The work-family dilemma.
by Allison Pearson Knopf, 2002. 338 pages. $23.
Can Working Families Ever Win? A New Democracy Forum on Helping Parents Succeed at Work and Caregiving
by Jody Heymann et al. Beacon Press, 2002. 128 pages. $16.
Getting By on the Minimum: The Lives of Working-Class Women
by Jennifer Johnson Taylor & Francis Books, Inc., 2002. 229 pages. $85.
Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World
by William J. Doherty and Barbara Z. Carlson Owl Books, 2002. 175 pages. $14.
In a funny novel that promises to be the next Bridget Jones's Diary (the film is already in the works at Miramax), Allison Pearson does a send-up of the life of a harried working mother. Like all good satire, it mines real pain for laughs. The book begins when the title character, Kate Reddy, jet lagged and just back from an overseas trip for work, frantically tries to make it look like she's baked the store-bought pies she is sending to a school event for her daughter, smashing them with a rolling pin so they have a homemade, crumbly look. Through the course of the story, Reddy slowly loses it, as she faces the increasingly impossible and ridiculous demands of doing well at work, for her children, and by her own perfectionist standards. Her main outlet is e-mail conversation with warm and funny female friends. Reddy shares her scars with them, from sleep deprivation to office sexual harassment. She tells of conducting a meeting for her macho male colleagues after removing a spit-up stained jacket only to reveal a transparent blouse and sexy bra she had put on, unseeing, at 4 A.M. after finally resettling the baby.
Pearson was on Oprah the other day, doing a much straighter version of her take on working motherhood. Society simply hasn't adjusted to the fact that there are mothers at work, she said. She issued a plea for flex time and other family-friendly workplace policies.
Our heroine, Kate Reddy, knows how plaintive that plea sounds. Reddy is put in charge of the window-dressing "diversity" panel in her own frat-house investment banking firm. While the firm wins awards for its family-friendly policies, Reddy kills herself with overwork to compensate for her perceived "lack of commitment." She takes the grotesque misogyny of her bosses in stride. Instead of quitting, she employs the book Toddler Taming to get remarkable results with her infantile boss. Still, as she works herself sick and makes millions for her firm, accolades and bonuses go to her male colleagues. Meanwhile, her heart is breaking for the time she's missing with her children.
I don't know whether this comic manifesto for upper-middle-class strivers will be seen as pro- or antifeminist. Reddy has enormous guilt and regret about the sacrifices she's made for her career, even as she disdains the smug "Mother Superior" types she imagines judging her for not staying home. In one of the saddest scenes, she force-weans her baby and drives to the airport for a business trip, her breasts weeping milk.
Pearson interviewed many real women before she wrote her novel. She deals honestly and wittily with the terrible ambivalence they feel and the price they pay for being mothers in a ruthlessly market-driven society.
Still, she is treading in a minefield. Her book may be used to try to restart the tired catfight between working and stay-at-home moms. No doubt she'll be accused of bellyaching about the problems of privileged white women. As the Oprah show demonstrated, though, by featuring black and working class families as well as white, privileged ones, the problems Pearson's book raises are nearly universal.
Pearson herself will likely laugh all the way to the bank. With the kind of self-deprecating, slapstick humor that made her compatriot Bridget Jones such a fun female anti-hero, Kate Reddy is destined to be the main character in a successful chick flick. Women will no doubt shell out lots of bucks to laugh and cry.
But then what?
Kate Reddy's story ends with a perfect revenge fantasy on the male swine who run her office. The rest of us keep on struggling with those female problems: guilt, a passionate desire to be with our children, the need to support them, and the quest for our own personal and professional fulfillment.
Several recent books attempt to answer, in drier, sociological prose, the problems Pearson raises.
In Getting By on the Minimum, Jennifer Johnson, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, draws on interviews with more than sixty working class women in Baltimore to describe the dreams, struggles, and motivations of working moms who provide services to professional women like Kate Reddy. Here are the child care providers, the housecleaners, bus drivers, beauticians, and secretaries professional women employ.
In the new service economy, Johnson points out, more women are employed than ever before. One in every two graduates of law and medical schools is now a woman. "Affluent and busy, pushed for time but not for cash, these women workers and their families, in turn, generate a need for domestic and other support services," Johnson writes. "The economy has been less kind to the millions of nonprofessional women.., who cater to these needs." The real wages of female nonprofessionals have declined by as much as a quarter since the 1970s, even as professional women's wages have steadily increased.
The women in Johnson's book deal with the fallout from these economic realities. A complex mix of conditions keeps these working class women in their place. Of the women she interviewed, Johnson notes, none of those who grew up middle class sunk from the status relayed to them by their parents. Of those who grew up working class, only a couple broke free of the constraints imposed on them by lousy schools, lack of encouragement to pursue higher education, early pregnancy, low-wage jobs, and corrosive disrespect.
While individuals have a hand in shaping their own destinies, Johnson asserts, social scientists have come to overvalue free will. "Now, the possibilities for change during an individual's life course are overstated, and structural constraints are understated."
Part of what makes a big difference between middle class and working class women in Baltimore, Johnson notices, is purely cultural. Middle class girls take SAT courses, play musical instruments, and have families that don't just hope but expect they'll finish high school and go on to college.
"Lifestyle differences between college-educated women and non-college-educated women were stark. Not because education in itself was so important; but ... education signaled differences in social class origins." Of the middle class women she interviewed, Johnson notes, "their degree certified rather than created their social standing."
There are other subtle, cultural factors that keep working class women in low-pay, low-status jobs. Greta, a physician's secretary, acted as a kind of mother to her boss, coming in when she was sick, never leaving her desk except to go to the bathroom. He rewarded her with gifts and praise but also kept her on a tight leash. Having good relationships at work was so important to Greta and other women that they put up with low status and unprofessional treatment in order to maintain peace. Good relationships with coworkers were the reason some factory workers cited for not wanting managerial responsibilities, even when a promotion would mean a pay raise.
Johnson makes some interesting observations about work and family life among the women she interviews. Most value work and are "committed" to working. But that doesn't mean work is the center of their identity (and most have jobs that don't offer that kind of psychological reward). Instead, they work in order to support their families, and are committed to both work and family--not one versus the other.
The women in this book prefer working to staying home, and they have mostly made arrangements to scale back work when their children are young--going part time, or dropping out of school, or relying on the support of husbands and extended family during a period of unemployment. But across the income spectrum, women still prefer paid work for several reasons: to have money of their own, to maintain social contact with co-workers, and to have a sense of their place in the world.
Johnson, who is herself from a working class background, notes that her interview subjects are misunderstood by middle class social scientists who assume that the desirable norm is for all people to find their basic fulfillment in their work. "If identity is to be defined by paid work, where does that leave the women and men who flip hamburgers or scrub toilets eight hours a day?" she writes.
Especially for women in the poorly paid caring professions, there are no clear boundaries between work and personal life. Nina, who was badly abused as a child, married young and had six children. Rejected by her mother, she craved the love and security she was denied as a child. Now, as a part-time worker at an elementary school and a foster mother, she has found her calling taking care of the children who live in her neighborhood. Even when the school stopped paying her, she continued to work as a volunteer. This work is her vocation. "People have no idea what children go through. None!" she says. "I like working with kids. And I like knowing I did something to make their day better." In fact, Nina is a hero not only to the troubled foster son to whom she has given a loving home, but also to the children in her neighborhood whom she offers some of the security she knows they need.
Less heartwarming were the life stories of the day care providers Johnson interviewed, a couple of whom seemed alarmingly indifferent, if not hostile, to their charges. Though Johnson is mainly concerned with what the women have to say about their own plight, one wonders about the kids in the care of Martha, who apparently transfers the children from crib to bouncy seat while doing housework or crocheting--she never mentions playing with them. She rails against a mother whose child seems to be suffering in her care: "[She said] her [baby's] butt was bleeding. And I said, `If her butt's bleeding, it's because she's constipated because she insists on keeping her on that iron formula.'"
Child care workers like Martha are at the very bottom rung of the female ghetto. The 98 percent female child care field has a higher concentration of poverty level jobs than almost any other occupation in the United States, Johnson reports. Child care workers make a median hourly wage of $4.82--considerably less than parking lot attendants or animal trainers. (Home day care providers who charge a flat fee per kid often end up making less than minimum wage.)
Despite low pay and low status, the women Johnson interviewed tended to report that they were satisfied with their jobs. Part of this had to do with their expectations--most felt professional careers were beyond their reach.
"What is it that makes us so willing to cut our hopes and dreams to fit the doth of our social class?" Johnson asks. The answers, she decides, are class segregation, unequal education, unequal pay, low self-esteem, and public policy.
The much-touted Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees twelve weeks of unpaid leave for all workers in firms with more than fifty employees, is simply not a real option for workers who live paycheck to paycheck. "For these women, because it gives the appearance of progress when there is none, this piece of legislation is worse than nothing," Johnson writes.
Because government solutions are so unlikely in the current political climate, the best hope for improving the lives of working class women is unionization, Johnson concludes. Women union members earn 31 percent more than nonunion members and get better benefits. But women are much less likely to be unionized than men, and only 10 percent of service workers and 5 percent of retail sales workers are unionized. A subtle barrier to unionization is the male culture of many unions, and also women's distaste for the conflict inherent in union-management relations. The labor movement has a lot of work to do to overcome the isolation of female workers and build solidarity.
While Pearson paints a picture of a professional woman desperate to please her nanny and housecleaner for fear of losing them,. Greta tells the real story: Women who cater to the needs of higher-status employers give up a big share of their own personal lives, along with the ability to say no. It's a strange place many women workers find themselves, where personal and professional relationships intertwine and women's traditional role as selfless caretaker can mean soft-pedaled exploitation.
Women as a group suffer from the low status of care taking. For middle class women, it means feeling pressure to do the lion's share of housework and child care in addition to holding down a job. For working class women, it means the same thing, plus lousy pay and little respect for paid work caring for other people's families. But the biggest losers are children, whose care is--despite lip service from politicians--clearly our nation's lowest priority.
This is the argument advanced in Can Working Families Ever Win? Jody Heymann, in the lead essay in this forum, shines a searchlight on the particularly acute problems of work and family imbalance for the poor.
In many places, Heymann points out, preschool costs more than twice as much as college tuition. Head Start is one answer, but it serves only half of eligible three- and four-year-olds, and fewer than 2 percent of early Head Start eligible babies. Older children also lack supervision before and after school.
Heymann says that providing year-round, high quality care for children, as well as the sick and elderly, would ultimately be cost-effective for employers because the quality of our workforce is our best competitive asset. But what if investing in "human capital"--that awful term--is not cost-effective? What if it doesn't lead to more profits for corporations? It seems to me that Heymann, who gives no data to back up her claim, is on shaky ground there. The reason to take better care of the young, the sick, and the old is not because it may give the United States a competitive advantage but because it is morally repugnant to let children and the elderly suffer in the richest nation on Earth.
In their responses to her essay, Theda Skocpol and Jean Bethke Elshtain, among others, criticize Heymann's lack of attention to political reality--calling for Western European style social welfare policies just doesn't fly in the era of George W. Bush.
Like Johnson, Skocpol turns away from the federal government as the answer and toward unions, as well as churches and civic organizations, as places where a needed mass political movement could take root.
I was interested in Susan Moiler Orkin's point that economists' devaluing of women's caregiving work has led to IMF and World Bank policies that hurt women and children around the globe. This is related to Frances Fox Piven's point that welfare reform is built on contempt for women's work of raising children. The unfettered free market is most punishing for women and children who turn out to be the least valuable units of "human capital."
What is to be done then? In the end, Jodi Grant and others point out that state governments are offering the best solutions in this country--experimenting with progressive family leave and child care policies. From these and other local, grassroots solutions, perhaps Theda Skocpol's longed-for movement can arise.
Finally, in Putting Family First, William Doherty and Barbara Carlson argue that "the adult world of hyper-competition and marketplace values has invaded the family." Back in the realm of Oprah Winfrey, this popular handbook advises parents to do something as individuals to curb the ridiculous over-programming of their kids and carve out a little family time. Doherty, a therapist, and Carlson, a teacher and community advocate, offer simple strategies for de-escalating the competition that plagues middle class families. Having dinner together is their number one cause. It's painfully obvious why this sort of palliative might be popular. One can only hope that the next stage after satire and self-help is the will to work for social change.
Ruth Conniff, Political Editor of The Progressive, is writing a book on child care with her mother, Dorothy Conniff.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2003|
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