In the sixties and seventies, the U.S. introduced many new laws designed to eliminate gender discrimination at work. These laws made it illegal for an employer to fire a woman because of pregnancy (with a few exceptions), and for employers to pay a woman less than a man for the same work.
Yet women, especially mothers, continue to suffer discrimination. They are underrepresented in many professions and are paid less than men. Of course, some women choose to stay home or to cut back on their hours once they have children. And some women want to keep their jobs, but when the demands of their jobs make it difficult to be the kind of parent they want to be, they quit. But that doesn’t explain everything.
Kids take work. A lot of work. I don’t think our institutions (work, government, etc.) do a great job of recognizing that. We act as though either one of these extremes is true:
A) A child is like a growth. Once it’s removed from your body, everything goes back to normal.
B) A child is like a frontal lobotomy. Once a woman has a child, her brain falls out and she is incapable of doing anything work-related ever again.
The truth is rarely that simple or neat. One child may indeed be fairly independent, but another might be intensely demanding and require constant supervision. A colicky baby might make sleep impossible for her mother, while a six-year-old might be just as happy playing with his friend as he is at home. There are divorced moms, single moms, married moms, and widowed moms. There are moms with mounting medical expenses and moms who are independently wealthy. There are moms whose husbands’ income (with budgeting and careful planning) can provide for a family, and moms whose husbands are unemployed. There are moms of small children and moms whose children are grown and moms who are taking care of their own mothers.
We have to acknowledge that every situation is different, and stop putting women in boxes. We like to talk about having it all, but I think every woman’s “it” is different.
Forty or fifty years ago, when women demanded equality, they recognized that it was unfair not to have access to privileges that were easily available to men. So what happened was that women received the same opportunities as men, at least most of the time. But if they were comparing themselves to men and asking for employment equality on men’s terms, maybe it wasn’t so equal. Or at least not so fair. What if those weren’t the only choices women wanted?
I’m not faulting early lawmakers or feminists, by the way. That was probably the fairest (and maybe only) way they could have gotten any kind of equality at the time. Plus they didn’t have the technology then that makes it easier for people to work from home now.
But now, nearly fifty years later, we can ask more questions. If women have legal equality at work, but it’s built on the male-worker model, is that truly equality (you can be equal, but only if you’re just like men)? If women’s choices are still limited, as in a work-full-time-or-lose-your-job ultimatum, is that really a choice? If earning an income is more legitimate than caring for children, what happens to the economic situation of a woman who spends her life caring for others? If institutions don’t recognize the demands of parenthood, does it push people into roles they might not have chosen for themselves? Is it fair to ask people to choose between work and family? Is the full-time (plus overtime) model even what men want? Might the assumption that only full-time employees make valuable contributions be wrong? How can we help everyone find time for personal pursuits and responsibilities without the threat of job loss?
I think most women recognize that they have limits and that they have to make choices. But they don’t want someone else telling them what those limits are:
“You’re having a baby? When are you giving your notice?” or “Sorry, we can’t let you change your schedule, because then everyone would want to work part time, and we couldn’t have that.”
Limits don’t all come from employers, of course. You can look just about anywhere and find people telling you what you can or can’t do. There are messages in magazines and movies telling you what mothers should look like. You can find articles all over the internet telling mothers how motherhood does or does not behave. Parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, doctors—they all have opinions.
I say ignore them.
Ignore the “only the sky is the limit” message, but ignore the “you’re a bad mom if…” messages, too. (Ignore this blog post if you want to!) You are limited, it’s true, because you’re human, but you’re also unique. You don’t have to take it all, but you can take what you need, in whatever way works best for you.
Honestly, I don’t want to have it all, as much as I sometimes think I do.
I just want to have choices. And I want those choices to be mine.