A friend who graduated from (what I would call) the most notable girls school in Singapore once commented that in school they were often told they could “be anything you want,” but what they heard was they had to “be everything.”
It's fascinating isn't it - the kind of programming that goes on in young minds. That from an early age, the thought of having to make it becomes so ingrained that we could never imagine anything less than the uber successful corporate career, 2 beautiful babies, a SUV and a sedan in the drive way (if you’re lucky a zippy little sports car for the weekends), and a golden retriever on the front porch. If we fell short of that ideal… well, we wouldn’t fall short of that (rather narrowly defined) ideal.
And as you grow and get older, start working and looking for a life partner, that pressure doesn't lessen. Over coffee one day, a friend let rip on her boyfriend’s future expectations (which left me somewhat flabbergasted)
He wants me to have a successful career and be super mom, AND while I'm making lots of money, he wants me to be sweet, kind and demure, AND show him infinite pools of respect. AND he wants me to defer to him on all the big decisions.
How like that.
Men these days, they seem to be confused, they want us to pull our weight financially but they still want to take the lead and wear the pants! Well, I want one pant leg (it would make a very sexy pencil skirt on her).
I suppose her main gripe was that she was expected to (1) reach the upper echelons of economic success, (2) pop out babies, (3) care for them and ensure their future academic and life success, (4) and then give up the autonomy that normally comes with increased responsibility. Whereas he would only have to fulfill criteria (1).
I asked if he would consider a mail-order bride.
Anne-Marie Slaughter (one of those women who has actually attained the have-it-all status) recently came out in an article in The Atlantic to say that no, Women Still Can’t Have It All. She posits that our entire society, the way the economy is set up, the way businesses are run and even the hours in which kids are in school, are not designed to support the kind of outcome my friend’s boyfriend expects of her.
It generated a great deal of debate (putting it mildly here), and a spot on the Colbert show where he told her “Don’t do that! I don’t!” (in reference to AMS's argument that women are still doing 2/3 of the housework and 2/3 of the childcare). But that begs the question of who will? In Singapore, your domestic helper will (another can of worms entirely).
His advice prodded me in a different direction entirely. Maybe what we need to stop doing is defining success so narrowly.
When did success (anyone’s really, male or female) become so narrowly confined to the career sphere? (When we were in school, we were told to excel academically and also in the area of extracurricular activities and to have hobbies! How well rounded we used to be) How is raising children to be a positive influence in future societies any less of an impressive feat than climbing the corporate ladder? How come women (and men) who do both aren’t recognized for their incredible amount of discipline and dedication on both fronts?
During one of my internships, I had the great pleasure of working with someone that I considered a have-it-all. I was in complete awe of the head of department who got up before the sun rose everyday and went for a long run/swim/bike (outside of his hot shot day job he regularly competed in triathlons around the world) … I kept asking myself where did all that drive come from? Some secret infinity pool of discipline?
It never once hit me that mothers across our tiny island follow the same rigorously insane schedule everyday of their lives while their children live at home. The VP seated across from me got up at the crack of dawn daily to help prepare breakfast for her kids before packing them off on the school bus, she would then rush to get ready for work and be in before the big boss (who was always at his desk by 8.30am), she would attend and prepare for a full day of meetings (while juggling phone calls from her kids about homework and whether or not they can watch TV), she would pack up and rush back at around 7pm to be home for dinner, go through school work with the kids, and then pack them off to bed. After which she would log back in remotely to continue responding to emails and getting work out of the way for the next day. On top of all this, I'm fairly certain that there was the unspoken and undeniably daunting responsibility of ensuring her kids grew up good. I never asked, but I'm sure it's part of the mom-in-chief job description.
I never stood in awe of her. It was just, expected. Because I grew up thinking that that's just how things are supposed to be. We were supposed to be everything.
I’m tempted to make that sweeping statement that the key to bringing up the birthrate in Singapore is to have more family-friendly company policies (which PM Lee touched on in his recent NDP Rally speech). But somehow I doubt this. All the policies in the world won’t persuade me to pop out a baby and maintain my quest on the climb to the top. I think the solution lies up in the fluffy clouds where success is defined in broader terms, where ambition is not confined to a single dimension at the expense of other life goals, and where there is greater empathy and understanding from all parties.
If we want more women with kids, and want more women in the workplace, we need to find a way to recognize the accomplishments in both domains as equally important and equal indicators that you’ve somehow made it in life. Our standard CV format really doesn’t allow for that.
Credit where it's due: image taken from Sparkly Cat Portfolio.