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

Via elephant journal
on Mar 9, 2012
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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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12 Responses to “Escaping the Cape: How Do You Balance Work & Family? ~ Wesley Hogan-Philipsen”

  1. "Exhausted" says:

    I am nearly 58, I've been in the work force for what seems like a million years, and I've been "having it all" for way too long. I would not recommend it!
    In a long-term same-sex relationship with three kids, neither of us could choose to be a stay-at-home parent, because neither could cover the whole family on her employer's health insurance plan. Each of us has had to work full-time to maintain eligibility for "employee plus child(ren)" coverage — no "full family" option being open to us.
    I am a believer too in the 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. rule, but to be there for my kids during those hours, I've had to fight for flexible work hours in my corporate job, and then work them — 5:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. every day for many years. And it only gets worse if, like me, you're a member of the "sandwich generation," taking care of both kids and an elderly parent at the same time.
    Currently, my mother — 88, in a wheelchair, suffering from dementia, and living with us — can't be at home alone. Instead, she needs to be taken to an adult daycare center so that I can continue to work. That means even more insane hours, and the only way to preserve most of 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. is to arise each workday morning at 3:45, work for 2 hours at home via laptop, then put in the 90 minutes it takes to get my mother dressed, fed, and delivered to the daycare center — and then go to the office and work the rest of my work day. By Thursday, I am running on fumes, and by quitting time on Friday I am way past empty and barely functional: Some Superwoman!
    No, I would not wish this life for my daughters. But on the other hand, I'd have a hard time advising them about what they should give up. Not family life, certainly. But on the other hand, it's hard to enjoy family life while broke — and hard not to be broke without a full-time job. Striking a balance is far from easy, and in many cases may not even be do-able. If you're not "all-in" at work, you're marginalized and robbed of the satisfaction of career success, as smart-assed whippersnappers become your bosses. If you choose to work part-time in this economy, you end up putting in full-time hours for part-time pay just to hold onto that job. And if, like me, you work unusual hours to somehow make it all happen, you're constantly inconveniencing co-workers and clients who adhere to normal schedules, and sleepwalking through your own life. I know all the questions, but none of the answers.
    I will definitely make sure that my kids are not caught in the sandwich generation trap, by maintaining my long-term care insurance and planning for my own assisted living needs as I age. At least they won't be juggling me along with everything else! But they'll need to find their own road as to the rest. I honestly don't know what to tell them! There are no great answers.

  2. STUPIED says:

    Why do I have to work hard to support your own genetic kids??? What a shame to ask people to work hard so then you can have a lot of sex and producing kids???

  3. Karen says:

    My mantra is that "You can have it all, but not at the same time."

    One piece of the puzzle takes a back seat (ie falls apart) depending on need. If one of the kids has problems, worktime goes to a minimum. If work is busy ( I just moved my business to new premises with an awesome inspiring view of nature!) then housework gets done less. ( I actually grew mould on one of the rinsed but not washed plates in the kitchen .. much less inspiring nature). When hubby's not working overseas, I use an ironing lady all the time.

    I think the superwoman myth is damaging to women. The "I Chose to be Super in the most Important Bits of my Life Right Now Woman, So There" .. . put her on the podium! And I'm fortunate in being self employed so can make my hours flexible. I so feel for "Exhausted" above .. you are a real "super" woman … that's amazing what you do for your family and what support you are for them. I'm sure things will get easier eventually xx

  4. wildfire2windsong says:

    To say someone is "superwoman" (or even "superman", for that matter) is another elusive goal many of us will fall short of. What you've described is balance and flexibility. Balance is when we achieve the highest level of the human capacity to be super-anything. Balance isn't about the equal division of focus, but recognizing where the focus is most needed at the moment and being flexible enough to move with it. Thank you for your thought-provoking editorial. Much enjoyed. Peace. 🙂

  5. superwoman says:

    Thank you for writing this. It’s horrible that women are not only required, but encouraged to work 2 full time jobs and only get credit for one. I’m a single mother, so I have no choice in the matter, either I work or we don’t eat – or have a roof over our heads. When I had my daughter, I didn’t plan on her father walking out on us. Who could foresee something like that? I’m so tired of my work as a mother being discounted, disregarded & dismissed. It’s the most grueling and most important job anyone can have. And I have to work another stressful full-time job on top of that. I’m so tired of hearing of those “lazy” mothers on welfare, who are not fortunate enough to make as much money as I do, or “fortunate” enough to even have a second job so that they can get a tiny bit of respect. Because the job of motherhood clearly gets no respect. When people ask what I do, I say I’m a mother, only to be met with a condescending smirk and a “yeah but what do you REALLY do, I mean your JOB, I mean how do you make MONEY? You do have a JOB don’t you?”


  6. wow! says:

    @stupied … What’s ironic is you’re probably the same person out there supporting politicians trying to restrict women’s access to birth control & abortion

  7. sTuPied says:

    Please note anyone with a uterus CAN become a "mother"!!!!

  8. read_carefully says:

    @wow!! I think you replied to the wrong person ha ha ha ha …………..

  9. Candy says:

    Great piece. I think there are many career women/moms who share your same feelings, as I know I do. Finding balance is hard. I like to think of my cape is wilted and droopy. Unlike you, I was 36 when I had my first child and 39 with the second. I spent most of my time prior to that working on my career and in graduate school. Now at 41 with two kids and marketing career with tight deadlines, crazy requests and long hours, I'm utterly exhausted. As you state, all looks good on the outside but there is always something not getting down. My 4 year old reminds in the car ride home from his childcare facility/school that I forgot is sound bucket or color show in tell. There is always the last minute birthday party gift that is picked up at the super market or drugstore, that one email that I forgot to send or the project with the looming deadline that I haven't even begun. I drive home thinking about work, I go to bed thinking about work, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work. At least two nights a week I get home after my kids go to bed and it makes me so incredibly sad. My weekends are peppered with cleaning bathrooms, laundry, changing sheets, early morning yoga classes, sharing time with my husband for his weekend bicycle rides, birthday parties, playdates, etc. Its an endless cycle and one I went to get off of so badly. I daydream frequently about moving to a sleepy little town, teaching a couple of yoga classes a week, teaching a college class or two and spending time dancing in the back yard with my kids. I do take complete responsibility for my life and where it is today, as these were my choices. I chose a hectic career in marketing because I love the excitement. I like to be where the action is at. I manifested everything I have and made it happen. Now its my choice and up to me only to make that big change since my prior life doesn't serve me and my family anymore. Staying at home isn't a choice for me but I know I can find something fulfilling that will also allow more time for my family and me. My hat is off to all mothers, both those that work outside of the house and those who stay at home. Motherhood is one of the most important jobs in the world and its really hard work.

  10. ALB says:

    I grew up hearing how lucky I was that I could have a career AND a family, thanks to the sacrifices of the preceeding generations. I am nearly 27 and have a year and half left of graduate school. I have a part time job, and am a full-time student. I barely have time to see the very patient man I am newly dating and frequently end out asking for rain checks when preparing for class takes longer than expected or I am held at work late. I have spent much of my life working toward being "successful" and aiming for that podium so many of us have referenced. I want children but I really cannot imagine when that will possibly happen…There will never be a good time to have kids, and it will be one of those sink or swim situations when/if it happens. I worked at a big corporation in New York City. I saw women hang up on their crying sick children calling from home, frustrated with their partners for not being able to handle the situation, but more obviously frustrated they couldn't go home to their children. continued…

  11. ALB says:

    But the most disturbing thing I saw was the pity from the older married women and men that was obviously directed at the single and childless women in the office. Those women are in their 30s/40s, are professionally successful, command respect, and the older generation "feels badly for them". Those women may not get married or have children, and while as a society we pretend to be accepting of that, we simply are not. It is viewed as a failure: a character flaw. What is wrong with her that she can't find a mate? Why doesn't she have kids? While I should not care what these old foggies think, I do not want their pity, ever. You do have to do it all. The partners of the firm want to meet your boyfriend/husband, but they don't want you to spend time with him. They want you to have a "normal family", but don't want you to get pregnant. To me, it seems there isn't a choice. Luckily, I want a family some day for my own selfish reasons and not because of how society will perceive me if I don't have one. continued…

  12. ALB says:

    But I wonder if that would have been different if I didnt grow up thinking both were expected of me. When I read thoughtful posts like the author's from women who have been through it, and are honest about it, I can't help but get just a little more terrified. But I thank them for their courage to admit how hard it is, for the fair warning, and for the proof that it CAN be done. While I appreciate the notion that Superwoman is a very dangerous label, I think the women who are able to pull work and a family off do deserve recognition for a damn hard task. Please don't shy away from the podium. It is the older female mentors I have met through life (those with families and those without) from whom I have learned the most. Please take your credit where credit is due.