Last Friday, Seleni Institute honored two female stateswomen with the Mason Huck Leadership Award for their “commitment to improving maternal mental health and family life” (Greek Reporter). Sylvia Matthews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, herself a Greek-American woman, and Chair of the House Middle East Subcommittee and first Hispanic woman elected to the US Congress, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen both received kudos in the words of Ms Nitzia Logothetis, founder and chairwoman of Seleni Institute, “Through their exemplary service to our country, both of these awardees provide a model for parenthood and service to women leaders who are preparing to support the nation’s next generation.”
This is all great ladies. But I beg to differ. This is a nice front for you to collect another award and look lovely in front of the cameras. No one, man or woman, who holds such a high-stakes, all-consuming job such as Secretary of Health and Human Services for the entire U.S. of A can get an award as a model for parenthood. Don’t get me wrong. Seleni has done a great job of bringing national attention to the issue of maternal mental health, but to showcase these women as paragons of work-life balance seems contrived. It is extremely difficult, unless of course you are in the upper echelons of the socio-economic elite and can afford an avalanche of servants, round-the-clock au pairs and child minders, to be a terrific mother AND work as a Congresswoman.
Who are they kidding? It is hard enough for “average” career women, say an attorney or a dentist, to balance the needs of their practice and work lives with the needs of young children (not to mention their own needs, God forbid). I work as an educator, and I went into the profession purposefully thinking it would allow a more humane motherhood/professional balance. I remember squatting on a filthy graffiti-decked toilet in the girls’ bathroom trying to pump my breast milk into the sterile baby bottle as there were no private or available lounges for a nursing mother to take care of nature. When I speak to my professional friends, most of our conversations center around the strains of meeting the needs of a growing family with their own professional ambitions. Things like, “Should I go to my office party or take my daughter to her birthday party? They both fall on the same day and time.”
That’s funny because that’s the same anecdote Burwell brought up during her acceptance speech. “Burwell also shared a humorous insight into life as a mother in leadership. During the Ebola crisis earlier this year, President Obama scheduled a last-minute meeting with her on a Saturday, which conflicted with Burwell’s daughter’s birthday party. So she asked the President if he could change the meeting time so that she didn’t have to miss the special celebration. He understood and moved the meeting. It’s a minor point but one that sums up the conflicting demands placed on women in positions of power who also bear the responsibility and joy of raising a family.” (Greek Reporter, “Seleni Gathers Top Policymakers on Capitol Hill, Honors Two Mothers in Public Service“.) Lucky for her, Obama is such a great boss and made concessions—hey, pandemic fear and death regarding Ebola on one hand vs. your toddler’s disappointment and tantrum for missing her birthday party on the other.
I would like to ask the husband and children of these incredibly high-powered women how much time they spend with them. I find it hard to believe that Sylvia and Ileana would have to practice what’s called “attachment” parenting, the kind that involves young children basically attached to your back like those cute little, wide-eyed chimp babies you see in the Natural Geographic shots. The close-up shots of her in her newly elected position hardly show any reference to her as a mother and wife. The truth is being a professional woman and a mother is an oxymoron; a kind of paradox. You are always not good enough when you are tending to the other side of the work-life balance. But I’m willing to wager that for these high-powered women to reach the heights of professional achievement evident from their name badges, they most certainly have had to sacrifice being a “good” mother. To get to where they are, they probably have had to work extra hard and put in extra-extra time rather than their male colleagues, making their lives as mothers even more stressful. And for being such fine politicians, frankly, I wouldn’t expect them to have done anything else. In my mind, it is next to impossible to be good at two, sometimes conflicting, arenas, and not wear yourself down to a shoe made of nothing. Like serving God and Mammon at once; one has to give.
A more accurate take on the realities of leading a double-life as a Washington power mom is the essay published a while back in The Atlantic “Why Women Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It is an essay I assign as required reading to my college classes. In this now famous essay, the most popularly read and distributed one in The Atlantic’s history, she confesses straight out that it is a myth to have work-life balance without someone falling down the cracks. As she stated to an audience of 20-somethings in Oxford:
What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington). I concluded by saying that my time in office had convinced me that further government service would be very unlikely while my sons were still at home. The audience was rapt, and asked many thoughtful questions. One of the first was from a young woman who began by thanking me for “not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.” Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make. (Slaughter, “Why Women Can’t Have it All”)
Frankly I think Slaughter should have gotten the award. At least out of honesty.
So while it is wonderful to have high-powered female politicians, let’s be honest—they can’t be given an award for motherhood and the work-life balance. It is true Ros-Lehtinen did thank her husband and children and parents for giving her the support she needed to balance her role as a mother with her life as a public servant. But that is not enough. She stated, “I’m proud to receive the Winnifred Mason Huck Award because it is a testament that women can juggle two important goals.” My question is how well can you juggle and for how long before everything comes crashing down?
For her part, Secretary Mathews Burwell stated, “I am committed to supporting the next generation of women and mothers in government and executive leadership roles so they can bring their experience and perspectives to the table.” Let’s hope she follows on her promise. However, it is not enough just to target women in government. Women in government need to take the lead and influence government policy surrounding women’s issues. It’s about time some powerful woman in office addresses the institutional inadequacies that keep women from fully actualizing on their creative and professional goals. Things like quality government-subsidized full-day care programs that frees up a woman’s mind and time for education and career. Or how about trying to enact a federally mandated maternity and paternity policy for all employers with over 50 employees. Or ending the stigma for stay-at-home fathers and mothers. Lets hope the fruit of having so many high-powered women in Washington will be to change policy that will help women and families of all socio-economic stars and stripes balance more sanely the work-life crunch.
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