In the following open letter to Michelle Obama, author Thembisa Mshaka (“Put Your Dreams First: Handle your [Entertainment] Business”) talks about forging a new balance for women in America in the age of Obama.
If I had to assign a visual to accompany Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman”, I’d choose yours. Your blend of confidence, humility, sparkling intelligence, and compassion you exude are indeed phenomenal. Neither a pre-positioned doll nor trophy wife you have real friends of your own; a life of your own design. The success I want for you in your new role is beyond articulation.
It is precisely your authenticity that inspires me to speak up on work-life balance, because you’ve set its achievement among your priorities as First Lady. After seventeen years of working and eight years of motherhood, I humbly suggest a reframing of the work-life balance conversation.
I assert that what women need is work-life function. ‘Balance’ connotes equal distribution. No one woman can be at the meeting that runs long, at the spring recital, and lounging before the fire in lingerie at one time. Inevitably, something gets sacrificed. If nothing else, the phrase is a misnomer. Even the leaders in the field acknowledge this: according to Jim Bird, CEO of worklifebalance.com, “work-life balance is not a problem to be solved. It is an issue to be managed.”
You are most fortunate to have a husband who is a present, loving, and participating father; and equally blessed to have your mother with you to share in the labor of love known as parenting. What about married women of soldiers on duty? What about single moms, women with absentee spouses who opt out of parenting, or women whose parents or extended family are in different locations, differently abled, or deceased? What about the women who can’t afford to hire a nanny or even a babysitter on a consistent basis?
Women need family and career lives to work instead of just hang in the balance. According to some important research, the AFL-CIO says women now outnumber men in the occupational labor category, comprising 56.2% as of 2008. Despite being the majority of managers and executives, women still earn 23% less income than their male counterparts. (It is worth noting here that the National Organization of Women website points out that “for women of color, this [pay] gap is even wider.”) Nearly half of working women cannot support themselves with one job, so they have two or more to supplement income until equal pay for equal work is a reality. This figure has jumped 22% since 1974. According to a 1996 report by the AARP, 44% of women between the ages of 45 and 55 are caring for a parent and a child as members of Generation S, the Sandwich Generation. In short, the demands on women have grown, by far outpacing their earning power. If anything needs balance, it’s the pay scale. With your husband’s signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, we’re on the right path.
When it comes to my career and family, it is not balance, but alignment that I seek. Balance is for yoga and budgets. I’ve figured out that I can have it all, just not all at once. Frankly, I don’t need to have it all at the same time. I just need harmony in the orchestration of my life. And I need for our leaders to make a new commitment to provide the aforementioned equal pay for equal work, to allow deductions for weight loss and fitness expenses, increases credits and deductions related to child care, designated employee sick time for the care of dependents, corporate incentives to provide access to child care on or near the job site, and of course, universal health care, which will bring considerable relief for all Americans.
Yes working women can achieve first-class working citizenship. Yes, Americans can have careers and family lives that work. Balancing the two, as it turns out, is overrated.