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.