March 9, 2012

Escaping the Cape: How Do You Balance Work & Family? ~ Wesley Hogan-Philipsen

Photo: Nathan Rupert

I’m in triangle pose, twisting up. I feel a pinch, again. Not in my spine.

It’s the Sheryl Sandberg pinch. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, was profiled in a New York Times article last month amidst the frenzy of public offering of Facebook stock:

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, who worked with her at Google, said Ms. Sandberg’s high profile gave Facebook an edge in recruiting and retaining talent. “When you have women who say, ‘Can I stay in? Can I have children and make it still work?’ the existence of role models like Sheryl is very impactful,” said Ms. Singh Cassidy, who now runs a video shopping start-up, Joyus.

Ms. Sandberg declined to be interviewed for this article. But in an interview in 2010 with the New York Times, she spoke of talking with a female job candidate who never mentioned children.

“So we offered her a job and I said, ‘We don’t have to talk about this, but just in case you’re thinking of turning down this job because you’re thinking of getting pregnant,’ ” you shouldn’t worry, Ms. Sandberg said. There was no need, Ms. Sandberg told her, to choose between having children and a career—both were possible. “She took the job and told me she would not have taken the job had I not had that conversation. She got pregnant a couple weeks later.” (New York Times, 2/4/12)

This piece has so much to like in it. Sandberg’s a move beyond the Mommy Wars of the 1990s; nowhere is she pedaling the virtues or dangers of Tiger Mom. Sandberg’s talks are lovely: inspiring, positive, smart, self-aware. Necessary.

Still I’ve wondered: why did pieces of this article keep poking up in my mind, jabbing like a stone in the shoe, as I moved through my yoga practice this month?

When feeling adrift, I usually return to the idea that “when you know how to listen, everybody is a guru.” Listening is the hard part. Letting my biases go, and truly hearing someone else’s wisdom.

So what did Sandberg have to teach me?

Shirley Chisholm and Gloria Steinem were certainly the first public feminists—gurus—who showed me that my dad’s mantra was true, “women can do anything men can do,” and sometimes do it better.

I’ve lived in the light of that belief.

After college, I went to get a PhD. Eighteen months into the program, one of my feminist mentors found out I was pregnant. She warned me it was not the time to have children if I wanted a serious career—at least not before I was 35. It was the early 1990s. She had been forced to wage hand-to-hand combat to get women into the academy, had to out-do the men just to get a seat in the professor chair in the 1970s. She fought for me to be “all I could be” when I was still in diapers. And now I was taking it for granted, showing up at 24, in my second year, and getting pregnant like it was no big deal.

The lesson I took from listening to this feminist mentor was: “She proved the sexist men wrong in the 70s, now I have to prove her wrong.” And I did. Seventeen years later, my son is a junior in high school, I have several other children, and I’ve reached my original career goals.

Still, each time I am introduced via some variant of “Who knows how she does it, but here she is!” I am creeped out by the Superwoman Cape. So creeped out in fact that a friend got me a Superman t-shirt, upon which she superimposed a circle with the line through the “S.”

Photo: DrStarbuck

Calling someone “Superwoman” is like telling an anorexic that she looks beautiful, or saying to an alcoholic he’s charming when he drinks.

It is a superficially flattering, fundamentally treacherous compliment. We hear you praising our “total package”—and we know this image is stitched together on the backs of someone who didn’t get a bedtime story, a work task that wasn’t completed, a body who’s working on four hours sleep instead of eight, and a child’s teacher whose email wasn’t returned. Someone, somewhere, is missing something.

In fact, several people in the family and workplace are shortchanged by “Superwoman,” and routinely. No one more so than Superwoman herself. And the woman at that podium, presented to you in the Cape, is held up as a role model for younger women: “You can do it too!”

It’s not full disclosure. Isn’t it therefore dishonorable to accept the role at face value?

Still, it seems so sour grapey to point this out in public. Someone smoothly introduces you as a rockstar, rolls the Rocky music, and you say, “I can’t accept this honor.”

Sure, “Superwomen” talk about the seamy underbelly of our lives around the kitchen table or on catch-as-catch-can Skype sessions with our friends. Kitchen Table Truths don’t make it out of the mouth of the Superwoman when she’s on the podium. But some things we don’t even say in our kitchen. Like this ugly thought that arose on my mat this past month: “Will Sandberg be singing the same tune when her now-young-kids are eleven to fourteen?” How lacking in compassion, to predict stress for others.

But looking back, it feels true. My work-home balance was infinitely easier to manage when I only had to worry about the competence and kindness of their caregivers. I.e., when the kids were under ten. Middle school complicates things. They “don’t want babysitters, Mom. God.” And yet, leave an eleven year old home alone in the afternoon, and he will play Minecraft for four hours straight, or smoke pot with the older neighbor boys in the tree house, all the while managing to avoid his science fair project and forgetting to get his cleats on (or even where they are) when his ride to practice arrives at 5:15 p.m.

At 3:30 p.m., my daughter gets home and has to decide what to have for a snack, which is not a big deal until middle school, when suddenly all girls think food is a biological weapon aimed directly at their happiness.

5 p.m. is when the sixteen year old may decide to sneak his girlfriend into his room (“the Parents don’t come home for another hour and a half!”) and he thinks that because it’s not dark, I will not guess that sex could really happen. All of it—emotions, hormones, routines, habits—the whole shebang gets worked out before the average mom or dad gets home.

I have decided that 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. is the critical time to be there for my kids who are still at home—now 12, 14, and 16 years old.

Photo: __Jens__

Mornings in my house are easier (not easy, just easier). I can leave at 6 a.m., and they are mostly likely going to get to the bus on time. And later evening, also easier. I can go up to my home office and do work from 7 p.m. on, and the kids can be counted on to finish homework, get ready for the next day, and get to bed without too much fuss. But 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.—those are what my mom used to call “the bewitching hours.” This is when teens need help prioritizing homework, could use encouragement with a friendship problem, and simply appreciate (need?) a reliable, calm adult to come home to. An adult who loves them. I can outsource the rides to and from dance, football, and karate, but not the hug, or the simple presence. Anyone can show up at the final performance, but it simply doesn’t mean the same thing to your kid if the nanny or the babysitter were the ones with whom they learned their lines.

Still, why do I have the urge to pull back from the encouragement that Sandberg is offering young women?

Isn’t that the same thing I needed to hear when I worked so hard to prove my feminist mentor wrong? Sandberg’s call for women to let their light shine—it is glorious. She encourages women to not be intimidated, to get their work out there. I love it.

But do we not owe it to our future-adult-daughters, our students, our nieces, and our sons who want to be equal partners to their future wives—to let them know about 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.?

It is a fact that 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. is a time most professional women have meetings and/or are commuting. There is no way to finesse this, Sandberg, I think. You can’t pay someone to do that for your kids. They need you or your spouse. I don’t think you can outsource it. People do outsource it all the time, and kids turn out fine, or they don’t.

I am moving gently around this point, because I am uncertain. I don’t think we can say, as Sandberg does, “put your pedal to the metal, full speed ahead in your career, young woman,” and not tell them about the bewitching hours. Or the work closet I had to sneak into to pump breast milk when the kids were infants that didn’t have a lock. Or the time I had to take twelve weeks unpaid leave with my second child because I couldn’t stop morning sickness from lasting all day. The yearly negotiations with supervisors to make sure I could be home by 3 p.m. Or the repeating nightmare at 4 a.m.—God how I hate 4 a.m.—ruminating on the bill I forgot to pay, the cupcakes I didn’t make, the carpool adjustment I neglected to text. Or the caregiver quitting right before that four-day trip to Montreal or San Antonio where I had to give a talk, or learn a procedure, or take a deposition, or run a meeting.

And I am the only one who can do it. Because if that young woman puts the pedal to the metal, she will be the only one who can do it. And then she can’t be the one who the kids rely on to always be there. It’s hard to admit. But you can’t be the “bottom line” person—the one ultimately responsible for both your kids and your job. You always have to choose. It’s part of the price of the Cape.

Other parts of the not-advertised costs of the Cape:

Is it too hard to ask, one friend asks, that people just admit, no matter what the choices they make, that it’s really f*cking hard? It’s hard if you miss your kid’s day-to-day life, and it’s hard if you miss out on career opportunities because you can’t travel often, or can’t work late.

Another friend admits that asking women to be Superwoman doesn’t work as well for all forms of work: as a Wall Street hirer, she faces a different landscape than Stanberg. She got dinged by her superiors for hiring two extremely talented young women for positions which had thousands of applicants. She spent over $250,000 of the firm’s money to train each of these women. Both got pregnant within one year, and decided not to return after maternity leave. If you need a producer, she asked, do you hire the next extremely talented young woman that comes along? It put a whole new spin on my being a woman who wanted to hire and mentor young women.

R&B artist Lauryn Hill once said, “I consider myself a crayon… I may not be your favorite color, but one day you may need me to complete your picture.”

Maybe we bring in Lauryn Hill as another guru to consider the whole Crayola box that it takes to draw the full picture of working parents. There are a bunch of colors we don’t cop to in the box when we offer young women the Superwoman Cape. There’s the Sandbergs as Razzmatazz—vibrant, positive, shining. The parents who tell us: “Girls can do anything boys can do, better!” They are the Royal Purples, proud and steady.

The Good Partner who splits childcare and household duties 50/50—he’s Navy Blue. A great mentor to a young professional woman—Plum. Friends who keep laughter alive are Cerise and Canary, and Hot Magenta. Really great moments with your kids: Mango Tango, Robin’s Egg Blue, and Pink Flamingo. Periwinkle for those moments you look in on them peacefully sleeping, and think, Thank God I took the leap and tried to do this.

But don’t forget to include Atomic Tangerine when you realize that the conference you just agreed to keynote is the same day as your kid’s all-state orchestra performance. Color your day with Bittersweet when you can’t remember the last time you did something outrageous and spontaneous with your honey. Cadet Blue for the mind-numbing frequency with which you must schedule, schedule, schedule and then—reschedule.

Jungle Green for the acrobatic leaps you must make to get everyone where they need to go—with everything they’re supposed to have.

Yellow Green for the mortification of showing up at work unprepared, exhausted, and nauseous.

Dreary Gray for the aggressive undercurrent at dinner between you and your spouse over the best way to teach the children to…

And so on.

All the colors we need to complete the picture.

Even if we give the full picture—all the colors—we still don’t have a lot to offer the girl-women who come after us.

Maybe this led to the last guru who popped up on my mat this month: Ruth Rosen. Like my feminist mentor, she was part of that first generation of women who truly gender-integrated scholarly work in the 1970s. After nearly a half-century of work/family balance, she wrote a stunning piece called, “The Care Crisis,” in 2007. In it, she noted millions of us fall through the cracks if our delicate balance is thrown out of whack by a sudden change: “A baby is born. A child develops a high fever. A spouse breaks a leg. A parent suffers a stroke. These are the events that throw a working woman’s delicate balance between work and family into chaos.”

She notes these are individual problems, but they require a societal change: “universal healthcare, paid parental leave, high-quality subsidized on-the-job and community childcare, a living wage, job training and education, flexible work hours and greater opportunities for part-time work, investment in affordable housing and mass transit, and the reinstatement of a progressive tax structure would go a long way toward supporting working mothers and their families.” It’s expensive, but if we want to walk our talk of family values, she says it is the society’s structure, not just individual women, that we have to change.

When you know how to listen, everybody’s a guru. Sheryl Sandberg. Lauryn Hill. Ruth Rosen. Can they help, as we try to figure out, alongside our sons and daughters, how a new generation can raise their children without using the Superwoman Cape to hide our screw-ups and scars, or smother our rage and tears? Or to escape the cape altogether?

elephant journal has such a reflective community of thoughtful people. I’d like to put out a call, so that we can learn how to do this better: who are your work-family balance gurus?



Editor: Brianna Bemel


Wesley Hogan-Philipsen collects stories for a living—and retells them as a historian. She is currently living in Richmond, Virginia, and feels lucky to share her life with her divinely anarchist spouse, who always does more than fifty percent of the housework and childcare. In her spare time, she pretends she’s by the ocean in headstand, listening to the waves crash nearby. Last solstice, she burned her stained, torn, bullet-ridden Superwoman cape in the backyard under a full moon. She can be reached at [email protected]

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