Friday, December 03, 2004

The Superwoman Myth: Do Lesbian Mothers Experience it Too?

The 'Superwoman Myth' is an interest of mine both personally and professionally. The ideas and discussions behind the myth come in many forms, but the question basically is: "Can Women Have It All?" Meaning: a career and a meaningful family life. The 'Superwoman Myth' is the idea that no woman can sucessfully balance it all, or be a "Superwoman" and that women end up feeling guilty in both of their worlds. They often feel like aren't good enough parents and they aren't good enough workers. Lily Tomlin once joked: "If I had known what it would be like to have it all I might have settled for less!"

For some crazy reason I seem to experience this rub more than does BioMom. Maybe she just hides it better than I. I'm always feeling guilty that I'm not doing enough work AND not picking up the Four-Year-Old early enough from preschool. Our neighbors (whose son attends the same preschool) regularly pick him up at 3:30 while BioMom and I joke that we're racing, sweaty-palmed and yellow-light-running to the school at 5:29 in order to pick her up before the doors lock (and face the teacher's stern condemnation).

In talking with other parents, it seems that there is a huge divide in this feeling between men and women: men don't feel it at all and among women, it is nearly universal. I was talking with another fellow pre-school parent (a professor at a local hoity-doity private college in the area whose wife also has a demanding schedule), about this issue. He said he never feels the work/parenthood rub. What was more interesting though was that he said he would not want to be married to a woman who didn't have a career. Now this is an interesting thought that, although obvious to me, (I am much more interesting when I'm working and thinking than after a few weekend days of playing Barbie with the Four-Year-Old) has not yet made it into our social norms.

The real question for feminists is: why is it that women are so much more prone to these conflicting feelings than men and what is the efficient way to end the guilt as it seems that work-life policies don't cut it.

In terms of lesbian parents, what may be unique, is that both parents may be likely to experience the guilt. At least in heterosexual families, one person can work, come home, enjoy parenting, and have no guilt. Because the Superwoman Myth is so pervasive (see below: mothers feel guilty whether they work or not!), such stress might be highly detrimental to a two-mom family, regardless of whether or not they both work.

Finally, back to BioMom and me. I think there are two factors that go into this. One is that my job is much more flexible. I, theoretically, could pick up the four-year-old much earlier, much more regularly. I mean, as I write this blog, I could be picking her up! Of course, I'm just procrastinating doing this. As I write I am in the middle of a paper revision and 40 odd essays that need my grading attention. BioMom has an office, and hours where she has to be there.

I think another key issue is being the perceived (or actual) breadwinner. The breadwinner of the family has to work. Maybe this is why men are less likely to feel the rub? As I think of it, I can imagine several of my colleages who are the female breadwinners and experience the rub fiercely.


Warning (I have been told by one devoted reader that the personal anecdotes in this blog are much more interesting than the academic diatribes, so I'll try to warn the reader when the diatribes are coming): See below for a more academic discussion of the Superwoman Myth.

This debate has extended across both time and space: In the U.S. cultural norms have shifted over time changing the question; and in other countries the issue has been dealt with through a variety of social policies.

One not-so-recent study about this issue was done by Claudia Golden ["Career and Family: College Women Look to the Past" published in the book Gender and the Family Issues in the Workplace edited by Francine D. Blau and Ronald G. Ehrenberg (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997).

In the article, Golden finds that the ability of college-educated women to combine work and family has changed dramatically over the twentieth century.

First she looked at women graduating from college around 1910. This cohort was expected to make a stark choice between a career and having a family. Fully 50% of them did not marry or, if they did get married, they did not have children as compared to only 22% of their counterparts who did not attend college. During this time the prevailing social norms strongly discouraged married women from working outside the home.

Golden found that among the cohort graduating around 1955 only 17.5% were not married or, if married, childless. More like other women in the general population. Many were able to have both a family and a job, though for the most part they did this in stages. First family, job later and jobs were jobs. Not "careers".

Among the 1972 cohort a larger share sought to have careers. Many women delayed childbearing and pursued the rout of career first, family later. The proportion of them who have been able to "have it all" was small: 13-22% of women in this cohort achieved both goals by age 40.

This is all to say that it is difficult and not without its complications.

A recent book titled The Myth of Balance: Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives by Mary Blair-Loy the author found that among her sample of the "elite population of female corporate executives, cultivated under hothouse conditions int he nation's top business and professional schools. . . these women are totally committed to their careers." As they told Blair-Loy, "they simploy adore their work, and they routinely use superlaties like 'euphoria' and 'thrilling' to describe their feelings about it."

But as she began to dig deeper, she found that almost none of them had children. "The few mothers described themselves as anomalous. They were largely absentee parents who hired nannies (sometimes on multiple shifts) to provide care and generally embraced the traditional male model of 24-7 commitment to their work."

From a review of the book by Ruth Milkman:
"As her research continued, Blair-Loy heard story after story about other women--by definition not in her original sample--whose initial career trajectories were similar to the executives' but who had abandoned their positions midstream when they became mothers. She ultimately decided to expand her inquiry to include these corporate dropouts, and discovered that they were just as devoted to their children as the executive women were to their careers. Moreover, most of them were extremely critical of their sisters who remained in the corporate world; indeed, they tended to castigate full-time employed mothers generally. Yet these 'family-committed' women were well aware of what they had given up, presenting themselves as having chosen 'an almost ascetic life path of transcending self-centeredness for the sake of others' well-being.'"

The book complicates the current hot issue of providing work-life/family-friendly policies in the work place such as paid family leave and other benefits without a "far more fundamental set of social changes." Blair-Loy argues that both corporate and elite careers and motherhod "have deep moral and cultural underpinnings."

To further complicate the issue, the cost of such work-life balance policies may be discriminatory in-and-of themselves. In the book The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childess, author Elinor Burkett argues that such policies are essentially subsidies paid to (mainly heterosexual) families by the childless.

1 comment:

jon said...

Surfing some of the alternative lifestyle blogs today I stumbled onto your blog. I liked it! Thanks for the posts...