What Women REALLY Need . . .
Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In . . .misses some valid points. It might be a good read for those of us who have social supports but not for the 50% who have only themselves to rely on. Lean In and ask for more work, for a raise, for more responsibility?
Last night, my youngest of six, Matthew, saw me working on the computer. "Mom," he said. "Can I make dinner for you?" I smiled. But I'm grinning wider now—he's part of a new generation of men and women who have taken on nontraditional roles without balking and squawking. He's part of the solution, groomed by my desire to earn a PhD in Psychology and have a career. Remember that old TV show, Queen For a Day? For you younger ones, women would compete for the crown and the ermine cape. One winner was woman whose house burned to the ground. She moved her entire family into the backyard shed, wove beds out of pine boughs, gathered dandelion greens, and fed them small game caught in a noose, fashioned out of an electrical cord. She won a barbecue grill for her glorious of multitasking. They took that show off the air, deeming it too indignant to women. Well, they ought to bring it back because I deserve that title—and I'm not alone. I want Martha Stewart herself to crown me.
As I wrote this and had a good laugh, my husband David poked his head out of my computer and said, "What we really need is King for a Day." I looked at my king, the poor guy whose mother garnished his plate and needed to be reprogrammed by his wife-who-wanted- a-career, and knew there was a grain of truth in what he said. There is our first quandary—we need men or partners just as much as we need to meet our aspirations.
Our second dilemma is what women want and need may not be the same thing. While my oxytocin-wired brain summoned babies (I'm a mom to six), my intellectual side needed stimulation. Perhaps if I were back some 10,000 years ago with my cave sisters I might have had some female company. I might have been debating, inventing some new method of weaving rushes, or leaving my babes with a friend while I dug up some fresh roots. Sadly in today's world, sisters, mothers, grannies or friends are not there to reinforce our social needs—which are different from men's. We're wired for comradery and cooperation rather than competition and contest.
Our folly might be discarding those needs and attempting to circumvent them. We're also wired to worry. It might have served our cave-sisters well but not us. Thinking about raises and job opportunity when you have babies in daycare? Ha! It's made all the more terrible by the fact that we have little choice in the matter; we live in an economy where not working is some sort of shame. Most of us come home to waiting laundry piles, and hungry men—not necessarily hungry for food. To add insult to injury, we're expected to Martha-Stewart our lives in our spare time. One year I carved twenty five tiny pumpkins to hold the Thanksgiving soup, and that was before I collected flora and fauna for the centerpieces. No Betty-Croker-in-the-box for our generation. Had Martha been born in the late sixties, we might have been embroidering our bras, not burning them.
Have a laugh now because the rest of it is poignantly sad. American women are among the most depressed and stressed in the world. "Role-strain" is what we call it—and we need to admit it before we try to tackle the problem. In the 1990's, a PhD student, teaching for pennies, I was accused of breastfeeding my newborn in the classroom—by the male chairman of the Psychology Department! It was untrue, but such sentiments have hardly gone away. The pull to "mother" will not wane until the pull to "father" meets it with equal force. With men earning at least 20% more than us, the tradeoffs are not in our favor. While many European countries provide stipends to parents who need to parent, today's woman faces a quandary; leave and parent, or stay and hold on to one's position. Yes, while that job might still be waiting, chances are you'll lose seniority, accumulated six time, raises, and respect. Women who leave for more than a few weeks are castigated as the Benedict Arnolds of the workplace, their minds thought lost in the world of diapers, bottles and teddy bears. I've had friends who've been on that cliff, holding onto their positions with their fingernails as their eggs rotted. "I don't know when the right time is to get pregnant," said my thirty- nine- year old executive friend.
No wonder we take the crumbs we're offered, and don't lean in. We're caught between thinking we don't deserve it or worrying that any added responsibilities to our pile might just Jenga that tower. The male patriarchy (yes, it's alive) is not going to fess up to its complicity. And it also means that most of our life-partners have to take on additional responsibilities. Ours was a balancing act, dividing up the chores, yet reserving time for one another, no matter what. This brings this conversation to a happy note. When men take on that task, they raise children who understand those roles. Those children will one day be executives, CEO's, and wield the power to shift our strain, equally.
I looked at my husband, the man who let that screaming baby suck on his nipple until it was purple while I was taking my doctoral qualifying exams. I'm going to crown him King For a Day—tonight.
Dawn Marlena Hopper, PhD