said, “Marissa Mayer was a huge disappointment to me. I was really frustrated with that. Our generation is just not willing to sacrifice family for work.” But for every woman who felt betrayed by Mayer there was a woman who celebrated her right to choose what worked best for her and her child.
Media reviews were mixed too. Jessica Grose wrote at Bloomberg Businessweek, “Perhaps Mayer’s choice has created such controversy because it makes the rest of us so painfully aware that we’re stuck without options at all.” Katherine Reynolds Lewis wrote at Fortune, “Her decision seems emblematic of a workaholic culture that leaves too little time for family or even personal health, preventing either men or women from ‘having it all.’ Could Mayer be setting unrealistic expectations for young women hoping to follow in her footsteps?”
The commentary I found most unsettling, from a Forbes article, was this passage: “We already know from Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and a handful of other C-level executive moms that women can indeed combine motherhood with a rise to the top ranks of corporate America.” The year was 2012 and we were confirming that mothers could be CEOs. Can you imagine making that statement about fathers?