Family Meltdown: Why the Nuclear Family Is Not the Model for Women Leaders' Success

The cover story of the July/August 2012 edition of the Atlantic magazine relates the struggles of Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the State Department in the Obama administration, who decided to leave her high-profile job after walking the tight-rope of balancing her work with raising two sons. Her story sparked a debate on the trials of working mothers across the country. 

What was the trap that ensnared Slaughter? Was her ambition thwarted by a combination of rugged individualism and liberal feminism? On her decision to scale back and leave the job, Slaughter writes:

"Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating 'you can have it all' is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk."

I thought of Slaughter and her spouse trying to juggle teenagers, career travel, a marriage, and personal time, and contrasted that with the demands of First Lady Michelle Obama’s position and her reliance on First Grandma Mrs. Robinson, installed in the White House to continue her support of the Obamas and her granddaughters. This kind of reliance has been studied as what researchers call the "grandma-benefit." It reminds me of how many kinds of immigrant American families (similar to my own Chinese-American one) also mesh the needs and talents of every wide-ranging member of the family for mutual support and benefit.

So it was with great sympathy and interest that I read about Slaughter’s time in public service and all this brilliant woman had done to mentor and encourage other women in her field. But what struck me was her poignant exploration of what it meant to substantially pare back her commitments in order to “spend time with one’s family.” Far from the standard sop offered by men who’ve tumbled from power and needed a face-saving excuse, Slaughter really did need to spend time with a son who was saying he couldn’t function and needed her. And she wouldn’t apologize for wanting to be close to him in answering his call.

From reading Slaughter’s piece, I conclude that the nuclear family – the norm here in America among a certain white/middle and upper-middle-class echelon – provides a narrow pedestal that gets kicked out from under women just as they’re reaching their peak childbearing and career years. And it may be the very thing that hobbles high-achieving women just when they should be reaching career escape velocity.

Look at Professor Slaughter’s struggles in light of those of her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What must rankle is how women in America increasingly outpace male peers in education, achievement, and opportunities seized. And yet the presidency, the biggest prize of all, still proves elusive.

On the other hand, in developing countries typically viewed as more “backward” than ours, women have and will continue to rise to the top positions of governmental power. By one count, there are now 27 women who are heads of state, whether they inherited the position as royalty, or were elected as prime ministers, presidents or chancellors. The countries range from the U.K. to Germany, India, Argentina, Bangladesh, Ireland, and several Caribbean island and African nations. Fifteen women leaders appear to be visually identifiable as women of color. (See this slideshow from the Christian Science Monitor: Women Heads of State.)

What characteristics do those countries share that might support women in intense, demanding positions like head of state?

Many nations led by a woman place a high priority on social safety net programs that guarantee families access to lifelong single-payer healthcare and/or generous parental leaves (Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands). This is the classic Scandinavian-style "Cadillac" social services that women from all strata of those societies use – programs that many American women envy.

But in tiny nations with low GDPs and relatively lacking in social infrastructure, what could propel women to the fore? It may be a more fluid extended family structure – a wide base of support as opposed to a narrow column, and one that can augment or help stand in for what strong social programs funded by wealthy western nations do elsewhere. When you roll several deep in siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, those relationships might exert more pull in terms of family demands, but also provide crucial and trustworthy “village” labor of the exact kind meant by the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Counter to every socially constructed expectation (or bias) we Americans have, egalitarian extended families can launch, as opposed to swamp, women’s ambition.

Consider Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, who has four children and eight grandchildren. While currently divorced, she has three siblings and traces her paternal and maternal lineage back to large extended families through her father’s multiple wives. Sirleaf, now in her 60s, would have raised her children among a large network of kin while also building an international career in development and microfinance.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, has seven siblings and is the parent of one son and grandmother of two. She’s also an accomplished attorney and her election to prime minister is the capstone to a decades-long career.

For certain women of ambition in developing countries, support from extended family several kin deep can enable them to combine parenting, politics and public life. As these women are often from the elites in their nations, that support may, of course, also include household staff. But extended family often provides another intangible resource: the example of a relative or parent who served in government, and therefore acts as a role model, mentor or champion. In her youth, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh happened to be studying overseas during the assassination of her father (then head of state), her mother and her three brothers. She and her sister were the only ones who survived. Having been politically active in anti-colonial movements at a very young age due to her father’s standing, Hasina quickly assumed the leadership of her political party and has, in the three decades since, advocated for human, women’s, and children’s rights as prime minister of her nation. American women stuck within the confines of nuclear families may miss out on this powerful third force that lifts women up through networks of kin.

Women in America who seek the pinnacles of power face at least two major obstacles, one of which is political and the other a social construction. Politically, we’re in a time when partisans diminish already meager social programs that support working mothers and families, like the Paycheck Fairness or the Paid Parental Leave.

The second obstacle is the problem fish have with water: since they swim in it, it wouldn’t occur to them that it’s possible to breathe air. The nuclear family, or a special brand of "rugged individualism" for women who are expected to pull themselves up by their apron straps (i.e., do or have it all), is only one variation on family, and even then American feminist historians like Stephanie Coontz tell us it hasn’t always been that way. When the nuclear family – mom, dad, kids – is the unspoken assumption shaping how Americans should and do live, it leaves women struggling with a shallow pool of support networks, whether it’s because reliable childcare is expensive or hard to retain, or because of a tradition of discomfort with employing caretakers in an egalitarian American culture.

I started with grandmas and will end with “grandma-proxies," the subject of much research. A high proportion of the many women who are current world leaders are also grandmothers who rose to prominence. But when they were young they had their own literal or figurative female elders and extended families, and if lucky, a truly family-friendly social contract in place, to help them rise.

So long as American women are confronted with indifferent institutions – brittle and out-of-touch nuclear family ideals, inflexible and demanding workplaces, inadequate government policies – that shrink the amount of time and energy a woman is expected to devote to family in the face of expanded work-related responsibility, it’ll be harder to see more women like Anne-Marie Slaughter and the young women behind her test the upper limits of their abilities.

We can decry it, or together change each institution to reflect our realities.


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