A Woman's Place
I was going to do it all. I would have a high-flying career, and so would my husband. We would have an incredible marriage, more substance than romance, but still storybook. We would change the world together and raise beautiful children along the way. Oh, and we would be happy. Very, very happy. We'd have problems, but they wouldn't last for long, and they would only serve one purpose: to make us stronger. Little did I know the problem with fairy tales: they never address logistics.
I was groomed to manage a home for as long as I can remember. My thirteenth birthday card featured a cartoon of a girl rushing into the kitchen with a bag of groceries. Inside was a handwritten note from my parents, thanking me for all my contributions to our family. When I was sixteen, my parents divorced, and my fourteen-year-old sister, Trinity, and I moved in with our dad. Because I was the oldest, I automatically became the woman of the house. While my friends were at the mall, I planned meals and grocery shopped. Once, burned out from juggling my household responsibilities and schoolwork, I announced that we would all share the cooking. I assigned weekend evenings to my dad and Tuesdays and Thursdays to my sister. I was hoping for at least the minimum: a protein, a starch, and a vegetable, preferably from scratch. On my dad's first night, he boiled Top Ramen, toasted bread, and opened a can of pears. The best you could say about my sister's first meal, Hamburger Helper Cheesy Macaroni Beef, was that it was cooked all the way through. Clearly, no one else shared my commitment to well-balanced, nutritious meals. From then on, I abandoned the rotating cooking plan and just did it myself.
Doing it myself became my mantra — and not just doing it myself but doing it perfectly. I changed my fingernail polish each day to match my outfit. I rewrote my college admissions essay eight times. I made my own senior prom dress on the day of the dance because I didn't like the job the seamstress had done on my original dress when I'd picked it up that morning. I was an opinionated, driven girl who loved being given leadership roles at school and in church. My parents always encouraged me to speak my mind, to stand up for what was right. But at the same time, I was clear about my future responsibilities at home. I knew that when I grew up I would be in charge of housekeeping (which included food shopping, cooking, arranging the linen closet, cleaning, and decorating), social coordination (everything from tracking special occasions and buying gifts to making potluck dishes and preparing for houseguests), and child-rearing (the pressure of which I felt long before I ever had children). No one ever told me all these tasks were my future job. When speaking about the future, mostly people told me I would go to college and that I should follow my passion. They never alluded to what eventually hit me unexpectedly — a conflict between fulfilling all these household duties and fulfilling my dreams.
Many women experience a sense of pressure that men rarely do — the pressure to succeed at work and to keep things running smoothly at home, especially when children arrive on the scene. This is not to say that men don't feel the stress of fulfilling household duties. On the contrary, many men today are up to their ears in laundry. But after mentoring, coaching, speaking, and listening to thousands of women, I have observed a deeper anxiety specific to women. In addition to fulfilling our professional responsibilities, we feel we are in charge on the home front — we are the ones primarily responsible for managing child care, household chores, and generally keeping our homes and family lives running smoothly. According to the American Time Use Survey, half of the women in America did some form of housework, like cleaning or laundry, on an average day. Only 20 percent of men can say the same. And even in the homes where we aren't the ones doing all the work, we are the ones thinking about all the work, as Judith Shulevitz pointed out in her 2015 New York Times op-ed, "Mom: The Designated Worrier." "I don't mean to say that she'll be the one to do everything," Shulevitz explained, "just that she'll make sure that most everything gets done."
Although the fact that women do more work than men at home has remained true since the 1950s, women today often feel lucky because, unlike the husbands of yesteryear, ours chip in. Women tend to think we should feel grateful for how far men have come. Indeed, more men are contributing to child care and household management than ever before. But even with these strides, the truth is that men still do not share an equal amount of the work and worry that accompanies managing a home. In her seminal book The Second Shift, sociologist Arlie Hochschild attributed women's appreciation for men who did less at home to their use of the "going rate tool." As long as our husbands are doing relatively more than their peer group or what our society seems to expect of them, then we're happy they've done their fair share. This inequitable division of labor has psychological repercussions: when men change a diaper, they feel like they're helping us out; when we change a diaper, we feel like we're just doing our job.
And it isn't just any job. It's one that carries a lot of emotional freight. No matter what we achieve in our careers, if our home lives aren't taken care of, we experience it as a moral failure. How often have we heard a female colleague, lamenting over missing a school event or not making dinner for her kids, say, "I'm such a bad mom"? Even if the kids are perfectly well fed by someone else, mothers often feel personally accountable in a way that fathers generally don't.
A 2014 Harvard Business Review article detailing interviews conducted with more than four thousand C-suite executives, 44 percent of whom were female, reveals the stark difference in the way men and women view worklife balance. "When you are paid well, you can get all the [practical] help you need," one female respondent explained. "What is the most difficult thing, though — what I see my women friends leave their careers for — is the real emotional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The guilt of missing out." Overwhelmingly, female respondents spoke of feeling "torn" between home and work; they commented on the feelings of inadequacy and failure that accompanied pursuing their careers. In contrast, male respondents saw themselves as economic providers and were far less emotional in response to questions about guilt brought on by not spending enough time with their families. They were comfortable seeing themselves as breadwinners. Several of the male executives felt that not spending adequate time with their children was an "acceptable price" to pay for providing them better opportunities than they themselves had as children. But for the women executives, though they were proud to be a role model for their children, they associated their professional success with negative emotions about their performance at home. Women set for themselves a higher bar to achieve success because they were expected to do well both at work and at home.
Where did we get the notion that "doing it all" is our job in the first place?
The simple answer is our childhood homes provide our earliest coaching about domestic roles. The examples set by our parents and extended families become models for our own adult lives. A 2014 study by the University of British Columbia revealed that mothers' behaviors and explicit beliefs about domestic gender roles predicted the beliefs held by their children. The more that mothers fulfilled traditional household duties and subscribed to the assumption that most women will, the more their children, especially their daughters, imagined themselves fulfilling gender-stereotypical roles in the future. This indoctrination is solidified by the time a child reaches adolescence. Though a mother might be a positive role model for her children's perception about what women can achieve outside the home, what her children observe her doing directly at home is even more powerful. Even the daughters of mothers who leave for the office each day grow up believing they'll be responsible for the bulk of responsibilities at home if that's what their mothers are doing — our children don't see us leading meetings, making presentations, or mentoring young colleagues — they do see us rushing around to prepare dinner, do the laundry, and load the dishwasher while their fathers respond to work e-mails or check the score on a baseball game.
There's no question that my belief that I needed to be in charge at home had its roots in the way my mother managed our household when I was a little girl. My mother grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a rough place during the mid-1970s, and she was resolved to escape it. Against the odds, she excelled academically and artistically; she loved fashion and designed and sewed her own clothes. She was on track to attend UCLA when she became pregnant with me at nineteen. Plans had to change, but she was determined to find a way to keep moving forward.
My father was one of eleven kids, born into a housing project not far from where my mother lived. He experimented with drugs but otherwise stayed out of trouble and always had a desire to help people. At my mother's urging, he joined the army as a way to break free of his addiction and get out of the projects. They got married in the summer of 1973, and I was born nine months later at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington. My parents broke a vicious cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and violence in one generation, and in the process, they taught me a fundamental truth: if you want something you've never had before, you'll have to do something you've never done before in order to get it.
In retrospect, the first sixteen years of my life were close to perfect — though, like most teens, I thought my life was terrible at the time. I wasn't allowed to go to parties; I was expected to do chores like start making dinner when I came home from school; and I was constantly being told by my mother that I was smart, beautiful, and loved — something that annoyed me to no end — when all I wanted was bigger boobs. But my family was proving the American dream. My father, the same man who kicked a heroin addiction to pass a military physical exam, eventually went to college on the GI bill, earned a Ph.D. in theology, worked as an elementary school guidance counselor, and pastored churches. When I was in middle school, my mom began a career as a social worker, but her primary roles were as a mother and a preacher's wife, and she played her parts beautifully.
One of my earliest childhood recollections is the smell of frying chicken and collard greens simmering in ham hocks wafting underneath my bedroom door on Sunday mornings. My mom would wake early to start cooking so that the meal between the morning and evening church services could be served expeditiously. All she had to do when we got home was whip up a batch of corn bread. In the summertime, she'd make homemade vanilla ice cream on the porch. I can't recall a sink full of dirty dishes or a store-bought birthday cake. And my hair was always beautifully styled. My younger sister, Trinity, and I spent countless hours between my mother's knees. By the time she removed the cornrows, washed, blow-dried, then braided and beaded one head, six hours could have easily passed (which partly explains black women's endurance — as young as five years old, we could sit that long to have our hair done!).
My father worked hard, too, but mostly outside the house. He started each day with a neighborhood jog. Our family car was always gleaming. Our yard was immaculate. The garbage bin was brought to the curb and the gutters were cleared like clockwork. Occasionally, my father would wash the dishes or do the laundry. These tasks seemed to bring him joy, and he literally whistled while he worked. But we all understood these weren't his jobs; my mom just got lucky that she married a man who liked to do them. Mostly when my dad was inside, he was studying in preparation for a sermon, watching episodes of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone, or dancing to Lou Rawls or Earth, Wind & Fire. When he wasn't home, he would be at school or church, tending to the flock. My mother and father fulfilled their ordained family responsibilities — she as homemaker and he as provider — and we moved upward from inner-city apartments to a suburban house with a white picket fence.
When I was growing up, the church was my community. Because my parents had uprooted themselves from their childhood homes in California, church folk became our family. Even though we were in the Pacific Northwest, many of the African Americans we knew had roots in the South, so food was always the centerpiece of any gathering. I remember these feasts of my childhood with great affection, but I also remember the gendered division of labor: in our church, women were the caregivers who cooked for, set up for, and served the men. Even as a little girl, it was clear to me that while women were central to making the church community function, their role was to serve.
Sometimes I chafed against this arrangement. I was frequently told that I was bright, college bound, and that the world was my oyster, but I'll never forget the time I was reprimanded by a Sunday school teacher for praying loudly and heartily at the end of class. Apparently, when she asked for a volunteer to pray, she'd meant a boy. I stared at her dumbstruck as she scolded me. That was the day I learned that our church doctrine didn't allow women to lead men in prayer. I was eleven years old, and nothing about the teacher's comment that "boys are the leaders" sat right with me. I am quite sure my future passion for advancing women and girls first stirred to life in that moment.
Fortunately, I had the kind of father who didn't believe that this "boys lead" rule applied to his daughters, even though he preached it to others. He would turn a booster seat upside down on a chair during our weekly family meetings and coach my sister and me in delivering sermons. But because our public speaking was done in the privacy of our home and kept separate from the church, even his encouragement reinforced the community's stronger message: women should concern themselves primarily with quietly caring for others.
* * *
Gender role indoctrination starts early, passed down to us in the conscious and unconscious attitudes and actions of even the most progressive and well-intentioned parents. So it was for Jun, a sales director I met when I was consulting for a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company that was launching a women's initiative. Jun had been tapped to lead the new program — the executives in the C-suite thought she was a superstar. She had always believed she could achieve anything she worked hard for. From her elementary school spelling bee trophy to her Yale acceptance letter, Jun had accumulated compelling evidence that her relentless work ethic was the key to her success. Yet, at the age of thirty-nine, working harder than ever, she felt like she was failing miserably — and she was miserable.
She had exceeded her sales goals for three consecutive quarters and was widely respected by colleagues, but in talking with her, it became clear she was hanging on by a thread. Despite her belief in the power of hard work, she couldn't seem to find enough hours in the day to meet the demands of her job and her family.
"My house is a complete wreck," she confessed. "I haven't cleaned for weeks. Things are growing in my fridge." She smiled ruefully. "I'm afraid they'll open the door and walk out if I don't chuck them soon."
That was just the beginning. When Jun and I discussed any hesitations she might have about leading the new program at work, she never once mentioned feelings of professional anxiety. Instead, it seemed that what was holding her back at work was her to-do list — and the feelings that came with those obligations — at home. Just as my mother's example had shown me that I should be responsible for the efficient management of my household, Jun's upbringing had influenced her beliefs about her role at home.
Jun's parents, both Japanese, were professionally ambitious and successful and enjoyed some flexibility when it came to their schedules. Her father was a professor of history and her mother an anesthesiologist. Jun's father had summers off from teaching and was not expected to be on campus at night or on the weekends. Yet Jun recalled the household responsibilities being clearly divided along gender lines. "My father never cooked, cleaned, or took me to my after-school activities," she said. "It sounds weird, but I don't think he ever answered our telephone. I'm thinking now that maybe my mother worked part-time, because when I recall everything she did, I can't fathom how she managed it all."