“To understand why a successful women quit work to be a stay at home mom, we need not fault nostalgia. Just look at the structure of the American workplace.” – Judith Shulevitz
(The following excerpt from Sympathy For Stay-At-Home Moms by Judith Shulevitz originally appeared in The New Republic, November/December 2013, and recently on utne.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
My first mommy date—you know, those painstakingly-dressed-for occasions you hope will turn the mother of your child’s new best friend into your best friend, too—also gave me my first taste of the shame that makes the mommy wars so bitter. Tali’s husband worked on Wall Street, she was a stay-at-home mom with the children, and the playroom in their restored Victorian on a lake in Westchester was photo-spread perfect. There was an expansive, carpeted space for our toddlers to run wild in, an air-hockey table, a big-screen computer, Legos, kindergarten-grade wooden blocks, and a play house, all of it neat on a Wednesday afternoon despite there being no housekeeper in sight.
And what did this particular messy working mother feel? Pure envy: real-estate and clean-house envy, attentive-mother envy, and, when I saw her lovely kosher kitchen, Jewish envy too. Despite sending my kids to a Jewish school, I’d never quite managed the exhausting logistics of kashrut.
The women I met through Tali were also mostly former high achievers with professional degrees—smart, appealing, non-helicoptering, non-Desperate Housewives-like, full-time, suburban mothers. They were the kind of women profiled by Lisa Belkin in her famous (or infamous) 2003 “Opt-Out Revolution” article in the New York Times Magazine; by Judith Warner in her 2005 book Perfect Madness; and by Lisa Miller’s “The Retro Wife” in New York magazine—to give just a few notable examples. These tales of handsomely educated and perfectly sane members of my sex who abandon great careers for children have become so common they constitute a genre of their own. Some of these pieces (or books) explain women’s flight from the professions as the waning of feminist ideals from one generation to the next; others blame the rise of over-mothering, attachment parenting, and other trends of that ilk; some cite all of the above. Miller’s piece introduces “neo-traditionalism,” which she defines as a rejection of feminist definitions of success. In many such essays, Betty Friedan appears as a touchstone, used to show how little has changed since she wrote The Feminine Mystique, or implicitly chided for failing to see how intractable work-life balance would prove to be. Each writer accurately characterizes their subjects’ lives and is right about the trend they represent and is by no means wrong about the pleasures and comforts of the stay-at-home mom life. And all of them, in my opinion, miss a key point.
When Friedan was writing The Feminine Mystique, the 40-hour office job was still a norm, even for executives—a norm well on its way to changing, but a norm nonetheless. Today, whether you’re male or female, if you’re taking home an upper-middle-class salary you’re expected to work an average of 50 hours, and probably more, a lot of it after you’ve gone home. As of 1997, the average workweek for a man with graduate education was 50 hours, and for a women 47—that three-hour difference can be accounted for, of course, by all the women who went on mommy tracks. Among American dual-career couples, in the 1990s, 15.2 percent of those with at least college degrees worked a joint 100 hours a week or more, whereas only 9.6 percent of couples without diplomas did that. Try to imagine what that 100-hour workweek looked like to a child: that’s five 10-hour days, plus commutes, for both parents. And those are just averages—for people at the top of their fields, the numbers were a great deal bigger.
If such sacrifices of time are now routine for office workers, what does it take to move up through the ranks? Jacobs, who teaches at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, told me the story of a recent graduate who had been determined to be among the top 10 performers among several hundred peers at a Wall Street firm. He worked non-stop for two years, getting four to five hours of sleep a night. By the end of that period, he was named the very top performer in his group—at which point he decided he’d had enough, and left finance.
To reject a high-flying career, as this man did and so many women have done, is not to reject aspiration; it is to refuse to succumb to a kind of madness. Professional accomplishment shouldn’t and doesn’t have to look like this. The main reason white-collar workers can be driven to work 80-hour-or-so weeks is that very few of them have government protections. Most of them are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates the 40-hour-week and overtime pay. American managers aren’t allowed to join unions. Other countries have laws that protect against overwork even for professionals, such as standard or maximum number of hours anyone can work in a week.