Many of the women in my life with kids have slipped out of their jobs and into the role of fulltime family caretaker.
Cooking, paying bills, cleaning, all of the homemaker things that women of old did.
When this happens, something inside me shrinks into that pressing existential question, what's the point of it? Why have children, carefully educating them to be bright and brilliant only to have them do the childbearing and rearing, cooking and paying electricity bills? Shouldn’t they be changing the world?
I am talking about women specifically since they are outperforming men at work in their twenties and then dropping out of upper management in their thirties. It's a problem, and a big one.
I know I don’t understand this fully. I don't have kids. My mother never wanted to have kids, but my father insisted. Then, she says, I was so cute, and not wanting kids transformed into a lifetime of never having enough time for them, constantly worrying about them, painfully letting go of them as they grew older and made their own decisions. She still frets about me constantly, even at age 27.
Something happened there - something between the not wanting to have kids and the reality of children - in that deep tie down to the bone.
Anne-Marie Slaughter in her now famous Atlantic article asserts that in our current cultural climate, women can’t have a vibrant career and a dedicated home life - in essence, they can’t have it all. Something will always give, whether that’s work or time with your family. In the current policies that most organizations are governed by, it’s almost impossible to achieve a healthy work/life balance.
In my mind, the solution to retaining women in the workforce boils down to two simple things: time and space. Basic principles of physics, really.
Right now, a high powered career requires that your time revolve around your job, that your career becomes your child, this thing that needs constant vigilance from dusk to dawn.
When your iPhone beeps at 11 PM with an urgent email, you’re there to furiously respond. When things blow up on a Saturday, there you are at your computer figuring it out.
This is changing. We're in a time economy now, where working smart is valued over working long; where an efficient high producer is more precious than a dawdling low performer.
So let’s ask the right question: how much time do women with children want to spend at work?
Is it 40 hours a week? 30? Is 50 okay? It is simple: why hasn't someone done a study on how many hours women with children can contribute to the workforce and still have enough time to be present with their families?
Let's start there.
Say women want to work 20 hours a week. Let’s create positions in the workforce where people can add high value at 20 hours a week.
If 40 hours jives just fine, let’s create work cultures where we punch out at 5 PM, no later. Let’s stress high production and shorter hours; let’s reward results instead of late nights.
I say this is a solution for women, but really it must be a solution for everyone. The only way to affect change to a culture is to have everyone adopt it - men included. So, for everyone that wants to spend more time in their communities and their lives, punch out at 5 PM.
When I traveled through small villages in Asia, I saw the difference between work and life as almost nonexistent. Your job in your village is indelibly tied to your home: the shopkeeper whose family lives in the back, the fisherman who filets his daily catch on his front porch. In a village, you are a stone’s throw away from work and life, so the two become intimately fused together. Your work is your life because both are filled with family, friends and your community.
But here we live in suburbs and large cities; our car culture has made the physical distances between work and home greater and greater so now there is a distinction between the two.
Because of this space, of navigating to school and to work then back home, our time with our families becomes limited. And it seems sometimes that we are constantly spending time in these liminal spaces – neither here nor there, in our cars stuck in traffic, on airplanes traveling for work.
The distances we travel have disintegrated the village model. When we are at work, we are far, far away from our lives - the ones full of parents and children and friends, the people we care about.
One solution to this problem is to create workplaces that are villages onto themselves, with daycare and transportation, Google style.
But really, I think the answer is the remote worker.
Let us carve out our lives in the communities and places that matter to us, that are important to our values. Let us work in those rich places where our family, communities and landscapes merge into one and make us happy. Let’s not demand that women like Slaughter move across the country away from her family to work 60+ hour workweeks to have a high powered political career in Washington. Let her do this from her laptop in New Jersey.
Yes, I understand facetime is important, but let’s figure out how to make it even more effective when it happens infrequently, when it's precious and powered. How many silly, inefficient meetings do all of us attend each week, anyway? Cut out meetings and fly people in when they’re really necessary.
Do you see this?
This is the double parlor in my 100-year-old house. I know, fancy. These windows are so large and beautiful - I can open them and step through to my front porch. And on my front porch, there are a million things happening all of the time - Charmaine Neville strolls by occasionally in her beautiful straw hat and flowing dresses. This is a living and breathing community. This could be the place that I work and live.
Time and space. Let's reclaim both. Let's figure out the healthy number of hours we need to work to have families, and then after that, let's find the place that will enable us to be present in our families, our communities and our lives.