The woman trap

Author: Andrea Midgett

I was standing in a crowded room at the British ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., tonic water with a heavy dose of lime in one hand, my free hand hovering over a tray of appetizers, when a slightly harried-looking woman dressed in black stepped toward me. She wore fashionable heels and had a casual haircut. I switched my drink to my left hand and identified myself with a smile.

“Are you or is your husband the Rhodes?” she asked immediately, even before we finished shaking.

“Oh, my husband,” I answered, nodding in his direction. He was in the middle of a small group of friends, all former Rhodes Scholars gathered for the annual send-off of Cecil Rhodes’ newly minted beneficiaries.

“And what do you do?” the woman, who was about 15 years younger than I am, continued. I noticed her eyes were beginning to wander.

“Well, I spent most of the last several years raising our three children, and I . . .” Before I could finish my sentence, she turned to someone else.

Within minutes I heard her regaling several presumably more credentialed listeners about her demanding life as a working mother with two young children. She was a lawyer, her life was so busy, her work was so consuming, she was struggling to pack it in while raising her kids. I guess that was her excuse for overlooking rudimentary politeness.

Actually, I’m sympathetic to the legions of mothers who draw a paycheck as well as the shrinking number of mothers who don’t. Regardless of what our bank accounts look like, every mother (and father) I know works, and works hard. Parenting is by its very nature demanding, increasingly so as one’s children age. You finally get a grasp on what your son or daughter needs and what your approach as a parent should be and, bam, the equation changes: more of this, less of that, a firmer hand here, the freedom to fail there. Multiply it by more than one child, and there are times when you find yourself feeling confused, anxious, underappreciated and really, really tired. Add paying work to the mix — bosses and schedules and traveling and deadlines — and the stress can be crushing.

Illustration by Erin Maala

No man or woman likes to be thought less of because of the work he or she does, or has chosen not to do, or has put aside for an extended period of time. I have fought feeling defensive for years about not having a full-time salaried job, even though I have done all kinds of part-time work. I have trained myself to walk away from conversations like the one with the Rhodes lawyer without getting prickly or succumbing to thoughts of ill will or flat-out exasperation. Most of the time. Humor helps — “I’m a major domestic philanthropist” — but even that hinges on the questioner letting me fully respond before his or her eyes drift over my shoulder.

There is an unspoken suspicion among many high-level professionals that women who choose to step off the fast track don’t really have their stuff together. Both men and women are guilty of this, but women judging women are, in my experience, the worst. Men who are primary caregivers while their wives bring home the local, vegan bacon face less scrutiny. They must be enlightened if they are willing to change diapers and drive carpools seems to be the reigning thought. I’ve never heard anyone question the professional motivation or ability of a stay-at-home father. It’s presumed that what these men (may) lack in domestic experience they will quickly learn on the job, to a deafening round of applause. You would think they are geniuses. Maybe they are, but there are no standing ovations for women who have thought through their options and their family’s needs and have made the same call.

A good friend once asked me if I wasn’t upset by the fact that “all the attention” goes to my husband and his professional achievements. She and I were part of a small group of adults gathered on our porch — all academics except me — discussing work and publications and research grants and, eventually, our families.

She followed me into the kitchen to refill drinks, leaned close and whispered, “May I ask you something? Doesn’t it bother you? It’s like you’re not worth anything.”

I was so stunned I hardly knew how to respond. It wasn’t like I was not participating in the conversation. She knew that I have keen interests, that I work hard and am engaged with more than the weekly grocery specials. That I’ve never been a doormat. I eventually realized that it bothered her. For me to not have a brilliant professional career made her uneasy, not me. I think she suddenly feared that I wasn’t both exceling professionally and raising the best family ever (however one measures that, and parents are continually devising new ways) because I wasn’t capable enough, didn’t think enough of myself, wasn’t strong or valuable enough.

On the one hand, my friend was right: I am no prodigy, but then, most people aren’t. Most people work themselves to the top of whatever ladder they are climbing. Time, energy and persistence are the rungs — the next one perpetually out of reach. It doesn’t matter if you are straining to reach the top in a corporation or if you are potty training an uninterested toddler, you are only going to get there by work.

But my friend was wrong to confuse professional competence and value as a human being; they are not the same thing. She was equally wrong to think that just because you can do something you must do it, no matter the cost. God help us if we allow ourselves to become such a two-tiered society that anyone who is not operating in the top stratosphere professionally is deemed a less worthy man or woman.

I am a little tired of it, and I don’t want to defend myself, but I think it’s an important conversation, now more than ever. I am often asked about the decision I made to be a stay-at-home mother. Sometimes the questioner really wants to hear my answer, sometimes not. I get that. It’s such an emotionally charged issue. I honestly don’t believe that what worked for me will or should work for all women everywhere. I have no one-size-fits-all answer, but that doesn’t seem to matter; men and women are ready to weep or jump down my throat or label me a betrayer of female equality and progress no matter what I say.

So I tell them the truth. I chose to stay home when my kids were young because I believed it was the best decision I could make personally — for me, my kids, my husband, my marriage — and professionally, given my options at the time. I didn’t turn my back on my education and personal ambition. I took them with me. I have never been accused of being a tiger mom, but I focused on raising my kids with all the intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy I could muster. I did not do everything right, but even in the early years, when money was painfully tight, I sincerely believe we as a family had more for less. Not monetarily, but we had a life full of learning, rich in experience and relationships. I poured myself into helping get us there.

“Part of my job, since I’m not bringing in much of a salary, is to make money by saving money,” I told the kids as they grew old enough to understand. “That is why we drove the same car until it died with 274,000 miles on it; why your dad and I have date nights in the kitchen after you have gone to bed; why your baby pictures show you sitting in a high-chair in a half-renovated kitchen that took us over five years to complete. But my decision to be home with you was every bit as intentional as your father’s decision to be a good scientist. And we have all benefited from it: you, me and your father.”

It’s harder to explain my decision to adults who believe careers move only in straight lines or who refuse to embrace the truth that no one can say “yes” to every possibility. Every “yes” has “no” written on the other side. “Yes” I will marry you means “no” to marrying someone else. “Yes” I want to be a world-class athlete means “no” to a laissez-faire training schedule. It has been especially difficult to explain my long-ago decision as my husband and I have transitioned to being empty-nesters. Figuring out my next step has been a challenge. That doesn’t mean I regret my earlier decision (far from it); it just means change is hard, even when it is inevitable.

I am essentially a home executive who has worked herself out of a job and is looking for the next big gig. Some of my skills may need sharpening, but I have learned a lot during my years of full-time mothering. I have been involved in numerous ministries, hosted literally hundreds of people in our home, become a reasonable gardener and cook, learned to manage budgets, written a family history for a client, and sat with many a high-school or university student pondering his or her future. I rarely have a serious conversation with anyone, young or old, without asking them what they are reading.

Given my unlikely professional background — the proverbial monkey on my back, leaning way over my shoulder — I’ve looked for pointers from other women. Because it was in the news, one of the books I picked up was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead.

I wasn’t sure I would appreciate Sandberg’s message. Like I said, I am tired of the discussion. The medium may be new — it involves a lot of uniting around social media — but the message has been out there ever since Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. I was wrong. While I don’t fully agree with Sandberg’s assessment, she is articulate and engaging and she has a nice sense of humor. It goes without saying that as a businesswoman she is incredibly accomplished; being named Facebook’s COO is just the icing on her very large, professional cake.

At first glance, Sandberg’s rallying cry for professional women to punch holes through the office ceiling is based upon a fundamental truth any woman can agree with: What we do with our lives as parents and professionals is about personal intention and will. That is, if you are privileged enough to have a choice, if you don’t have to work two minimum-wage jobs just to keep the lights on. I found her cry much weaker for women who are employed in fields that will never yield big money or big power.

I have no idea what Sandberg would say to someone like me who has willingly spent most of her adult life raising her kids, writing on the side. I can’t even imagine a scenario that would put us in the same room. For one thing: Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t have time to mess around. If you can’t help her or if she can’t help you, or if you’re not one of her assistants or her hoodie-wearing boss, I don’t think you’ll find yourself in her company. My guess is Sandberg is a woman who is always working the room, even when she’s just picking up milk for her two kids. If, that is, she ever picks up milk.

I think it’s disingenuous that Sandberg won’t divulge how much help she has at home or with her children. She says it’s a moot point, that no one would ask the same question of a man. I disagree. How much help every working mother has matters a great deal, even if it’s grandma taking the kids one day a week so mom can keep her toes in the professional wading pool. Traditionally, it has mattered for men that mom was watching the kids and doing the laundry; of course it matters for women.

But it is Sandberg’s take on the paltry number of women in the top echelons of business and government that gives me pause. She doesn’t blame men for being threatened, crazy and/or testosterone-laden. She doesn’t chalk it up to social inertia or consider how maddeningly slow change can be. (Think how long it took to get from the Emancipation Proclamation to a black president sleeping down the hall from Lincoln’s bedroom.) No, Sandberg blames women for not doing enough, not leaning in with all their might to the task at hand. She places the burden for change at the feet of women.

According to Sandberg, women who want to lead must remain at the table. They must demand more — at home and at work. She also says women (and presumably men) can’t have it all, and I agree with her. But it begs the question: If Sheryl Sandberg — a powerful woman worth millions, married to a CEO undoubtedly worth additional millions — isn’t working toward some unattainable vision of all, what is she killing herself for?

What is all, anyway? Is it our families? Our faith? Money? Power? Happy children? Teenagers who will talk to you? More importantly, how does Sandberg’s life, how do all our lives, speak to that lodestone question? Is balance part of all, or is balance just wishful thinking?

“That’s a good book,” the cashier remarked when I purchased my copy of Lean In. “It made me think about how women can do more.”

I know nothing about the cashier, but I’ve thought about her comment ever since. If she wants it, I hope she can go back to school and acquire the skills required for a different job. If that’s not possible, I hope she can simply enjoy going home and getting a load off her feet without feeling guilty for not doing more. Regardless, she deserves respect for being a decent, responsible person who shows up for work every day. She deserves the listening ear of patrons like me willing to engage in small talk while handing over their credit cards.

Ultimately, Lean In didn’t provide me with the pointers I was seeking. Something is missing for me in Sandberg’s clarion call; it’s too lopsided. Because I bet that cashier is leaning in as far as she can without falling over, as is the grocer’s wife who lives on one side of me and works alongside her husband six days a week and the female dentist who lives on the other side. We don’t all need to lean more. We —women and men — need to think more for ourselves, think about what our and our family’s greatest needs are, what matters most to us.

We need to think about the economics of our lives and what we want our kids to remember most about growing up, what we want out of our marriages, what it takes to be a good employee or CEO or entrepreneur. We need to unpack what all means to us, and then put it back together in a way that we can live with. Our lives need to be about our expectations and values, not those of our society. Our best contributions to the world may emanate from the executive suite of a Fortune 500 company, or from a soup kitchen in a rundown heel of a building, or from our own kitchens as we hurriedly bless our children before they leave for school in the morning.

Whatever we as women, men and parents do, we need to stand up. Straight and tall. Ready to reach for another appetizer when someone has shown us their back.

Andrea Midgett lives and writes from the Midwest. She is working on becoming a certified master gardener.