I come from a generation of women who wanted more. We wanted a kind of more that didn't make sense to women like my mother who was old-fashioned in her beliefs about marriage and a family. What more could there be?
My more was going to graduate school. What my parents wanted for their four daughters was security. That meant we were encouraged to get our teaching degrees in case we ever needed to work, but mostly we were supposed to do what my mother and her friends had done, finish college, get married and have a family.
So I got my teaching certificate, got married and had a family. And then I decided it was time to pursue the more I wanted. When I won a fellowship that would pay for my first year in graduate school, my mother expressed appropriate pleasure, but she worried. "Who was going to take care of my husband and children if I went to graduate school?" she asked.
Going to graduate school didn't mean I was going to abandon my family. But I would be doing something more than cooking and cleaning and focusing on my nearest and dearest. I knew I could do it -- go to my part-time job, go to the school plays and Little League games, cook the dinner, AND get my studying done. This was incomprehensible to my mother. She knew how much time and energy it took to take care of young children, keep house, cook meals.
When I look back now, I wonder how I did do all that, but I wouldn't have given it up for anything. But I thought there must be an easier way, so I encouraged my own daughters to get their graduate degrees before they had children. But once they had families, and tried to juggle jobs and babies, I realized the order didn't really matter. There is work and there is family, and it is a perpetual balancing act.
Barnard College President Debora L. Spar published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month addressing the issues that women continue to face despite having it all and achieving their "more." She writes that there is undeniably a "women's problem" in the United States still, and part of "this intractable problem is tied to the fact that women in this country are struggling far more than is necessary not only to have that ephemeral "all," but to do it all alone."
"Indeed," she continues," rather than leaping with glee at the liberation that has befallen women since the 1960s, we are laboring instead under a double whammy of impossible expectations -- the old-fashioned ones (to be good mothers and wives, impeccable housekeepers and blushing brides) and those wrought more recently (to be athletic, strong, sexually versatile, and wholly independent). The result? We have become a generation desperate to be perfect wives, mothers, and professionals -- Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels. Even worse, we somehow believe that we need to do all of this at once, and without any help. Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a 60-hour-per-week job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the 60-hour-per-week job. No man can do this; no human can do this."
We have more skills, more credentials, as Spar points out. There are more women than ever enrolled in colleges, in medical and law schools and other graduate programs. Wives earn nearly as much as their husbands despite earning 77 cents to every dollar a man earns. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of working mothers in the U.S. rose from 45 to 78 percent of all mothers, and the average time that an American woman spent in the paid labor force increased from 9 to 25 hours a week.
But that doesn't mean our lives have gotten easier. Instead of working collectively to make changes, as feminists did in the ‘60s and ‘70s, women today have little time left over for group action. Women are no longer working together. Instead, Spar says, "women are focusing on their individual struggles. Rather than fighting for better public schools, for instance, we are focusing on our own kids' SAT scores."
Business and government agencies have training programs to help them mentor women, but "even the most well-intentioned programs to attract women or mentor women or retain women still don't deal with the basic issues that most women face," writes Spar. "And that's because the challenges that confront women now are more subtle than those of the past, harder to recognize and thus to remove. They are challenges that stem from breast pumps and Manolo pumps, from men whose eyes linger on a woman's rear end and men who rush that same rear end too quickly out the door." We are told to ‘lean in,' but what we need is something substantial to ‘lean on' to make our lives less stressful. Spar writes, "Because they can't possibly be all things at once, women are retreating to the only realm they have any chance of actually controlling. Themselves."
I wanted "more" not just for myself but for my daughters. But when I witness their stress as they try to do it all, and try to do it all perfectly, I can hear my mother's voice in my head. We need to recognize what we can't do as well as what we can, and start addressing the inequities women face -- in business, in government, at home -- by working together again.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.