“I must have been mad. I could have been an air hostess. I could have been a model. I could have moved to Paris. Or been a concert pianist. I could have seen the world.” So goes the introduction to the first episode of “Call the Midwife,” a 2012 BBC series based on memoirs by real-life nurse Jenny Lee Worth during the postwar, pre-pill ’50s.
Surrounded by bombed-out buildings and squalor, she and the nuns from Nonnatus House assist 200 women a month to give birth to baby after baby in London’s East End — often with no running water, electricity or alleviation of pain. With the pill, however, their number will trickle to fewer than 60 per year.
The most important social change, courtesy of birth control, was the opportunity for women to work outside the home. They got their first honeyed taste of money and freedom during World War II, when they replaced soldiers serving their country.
While they were forced to relinquish their positions once the survivors returned, by the late 1950s, two out of every five married women with school-age children would secure employment.
During the late ’70s, when I became a working mother, we were told that we could have it all. In fact, lyrics from a 1977 television commercial for Enjoli perfume seduced my generation with “I can bring home the bacon/Fry it up in a pan/And never, ever let you forget you’re a man.”
It was a big fat lie.
Now Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and former Google executive, recently published what Oprah Winfrey calls “the new manifesto for women in the workplace.”
In her best-selling “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg bemoans the scarcity of females heading up major corporations and admonishes the gentler sex to be much more forceful with respect to career goals.
“It is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled,” she scolds. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes.”
Sandberg also suggests that employed mothers commit — completely — to competing for a top spot, acquire a supportive partner to assist with child care, and constantly lobby for titles, raises and promotions.
Yet, is Sandberg — whose net worth runs nine figures and who is ranked by Forbes as the 10th most powerful woman in the world — really the right person to dole out career advice? Especially to mothers struggling to fulfill the daily demands of employers and family members?
According to USA Today’s Joanne Bamberger, not only is Sandberg’s book “the latest salvo in the war on moms” but Sandberg’s reproaches (like claiming that equality in the workplace just requires women to pull themselves up by their Louboutin straps) are as unsupportive of women as Marissa Mayer’s recent ban on telecommuting at Yahoo! has been.
“The message coming from these C-suite moms (Sandberg and Mayer) is less about empowerment,” Bamberger observed, “than it is about guilt.”
For today’s working mothers, especially the more than 10 million single mothers with children under age 18, reality is more about trying to “hang on” than “lean in.” In fact, they are far more concerned with making their careers accommodate their personal lives, than vice versa.
Further, since unlike Sandberg and Mayer, they don’t have access to nannies, in-office nurseries, personal assistants or limo drivers, they’ve had to become extremely resourceful in balancing job demands with what’s important to them as parents.
Perhaps it was seeing mom and dad consumed by their careers or suffering an after-school schedule that cobbled together a series of dubious child care providers or premature latchkey setups, but today’s young parents want something radically different for their kids.
According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, among all mothers with children under 18, only 25 percent would actually choose to work full-time.
Furthermore, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more mothers are deciding to remain at home or only work part-time — at least until their children enter elementary school. This trend, in my opinion, should bring hope to us all.
This generation of working mothers is significantly different from the way we were. One in three are employed by companies that encourage telecommuting, their husbands participate much more with child care and household chores and, as a whole, they make “me time” a healthy priority in their lives.
In an ideal world, employers would count motherhood years as bona fide work experience. Doesn’t every mom serve an unpaid internship in which every managerial skill (motivation, delegation, coaching, communication, performance management and leadership) is forged in the crucible of real life?
Jenny Lee Worth, who considered the East End mothers her true heroines, would quite agree.