My wife makes some of her living monitoring online discussions. One of the ongoing conversations there is about how women’s contradictory conundrums have changed — how today’s overwhelmed-ness compares with yesterday’s ennui. Staying at home, one feels the pangs of unexplored career, of unmade creative contributions… Working at a career, one sees the kids for forty minutes at the beginning and end of the day. “The Supermom Syndrome” — “Wanting to Have it All” — the talk shows have been doing these themes for years.
Women of our parents’ generation were placed in an impossible position. Society’s model for them was the Donna Reed/June Cleaver homemaker. They had all the advantages (and all the appliances!), and yet lived a daily grind that slowly drove them insane. Protected from the brunt of professional competition, they were free to develop the tender, nurturing qualities of the good old American Mom. Their husbands, assured of spousal support, shirts pressed, floors polished, children hugged, loved, fed and schooled, were free to sharpen their skills in the professional arena. All too often, the men grew callous and remote, while the women grew timid and paranoid.
But what else could be done? It was the only sensible way for most Americans to organize their lives. Making ends meet demanded a full-time career; men earned more in the marketplace than women. Breadwinners couldn’t afford to be bothered with time-consuming matters like childrearing or laundry. June and Donna, meanwhile, spent their adult lives in near-complete ignorance of their husbands’ challenges and concerns. This put a horrendous strain on communication. She had no idea what it took to make it Out There; he couldn’t see how wearisome, how spirit-numbing, were all the things she did, with so few complaints, In Here.
But that was then. Nowadays, both parents work full-time careers, and a large portion of child-rearing is done by hired help.
Now, before we go any further, let’s put aside the notion that “the women’s movement” is somehow to blame for this. Certainly the Feminist movement played a role in shaping today’s conceptions of family and professional lives. But we cannot (as some religious conservatives still try to do) lay blame for the Supermom syndrome on the women’s libbers. The problem is much more basic than that.
It has much more to do with our society’s conventions regarding competition in the professional sphere of life. In order to meaningfully participate in the labor market — to have a career — one is expected to work full-time. This is true at every level; even retail clerks or delivery drivers don’t get health insurance or other benefits unless they are “full time.” On the “professional” level, of course, competition is keener, and the forty-hour week is just the beginning. There’s no way around it: our society’s idea of career success requires a support team at home! Can one successfully compete, Out There, and still have time to press one’s shirts, or educate one’s children? Therein lies the genesis of Supermom: the postmodern way to be driven crazy.
The notion that for a career must be pursued full- (or more likely, over-) time is so entrenched that it sounds absurd to question it. We think that the personal and social costs simply must be borne. The system is so well established that we forget its roots in the competition of laborers for jobs — and that under such circumstances, employers have great latitude to arrange things for their own ease and profit. If their employees have a problem with crushingly long hours, others will gladly take their place. Conversely, if it benefits Sprawl-mart to hire only part-time workers, to avoid burdensome benefits, then that’s who’ll be hired. Such jobs are not considered to be “careers,” but they’re definitely better than nothing.
Incidentally, we hear from time to time about the revisions to macro-economic beancounting necessitated by the “market-izing” of tasks that were once done for free by Donna and June. Wages paid for childcare, laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc. are additions to the Gross Domestic Product. We’re told, in other words, that our economy grew because the daughters of Donna and June were too busy to do household tasks, and had to hire out.
Well, to be sure, the economy grew. For one thing, both Dad and Mom are out there, in career-track jobs, being twice as productive as ol’ Dad was back in the sixties. But, the brutal fact of the matter is that they are both working career-track jobs in order to enjoy the same material standard of living that one salary once brought them!
No, we cannot blame the Feminist movement for the stresses and contradictions of reconciling our personal and professional lives. The feminists saw society stunting and wounding itself by pressing both women and men into dehumanizing sex-roles, and strove to articulate a new freedom for everyone. The problem is that, in the economic sphere at least, society has ignored feminists’ advice.
If workers are twice as productive as they used to be, then why, oh why, do they have to work twice as many hours?
Considering the human cost of this very difficult way of organizing people’s economic lives, society had really better be using its resources to the fullest. Society really owes us that. If, after all, there existed huge opportunities to which workers and entrepreneurs are being denied — if there were a far more just, more efficient way of arranging economic policy, whose very existence has been intentionally hidden from us by generations of “experts” — it would make us mad as hell, wouldn’t it?