July's Atlantic magazine cover story features a highly successful working mother's confession that women can't have it all. Torn by the demands of a high-ranking State Department post in Washington and the needs of her family in Princeton, after two years Anne-Marie Slaughter found herself eager to return home to her husband and sons.
"I realized that I didn't just need to go home," she writes. "Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home."
Based on blogosphere chatter, Slaughter's piece seems to strike some feminists as a tad too tell-all about women's anxieties in juggling career and family.
The article follows this spring's eruption of another round of the so-called Mommy Wars when political strategist Hilary Rosen belittled Ann Romney's choice to stay home with her five boys.
Despite the controversy, both episodes have ended up generally affirming the dignity of the homemaker and esteeming motherhood. But they have done so on relativist grounds, simply asserting that we should value all women's choices whether they work in or outside the home, simply because . . . well, because that's their choice.
The Need for a Navigational System
Without deeper criteria for evaluating these decisions, such a conclusion comes across as just a temporary truce between feminist and traditionalist camps---regrettable because it defines the problem primarily as a social power struggle. Worse, it leaves the individual mother without a framework for dealing with her own timesheet anxiety. (Am I spending too much time at work? Am I dulling my professional skills by staying home?)
It's not just moms struggling with their sense of identity, purpose, and direction in the midst of this tug-of-war, however. The confusion of a long cultural controversy clouds the outlook even of young single women as they try to discern a path through educational, vocational, and relational decisions.
To sort out our own situations in the midst of this muddle, we need a navigational system that transcends the conventional terms of debate and brings an eternal perspective to our life choices here and now.
Today's young Christian woman gets lots of competing cues about what she should do with her life. Some signals say she should develop her marketable talents, seize professional opportunities, and strive for career satisfaction. Other messages suggest her highest priority is to marry and have children. Confronted by these rival perspectives, a young woman may feel not only personally conflicted but also pushed like a pawn in an old cultural chess game about whether women's worth should be measured by Betty Crocker or Betty Friedan.
The Feminine Mystique
A half century ago, Betty Friedan set out to smash the Crocker cake-baking image of housewifery. She wrote The Feminine Mystique after surveying her fellow alumnae of the Smith College class of 1942 on the occasion of their 15-year reunion. Many of her classmates were homemakers and, to Friedan, seemed unsettled, discontent, empty. She found "a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform."
Friedan called that conformity-demanding image the "feminine mystique." As she explained, it "makes certain concrete, finite, domestic aspects of feminine existence . . . into a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity." She wanted women to ask deeper questions about the purpose of life and their identity in it, and not just to go through the motions.
But Friedan went further, condemning the role of homemaker: "I am convinced there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous," she wrote, describing the housewife as consigned to "a comfortable concentration camp."
The iconoclastic effort of feminists like Friedan, ironically, ended up establishing another "religion, a pattern by which all women must now live"---to use her own words. This new "feminist mystique" idealizes a woman's autonomy and individual fulfillment, typically along careerist lines.
Liberation, power, and choice have been the feminist creed. But liberation to what end? Power for what purpose? Choice for what outcome? These are not ends in themselves, and for that very reason the feminist manifesto continues to leave women unsatisfied---even, apparently, women like Anne-Marie Slaughter who make it to the top only to ask the same questions. Friedan pointed out some serious problems about unreflectively following the cultural flow but failed to give women adequate criteria to evaluate their purpose and direction in life. Without a fixed reference point outside ourselves, it's tough to be confident about our route through shifting cultural preferences as well as the season changes of our own lives.
Guided by Christ
Despite this fog, our North Star hasn't moved. Our first call remains fixed--to glorify and enjoy God---and it can help us navigate this cultural haze. If we talk in superlative terms, this is a woman's highest goal. We are to pursue God rather than to aspire after an image of female strength and independence on the one hand or an icon of domesticity carved with embellishments beyond what Scripture promises or prescribes on the other. Keeping our eyes on Christ can help us see through culturally fabricated mystiques---whether feminine or feminist.
We pursue that highest calling through our everyday callings---the relationships, responsibilities, gifts, and opportunities with which God has endowed us. Our charge is to steward these endowments to God's glory through the course of life. That means taking inventory in each of these categories to balance the possibilities, demands, and timelines of the many competing options on offer to women today. We should equip young women at least as early as adolescence to begin honing such discernment and sober judgment.
For many these callings will include marriage and motherhood, relationships with extraordinary responsibility and opportunity to nurture family members to glorify and enjoy God through their callings. Motherhood necessarily changes the equation for a season when it comes to balancing other callings. Given the significance through redemptive history of God's covenant work through families, more education on how to think theologically about marriage and family choices is in order.
As for individual women, habitually recalibrating the balance of callings in our lives with a view to our first call is a good buffer against the sway of cultural pressures and ever-shifting anxieties about work-life balance.
It's also the only way women can be sure of having all that matters.
Jennifer A. Marshall is a vice president of The Heritage Foundation, where she directs domestic policy studies for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity. She is the the author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the 21st Century. You can follow her on Twitter @MarshallJenA