What Feminist Revolution? Women Lawyers, Like Other Female Professionals, Still Have to Do It All.
At forty-five years old, I’m the perfect age to be the prime beneficiary of so-called Second-Wave Feminism. Second-Wave Feminism arose in the early 1960s and was meant to address the cultural and societal inequities between women and men that had not been remedied since the feminist movement emerged in the early 1900s. And yet, my day-to-day life and certainly that of many of my peers is proof that the gender revolution has largely been one-sided — women have entered traditionally male jobs, but men have been reluctant to take on traditionally female activities. This is disturbing on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that women’s lives are getting harder, not easier, in a lot of ways, despite the advances of feminism. It also suggests that traditionally female contributions such as housework, childcare, and home life management still aren’t valued enough for men to engage with them full throttle.
This is not to say that professional women and gender norms haven’t come a long way, because they have, but what is so striking is how much room there is to improve. Last month, I attended a women lawyer’s “Unconference,” in which instead of having predetermined speakers or session topics, the participants shaped the agenda themselves at the beginning of the Unconference and shared information and ideas in a more decentralized fashion. When women lawyers discussed the topics that were most pressing to them, balance, and how impossible it is to achieve, came up repeatedly. Through listening to over 70 women discuss this topic at the conference, and having listened to a few hundred more working women over the years, it is clear that one phenomenon is largely responsible for this: women who are partnered with men are still expected to be the primary parent and homemaker even when their careers are as demanding as their husband’s. In fact, the phenomenon of women taking on a disproportionate share of the housework even occurs in relationships where the woman is the primary or sole breadwinner.
While I’m sure this trend is not unique to law, it may be particularly painful for lawyer moms because traditional legal jobs require inordinately long hours. That means that if we women lawyers are also doing more than our share of the housework, we are compromising our quality of life much more than men are. Those hours spent on domestic work have to come from somewhere, and research shows they come from vital activities like sleep, exercise, and leisure time (remember that?). It also necessarily means that women who aren’t willing to let self-care go by the wayside will have to compromise on how much they give to work, often meaning their careers will suffer. While the problem won’t be solved if men split the burden of family life more evenly, it certainly will be ameliorated.
The talk at last month’s Unconference is not empty griping. Studies show that this talk among women lawyers, particularly lawyer moms, is supported by research. A 2015 New York Times article documented studies showing that while fathers said they shared home and child responsibilities equally, mothers said they did more. The mothers’ perceptions, however, were “supported by plentiful research, including…rigorous data collection in which people keep diaries of the ways they spend their time.” In other words, data shows that, on average, working women still do much more than their male partners, even when men think it’s even.
I have to come clean. I’m not one of those women who have no leisure time. I enjoy incredible balance in my life while bringing in the vast bulk of our income. My husband schleps the kids around 3x as much as I do, and he puts up with my constant running around to work activities, volunteer commitments, frequent 12-step meetings, and even weeks away to do silent meditation retreats at Spirit Rock. I'm ever grateful for this support and for the fact that I am partnered with a man who is a born nurturer and a totally hands-on partner. However, like my lawyer sisters, I retain a firm hand in family life at a level that far exceeds what men in primary earner shoes have traditionally done.
In addition, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that Ethan’s becoming the default parent was not an overnight transition for either of us. A hard-core feminist by training, I struggled to shake my socialization that said a husband should be a provider, even though he needn’t be the only provider. It was years before my husband and I both sadly came to the realization this his photography business wouldn’t generate nearly as much income as my legal business, and that it made much more sense for our family for me to step up my work life and for him to backpedal his. Now that we are on the other side of it, I see how much it has boosted our family life to switch roles. I also see what a natural nurturer my husband is and wonder if that side of him would have been revealed so completely but for the change. Generally our lives feel more harmonious and more fulfilling due to the role switcheroo we undertook a few years ago.
I feel abashed, however, when I think of all the women I’ve spoken to who tell me their husbands refer to their time with the kids as “babysitting,” or who sleep in every morning when the mom gets up at 5am like clockwork to deal with a cranky toddler. The mom then goes on to work an 8-12 hour day, and while the husband does the same, he is oblivious to what a huge difference an extra two hours of sleep and his time away from a screaming toddler makes. A friend with a very demanding law job stated she had this disparity with her husband, despite the fact that he worked about ¼ of her hours. Eventually her resentment led to them getting a divorce. Five years later, her ex still expects her to do all kinds of domestic tasks that he won’t do for the kids, despite the fact that he doesn’t work and she pays spousal and child support. I don’t think the ex means to be malicious, he just doesn’t see what his actions cost her.
So what gives? Why are women who are married to seemingly enlightened men subjected to this kind of treatment, and why do we allow it? My theory is that despite the feminist movement, domestic work remains vastly underrated for what it contributes to society because it’s unpaid. Since domestic work is not valued, there is no impetus to do it other than fairness to your partner. Put this together with the fact that men did no domestic duties for hundreds of years, and most men think they are rock stars for what they contribute to home life, no matter how little that may be. It may also be that men are struggling with expanding their own identities from provider, to provider-nurturer.
To be fair, women have a large part in the gender gap: perhaps we still secretly don’t believe our good fortune when we “have it all” and feel guilty putting men in the role of doing the domestic work that isn’t paid or often appreciated. Heck, why not just keep doing that too? Also, most of the women I know that earn more than their husbands are naturally driven. These women, like myself, just can’t accept that things won’t be done exactly as they’d like. But exercising feminist muscle sometimes means accepting and trusting our partners in the domestic sphere, even when we’d do things differently.
My competing theory to explain the imbalance in domestic duties is that women who are mothers unconsciously think there is something wrong with them if they aren’t the more important parent since women are supposed to be nurturing by birthright. We never stop wanting to be “Mommy,” even when we want to be Mommy and corporate ass-kicker as well.
What makes matters worse is we’ve gone full circle from a culture where kids were to be “seen but not heard,” to a culture where kids are little gods. The inevitable result is that parenting, particularly mothering, is scrutinized and judged. Bottle-feeding is child cruelty, and letting your kids remain unscheduled is child neglect. But things like breastfeeding and scheduling activities take time and are physically demanding. A more hard-core feminist than myself might wonder if there’s a conspiracy afoot to keep the status of women subpar. How happy can women be if they are expected to excel in their careers, yet not give up a single critical motherly duty? The time has to come from somewhere, and that usually means self-care or fun. The fact remains that women of today, despite the feminist movement, have to mother in ways that our mothers never had to. But we are now often working as well. What’s ironic is that studies show that working moms of today spend more time with our children than stay-at-home moms did in 1965! Perhaps we working moms should cut ourselves a little slack.
What’s the solution to this gender disparity? I’m not sure, but here are a few that I’ve tried and like.
Pretty good is perfect.
The fact remains that women of today, despite the feminist movement, have to mother in ways that our mothers never had to. But we are now often working as well. What’s ironic is that studies show that working moms of today spend more time with our children than stay-at-home moms did in 1965! Perhaps we working moms should cut ourselves a little slack.
What’s the solution to this gender disparity? I’m not sure, but here are a few that I’ve tried and like.
One of my friends recently shared that on weekends when she is with the kids her days revolve around when they need to nap and eat. When her husband takes the kids, he has an agenda and the kids are along for the ride. They might get a nap and a snack, but they might not. But at the end of both days, the kids are still alive, right? Don’t let perfection in the kids’ lives be the enemy of rest in yours.
** Special thanks to my Dad, who always says "Pretty good is perfect!" and makes most things look perfect anyway, especially his parenting and grandparenting.
Going with good instead of perfect requires letting go. Let go of what people think of your mothering. Let go of having things done exactly the way you’d like them or your children would like them by your mate. Let go of needing to do it all. Let go and the universe will provide. It’s amazing how when trust in the universe supplants self-will, everything comes out better.
It’s okay to disappear for the day, the night, and even the weekend to leave your kids with a parent who doesn’t have it all together. Disappearing might mean stopping to get a latte on the way home for no good reason but to have 15 minutes to yourself. The great thing about disappearing is that you see how well the family copes without you, even if they miss you like crazy. I like to disappear really early a few mornings a week because it’s the only time I can work out without it taxing my workday. My husband is not a morning person, but when I’m not there it’s amazing how it all just works out. Days when I’m home, he sleeps in and I fix pancakes for the kids so those mornings feel extra special.
Consider what you and your partner do best and let go of the rest. In my own experience, I know that a part of the reason I’ve retained a lot of domestic work is because I’m good at it. I’m better with deadlines and organization than my husband is, and there’s lots of that in home life, particularly with kids. Over time I’ve stopped nagging my husband about how he could be more like me, and I’ve learned to do the things I’m naturally better at. I keep away from those tasks that are not mine, like fixing things around the house and driving to after school activities. I also appreciate that my husband can sit with our son for hours discussing chess strategies, while for me it’s like watching paint dry. We all have our gifts. Together, our powers are mighty.
Have a spiritual life.
When life is crazy, it’s so important to have something bigger than you to rely on. Just remembering many times each day that something bigger (whether God, nature, or life) is in charge is such a relief. I know that for me personally, a lot of my letting go of needing to change my partner happened when I realized that everyone has a higher power, and that my husband’s higher power was definitely not me. That helped me realize I could feel more in “control” by letting go of personal dominion and understanding there was a flow to life that I didn’t need to fight.
Tell your partner how great they are when they step up.
My ongoing joke with my husband is that nothing “puts me in the mood” like his cleaning the house. Most men derive a lot of self-worth from making the women in their lives happy (the premise of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”). So be sure to acknowledge how his work makes your life easier, even if it is something that you do every day and don’t get thanked for!
Bond with and get ideas from other women.
Sometimes just feeling solidarity in our struggles to be modern women eases the load. My sisters give me great ideas and inspire me. They help me understand what’s reasonable to expect and where to let go. Share your experience with other women. We are here for you. Admittedly, Second-Wave Feminism has been severely criticized for focusing on empowering women in white middle to upper class socio-economic spheres, while forgetting the very different struggles of women of color or working women. But I don’t think anyone denies that this movement had vast benefits for women, even if its being more inclusive would have made it more powerful. I am assuming that, by definition, women who are partnered with other women are not dealing with this phenomenon. I imagine, however, that disparities in how much spouses contribute occur in LGBT relationships too.