Something extraordinary happened in my home state of New Hampshire last week: the election resulted in the nation’s first all-female congressional delegation, plus a female governor. Not only that, but all five of those elected officials are mothers.
That shattering sound you hear is a glass ceiling being smashed to pieces the size of confetti.
But make no mistake: many women and families–and even men–are still hemmed in by walls.
Let’s be clear on one point right from the beginning: these five elected women hold individual positions, are individual people, represent differently composed constituencies and should not be expected to vote the same way or espouse the same position on any given issue as a result of their gender or any other characteristic. They’re not even all members of the same political party.
But they do share the following characteristic: they know first-hand what’s it like to juggle career and family. They know, via their individual stories and in a way our society as a whole has not yet recognized, that the era in which most moms stay at home full-time is over.
Fellow New Hampshire resident and New York Times Motherlode blogger KJ Dell’Antonia ran two pieces last week relating to this topic, one regarding New Hampshire’s new all-mother delegation itself, and another that centered around the desperate exit memo written by a law firm associate who could no longer maintain the crushing, dual life of lawyer and mother. Dell’Antonia’s commentary made clear what so many women already understand from personal experience: this woman’s predicament is far from unique.
Readers here know I have long maintained that our policies need to catch up to the reality of how we live in twenty-first century America. We need to recognize that children are both a societal need and a societal good, that someone needs to raise these children, and, ideally, that someone includes the parents. We need to look for ways to blend career and family, jobs and parenting, and we need to stop professionally penalizing and shaming both moms and dads who want to be engaged in the raising of their kids.
This doesn’t mean that a parent’s career trajectory won’t change if he works part-time or chooses some other sort of flexible option. If you’re shooting for partner at a law firm, for example, and you work substantially fewer hours per week than other associates but your work is excellent in all other respects, you still ought to be considered for partner. But you ought to expect it will take you more years to get there.
Parents who have difficulty choosing between career and active engagement with their kids are often accused of “wanting it all.” Maybe there is some truth to this. Perhaps this desire for both family and career stems from a sense of entitlement, or perhaps it comes from having invested tens of thousands of dollars in graduate degrees and who-knows-how-many hours or years in the development of their substantial skills and their careers.
But in a world where both women and men work, where women as well as men are leaders, this choice between career and family is often a false one. In many industries and in many positions, it shouldn’t have to be made at all.
It is a matter of universal rhetorical agreement that we value the family in America. Perhaps now we can turn that rhetoric into reality–with New Hampshire leading the way.