Can Women Have It All?

Balancing Family and Work Takes a Toll

ROME, MARCH 23, 2002 ( Two recent symposiums in Rome reaffirmed what millions of women already know: Those who “want it all” — marriage, children and a career — face tough choices and no easy answers.

Women face constant stress due to the conflict between carrying out the role of “queen of the household” and the desire for personal fulfillment in the work world, affirmed psychologist Maria Rita Parsi. Her address formed part of the proceedings of a conference organized by the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum and held March 7 under the banner “Woman Between Family and Work.”

Parsi, president of the Fondazione Movimento Bambino in Italy, observed that many women are afflicted by a sense of guilt if they neglect their role as mothers for the sake of advancing at work. She said society needs to value both those women who opt for maternity and those who choose to dedicate themselves to paid work outside the home.

The psychologist also noted that some women fear the prospect of failure when they compare themselves to unrealistic models based on consumerism and egoism. They also feel pressured to imitate masculine ways of behavior in the workplace, particularly in the style of personal expression and communication, Parsi said.

For Martha Alicia Alles, management consultant and professor at Buenos Aires University in Argentina, it´s important for women to decide what type of professional career, if any, they wish to pursue.

Sometimes, noted Alles, women fail to advance in the workplace, not because they face discrimination, but because they prefer to give priority to family activities. Some even choose to leave their work altogether, to dedicate themselves to a domestic role. And once the children are grown up, some women face big obstacles returning to the workplace because the job market does not easily accept older people.

There´s no single solution to help women balance these roles in society, Alles observed. Yet, while women have a tougher time than men in achieving this balance, the former are in the best position they have ever enjoyed, she said.

Never before have women been better off in terms of educational levels and freedom to choose the way of life they wish, Alles said. Moreover, contemporary work gives priority to intelligence over physical strength, a marked change compared with the past.

In exercising this greater liberty, women need to listen to God, Marjorie Dannenfelser told the conference. The chairman of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee dedicated to electing pro-life women to the U.S. Congress and state executive offices, said: “We have to constantly ask God to help us reassess old decisions in light of our priorities. It is tiresome and sometimes lonely. But, thankfully, we are in the struggle together in a world that has a deep thirst for authentic feminine leadership.”

To combine the various roles in their lives, women need “discipline and organization, perseverance in the face of failure, and above all confidence in God that he will make of our lives something beautiful — an ineffable work of art — if we let him,” said Dannenfelser.

The second meeting on the subject of women and work took place March 15, organized by the Centro Italiano Femminile. Alba Dini Martino, president of the center, told the newspaper Avvenire that data in the field sometimes seem contradictory. In Italy, for instance, women´s participation in the work force is 39.3% — lower than in many other countries, she said. Yet, Italy´s fertility rate is also among the lowest in the world. By contrast, France has a higher percentage of women in the workplace (54.8%) as well as a noticeably higher fertility rate.

Further complicating life for women, Dini Martino says, is the tendency of children to live at home until a much later age. Some mothers end up having to care for their offspring into their mid-30s.

Contrasting opinions

Faced with the conflicting demands of family and work, opinions abound as to what women should do. One radical answer — probably too radical even for many feminists — was expressed by Rachel Roberts in an opinion article Jan. 3 in the Sydney Morning Herald. Her advice: It´s better not to have children at all.

The author is almost 30 and says, “I have never been surer that I don´t want children.” Roberts declares that in spite of many years of feminism, society still expects women to have children. She contends, instead, that having babies simply takes up too much time and energy — which could be better spent on other activities.

Others say it´s better for women to have children first, and only then worry about other matters such as a career. So says Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her soon-to-be published book “Baby Hunger,” the Observer newspaper of London reported March 17.

Hewlett, a former adviser to one-time British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, observes that women who decide to establish themselves professionally before starting a family run the risk of not being able to have children later. Many women do not fully realize how sharply their fertility drops after age 30, she warns.

Joe Thompson, coordinator of a group established to help people who cannot have children, told the Observer: “There has been a definite increase in the number of professional women in their early- to mid-30s contacting our group who have been knocked for six by the realization they´ve left having children too late.”

The Observer cited another forthcoming study on this argument, “Mothers´ Employment and Childcare Use,” by Gillian Paull. “The majority of young women are in for a nasty shock when it comes to trying to have both a child and a career,” said Paull. In fact, the more successful (careerwise) a woman is, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child, she added.

One answer to this problem, writes Anne Summers in the Sydney Morning Herald on Feb. 25, is to introduce affordable child care, preferably attached to the workplace. Speaking at a National Population Summit in Melbourne, Australia, Summers said that business must play a greater part in helping women combine work and child care. For career women whose biological clocks are ticking away, such help wouldn´t come a moment too soon.

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