This is a column I long resisted writing. Resisted when a high level State Department official left her job and wrote a controversial piece for The Atlantic magazine headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Resisted when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ordered her telecommuting employees back into the office and earned the wrath of working mothers. Resisted when Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women to “lean in” on their way to the top and received a surprisingly harsh blowback for her efforts. I even dug in my heels — no way am I going to pen another sentence about this tired debate! — when Princeton alumna Susan Patton wrote a letter to her alma mater’s student newspaper advising women to find a husband before they graduate.
Then I read a Facebook post by a young mother I know, a post so plaintive and searching that I decided to wade into the fray. Again. And for this reason: I’ve been reading about work-life balance for so many years, hearing the anger and outrage from women for so long, observing the struggles of so many mothers in so many varied circumstances that I’ve arrived at a simple conclusion.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Each woman must find her own way, as best she can.
During my various incarnations as a working mother, I learned that at every turn of my journey there were highly accomplished women who were better jugglers, more efficient and competent, swimming in talent and drive. Hats off to them — but they weren’t me. I wanted what I wanted, and that involved my own unique sacrifices. For a long time this meant less time in the pursuit of career success and more time devoted to the nurturing of kids.
As I would later tell my daughter and daughters-in-law, the road I traveled is my own, not theirs. The choices I made served me well but won’t necessarily do them or their situation justice. In the end, they must answer only to themselves, to their conscience, to their very personal definition of what they want from their careers and their family life. The rest is white noise, background static.
More than three decades after I discovered that the afternoon newspaper I worked at didn’t have a maternity policy, I’m alarmed by the obstacles young mothers still face. They’re different than yesterday’s barriers, true, but nevertheless there remain too many shoulds and musts, too many unrealistic expectations.
These days young, well-educated women, already struggling in a culture where they will be outearned by their male counterparts, are made to feel less worthy if they decide to take time off to raise children. They’re belittled for not living up to the opportunities they’ve inherited, chastised for making the very choices the first wave of feminism was determined to secure. Sadly, this pressure comes from other women and mostly from the pioneers of my generation.
The young woman of the 21st century is told to man up, to lean in, to push ahead, to put in the time — all good advice if such behavior will help one achieve a goal. But what if the top rung isn’t what she wants? What if she prefers less of work and more of family? Or simply an equation that evens out both? After all, not everyone wants to be CEO or managing partner.
In our headlong pursuit of equality, in our justified attempt to be counted at the table, in our laudable efforts to provide opportunity for all, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far the other way. I wonder if, by the force of censure and disdain, we’ve left our daughters and younger sisters without the support they need to make their own way, wherever that might lead them.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.