Unfinished Business (Review in progress)

August 4, 2016

UnfinishedBusinessSome time back I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s excellent essay in The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All‘. It was a much-needed response to the nauseating cry that women in the 21st century, in the West, can ‘have it all‘. The car, the kids, the husband, the education and the career not to mention the beauty and the ever youthful glow. I remember being in a grad school class on Motherhood and a similar subject came up. I said, with the exhaustion I felt, that the expectations on women seemed to have grown exponentially since our fore-mothers. It was once satisfactory for a woman to receive a high school or college education, then get married and settle down -maybe she’d work for some time before finding Mr. Right, but it was perfectly acceptable for a woman’s life to be linear -this, then this, then this. But now we are expected to, in the decades of our twenties and thirties, get a higher education, get married, have children, start a career, and maintain societal beauty expectations all at the same time.

It’s no longer acceptable to simply go to school and then get married, one who does is considered to have given up on life and lack motivation. Worse yet, if a woman decides to do as society tells her, to get the job the husband and the kid, she’s still judged as too weak-willed and unmotivated -and not “leaning in”, if she decides to work in a career that offers more flexibility and less prestige. So many aspects of this dramatic change have not really been contemplated by modern society. For one, when a woman is pushed to be just as successful as her male counterpart: What happens to the kids? What we forgot, as Slaughter so aptly puts in her book, “The men who have chosen to make that trade-off over the decades have… been supported… by full-time or at least lead care givers”. When women with husbands and children make the decision to lean in yes the husband may “step-up” to help more, but it largely means the children are simply getting less care. Which, as hard as we may attempt to ignore as a society, is not only a problem for the kids but for the mother as well. I’m also currently reading Maternal Desire by Daphne De Marneffe and she discusses the fact that we’ve had a very real problem in the West being honest about maternal desire, the idea that a woman may in fact want to raise her children as a primary responsibility. These conversations are difficult to have because being honest about the differences between men and women have become taboo in our society. But whether the desire to care or the willingness of women to be full-time parents as their mates pursue their career is biologically driven or socially based doesn’t really matter in my view, what matters more is the here and now.

What do women feel here and now? What do women want? Instead of women like Sheryl Sandberg telling us what we should want or what we should do, instead of telling us to ‘lean in’ why don’t we deal on-the-ground asking women what they want out of life? And if the answer is spending more time with children, raising a family, why don’t we give them the best solutions? ‘Women can have it all’ is a nice slogan, but it is just a slogan and Slaughter, in her book is peeling back from the slogans and asking questions about reality. We have to be honest about all of what we want in life and also how we want it, we also need to be honest about the sacrifices we will have to make. But this also isn’t an individual decision that we must all make on our own, as Slaughters point out, a lot of woman are being pushed out of the workforce because their jobs are simply too rigid. As a society and as individuals we made many dramatic changes post feminism but now that we’ve accepted a new normal we have to ask ourselves if we can do better and if our times call for a new movement and new ideals and a more balanced approach towards work and family life.

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