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“Caregiverism” Feminism: A Proposal for Converting Super Humans to Mere Mortals

As the product of a single-parent household, it is not as though I am unfamiliar with the concept of a woman who puts in long hours at work while serving as the primary breadwinner.  Nonetheless, I am in awe of working professional women who are mothers.  And when it comes to the subset of these women who are unmarried, (to borrow and slightly augment the title of the not-so-critically-acclaimed SJP movie), I Don’t Know How They Do It.  Neither sentiment on my part is a particularly good thing.  It is as if one must be a super hero in order to be a successful mother with a demanding job.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “How to Fix Feminism,” Judith Shulevitz advocates for a new type of feminism she calls “caregiverism.”  As Shulevitz describes, “[i]t would demand dignity and economic justice for parents dissatisfied with a few weeks of unpaid parental leave, and strive to mitigate the sacrifices made by adult children responsible for aging parents.”  In such a scenario, taking time away from one’s career to parent a child would be treated similarly to military service, with government support not unlike that given to veterans.  Childrearing would therefore be deemed as a “respected precursor” to career advancement as opposed to an interruption that is accompanied by a lowered glass ceiling.

To support her proposal, Shulevitz notes that married mothers earn only 76 percent of what men earn, while single women without children earn 96 percent on the dollar.  Moreover, wage stagnation and the fact that child care costs 168 percent more than it did 25 years ago create a perfect storm of factors supporting the conclusion that it was “easier to be a working mother in 1980 . . . than it is today.”  What a painful and problematic truth that is.

It is no secret that many women are waiting longer to have children for a variety of reasons that include the pursuit of advanced degrees, efforts to address educational debt concomitant with said degrees, and an understanding that (very) long hours at work (and possibly work-related travel) are often required at the outset in many professions.  To the extent that putting off a family until later in life is seen as a problem, the later factor is exacerbated by a trajectory in certain professions such as academia or law where one must “hustle for positions like partner or associate professor just as they reach peak fertility.”  Shulevitz acknowledges that “[m]any universities . . . now stop the clock for a year when assistant professors have children,” adding that her professor friend laughed at the prospect of earning tenure notwithstanding such a policy because “[a] year is nothing when it comes to a baby.”

My former employer, a large corporate law firm, is among several peer law firms that permit female associates to take 18 weeks of maternity leave with an option to return to work on a reduced-hours schedule.  Many firms also offer paternity leave, although on a much more limited basis.  I know directly and anecdotally of several female associates in “Big Law” who either did not exercise the reduced-hours option when it was offered to them, or only exercised it in theory on account of succumbing to the pressure to continue to bill at or in excess of regular full-time hours more often than not.  To state what may already be obvious to many current and prospective parents, one problem with taking full advantage of a modified work schedule policy is that doing so can result in a stigma associated with one’s work ethic and personal brand vis-à-vis being viewed as someone with partnership potential, not to mention the related impact this could have on the firm’s commitment to providing the type of 24-hour client service that upper echelon firms tend to reference in their client pitches and marketing materials.

I recall many instances in which I would hear oft-repeated anecdotes about a very small handful of highly-regarded female attorneys who made partner while on maternity leave.  While stories about these exemplary and unquestionably hard-working women were supposed make me feel better, they often had the opposite effect.  From my perspective, and that of more than a few colleagues, the relatively few women who achieved this level of success did so at what appeared to be a significant expense—e.g., working throughout a large chunk of their maternity “leave,” working up to one’s due date, and at least in one instance, going into labor in the office.  Such exemplars no doubt made me feel more, not less, insecure about my ability to follow in their footsteps.

My reaction to such stories is akin to that of feminist Sarah Leonard’s response to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sharing that she slept under her desk as a Google employee—“If feminism means the right to sleep under my desk, then screw it.”  Which is not to say that I have not done that before and would not be willing to do it again under limited and exigent circumstances.

But, a demanding work schedule requiring many a very late night and weekends in the office is in not conducive to the current “neo-traditionalist” practice of “hand-rais[ing]” one’s children (e.g., preparing all food consumed by one’s children essentially from scratch and some other non-food-related forms of “High Investment Parenting” (HIP).

While suggesting that, from a public policy perspective, parenting should be placed on par with military service may be a questionable approach given some of the stark differences between the two, the underpinnings of Shulevitz’s caregiverism proposal make sense:

[Feminism] should not mean [] a politics of the possible. We’re fighting for 12 weeks of leave when we need to rethink the basic chronology of our lives. We live longer than we used to. A caregiverist agenda should include stretching career paths across that longer life span, making it easier for parents of both sexes to drop in and out of the work force as the need arises. Automation may eliminate jobs in all sorts of fields. Perhaps we should lobby for a six-hour workday, yielding both more jobs and more time for family.

As pie-in-the-sky as these changes sound, I like to think that they could in theory enable me to view some of the “C-suite feminists” I admire as real women following attainable blueprints to being simultaneously successful at career and motherhood, as opposed to impossible-to-emulate superheroes.

Felicia Gilbert

Felicia Gilbert

Felicia Gilbert is a proud member of the DC office of Sanford Heisler, LLP and she finds it incredibly fulfilling to represent women and racial minorities in cases involving race, gender, and pregnancy discrimination. She is a proud native of Northern California who, in her spare time, enjoys people watching and taking long walks with her adorable Rottweiler, Jasmine.

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