There are two reasons that American women continue to be obsessed about balancing motherhood and work in a way that most American men are not.
First off, biology: Until men can get pregnant, give birth and lactate, there is never going to be a day where more is not expected of mothers who work than fathers who work. When it comes to raising children, biology may not be destiny, but it certainly informs the special bond that mothers have with small children. That’s just how it is.
Second, despite protestations to the contrary, our elected representatives simply do not care enough about children and families, nor do they have the political will, to institute the kind of universal, state-supported child care that exists in other Westernized nations. Our country once had a tremendously successful, subsidized system of child care. But it would probably take another World War to get there again.
Until we do, the question of how women achieve both professional and domestic success will remain the subject of intense cultural fascination. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed 2012 essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” is a recent iteration of our endless interest in this topic.
Last week, Matt Lauer set off feminist alarm bells when he asked General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the first woman to lead a major automaker, whether she felt she could be a good mom and a good chief executive.
“You know, I think I can,” Barra replied. “I have a great team, we’re on the right path …I have a wonderful family, a supportive husband and I’m pretty proud of the way my kids are supporting me in this.”
To her credit, Barra gave no indication that she was put off by the question. And why should she have been? She probably thinks about it all the time. In fact, in his defense, Lauer said he asked the question only because she had already told Forbes that she felt horrible about missing her son’s junior prom when she was out of town on business.
I am always flummoxed when high-achieving women take offense at the work/family balance question.
Tina Fey, the comedy goddess (or god, if you prefer), really strikes an off note in her terrific memoir “Bossypants” when she says that the “rudest question” you can ask a woman is, “How do you juggle it all?”
Not at all.
It’s a fantastic question for a woman who is arguably one of the most important and talented human beings working in American television comedy -- a notoriously demanding, exhausting job in a traditionally male-dominated milieu. Fey is a role model. People want to know how she manages. What’s so insulting about that?
And, though it pains me to say, Fey is also something of a hypocrite here. She totally exploits the balance dilemma in her ad campaign for American Express. In one spot, she’s at work, beseiged by frenetic staffers, wondering “Does mama have to do everything around here?” seconds before her assistant announces: “Tina, the nanny called, your daughter says it’s octopus time.”
Everyone interested in the balance question should take a look at the interview that The Atlantic’s David Bradley conducted Monday at the Aspen Institute with PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi, who, like Barra, is the first female chief executive of her company. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf posted a transcript and video.
Nooyi has a clear-eyed take on the family costs when mom also happens to run a major corporation. But really, she could be speaking for any married woman who has a demanding job and kids.
“We pretend we have it all,” she said. “We pretend we can have it all....And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you….We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom.”
This is not the standard self-deprecation of a busy parent. This is a honest admission about how our children think about their working mothers. I once interviewed a child development expert who said she took great pains to attend her daughter's school events. What does her daughter remember? The one dance recital her mother missed.
Nooyi told a funny story about how, after being promoted to company president, she left work early (at 10 p.m. instead of midnight) to share the great news with her family. Her mother greeted her at the door, and sent her out for milk. She came home from the errand and angrily slammed the milk down.
Her mother was unmoved. “Let me explain something to you,” her mother said. “You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother. You're all of that. Nobody else can take that place.”
That is brutal. But it's also the truth. And I still want to know how Tina Fey juggles it all.