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Category: Feminism, Great Women

Life and Work: A Conversation for International Women’s Day

| March 6, 2009


The authors are appearing in New York City this month (March 18 at the 92nd Street Y-Tribeca) as part of an ongoing national tour to explore feminist issues through a multigenerational panel. The panel’s appearances (which have also included author Kristal Brent Zook) provoke more conversations: in Kansas City, a local panel adopted the format to continue to explore different dimensions of women’s lives. Here, the authors share their perspectives on work and life choices.

Where do you live?

Isn’t that one of the identifying questions people ask new acquaintances? The four of us—feminists spanning five decades—might answer by describing the physical housing we find for ourselves in each of our generational lifecycles. But in a larger sense, a generation views the world from where it “lives” and interacts uniquely with such circumstances as the current economic recession.

Deborah has just turned 40.  She and her husband will soon look to buy a home larger than the one-bedroom they own, while trying to have their first child. Marco’s job was recently eliminated; still, at the midpoint of life, they can reasonably assume that investments will regain their worth and better income-earning days lie ahead.

Deborah’s two years older than I was when my youngest graduated from high school. Elizabeth, 33, is pregnant with her first child, due in April.  She and her partner Jessica rented a two-bedroom apartment two years ago because they planned to have children. Next they want to buy a larger place, possibly in suburbia, though the economy gives them pause.

Same sex couples would never have lived together openly, let alone get to experience the joys of children, in 1958. That’s when my Aunt Ida, bless her, died and left me $550 in savings bonds she’d bought from her meager department store clerk salary—exactly what my then-husband and I needed for the down payment on our tract house on Bonham Street in Odessa, Texas. (“Friday Night Lights” fans, that’s a block from Permian High School; yes, my children graduated from the mighty Mojo.)

And Courtney, our 29-year-old millennial, bought her first home last year. Her long-term significant other recently moved in with her, but not until she’d followed her mother’s advice to live alone for some years first.

I’m 67. Like most women from the post-WWII cohort, I was married with three children and keeping house, not building a career, in my twenties. Where Courtney wants work-life balance, I just wanted to work—and not in a “help wanted, women” tagged job.  Even women with jobs couldn’t get credit without male co-signers. Buy a house? Laughable. Those injustices made the personal political for me.

Once the feminist movement’s many firsts started liberating women, I thought life would naturally keep getting larger; I just knew there would always be bigger houses in my future.

So it felt shocking to sell the Central Park South apartment in New York City that I’d loved more than any previous home, though selling made perfect sense. My husband is retired. I’m freelancing after a career leading nonprofit organizations. Our income not only won’t grow; it will likely decline. We're at the downsizing, de-accessing stage. We want less stuff, not more. And we wanted to sock our assets away safely during this economic downturn so our kids won't have to support us in our dotage.

Where one lives is a perfect metaphor for generational differences and responses to almost everything. The unfinished business of feminism today is to continue expanding opportunities for women, despite a contracting economy when we’ll be tempted to avoid risks. “Remember,” I tell the younger panel members, “crisis is opportunity. The resources you need are always there if you can only see them.”—Gloria Feldt

I am Generation X, hear me roar.

I entered the workforce in the booming 1990s, a time when all seemed possible and there was nowhere for a young college grad to go but up.  I worked my dream job, went back to graduate school for a doctorate, then worked some more and began writing books—my dream career.  A few years into the new millennium, I married the love of my life, left my staff job and started a small consulting business to help support the writing.  I began to work through ideas for my third book and started fertility treatments, hoping to have a child.

And then the recession hit.  My husband got laid off.  Consulting contracts were cancelled. The publishing industry melted.  But we are still here, adapting to new circumstances, and going strong.

Will we continue with our plans to try for a child?  Hell yeah.  When I was born, my parents earned $400 a month and spent $115 of it on rent.  Like so many working couples, we are stressed but making do. While President Obama and the Republicans duke it out in Congress, we’re busy working on our economic recovery program here at home.  My husband, a graphic designer, is freelancing by day and working on his design portfolio at night.  I am more aggressive about pursuing new consulting clients and writing more for magazines.  I’ve found a new topic to write about these days: gender shakeup in the wake of layoff.  Turns out I have a lot to say.

In traveling around the country with our intergenerational panel in recent months, I’ve experienced marriage, work, and a fertility quest with an enhanced generational awareness.  “Why get married?” asks Courtney, forcing me to articulate why it is that marriage was so important to me, feminist that I am.  “I am sending you fertile vibes,” says Gloria, mother of three, who watches as I attempt in my forties something she began in her teens.

But it is around the topic of creating a work life that is truly a life, and not just work, that I find myself learning most from my intergenerational crew.  We are all very fortunate in that we love what we do, but we still struggle and compromise, and in this time of economic crisis, we struggle even more.  If I could design a bailout plan for our panel, I’d designate sums for childcare to Elizabeth, funds to secure Gloria’s retirement, and for us all subsidies to publishers so that they can continue to give us advances to write feminist books to push the public conversation in the directions we need and crave.

There is so much feminist creativity out there right now waiting to be tapped, so many hopes and prayers for a future driven by women's leadership and unfettered, we hope, by greed.  I hope that Washington is listening.  The other day, I was visiting one of the nonprofits I consult for, down near Wall Street, where, after 9/11, space for nonprofits went for cheap.  Perhaps it was my imagination, but things felt newly desolate.  The café on the corner had gone out of business, the side streets seemed bare.  As I walked the narrow streets, I fantasized that the women’s organizations I consult for will join forces, rise up, and fill the gaping hole left by Lehman Brothers et al.  What would an economic recovery plan designed by feminists look like?  For visions, see the websites here, here, and here.—Deborah Siegel

Life is about choices—isn’t it?

In my mid-twenties I came across a quote that struck me as a particularly apt analysis of the struggle to construct a life of meaning in the modern world. “Life,” the quote read, “is about choices.”

I liked the phrase so much that one day, I set it as my preferred screensaver. Each time it scrolled by, I felt truly empowered: You could choose to be or not be anything and everything you wanted. Decisions about your life were in your own hands. You had the power to make the choices that seemed right for you. And besides, it seemed to me at the time, how hard could those choices really be?

Flash forward nearly a decade and one mind-boggling economic downturn and I’ll tell you one thing I now know about that quote: It’s a sentiment that could only have been written by a man. Or at least, it’s one that no mother (and few women with any life experience) could approach without a chuckle.

Pregnancy and motherhood, people will tell you, are humbling experiences—and no more so than when trying to achieve the so-called “work-life balance.” My boss, a mother of five, says there’s no such thing.

There’s work and there’s life and all you can do is struggle to keep both balls in the air without losing yourself—or anyone else—along the way. That’s not balance, it’s a gravity-defying feat, and it’s time we stopped talking in terms that unfairly set us up to seek the impossible.

I’m only eight months into my motherhood journey and already it is profoundly clear how limited “choices” become when life is no longer about you alone. Because the United States has no mandate to provide paid parental leave, most of us, who can’t afford the luxury of a one-income household, are forced into the first of many contorted decisions when our children are born: stay home for a period of time and lose income (or possibly your job) or leave a newborn to be cared for (often at great expense) by someone else—an option no new mother I’ve spoken to relishes.

Huge percentages of our population can’t even consider staying home. For even the luckiest among us—those who believe they can manage the economic implications—the field of options is unhealthily limited. And in this dire economic climate, increasingly dangerous: there’s no guarantee that your job—or your company—will even exist when you try to return from any extended leave.

If the last eight months have taught me anything, it is that life is about compromises, not choices. It’s time we got real about that fact and started fighting harder for a world where women—and men—really can decide, with all things being equal, what path to walk as a parent and a worker. It’s a terrifying time to be having a baby, but here’s hoping that by the time my daughter becomes a mother, she and her peers will finally have a set of real options to consider.—Elizabeth G. Hines

Can someone find me a personal role model?

When I was a little girl, my dad used to point our mammoth video camera in my direction on every birthday and ask the proverbial, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” At five years old, side ponytail in full effect, leg warmers covering my stubby little legs, I answered: “Part time waitress, part time doctor.”

It’s an absurd combination in a world of such glaring social and economic stratification, but it was also an intuitive metaphor for what I was observing about middle class women and work in 1985. It seemed that women had all the brilliance and authority of medical doctors, but hadn’t relinquished either the dynamism and or service mentality of really sassy diner waitresses. In short, I was identifying the “second shift” before having ever read Arlie Hochschild (although, an even more accurate metaphor would have been full time waitress, full time doctor.)

It’s amazing how little has changed over 20 years later. Despite the work of such organizations as Mom’s Rising, pushing for better work/family policy, and bold writing by feminist intellectuals like Pamela Stone and Judith Warner, we’re still totally flummoxed.

At 29, I’m taking copious notes on the work/family dances of my slightly older friends, and I’m not finding much that feels replicable. My partner works in a very untraditional work place (ping pong table, Odwalla juices, a Weiner dog named Pickle) with very traditional hours (about 9 to 8). I am a freelance writer—shaping each day out of an intuitive combination of deadlines, inspirations, and last night’s leftovers. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to guess whose career might take the major hit when we finally trash the birth control.

Even more confusing is that, while I absolutely love my work, I’m not sure that I’ll want to do it in the same way post baby making. A women’s studies professor in her fifties recently told me, “Having a baby is like being in love times a thousand.” And a filmmaker friend who made a documentary about mother artists called Who Does She Think She Is? explained, “I’ve never been so creative or so inspired as I was when I had young children.”

But I’ve also seen the exhaustion and the bitterness that comes from letting your partner slip out of shared parenting agreements. And I’ve heard a lot of flimsy justification for self-sacrifice: “It’s okay that I didn’t get to pursue my own career dreams. Raising children was the most important thing in the world to me.” Sure, but why can’t we have both?

Why can’t society support both mothers and fathers to be whole human beings (by which I mean present parents and inspired workers)? If motherhood is really so all consuming, at least in the beginning, why haven’t we created a system that allows for more fluidity between the two roles? And why are women still made to feel as if their incapacity to do two full time jobs is a personal failure?

I’m deeply grateful to the women who have paved the way—breaking glass ceilings all while juggling their multiple roles in an exhaustion defying circus performance with no safety net below—but I don’t want to imitate their act.—Courtney E. Martin