By Sharon McElhone
After the gym one evening, still high on endorphins, I began writing a list of what needs to happen in order for my daughters to have a fair shot at the presidency; but as I wrote, I went back to being a fifth grader in elementary school and remembered all of us girls who opened history books and didn’t see a single female American president in the line-up.
I thought of the women I knew, of my daughters especially, and had to acknowledge how infinitely small that makes their chances seem; then asked myself what I could do to rebuild the world’s consciousness when it comes to embracing a woman as president of the United States of America.
It makes sense to start with my own home. This is our history.
My Ecuadorian mother, my daughters’ grandmother, will always be the great woman behind my fathers: My Irish biological father and my Bolivian stepfather. As I grew up in a dynamic and entrepreneurial family environment, I watched my mother do incredible work: implement financial strategies, build two successful companies from the ground up, buy a home in a good neighborhood, raise four children, cook, shop, clean, and entertain; and at the end of the day rest (or not rest) in this contrary role of dedicated wife.
Over time, it sent a message that a capable and skilled leader, if a woman, couldn’t claim credit for her work. In my youth, frustrated and determined to get my parents to change the gender equity, I fought with them on this matter.
For years, these battles, where I ended up saying ridiculous things, ended the same way. They ended with me losing privileges that I hated losing. My mother never came to my aid during these arguments—no show of solidarity in my fight for equality. My parents combined their energies as if I was some terrible storm to be weathered.
Looking back, I see it would have caused a tsunami of controversy if my mother, a Latin American immigrant, stepped into the light of a leadership role. She needed to avoid the scrutiny of the day. My fathers were alpha men—shopping, cleaning and organizing the social calendar were the end of life for them. I watched the world at every turn overload my mother as she made her climb to success. When my mother attended cocktail parties and began talking business with the men in the room, her contemporaries told her she talked like a man. Men tried to downplay her smarts. But I wanted my mother to brag, to be as arrogant as most of the men I saw in powerful positions.
At seventy-one, my mother still runs circles around the men she employs. She never would. What would have happened if she hadn’t born the solo responsibility of her children and hadn’t had to overcome rooms full of doubt? I have a hunch we could all have gotten further after she began working at the tender age of six years old then immigrated at eighteen to America, working first as a nanny, then three jobs for years thereafter to bring her family to this country.
Society was not comfortable in its own skin when I was growing up. It still isn’t today. Some say these are cultural biases, but as former San Jose Vice-Mayor Cindy Chavez said in a recent interview “no culture lifts women up.” Even now Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia boast female presidents in or formerly in office. The United States still cannot claim this triumph. So where does that leave my daughters, who are far too young to witness Hillary Clinton stand resolute after refusing to concede the presidential nomination and offer a mesmerizing speech on breaking the glass ceiling?
My fathers have always worked hard too. They are strong, stubborn, and courageous men who both dread when I climb up on my high horse in defense of my mother but also seem to respect my convictions. I learned the audacity to speak the truth from them and here it is—women are stronger than men. In private, my fathers admit this. Emotionally, I assume they mean. Yet, we practice undermining women every day. The men I grew up with enjoyed sitting at heads of tables and had a kind of power I felt like I could only dream of having. I felt resentful. If shining a light on this big continuing social problem seems unfair to men, I will not apologize. It must be done.
My daughters are growing up with a working father and a mom who stays at home during the day, but works part-time at night and weekends frenziedly trying to keep up a career. My husband earns more than I do; and when we had children, it made sense for me to stay home and work odd hours in the evening and on weekends to keep my career alive.
The idea being I could work full-time once they were in school. But, as time went on, I found myself more financially dependent on my husband instead and it is harder to keep competitive in my field as I juggle childcare, working in interrupted states, which leaves me vulnerable as a professional woman.
The compensation I earn does not cover the cost for childcare, but I don’t want to fall behind in my career—to lose my edge—so I pay to work. The negative outflow of money makes us struggle, and the more we struggle the more we stress. I can embrace my career as much as I want to but, it doesn’t change the bottom line: During the early years of starting a family our combined salaries will not cover childcare, food, clothes, diapers, school supplies, medical insurance, taxes, mortgage, and bills….
My husband is an emblematic father. He knows our children are in loving hands all day long and he can go to work without worrying about who is taking care of them. When he leaves in the morning, he kisses me and waves bye. When I get an assignment, I wonder if I’m going to find reliable childcare or if what I will earn for a job will cover the cost of childcare. Statistics say that after five years a stay at home mother falls too far behind to re-enter her chosen field, and after that she may never catch up.
I sincerely hope that isn’t true, but I fear that if discussions on childcare do not happen, we will postpone the evolution of the world’s consciousness to a better understanding of what women and families need in order to make that final push toward equality. As former Vice-Mayor of San Jose, Cindy Chavez reminds us, “cultures need to lift women up.” Right now they do not lift them up including my friend, Nasrin*.
I recently visited my friend, who works part-time at a pharmacy. Her husband is a doctor. We watched the children on the swing set for a while before Dr. Nasser summoned me over and gave me a tour of the newly remodeled in-law quarters. It was a darling yellow cottage in the orchard like backyard.
“This is where I come to get away from Nasrin and the kids when I’m tired,” he said. The statement irked me. I wanted to respond with something like “you don’t even know tired. A woman can support her husband, manage the childcare, work under less than hospitable conditions in her field, and entire cultures still don’t give a damn about her or her future. When does Nasrin get to build a separate in-law quarters to “get away”?
But that seemed snarky. He stood as cool and collected as a cucumber while Nasrin was a nervous wreck trying to manage her career between racing to and from activities, volunteering, and keeping the house and social calendar going. It was an innocent remark on his part. He couldn’t have known that all my life I’ve resented watching my mother on overdrive. Which is why I’ve gone on overdrive, not to locate the next woman president, but to help conditions morph, making it possible for more women to be president.
Billions of women do not get the support they need to get through the early years of child rearing. We must ignite the discussion about why we still think of women as the primary caregivers for both young and old and discuss their changes emotionally and physically during their lifetime, including pregnancy and postpartum when women are at risk of falling behind in their careers.
Only within the last decade have women started to fight for the right to pump breast milk at the office, which seems like an afterthought. That one of my former associates sat in a job interview with three older men who discussed the size of their balls—laying down the foundation for further intimidating encounters at the office—is indefensible. These are only a handful of examples of what women have to watch out for as they make their final climb to the White House and beyond.
We must be committed to restructuring outdated infrastructures rather than asking women to fit in molds that were not intended to help them thrive. We should also address the imbalance of why there are forty-four male presidents of the United States of America and forty-three wives who never ran for the presidency (James Buchanan never married) as if none of these women might have wanted to. We must ask who is raising the children if both parents aspire to be professionals and help both women and men move between their worlds of work and child rearing more seamlessly so the burden stops falling mainly on women to pick up the slack.
Even bigger questions loom.
My husband is not wired like I am to be a caregiver. I watched my mother care for her family her whole life. Most men just aren’t expected to take on the responsibility. My husband is concerned about being able to provide for his family, and since that is how society views the responsibility of a man, it is willing to pay him more in order to help him provide. Women are on their own. Most men don’t think about who is going to raise the children. Nor do most women. Because for hundreds of years the answer was women: a wife, a grandmother, a female neighbor, another mother, or a young female college-aged nanny. Should women be perpetually saddled with this responsibility? In addition, the extended family is disappearing as many grandparents are working later into their twilight years or are simply deciding to enjoy their retirement rather than spending it watching over grandchildren.
These changes also threaten the reliability of free or affordable childcare that was more or less available in years past. Where are the legislative and community initiatives guaranteeing parents support beyond maternity leave so their careers don’t falter? When are the studies on the hours that women worldwide spend watching children for free or for low wages for a string of years to see what happens to their lives economically? How many hours watching children is healthy? Staggering numbers of women watch children for 12-14 hours everyday day, seven days a week for years. My husband is a contractor. He took two weeks off after each child was born and then went back to work. I’ve been responsible for my children for 10 to 12 hours a day ever since without knowing if I will be greeted with open arms when I go back to work full-time or be passed up because I took a temporary leave of absence. When does this issue become front and center?
Raising children full time is rewarding but it is also taxing emotionally and physically. How do you do this everyday? It’s so boring, my friend, Patricia’s*, husband asked her once after he watched the three kids—all under the age of six. She is a former high school teacher who left her career when it all became too much to negotiate, after her second son was born with a significant disability. Now she worries that she will never get back into the workforce again. Unlike veterans who go to war, leaving for a stint, women’s careers are not protected while they watch over the nation’s greatest resource. Women for years have simply been making do with a circumstance. We make concessions for veterans because we know that they need to be able to return to their jobs, their homes and their schooling, and still there is no such awareness yet for mothers, which places an unnecessary burden on women and also shifts the balance to men to be the main breadwinners.
In the book Audacity of Hope, President Obama made quick note of Michelle Obama’s dissatisfaction with the lack of equality for mothers. One sentence—only a murmur from one of our greatest presidents in our nation’s history, which is disappointing, but still a far cry better than watching a Laura Bush interview as she sat in a nineteen fifties style aqua kitchen in Texas, a subtle nod to the way things used to be when women were expected to be nowhere else. It still bothers me that America has not laid out a plan and unanimously come together on the subjects of childcare, mentorship for women, their sponsorship, and of the importance of having both male and female role models for children. That silence opens the door for media to talk more about our first ladies’ hairstyles, couture clothes, and philanthropic efforts when it is time to push the national dialogue in an effort to change how we view women coming in and out of the work force and to arrest their penalization for doing so and to inspire a nation to ask men to contribute more in way of supporting their wives while they reach for their dreams.
Former President Bill Clinton gave his wife, Hillary, a standing ovation as she addressed the nation after her run for the presidency. At night while I work, my husband feeds and bathes the children then puts them to bed. Many of my friends who are mothers do not expect such things from their partners. Still, I feel a renewed sense of energy—like an endorphin high— because I know he is doing it for my children so I can keep my work alive.
* some names were changed in this article to protect privacy.