Saturday, April 7, 2012

Of Sexism and Supermoms: Review of "Feminine Mistake" by Leslie Bennetts

In 2007 I heard an interview with journalist Leslie Bennetts. She had just published her book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? It advocates that moms maintain a career. At the time I hadn't yet had my first child, but was planning a family. Bennetts spoke passionately about what a risk it is to be financially dependent on a spouse (especially considering the high divorce rate). She warned how the lack of enough women in positions of great power makes it more difficult for young women and working mothers to climb their way up, not to mention the difficulty of breaking back into the work force after being out of it for 5-20 years. She also lamented the waste of education and professional potential when bright, young women finish degrees in law, business, and medical fields, often from Ivy League universities, only to drop out of the workforce before they even get their careers started.

I remember nodding my head and thinking, "Yes, of course!" My mom has a deeply satisfying career as an English teacher, and my mother-in-law is a nurse. Most of my aunts have college degrees and have worked full time or almost full time their whole lives. Their jobs energize them, give them confidence, and are interesting topics of conversation. Now granted, none of them really had a choice since a one income household was financially insecure and produced a much lower standard of living. But I get the impression that the women in my family don't just do it for the money. They like their jobs.

I admit, I'm a little appalled when I read or hear about affluent women who choose not to work because their husbands earn hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars, and then hire nannies and maids. It pisses me off that these women who are in such a powerful position to make society work better for all working parents (including overworked fathers) are apparently playing tennis and getting manicures, while trying to ignore the fact that they are at the financial mercy of their husbands.

Now to be clear, I do not have a high powered career. I'm a fine art printmaker and teaching artist. I make my money stringing together a mess of part time, freelance positions teaching and selling a pitifully small amount of artwork. I haven't had a single full-time job since I taught ESL in South Korea on an adventurous whim in between college and graduate school. I wish I earned more so as to ease the pressure on my husband and to have a more secure future for me and my children. But I always knew art wasn't a big money-maker. Despite the drawbacks, it's a legitimate path and I love it.

The first year of my older daughter's life changed nothing about my career. At the time I had a part time, work-from-home gig as an administrator and I was literally doing work on my laptop in the hospital bed after my c-section. My daughter was born September 4th and I was back to teaching after school art classes the first week of October. Thankfully, my husband worked third shift at the time, so he could be home when I went to teach. Also, my job was flexible enough that I could get away with bringing the baby along in an infant carrier if her dad wasn't available. When summer came I took a six week summer job and my mom (who has summers off) was able to watch the baby for a good chunk of the time. At first continuing work in my studio seemed impossible. I was always exhausted and it seemed like every time I tried the baby would cry. But eventually she got on a predictable schedule, and I found I was more inspired and motivated to make art than before because I wanted my daughter to see her mom doing more than housework.

Things were working out just fine, and I was as fulfilled and confident as I've ever been, until my husband got a promotion that came along with a day shift. My daughter was getting too big and aware to bring along to my after school classes, and her dad was no longer at home that time of day to take care of her. The most inexpensive day care centers would have eaten up 80% of my paychecks, and we couldn't afford to take that much of a reduction in income. So I quit my steady part-time teaching jobs and started babysitting out of my home to earn the money we needed. It seemed like the perfect solution; I had ample experience working with young children, clearances, training in first aid, and it would allow me to spend more time with my daughter.

Now I've been doing that for 18 months, and for the most part, it has been an adequate, albeit temporary solution. I really love children and I think I'd go nuts only hanging out with my own. It is nice to talk, however briefly, to my clients' parents when they get dropped off and picked up. Best of all, my daughter has benefited socially. It also made it easy to be pregnant again and have my second child. But I have no sick days or vacation pay. I and my children are dependent on my husband's health insurance. Perhaps worst of all, doing child care out of my home has put me less in touch with the people and institutions that would further my career as an artist and teacher. Fearing this from the start, I have continued to offer classes and workshops through a local art center. I also started an art blog and have put greater effort into online social networking and sales.

It is stressful to balance so many responsibilities, and after a while a little voice inside me started saying, "Just drop the art and teaching stuff you are doing. You love cooking and keeping the house all cozy, and playing with the kids. Just focus on that sort of stuff for the next few year. It'll be so much easier." But at the same time, another voice in me screamed "Are you kidding? You're an artist! You're a teacher! You can't just stop doing that stuff for a few years. What sort of example is that for the girls? Buck up and keep at it!" Then, while at the library, I stumbled on Bennetts's book and checked it out.

After the first few chapters I felt two frustrations with the book. First, while Bennetts insisted that she was addressing women across the class spectrum, it still seemed she was giving most attention to the upper classes. Then again, shouldn't she since those are the women who have the luxury of choosing not to work and who would be balancing out the power at the top if they all chose to work? Repeatedly Bennetts made the point that not just men, but men with housewives have an incredible career advantage over women and men with wives who also work. Such men are most likely to get into positions of great power because they are the ones who can most easily work the insane hours necessary to do so without worrying that the rest of their life will fall apart. Unfortunately, they are also the least likely to be sympathetic to the unique challenges of working parents who don't have a person at home managing the household. Thus, an unfair system perpetuates itself. Bennetts main tactic was trying scare affluent housewives by telling story after story of high-earning husbands who leave their wives for young hotties. These guys continue on with ever-increasing status and income while their forty, fifty, or sixty-some ex-wives are forced to work depressing, low-paying jobs or become dependent on their own children after child support and alimony (if they even get alimony) runs out. If the men in these stories sound like jerks, often the women aren't much better. Bennetts told the story of one especially despicable stay-at-home mom who gave up her dreams of being an actor and is now disappointed that her husband only earns enough for a stable middle class lifestyle, opposed to the luxurious lifestyle of her rich peers. When asked if she has any regrets, she says she would have married a different man! When asked what she would do if he left her, she says she would marry again! Any middle class reader is left with little sympathy for most of these people, and after a while the book feels more like a voyeuristic glimpse into the potential dysfunctions of the upper classes rather than a message for a broader audience.

My second frustration with the book at first was that it was making me depressed. That's because, despite the emphasis on the rich, I agreed with every word. Indeed, I feel trapped in a situation where I must stay home because my earning potential is (now that I have 2 kids) less than the cost of day care. That's right, if I were to get a day job as a barista or waitress full time (which is what most starving artists like me do) every penny plus some of my husband's paycheck would go to day care. I started to feel like an idiot for choosing a low-paying, unpredictable career in the arts and having two kids. Had my choices created a situation unfair for my husband and kids, and putting me in the cage of financial dependence?

I kept reading, and it got better. The book is not only an ominous warning to women who have quit or are considering quitting their careers to stay home. It is also a pep talk for women who are struggling to maintain careers during those difficult years when our children are young. While Bennetts's (reasonable) fear tactics and warnings were repeated throughout the book, eventually she focused on positives. Specifically, that work can be a joyful enterprise, providing confidence, a sense of purpose, and intellectual challenges, as well as a stable income.

Bennetts spent a good amount of the book attacking what she calls the false and sexist media image of "it's all or nothing." In other words, the false idea that women can be good at their professions, or they can be good moms, but not both. She points out the obvious double standard since men aren't sent these messages. Indeed, men should expect to make career sacrifices if they choose to have children, just like women do. For example, when I wanted our daughter to keep attending a gymfoolery class she enjoyed on Wednesday mornings, I asked my husband to go into work late those days to watch our new baby, and he agreed. Both working moms and dads need to pressure employers to be flexible regarding the family's needs. Neither parents should expect to be perfect in both their careers and parenting at the same time.

It is true that the bar for parental sacrifices is set much lower for men. Bennetts mentioned this, and I was reminded of an episode of the television show Louie where comedian Louis C.K. waves away compliments about how he's a "good father" for showing up at his daughter's school event. He recognizes that the low expectations on fathers insulting to men. One of my professional goals as a wood block printmaker is to do a two month residency at the Nagasawa Art Park in Japan. When I mentioned my plans to apply when my girls are around 7 and 9 years old, another mother and artist acquaintance gave me a dark look and said, "Oh, I don't think you could leave them for that long." Why not? My father went to Mexico for three months on assignment when I was even younger. Sure I missed him terribly, but I also thought it was amazing that my daddy was doing something so interesting for his job.

Bennetts explored how mothers tend to be quiet and modest about their professional achievements and feel afraid to express excitement about them. These messages hit home with me. As I've invested more of my time and identity with babysitting and staying at home with the kids, my self image has suffered. Recently I took my girls to have lunch with their dad at work. When we went inside, my husband began proudly introducing his family to his co-workers. In addition to beaming over his daughters' adorableness, he eagerly told them about a group exhibition I had coming up and my teaching an art education class at a local university. My knee-jerk reaction to this was to sheepishly shrug and mumble "Oh, yeah." as if these were nothing important or special. On later reflection, I thought, "What is wrong with me? I never used to act like this!"

This passage from the book especially hit a chord with me:
Misguided ideals of perfection are the bane of women's existence, and their pursuit inadvertently encourages women to limit their ambitions. Instead of accepting that life is an inherently messy enterprise and that the vast, complex sweep of it is a large part of the joy, they think it's better to narrow their focus to small segments that can be tidied up and wrapped with a big bow, even as they turn their backs on most of the wondrous possibilities that might otherwise enrich their existence.
Bennetts book assures working mothers (and fathers) that we can be "good enough" at both. Especially since the time that we are intensely raising our children is for most a relatively small slice of time. The past two years my artwork shrunk to a smaller scale, and my projects are less ambitious and take longer to complete. I shouldn't feel bad about that. Instead I should feel proud that I'm consistently plugging away at it while raising two fantastic little girls. In fact, these years are helping me learn how to better manage my time, so after the girls are grown I can be a more productive artist than before I had them. Thinking about things that way helps me feel better when my living room is strewn with toys, I've burnt the bean soup, and forgot to change over the laundry I put in four hours ago. At least I posted my latest workshops to Craig's List and got some carving done during the kids' nap. Really, given the choice, what's more important, staying on top of the laundry all the time, or making a new work of art? Or as Bennetts put it: "it's better to be messy and creative than neat and uninspired."

To my joy, Bennetts also addressed the issue of husbands needing to change. It is true, if women are to succeed in altering our roles in society and at home, our male partners must also change. Bennetts mentioned an article I had read about how the hours that men and women work pretty much breaks even because even though mothers do spend more time on childcare and housework than fathers, fathers tend to spend an equal amount of extra time working on their careers. Reading that helped me appreciate my husband rather than fume at him for not cleaning the bathrooms or scooping the litter boxes often enough. However, Bennetts points out two important facts that prove such arrangements are still unfair. First, so long as a couple stays together, both can benefit from one partner's increased income over time. But if they ever separate, as half of couples do, the person who invested more in their career gets to reap the benefits of that investment, while the one who provided a supporting role is left high and dry. Second, Bennetts cites evidence that doing housework is associated with greater unhappiness and that housewives suffer from lowered self esteem. This might explain my sheepish response to my husband bragging about my professional achievements to his co-workers. So while the hours of work might even out, the overall benefits of paid work are greater.

So what's the solution? Just like women shouldn't give up on their careers, they also shouldn't give up on pressuring their husbands to do their fair share of housework. Bennetts admits that this alone isn't going to produce perfect equality right away since women are going up against a whole lot of socialization that compels both men and women to embrace traditional roles. We can be nice about it, but unless we continue to push against those forces, things will never change. In other words, I shouldn't let my annoyance at the stinky litter box eat me up inside, but I should kindly mention to my husband that it needs scooping instead of just doing it myself.

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