Can we elevate the debate on working parenthood?

June 20, 2013

"Everything is about pretty, rich Marissa Mayer." - Jessica Grose

"Women without children are barred from the conversation about women. Not only do they not have a seat at the table but they can't even get into the restroom." - Lauren Sandler

Can we move the debate on working parenthood forward? That was the question posed by a panel of writers and commentators at The New America Foundation's New York offices last night. Note the use of the word 'parenthood' rather than 'motherhood'. Still, there was only a scattering of men in the audience.

The panelists are all well known for writing and speaking on what I'll have to call women's issues, although I dislike the term for reasons I can barely explain. Judith Warner wrote the book Perfect Madness - Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Sharon Lerner is the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, Lauren Sandler is everywhere right now discussing her new book One and Only: the Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, and I used to listen to Jessica Grose regularly on Slate's Double X podcast. She now writes about things women-related for a host of publications including Slate and The New Republic.

A few takeaways from the evening:

  • The debate on working parenthood is stuck in the US for a few reasons: what Sharon Lerner called America's "rampant and deep strains of individualism" is one of them. When I moved here 17 years ago I was truly struck by how allergic to government so many people are in this country. A country that was built by individuals and has long emphasized what one person can achieve if they just work hard enough, isn't that invested in creating a uniform system of leave and childcare policy that could help everyone. Or at least it feels very ambivalent about it. 
  • Another reason may be a reluctance to talk about just how hard things are. Judith Warner said Americans are more open about their sex lives than they are about money (though having just produced a show on sex, I'm not so sure). She said the cost of pre-school is killing all but the wealthiest Americans, but that few people are talking about this honestly.
  • But things aren't perfect in Europe either. Scandinavia may be the envy of many because of its generous family policies, but in the UK, where I grew up, things are more of a mishmash. My friends get a year's maternity leave, but quality, affordable childcare is relatively hard to come by. Lauren Sandler pointed out that this situation is now playing itself out in British homes, as people apparently choose to have smaller families - almost half of British families now have just one child. 
  • The panelists discussed the fact that in the US, the debate on - heck, let's just call it working motherhood - is all about rich women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. But there are millions and millions of women in this country who have almost no control over their lives and cannot take a sick day if one of their kids is sick, or they're sick, and actually get paid for it. Why do we always focus on the rich and famous? Because, according to the panelists, there is an 'aspirational' culture here that means we're always looking up. This gets me to the evil media, of which I am a member.
  • Lauren Sandler was surprised when her latest piece in the Atlantic - about female writers who had one child - was published with the headline: The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid. She said readers responded mainly to the provocative headline - and the comments beneath the piece - and barely to the content of the piece itself. I was sitting next to friend and colleague Rachael Ellison of Reworking Parents and she echoed Sandler's point, saying the media has a lot to do with the so-called 'Mommy wars' or indeed the discussion around women and work in general. The whole point of a headline is to get people to read or click. I get that. But I think Rachael is right that part of the reason our debates around these issues get stuck is that editors like to focus on the things that have always riled people or always excited people because they know those articles will sell. This really needs an entire blog post to itself.
  • Finally, mothers tend to dominate the conversation on working women. Lauren Sandler put it well: "Women without children are barred from the conversation about women. Not only do they not have a seat at the table but they can't even get into the restroom." This is partly why I'm dong this show. There are so many issues to do with working womanhood that are not child-related, and I want to make sure they get covered.