To continue the childrearing series, I wanted to think through the subject of how women having children and having a career fit together. If you missed Part 1 and Part two, hop on over and read them and I’d love your comments/thoughts/reactions. There have been a flurry of articles lately claiming that women can’t ‘have it all’ (or at least not all at once). The argument is that while the women’s rights movement made great strides in terms of getting women into the workplace, the structure of the system is such that women are still at a disadvantage, especially if they want to have children. I’m not so interested in trying to answer the question, “Can women have it all?” I don’t actually think this is an answerable question. For one, ’having it all’ is different for every person — for some, having it all would be being an active primary caregiver type parent and working part time at a job you love. For others, it might be being a full-time parent and not working a second job. For others, it would be parenting, having the high-powered career they’ve dreamed of, and volunteering 10 hours a week at a local women’s shelter….My point is that depending on what “having it all” means to you determines whether or not it’s reasonable to assume that you can have it all.
What the articles on the subject say is that women can’t be active, primary parenting figures and have a high-powered career at the same time. Something has to give if you choose to have both. Either your career success is halted, or your children are in daycare to accommodate your work schedule. For some women, this choice is not a huge point of conflict — some women know that they being a parent is more important to them and others know that career success is more important than being with their kids all day long. But other — and I suspect, most — women feel at least somewhat conflicted about this choice.
To use an example I’m probably most familiar with… the academic career is an interesting site for thinking through this issue. In some ways, an academic career is much more forgiving schedule-wise than other careers in terms of fitting a child into the mix. Teaching schedules are often somewhat flexible in terms of days/times, many academics have the summers off to do research and writing, you rarely have 40+ hours a week of required show-up time (though, most academics seem to work much longer hours than this when it’s all said and done). If you choose to go the tenure route, however, there are all kinds of other pressures that make hefty demands on your time and energy — publishing, teaching, researching, committee meetings and other departmental service, advising, conferences, funding applications, etc. If you choose not to go the tenure route, you risk sacrificing job stability, a living wage, health insurance and other benefits, etc.
There’s been much talk in our department lately about having babies. After a long hiatus, four women in our department have been pregnant in the last year. Traditionally, I think, there’s been a sort of unspoken understanding that the best time to have kids as a woman in the academy is post-tenure. Once you’ve reached that elusive and hard-won career goal, many women decide to have children. This seems to be a trend coming out of the 197os when women became particularly empowered to pursue their own careers, rather than stay at home and have children. This meant that through the 80s, 90s and 2000s, a whole host of women were waiting until later in life to have children (if they had children at all). In the academy, unless you’re some kind of prodigy, tenure usually comes when you’re in your late 30s/early 40s or beyond. Now, there’s a change in the conversation — that maybe a better time to have kids is actually in graduate school. Though graduate school is hugely stressful for work and financial reasons, there is also more flexibility in grad school than in an early academic career. And taking an extra year or two to finish graduate school has less impact on your career than halting progress in a junior faculty position. Some women say “fuck it, my reproductive life is not going to be dictated by the conventions of career advancement.” And others seem very concerned with the “best time” career-wise to have children. Plus, for most of us, we don’t actually get to choose whether or not we work — we have to work and earn a living because we’re unfortunately not all independently wealthy. So how to negotiate this need with the role children play in our lives (if we choose to have them).
I don’t actually have a clear opinion on this subject one way or another — other than to say that it is a complicated issue and that there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution if what you want is a high-powered career at the same time as you want to be home raising a child. Something’s got to give and I imagine for many who are in this position, it is a hugely conflicted choice. The take-away, I think, is that we should be having this conversation because (as the article above says) it’s actually damaging to other women to keep perpetuating this myth that we can ‘have it all’ if we only work hard enough. It seems to me that the conversation we should be having is not how to ’have it all’, but how to negotiate the compromises we make to try to have both. Or how to negotiate the compromise with ourselves and others when we decide that one or the other is more important to us. Ideally, we would be able to alter the structure of the system to accommodate this tension — to provide more space for parents to be parents in the workplace. But until that can happen, we are stuck with working towards make work/family balance more just and having this conversation.
Note: I want to point out that in some ways this post is coming from an extreme place of privilege. For many women, there is little choice to have children or not, to work or not, to seek a high-powered career or not. For others, there simply isn’t time or space to have these conversations because of the demands of making a living and raising a child (or children) at the same time under difficult circumstances. Just having this conversation is a privilege.
What do you think?