Department of Anthropology
UC Santa Cruz
I know how this is supposed to go. I begin with a telling anecdote about my personal struggles to balance having a toddler and a demanding career as an untenured university professor. I am supposed to speak in the first person and use my life as evidence for many things (the state of feminism, the state of families, the state of the world, etc. etc.). You are supposed to put down this page or click the next arrow thinking that my story sounds familiar or, if you’re feeling generous, that I sound like, well, if not a SuperMom, then at least a potential SuperMom sidekick. A Batgirl Mom.
Here’s the problem: I do not think my feminism or my stance on what has been called, over and over again, the “work-life issue,” should necessarily be based on my own experience. In fact, the personalization and privatization of questions about who cares for those who need care is precisely the problem with a debate that has become, frankly, tiresome and borderline ridiculous.
I want to join this conversation because I think it is one of the most important conversations we can have as a society. I want to join this conversation because many people, including myself, struggle everyday to do many kinds of work they find meaningful, including providing care not only to children, but to the elderly and the disabled and sick friends who need care. But I do not want to write about myself. I want to have a conversation in which the baseline is not one’s own perspective or one’s own family. Important questions always require broad, critical thought that may be least served by self-reflection. Maybe part of the problem is that we have looked the wrong way – inward, at our own lives – to look for suggestions for how to find “balance.”
I want to join the conversation because there are those of us who think feminism is about social justice and not about whether highly-educated women can “have it all.” We have not really jumped into the public fray.
Here are some things I’m thinking about this evening as I finalize grades and listen to my two year old bang on an electric piano:
1) It’s not like this is news to anyone, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70.6 per cent of all mothers with children under 18 are employed.¹ Most women – and men – in the U.S. never face a “choice” about “whether they should work.” Nor are flex shifts or reduced working hours options for most people.
2) The biggest employers of women are the health and education services (read nurses and teachers), fields in which solutions like those offered by Anne Marie Slaughter to “allow women to telecommute one day a week” are impossible and downright laughable.²
3) African American women are disproportionately more likely to be working mothers (18 per cent of all working moms) and least likely to not work (9 per cent of mothers who are not employed). Latina women are disproportionately concentrated in low-paid work. To my knowledge, not a single contributor to the “work-life” debates has ever addressed the intersecting constraints of gender and race on either employment opportunities or negotiating workable scenarios to manage financial and care needs.
4) It is not just children who need care. Many of us perform unpaid care work for elderly parents or other friends and relatives who need both emotional and physical attendance. Questions about how we support those who are engaged in caring labor are not just for working mothers of young children. They are for everyone.
5) You do not have to be a “socialist” (though it probably bears remembering that in the vast majority of the world this is a perfectly reasonable thing to be) to realize that taking care of children is work and that without this work we won’t have that thing that everyone claims to care about: an economy.
Sure, there are things my own employer could do to improve my life and make things easier for my partner and I to arrange our schedules to maximize time with our son and our separate research and teaching agendas. (Opening a campus day care would be a pretty good start, since I’m on the only UC campus without one). But if this is where my politics ends, if this is all I fight for, I miss the bigger picture and even worse, I simply fight for space in institutions that have not changed at all. These are not private problems, they are social ones. The solutions on offer – telecommuting, seriously? – leave us all in a realm of predictable, ineffectual, personal narratives.
Why is it that we all respond with knowing nods every time a new fabulously wealthy working woman blows the lid off and reveals that her life is actually challenging? A sense of commonality blows with it. This is a good thing and, in my opinion, we need to make more of it. I think the goal, though, should be to recognize ourselves in other stories that may be less obviously related to “ourselves.”
¹ Data available at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/famee.nr0.htm. Why do bloggers and journalists never cite their sources?