Thursday, September 26, 2013

Forget about Leaning In, What about Choosing? Must We?

Clearly, Shirley Sandberg elicits strong feelings -- many of them angry and defensive. My post last week was based solely on her book, which I wouldn't have read except that a colleague urged it on me. But while it initially raised some of those defensive feelings in me, I worked my way to a gradual recognition that I was projecting them onto the book, which actually said much that I could agree with. Here's a link to another blogger, one considerably younger than I, whom the book helped "rethink . . . my attitude and approach toward working full-time in a competitive industry with small children."

On the other side, here's a link Terri tweeted me to Susan Faludi's critique of Sandberg's message. There's much to attend to in this critique, particularly that analysis aimed at Sandberg's investment in conservative capitalism. Personally, I'm disheartened by the tone of the piece, an unwillingness to see anything positive in Sandberg's experience and exhortations for change. One of the qualities I try to encourage my students toward when I teach persuasive writing is the quality of intellectual generosity, one I value above much else.  For me, this quality is manifest in a writer's willingness to fairly summarize another position, even one with which that writer disagrees. She or he should avoid reducing that position to "closest cliché" (to use a term from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's composition textbook, They Say/I Say). The determination of Faludi's attack precludes her from such generosity, and, quite frankly, saddens me. Rather than attack each other, feminists of different stripes might instead work together, across class and other boundaries, to change, even incrementally, the larger systems which govern us.

Still, Faludi makes some good points, and we should not be naïve in believing that if we all "lean in" at the corporate tables, we can make changes ourselves, thus circumventing any need to shake up corporate or political or economic structures. I do hope that we might try to do both, though.

And perhaps I was naïve simply in invoking Sandberg's name without being sufficiently aware of her larger significance. Still, she got me thinking, and she got us talking, and I think this conversation, re-energized, is a good thing. In fact, I've been thinking about the agonizing twin pulls of family/personal life and career all my life, but most recently, ever since my mother's need for end-of-care life through the first quarter of this year. At one point, you see, someone close to me, someone whose opinion I value, someone who was, admittedly, feeling stressed with her own situation, said to me, as I tried to figure out how to shuttle from the island where my students were mid-term and the mainland where my mother needed round-the-clock care: Frances, you say "Yes" to your students and "No" to your mother, or you say "Yes" to your mother and "No" to your students. Make a choice, in other words, and then own the guilt. . . Woman up, and do the right thing. . . Make no mistake, though. The right thing would not have been choosing my students.

This loved one said something very similar to one of my sisters as well, although that sister isn't teaching. Rather, she was as close to indispensable to a fair-sized international company as anyone but the owner might be -- and the owner was away for a week, my sister doing as much as she could after her working day, and waiting 'til the following week's vacation time to be at my mother's bedside even more. In my case, I had not only a contractual obligation to my students but an ethical one. We don`t have substitute professors on call.  There are, indeed, circumstances that might require me to take a leave mid-term, but given the difficulties this would impose on my students and on my department, I didn`t see this as an option. Instead, I cancelled some classes and gave reading, research, and writing assignments via email and online teaching platforms, and did my best to juggle, dropping balls all over the place. Most significantly, I had to admit that some of my siblings were providing more care for my mother than I was. I couldn`t claim Superwoman status. I couldn`t, I can`t, do it all. But I'm not willing to give up either family or students (work) because I can't always excel in both roles. 

I want to make it very clear that I don't fault the loved one who made these stark statements. That person said nothing that I don't hear myself, when I'm very quiet and alone and feeling conflicted. S/he said nothing that I haven't been told or shown in less direct ways ever since I was small, watching my mother, once a devoted schoolteacher, becoming too caught up in domestic demands ever to recover the nerve to get back to the workplace. Nothing that I hadn't, in fact, acted on, when I gave up the possibility to build a promising, early career to stay home full-time with my daughter, and then her siblings (No regrets on the time I spent at home, I hasten to add, although within a year I had begun a program of study and taken a few piano students, feeling too isolated in the role of mother). I don`t think, though, that s/he said anything that my brothers or brothers-in-law felt. I don`t think they felt guilty for choosing their work and caring for their mother, albeit cutting corners in both places.

The person who summed this societal message up so clearly for me -- Choose, Frances, your family or your work -- clarified why I had been feeling so much fatigue and guilt and sadness, despite having a rich family life and work that I loved. Despite having a supportive partner who agreed that I could do both. Despite he and I both recognizing that the way I could do both was by his pitching in to share the domestic workload and by both of us adjusting domestic expectations to reflect our responsibilities in the workplace. I`ve been thinking about how I experience this social demand in terms of eldercare in the family, most recently. Next post, I`d like to turn the lens backward a bit, and forward, to think about how it might pertain to childcare.

Meanwhile, you know what I`m going to say: if you`d like to keep this conversation going, I`d love to read your comments. . . .


14 comments:

  1. Excellent post, and one that reflects my feelings at this stage of career plus motherhood (and now grandmotherhood). My question is, did the loved one who indicated it was a black and white, yes or no response you had to choose ever have to make such a choice herself? Had she chucked all job responsibilities to be with your mother as often as she was needed? If not, she was not entitled -- or equipped -- to frame the decision that way.

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    1. The person I'm speaking of was stellar in caring for my mom -- not sure how those last months would have worked without her. But she had no job responsibilities at that point -- which I would never, ever mean to imply that she wasn't making a huge sacrifice. She earned a huge halo, and I have to let go of wanting to have one too! ;-)

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  2. Isn't it all about balance?
    Why do we need to choose on or the other?
    IMO there is far too much guilt in the world and women seem to carry most of it.
    I think guilt can be crippling and I vote for freedom to choose....I did both but worked part time. I needed to contribute and felt better for it.
    I do not feel inclined to read this book.
    I am going to return later and read more comments and what your future posts have to say on the subject...

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    1. I can understand you not wanting to read Sandberg's book -- so much else on the bookshelves, isn't there? But I do want to clarify that she's not the one saying we need to choose nor placing the guilt. In fact, she's saying we can do both if we want to, but we might have to lower our standards, admit we can't do it all, and accept that good enough can be enough. . .
      Thanks for contributing to the conversation -- I think those of us who had part-time work have much to offer as well as those who worked full-time ANd those who were completely available to family.

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  3. I think this debate needs to be so tightly parsed, and the terms defined so clearly, that it's hard to see it through.

    There are realities around work. The type that pays a lot and offers power and fame is highly competitive. There, you have to lean in to win.

    But nobody should say that's the only work that matters, just as nobody should pretend that you can do that work and be a constantly present mother or caregiver of others.

    The realm in between, and how society ought to organize, well, there be monsters. And much ambiguity. And high emotion. Hence the debate.

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    1. Exactly. But the emotion and the debate and the monsters and the ambiguity are worth wading through, I think, parsing as we go. I have been thinking of these issues seriously for decades now, have read widely on feminist theory, sorted out domestic politics, observed gender in the workplace -- none of it has brought me as fiercely to the table as watching my daughters become mothers, mothers with daughters.
      And I believe fiercely that there are other ways to lean in even if one's work is not the type to pay a lot. I believe that I can lean into this debate even as a considerably less powerful academic. Because there are other kinds of power. Right?

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  4. The person who said to you "Frances, you say...' was framing commitment as a zero-sum game, But it is not; we are like air traffic controllers, not on/off switches. The only way to avoid juggling our priorities is to have only one thing that counts. Some women do that- but the majority whom I know are invested in multiple places. Exacting, sometimes exhausting, but also a full life.

    We don't have to make other people wrong in order to express our needs, and it took me a very long time to learn that.

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    1. So well said -- others don't need to be wrong for us to say what we want/need. But it's tough. The person who said that to me didn't come up with that frame on her own. She'd subjected herself to it long before she pointed me to it.

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    2. Yes, it's a way of thinking that becomes reflexive. And it's hard to spot the trap of her either/or logic when the comment lands at such deep emotional level, questioning your love and your choices.

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    3. Because I'd got involved in defense of my sister's juggling, I was lucky to see the frame as unfair and logically faulty. But that doesn't mean I could exonerate myself -- because the implicit accusation merely reinforced what came from deep inside AND from so many other voices outside. It's why I wanted to write about it, so many months later, in case someone else in similar straits might find it helpful.

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  5. I don't know that anyone who has not cared for an elder can really understand the amount of time and energy involved. It is not a one-person job. I tell my sister all the time how lucky I am to have her to share the job with.(She hopefully feels the same!) And,it is a job--a 24/7 kind of job, with time demands and emotional demands unlike anything I have ever done.
    I have great respect for those of us who love and care for our parents. We do the best that we can. And, we care for our parents while continuing to care for ourselves and all our other loved ones.
    It is a balance, not an either/or choice.

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    1. Yes! I was so very fortunate to have many siblings to share that care, and I told them regularly that I knew how much more they were doing than I was. That said, I really pushed to contribute meaningfully and I know that I did in the end -- Our situation required 'round the clock care, every day for almost 3 months, and I'm so glad I was able to be part of it and that, because of my sibs, I didn't have to leave my job to do that. Like you, I have huge respect for anyone who has the privilege and challenge of doing this important job. Take care!

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  6. I think that the choice might be giving up on the guilt and acknowledging that we are doing as much as we can. I know that my brothers did not feel the same responsibility for my father's care. On the other hand, my husband, who is retired, cherished the last days that he spent with his mother. It seems to me that we are all at different places in our lives and we need to accept these differences.

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    1. You're spot on here -- we do need to let the guilt go, once we've sorted through what we can juggle and we're doing our best. And it gets so complicated -- we do what we do from different needs and different strengths and in different circumstances. Allowing others to have those difference and accepting them in ourselves is a wonderful starting place. I'm sorry about your mother-in-law's loss -- it sounds as if she became a good friend to you as well as another mother.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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