Sisterhood Blog

What Makes Us Bad Feminists? Kvetching About Artificial Choices

By Elana Sztokman

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As I was driving my daughter to school for an afternoon exam, I received a work call about a knotty issue that left me with a lot of explaining to do about power, money and some complexities of office politics. This is my life, I thought. Though I’ve long since abandoned any hope of being free to do only one thing at a time, and I’m not sure I would have chosen to expose my child to all that she heard on the speakerphone. Nevertheless, after 17 years at this parenting stuff, I am happy to report that I am no longer self-flagellating about doing it all at once.

There was a time, long ago I think, when I would pore over those new-mom essays, the type agonizing over pseudo-crises like, “Should I work?” or “Am I a good mother?” and soak up every word. Today, I find that genre irritating at best. I am not interested in hearing guilt-inducing rants, and frankly, I think that some of these questions are all wrong, driven by a conservative, anti-feminist backlash designed to keep us in our place.

People work. This is just fact of life. We work to earn money, to grow our minds, to be part of society. We work in different ways, using different parts of our bodies and minds, at different paces and in different poses, and in formats and for compensations that change as we do — and we’ve been doing it as long as we have been begetting offspring.

Yet it’s only women — middle- to upper-class Western women of the late 20th and early 21st century, to be precise — who ask themselves whether or not parenting and work can co-exist.

Do we ever find men agonizing about whether to take a job because long hours will make them a bad father? Give me a break. I hear men all the time complimenting themselves for coming home in time for bedtime or for working until midnight but at least taking the kids to school. My neighborhood in Modi’in, Israel is filled with families in which the men “commute” to the U.S. for a week or a month at a time. I know a few teenagers whose fathers are gone for six months to a year at a time. How many women are in jobs like that? Few, I’d wager. Yet, I wonder if any of these men agonize about whether working makes them bad parents. No “Am I a bad daddy?” blogs over here.

So when Deborah Kolben announced a few weeks ago on the Sisterhood that she was defying her feminist mother and friends and staying at home with her newborn, and she asked, “Does this make me a bad feminist?” I thought, yes it does. Not because she is staying home, but because she is asking the wrong questions, and still answering like a woman instead of like an equal parent.

Work is for both genders and parenting is for both genders. To continue to anguish over going to work — as if making hard choices is still a woman’s domain — that is a massive step backwards for women.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with people taking time off to do only one thing (wow!), like looking after a newborn, and put all else on hold. In fact, there are lots of things in life worth devoting our entire attention to — like writing a book, traveling the world or caring for a dying friend. Life’s like that, too.

My issue is with the absurd “either-or” divide, that either a woman works for money or she’s a good mother. This false dichotomy is meant to demonize women who challenge male power with their workforce presence (See Susan Faludi’s, “Backlash”).

Mostly, I want women to stop talking about motherhood as if they are the only real parent. We need to support men as they command the same kind of flexibility that women have finally learned to get from work — flextime, job-sharing, telecommuting and the like.

Women cannot continue to kvetch about artificial choices without demanding change in male working culture. That, to me, is the most important discussion we can have in order to become better parents and lead rewarding lives (and maybe be better feminists, too).

Silvia D. Thu. Jan 21, 2010

Love you, Elana! Your "old fashioned" strong feminist ethos rings loud and clear in an age of pansy, patriarchal-apologist whines (that are doubly irritating bc so many of them, at least in my personal experience, come from very well educated-should-know-better upper middle class women who have succumbed to affluent suburban narishkeyt).

Elli Sacks Fri. Jan 22, 2010

Home run!!!

Dan Fri. Jan 22, 2010

Interesting article as always Elana. However, I take strong issue with the blanket statement: "Do we find men agonizing about whether to take a job because long hours will make them a bad father?". Yes there are some out there. And generalizations like that undermine your arguments somewhat. And we (sadly the few) who do agonize, and we who do completely believe that "Work is for both genders and parenting is for both genders", and that true co-parenting is possible and are also male, are then exposed to the sad assumptions made by all and sundry (especially women) that this is not the case. Try being a father and engaging mothers in topics such as cooking, childcare, nutrition, education etc. Best Dan

Leah Fri. Jan 22, 2010

Thank you! I had felt uncomfortable with the "I either have to be a good feminist or a good mother" dichotomy, and this helped me put my finger on why. ASKING THAT QUESTION is what makes you a bad feminist, not choosing to be a stay at home mom.

Trying to prove that staying at home is a valid choice for women is reactionary and I think we're past that.

The NEW DIRECTION of feminism will be to stop focusing so much on women's roles and women's choices, but to start focusing on men's roles and men's choices. We have made our way to the middle, it's time for men to meet us there.

nettie feldman Sat. Jan 23, 2010

Elana: I applaud your thoughtful post about being equal in parenting and in careers. Certainly, though, you're preaching to the converted, and despite the problems we have in juggling equally, I wish I saw more of this among the families moving to Israel.

I look at this newer generation of women adopting a Leave it to Beaver, 50s lifestyle, where mom's home and dad's out working til all hours or working in the US. Where did my generation go wrong?

Cordially, Nettie Feldman, host Afternoon Shmooze Internet radio show on email: Podcasts Afternoon Shmooze in the News:

Ofira K Tue. Jan 26, 2010

"Demanding change in male working culture" - That's the major point! That's what I've been saying for years... Thank you, Elana. Brilliant as always!

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