Tuesday, May 27, 2014

We Can't Have It All... But Neither Can Men

I've been re-watching The West Wing lately. And yes -- for those of you keeping track, this marks the second time I've watched the series in less than 8 months -- a level of nerdiness on my part that is only eclipsed by the fact that I read the Tolkien cannon with even higher average frequency...

But I digress.  Last night I watched an episode in which the First Family's oldest daughter, Elizabeth, has decided to help her politically clueless husband run for Congress. Her father (President Bartlet) isn't a fan of the arrangement:

[Your husband's] a great guy and a fantastic father. You're the politician. Why the hell don't you run?


Because Annie [Liz's teenaged daughter] pierced her face. And this one [holding up her son's baseball mitt] can't catch, or bathe.


You can handle it.


You can't. Forgive me, Ms. Steinem and Ms. Friedan, you cannot do it


Your mother did.


No, Daddy. She didn't.

Bartlet goes on to apologize (in so many words) for the moments he sacrificed fatherhood on behalf of a political career, but later in the episode the First Lady -- Dr Bartlet -- also apologizes for the sacrifice her children made on behalf of her career.

And that's what got me thinking.  Elizabeth Bartlet is wrong to invoke famous feminists in the scene quoted above, because she's only taking one side of the perspective -- that of the woman/mother -- whereas the parents, President and Dr Bartlet, correctly recognize that when both parents have a career, neither parent can "have it all". Nor should they expect to.

If "having it all" for a woman means being able to pursue her career just as she would were she not a mother, than this old feminist mantra is an obvious (and, I might add, rather silly) falsehood:  having kids requires sacrifice.  But the same is true for men, and this is something we've not often talked about in connection to the question of "having it all". Should men with children be urged or expected to pursue a career as if they didn't have children? Should women?

If what is meant by "having it all" is that women can and should be enabled to successfully manage a career and a family at the same time, then I couldn't agree more -- but with qualification: it must be recognized that the success of both career and family on the part of the woman is contingent on the man's also pitching in and sacrificing in his career in order to have a family.  In other words: a woman cannot have it all if she's the only one making sacrifices.

The ultimate goal for society should not be, contra third-wave feminists, to get to a place where women can approach their careers "as if on a par with men", because this view relies on an overturned, outmoded, misplaced Mad-Men-esque gender bias that allows -- nay, encourages or even expects -- all men, including those with children, to go on behaving like bachelors.  That is, to align their time, energies, focus and career priorities in a way that supersedes or neglects all other considerations. Instead, we should aim for a society that encourages both women and men to think very differently about their careers and how they will direct their own finite resources once children are part of their story.  Hint: it ought to look different than if they were single.

This is a point the church has understood for several millennia now.  It's why until very recently (relative to its venerable age, that is) the church has always had celibates in prominent leadership roles -- people without children, without spouses.  Because the church has always recognized that the project of puzzling the deep questions of God and leading God's people in right ways is a job that requires total sacrifice to the gig.  When one has a wife or a husband or children, one cannot serve the church in the same way, and that's because he or she has a family requiring nurture as well.

The same is true of other callings, and for me that means as an academic.  I will use this time of my life when I am single to give all I can to the sort of research, teaching, and building of personal and professional relationships as only a single person can. Because I know that if one day I should enter a relationship, then having children will become a possibility and that will mean sacrifice in lots of directions... as well as great reward, of course.

Just as I was finalizing this entry, I was forwarded by a dear friend (thanks B!) a really excellent HuffPost article about Having It All, written by a woman/mother/author I know and greatly admire. I resonated with her deeply on her main point: it's important to ponder how we're defining the "all" in "having it all".  Give it a whirl (click here to read) and get back to me, will ya? Otherwise I'll go on re-watching The West Wing ad infinitum instead of pondering the deep questions of life...

1 comment:

  1. I have never really understood how "have it all" is a reasonable goal for anyone. Nobody gets to have it all. Nobody.


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