It seems that women like me set a bad example for our daughters when we make decisions that sacrifice career pursuits for family balance. I’m still reeling over a CBC radio piece that featured a debate over why women have failed to break the glass ceiling. One of the debaters, Dutch economist Heleen Mees, argued that too many women choose motherhood over career. Women who opt for part-time careers or full-time parenting fail to fulfill a moral obligation to provide good role models for others.
Mees doesn’t seem to get why women would choose full-time parenting or leave a full-time job to work part-time. In her eyes, striving for a stress-free, happier life with more time for family is giving into the comfort and leisure of traditional feminine roles. In a recent article in Maclean’s magazine, Mees states that happiness is overrated, and that women who opt for part-time work or full-time parenting in favor of family balance deter progress in the women’s movement. Happiness, in Mees’ eyes, is a sign of complacency, and women need to get out of their comfort zones as nurturers and get back to the work force.
It’s a shame to measure success in terms of salary or position in a hierarchy. A friend of mine left a tenured position at a research university for a job at a small teaching institution so she could have a little more flexibility to accommodate family. Her job is by no means stress-free, but her department has been supportive of her family obligations and in family emergencies. She’s earned that support because her skills and contributions to her school are highly valued. By Mees’ standards, my friend abandoned the feminist cause for equality in the work place by not biting the bullet and staying with the “high-powered” position, even though it would have meant more stress with juggling schedules and less time with family.
It’s one thing to be forced into traditional women’s roles because of societal, cultural, or family pressure. However, the women I know who’ve taken “lesser” positions, who’ve switched to part-time work, or who’ve decided to stay home full time were all free to make choices that best suited their family’s needs. And increasingly I meet men who’ve made similar career changes. I fully recognize how fortunate we are to live at a time and in a society where there is at least some freedom to choose.
On the other hand, family balance decisions are often painful when there are few options. I know both men and women who would love to be home more, but simply can’t afford to leave their full-time jobs. Economic pressures, inflexibility in the work place, or lack of childcare increasingly leave families without choice.
Women don’t need more guilt. My career choices either way cannot be based on moral obligation. We need the freedom to pursue options that work best for family happiness because there’s no one solution for every situation. It’s idealist, I know, but maybe it’s time to focus on happiness and life satisfaction instead of power and ladder climbing.