As a high schooler and college student I aspired to work full time as an attorney. Part of what changed my mind wasn’t my own yearning to be with my kids but what I saw of the mothers in the legal workforce. They were smart, hard-working attorneys; they were also harried, guilt-ridden mothers. Rarely the twain met — both by my observation and their admitting it. Only a generation beyond The Feminist Mystique, it was enough to discourage me from trying to combine both aspirations.
Much of their response was due to the work-family balance that thankfully, over the course of ten years, has changed. According to Pew Research Center findings released March 14, “Dads are doing more housework and child care; moms more paid work outside the home. Neither has overtaken the other in their ‘traditional’ realms, but their roles are converging.”
Indeed, by this very observation, feminism as a movement has nearly succeeded, or at least made huge strides. According to Pew, in 1965, fathers did 42% of paid work outside the home compared to mothers’ 8%. By contrast, mothers did 42% of housework and childcare compared to dads’ measly 6.5%. Now in 2011, fathers and mothers work outside the home 37 and 21 percent respectively. Mothers do 32% of the childcare and housework while dads have bumped up their game to 17%. In the game of life, the accomplishments of the feminist movement ranks up there with owning a couple of nice automobiles and maybe a stock certificate: Not exactly the whole shebang but not bad either. Except unfortunately its winning status doesn’t look like what was predicted.
In a recent New York magazine cover story, “The Retro Housewife,” the tagline describes the entire piece — and a surprising new trend — aptly: “Feminists who say they’re having it all — by choosing to stay at home.” The piece is an intriguing look at a section of suburban society moving forward by going backward. It quotes editor-in-chief of BlogHer, Stacy Morrison, who says, “What these women feel is that the trade-offs now between working and not working are becoming more and more unsustainable. The conversation we hear over and over again is this: ‘The sense of calm and control that we feel over our lives is so much better than what is currently on offer in our culture.’ And they’re not wrong.” An Atlantic piece on the New York magazine story said it this way: “In this context, domesticity is reinvisioned as a valid, creative, politically powerful, even feminist choice. After all, we’re not talking June Cleaver vacuuming in pearls here…”
Yet author Lisa Miller says: “Feminism has fizzled, its promise only half-fulfilled. This is the revelation of the moment, hashed and rehashed on blogs and talk shows, a cause of grief for some, fury for others. American women are better educated than they’ve ever been, better educated now than men, but they get distracted during their prime earning years by the urge to procreate. As they mature, they earn less than men and are granted fewer responsibilities at work.”
Indeed, for the first time since the number of stay-at-home moms decreased in 2008, the number of stay-at-home mothers rose between 2010 and 2011 and though the choice occurs more with families with six-figure incomes, there has also been a marked increase among families who make $75,000-100,000 per year.
Could it be that all this time our mothers were wrong and our grandmothers were right? That by choosing to go to the park with my three year old instead of negotiating a contract I have somehow broadened the ideas of the feminist movement despite its obvious but superficial contradictions? Even beyond that, would it be so terrible to admit more moms are choosing to stay at home because they find their children more important and more satisfying than an office job? Whether mothers choose to work inside or outside the home isn’t the point. One would think in our enlightened, progressive state we could be satisfied with the mere fact that some mothers have the freedom to choose and ultimately do choose one career over another.
The true, pure root of feminism wasn’t about schlepping your child to daycare at 6 a.m., working at an insurance company for $35,000 a year, heading home in time to throw dinner on the table, rush through homework and tuck them into bed. It was about choice. In my grandmother’s day, few women had the choice and some — the Melissa Mayers’ ancestors no doubt — yearned for it. Now many do. Some women choose to be at home; others choose to go to work — both reap the consequences. Can’t we let them do that without analyzing and arguing and bemoaning the so-called failure of a movement that rallied for just that?