Working Out the Kinks

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There was a time when neighborhoods were filled with moms whose life work centered around home and children. When I was growing up working women were the exception rather than the rule. I knew a lady who was a commercial artist until she had her first child and then she dedicated herself to being a mother. That was the way most situations played out. My own mother had been a secretary in the early years of her marriage, but retired from work outside the home when I was born. She eventually had to straddle two different worlds after my father died, choosing initially to be a teacher to support our single parent family mostly because the job allowed her to have the same hours and holidays as we did. When we were home so was she, and so things worked out rather well. Once we were grown and she became ill more and more often due to her bipolar disorder she switched to a job with the University of Texas Health Science Center that was less fulfilling than teaching, but ultimately more forgiving of her frequent absences.

Hers was a balancing act in the early days of the women’s movement for equality in the workforce that she would rather not have had to attempt if only my father had not died. Even after years of bowing to the grind of working day after day her salary barely met her needs, and she longed for the life at home that had once been her greatest joy and accomplishment. Without my father’s earning power she had to learn how to juggle so many responsibilities that it wore her down. She often commented that she felt as though she only had the energy to do each of her necessary tasks at the bare minimum rather than excelling at any one thing as she had done when her entire focus was on running a household and raising children. She lamented the fact that as more and more women entered the workforce they were in essence making it less and less possible for their “sisters” to choose the traditional role that women had held for most of history. She longed for the days when she had run our household like a CEO, with precision, efficiency and much thought.

By the time I was an adult just as my mother had predicted it had become almost necessary for the economic health of our family that both my husband and I have jobs. I desperately wanted to spend time with my children during their early years of development so I chose to sacrifice luxuries and stay at home. I supplemented our budget by working as a teacher at a pre-school that my children also attended. It was a part time gig that was fun for all of us but added a bit to our family coffers. When that proved to be insufficient I took care of some of the neighborhood children during the day while their mothers worked. Since they provided playmates for my daughters and were little trouble to watch I still managed to keep the lifestyle that I wanted. Once both of my girls were in school each day I followed the example that I had seen from my mother by working as a teacher. For the most part I followed the same schedule as the children, and with the help of my mother-in-law I did not have to worry about after school childcare. It did not occur to me until years later that if my mother-in-law had been working full time I would have had to spend a lion’s share of my teaching salary for after school child care. The fact that she was a more old school woman was a saving grace for me.

To be successful at my work I had to spend more and more time away from my family. During the typical school year I rarely arrived home before five or six each evening and then I hurried through the tasks of preparing dinner, helping my children with their homework and studies, and getting them tucked into bed for the night so that I might grade papers and plan lessons until the late hours. I arose early and often had to leave while the kids were still at home. I consoled myself by noting that my girls were very responsible and the bus stop for getting to school was at the corner of our street where they met up with other children who were their friends. Still I felt a tinge of guilt for being somewhat neglectful.

As I became more and more involved with my career my daughters moved into their high school and college years and my attention to my work consumed most of my time. I had to adhere to a strict regimen to keep things running well, and I sometimes felt as though I was spending more and more time on the job and less and less with my family. As my mother’s illnesses forced her to accept more care from me and my brothers I tended to focus on hours at work, helping her and barely giving thought to home life. There were times when it felt as though my husband and I were two souls briefly passing each other on any given day. The lure of retirement loomed large as I grew weary of rushing to my job before the sun had risen and coming home after dark. I hated that in instances where I had to choose between my career and my family, I often had to opt for my job.

I know young women with careers that allow them to employ nannies and housekeepers inside their homes, luxuries that I was never able to afford. Their work is such that when they leave their offices they are finished for the day. They have time to devote to their families on a regular basis, and in spite of this seemingly rewarding situation they too feel as torn as I did by concerns that somehow they are doing everything with mediocrity. The very idea of leaning into their careers is frightening because the process of devoting their energy to proving their equality to male counterparts often means having to surrender the responsibilities for their homes and their children to others. There is such a fine line that allows them to balance their home and work lives that one small misstep can lead to disaster on all fronts.

My mother was right in noting that we women were painting ourselves into a corner that we may or may not ultimately enjoy. The economic realities of today’s world make it almost impossible for families to operate with only one source of income. Women may want to stay home with their children but doing so will make life very difficult financially. As a result most neighborhoods today are almost deserted during work hours as women troop to their jobs alongside the men. If they are to have equal opportunities they must meet ever expanding expectations from their bosses that reduce the time that they have for home. They feel as though they are operating in a constant cycle of chaos as they rush from one duty to the next. We have a huge population of women who are stressed and exhausted and worried that they will not be able to keep up with the emotional and physical demands of “having it all.”

Now that I am retired and have my “going to work” years behind me I am able to reflect on the past the present and the future. I would like to think that we as a society would continue to honor both those woman who choose to work hard to create a warm and nurturing life for the members of their family by staying at home and those who want or need to spend their days in a workplace. Both “professions” can be noble but each requires our support. We need to think of how best to grease the wheels that make our home force and our workforce less anxious and more rewarding. The choices that we make as women (and also men) should not relegate us to states of guilt and stress. “Having it all” should mean being able to live well whatever we ultimately choose to do.

We seem to still be working out the kinks of the changing roles of women and their effect on all of society. As we strive to solve the problems we cannot focus on only one type of situation. We cannot favor one lifestyle over another. True choice for women is not as much about reproduction as it is about how to live from one day to the next. No one way should be deemed better than another. 

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