Sunday, October 26, 2008

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.


At October 27, 2008 at 3:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’ve seen more episodes of Sex and the City than I probably should admit, and it’s actually a pretty good show. The problem, as with all iconic television series, is that too many people don’t just see it as a show — and, anticipating a rebuttal here, that’s exactly how the writers wanted it. And, given that at least some people appear to be taking the messages of Sex and the City to heart, I have some reservations about the message that’s being promoted.

I take issue with Sex and the City for the same reason I take issue with Third Wave Feminism, and not for the reason most feminists would probably think. If women want to be sexually liberated, that’s their business and frankly makes the world more entertaining for me, so that’s not my criticism. My problem with the show is that it paints a wholly unrealistic picture of what’s attainable in life — not just for women, but for anyone.

The great thing about Second Wave Feminists is they were focused on achieving political and social equality. If some women want to make dumb choices, so be it and they shouldn’t face discrimination for it — at least not to a greater degree than one might discriminate against men for similar choices. Sex and the City, and the movement it embodies, completely ambiguates the lines between choice, responsibility, and consequences.

I might have felt differently had the series ended differently, but it didn’t — instead, it took the exercise to its most illogical conclusion. The entire point of the series is to show that women (supposedly like men) can be rich, powerful, ambitious, fun, sexually promiscuous, etc. etc. etc. all the way into their upper thirties, and still be completely realistic in holding expectations that stability and bliss and satisfaction and true love are right around the corner.

The series tells women they can have it all no matter how long they wait, so why settle? As a middle-class white male, who supposedly enjoys all the privileges of society, I wouldn’t bet on those odds for myself. One major problem lies in a false stigma about settling. And — not trying to piss off the feminists any more than I may have already — that doesn’t even take into account the psychological implications of several inate biological differences, including differing peaks of sexual desire, the fact that women can only have children for so long, and the cold reality that men place more weight on outward appearance.

At October 28, 2008 at 1:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feminism’s main “outcome” will be many lonely, single, post-menapause females who were born from 1960-1980 in the next decade or two. After that, look for it to really start to wither away, as young women will see what it leads to: lonely childless lives, divorces, resentment, an old age bereft of grandchildren. It is good that even this most feminist of blogs is willing to admit that tradeoffs have to be made; this is a step forward from the harridans of the '60s who clung to the unrealistic belief that women could have it all (like anyone of either sex actually does!)

At October 29, 2008 at 4:07 PM , Blogger Aku said...

The New York Times Magazine had an article this summer about families that do try to balance responsibility equally. It seems like a difficult thing to do (some of these couples are very precise about it), but it shouldn't be. I agree with you that for women, there should be no question of whether or not we can "have it all." Instead, we should be able to talk about how we'll share it all.

Here's the article:


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