Who has Time Anymore?
We say it now; did our parents say it back then, too? My wife
makes some of her living monitoring online discussions, and one
of the conversations she has been reading lately has been about
how women's contradictions and conundrums have changed -- how
today's overwhelmed-ness compares with yesterday's ennui. If one
stays at home, one feels the pangs of unexplored career, of
creative contributions that one might have made... if one goes
out and works, one sees the kids for forty minutes at the
beginning and end of the day. "The Supermom Syndrome" -- "Wanting
to Have it All" -- the talk shows have been doing these themes
In fact, women of our parents' generation (we're in our early
40s) were placed in an impossible position. Society's model for
them, of course, was the Donna Reed/June Cleaver homemaker. They
seemed to have all the advantages, and yet lived a daily grind
that drove them (more often than we would like to admit) slowly
insane. Protected from the brunt of professional competition,
they were free to develop their tender, nurturing, "feminine"
qualities that were said to make for the loving, caring American
home. Their husbands, assured of spousal support, their shirts
pressed, their floors polished, their children loved, hugged,
nourished and schooled, were free to sharpen their wits and
skills for the professional arena. And all too often, the men
grew callous and remote, while the women grew timid and paranoid.
But what else could be done? It was the only sensible way for
all but the bravest or most fortunate to organize their lives (or try to, anyway).
Making ends meet demanded a full-time career; men earned more in
the marketplace than women. Successful competition demanded time
and concentration; breadwinners could not afford to be bothered
with time-consuming matters like childrearing or laundry; they
barely had time to mow the lawn on the weekends. June and Donna,
for their parts, spent their adult lives in near-complete
ignorance of their husbands' challenges, concerns or conquests.
This put a horrendous strain on communication, of course, for she
knew as little of what it took to make it Out There as he took
time to see now wearisome, how numbing to the spirit, were the
myriad things she did, with so few complaints, In Here.
It quietly drove the Moms and the Dads crazy. But it's not
like that any more.
Nowadays, both parents work full-time careers, and the
children are raised, for the most part, by hired help.
Now, before we go any further, let's put aside the silly
notion that "the women's movement" is somehow to blame for this.
Certainly the Feminist movement played a role in shaping today's
conceptions of family and professional lives for men and women.
Slowly, more and more women came to understand that they did not
have to be driven insane by the stultifying expectations of
others; that they could explore other ways to live. But we cannot
lay blame for the Supermom syndrome on the women's libbers; the
problem is much more basic than that.
It has much more to do with the how we have organized the
activity of competition in the professional sphere of life. In
order to meaningfully participate in the labor market -- in order
to have, in other words, a career -- one is expected to work on a
full-time basis. This is true at nearly all levels; even retail
clerks or delivery drivers cannot generally get health insurance
or other benefits unless they are full time. On the
"professional" level, of course, the forty-hour week is just the
beginning; the keener the competition, the longer and more
focused one's workday has to be. There's no way around it: our
society's idea of career success necessitates having a full-time
support team at home! Can one successfully compete, Out There,
and still have time to press one's shirts, or educate one's
children? Therein lies the genesis of Supermom and Superdad: the
new, postmodern way to be driven crazy.
The notion that for a career to be successful it must be
pursued full- (or more likely, over-) time is so
entrenched that it sounds absurd to question it. We think that
the personal and social costs simply must be borne, because --
what else is there? Things are tough all over. But every now and
then we must wonder -- don't we? -- what it is all for. We mangle
our lives into odd shapes and alienate our children and each
other, for what? To keep that "career-track" job -- because if we
don't, we can be damn sure that someone else is waiting in line
to take it.
The system is so well established that we forget its roots in
the competition of laborers for jobs -- and that under such
circumstances, employers have great latitude to arrange things
for their own ease and profitability. If it benefits them for
their workers in, say, the advertising or financial service
fields to work crushingly long hours, then that's just what they
will do. Others will gladly take their place if they have a
problem with it. Conversely, if it benefits Sprawl-mart or some
such establishment to hire only part-time workers to avoid
the burdensome cost of health insurance, then that's who'll be
hired. Such jobs are not, of course, considered to be "careers",
but they're definitely better than nothing.
Incidentally, we hear from time to time about the revisions to
macro-economic beancounting necessitated by the "market-izing" of
tasks that were once done for free by Donna Reed and June
Cleaver. When people pay for child-care, laundry, cooking,
cleaning, etc., the wages paid for these skills are added to the
overall total of goods and services provided in the economy (the
GDP, in other words). So does this mean that our economy grew
because the daughters of Donna and June were too busy to do these
household tasks and had to hire out?
Well, to be sure, the economy grew. Even before we add in the
day-care and restaurant workers' salaries, we observe that both
Dad and Mom are out there in the labor market being pretty near
twice as productive and competitive as ol' Dad was back in the
fifties; after all, they're both working career-track jobs! But,
the brutal fact of the matter is that they are both working
career-track jobs in order to enjoy just about the same material
standard of living that their parents had back then on only one
salary! It cannot be that labor's productivity has halved in one
generation's time; in fact, labor's productivity has increased
considerably. There can be, then, only be one explanation:
labor's real wages have precipitously dropped.
No, we cannot blame the Feminist movement for the stresses and
contradictions of reconciling our personal and professional
lives. The feminists saw society stunting and wounding itself by
pressing both women and men into dehumanizing sex-roles, and
strove to articulate a new freedom for everyone. But, it is
harder and harder to realize one's freedom, when one must work
more and more hours just to make ends meet. At some point it
becomes impossible -- as I said -- for all except the very brave
and the very fortunate.
Considering the human cost of this very difficult way of
organizing people's economic lives, society had really better be
using its resources to the fullest. Society really owes us that.
There had really better not be sizeable opportunities to which
workers and entrepreneurs are being denied. There really had
better not be a far more just, more efficient way of arranging
economic policy, whose very existence has been intentionally
hidden from us by generations of "experts".
But, of course, all those things are true. Are we mad as hell
Lindy Davies, July 23, 2001
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