The Indispensable One and Only

There's an interesting conversation going on out there in the world of working women.

First came Elizabeth Wurtzel's scathing article against stay-at-home mothers, about how "1% Wives are Helping to Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible." "I have to admit," she writes, "that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton—one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better—but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed . . . I don't want everyone to live like me, but I do expect educated and able-bodied women to be holding their own in the world of work."

She pairs her opinions with a broad misassumption that "Failing as a feminist is a unique problem of the wealthy."

"To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, and most of the housewives I have ever met—none of whom do anything around the house—live in New York City and Los Angeles, far from Peoria."

Clearly, I'm as much of an alien to Ms. Wurtzel as she is to me, living as I do not too far from Peoria. I emphatically do work around the house, and I am not wealthy by any American standards. And yet, here I sit at home with a degree and a half under my belt, having read The Second Sex, not yet paid for much writing I do, mostly taking care of my kids and my house, and feeling pretty satisfied with life, in spite of its myriad challenges. In fact, I might have said at some point that while I don't have it all, I at least have all that I want.

Which is why a week later, Anne-Marie Slaughter's widely-read article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," caught me off guard.

Is this news? People are still trying to have it all?

Wurtzel was raising the battle axe toward all the supposedly apathetic women who choose not to fight a work-family battle, a demographic that gets wider all the time. And now, here was Slaughter, having reached the highest level in her profession saying that what she really wanted to do was go home. I'll drink to that.

It's hard not to feel smug about these conversations. The first was so embarrassingly tone deaf on the experience of motherhood and so disconnected from the millions of women who live between the states of New York and California, that it was irrelevant. The second was a grand and very long statement of the obvious. We figured this out a long time ago: employees are replaceable, mothers aren't. The only new thing here is the source of the statement, a high-level careerist who considered herself a feminist role model.

As a Catholic woman, I've realized time and again that—as I reject the contraceptive bedrock of feminism—there really is no place for me in this debate. But I sort of enjoy watching it from the outside, seeing the different ways that "choice" becomes a stumbling block rather than the cure-all it was meant to be.

On one side of the divide, choice has drawn some stay-at-home mothers into a competitive quest for maternal perfection: choosing to forgo work in favor of family becomes its own kind of career, proving to ourselves and our peers, over and over again that we're fulfilled, that we're making enough of a difference in the world—with our excellent food choices and our homeschooling and the super kids we're producing—to topple any mere career ambition. "We're doing just fine, thanks, as you can see by the pretty pictures I've posted on my blog!"

On the other side of the divide, evidenced by Slaughter's article, choice makes women incredibly puzzled about their roles both at work and at home. Is there a balance? If so, how do I get it? I know, let's talk about changing work policies, and getting more women into the highest levels of their profession so that they can effect change from the top down. In other words, let someone else solve the problem, so the onus isn't on women to make their own brutal choices for or against their families.

Having a choice is a huge responsibility, and the schizophrenic tone of this conversation suggests that women feel more burdened by choice than liberated.

Recently a friend of mine, seeing my very visible discomfort with my current pregnancy, said, "You're so good about accepting God's will without complaint."

She might have consulted with my husband before assuming I'm managing without complaint, but the way she repeated "accepting God's will" several times, worked its way into my consciousness in a way that it hadn't for a very long time. To be quite honest, I had been feeding my physical discomfort with mental provisions like "What have I done, having another baby at my age? Why did we think this was a good idea?"

6/27/2012 4:00:00 AM
Elizabeth Duffy
About Elizabeth Duffy
Elizabeth Duffy is a freelance writer and author of the blog, "Betty Duffy." Her writing has appeared online at Faith and Family, the Korrektiv Press Blog, and numerous other venues. She and her husband live in rural Indiana with their five children.