Even though I’d said little, I had felt let down by my cousin and I had disapproved of her decision. I knew it was politically correct to believe that every woman should have the right to choose what was best for her, but deep down in my soul, where it was so dark that political correctness was unable to make itself seen, I believed that a woman who chose to spend all day wiping snot and planning “healthy snacks” was wasting her education and slapping feminism in the face. She was perpetuating patriarchy and doing no one, including her children, any favours.
Listening to my cousin’s explanation was therefore an uncomfortable experience. Nothing she said was revolutionary. I had heard and read similar stories before. Coming from someone I knew and loved, however, the narrative gained a force that compelled me to emphathise.
My cousin explained that she had in fact returned to work when her daughter was around six months old and had immediately found herself in an impossible position. The hours she had to put in at her firm were brutal. At home she was unable to find reliable childcare. Her husband was also a lawyer with equally long, if not longer, hours. There was no point in having had a baby if she never got to spend time with her, and there was also no point in having a job if she spent most of her time worrying about her baby and resenting her work. It was the classic conundrum that women in corporate settings face.
My immediate response was one that had already been put to her on more occasions than she cared to remember. Why don’t you just dial it down, I suggested. Go part-time for a while, until your daughter is older?
But what about the enjoyment that she would get from her work, I queried. Didn’t that have a value over and beyond a pay cheque or promotion? Not really, she replied. It turned out that my cousin didn’t love her job for her job’s sake. She enjoyed it for the financial compensation and the professional prestige; for the sense of achievement that the ladder-climbing engendered. But she did not feel this was the kind of job where it was worthwhile, or enjoyable, to just stand still.
As we sat talking late into the afternoon I found myself understanding her choice. I was also thankful for her, and me, that we had choices to make, despite being Satre-fully aware of the weight of having only ourselves to blame for the consequences of those choices.
These choices depend on our personalities, on the temperaments of our babies, on the flexibility of our employers, and the parameters according to which success happens to be measured in our professions. They also depend on our financial status, on the attitudes of our spouses, and on whether or not our own mothers had worked. Any choice is obviously the outcome of a delicate web of circumstances, a fact that should in theory militate against prescriptive attitudes and harsh judgements. So why are the “mommy wars”, in which stay-at-home moms square off against working mothers, so infamously vitriolic?
Perhaps because the decision to work outside the home, or to raise kids full-time, speaks loudly on behalf of the decision maker, regarding her (and occasionally his) assumptions about gender, finance and marriage. This “choice” is such an intimate and often tortured (for there are inevitably painful trade-offs involved) statement of one’s identity that it makes it difficult for someone who chooses one way to empathise with someone who has arrived at a different decision. Sometimes there is an underlying fear that the other choice is in fact the better one. Sometimes there is anger at having been forced to make a choice at all, given the unacceptability of the “choice”.
Talking with my cousin helped me appreciate her decision. It was clear why she, and other women in positions similar to her, elected to stay at home given their life and work circumstances. But it also left me with the conviction that these circumstances needed to change. No parent can be expected to bring up a child satisfactorily if their work environment is wilfully blind to the fact of their parenthood.
This was why although “choice” is an important part of empowerment, I found “choice feminism”, or the idea that any choice a woman makes is a feminist one simply because it is chosen, quite absurd. In an especially memorable episode of the TV series Sex and the City, the character of Charlotte justifies her decision to stop working by repeatedly shouting down the phone, ‘I choose my choice.’ But, feminism is not just about choice. It is about change.
One of the more choice examples of “choice feminism” was the 2015 video featuring Indian movie actress, Deepika Padukone, that went viral on social media. The video had Ms Padukone performing a voice-over to a montage of several “empowered”-looking women, with statements such as:
“To be a size zero or size fifteen ... My choice.”
“To have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage ... My choice.”
“My choice: to have your baby or not.”
Feminism is a political stance not just a lifestyle. If choice becomes the yardstick by which to determine gender justice, deep structural change becomes a casualty. An emphasis on choice responds to available options rather than highlighting the need to widen those options. Equal pay, paternity leave, political representation, workplace flexibility – these are not choices that exist for most people. But they should.
My conversation with my cousin helped slap me down a notch or two on the pride/arrogance scale. I had been feeling quite pleased with myself for “having it all”. I affected humility and talked about how exhausted I was when people complimented me for “doing so much” – writing an entire book, while reporting on a new subject, all with a baby who couldn’t even walk yet. But when someone gushingly asked how I managed to accomplish it all, in reality it would set me smugly aglow inside.
In fact, my seemingly perfect work–life balance had less to do with the Herculean “leaning-in” on my part, than with incredible good fortune and helpful circumstances. I only had one child (two, as I was to find out, adds a whole new layer of complexity), a spouse who earned well (which allowed me to accept a pay cut) and was supportive of my career, a job that I really enjoyed, a flexible schedule that had me working from home for the most part, a mother who was an incredible role model for any working mom, and last but not at all the least, a nanny. I had genuine choices which made me, more than anything else, lucky.
Excerpted with permission from Babies & Bylines: Parenting On the Move, Pallavi Aiyar, HarperCollins.