Not Juggling Work & Family

Recently the Today show interviewed Samantha Power and asked how she balances career and family.[1] Dodai Stewart at Jezebel points to some of glaring double standards in this interview. Meredith Carroll underscores the problem: We regularly ask women how they balance career and family but only rarely ask men (and I would guess even more rarely in the kitchen with a kid sent into the scene to gaze at knives). Carroll calls for interrogational parity:

But the fact is that a man in Power’s position or the equivalent would never be interviewed in the same setting or with the same set of questions. And that’s the problem. Let’s create some gender quality [sic.] in that we ask men how they do it all, too — and sympathize with them if they don’t, and applaud and learn from them if they do.

I agree with Carroll. If we are going to ask such questions of mothers who have careers we should ask it of fathers who have careers. That we don’t ask mothers and fathers the same questions harms both mothers and fathers.

On the one hand, asking mothers how they balance career and family reinvokes the parenting panopticon—that all seeing, ever-watchful self-imposed eye that pressures mothers into thinking they need to be doing more, that fills them with worry that they are not doing enough, that encourages them to use rhetoric like “fail” and “suffer” when talking about juggling family and career. I fear there are no good answers to that set of questions. Mothers who have more resources at their disposal are explained away as, well, having more resources. Of course with enough support, any mother could balance career and family.[2] Yet, we continue to ask mothers how they do it all—implying that they can do it all and that they should be doing it all and that other mothers are doing it all.

On the other hand, fathers are harmed in a different way. For the growing number of fathers who juggle career and family, not asking about how they struggle with family-career issues effaces their efforts. In some ways, this is the other side of the parenting panopticon: by not asking about balancing career and family we are denying that fathers have such struggles, we are discouraging the fathers who do struggle with it from speaking about it, we are not putting work into understanding how those struggles might look different for fathers and developing helpful resources for fathers.[3]

I would like to see us stop asking about career-family balance. As a pragmatic issue: What works for one person, especially a person appearing on the Today show, is unlikely to work for me. As a more philosophical issue: How one person juggles family and career has little impact on me, and I shouldn’t dictate to them how they to juggling those facets of their lives.[4]

Rather than asking fathers how they balance career and family, let’s stop asking mothers.

  1. According to Dodai Stewart at Jezebel, the question was: “Is it harder than you thought it would be to be a mom of two little kids and have this huge new job?” Let’s assume that the Today show knows its viewing demographic—something I can’t be bothered to go find—and knows that this question will resonate with that population. I would like to know: For what group of TV viewers is that an interesting question? Why? What do they share in experience and aspirations that they want to see the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. asked the stale how-do-you-balance-work-and-family question while standing in the most gendered of domestic spaces, the kitchen? What fears or fantasies does this population of viewers share such that watching the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. conduct an interview at home while children meander in and out of the scene? How does that question simultaneously reflect those fears or fantasies, validate them, and reinforce them?  ↩

  2. I don’t track which mothers are asked these questions, but I think it’s a safe bet that only “successful” mothers are asked that question on TV or radio or in print publications.  ↩

  3. This silencing of fathers risks discouraging other fathers from trying to juggle career and family. Not only do they not get to talk about about the difficulties they might encounter, talking about such difficulties has been cordoned off as the mothers’ domain.  ↩

  4. The obvious qualification here: how the Mother balances these two has daily impact on me.  ↩

4 thoughts on “Not Juggling Work & Family

  1. I was so glad to read this as I feel that work life balance is such an important issue for men as well as women, as I’ve certainly realised since becoming a dad in April of this year. Not talking about how work life balance is relevant to men runs is a very dated attitude given that a lot of countries have or are moving towards systems that make it easier for parents to share paternal leave after they have a child.

  2. When my kids were entering their teens, I decided to go back to school to get some job training (legal secretary). After I received my degree, I wanted to work part time so that it would be easier for me to juggle the household duties and kid transportation, etc. But my husband told me that for the sake of our family finances, I needed to work full time. So I went to work from 8-5, and he adjusted his schedule so that he could work from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. He took the kids to appointments, job interviews, college visits, etc. He picked them up from school. He had a lot more vacation time than I did, so he took time off when the kids were very sick (not just for a cold). He went on field trips with the kids. My husband has juggled his schedule for his kids since 2004, which is more than the average guy does or can do. On the other hand, he has gone on field trips. The kids in marching band know who he is, even 6 years after my son graduated from high school (Hi Mr. Cleaver).

    • It’s a struggle for anyone to juggle kids and employment, but my husband would have missed out on a lot if he had not made to effort to make work fit his family life. I do have to say that he did have a supervisor who was also helpful in adjusting his schedule.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences/thoughts. I agree, Jonathan, not talking about how fathers experience career-family issues is dated and problematic. As Sowingmercy points out, families—both mothers and fathers—often make considerable adjustments to juggle family and career.

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