This past year, at the beginning of fall, winter, and spring, I received an email from my daughter’s fourth grade basketball coach, telling us that her team “should be your number 1 priority.” Every time it arrives, I read the email aloud to her and her siblings to be sure that everyone understands this is not actually the case. Family, school, religious holidays, friends, and a bunch of other things probably rank higher on the list. I read the email to the kids not just so they will laugh—which they do—but also so they understand that for the rest of their lives other people will try to tell them what’s important, but other people (besides their parents when they are young) don’t get to make those decisions for them.
I thought about these emails during the recent confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson, which offered the latest round of debate about work-family balance. “Girls, I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood,” Jackson said in her opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
And I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right. But I hope that you have seen that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done. I am so looking forward to seeing what each of you chooses to do with your amazing lives in this incredible country. I love you so much.
But it seems that the conversation has shifted a little from when I first started writing about this 20 years ago.
First, it no longer seems acceptable for even high-powered women to have professionals take care of it all. In a recent interview, former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns—who became the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009—said “I would not be able to be CEO of the company unless I outsourced the caring for my kids.” She told CNBC, “I was not a believer that you had to go to all your kids’ games. I just don’t understand what that’s all about.”
But Burns also explains that her husband retired early to be a stay-at-home dad and her sister was also around to help out with the kids. I’m not sure that putting your husband in charge of childcare counts as “outsourcing.” Not every dad will want to be a stay-at-home dad, but as with the case of Justice Amy Coney Barrett and her husband, fathers have to make sacrifices, too.
There is also a sense now—and maybe this has been reinforced by the pandemic work-from-home arrangements—that even high-powered jobs need to come with some amount of flexibility. Travel for work has slowed down; not every meeting needs to be in person. Not being available 24-7 seems less unprofessional than it used to. Kids racing through our zoom backgrounds is still mortifying, though maybe a little less so.
But for a long time, women have been making strategic choices about how to get to the top via alternative routes, as Judge Jackson’s career trajectory shows.
Jackson, others have observed, did not take a traditional path to the highest court—holding jobs that did not require her to be away from her children as much as, say, being a partner at a white shoe law firm. In response to a question from Sen. Corey Booker about juggling career and motherhood, Jackson mentioned having to miss events in her daughters’ lives because of work and noted:
I would hope for them, seeing me … move to the Supreme Court that they will know you don’t have to be perfect in your career trajectory, that you can still end up doing what you want to do. You don’t have to be a perfect mom, but if you do your best and you love your children, that things will turn out OK.
And judging by the proud look on her daughter’s face in the photograph making its way around the internet, her children “have seen it can be done.”
However, our work as parents is not actually “done” when our kids age. As our kids get older, it might seem that they require us less because they don’t need to be fed and burped and changed and generally supervised around the clock. But they still need us a lot.
When Madeleine Albright passed away recently, her own comments on the subject were posted. She told a story about her time as U.N. ambassador when she was scheduled to attend the Fourth Annual Women’s Conference in Beijing, a gathering of world leaders to address gender-linked issues. “I had to leave my youngest daughter’s wedding reception to get on a plane to go to the Women’s Conference,” she remembered. “Work-life balance is sort of a joke.”
I don’t think that’s true. But it is useful to remember that there will be so many things in our life that throw off this balance, even when our kids are old enough to be married. A friend of mine is now trying to rearrange her work schedule to help her daughter with a newborn.
Though it may not seem this way, work is one of the things we have the most control over. No, we cannot quit or take time off whenever it is convenient. But folks in the middle and upper classes (and that’s who this entire conversation is really about) can make choices about what kind of work we want and how much time we are willing to spend on it. Kids, though, are always going to have ups and downs. There will be a routine and then there will be a crisis. Sometimes, it will be a short crisis—an injury and a few inconvenient visits to the doctor. Sometimes, it will be college applications, or even a time-consuming basketball tournament. The balance will never be perfect, but we hope the people we care about the most will know they are our number 1 priority.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.