I'm not sure it has ever in history been more paradoxical to be a woman than it is right here, right now, in western modernity. There are so many conflicting messages, so much misinformation, so much pressure. The mid-century joy at the prospect of "having it all" has been replaced with a post-millennial dread at the expectation of being required to do it all, and for very little in return.
Let me be clear: I have been incredibly blessed with a husband who is a very active father, a very loving companion and a very tolerant boss (yes, I work for him). I feel no particular pressure from him to do anything but that which pleases me most. But as an intelligent, hard working woman, I'm often overwhelmed not by possibilities, but by the expectations those possibilities have secured in the minds of others.
I am expected to do it all. Cook (I love cooking), clean (not my forte, but I can manage it), procreate (hate the pregnancy, love the outcome), educate, love and support my four children and my husband, meet everyone's domestic demands...
...look presentable, have a paying job, read the news, read to educate myself, carry on intelligent conversation about topics other than child-rearing, experience culture, get a good night's sleep and occasionally indulge myself.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of reuniting with my closest friends for a "girls' weekend" in NYC. My friends and I represent the whole spectrum of modern adult womanhood: one of us is single in a high-pressure job, one of us is married and straddling the gap between remodeling her home and considering a family while also persuing academe and careerism, one of us is a divorcee picking up the pieces of a neglected career now that the coward she neglected it for showed his true colors, and then there is me, happily married three children at home, with a part time (but growing) job.
I came away from our time together with the feeling that all four of us women are at a crossroads.
Settle down? If yes, how?
Have children? If yes, how?
Pick up the pieces? Of course, but how?
Manage chaos? Yes, but...how?
The more I think about it though, the more I realize all the women I know are at a crossroads.
Is it possible that women are at a crossroads?
I haven't read Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, but I've read a lot of commentary on it. It is just one of the many many...many things to do on my list and frankly, the more I read about it the lower it sinks in my pile.
The facts as I see them are these:
1. The biological clock exists for women. Ask a doctor.
2. It doesn't exist in the same way for men. Men continue having healthy children for decades after women have no possibility of natural pregnancy.
3. Many modern careers do not allow the flexibility required of a mother to meet the needs of her children. Children need love and crave parental attention. Farming them out to professionals (baby nurse to nanny to preschool to elementary school to summer camp to high school...) does not answer to the dignity inherent in their little lives.
Where does this leave us?
Full-time-motherhood is no longer adequate in the eyes of the general public. Once a paragon of honor and love, stay at home moms (let alone supportive housewives!) are now condescended to and tolerated, but certainly not celebrated in powerful circles. I have never felt criticism from my family over this issue -- although my friends are not so lucky -- but I do feel the color rise to my cheeks every time someone says "so, what is it you do?," knowing that the questioner may ask a few polite questions about my children after I answer honestly that I stay at home, but will soon turn away in search of someone more interesting to talk to.
One story I heard recently provides some insight into another aspect of this. My friend lives in a very liberal town in California and knew another married woman in her town who was a sure-fire feminist all the way. Down with the patriarchy, equal pay for women, you get the idea. She had a nice job (a lawyer, if I remember correctly) and took the train in to work everyday until...she had a baby.
Every day, the reality of separating from her baby and leaving it with a caretaker to go to work was so hard that she took to driving herself in her own car so as to spare herself the embarrassment of having everyone on the train watch her sob uncontrollably for the entire commute.
This is one way in which her husband misses out. He will
never be pregnant. He will never feel that baby move inside of him, or
even be offered the possibility of providing nourishment for that baby
from his own body.
And I don't care how active and emotionally available a father he is, he's not sobbing on his way to work every morning, I can tell you that right now.
In other words, no one can have everything.
So why are women pressured to try?
I have a few theories, but I don't feel quite ready to spell them out here. Anyway, I'm way behind on some work and the baby is crying.
Maybe next time.