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This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, one of the better legacies of the Clinton administration. The bill guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers at covered employers, and the right to continuing health coverage while they’re on leave. It was a huge step when it passed, and yet this legislation is more notable for what it did not do. It failed to equalize the gender ratio in high-end jobs , to significantly change the division of household labor between men and women, or to bring U.S. family leave policies in line with those of most other wealthy countries.
“We leave working parents, or anybody who’s managing work and care or any other obligation, out in the cold in a way that most of these other countries just simply don’t,” says Janet Gornick, professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an expert on family policy.
But, as usual, instead of discussing the kinds of policies we might institute that would continue the unfinished work of the FMLA for all women, the big stories about work and family this week revolve around wealthy women “opting out” — either of the paid workforce, as in a New York Times Magazine piece by Judith Warner, or of having children, as in Lauren Sandler’s Time cover story. Both stories focus almost exclusively on women, with men interviewed either as researchers or as husbands commenting on their wife’s decision.
Work-family balance, as most popular reports seem to see it, is a female problem.
Bryce Covert has extensively critiqued this view, most recently at The Nation in response to yet another work-life balance trend piece in the New York Times:
Quite literally — men are mentioned as an aside, background noise in their children’s lives. When Uttech’s husband’s caregiving duties are mentioned, it is to say that the working mother “gets a lot of help: from her husband, Michael,” among other family members who pitch in. Fathers might as well be hired hands.
Rampell is not alone in assuming that mothers parent and dads baby-sit. The Census Bureau has made the same assumptions, calling mothers “designated parents” and counting the time fathers care for their kids as merely stepping in for said designated parent.
In all these conversations about work/life balance, the perceptions of what men and women want out of “life” — shorthand for the portion that isn’t engaged in wage labor — are vastly different.
Getting a life
Feminism, at least the popular liberal version, has it that women will find their pleasure and fulfillment at work, from the era of the Feminine Mystique to the glowing reviews of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In; traditionalism has it that women take pleasure in the raising of children. But what about real leisure? In conversations about women and work these days, we almost never include having a life outside of work or family.
As Kate Losse wrote at Dissent about Sheryl Sandberg’s ubiquitous self-help guide for capitalist women:
There is no not-work, or pleasure, in Lean In. Aside from the possibility of having better sex with one’s husband after he has assisted with household chores (work makes everything better, including sex!), Sandberg does not mention pleasure….For someone with fewer family demands than Sandberg, freedom is depicted not as a pleasure but a problem to be resolved by getting a family….Astonishingly for a book published in 2013, there are no self-identified lesbians, gay men, or even intentionally unmarried or child-free people in Lean In’s vision of the workplace. It’s not clear why Sandberg thinks that everyone should be in the business of getting a family, since the book argues that family gets in the way of work. But it seems that Sandberg can only imagine the dreaded ‘leaning back’ as a product of family demands. Who would take a vacation voluntarily?
Meanwhile, for powerful men, leisure — time spent neither at work nor with the family — is taken for granted. Speaker of the House John Boehner famously played golf some 100 times in one year, and went on 180 junkets over the course of six years. Boehner and other men like him are rarely asked how they find the time to take care of their children (he has two).
For women, “life” is assumed to be more work. Women in heterosexual couples still do the majority of the unpaid labor in the household — caring for children or other family members, as well as housework. A study of working-class women recently found that even women who were the primary breadwinner in their family did most of the housework. The gap has been shrinking somewhat, Gornick notes, but not nearly as much as the gender gap in paid work. Men, in other words, are not picking up the slack at home in equal proportions to the hours women are spending at a job.
Gornick points out, too, that there are differences in the kind of family work done by men and women. “When the woman is with the kid, she’s usually alone. When the man is with the kid the woman is usually there, too. Men tend to do work that can be scheduled — they mow the lawn, they take the kid shopping. She’s doing the diapers and the feeding and the kind of work that interferes much more with their paid work.”
Gornick sees hope in studies that found men in their twenties to be more willing to share household responsibilities and less interested in being the main breadwinner.
But the prevalence of these trend pieces suggests that cultural attitudes overall haven’t changed much, and that the lack of material support for more equitable divisions of labor (i.e., the lack of family-friendly policy) winds up pushing couples back into more traditional roles. The idea that a man might be responsible for an equal amount of child-rearing — or god forbid, housecleaning — seems verboten.
For the New York Times piece, Warner interviewed former and current stay-at-home wives and their husbands. Several of the husbands felt that if their wives were going to stay home, they should devote themselves wholly to the work of childraising and housecleaning. One commented that his wife should have spent more time on “the shuttling of kids, the picking up the house, the laundry, the shopping” or, “balancing checkbooks, cleaning, setting up the home Wi-Fi, fixing an appliance or whatever.”
And the women who did manage some sort of “work-family balance” seemed to have little time for anything else. Many of the former “opt-out” women she spoke with had opted back in, and while these well-off women had slid more or less successfully back into the workforce, they now had new forms of guilt. One woman lamented the loss of travel and shared interests with her husband as she juggled her family responsibilities with her new career. “They spent their evenings on separate floors, she downstairs in the kitchen, on her computer, catching up on the work she missed during her hours of caring for the children; he, upstairs, watching TV alone,” Warner wrote.
Labor of love?
Mothers in particular are expected to be selfless, even more so than women who work. The childfree women in the Time article have lives, hobbies, other pursuits; the mothers in the Times Magazine are shamed for theirs, as if mothering should be their chief and only concern.
The expectation seems to be that motherhood provides implicit rewards that give women all they need, and that if you’re wealthy enough to stay home with your child, you should be grateful. These elite mothers loved spending time with their children, or at least weren’t willing to complain. But their statements may reflect an ingrained obedience to the ideal of motherhood. Academic studies — which generally use subtler methodology than asking “are you happy being a mother?”—conflict over whether taking care of children makes one happy. In a study that found fathers got an increase in happiness from children, while mothers did not, the researchers admitted that the gender split in happiness “is not unexpected, as the pleasures associated with parenting may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood.”
The conversations around families and gender, of course, often presuppose heterosexual couples. Yet the same social pressures apply whether women are straight or gay or bisexual or asexual, single or coupled or in another relationship configuration. Nancy Mezey, author of a book about lesbian mothers, told Sandler that the cultural pressure of motherhood is starting to come down on queer women too. (A side effect, perhaps, of the centrality of marriage to the gay rights movement in recent years.)
Angela Davis has connected the rise of what she called, in Women, Race & Class, “the sexist cult of motherhood” for white women to the rise of racism within women’s movements after the end of slavery. She and many others have noted that for black women, the idea of being a “housewife” was never an option — black women have always worked, and even now, very few black women stay at home with their children. For women of color, the cultural pressures to be a “good mother” come with a different set of cultural barriers to negotiate and double binds.
Whether children are an unmitigated joy or not, almost no one likes doing housework. One mother told Warner, “If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising the kids, but it was about sweeping.”
Many of the women she spoke to disliked being treated as if they were “uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning; a junior member of the household, who sometimes had to ‘negotiate’ with her husband to get money for child care.” These women perhaps unknowingly echo the writings of women from the Wages for Housework movement decades ago; in 1975, Silvia Federici argued, “[N]ot only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.”
“We are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle,” she added.
Meanwhile, sociologist Julia McQuillen told Sandler (for Time) that the constant pressure on mothers specifically to “invest more in [their] kids” is leading to women choosing not to have children in the first place. Jena Starkes, a web designer who works on e‑commerce sites targeting parents, commented to Sandler, “Before there was a mommy industry, before there was product to move, you’d never hear how it was the hardest job in the world. If it’s the hardest job in the world, I’m damn happy I don’t have to do it.”
Marxist feminists like Davis have long pointed out the centrality of women’s work in the home. They postulate that capitalism depends on this labor in order to function. Ideas about “natural” abilities became a tool to exploit women’s unpaid labor. In that context, a “mommy industry” pressuring women to work harder at being moms sets women up both for more exploitation in the home and for the need to spend more money on products — a win-win for capital, and lose-lose for working women.
The common implication of the recent articles and many other public conversations seems to be that women can have a life and a job, or we can have children and a job, having all three of these things is completely out of the question.
If we don’t happen to be well-off, with a partner who financially supports us, well, forget it — no one in the media even cares what we want. The question of opting in or opting out, is a question reserved for women who have economic options in the first place. For the vast majority of us, money is the limiting factor, not time. Our choices are proscribed by what we can afford, not whether we will have time to “have it all.” Choosing not to have kids doesn’t magically open up time and money for leisure when your hours are priced at $7.25; having children, on the other hand, can be a ticket straight to poverty.
Sarah Kendzior noted, the reality for most mothers is that they’re strapped. “From 2004 to 2010, cost of childbirth rose by 50 percent. Average out of pocket costs: $3400. That’s with insurance. Most pay more. Now you decide whether to work. Average cost of daycare is $11,666 per year. You have two kids, pay more for childcare than average rent.”
When even the elite women featured in popular media are struggling, imagine how much worse it is for women trying to meet the ideal of motherhood on minimum wage. Working single mothers are stigmatized for being single mothers, black women are stereotyped as welfare queens, and those portrayals fuel Americans’ unwillingness to support policies that would make life easier or better for those women (and their children).
The cultural narrative about motherhood, in other words, needs to broaden from elite and middle-class straight women. For those of us who do not want or cannot have children, those of us who don’t live in heterosexual nuclear families, those whose care responsibilities extend beyond their own offspring, or those whose jobs are not a career ladder but just a treadmill to pay the bills, the “opting in or out” narrative holds little to help us. It is not a question of personal choice, but a question of public support. It’s incredibly hard, Gornick points out, for low-wage workers to survive without universal childcare or any paid family leave (and what little subsidized childcare exists mostly creates another workforce of underpaid women, mostly of color).
It is low-wage people who will benefit the most from good family policy, Gornick says, just as they are most hurt by bad family policy like welfare reform (one of Bill Clinton’s worst legacies), which pushed mothers into the low-wage workforce. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has noted, policies like welfare reform are enacted on low-income women and women of color, not for their benefit — good family policy will need to benefit everyone, because it won’t trickle down.
And public policy has a huge impact on gender equality, Gornick notes. “There’s no question that young couples get together and envision gender symmetrical lives, but the minute the kid is born the dreams start to fall apart. The childcare situation is terrible, there’s no high quality part-time work. Finally you realize that it actually does make sense for somebody to stay home, and it tends to be her because she was the lower earner but also because of all the social pressure. If she does it it’s admirable and normal, if he does it, it raises questions.”
A right to free time
Shortening the working day and year, and making sure high-quality (well-paid, well-respected) part-time work is available, Gornick says, would do a lot to move the country toward gender equality. But it’s incredibly difficult to raise the idea of less work in this country. “There’s a tremendous valorization of long hours at work, it’s such an American story. Even on the Left. The story is good people work huge numbers of hours for pay.”
Yet while the conversations in Warner and Sandler’s pieces focus on a binary choice between being a good parent or being a parent at all, there are hints that a shorter workday wouldn’t be unwelcome. Warner commented that the women she spoke to didn’t miss the high-powered jobs they’d left; rather, they longed for a happy medium that sounds an awful lot like what Gornick is talking about — “intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work” combined with time at home.
And the men interviewed by Warner, too, sounded like they would go in for less work. “Men want to say we’re more than a paycheck,” said the same husband who complained that his wife didn’t spend enough time cleaning. “There has to be something more than going to work for 50 years and dying.” Warner closes with a call for just that — a gender-equitable movement for less work, flexible hours and “work-life balance” as an economic justice issue.
Of course, just having fewer hours at work doesn’t guarantee that, as Gornick notes, women aren’t going home to care for the kid while men go to the pub. But, she points out, “shorter hours for everyone should be a more egalitarian strategy, rather than crafting part-time work and hoping to get men to do it.”
To create real equality between men and women in the field of unpaid care work, Gornick says, there are three things we need to change. Public policy has to improve, employers need to be much less punitive of workers who need time off or flexible schedules (a recent study found that men were more likely to have their requests for flexible time granted), and people have to keep fighting gender stereotypes and the behavior patterns they influence.
I suggest that as part of that fight, we need to be willing to argue for leisure as a right, and as a feminist issue.
Duke professor Kathi Weeks makes this argument in The Problem With Work, which Peter Frase summarizes in a Jacobin magazine review: “Weeks is careful to reject calls for work time reduction premised on making more time for the family. Such arguments may contest the work ethic, but they do so only by reinforcing an equally pernicious family ethic. … Shorter hours, asserts Weeks, should be offered not as a prop to the traditional family but as ‘a means of securing the time and space to forge alternatives to the present ideals and conditions of work and family life.’ ”
In other words, it is not enough to assume that the family is a respite from work — we need something more.
A gendered demand for leisure would argue that women’s time is as important as men’s, whether we are spending it parenting or reading a book or lying on a beach. It would take into account the racialized and classed expectations of different groups of women, and argue that low-income women deserve time off too (and it would argue that they deserve to make enough money to enjoy that time.) It would point out that what is earned vacation for white women is not “laziness” in women of color.
It would argue not from any biological imperative (that rarely gets us anywhere good), but from a time-honored (though lately forgotten) labor and left tradition that says that time, as much as anything, is a right — and it would take from the Wages for Housework movement the idea that unpaid work in the home is still work that we deserve a respite from.
A politics of leisure is also a politics of pleasure, and it is here that this connects to other major concerns of modern-day feminists and gender justice advocates: questions of sexuality. Arguing for the right to choose when and if we will bear children is intimately connected to arguing for the right to a life outside of work and childbearing. And what’s more feminist than defending our right to lives outside of heterosexual monogamy, to be defined by more than the presence (or lack thereof) of a uterus or children?
None of this is to say that there are not genuine pleasures in caring for children or indeed in one’s paid work. But it is to say that neither one is enough for a fulfilling life, and the idea that women should cheerily do both has meant an unfair amount of work. Caring for children, Gornick notes, is a social good, not merely an individual concern. And in creating policies that allow for a better distribution of leisure, we will also need things like (well-funded) child care and early childhood education, which allow children to be well cared for when parents aren’t around.
We need to argue, then, not just for the ability to “balance” two kinds of work, but for the right to free time — to leisure and pleasure. As women, we need to do so particularly because the idea that “family” is the only option outside of “work” is a dated, sexist ideal whether or not one has children, wants them, or can’t stand the sight of them. We will be closer to gender equality when we argue that just like men, we have interests outside of the home and the workplace.
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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.