Honesty in a CEO. And housewife.

A couple of weeks ago Matt Lauer of the Today Show asked GM CEO Mary Barra if she could be a good mother and a good CEO at the same time. He says he’d have asked the same parenting question of a male CEO, if like Ms. Barra, the CEO had brought up the issue in a previous interview. 

It’s not a bad to thing, to ask a person if they can be a good parent and be a good CEO at the same time. It’s perhaps even, a very good thing. 

PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi answered honestly:

I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all… every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother… We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom.

It’s not a bad thing to be content and earnest if you’re instead a good parent and good wife, without the CEO-ness. Kate Tuttle is happy with what she has (and she sounds a lot like me):

Although I make money with my writing, it’s a tiny fraction of what my husband makes. We mostly live on his income. As for the housewife’s workload, that’s mostly mine…  The crazy part is, I (mostly) love it.

It’s utterly refreshing to hear two perspectives from two women who are to be admired, not for how they spend their days, but for their self-awareness. They acknowledge what’s hard. They acknowledge what they want and their associated costs. They work to cover them: Willing to pay, because there’s a benefit out there that’s worth the price.

***

My daughter doesn’t like that I work. It makes me too “busy.” She was telling me this, woefully, but then she paused and said,

“But you were busy before you worked. What were you doing?” 

“Well, I helped out at your school a great deal. I took care of the house and of you and your brother, and Daddy, then. I still do.” 

“Oh yeah….” 

My son recently said, after watching his older cousins head off to their summer jobs as life guards (which struck my daughter as “sad,” because they didn’t have as much time to play),

“I wish I weren’t a boy.”

“Why?” I asked, preparing myself for a completely unexpected but happy-to-have conversation about his gender identification.

“When you grow up you have to go to work.”

My daughter interjected.

“What? Girls grow up and go to work! Mommy took me to work when I was a baby, remember? And then she was home with us and she worked, and now she works and she does work in the house, too.”

I’m a corporate wife. A housewife. A mother. A writer. A woman. And with that conversation, I know a key piece of this woman’s work is done. 

Don’t lean in. Move forward.

When I was in grad school, I wrote a thesis on whether it was good state policy to deny additional funds to a mother receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children when she had another child. (I believed the policy was, in a word, flawed.)

See, there was this idea out there, in the early 1990s, that single mothers who were not earning money–or at least, not enough money to knock them off a state’s welfare roll, would have another child simply because they could not pass up an extra $64 a month.

Moms. They’re always thinking about their kids and money. (Tiny, negligible amounts of money.)

Right.

And now? There’s a tide of regret among women who did not earn any money while raising their young children… and end up single. Or unemployed. Or both. (See this:  Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom | By Ashley Nelson for The Nation. She didn’t “lean in.” She “leaned out.”)

In case you missed it, when a woman makes a decision to earn nothing and remain home with their children, she puts herself at a distinct and pervasive economic disadvantage upon her attempt to return to the paid workforce.

Moms. They’re always forgetting to think about the effect of their kids on their money. (Huge, life-altering amounts of money.)

Right.

Look, no matter what choice a woman makes, when it comes to her kids, or the very fact that she’s capable of bearing them–she’s going to deal with an economic consequence.

But, as Jessica Grose points out, this consequence (discrimination) is not a moms’ or women’s issue. This is a labor market issue.

Labor markets are slow to adapt–even with progressive public policy that Ashley Nelson recommends and Jessica Grose and I support. Labor markets will not evolve any faster with our collective regret over the expression of our individual preferences.

Our preferences matter. We should express them, and act on them, and yes, avoid rookie mistakes by keeping our eyes wide open–focused on our professional and personal lives, as they are now and as we want them to be.

Regret requires you to look backward. My neck is too sore.

I’m looking ahead, and around. I have no other choice.

On heroes and narratives

Thank you for this, Mr. Peter Mountford:

Life as a stay-at-home dad: Everyone I meet calls me a hero for taking care of my kids. – Slate Magazine.

Yes, taking care of kids is difficult and it is underappreciated work, especially if you’re also nurturing a career. But it’s not heroic. Because, if it’s heroic to forgo working so that you can take care of kids, then what if you have to work to provide for those kids? Is my wife un-heroic—maybe even a coward—for passing the kids to me so that she can return to work full time? What about me? Was I lacking in heroism before, when I was working long hours and she was with the kids?…

[N]o matter what I do, I can’t seem to get this thing wrong. Meanwhile, Jen is always wrong. At home with the kids, she’s an anachronistic housewife; at work, she’s ditching her kids to nurture selfish professional ambitions. Somewhere, lurking at the root of this all, is the tenacious idea that men should have a career, whereas women must choose between a career and being at home.

Perfect. Exactly. Nailed it.

Work is work is work is work. Whether you’re male or female, working outside the home or working inside the home, whether you’re parenting, whether you’re homemaking, you are contributing. The market sets different prices on all those types of work (and their subsets), but we, as individuals, should not implicitly over-value any type.

But I wonder whether Mr. Mountford is being a little too hard on those who call him a hero, who are so admiring and appreciative of what he’s doing.

This person is cultivating a narrative about my child and me, and she wants me to participate.

If that person — the one who called him a hero as she lurked by the dried pasta — is cultivating a narrative and wants you to participate, wouldn’t that mean you can alter it?

Someone recently described a man my age who is now essentially in charge of his children, as his wife’s work hours were more demanding than his (he can work from home and has a great deal of general flexibility). She seemed to convey the information wistfully. (I suspect she’d prefer him to simply be able to work while his wife remains home with the children.) She has a narrative in her mind, based on her experiences.

I added to it, saying “That’s great — he’s so lucky to have a job that allows him to do that. Everybody’s job should be like that.”

She agreed, of course. Maybe now she’s thinking less wistfully.

I’d like to suggest a rewrite of Mr. Mountford’s scene with the woman lurking by the dried pasta:

“You’re a hero,” she says.

I muster a halfhearted smile and say, “Not really. I’m no more a hero than you are for noticing my run-of-the-mill daily parenting.”

I smiled at her and walked away.

Maybe the woman’s narrative would have shifted. Maybe the next dad she sees at the store would surprise her less, but still make her smile appreciatively. She would continue to notice.

The noticing, the admiration, the, dare I say, ultimately, preference — don’t those things drive markets? Don’t those things ultimately change (improve) the price of, and therefore normalize the value of, all kinds of work?

Maybe hero worship is all part of the process. Maybe?