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.