Life-work balance is hard to achieve. No kidding, you say? While that seems to be the thesis of every New York Times parenting feature, it didn’t stop Motherlode editor KJ Dell’Antonia from reviewing the latest edition to the Professional Mom’s Self-Help genre, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.
Author Katrina Alcorn’s story about being a working mother is remarkably similar to the ones we’ve heard before: white lady with a college credential, living on a U.S. coast, climbing the career ladder, web startup, supportive husband, children, overexertion, exhaustion, “leaning back,” finding balance. Anne Marie Slaughter wrote the same article for The Atlantic last year. Time Magazine challenged working moms to step up their parenting game. Sheryl Sanberg has become a celebrity by repeating the same TED talk over and over and calling it a book. Now granted, these publications are just appealing to their reader demographic, but I wonder: what’s left to say on this topic?
What these perspectives on female empowerment and disappointment have in common is that seemingly none of their authors ever considered that everybody makes tradeoffs. Doesn’t anybody else remember all those late-80s/early-90s sitcoms about the workaholic father who’d always miss Junior’s baseball game? Remember how alienated Kevin Arnold was from his gruff, war veteran dad? Remember when Zack Morris blamed his poor grades on his corporate big-shot father’s absenteeism? (This trope was so well-known that Zack totally got away with it). Lawyer-Mom Claire Huxtable rarely compromised her BAMF feminist bona fides, but her husband had an unreasonably flexible schedule for a doctor. There is nothing new here.
I get it: being a frazzled working mom sucks. You know what else sucks? Working two jobs to make ends meet; being a single parent; watching your spouse work extra shifts because you got laid off; losing your house in a “jobless recovery”; spending your days on unpaid domestic labor and not having other adults to talk to; commuting over an hour every day from a farther-out, cheaper suburb; living in poor, crime-ridden, cheaper neighborhoods. Basically, life.
Being a breadwinner is hard for most people, not just moms. You have less flexibility to make a sudden career change or take a “funemployment” vacation when you provide the health insurance and most of the rent. And you will never make enough money to not be a little pissed off when your spouse uses the joint account to treat him/herself to a new Xbox.
Furthermore, the law of averages suggests that the majority of white-collar American women are more Liz Lemon than Sheryl Sandberg. There are more people fit for middle management than for executive roles. Your law degree/MBA/startup job does not guarantee you an eventual corner office, martini lunches, and a billion happiness points. Yet some of us continue to give 150% effort in hopes of a 10% pay raise. This is self-sabotage, and it is insane.
None of this is to blame women, or feminism, for being stuck in this grind. “Women have choices, men have responsibilities” is a rallying cry for disenfranchised men. It’s also wrong. All people have choices and responsibilities. Life is hard for everybody. If your expectations for your 30s and 40s include jet-setting, designer handbags, a nice home and an equally-employable spouse + kids, you may need to readjust. “Having it all” is a lie, and there are no Mad Women. Don Draper cheated and drank all day because he was miserable, not because he was awesome.
We live in an era of unbelievable material wealth. Lean Out of the rat race once in a while and remember that.