What Makes Us Bad Feminists? Kvetching About Artificial Choices

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).

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