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The Shriver Report on Women

I don’t think I or any woman I know needs to read “The Shriver Report: A Women’s Nation Changes Everything” by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress. Although the Report is being highly touted as important on several NBC programs, all the women I know know exactly what our state is: Pretty hectic and too often unrewarded compared to the work we do.

Our children and our husbands or partners might benefit from reading the report. Maybe then, they would take us seriously when we say we just can’t handle any more on our plate right now. Society should agitate for laws that enforce equity where it can be enforced, too. Then maybe the whole debate would stop becoming a “woman’s” problem as in fact one of the Report’s contributors, sociology professor Michael Kimmel points out in his contribution.

The big deal report is being touted as groundbreaking, but I find far more groundbreaking President Obama admitting in an interview with NBC’s Samantha Guthrie Wednesday night that he like all men, is “obtuse.”

It is just that obtuseness, even from decent men, that keeps women too damned busy with too little time for ourselves, whether it is time to just sit and think or time to take care of ourselves so that we live long enough to fulfill all of our obligations. Only in fairy tales do dead mothers become the stuff of romance and do orphaned children rise to meet the challenges of life. In the real world, women hold the whole damned thing up. And, at least in my case, the fear of dropping something, if not everything, is often very real.

My first marriage to a smart and decent man was one in which I not only worked part time and contributed income in various ways, but also did everything, and I mean everything, else. I am now a single mother with a teenage daughter still at home. I have a son with addiction issues who is back in college after a long hiatus. I have a dying father in Tennessee and a mother who has Alzheimer’s and is an alcoholic living in assisted living in Rhode Island. Luckily I have two sisters who are also helping with the parents. I am recently separated and have to do all the chores that I asked my husband to do for the two years we were married. Note: asked. I am trying to make a living. When I get sick I get up and take my daughter to school anyway. If I do not do what is to be done, it will not get done.

Multiple stressors have been hard to deal with and I hardly take care of myself many days. I certainly don’t want to take on the care of anyone else right now. But, of course, if I had to, I would. For the past several months all the complications listed above have made me nearly shut down at times. I haven’t even been writing much. And yet my life is nothing compared to some of my friends’ or to the story I saw on the news last night about a woman who works 12 hour days as a nurse, works a side job as a hospice worker, has children for whom she cares and cleans and cooks, and has also, in the past several years, taken in her father, her mother-in-law and her uncle to care for them until they died. Hers is not an unusual story. There are millions of such tales.

I am a feminist and have been since the age of fifteen when I turned down a Saturday night date because I just didn’t like the guy enough to go out with him. My girlfriends were stunned, but I sat home and watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show and was happy as a clam. I didn’t lie to the guy who asked me out, either; I didn’t tell him I had to wash my hair or that my mother wouldn’t let me go. I just told him “thank you” and “no” as gently as I could. I remember well thinking I never wanted to marry and have children, partly because, as Richard Lewis so beautifully put it, I wasn’t raised, I was lowered. I had the typical neglectful parents (think Mad Men rather than Father Knows Best) and a mother who didn’t seem really glad she had had my two sisters and me.

But the other thing was that I liked men. I still do. At least the ones I like. I like having a man in my life when I decided I did indeed want them. And I don’t think that men in general are evil; they just remain clueless, or as Obama says, obtuse, despite women’s every effort to wake them up. I don’t think most of us women want to give up on men or love but we do get damned tired of having the same old discussions over and over and over.

As recently as last year, while on a book tour for the book of essays I edited, entitled Desire: Women Write About Wanting, one of my contributors was reading from her essay on choosing between having more than one child or climbing the career ladder, to rapt attention by an audience of middle aged men and women. At the end of her reading, several men raised their hands; they wanted to talk about this whole idea of “choosing.” Several of the men said that they had never even thought of it that way, while all the women in the audience just rolled their eyes. My writer was kind and sympathetic when she explained the dilemma so many women face. And every time I have gone to an artist’s colony, women writers and painters have been stunned to learn I have more than one child. “When do you do your work?” they ask and add: “One was enough for me.” My answer is always that I fit my work in. I wanted children and they have always been my first priority. But I have never ever heard a man say that he “fits his work” or “fits his art” in around raising kids. In fact, many famous women artists either never married or never had children, which is not surprising, while Dickens, for example, had both a wife and nine kids. And wrote and wrote and wrote anyway.

Which is why The Shriver Report does not impress me much. What does it tell us that we don’t already know? That we now make up fifty percent of the workforce when we didn’t before? Okay, but for many years more women than men have been getting college educations, so the expanding work force makes sense. That women are the primary breadwinners in two thirds of families? That is interesting, but I still haven’t seen a discussion around the possibility that more men were fired in this present recession because they were more expensive than women. Anyone want to tackle that? The thing is that whether women earned as much as their husbands or less, the majority of them have always had two other jobs to do when they get home: manage the kids and manage the house (and life in general).

I am assuming that women who make a lot of money or marry rich hire staff for cooking and cleaning and child rearing, unlike the rest of us. And in this country we still don’t have paid maternity leave or cradle to grave services for women and children like they do in many European nations. Hell, we can’t even pass a reasonable health care bill without screaming and yelling from the conservative status quo which is mostly made up of white males trying to exercise their last vestiges of domination; while at the same time a Rockefeller/Time nationwide poll tells us, according to the Report, that “the battle of the sexes is over and has been replaced by negotiations….”

According to the Report:

The poll results reveal a truce in the battle of the sexes, demonstrating that men and women are in agreement on many of the day-to-day work and family issues. The old line in the sand separating them has largely washed away. Indeed, both men and women agree that women’s movement into employment is good for the country. Virtually all married couples see negotiating about the rules of relationships, work, and family as key making things work at home and at work.

Virtually all married couples?

Are they kidding?

Maybe people are doing more de facto negotiating, but I would argue that for the most part what is happening is some tacit negotiation resulting in the woman either taking on the role of doling out household and familial duties, or just giving up and doing it all because it’s much easier that way.

That may be partially our fault: women are able to multi-task better than men. And every woman I know is far more capable of juggling six things at a time than any man. But it is also genetic. We are innate nurturers and caregivers. Even when the caregiving seems overwhelming, most of us have keen senses of duty and responsibility: we do what we have to do.

The fact that we are working outside the home, too, doesn’t negate our sense that we can do the work inside the home better than most men, although I know plenty of sloppy households where no one seems to clean up. (I am sure there are men out there who will argue with me about stereo-typing , but let’s be honest: just because one man cooks or takes care of the kids doesn’t make it a trend. Articles are still being written–and have been written for two decades–about stay-at-home dads as though it is a new phenomenon rather than de rigueur. And the fact remains that men are emasculated by being fired as is evidenced every time one is interviewed about unemployment, while women, far more flexible about work–even in high level jobs–frequently re-invent themselves when let go, rather than moping about being “defeminized.”)

The truth is that Shriver’s report doesn’t really tell us anything particularly good about women in America today. What it is is a recommendation to government and society to get its shit together and realize women are no longer second class citizens. We need to stop assuming that women are interested in taking a place in a male-dominated workplace, bumping up against a glass ceiling and then going home and getting dinner ready for the kids before they run them to soccer practice. We need real equity, not lip service from either our partners or the government.

We need a seriously family-friendly and woman-friendly country, something we have needed for centuries, well before half the women worked outside the home. But watching the Equal Rights Amendment fail, listening to men screaming about women’s right to choose, watching the wrangling on health care even while women often pay more for health insurance and children remain largely uninsured discourage me. American men in power are waging trillion dollar wars and we can’t even come up with the impetus or the money for wellness.

Middle-aged women across the country are taking care of children and parents, all while working. Divorced women usually have substandard lifestyles and pregnancy out of wedlock is still frowned upon unless the woman is a celebrity. Domestic violence remains a huge social issue. As does pay inequity: we may be half the workforce but we still have to fight for equal pay for equal work as the recent Lily Ledbetter court case illustrates.

The problems in the Report are ones that have been with us forever. It would be nice if we could stop writing reports and actually do something to get a handle on all of this. That would be a real negotiation.