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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: The WSJ Flapdoodle
July 26, 2009 - 7:29pm

I came late to this party — I was away when Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s article came out, and when I caught up I felt that Scott and Caroline (in the comments on the WSJ site) and Libby, Liz, and Rosemarie (here on the blog) had nailed it; I had nothing to add.

But I find I do want to add a few thoughts.

First, it seems to me that the term “work-life balance,” as Riley uses it to describe Mama, Ph.D. and similar blogs, is disingenuous — code for “issues of concern to mothers,” definition boring and trivial. Augusten Burroughs’s first-rate memoir, Dry, could be said to be about the “work-life balance,” with the “life” part consisting of drunken binges. “Dilbert” is about the “work-life balance,” trying to actually have a life apart from being an office cog. I could go on, but you get the point. Riley tips her hand when she states, “There's a reason that such streams of consciousness were once reserved for women chatting over cups of coffee.” Women have plotted revolutions, bank heists, and Broadway shows over cups of coffee — but we know who she means. Not important women. Mothers. The ones who aren’t usually out club-hopping or blowing things up after work because we’re in charge of all those boring, trivial activities that keep the world rolling.

Second, there is a long history of dismissing writing about domestic issues—when the writer is a woman. Jane Austen’s beautifully crafted depictions of social interactions among closed social groups are chick lit. Henry James’s ditto, ditto are masterpieces. (And of course they are. But.)

Third, in my profession, highly detailed, idiosyncratic depictions of an individual’s experience with given problem or situation are considered valuable sources of information about the human condition generally. They are referred to as case studies, and are widely used as teaching tools and prompts for discussion about more abstract principles. This is because they are written by acknowledged experts. Mothers are, by definition, amateurs. Our ruminations and observations are either navel-gazing or whining, not contributions to a vibrant dialogue on important social and psychological issues.

Finally, Reilly states: “In May, two researchers published a paper called The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.' Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both of the Wharton School, found that over the past 35 years, as the income and education levels of women have risen, as they've been 'freed from domestic drudgery' and as they have taken 'unprecedented control over fertility,' they've also grown unhappier. Some commentators blamed feminism, others the overwhelming range of choices that modern life offers up. Both theories could be right, but I would add the possibility that we are all spending too much time examining ordinary life -- even as we are living it.”

And I would add the reminders that a) Socrates had something to say about the unexamined life; and b) the classic recipe for stress involves piling on responsibility without corresponding control over one’s environment. Which are only a few of the important issues covered on this blog.

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