This weekend I went off to the cottage with my book club, a group of eight wonderful women, which is still going strong after twelve years. One member died last year of cancer. Other members have weathered divorce, chronic illness, career ups and downs. Children have grown up. Parents have passed away. But our companionship and love of great books continues. And along with discussing literature, we talk a lot about work and family and the conflicting demands that result. On Friday evening, I recounted a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a woman occupying a very senior position in a large Canadian financial institution. She has a big job, as does her husband, and they have raised two children. How did she manage, I had asked her. Three nannies? Two grannies? No, no, she replied. Just one nanny at a time, and it all seemed to work out. She conceded that she had been very fortunate in her husband and in the women who had helped them raise their children, but she wasn’t suggesting that the obstacles were all that difficult to surmount. Well, I said to my book club, I’m pretty sure there is a bit more to the story than that.
I like to let my thoughts simmer slowly on back burners. Over days and weeks, interesting ideas and bits of news come along and get stirred in, and eventually, new solutions to stubborn puzzles get cooked up.
An important part of this process is the Sunday New York Times. Once a week, on a day when I have the chance to read slowly, and ponder things even more slowly, a wonderfully curated collection of news and opinion shows up on my breakfast table beside my cup of tea. In today’s Sunday Style section, there was an article about Mary Wells Lawrence, one of the original Mad Women, who founded her own ad agency in the 1960s, enjoyed great success and raised two daughters. (See https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/fashion/mary-wells-lawrence-took-on-the-mad-men.html?ref=style )
What can today’s harried working moms learn from the 83-year-old former exec? Ms. Lawrence sounds as though she pretty much phoned in her child-rearing duties and commented “I think women who spend the most productive years of their life nurturing children are unhappy.” One daughter became an investment banker and is apparently fine with her mother’s choices. The other daughter, a stay-at-home mom, – well, not so much. On the work front, Lawrence says she “believes success comes only from the extreme and urgent desire to be successful…You can’t just be you…You have to double yourself. You have to read books on subjects you know nothing about. You have to travel to places you never thought of traveling. You have to meet every kind of person and endlessly stretch what you know.”
That kind of effort takes a lot of hours a day, many days a week. I agree that this is what it takes to make it to the upper echelons of any realm of endeavour. But it is not a model that many working mothers of my acquaintance can manage to sustain.
Then I turned to the Arts and Leisure section and an article titled “All Hail ‘Heidi’: Beyond Feminism but Still a Dream.” (See https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/theater/gina-gionfriddo-on-rapture-blister-burn-and-wasserstein.html?ref=theater ) Playwright Gina Gionfriddo discusses the relation of her new work “Rapture, Blister, Burn” to the late Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles.” Both plays deal with women who pursue their careers and regret the damage done to romantic partnerships and their chances of having children. After achieving career success, Wasserstein’s protagonist, Wasserstein herself and Gionfriddo all decided to raise children on their own. Gionfroddo wonders if the normalization of “single-mother-by-choice” is a victory for feminism – or post-feminism – or post-post-feminism. She concludes it is not, and that the challenge that remains to be resolved is “How do men and women figure out how to negotiate their equality better?” One of the characters in her own play says “My middle-aged observation is that, in a relationship between two equals, you can’t both go first.”
These two articles, from somewhat unlikely sections of the Times, help articulate what I believe is true of most “having it all” stories. The first lesson is that the lives of the blazingly successful do not actually provide many useful lessons for those of us who are simply trying to be reasonably successful. The women and men who end up in the top jobs have twice as much as most of the rest of us. Twice the brains, twice the energy, twice the drive. Mary Wells Lawrence says you have to double yourself, but I suspect she was well on the way to having double the capacity of many of her peers to start with. Then she worked at least twice as hard.
And the second conclusion is that while it is occasionally possible for two people in perfect concert to pass through the archways of life in a graceful, waltzing embrace, for most of us, someone will have to stand aside and say “No, no, after you. You go first, and I will be following right behind.” Life is a lot simpler when everyone agrees who is the default parent, which one is usually going to get to make their client meeting, and which one is generally going to change their work commitments to take the toddler to the doctor, or to talk to the teenager’s disgruntled teacher. It may change from year to year, but often it does not.
I tell these stories because I believe we need to hear about the giant success of headline-making women executives with children and understand what goes into those narratives. For the most part, they are people of great talent and energy, with large and complex (if not always visible) networks and structures of support. They may be wonderful mothers and partners, but they do not often step aside and say “After you – you are more important than my career.” I believe they put their careers first, and figure out how to make the rest of it work after that. So we should not feel bad that we do not seem to be able to manage the same super-human feats. Most of us are regular mortals, doing our best with the resources we have, and frequently putting the interests of others before our careers. And that is not such a bad choice to make. Our families and our communities are all the better for it.