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Lean In, Lean Out: What’s a Mother to Do?


Lean In, Lean Out: What’s a Mother to Do?

How pop culture contributes to a broader conversation on working mothers

One evening this spring, like so many other working parents, I was working late. As I graded papers and wrote emails — after finishing dinner, dishes, and kids’ homework — I turned on the TV show Revolution. Watching main character Rachel Matheson dodge bullets while running through the underbrush, I thought, “Now, wouldn’t that be nice?” 

I don’t actually harbor any survivalist fantasies (I don’t even sleep on the ground when I go camping), but it got me thinking about how TV heroines such as scientist Matheson (fighting a civil war in a technological wasteland), pediatrician Anne Glass (battling alien invaders on Falling Skies), or former lawyer Michonne (killing zombies on The Walking Dead) don’t have to worry about getting a son to soccer practice when they have a late meeting or finding a sitter for a sick daughter at 7:00 a.m. 

Given recent data that married women report higher levels of stress than either men or their unmarried female counterparts, I think this is part of the shows’ appeal to working moms. TV heroines don’t think about leaning in, leaning back, or opting out.

As a media studies scholar, I see popular culture as part of broader cultural conversations. That’s why I place this TV phenomenon within discourse over the new book, Leaning In, by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Anna Holmes in The New Yorker, and Katha Pollitt in The Nation have critiqued Sandberg’s assertion that educated, upper-class, working women undermine their own career success by avoiding opportunities or advancement due to their current or future work/family balance. All of them, however, acknowledge the complex interplay between personal, interpersonal, and institutional obstacles to “having it all.”

Such issues are not theoretical to most of us. According to a March 2013 Pew Research Report, about 60 percent of two-parent American households with children under 18 have two working spouses, but few can afford Sandberg’s army of household help. New York magazine’s controversial piece on “feminist housewives” added to the uproar, since staying home to raise children full time is not an ideal or practical solution for most working women, nor does it always solve the struggle over whose turn it is to do school pick-up or drive to the soccer game tomorrow. 

Teaching about these issues to bright, talented male and female students in my gender studies classes, I try not to overwhelm them with the dismal facts, such as this year’s prediction by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that the gender pay gap will close by 2057, when they are nearing retirement. 

I believe that personal choices and attitude alone won’t bring success and a happy work/life balance for these students without accompanying shifts in business and government policy. Two management professors from Winston-Salem State University delineated this difficulty for the Forum on Public Policy. In my class discussions I am honest about how complex, difficult, and sometimes heartbreaking our current options are. I ask students to give fair consideration to the choices of their mothers, older sisters, bosses, and other female role models, to contextualize these choices in the current economic and political climate, and to weigh their own personal and economic investment in their education against their future goals.

Then I drive home, fantasizing about when the aliens will arrive so I don’t have to figure out who is cooking dinner.

Traci Abbott is a Lecturer in English and Media Studies at Bentley University and the Coordinator of the Gender Studies Program.

Learn more about Bentley’s PreparedU Project, which examines challenges facing millennial workers, the companies that employ them and the colleges and universities that prepare them.


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