In her cover story of Lilith’s summer issue, Gabrielle Birkner takes a hard look at the economic challenge facing women who take seriously Sheryl Sandberg’s plea to “lean in” to their careers, even as they begin to have children. She points out that quality day care often costs more than women are earning, and concludes: “Leaning in necessitates not only a “will to lead,” but also a structure that supports women’s ambitions. Access to quality, affordable childcare is key.” In another recent cover story on this topic, Judith Warner, writing for the New York Times magazine, comes to a similar conclusion. She points out that the debate about women in the workplace, with its binary focus on whether or not women should opt to “lean into” work or “lean into” their home lives, is actually misplaced. She writes, “at a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one.”
The “Lean In” debate, with its focus on women and their personal decisions, is masking a broader societal challenge, which is felt to the extreme by families in general, and women in particular. We have not figured out how to ensure that children receive quality care, and the work force quality and committed employees. The lightening rod of this debate has been the working mother, and she has been blamed and shoved from side to side, quite roughly. Warner points out that the pendulum has been swinging wildly, backed up by “scientific studies,” which seem to simply offer support for the latest trend. She implies that the currently popular plea to “lean in” to work life, and to avoid “excessive mothering,” is simply a reaction to the economic climate in which we reside:
The women of the opt-out revolution left the workforce at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time, round-the-clock, child-centered devotion. In 2000, for example, with the economy strong…almost 40 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children (an increase of eight percentage points since 1994). But by 2010…fully 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.” And after decades of well-publicized academic inquiry into the effects of maternal separation and the dangers of day care, a new generation of social scientists was publishing research on the negative effects of excessive mothering: more depression and worse general health among mothers, according to the American Psychological Association.