Women Still Struggle to ‘Have It All’
More than 30 years after Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine and Sally Priesand was ordained a rabbi, more than 25 years after Judith Resnick became an astronaut and more than 10 years after Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Jewish women, along with their non-Jewish counterparts, have discovered that they can have it all — at a steep price.
Many women must work to support their families, but it turns out that many others just aren’t willing to. They are opting out of lucrative, high-powered positions to stay home, while others are settling for part-time, non-career-track jobs. They are claiming that the all-consuming demands of the workplace are incompatible with the all-consuming demands of childrearing.
They choose to underutilize expensive advanced-degree educations, believing they are rightly making their family’s best interests a top priority.
On the one hand, ostensibly in pursuit of professional lives, American women are earning more than half of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and constituting almost half of all law school and medical school classes. They are delaying marriage and childbirth and having fewer children, Jewish women even more so, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. And slightly less than one-fifth of all American women, and slightly more than one-quarter of all Jewish American women, are actually remaining childless.
On the other hand, women with children, at whatever age they give birth, are choosing to stay home in greater numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, stay-at-home mothers numbered 5.4 million in 2003, about 850,000 more than a decade earlier.
“We got it all, but we didn’t get to lose any of our responsibilities along the way,” said Candice Koral, the mother of two daughters, now 22 and 16, and head of her own nonprofit strategic development company. “It’s really hard. I always feel my life is put together with spit and a prayer.”
So can women realistically have it all? Or do career trajectories irreconcilably collide with biological clocks and children’s needs? And is the American workplace failing to adjust to this reality?
Linda Hirshman, attorney, author and former Brandeis professor, believes that most women are failing themselves.
“They are not bargaining with their partners in family creation to distribute responsibility between them,” she said. “They don’t expect to lead dignified, independent and interesting lives. They expect to take on the whole burden of the family,” she said.
In her research on working women, Hirshman interviewed professional women who’d announced their weddings in The New York Times in 1996. She discovered, unexpectedly, that within eight years, 85 percent had jettisoned their successful careers to stay home full or part time.
She claims that most women are not genuinely engaged in their careers from the get-go and are not willing to work as hard as men.
“The handful who stick it out are passionate about their work and relentless about negotiating with their husbands,” she said.
Hirshman believes this is a hidden social problem in America, a problem that no one is willing to talk about. She says that jobs wouldn’t be all-consuming and all-demanding if men were not freed up by their wives to take them. She also believes that women are not more naturally fitted to be nurturing parents or that it’s a more noble life to be taking care of children than to be president of General Electric.
“If it’s so noble, why aren’t men doing it?” she asked.
There’s no conclusive scientific data on whether women are superior, innate caregivers, clinical psychologist Dr. Jody Kussin said. What is clear, she added, is that in dual-parent families, whether heterosexual or homosexual, one parent tends to be more involved in the day-to-day nurturing of children.
Kussin contended, however, that people are asking the wrong question.
“The question isn’t whether a woman should work or not work,” she said, “but rather what does a woman do with her adulthood?”
For some women, the answer is to forgo having children in favor of a career. Others need to be engaged full time in childrearing. The rest need to carve out their own individual and often intricate niches along the work/family continuum, invariably necessitating compromise and sacrifice.
“What amazes me are the lengths to which women go to figure out what works for them,” said Kimberly Krug, who has worked a flexible but mostly full-time schedule as a travel agent while raising her son, now 15. “There’s no glory in this.”
“There are no role models,” added Leslie Cohen, a partner at Liner, Yankelevitz in Westwood and the mother of 9-year-old twins and a 13-year-old. Cohen, who wanted to be a lawyer since she was 14, has made it her mission to prove that a woman can have a great career as well as great kids that she enjoys.
“I squeeze and I compromise and I accommodate every day,” she said. She is also incredibly judicious about priorities.
“I take my kids to school every single solitary day,” she said, even occasionally asking judges to reschedule hearings.
But she also delegates other tasks to nannies and family members. Her mother, for example, arrives on weekday mornings “to make oatmeal and ponytails.” And she devotes nights and weekends after the kids are asleep to doing work.
But for Siobhan Rudnick, mother of two children, ages 12 and 7, relying on nannies would never happen. Last June, when her husband’s job required more traveling, she voluntarily quit her 30-hour-a-week job as a hair stylist.
“For me, my priority has always been to raise my kids myself,” she said.
And while she misses the adult interaction of work, she found a way to do hair in her home, on her terms, as well as to volunteer more frequently in her children’s schools. She also finds time for hobbies. She still feels always busy, though not as exhausted, and still feels she spends too much time in her car.
“I wish there was a way to do both,” she mused. “But my life isn’t really about me right now. It’s about my kids. I’m happy to be home.”
For public-interest lawyer Audrey Kraus, however, the mother of a 6-year-old, 3-year-old and an infant, work is nondiscretionary. After having her first child, she managed a four-day-a-week litigation job, but as the other kids came along she had to compromise further.
For last four years, Kraus has worked a contained 20-hour-a-week job at the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles, coordinating pro bono cases with other law firms. She sacrificed a career growth path, but she’s working with a population she cares about in a supportive office. And she feels the gains for her family have been immeasurable.
Yet her life still seems divided, with a lot not getting done.
“It feels like we live a chaotic existence between work, Sabbath observance, the children’s care and our community activities,” she said. “That’s pretty much all there is. But it’s a good life, a very rich life.”
Of course, there’s another issue besides adult fulfillment: the well-being of children.
“What’s best for children, and science backs this up, is to have healthy, happy parents who, whether they work or stay home, can put their children’s needs at the forefront,” said Kussin, who teaches and directs a doctoral program at Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino and is the mother of three children, ages 17, 15 and 13.
“Here’s what we know about kids,” she added. “They’re very resilient and they need only two things to have a strong sense of self — a sense of mastery that comes from such activities as doing their own homework or learning to ride a bike and the knowledge that they’re loved and valued.”
Kussin maintained that women don’t have to stay home full time for kids to get those two things, although many policy-makers as well as lay and religious leaders still cling to the “June Cleaver” model of mothering.
“I think society is behind in creating the kinds of opportunities that allow women to take their training and ambitions and reconcile them with their personal lives,” said Kraus, the public-interest lawyer.
And so, 30 years after the second wave of the Feminist Revolution, the challenge of accommodating career and family remains unresolved.
Author Hirshman calls it a “harsh picture.”
Koral, the head of the non-profit, views the matter pragmatically: “This is just a huge issue that everybody has to work through somehow. There is no perfect answer.”