Make a Choice – Why you can’t have it all

I read an article by Rosa Brooks the other day lambasting Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, saying that we should instead “lean out”.  We should stop trying to achieve so much in so many spheres. If we try to be the best employee, networking and travelling at the same time as volunteering at our children’s school, making crafts and cupcakes, and taking them to endless clubs and enrichment programmes, we end up exhausted, overstretched and miserable. Of course this is true for people with normal energy levels (there are always some who are born to be Duracell bunnies…) The author’s solution to counter a culture of endless ambition is to instead enjoy “long lunches, afternoon naps, good books and some nice, slow hours in the La-Z-Boy.” She also encouraged that we spread the word, that men and women alike must try this so we remove the pressure of being ubiquitous both at work and at home, and challenge the idea that more work means better work.

It was a very entertaining article, aimed at “the rest of us”, ie: those who can’t hope to achieve all that Sheryl Sandberg has. Clearly I fall into this category, and I liked the idea of moving away from a culture of long hours and 24-hour availability to your work. Having a husband who is a successful lawyer, these are issues that we discuss at home on a regular basis. But I was left a little unsatisfied after reading it. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. The author was, after all, shining a light on the impossible ideals that are put on women: finding that perfect balance of successful career and caring for your children. And then I realised what bothered me:  nowhere did she suggest that you should choose between the two.  She suggests you simply to do less of both, and spend more time on yourself. She was not much different from Sheryl Sandberg herself, it was just that their source of happiness was slightly different. True, I think most women, in fact most people, would probably prefer Rosa’s model of happiness, but her article is still pervaded by a sense of entitlement that I find worrying.

What has happened to making a choice, accepting a trade-off and living with the consequences? As far as I am concerned, gender equality is about giving both men and women free and independent choice to make decisions in their lives. The more I see women struggle with “finding the right balance”, the more I feel that they have not made a choice at all, but rather are trying to have their cake and eat it. Rosa bemoans when parenting becomes an “intensive, round-the-clock” activity, in competition with your work, and rightly asserts that you may simply become crushed under the pressure. But what is parenting if not an intensive round-the-clock activity?

Rosa compares the pressures of ubiquity at work to that of the “equally-pernicious culture of intensive parenting.” Should the two really be so quickly tarred with the same brush? I certainly believe the culture of constant availability to your work is damaging to people’s health and happiness, and is indeed a culture. However, I don’t believe that constant availability to your children is a matter of culture, nor is it “pernicious”, but just the reality of being a parent.

Rosa describes women who leave the workplace due to the pressures of balancing work and home as “dropping out” of work. This seems rather condescending to me – why shouldn’t it be considered a free and valid choice for a woman, or indeed a man? I exercised my free choice when I gave up work to be a full-time parent at home. I had always known that that was what I wanted. I am lucky that my husband has a well-paid full-time job that allows me to make that choice. Many people don’t have that option, in particular single parents or those on low incomes. But of those who could make the choice to stay home, whether women or men, many don’t. Why is this?

It seems to me that the main problem here is that we still use careers as our key measure of worth as an individual in society. And full-time parenting has been put very low on the list.  Many women (or men) feel that they would go crazy if they stayed home full time. I know this because that’s often the response I get from people when I say I am a stay-at-home mum. They tell me they need the outside stimulation, socialisation with other grown-ups and the ability to use their education and skills. I don’t quite know how to take this – as a compliment that I am able to survive the deprivation of these elements of normal social integration, or as an insult that somehow they ‘need’ that stimulation, but that my brain can do without it.

My response is somewhere in between. I do miss that some of my education and skills are being underused, but that is true of any job I could think of. I have had to develop a whole set of new skills. And anyone who tells you that they are not intellectually stimulated when they are around children have never had a conversation with an inquisitive six year-old. I have found myself racking my brain (and plundering Wikipedia) for answers to questions so fundamental I never think to ask them. In the process I have relearnt things I used to know, and learnt a whole lot more besides. The world around you seems so much more interesting and miraculous when viewed through the eyes of a child.

Children also have a tendency to ask you some difficult metaphysical questions, such as why do people do bad things, what happens when I die, and do you miss your Granny in heaven, at odd times of the day, like when you are brushing their teeth or in the car home from school. You can’t plan these conversations, they come when they come.  I made the choice that I don’t want to find that it is someone else’s thoughts and values that are passed on to my children because they happened to ask the question when I was at work.  I may not be using the skills learnt during my degree, but what I am doing keeps me thinking on my feet and matters more to me than any job could.

That’s not to say there aren’t days when I feel utterly fed up with the endless laundry, the making of packed lunches and the Sisyphean task of tidying the house.  I fully admit that I don’t feel intellectually stimulated by the vacuum cleaner, and I am not going to get a pay rise for getting the kids to school on time four days in a row (a mighty achievement for me!) But then every job has its elements that are necessary but tedious.

I often think of the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa is going crazy because school is closed, and she is asking Marge maniacally to “Look at me! Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart!” That’s me! Society isn’t going to congratulate me or give me a promotion for what I do.  It has become taboo to champion stay-at-home parenting, as it doesn’t generate taxes and would seem to encourage a return to the dark ages where women had no right to choose. But here is my manifesto: Don’t lean in or out, but take a decisive leap.  Make being a stay-at-home parent a valid and valued life choice.  Show the world that it is a timeless role that has nothing to do with “dropping out” and everything to do with wanting what’s best for your children.



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