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The mother of all questions

I first heard the big question at a job interview in a hotel room in Manhattan. Dressed in the requisite suit, I had come from college in Rhode Island prepared to impress John and Anne Holden, the couple who ran the school in Colorado where I wanted to teach.

We seemed to be getting along when John -- the school's headmaster -- paused and narrowed his piercing eyes. "How are you planning to handle both work and a personal life?" he asked, sternly. What did he mean? I had no significant personal life, nor had I ever worked. I was 20 years old. What was the right response? What was I supposed to say?

"I'm not sure," I answered in the most serious voice I could muster, trying to give this baffling question the importance it clearly had for him. I got the job. I later left it to get married.

But what stands out from that day is the question that will not go away, the question I was asked by John Holden and that young women are asked again and again by their employers and boyfriends and husbands and parents. How will you handle both work and family? How will you find the time to pursue a career and be a good mother to your children?

It's a question people have fought about since women went to work. If a woman says she is planning to drop out of the workforce to raise her children, does that mean she isn't serious about working? On the other hand, when a woman says she is planning to forgo marriage and children in order to pursue a career, she often comes across as heartless and unfeminine.

Women can't win, but that doesn't stop them from trying. A recent survey of Yale undergraduates, women close to my daughter's age -- she's 23 -- showed that 60 percent of female students say they plan to cut back or quit work when they have children.

The question asks women to imagine a dark future with only two basic choices. Women can marry well, stop work when they have children and hope their husband is around to support them as long as they need support. Their chances of this happening are less than one in two. Or women can forge careers, have children and hope they can juggle both. Statistically, their chances of managing this are less than one in three, according to studies showing that only one-third of mothers have full-time jobs. Even women can do this math.

In a society that gives little support to working parents in the form of tax breaks, maternal and paternal leave or state-subsidized schooling and child care, the odds for women who want to have both work and family are not good. It doesn't matter what women say they want; the question makes it clear that they certainly will have to scramble.

The obdurate fact of having children is that someone has to take care of them. Even with nannies and baby-sitters, the responsibilities of parenting are huge, intransigent and profoundly distracting. Taking unscheduled trips, chairing impromptu meetings that run over time and focusing attention for hours or days on a specific deal are difficult tasks for the brain that also must memorize the pediatrician's phone number, handle children's schedules and respond to daily emergencies.

Because most women bear the responsibility, if not the actual daily work, of taking care of children, most women, in theory, just can't do the kinds of jobs required by many professional careers.

Without financial independence, men and women both are subject to disastrous changes in fortune. Most women are dependent on a husband's help for themselves and for their children. This is a perilous position. The woman who stops working soon may find herself living in dramatically reduced circumstances.

But when I ask my own daughter the question, she has a different kind of answer, an answer that changes my perspective. "People are always telling women they can't do things," she says. "This question is just another way of doing that. To ask women who do not have careers and who do not have children how they will handle the conflict between careers and children is just an exercise in artificial pressure. It's just another way of telling them what they can't do."

Her advice? "Women should trust their intuition, find good role models and not listen to stupid questions."

Susan Cheever is a columnist at Newsday. Domestic Bliss will return next week.

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