The Balancing Act
by Jordan Kisner
The other day in seminar somebody posed the following question: Do women still worry about having to choose between having a career and having a family? Every female hand in the classroom shot up. After listened to my classmates’ responses, I was pretty disappointed, if not entirely surprised. Almost every girl reported that it did feel like a conflict (though not an insurmountable one) that she would someday have to face. I heard a startling variety of rationalizations for making each choice. I heard careful plans for accomplishing both. I heard anxiety about trying to “have it all.” Apparently, for the thousands of women who are preparing to leave university for the real world, the choice between career and children still looms large.
We had been talking about The Feminine Mystique before the conversation turned to our personal lives. As I sat there listening to the other women in my class I gloomily wondered if much has changed since Betty Friedan wrote her controversial attack on an American society that told women that true happiness lay in vacuuming, diapers and dinner parties.
Certainly some things have changed. Society tells women of my generation we can –and should!—do it all. Websites, books, even day planners are devoted the working mom, and most college aged women I know have been raised to want both a wildly successful career and a beautiful family. The widespread societal acceptance of women doing and wanting it all is a big leap forward since Friedan’s time. Thank you, feminism! Problem solved!
Oh, but wait. Women still get passed over for promotions because they took maternity leave. Traditionalists continue to question whether you can really be a “good mother” if you can’t drive your children to soccer practice because you’re at work. The New York Times runs an article practically every other day pointing out the correlation between the rise of Downe Syndrome and women putting off childbearing until their thirties or forties to pursue careers.
Clearly, the conflict between careers and children has not gone away; in fact, it is more of a stressor for young women than ever before. This is largely because the majority of the responsibility involved in maintaining a household and caring for children still falls squarely on women regardless of their career aspirations. This assumption that family life is fundamentally the woman’s responsibility is striking in Friedan’s writing, and, frighteningly, I don’t think very much has changed.
How many male Princeton students worry about having to make a choice between having a career and being a father? The idea was so foreign to the men in my seminar that they seemed stunned that anyone was worrying about it at all. And yet the outpouring of anxiety from my female classmates was overwhelming.
Something is wrong with that picture. It is time for us to challenge the notion that onus falls on women to worry about this. Given that reproduction is a collaborative venture, it’s high time we started expecting that the balancing act of children and career be collaborative as well.