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The Problems We Mothers Wish We Had

War On Moms

While the media focus on “Work-Family Dilemmas of the Rich and Famous,” the average employed mother has few resources and fewer choices, says the author of a new book, “The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation.”

I confess to enjoying celebrity mom coverage, by which I mean not just the articles about how Jennifer Lopez lost the baby weight and Maggie Gyllenhaal finds time to be in films now that she has a two-year-old, but also vast literature that examines—and reexamines—the decisions of elite professional women. You know the stuff: should she or shouldn’t she leave her partnership at the white-shoe law firm to stay home with her kids?

Indeed, we’ve spent much of the past decade consuming media that depicts women as awash in choices: to work, comfortably stay home, or any of a range of possibilities in between the two. Riveting though it may be, this storyline is, for most, escapist fantasy. In truth, only a privileged few have anything but the first option. And all too often, the “choice” of work entails a time commitment and an inflexibility that keep women away from their families more than they’d like.

This is not to say the upper crust of female earners is not important. Clearly, we have a lot to learn from the challenges and worries of high-profile professionals, whose story has been one of the central dramas of feminism. The women who fought their way into the bastions of male power, the corporate and professional worlds, were and still are fighting a pivotal battle. In even coming close to the glass ceiling and nearing professional parity, they have shown the rest of us what’s possible. And to whatever extent it’s happening, their exit from the highly paid workforce is an important reflection of the failure of high-level employers to accommodate their employees’ caretaking responsibilities.

Yet our fixation on high-profile mothers and their employers speaks more to the problems many women wish they had than to the ones they actually do have. The elite are, of course, a minority—and women are a minority within the elite. Women make up about 15 percent of board members and corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies, for instance. And the majority of women in this professional echelon are childless—a fact that speaks sad volumes about the ability of big business to accommodate care-taking.

To be sure, there’s a certain thrill in reading about the corner-office set texting their nannies on their way to meetings with clients in Hong Kong. It’s like Work-Family Dilemmas of the Rich and Famous. This explains much of the appeal of Allison Pearson’s page-turner novel I Don’t Know How She Does It. The reader can’t help but worry about high–flying, fictional mom/hedge-fund manager Kate Reddy. Can she keep up her vertiginous life managing her nanny-tended family via hand-held device while maintaining her membership in the hostile men’s club that is her profession? Will her client notice the formula stains on her Tahari suit?

We are similarly riveted by real women whose work-life dilemmas play out in the public eye: When Michelle Obama spoke recently of having to take baby Sasha with her to a job interview, say, when Caroline Kennedy retreated back into private life amid a swirl of rumors about nannies and taxes, or when Karen Hughes leaves the Bush White House to spend more time with her family. These women are among the most prominent in recent history. Because their careers play out on the public stage, women can read their ups as inspirational legends and their downs, particularly the failure of their employers and potential employers to make room for the reality of their dual roles, as cautionary tales.

No doubt, part of the reason we obsess about successful, high-earning mothers is that our fantasy of their lives is much more fun to ponder than the reality of ours. Even before the economy crashed around them, most women would have been lucky to have the headaches of a national politician or Pearson’s fictional Reddy, who feels threatened by her kids’ attachment to their nanny, is frustrated by her very patient husband, and has a powerful job that, while it cuts into her family time, also pays her gobs and gobs of money. (Did I mention she was fictional?) It’s certainly more pleasant than dwelling on the narrower and less cushy range of alternatives available to the vast majority of women.

Though it’s fun to dream, we focus on our fantasy problems at the expense of our real ones: The continuous struggle to find enough time and money to keep our families and work lives together—dilemmas we have to work out with our employers, not theirs. By fixating on their problem, we are siphoning off critical energy that ought to be spent addressing our own all-too-real predicaments. The problems we wish we had also obscure the fact that elite women already get a far better deal from their employers than everyone else does.

Women with high-paying jobs are far more likely to get flextime, paid vacations, paid maternity leave, and sick days than are women with lower-paying ones, despite the fact that lower-income workers can least afford to be docked pay or lose a job. Similarly, lower-income workers who are least able to pay for child care have the least access to these benefits through an employer. They’re also less likely to accommodations that allow them to breastfeed.

Clearly, part of the problem with the voluntary approach we’ve taken in the United States to these benefits is that, while employers of a small, lucky segment of women are willing to provide them, most everyone else is not. The inadequacy of our solutions should come as no surprise, given that they’ve been designed to fix our fantasy problems, rather than our real ones.

Now there’s no harm in reading a little fantasy literature now and then (or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself). We just need to be clear—especially when we’re actually trying to ease work/life strains—that, for most mothers, the exciting stories we tell ourselves about high profile moms have little to do with reality.

For more information and to connect with advocates engaged with work-family concerns, go to the websites of the National Partnership for Women and Families, MomsRising, and Family Values @ Work.

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