Ms Slaughter’s well argued article on whether women can have it all raised the debate that had been simmering for a while. And as it simmered, women suffered. Either in guilt, for not being in two places at the same time, or in resentment for being where they were. The choices till very recently were to conflate role and identity. Singular.
While the article said a lot that needed to be said, its true value as a seminal piece for this generation has been the barrage of counter arguments and articles that have followed it. Each article, whether arguing for or against a part of the orginal has contributed to the debate and hopefully has taken us a step forward towards finding our version of Utopia.
A very dear friend, who has never been known to be sexist did once comment in exasperation – ‘Women don’t know how to be happy’. While I argued the afternoon away with him that day, the sentence stayed with me. It is true – those of us who hunt for Utopia will always remain dissatisfied. Just as in economics, equilibrium is a distant goal, but will almost never be attained except in occasional moments, and yet keeps markets in line, the perfect life balance will never really happen, except in moments of serendipity. Yet, it is this goal that will keep us striving to improve the way we build our lives.
Meanwhile, as we teeter from one extreme to the other, sometimes holding on firmly to the middle we find ways to cope, to pretend. Like pretending to be puppeteers who hold everything together, and control those we feel responsible for. Such as our children – do we not hold the threads that will bind our children to their potential destinies? Is it not the harried mom rushing from her desk to take her son to soccer practice and the rushed dad feeling the pressure to pick up the kids on time that forms the very fabric of our society?
This is not about traditional roles, nor is it only about feminism. Though one must admit that feminism has borne the burden of the work-life balance debate so far. The arguments have been supported by urban legends such as ‘there is no substitute for a mother’, or ‘if you want a job done well, then ask a busy mom to do it’, and, ‘Men really can’t do it properly – you know. You need a woman to make a house a home’. No, these are not from the nineteenth century. These are cliches much in use in this day and age.
Is it sexist to say that, on average, a man does not do a good job of running the house and family and keeping them on track? Rosabeth Moss Kanter (one of my heroes) of Harvard commented in her blog that one of the things that would be more balanced if the work of family was shared – ‘do the laundry’, she pithily wrote.
This is about caring enough to get a job done right. Anecdata collected over twenty years suggests that it is a rare household where the laundry gets done right by the secondary carer. The seven stages of laundry including sorting, scheduling by demand, washing by efficient processes, drying, folding, ironing and putting away in the right place ready for use – seem to be beyond many. Laundry is but an illustration of the complex nature of myriad tasks and schedules. Is this a capacity issue or is this one of skills and training?
Ms. Slaughter too chose to return to the homestead rather than stay far away. She carries a full load of work, avails of flexible working and has a supportive husband – and still feels that her presence adds value and support. Is this a case of not trusting her partner or is it a larger issue of the ‘mother’ figure and its influence. Mothers are often accused of the need to be in control, of not being able to let go and of wanting things to be run the way they used to – any other way is wrong. When household processes are run differently, and run into trouble it may even work to reassure the primary carer (often the mother) that they are still needed. This validation too becomes a need. These are classic issues in delegation. So is this part of the solution – delegation skills? Feminism via delegation?
This is not about delegation alone since responsibility, classically, can never be delegated. Tasks can, but over all responsibility cannot. The connect to our sense of responsibility is then an emotional bond to our duties. In that sense, it is one of the virtues that defines our ‘good’ self. Virtues and emotions cannot be delegated.
This is also not about feminism – it is about creating alignment between our virtues and our world and having the tools to hold it together. Much has been written about the structures that need to evolve so that work and family life align. But even if our social and are economic lives are synchronized, and this is imperative, we will need to invest in the skills necessary to make it work. Both structures and skills need to be supported by altered sensibilities at work – social time is neither unproductive nor self indulgent. It is an investment in future taxes paying for pensions, at the very least. It is time for all of these to change in tandem, even if one step at a time. Society will never be able to operate at full potential unless we allow talent and passion to be put to work. Now, do we have the Sense to do this?
(In classic consultant-ese, the four point model restated: Skills, Structures, Sensibilities, Sense)
(Upon request, a sequel on how an individual can do it all)