Work/Life Balance as Women's Labor

This is another in a series of blog posts produced by students in my Public Intellectuals seminar. Worklife Balance as Women's Labor by Tisha Dejmanee

When Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" came out, I have to admit I was crushed. Knowing that I want both a career and family in my future, Slaughter's advice was demoralising. However, what upset me more was her scapegoating of the feminist movement as a way of rationalising her own disappointment. This led me to explore the continuing unsatisfactory support faced by parents in the workplace, as well as the injustices inherent in the public framing of worklife balance.

Worklife balance is a catchphrase endemic to contemporary life. Despite its ambiguous nomenclature and holistic connotations, worklife balance is a problem created for and directed towards professional, middle-class women with children. Exploring the way this concept has captured the social imaginary reveals that the myth of equality and meritocracy persists in spite of evidence that structural inequalities continue to perpetuate social injustices by gender, race, class and sexuality. It also exposes the continuing demise of second wave feminism in favour of narratives of retreatism, the trend for women to leave the workforce and return home to embrace conservative gender roles.

The circulation of worklife balance as a women’s issue is only logical in an environment where the private and public spheres remain sharply divided. While gendered subjects may traverse between the two spheres, they maintain primary, gendered obligations to one sphere. Traditionally, men have occupied the public sphere while women occupied the private sphere. The work-life strain that we currently see is a remnant from the battle middle-class women fought in the 60s and 70s, as part of the agenda of liberal feminism, to gain equal access to the ‘masculine’ public sphere. This access has been framed as a privilege for women who, through the 80s – with the enduring icon of the high-paced ‘superwoman’ who managed both family and career – until the present have been required to posture as masculine to be taken seriously in the public sphere, while maintaining their naturalised, primary responsibilities within the private sphere.

The unsustainability of such a system is inevitable: Women must work harder to show their commitment to the workplace, in order to fight off the assumption that their place is still in the home. The gravitational pull of domesticity and its chores remain applicable only to women, whose success as gendered subjects is still predicated on their ability to keep their house and family in order. Men have little incentive to take on more of the burden of private sphere work, as it is devalued and works to destabilise their inherent male privilege (hence the popular representation of domestic men in ads, as comically incompetent, or worthy of laudatory praise for the smallest domestic contribution). Accordingly, women feel the strain of the opposing forces of private and public labour, which relentlessly threaten to collide yet are required to be kept strictly separated.

guyswithkidsMoreover, worklife balance is regarded as an issue that specifically pertains to mothers, because while self-care, relationships with friends and romantic relationships might be desirable, all of these things can ultimately be sacrificed for work. Motherhood remains sacred in our society, and due to the biological mechanisms of pregnancy, is naturalised both in the concept of woman and in the successful gendered performance of femininity. This explains the stubborn social refusal to acknowledge child-free women as anything but deviant, and the delighted novelty with which stay-at-home dads are regarded which has been popularised in cultural texts, for example by the NBC sitcom “Guys with Kids” or the A&E reality television show "Modern Dad" that follows the lives of four stay-at-home dads living in Austin, Texas.

Photo of Crossfit Session by Pregnant Woman that Caused Internet to Explode

Motherhood heightens worklife balance in two particular ways: Firstly, it exacerbates the difficulties of attaining success in work and at home, because the demands set for mothers in contemporary life are becoming increasingly, irreverently, high. Fear has always been used to motivate mothers, who are blamed for everything from physical defects that occur in-utero to the social problems which may affect children in later life, as can be seen from the furore that ensued when a mother posted this photo of herself doing a crossfit workout while 8 months pregnant with her third child. However, motherhood has become a site that demands constant attention, a trend that Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels call ‘new-momism’ ‘the new ideal of a mom as a transcendent and ideal woman who must “devote … her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children” (The Mommy Myth 2004, p. 4).

Secondly, motherhood physically and symbolically hinders the motility of women across the boundary from private to public as it reinforces the materiality of female embodiment. Women’s bodies are marked by the fertility clock, imagined in popular rhetoric as a timebomb that threatens to explode at approximately the same time as educated women are experiencing major promotions in their careers, and provides a physical, ‘biological’ barrier to accompany the limit of the glass ceiling. If infants are miraculously born of the barren, middle-aged professional woman’s body, they are imagined in abject terms – hanging off the breasts of their mothers while their own small, chaotic bodies threaten disruption and chaos to the strictly scheduled, sanitized bureaucratic space of the office. This is the infiltration of home life that is epitomised when Sarah Jessica Parker, playing an investment banker with two small children, comes to work with pancake batter (which could just have easily been substituted with baby vomit or various other infant bodily fluids) in the 2011 film I Don’t Know How She Does It.

Public attention to this issue has recently been elevated by the publication of writings from high-profile women, including Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg and Harvard professor Radhika Nagpal; speculation about high-profile women such as Marissa Mayer and Tina Fey; and through fictional representations of women such as the film (originally book) I Don’t Know How She Does It, Miranda Hobbes in television show Sex and the City; and Alicia Florrick in television drama The Good Wife.

Returning now to Slaughter’s article, she details her experience by frankly discussing the tensions that arose from managing her high-profile job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department. Specifically, the problem was her troubled teenage son who she saw only when she travelled home on weekends. Ultimately, Slaughter decided to return to her tenured position at Princeton after two years: “When people asked why I had left government I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules … but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”

While Slaughter remains Professor Emeritus at an ivy league university (and her insinuation in the article that academia is the “soft option” is certainly offensive to others in the academy), she speaks of her experience as a failure of sorts, which is affirmed by the response of other women who seem to dismiss her choice to put family over career. Slaughter sees this as the culture of feminist expectation set for contemporary, educated young women, what Anita Harris would call ‘can-do’ girls: “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).” In making this claim, Slaughter becomes a pantsuit wearing, professional spokesperson for retreatism.

Diane Negra discusses retreatism in her 2009 book, What a Girl Wants?: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. Negra describes retreatism as ‘the pleasure and comfort of (re)claiming an identity uncomplicated by gender politics, postmodernism, or institutional critique’ (2010, p. 2). She describes a common narrative trope wherein ‘the postfeminist subject is represented as having lost herself but then [(re)achieves] stability through romance, de-aging, a makeover, by giving up paid work, or by ‘coming home’ (2010, p. 5). Retreatism takes cultural form through shepherding working women back into the home using the rhetoric of choice, wherein the second wave slogan of choice is subverted to justify the adoption of conservative gender positions. Retreatism is also reinforced through the glamorisation of hegemonically feminine rituals such as wedding culture, domestic activities such as baking and crafting, motherhood and girlie culture.

In keeping with the retreatist narrative, the personal crisis Slaughter faces is the problematic behaviour of her son, and ultimately she decides that she would rather move home to be with her family full-time rather than continue her prestigious State job. While this personal decision is one that should be accepted with compassion and respect, Slaughter uses this narrative to implicate the feminist movement as the source of blame: “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”

This backlash against feminism is not nearly as novel nor fair as Slaughter suggests, but it does uncover (as I suggested earlier) the continuing scapegoating of the feminist movement as the source of women’s stress and unhappiness, in preference to addressing the rigid structural and organisational inequalities that require women to stretch themselves thin. Slaughter does not acknowledge the personal benefits she has received from the feminist movement and women who helped pave the way for her success, and in doing so contributes to the postfeminist belief that second wave feminism is ‘done’ and irrelevant – even harmful – in the current era.

Slaughter suggests that women loathe to admit that they like being at home, which more than anything reveals the very limited social circle that she inhabits and addresses. Retreatism glorifies the home environment, and this new domesticity – as stylised as it is mythical – is the logical conclusion to Slaughter’s assertion that women cannot have it all. Moreover, men become the heroes in this framing of the problem, celebrated not so much for their support in overturning structural inequalities, but for their ‘willingness’ to pick up the slack – typically comprising an equal share of the labour – around the home.

What bewilders me most about this account is Slaughter's need to discredit the feminist movement. Without trivialising the personal decisions made by Slaughter and many other women in the negotiation of work and childcare, at some point the glaring trend towards retreatism must be considered as more than a collection of individual women’s choices: It is a clue that systematic, institutionalised gender inequality continues to permeate the organisation of work and the family unit.

Slaughter points out the double standard in allowing men religious time off that is respected, but not having the same regard for women taking time off to care for their families; the difference in attitude towards the discipline of the marathon runner versus the discipline of the organised working mother. To me, this does not indicate a failure of feminism – it suggests that feminism has not yet gone far enough. However, yet again the productive anger that feminism bestowed upon us has been redirected to become anger channelled at feminism, taking away the opportunity to talk about systematic failures in the separation of private and personal life, and their continued gendered connotations.

Slaughter's opinion, although considered, is not the final word on this issue. There are many unanswered questions that arise from her article, including:

  • How we might understand the craving for worklife balance as a gender-neutral response to the upheaval of working conditions in the current economic, technological and cultural moment
  • How technology and the economy are encouraging ever more fusions between the personal and the private, and what the advantages and disadvantages of such mergers might be
  • How to talk about worklife balance for the working classes, whose voices on this matter are sorely needed
  • How to talk about women in a way that is not solely predicated on their roles as a caregivers to others

We need people from many different perspectives to share their experiences and contribute to this discussion, and I invite you to do so in the comments below.

Tisha Dejmanee is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California. Her research interests lie at the interface of feminist theory and digital technologies, particularly postfeminist representations in the media; conceptualising online embodiment; practices of food blogging and digital labour practices.