Friday, November 25, 2005

Desperate Times

A number of women I’ve spoken to of late have mentioned a recent storyline on “Desperate Housewives” in which Felicity Huffman’s character Lynette — a one-time stay-at-home mom who recently returned to a high power office job —has suffered a series of confrontations with her single and childless female boss, circling around the question of whether it’s possible to both raise a family and hold down a demanding career. I don’t watch the show because – ironically – I work Sunday nights. But I do know that this storyline hits on an issue that generates a whole lot of heat. Among the women I interviewed for my book, work-family issues were some of the most contentious. And for good reason.

When it comes to balancing our personal and professional lives, women are incredibly vulnerable. I hear it from everyone and feel it myself. There’s this immense pressure to do it all and do it all perfectly — successful career, perfect husband and family, not mention being beautiful and in shape. If you fall short in any of these areas, and let’s face it most of us do, it’s easy to wind up feeling like a failure. It’s also easy to assume that we’ve made the “wrong choice,” that our family is suffering because we have to work so much; that we have no career and therefore no worth because we’ve cut back our hours; that we’ll never find anything close to domestic bliss because we’ve shot all our time and energy trying to make it big on the job. Unfortunately, we often assure ourselves that we’ve made the right choice by choosing to believe that other women’s choices, their different choices, are the wrong ones. Therefore, Lynette’s boss can’t believe that Lynette is capable of balancing a career and family because that means her career-centered life is inadequate and incomplete. All these very strong, often negative emotions come swaddled in so many layers of guilt. We want to support other women on the job, especially when we see them struggling, but our resentments and fears and raging jealousies have a nasty way of driving a wedge.

Complicating things yet again is the fact that the workplace rarely helps women to ease any of these pressures by providing flexible scheduling or generous maternity leave or even letting us skip out one afternoon to take a kid to the doctor. Too often, we wind up relying on each other’s unofficial help to make it through. When another woman can’t or won’t come through for us, we can be quick to cry betrayal and those betrayals can feel like the deepest and most damaging sort.

Here’s one note of comfort. I just interviewed over a hundred women from all kinds of professions and backgrounds and, lovely as other people’s lives might look from the outside, no one is doing it all. You look at me and think: “God how can I ever keep up with someone who has time to write blog entries the morning after Thanksgiving.” I look at you and think: “What I wouldn’t give to be too distracted by my mate and my kids.” We all make different personal choices and sacrifices and we all have insecurities about those choices. I know it makes life a lot more complicated to accept this, but when it comes to this work-family stuff there’s just no such thing as right or wrong.

By the way, it is good to see pop culture tackling some of these issues in a non “crazed Apprentice candidates scratching each other’s eyes out” kind of a way. Don’t you think?

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