There is no denying the progress that woman have made in the United States. Watching the engaging and well researched PBS series The Makers: Women Who Make America, which chronicles the major achievements of the women’s social movement, it’s apparent that women have more political power and economic opportunity than ever.
At the same time, a firestorm of controversy was set off by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for abolishing its work-at-home policy and ordering everyone to work in the office. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that an equal number of men work at home than women do, working women may benefit most from the flexibility that work at home arrangements provide. While many men work from home, it is women who still prepare more family dinners, and remain the chief child care givers.
As a member of a book club consisting primarily of working women in the prime of our careers, most who have raised children or still have children at home, the issue of child care is fresh in our minds. At a recent book club meeting, the conversation was lively when we discussed two books with central themes focusing on women’s rights. Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond, by Jane Maas is the biography of the Madison Avenue advertising executive who thrived at a time with men dominated the boardrooms. Her navigation of her role of mother and high powered career woman was of interest to the group who marveled at her honesty in confessing that she wanted to make enough money so that she could pay a nanny to spend time with her children because she didn’t want to stay home. In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, we were reminded that no matter how well women wrote, they were often relegated to the role of researcher for the male writers.
As the evening went on our conversations turned personal and each of us recounted our own lives and the feelings we have about motherhood, work and our place in society. One theme that kept re-emerging was the feeling that raising children and staying in the workforce is a challenge. Those of us at the end of our child rearing years feel a sense of relief, but we still wonder if it had to be as hard as it was. The easier path at the time might have been to stay home, put our careers on hold and hope that we can catch up once our children went back to school. Some women who stay home might say that it is harder to stay home than to be in the workforce. For me, a first-generation college educated person in my family, that didn’t seem like a smart option. I didn’t feel I had the luxury to take the time off and hope that when I got back into the workforce opportunities would still be there. Like Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO is urging, I felt the need to “lean in,” enrolling in a Ph.D. program just after giving birth to my second child. My bit of stand up at the end of the night in the early years was the line: “They are alive! I did my job!” Still makes me chuckle.
Regardless of our choices as mothers and fathers, two things became clear as our stimulating book club meeting came to a close: our country can do better to support families. Of all the countries in the world, the United States is one of the least supportive to families who have children. And, options are what we want in the end. Whether we go work full or part time or we stay home with our children, what we want most is the luxury of choice.
What is exciting is that many of us feel a new sense of opportunity as our children turn into adults. I feel like I’m just getting started.