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Why women should embrace a ‘good enough’ life

Monday 3 June 2013

By Elsa Walsh, Published: April 18

Elsa Walsh is the author of “Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women.” She is a former Washington Post reporter and New Yorker staff writer. This essay is adapted from a speech she delivered at St. Mary’s College of Maryland on April 5.

In my years as a journalist, I have written and spoken a great deal about women’s lives and struggles, and wrote a book about the conflicts facing successful female professionals. But today, 16 years into life as a working mother and 23 years into a marriage, I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear. The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.

Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life.

I was born in 1957 and raised in a town called Belmont, just south of San Francisco. I am one of six children, five girls and one boy. My father was an engineer and my mother a housewife; indeed, growing up I had not a single friend whose mother worked. During my high school years in the early 1970s, revolution was in the air. Across the bay was Berkeley, the home of free speech. Twenty miles up the road was Haight-Ashbury, the home of free love. And almost everyone I knew was protesting Vietnam and embracing civil rights.

But what really excited me was the women’s movement. It’s hard to grasp now just how intoxicating it was as a young girl to hear Gloria Steinem tell us we could be anything we wanted to be. Or to read, during freshman year at my surprisingly progressive all-girls Catholic school, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” eight years after it was published, saying we could find meaning outside the home.

All this seemed possible because the pill had just become widely available, and for the first time women had control over whether and when they had a child. (I will never forget finding that oddly shaped, Pez-like dispenser in my mother’s bedroom right after the birth of my youngest sister; my mother called her “That’s It” for weeks before giving her a name.)

If the pill didn’t work, there was Roe v. Wade, which became law when I was 15. And I don’t know a single woman my age who did not have her first gynecological exam at a Planned Parenthood clinic — with or without her parents’ permission. It was a glorious time to be a young girl with ambition. Who would want to be a man when you could be a woman?

So, when I enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, I held three truths to be self-evident: I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer.

I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.

A year later, right after graduation, I moved to Washington and got that interesting job — as a reporter at The Washington Post. I embraced my feminism proudly. I always wore pants to work, and I swore off (stupidly, I recognize now) reading any fiction by male authors. I loved reporting. I loved working. I loved making my own money, even if, two years later, I discovered that a newly hired and less experienced male colleague was making more money. (When I quizzed him, his answer was simple: He had asked for more. No one ever takes the first offer, he said.)

Not long after arriving at The Post, I met a man who also was a reporter and editor there. Instead of hindering me, he helped and encouraged me. A year and a half later, we moved in together. Still, I announced — to my parents, my friends and yes, to my boyfriend — that I was never getting married. Marriage was a patriarchal system, and I wanted none of it. We would stay together because we wanted to be together, I said.

Seven years later, I married him. And I was happy. Instead of feeling trapped, I felt liberated and secure and protected — not by patriarchy but by love. He had a young daughter whom I adored, and of course, seven years after our wedding, I had a child. I’d been wrong about that, too.

The feminist battles in those years were over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Susan Faludi’s“Backlash” and Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth.” After leaving The Post and before joining the New Yorker magazine as a staff writer, I entered the fray with my book, “Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women,” an intimate look at three accomplished women in turmoil: a broadcast journalist who landed her dream job just around the time she gave birth to her first child after several miscarriages, a symphony conductor who was married to a governor, and a breast cancer surgeon who had been passed over for a top job in favor of a man. I chose women in their late 30s and early 40s who seemed to have all the advantages of wealth, education and opportunity and who had broken through gender barriers in their professions. I concluded that if even women of privilege were struggling — and they were — then we still hadn’t figured it out and perhaps had not come such a long way after all.

Nearly two decades later, Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of the best-selling “Lean In,” laments that far too few women are in positions of leadership — they make up only 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives — and that the numbers are so small because women hold themselves back. Too many women, she says, curtail their ambitions in anticipation of having a family and are not as aggressive as men in how they approach their careers.

As I read “Lean In,” I nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says: Negotiate your salary, take a seat at the table (and when you’re there, speak up), don’t reflexively turn down opportunities, and choose your mate carefully because that is the most important career decision you will make. It is.

But with other passages, I found myself shaking my head. By the time I reached the end, I felt deeply ambivalent, particularly on three points. First, Sandberg does not seem to get just how hard it is to have a demanding job and a meaningful family life if you cannot afford child care and other help. (She criticizes the lack of family-friendly policies in the workplace and recognizes that some women may find more meaning in staying home, but those small sections read like afterthoughts, or as if someone advised her to include them.)

Second, I suspect that she would probably have written a completely different book if her children were older and she were facing their imminent departure, rather than worrying about their bedtime. (With my daughter poised to leave for college, all I want is to have more time with her, not less.)

And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is