The feminist elite talk back: L.'s story

Filed under: Just For Moms, Work Life, Media, Day Care & Education

the feminist elite talk backWhen Linda Hirshman wrote about how “elite” (read: college-educated) women who stay at home with their kids frustrate feminism, it got quite a response from you all. We continue a series of profiles of moms and whether or not they fit her profile - and whether they think feminism is dead in their own lives. Tonight, L. (who wrote her responses in December 2005).

I just went over the big four-oh hump this month. I got my bachelors in '87 from one of the Seven Sisters, with a major in East Asian studies and a minor in studio art, and got a masters in journalism from an Ivy in 1991. Big Son was born in May of 1995, Daughter in January of 1997 and Little Son in April of 2002.
I had no firm goals when I was an undergraduate -- I just wanted to go to Japan, and write about it. It occurred to me, if I went into journalism, I might actually get paid for doing this.
It's certainly not necessary to go to journalism school to be a journalist, but I had pretty much zeroed in on news as a career choice, so I figured, hey, it can't hurt, and it will probably help. I went back to school three years after college.

When you graduated from your most recent institution, how hopeful were you of succeeding? What were your lofty goals?  
I wanted to be the Tokyo bureau chief of a major news organization before I was 40. I ended up being the bureau chief of a small, interesting . I suppose it wasn`t the most prestigious job, but I really loved it, and had a lot of fun. For about a year, I truly felt I had the job I had always wanted. But then two things happened, back-to-back: my company was acquired, and my husband got word he was about to be transferred to San Francisco. My job description changed, and I wasn't as happy, so I decided to leave after we moved to SF, and stay home fulltime with the kids for a while.

Are you working now? What are you doing?  
Ah, this answer will take some space.  I moved to Los Angeles from Tokyo with my Japanese husband`s last overseas job posting in 1994, and was there through 1998. For four and a half years, I did freelance writing from home, while taking care of the two infants. When we moved back to Tokyo in 1998, I put the kids in fulltime  daycare, and went to work for a wire service.

I think that was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life -- I put my babies into a public day care center where the primary language spoken was not my own, and plunged into a very demanding job. I did this so we could afford to live in central Tokyo. My husband works for the Japanese government, and on his salary alone, we would have ended up living outside the central city.

I could have continued to spend more time with the kids, but he would have had to leave early in the morning and return after they went to sleep, so he essentially would have been a "weekend dad." We decided it would be better for our family if I returned to work, and we put my salary toward city rent -- and later, toward our down payment on a central apartment. So even my crazy Japanese workaholic husband was able to come home for dinner almost every night and read stories to the kids -- and then usually return to his office for a few hours. Our youngest son was born in Tokyo in 2002. I went right back to work when he was fourteen weeks old.  

And your partner - what is he doing?  
My husband is doing all right. As I said, he works for the Japanese government, doing trade and investment promotion, so he probably will never make as much as some of his friends working in the private sector. But it`s a good, stable career, and he finds great meaning and satisfaction working for his country. I'm not working now, but at my last two jobs, I made more than he did, and he didn't mind this at all. He said he really appreciated having a wife with a career when I wrote the check for our down payment.

Do you enjoy working? If you could quit, would you?
I can sum it up the answers to both of the above questions by saying, been there, done that, loved it, would love to do it again, but we'll see. I am very lucky that I don't have to work just to put food on the table, and can now spend some time with my kids -- especially my youngest son. I tell people that what I'm doing now is "delayed maternity leave" --  I didn't get to spend enough time with him when he was a baby, so I'm enjoying him as a three-year-old. My oldest son in particular is having trouble adjusting to our new life in America, and until he settles in, I have no plans to work fulltime. I plan to do some freelance writing and also some volunteer work in 2006, but after that, I plan to just take life as it unfolds. If we end up back in Tokyo again, I hope I can find as good a job there as my last one, in terms of both satisfaction and salary, but I realize this will largely depend on luck and timing.
If you are staying at home or working part-time, what factored into that decision?
In Tokyo, our kids went to a great public daycare center, which also had after-school care for older kids. We also had a babysitter/housekeeper who was like a family member, without whom our household would have imploded under a stack of dirty clothes and dishes.

When we moved to SF, I originally planned to transfer with my old company, but then changed my mind and decided to stay home. We had already paid a registration fee to get an au pair, and selected one, so we decided to go through with it. So I am now in the wonderful position of being at home, with another pair of hands to help me out. 
Do you feel satisfied with your "choices"? 
Yep. Absolutely.

Household work: who does what? Do you feel that each partner contributes fairly?
I now do all of the above, since I'm at home fulltime, and I actually enjoy doing the finances. When I worked fulltime, I outsourced the laundry, cleaning and cooking. I`m a much neater and cleaner person in general than my husband, and I decided early on in our marriage to compromise to the lower standard, and accept his definition of "clean" as "clean enough." Now that I'm at home, "clean enough" has taken on a whole new meaning. I recently hired a twice-a-month cleaning woman.

How many times have you changed jobs, compared to your partner?
I've had five different fulltime jobs, not counting contract work. He's had just one, and likely will only have one until he retires. Most of this is due to the nature of our diffferent fields, and my eagerness to follow him on his job transfers.

Hirshman talks a lot about "social power" and relative status/power/age when men and women marry. Say a little about your and your partner's balance of power, especially mention if either of you have significant family wealth.
Both my husband and I come from very middle-class families, who paid for our college educations but that's it -- no trust funds or anything like that. The assets we have consist entirely of what we've jointly saved.

When the babies were tiny, I felt as if most of the household burden were falling on me, because for years I was the one waking up to breastfeed them. My husband has always been a deep sleeper -- even now, I'm still the one who wakes up if someone has a bad dream. Overall, though, he loves the kids, and loves spending time with them, so I'd say we're on equal footing, both inside the household and out.

In your opinion, why aren't there more women in "executive suites" and in other powerful positions? Do you ever imagine yourself there?
I think sadly that having a baby is still a great career move for a man, and a bad one for a woman. A man is taken more seriously if he is a father, especially if he is the breadwinner supporting the family. A woman gives birth to a career distraction -- I have women friends who feel as if they have to pretend their families don't exist when they're at work, while their male counterparts have baby pictures on their desks and leave work to go to school plays, etc.

I think these subtle assumptions are gradually changing, but until they'`re history, they will hold mothers back. Old Gloria herself once said, "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn." When I applied to Steinem's alma mater, I wrote my application essay about that quote. I didn't save that essay, but I remember I agreed wholeheartedly with the point I thought Steinem was making -- not only do women need to rethink traditional gender roles, but men do, too.

Hirshman says "The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, "A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.""
I won't even touch Hirschman`s description of "full human flourishing," because her definition is bound to clash with mine. Hers will include public contribution and income, and mine will include tickling small bodies, reading stories and baking brownies. We're not on the same page there -- in fact, we're not even quoting from the same books, or speaking the same language.

I do agree with Hirschman 100% that automatically assigning the household sphere to women is unjust. But her last point, that women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust? Huh? Perhaps I'm an ignorant dupe, in denial about being a victim of gender stereotyping, but I'm pretty sure I decided, fair and square, to stay home. So much for my "choice."

And hey, wasn't traditional feminism supposed to be about "choice?" Wasn't that one of its catch words? Hirshman, whether she means to or not, is saying that the only correct choice for wealthy, educated females is one that includes the public sphere.
"Never figure out where the butter is. "Where's the butter?" Nora Ephron's legendary riff on marriage begins. In it, a man asks the question when looking directly at the butter container in the refrigerator. "Where's the butter?" actually means butter my toast, buy the butter, remember when we're out of butter. Next thing you know you're quitting your job at the law firm because you're so busy managing the butter."
Remember "Last Tango" in Paris, when Marlon Brando says, "Get the butter!" to Maria Schnieder? Okay, so that wasn't a particularly "feminist" scene, to say the least, but my point here is, butter is what you make of it.  You can quit your job at the law firm to manage the butter, you can hire someone else to manage your butter, you can decide you don't want any butter at all in your life, or you can use butter as a substitute for personal lubricant in your sadomasochistic carnal relationship with another consenting adult. People will make their own choices, and no one has any right to make decisions or assumptions about how other people should manage their own butter. 
"Have a baby. Just don't have two... A second kid pressures the mother's organizational skills, doubles the demands for appointments, wildly raises the cost of education and housing, and drives the family to the
suburbs. But cities, with their Chinese carryouts and all, are better for working mothers." 
Hmmmm. I don`t know what she`s talking about -- we managed to juggle 3 kids in expensive central Tokyo, on the combined salary of a journalist and a government worker. I spent the first two decades of my life trying to escape from the suburbs -- why ever would I go back? Sure, one kid is easier to juggle than 3, but some of us thrive on chaos.  

"What [the NYT brides] do is ... bad for society, and is widely imitated... This last is called the "regime effect," and it means that even if women don't quit their jobs for their families, they think they should and feel guilty about not doing it."
Ironically, my many years as a fulltime working mom probably contributed to removing any vestigial shreds of guilt when it comes to my family and household. I didn't feel guilty when I went back to work when Little Son was 14 weeks old, leaving him with a babysitter he later began calling, "Mama." I didn`t feel guilty when I sometimes missed school events, because I wasn`t able to get away from work. I didn't feel guilty for all of those dinners of convenience food we ate in front of the television. I made what I thought were the best choices for my family overall at the time, and we lived with them. So, now that my family's circumstances shifted and I'm at home, spending more time with the kids and generally enjoying my life, I'm supposed to start feeling guilty now?  Ah....nope. Sorry. I love my life now, and Hirschman's guilt trip slid off me like water off a duck.
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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.
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