A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.60
The women-and-work circles are all abuzz thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recently released article in The Atlantic: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The article is a compelling personal account from a woman who seemed as if she had indeed found a way to have it all—tenured position at Princeton, high-level policy job at the State Department, fabulously supportive husband who took on more than half of the parenting duties as necessary. But Slaughter recently walked away from the “dream job” and has now delivered a provocative public confession to explain why. Basically, she indicts the very notion that “work-life balance” is achievable—at least without a cultural revolution. She takes aim in particular at the way career success correlates to being willing to give up all else to submit to a workplace grind that puts such a premium on the sheer number of hours clocked and on “face time” instead of actual value added. Slaughter suggests that the law-firm model, with its “cult of the billable hour” epitomizes the problem.
I must admit that I agree with that last bit. At least I do not have to think very hard to come up with a long list of exceedingly talented women who have left the legal profession or at least opted for lower-prestige jobs primarily because they wanted more out of life—including more than 15 minutes a day with their children—and the partnership track at the country’s best law firms really wasn’t going to accommodate those desires. Many female lawyers leave firms (or do not even start down that track) because they do not want to work in a context where putting in time (and other manifestations of making rain) are the ultimate barometers of their worth.
Women who “opt out” of the professional fast-track after graduating with honors from a top-tier law school are not generally women who just don’t want to work hard anymore; the issue is about how hard work—or, actually, “good work”—is measured and what kind of work really counts as work. I could tell all sorts of amusing tales about how some law firms deal with work-life balance issues. (For instance, there was the time—during the very first outing I took after joining a certain, not-to-be-named law firm—when one of the handful of female partners sat down next to me. She’d heard that I had a toddler in my household and confessed that no female associate with a child had ever tried to make partner before. Then she explained how, after she had had her kid after making partner, she routinely scheduled at least one all-nighter per week so that she could try to be home for dinner all of the other nights. Sure! I thought. I could do that, too. I’ve never been big on sleep anyway. . . .)
But enough already with the war stories. I will simply note here that I left a law firm that demanded an ungodly amount of my time; way too much time—especially in light of that little toddler I had just added to the mix at what the firm (rather reasonably) saw as just the wrong time.
What does Shakespeare have to say about this work-life balance issue? You laugh! Well, it might seem hard to turn to the Bard for help with this one. After all, as I noted in my last post, Shakespeare does not give much airtime to mothers qua mothers in any respect. And even with one of the rare mother-daughter duos—in R & J--the person depicted as doing the real mothering of Juliet is not Lady Capulet, but Juliet’s ebullient Nurse.
Nevertheless, I have managed to identify a Shakespearean character whose struggles with work-family balance are played out for us in a very telling way.
When we first hear of the Fairy Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, her partner, King Oberon, is having a hissy fit because of all the attention she is giving to a newly adopted “changeling.” The boy’s biological mother, who had been “a vot’ress of [Titanias’s] order,” died in childbirth. Titania then vowed to rear him up as her own. But “jealous Oberon” wants her to prove her affection for him by giving the boy up to be Oberon’s “henchman.” She refuses. Oberon then decides to take his revenge by having his minion, Puck, acquire a “little western flower … purple with love’s wound [that] maiden’s call love-in-idleness.” Oberon instructs Puck to douse Titania’s eyes with the magical juice from this flower as she sleeps. The magical potion guarantees that “she shall pursue with the soul of love” “the next thing then she waking looks upon”—no matter how “vile.”
Despite Oberon’s machinations, we are given the impression that Titania is quite capable of handling her responsibilities as a leader in the fairy world even as she becomes the primary caregiver for a child. She does have a lot of help—Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb, and such. And of course she had already achieved the pinnacle of career success when she decided to add maternal duties to her plate. Yet she seems more than prepared to handle the balancing act—and still get a decent night’s sleep—but for the fact that her partner not only refuses to help but insists on throwing additional roadblocks in her way.
That is, there is trouble in fairyland—but not because Titania tries to balance childrearing with the obligations associated with her leadership position. Nature is totally out of joint because of the patriarch’s reaction to this development. As Titania explains to Oberon:
… the winds, piping to us in vain
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
[etc, etc. etc.]
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
Oberon’s petty jealousy and recalcitrance are clearly the problem, not Titania’s inability to strike the right work-family balance.
The fairy leaders are only reconciled in the end when Oberon pretends to come to the rescue by undoing the spell that Titania does not even know he has ordered be inflicted on her in the first place. Talk about inefficiencies! But more importantly, Titania’s ordeal shows that Shakespeare had no problem with the idea of a woman occupying a position of power and going toe-to-toe with the guys, while still finding a way to nurture a child. But doing so does take a village of fairy-helpers. It also takes an accommodating partner (who will not encourage you to fall in love with an ass just so that he will look better by comparison). And it takes adding demanding elements (like caring for a kid) after other elements are already fairly well locked down. Finally, it takes a bit of magic.
That, I think, is basically Slaughter’s thesis in a nutshell.
Amazing how Shakespeare seems to have beaten so many to the punch. . . .