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Choices Between Work And Home Still A Problem


Finally today, I read this sentence a couple of weeks ago and I've been thinking about it since: "When you can't change what's bothering you, a typical response is to convince yourself it's not really bothering you."

Let me try that again: "When you can't change what's bothering you, a typical response is to convince yourself it's not really bothering you."

That trenchant observation came from a piece I read by Stephanie Coontz in The New York Times Sunday Review a couple weeks ago. It was marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of the famous Betty Friedan book, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz argues that gender equality in the U.S. has essentially stalled.

Now you are certainly free to argue with that premise. We have a record number of women serving in Congress, we've had three female secretaries of state, we've had more than a dozen female CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, blah, blah, blah. But, when you compare the U.S. to other countries with similar levels of economic and political development, as Coontz does, she notes - as many others have - that the U.S. lags far behind. In some cases dead last on indicators of health, well being, and I'll just say it — happiness.

In contrast with not one, not two, but nearly 200 other countries studied by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the U.S. is the only one that offers no paid leave to have a baby and few protections for employment after children come home. And that — speaking of the happiness part — is a key reason why Coontz says that American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than in any of this country's European counterparts.

So that brings me, during these first few days of Women's History Month, to the first lady, Michelle Obama. I continue to be amazed at how little the first lady has to do to earn the wrath of so many.

When she made a surprise appearance at the Oscars to open the best picture envelope, some on the right thundered - hilariously, I might add - about a government takeover of the culture. And on the other hand, a popular local columnist for The Washington Post called her appearance at the Oscars and on Jimmy Fallon's late night NBC show, where she showed off her Mom approved dance moves, "frivolities unbecoming to both Michelle Obama and her position as first lady."

Can I just tell you, Michelle Obama showing off her mom moves is not a problem, especially when it is in the service of her campaign to get families to eat better and exercise more. Not when you consider that more than one-third of adults, children and teens in this country are overweight or obese. And Mrs. Obama's appearance at the Oscars was, in my view, a welcome respite from the festival of stupidity that consumed so much of the rest of this year's program — much of which seems to have been inspired by 13-year-old boys giggling over a girlie mag in the closet. An opening number about seeing women's breasts? Really?

No, the problem isn't how Mrs. Obama chooses to spend her time. It's how little choice most women — and men — have about how to spend theirs.

We can argue all day long about why we don't want to be Europe, which is struggling mightily with its own economic problems, or Rwanda or Scandinavia, which far outstrip the U.S. in the number of women serving in top legislative roles.

But what we can't argue with — or really defend — is how little progress women, and men, in the greatest, richest, freest country in the world have made to really be free to choose their own destiny, apart from biology.

So, the easy way out is to blame the women. Slam this or that high-profile woman about her choices. Complain about this woman who quits the high-profile job (she's letting down the team...she wasn't ambitious enough). Slam that woman who puts the nursery next to the office or hires two nannies, but cancels the telecommute option (she's climbing the ladder and cutting the rope). Or how about slam that woman whose unreliable child care made her late for work so often, she lost the job, and that cost her apartment, and that landed her on welfare (well she's just a loser).

Nope, why figure it out for everybody when it is easier to place blame on somebody? Or better yet, let's just act like it's all fine. It's not really a problem. It's just how it is. And just ignore the fact that how it is, isn't how it has to be.

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Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.