Mad Women? Blame “Mad Men” for the Opt Out/Lean In Conundrum

Image via amctv.com

Image via amctv.com

I was born in Bulgaria, and both of my parents while I was growing up, as well as the parents of everyone I knew, worked. As a child I didn’t know the careers of my friends’ parents, but I knew that if someone was home during the week, it was usually, and exclusively, a grandparent. Nobody had a great existential crisis over the relationship between motherhood and career. True, in Communist Bulgaria we didn’t have women CEOs — we didn’t have CEOs period — and the semi-dictatorship and political life were male dominated. I’m not trying to paint a utopia, but in the middle class of urban Bulgarian life, women worked reasonable hours, just as men did. They got good pregnancy and maternity leave, then they dropped their kids off at the affordable, state-run day-care and went back to their jobs. Everyone accepted that marrying, having children, and working were integral parts of life. While few people had the luxury to “find themselves” with their careers or employment, none viewed work and family as mutually exclusive. They were both desirable, and achievable, and mundane.

Moving to the U.S. was the first time I met the variously liberated and unliberated women of Mad Men. The culture shift was insidious but omnipresent. The gender role reversals in one of my favorite sitcoms growing up, Who’s The Boss, seemed refreshing – it was Angela who had a career while Tony, the dad of another broken family worked as her housekeeper. But of course, Angela was divorced, and that seemed to go without saying. What I saw on American TV contrasted with what I saw growing up in Europe. Both of my parents shared the load equally, and in an experience that is common with immigrant children who have difficulty distinguishing between what is typical of their family and what is representative of their departed country, I believed that was the norm elsewhere.

After I had children, I continued working, as I had always assumed I would. Many of my friends from college were becoming moms at around the same time. Some continued in their various careers after entering motherhood, while others decided to stay home with their children. And while from the outside it may have seemed a dichotomy, a closer look showed that those of us who stayed in the workforce had the types of jobs that were generally sustainable, or we had made them sustainable, while those who left careers to stay home with their kids had more difficult alternatives. For example, all the physicians I knew who trained in large cities did not have children until they were past the most demanding years of their training, or they had had children between medical school and residency, or they were men. On the other hand, a Ph.D. in the humanities doesn’t obviously translate into a career as a professor at a university in a city where your spouse might also be employed. In those cases, staying home with the children may well be the most fulfilling and economically sound decision for a woman and her family.

As much as I like watching the TV show Mad Men, I look at this alien 1950′s American culture and blame it for the divide. Who decided that women had to stay home or choose careers, but not have both? And who came up with the idea that men, because they had stay-at-home wives to raise their children and felt the earning pressure to work long hours to support a family? Where they made over cocktails and cigars or in the operating room?

In reality, none of us has all that much choice. We do the best we can in the circumstances that are particular to our careers, our relationships, our finances, and we continually struggle to redefine the balance.

We have these “debates” as if our children will forever be the six-month-olds who breastfeed every few hours and love us best. But so quickly they get bigger, they play with their classmates, they have their own lives at school, much as their parents have independent lives at work. Who aspires to be the one left alone at home to clean and cook while everyone else is fulfilled? It seems to me, the conversation should be far more about lack of affordable childcare for parents, reasonable work schedules, and the need for more opportunities in the workplace for both, women and men. This so-called debate is focused on a small, privileged section of society, but perhaps it’s time we acknowledged that even that section is not as privileged as we’d like to think, and that we’re all just trying to do the best we can.

Denitza Blagev is a pulmonologist and mother of three.  You can follow her on Twitter @mybetterdoctor, Facebook and on her blog mybetterdoctor.com.

Image amctv.com

  • Such an interesting choice of title. I don’t watch Mad Men for the very reason that I’m afraid it would make me really angry about women’s role and how little it has really evolved.

    As a friend of mine likes to say, “If we had really come that far, you wouldn’t still be calling me ‘baby!'”

    • My mom hates it because its weird antifeminist utopia/dystopia annoys her and she can’t relate at all. I still love watching because the characters are well drawn, but it is a weird other world and such an artificial one for a time in history in America. Throughout the history of the world women and men have worked because they’ve had to. It also seems to explain the dichotomy of opting out and leaning in – it is natural to see how these two sets of women in that time really were at odds with each other.

      • msnyc10

        Er when do men EVER get to opt-OUT of work. Work is not a choice for men or a right. It isn’t ‘lean in’ or ‘opt-in’ it isn’t CEO or Bust. It is a requirement from (practically) cradle to grave. A man’s choice of work completely defines and limits his standard of living. He doesn’t get to choose a career he loved or that brings him joy or to work in his twenties so he can meet a partner at the law-firm. No one comes along and lifts him out of his standard-of-living, if anything generally he has to then step down is SOL to support multiple people. Here’s the kicker; his choice not only defines the kind of life he can lead, it defines his ability to date, whom he can date, his access to sex, relationships, marriage and children. Women don’t understand this because they view work as a choice, as careers being limited to their right to manage or run companies not an cradle-to-grave obligation to themselves and the only opportunity they have to procreate. This is why men still comprise 95% of workforce deaths, and while we “argue” over how soon 50% of CEOs, Boards and Managers will be women the vast vast majority of professions from delivery boy to taxi driver to fisherman to forester to miner to oil rigsman to truck driver to security guard to construction laborer to sanitationman to copy to fireman to soldier to street paver and riveter, in other words all the professions that gather all the resources our society needs and transport, construct, protect, invent and build them is still on men. It becomes increasingly hard to be a supporter of women’s causes and equality as I have been since I was a teenager when I read and re-read the endless litany of myopic and ultimately chauvinistic opinions of women in these thread

    • msnyc10

      Fascinating take on it. Women’s roles since Mad Men has changed dramatically do you know what has not changed? Men’s roles and the expectations women have of men. If you find your progress ‘stagnating’ as a woman it is because you have not ‘liberated’ yourself from what you expect of men and their roles in your lives. BTW, the speech Peggy gives about how if she were a man she wouldn’t have had to choose between keeping her baby and having a career; wrong. If she were a man she’d have HAD no choice at all. If the woman wanted the baby and he did not touch toenails he;d have had to marry her and support the child. If he did want the child and she did not she could abort it and he’d have no say in it. I’m all for equality but not when it is fostered from a myopic worldview.

  • I was kind of digging this article (although it’s not how I see it from my POV) until this line:

    “Who aspires to be the one left alone at home to clean and cook while everyone else is fulfilled?”

    Despite that it seemed you were conveying the idea that choosing fulfillment is only for the privileged, you then ended it with a statement which conveyed that you think working moms are more fulfilled.

    So, is it that mom’s shouldn’t have the choice to stay at home, or that the choice is just an unfulfilling one, secondary to working?

    As a SAHM for the last 13 years (for four kids ages 1-13), there are a number of various reasons for which I did not head out into a career. One, as you mentioned in your article, it was not financially profitable for me to do so. I do not have the privilege of a degree in a profession which would off-set paying for adequate childcare. Another (and I myself am in the midst of writing an article about this very topic) because I think raising your children is not only an honor, but also a profession. Another yet, because for my family this was the best decision. Period.

    Judging another culture by way of a show, or even by comparing it to your own culture, isn’t going to provide adequate results. You grew up in a place in which childcare run from the state was the norm. We come from a place that values other ways of raising a child. Just like any other cultural value difference, parenting values don’t always translate over into another cultural.

    I think my biggest issue is the arrogance that seems to come from behind your words that you have some sort of in that the rest of us don’t, on what actually goes into making the decision to be a working mom or a stay at home mom.

    • Ahh, I see, so you see the “divide” not as SAHMs vs. career moms (which is the typical mommy wars) but that my “culture” that includes state-run childcare is so vastly different from yours which “values other ways of raising a child”?

      The sentence you refer to is not indicative of thoughts that housework is not fulfilling nor a worthwhile pursuit, but that even women who choose to stay home to raise their children often feel that they stayed home to raise their kids, not do loads of laundry. Doing loads of laundry, I won’t deny, can be satisfying in its own right.

      My “sort of in” in the decision to stay home or not is to say that we actually all make individual decisions that have more to do with our finances, relationships, and viable options, than any sort of ideological dogma about women’s roles.

      Now don’t get me wrong, there are women out there who honestly believe that those of us who send our kids to daycare are actively being terrible parents (isnt’ that the mommy wars?), and the others who lament (anonymously online) that they wished they had “married someone who made enough” so they could stay home? isn’t the truth that, as one dad recently put it, that the divide isn’t between men and women, but between parents and money? that if we had better, more affordable, childcare options (state-run or not), the vast majority of women (and/or men) could take a year or two off (standard in many European countries) and then reasonably go back to work unless another kid at home?

      Most the SAHM’s I know whose kids are grown enough to be in some sort of school situation for many hours during the day do a lot of meaningful work that is outside the home. They often join the boards of their kids’ schools or fundraise or otherwise support their kids and try to find meaningful ways to occupy their time and contribute to their family and the world. Wouldn’t we be better off as a society if we expanded the ways in which these women could contribute to society once their kids were not as little and didn’t demand as much attention? For example, while kids still need parents when they’re in high-school, they don’t require as much constant physical attention while the kids are in school as an infant does.

      You might want to check out Lauren Apfel and Rebecca Hughes Parker’s pieces on the-broad-side on leaning in/opting out (https://www.the-broad-side.com/i-opted-out) and (https://www.the-broad-side.com/i-leaned-in) . You may find them more relatable and be less distracted by the “cultural value difference” you perceive with my piece.

    • I think that in writing this, you just showed your own arrogance.

      “Judging another culture by way of a show, or even by comparing it to your own culture, isn’t going to provide adequate results. You grew up in a place in which childcare run from the state was the norm. We come from a place that values other ways of raising a child. Just like any other cultural value difference, parenting values don’t always translate over into another cultural.

      I think my biggest issue is the arrogance that seems to come from behind your words that you have some sort of in that the rest of us don’t, on what actually goes into making the decision to be a working mom or a stay at home mom.”

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