On “Having It All”

Second Shift

Marissa Mayer’s ascendency to the helm of Yahoo! while seven months pregnant has caused a media stir. Mayer’s comment, “my maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” has drawn criticism that she’s setting an unreasonable “Superwoman” standard for working women, and that she’s capitulating to anti-family corporate norms.

I am elated that Marissa Mayer makes a gazillion dollars and is the CEO of a major company at age 37! I am disappointed that there’s a press frenzy about her baby bump. It’s not news when male CEOs take two-week vacations, so why so much focus on this? But since it’s in the news, I’m a little sad to see Mayer nodding to male-centric family leave norms, but hopeful that she’ll pioneer better norms for women in the future.

Mayer’s situation and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article have reignited the debate about whether women can “have it all.” Yes, women can “have it all” — balancing a paid job and kids — if they are wealthy, have a position of significant power, or have a partner who will equitably share the burden of childcare and housework. But a better option is to reconsider the sexist premise that women must excel in both the private and public spheres to be fulfilled. Men are assumed breadwinners, but standards for being a “good father” are incredibly low compared to expectations for “good mothers,” and fathers are given more slack in the workplace than mothers.

Women now comprise half of the labor force, and 4-in-10 are mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinner, but the idea of “having it all” is only applied to women because of sexist societal scripts that women will procreate and will be the primary caretakers of children. When is the last time you heard a man fretting about “having it all?” These gendered expectations place an undue burden on women to work the “second shift,” and rob some men of the opportunity to develop a deep bond with their children and create stronger relationships with women as egalitarian domestic partners. (Sharing housework makes men happier!).

The persistent assumption that parenting is “women’s work” is borne out with data showing that women who work full-time outside the home perform twice the child care and three times the housework as their spouses who work full-time. This gender gap causes 40% of working moms to always feel rushed compared to 25% of working dads. Stress is the norm for many of the 13 million single parents in the U.S. who are disproportionately female (84%) and women of color.

So how can we “have it all” without pulling our hair out? One way is to be wealthy. Mayer’s net worth of $300 million means she can afford lots of help, most likely from other women, and can hire a pediatrician and other baby professionals who can accommodate her busy schedule.

Another way to “have it all” is to have gain sufficient power within the workplace to set your own schedule. People in the highest echelons of corporate America have the flexibility to decide when and how they work, but only 3% of CEO slots and 14% of executive officer positions are held by women. A critical mass of female leaders could bring an end to anti-family corporate practices, but women’s gains in corporate and political leadership have recently stalled and even reversed, so this won’t happen anytime soon.

For most women who aren’t wealthy, corporate titans, our best option for “having it all” is to find a partner who is able and willing to share the burden of child rearing and housework. Based on the statistics above, these partners are few and far between. Women who identify as feminists do less housework per week than non-feminists, but men who are married to feminists do the same amount of housework as men married to non-feminists. In other words, it’s not enough that you’re a feminist. Your partner needs to be one, too.

Perhaps the best way to “have it all” is to recognize that working full-time inside and outside the home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to societal fairy tales about parenting, having children actually makes us less happy. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert finds that parents are happier eating, exercising, or sleeping than they are caring for children. “Looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.” Using survey data, Sociologist Robin Simon reports that “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers.” Economist Arthur C. Brooks‘ research shows that people with children are 7% less likely to report being happy than those without children. In short, having children leads to less happiness.

The purpose of this post is not to criticize women or men who choose to have children (although societal pressure makes procreation virtually compulsory for women). Moms have it hard enough already. As Sociologist Lisa Wade points out, “the U.S. government fails to support our child rearing efforts with sufficient programs (framing it as a ‘choice’ or ‘hobby’), the market is expensive (child care costs more than college in most states), and we’re crammed into nuclear family households (making it difficult to rely on extended kin, real or chosen). And the results are clear: raising children changes the quality of your life.”

The ongoing debate about whether women can “have it all” will cease when we collectively reject the false premise that women need to work outside the home and have children to achieve real fulfillment. This social script is sexist and simply inaccurate. According to the data, women without children are the happiest, followed by moms who work outside the home, then stay-at-home moms (who are more socially isolated). But forget this data. The lower relative level of happiness for stay-at-home moms is no doubt a reflection of our society’s devaluation of this occupation. If we properly valued homemaking, parents would make $96,261 a year, men would work in the home as much as women, and the state would better support this important part of our economy.

The larger point here is that women are being set up by gendered cultural scripts that tell us we have to break our backs in both the public and private spheres to be fulfilled. If we choose to have children, it should truly be a choice and an informed one that eschews the myth that children automatically equal happiness. If we choose to pursue a career and not have children, we can be better prepared to deal with social pressures meant to make us feel like we’re “missing out.” And if we choose to “have it all,” mothers can approach this challenge with greater clarity about the resources and teamwork needed to minimize the personal toll.

This discussion has centered around the choices of privileged women, but many women don’t have the luxury of choosing between kids or paid work. Therefore, it’s vitally important that we pursue the larger projects of de-gendering parenting, valuing homemaking, and making workplace practices family friendly. Only then can women and men truly exercise choice in crafting their life paths.