Which brings us to an even deeper historical flaw: editors and reporters forget that Belkin’s generation isn’t post-feminism; it’s mid-feminism. Women’s entrance into the waged work force has been moving in fits and starts over the past century. Earlier generations of college-educated women picked either work or family, work after family, or family after work; those who graduated in the 1980s and 1990s—Belkin’s cohort—are the first to expect to do both at the same time. And so these women are shocked to discover that, although 1970s feminists knocked down the barrier to entering the professions in large numbers, the workplace still isn’t fixed. They are standing on today’s feminist frontier: the bias against mothers that remains embedded on the job, in the culture, and at home.
Given that reality, here’s the biggest problem with the moms-go-home storyline: it begins and ends with women saying they are choosing to go home, and ignores the contradictory data sandwiched in between.
Williams establishes that “choice” is emphasized in eighty-eight of the 119 articles she surveyed. But keep reading. Soon you find that staying home wasn’t these women’s first choice, or even their second. Rather, every other door slammed. For instance, Belkin’s prime example of someone who “chose” to stay home, Katherine Brokaw, was a high-flying lawyer until she had a child. Soon after her maternity leave, she exhausted herself working around the clock to prepare for a trial—a trial that, at the last minute, was canceled so the judge could go fishing. After her firm refused even to consider giving her “part-time” hours—forty hours now being considered part-time for high-end lawyers—she “chose” to quit.
More than a third of the articles in Williams’s report cite “workplace inflexibility” as a reason mothers leave their jobs. Nearly half mention how lonely and depressed those women get when they’ve been downgraded to full-time nannies. Never do such articles cite decades of social science research showing that women are happier when occupying several roles; that homemakers’ well-being suffers compared to that of working women; or that young adults who grew up in dual-earner families would choose the same family model for their own kids. Rarely do such articles ask how husband and wife negotiated which one of them would sacrifice a career. Only by ignoring both the women’s own stories and the larger context can the moms-go-home articles keep chirping on about choice and about how such women now have “the best job in the world.”
Underlying all this is a genuinely new trend that the moms-go-home stories never mention: the all-or-nothing workplace. At every income level, Americans work longer hours today than fifty years ago. Mandatory overtime for blue- and pink-collar workers, and eighty-hour expectations for full-time professional workers, deprive everyone of a reasonable family life. Blue-collar and low-wage families increasingly work “tag-team” schedules so that someone’s always home with the kids. In surveys done by the Boston College Sloan Work and Families Research Network and by the New York-based Families and Work Institute, among others, women and men increasingly say that they’d like to have more time with their families, and would give up money and advancement to do it—if doing so didn’t mean sacrificing their careers entirely. Men, however, must face fierce cultural headwinds to choose such a path, while women are pushed in that direction at every turn.