there’s no other way things could be

Sometimes you read something that seems obvious — or uncomplicated, or straightforward — but it connects a bunch of dots in a way that ends up feeling like a revelation. That’s what happened when I read Claire Cain Miller’s NYT piece “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy’” earlier this week.

The article is, of course, worth reading in its entirety (I always advocate for paying for journalism, but if you don’t have room in your budget and hit the paywall, you can Pocket it and read it that way). But the basic idea is this: as women have gained entrance to the fields/echelons of power that had been closed to them for decades, what’s necessarily to excel in those fields has shifted. More hours, most of all, but also more networking responsibilities, more flexibility — things that are naturally more difficult if you’re trying to balance motherhood as well. As Miller writes:

The returns to working long, inflexible hours have greatly increased. This is particularly true in managerial jobs and what social scientists call the greedy professions, like finance, law and consulting — an unintentional side effect of the nation’s embrace of a winner-take-all economy. It’s so powerful, researchers say, that it has canceled the effect of women’s educational gains.

Just as more women earned degrees, the jobs that require those degrees started paying disproportionately more to people with round-the-clock availability. At the same time, more highly educated women began to marry men with similar educations, and to have children. But parents can be on call at work only if someone is on call at home. Usually, that person is the mother.

This is not about educated women opting out of work (they are the least likely to stop working after having children, even if they move to less demanding jobs). It’s about how the nature of work has changed in ways that push couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.

This is not about educated women opting out of work (they are the least likely to stop working after having children, even if they move to less demanding jobs). It’s about how the nature of work has changed in ways that push couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.

Last year, I wrote about the confluence of factors (student debt! the shrinking middle class! skyrocketing child care costs!) that have lead so many women like me to think long and hard about the prospect of having children. The piece was a reaction to a different NYT article, which framed women’s responses to why they weren’t having kids as a matter of leisure — which journalist Andrea Grimes reframed entirely.

The number one response for those who have not decided not to have children is "want more leisure time," but as Grimes points out, it's a misleading answer: it's not that the respondents are like, fuck kids, I want to go to Ibiza. "I would also dispute the premise that, under capitalism, 'want more leisure time' is a personal choice," she writes. "Non-leisure time is working time, and people obviously feel like the work they are doing does not offer benefits that allow them to raise children." As Grimes summarizes, "Any way you look at it, the results of this survey show deep economic, financial and political fears are dissuading young people who want to have children from having them, and reinforcing people who are uncertain/not into it that they definitely shouldn't." 

“Deep economic, financial and political fears are dissuading young people who want to have children from having them.” As I wrote then, and as I still feel now, one of those fears is that there would be no way to sustain the career that — for better or worse, has become intrinsic to my identity — within the current paradigm of “working mother.” And Miller’s article only underlines that: my job is incredibly greedy. And so is my partner’s. When people ask how I write so much, travel so much, am “on” so much, the answer is always the same: I don’t have kids.

I know it’s not impossible to be a journalist and have children; I know many who’ve done so. And I don’t know all of their personal stories, but I do know many of them who’ve only been able to balance the demands by 1) having a very supportive partner whose job facilitates taking a much more active role in parenting; 2) they’ve modified their relationship with work, e.g. started editing more than writing; 3) they have family members and/or the means to pay for “interstitial” child care that allows them to feed the appetite of their greedy jobs (parents who can pick up two hours of care when you’re at the office, or at a work dinner, or need to travel for work).

None of those things are possibilities for me. When people have tried to persuade me that having a kid is possible, they’ve never suggested that my partner could step back from work — it was always to suggest that I could. There are many reasons this infuriates me, but I fear I would just start writing incomprehensible caps lock fury if I went into it, so I’ll just say that it’s regressive bullshit.

And while I know I’ve spent the last five months writing and thinking about burnout, I don’t think that having a child would be a healthy way for me, personally, to force a reconfiguration to labor. And honestly, at this point, I’m less interested in my own child-ambivalence and more interested in the way shifts like these sustain the gender gap and patriarchy in general.

Is it ridiculous that it has to feel like a choice between vocation and parenthood? Of course it is! Did companies consciously decide that they were going to up the hours/requirements necessary to excel at greedy jobs, just to make sure that women stay out of power? Of course not! Patriarchy rarely operates in such a conscious fashion — which is part of the way it facilitates its erasure, and allows people who benefit from it to claim it doesn’t exist.

But just because a job description doesn’t intend to exclude women (and in this case, mothers in particular) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. If professions actually have interest in closing the gender gap, things like mandatory paternity leave and lactation rooms are important — but they only address the symptoms of the gender gap, not the fundamental, structural illness itself.

Fifty years ago, the way to address the gender gap was to allow women to gain the tools — through education, primarily — that would allow them into the professions still dominated, for no discernable reason, by men. Now that more women than ever have those tools, the professions themselves have shapeshifted — again, for no discernable reason; the piece points out that round-the-clock on-call-ness does not, in fact, make you better at your job — putting them once again out of most women’s reach.

Gradually shifting a job description to match men’s capabilities is so fucking sneaky. It tricks those that it excludes into blaming themselves, thinking that they’re less-than, that they couldn’t hack it, that they just didn’t have the ambition or the drive or the organizational stamina. But that’s how an ideology as robust as patriarchy reproduces itself: by convincing those who function under it that there’s no other way things could be. That it’s natural — and, as such, unassailable. But it’s not.

"…The ultimate solution, researchers say, is not to make it possible for mothers to work crazy hours, too,” Miller writes. “It’s to reorganize work so that nobody has to."

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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