Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leaning in to what?

There's been a lot of talk in Wellesley alum circles about "Leaning in": about women working or not working, and why. Then there are those who "Opt in" or out. And a friend recently shared Elizabeth Gilbert's refreshingly humble and down-to-earth 2011 speech.

What's striking to me in these discussions is the overt sense of disempowerment and resignation. These are powerful, well-qualified women who feel they have little choice than to do what they do (which might be working or raising children or both) (I'm not going to call raising children work because I think it plays into this idea that work is the only identity that's legitimate, and plus when I called it work it made me consider hanging out in the household with my kids drudgery.)

There's a paradox about wading into this territory, and women's experiences of lack of choice are valid; saying that women have a choice when they feel like they don't just makes things worse. But I sincerely believe that this overblown value that is placed on one's work- particularly in the U.S.- identity makes it feel like a lose-lose to many women with children. Like making a home and raising children has to get the label "work" to legitimate it. And this wonky value system also makes it hard for men to work less, makes working less about more than just a drop in pay or benefits. This, in turn plays into speedy pace of life and a consumer culture.

The discussion is seldom a discussion over meaning, or the impact one believes one's work to have. It is primarily a discussion about identity and power/money. It's a discussion laced with guilt. Perhaps if it is framed in other terms- in terms of meaningful contributions, however small- we can all be emancipated from the many jobs that shouldn't exist. And perhaps we can each make that call for ourselves. In these terms, perhaps men don't have to work so much either, and they can be freed to pursue meaningful work.

Then there's the discussion over "well what if death or divorce forces you back to work?" And I generally hate this discussion. It generally excludes the notion that you could, well, get used to spending very little now. It assumes a lot of things: that you have to save a million dollars for college for your kids, that you have to have a certain standard of living. Even if preparing for an unknown future makes people absurdly busy and conflicted. I'm not saying that one shouldn't work because we can live on less. I'm saying that both men and women can be emancipated to work less because we can live on less, and because most meaningful work is most meaningful in small-ish doses, to prevent burn-out.

I think if the conversation is reframed in these two ways: towards meaning, rather than power, and towards a sense of relative abundance, rather than scarcity, the discussion will look very different. The women in this discussion are powerful, rich women. Our struggles are real, sure. But to reframe the discussion can be empowering, not diminishing.

What does this look like? I think it means taking a long hard look at the reasons for school (school and work are inextricably linked), for long hours at work, and the like. And maybe deciding to opt out of some of those things, even if only in a few years, once debts are paid. Living on my PhD scholarship has been one of the best things we've ever done, because I know that there are about a million ways we can make the meager amount we currently live on. For Eug and I, not having to worry too much about a boss's perspective on our lives has been scary and emancipating.

To close, because this has been much more opinionated than I intended, here is Elizabeth Gilbert's speech:


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