I Don’t Know How She Does It Or How Anyone Does it

There’s a famous novel that was published in England about a decade ago called I Don’t Know She Does It. The novel is based on the life of an English woman trying to balance children and career at the same time. And then sort of sucking at both of these things. The main character is presented as someone who, on the surface, has it all: two kids, a high powered career and a happy family life.

The novel makes it clear to us that she really only sort of has some of these things. The high powered career is nice but she spends a lot of time at work. Her husband has a career but it isn’t much of a career compared to hers. She spends a chunk of her life dreaming about the other half of her life and how she can spend more time with her children without sacrificing her career. The novel makes it clear that she doesn’t really do it. In fact, she only does a bit of it.

And she’s not alone. This is the central dilemma many mothers face today. How do we do it all? How does the modern American woman manage career and family? As a young child, I imagined myself with a family and a career. In the years since then, I have managed to have a bit of both. But I’ve also realized I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how anyone does it. At least not without a near nervous breakdown and only a few hours of sleep a night.

Because I really don’t know how to do it. I set out to have a career and a family. I’ve managed the family but the career is a work in progress at best. I don’t if it will ever get there. I’m in my forties and I can’t see going after a traditional career right now. Instead, like many woman, I do a little bit of it all. I write in my spare time. I work at home grading writing tests. I make a decent living that allows me time for my children and family. It certainly helps that when I do work, I work right in the same room as my girls and my husband.

And there’s where I struggle thinking about the future. Not my own. But that of my daughters. I have no idea what to tell them. I have no idea how they can do both. Many of my friends face the same issue. We cycle out of the job market depending on local economic conditions and the needs of our children. We take time off to have children for a few years and then attempt to start right back where we left off. Or, we plunge headfirst right back into work, handing our infant over to strangers and praying that somehow it will all work out. Often it doesn’t and many of us leave, unable to manage small children and American jobs that give us very little paid time off and certainly no time off if a snow day happens and woman at the local daycare center can’t come in either.

What does it say about two of our recent female Supreme Court justices that both are single and have no children? What does it say that the number of women running Fortune 500 companies is miniscule? What does it say about our society that women in leadership positions are still rare and we have yet to have a female president? I don’t want to play identity politics as that is a poor card to put on the table. But in this case it matters. When female gender is still seen as something strange in relationship to power we have a problem.

We are still the only country in the western world that offers no paid maternity leave for mothers. The last time I gave birth I went back to work two days after my youngest child was born. And I am not alone. Many woman today go back to work after a scant maternity leave of less than six months, often less than three. At best we have a hodgepodge of childcare arrangements, often incredibly expensive and occasionally highly unsafe. Many mothers leave the paid workplace altogether and the return to it five years later, knowing they will probably never make up for the fact that they were out of the workforce for such a significant amount of time.

I have only managed to be in the workforce at all because I am lucky. I have a supportive husband and a decent paying work at home job that offers me flexible hours including the chance to work on weekends. I have no commute and no childcare costs. But like many woman, I have to work if we are to remain afloat financially. I have no choice in this matter. If I don’t work, we don’t have paid bills. But I also work knowing that money really is power. Adding a decent paycheck to our family kitty has personally given me a sense of self-confidence and power in a way that nothing else ever has. Denying women access to the power of a paycheck is denying them something fundamentally important. It is a denial of power both in personal relationships and to the world at large.

My eldest daughter wants to be a vet. I know she’ll be quite good at it if that’s what she wants. What I don’t know, what I’ve been wondering about since I was only slightly older than is she right now, is how she can get her career and her family. In the end I am left with the same question I thought about two decades ago. I don’t know how to do it. And, most terrifyingly of all, I don’t know what to tell my own daughters how to do it either. Three decades later and that most important of questions, the question of women and fiscal power, remains for me, like for most women, at best unanswered.


Gadfly lives and writes in the USA.

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  1. “Many woman today go back to work after a scant maternity leave of less than six months, often less than three.”

    Wow, 6 months would have been amazing. My wife recently had our first (he’s 7 months old now), she was offered 6 weeks maternity leave, she tried to get them to increase it to 12 and wound up getting 10. It was nice to get that extra month, but it wasn’t really enough. If she had gotten 6 month she would have only recently gone back…that would have been incredible. Outside of the US, is 6 months more common?

  2. Tell it
    This week, one of my instructors in college joked “oh, you have kids? When you become a teacher you might have to put them up for adoption!” And that’s talking about highschool teaching, a job many women choose because over here it comes with many benefits that make having a family and a career feasible.
    And then there was the instructor who is mainly a highschool teacher but also involved in teacher training. She has a 2 yo son and one day on our way out of class I uttered a few sympathetic words, because she was obviously distressed because she had to leave her sick kid with his grandma. She radiated bad conscience and said “I don’t think I should have gone back so early”.
    And yes, it’s fucking exhausting.
    I’m trying to finally get my college degree, I have a small job, and I’m a part time single mum.* And right now I’m desperately struggling to get this college term done (2 more weeks) before I totally crack. And what do the kids see? Mummy has it all. They don’t see the price I pay, the support other people gibe to make it possible.

    *My husband is away during the week

  3. I live in Canada and our parental leave is very good. The government pays (through employment insurance) 55% of income for 37 weeks (up to 80% for low income families), and the parents are entitled to up to 52 weeks of leave (though only paid for the first part). Either parent can take the leave, or they can split it how they see fit. Employers are required by law to ensure parents are returned to their previous position or a comparable one (same wages, hours, etc.). Salary is not allowed to be reduced (unless there was wage reductions for all staff during parental leave).
    Generally most families I know have the mother take the full benefits, as men who take parental leave can be stigmatized, depending on the work environment, but this is changing as more and more men are taking the allowed leave. When we adopted our son 5 years ago, my husband banked and used 6 weeks of vacation, but he would have been entitled to full parental leave.

    1. Benefits in Germany are really good, probably among the best in the world. 14 weeks of maternity leave, if your job threatens your pregnancy you can get “banned” from wok and healthcare will pay you about 70% of your salary, you get one year of paid parental leave and up to three years where your boss can’t fire you.
      Still, that doesn’t help you a lot if you’re not an employee with a permanent contract. If your contract is imited, you’re out of work, if you’re a freelancer, tough luck, etc. It also doesn’t solve the problem of where to leave your infant after that first year. There are cribs, but especially foe low income women it is often sensible to pay 400 bucks a month (and that’s subsisidised) in oreder to make 600 or 800 bucks a month working full time when you can probably make the 200 bucks with a small job at the weekend when the father can take care of the children, because the German tax-system subsidises guys.

  4. First kid: back to work four weeks after cesarean. 40 hours, graveyard shift, minimum wage. SO FUN.
    Second kid: lucky enough to be able to stay home for a couple years, downside resume gap
    Third kid: see second kid
    Fourth kid: back to work four months later, had to work my way back up from entry position due to aforementioned resume gap. Made supervisor in less then two years. Turned down management job twice because I couldn’t work the requisite 60+ hours a week and the pay wasn’t enough for me to hire outside care for four kids.

  5. There are also many examples of successful professional women who had children. My husband’s boss is a single mom and the head of a research lab at an Ivy League University. It can be done. Assuming there are two involved parents, demand that the other parent do his (or her) share of housework and child care. Let the house get messy. Keep food simple and don’t sweat eating out or buying prepared foods. Find trustworthy childcare providers. All or even most of the responsibilities of parenthood need not be put on moms, but it will if we let it. Women can have full careers and also be loving, responsible parents. Plenty do.

    1. And those who can’t? What if eating out is simply not affordable? What if there’s no childcare to be had at price you can pay? What if your child has an allergy and “messy house” makes them sick? What if the other parent is not around to help? I don’t appreciate it when women, whose lives are nothing like mine are used as examples of how apparently it’s my fault that I don’t manage all these things. You’re totally right, most of the work does not have to be done by mums, but it has to be done. And not everybody has the support to have it done by other people. I know how much I already rely on other people doing part of that work.

  6. I read “The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?” by Leslie Bennetts after having my first child, and found it very empowering. She makes the case that women can and should work while raising kids, and lays out all the risks of not doing so. It’s kind of geared toward the minority of more affluent women who actually have a real choice in the matter, but she does that intentionally because she’s concerned about the rising percentages of affluent women choosing to stay at home, and therefore choosing to possibly have less influence in the shaping of public policies that currently work against working parents, especially working moms.

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