“Until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”
That was acclaimed novelist Lauren Groff’s response to an interview question about work-family balance, which promptly went viral.
Groff was interviewed by the Harvard Gazette (she’s a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard) and was asked a question that noted that she was “a mother of two,” who had produced “three novels and two short-story collections.” The interviewer asked Groff to talk about her process, and how she manages “work and family.”
Her reply sent social media into a praise hands emoji-induced meltdown.
Screengrabs of the exchange lit up Twitter. “Good for @legroff,” tweeted Ann Marie Lipinski, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune. With her response, Groff had become “an exemplar of how to have this conversation as a feminist,” wrote Quartz journalist Jenni Avins. “Perfect answer to a sexist question,” tweeted historian Nick Kapur.
But here’s the thing. While I share Groff’s frustration at being stereotyped by her gender and applaud her erudite, badass answer, I still wish she had answered the question. I even hope that women, particularly ones in the public eye, continue to be quizzed similarly.
Why? Because the answer to “How do you manage your work/life balance?” for a vast number of America’s working mothers who, right now, are living in one of the four countries in the world with no federally mandated paid maternity leave (the others are the developing nations of Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Swaziland) is something along the lines of, and I’m paraphrasing here, “WITH GREAT DIFFICULTY. BALANCE ISN’T EVEN THE RIGHT WORD. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO SOMETHING.”
Groff’s understandable objection to the question is that, when asked solely to women, this query implies intrinsically that a family is the woman’s job. And I hear that complaint entirely. Not to mention the fact that by refusing to answer the question, she’s arguably drawn attention to the issue, sparking conversations that could lead to change. But more broadly, I’d argue, whether we like it or not (and, on the off chance that this somehow isn’t clear yet, I don’t) current circumstances do make this a woman’s question. It’s an indisputable fact that it’s the ladies, not the gents, who have to endure the physical onslaught that is pregnancy, birth and postpartum recovery. And queries about work/family balance couldn’t be more relevant in the USA, a country that continues to offer women the shortest maternity leaves in the developed world, despite studies that show that every additional month of leave is associated with a 13% reduction in infant mortality.
America is a society where one in four mothers returns to work two weeks after giving birth. Once women do go back to work, too many lack the support from their employers and their government to access affordable child care and work schedules that allow them to parent. How do we balance motherhood and work in America? Let me suppress my side-eye to reply: We don’t.
For many women like me, who are not yet mothers, but who would one day like to be, that question is one that I desperately want to have a better answer for. Preferably answers with a solution quicker and easier to achieve than “make Congress pass a national paid family leave program” (not to mention any leads on a Brooklyn day care center that costs less than $1,800 a month).
About that Congress thing. Steps have been made to try to institute a national paid leave program, notably by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who, since being elected in 2009, has introduced a universal paid family leave law bill every year for the last five years, though it has yet to find bipartisan support in the Senate. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio has also proposed legislation, though his plan has drawn criticism for its model of allowing parents to draw from their Social Security funds.
In the meantime, statistics from Pew show that 80% of Americans think new mothers should receive paid leave, though when and how it will happen remains to be seen. There are four states that have active publicly funded paid maternity leave programs: California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. But in total, just 14% of civilian workers in the United States have access to paid family leave. Take a moment with that.
And still, against the odds, working mothers continue to keep their jobs and have their babies. According to the US Department of Labor, 70% of mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force, with over 75% of them employed full time. Mothers are the primary earners in 40% of those households.
But the suffering many endure is well documented. Studies show that the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided to some women (not all are eligible) by the Family and Medical Leave Act is too short, putting women at an increased risk of postnatal depression. Research has even found that children were more than 25% and 22% more likely to get their measles and polio vaccines, respectively, when their mother had access to paid maternity leave.
It’s safe to say that American mothers live in crisis. Yet your average working mother is rarely asked how she balances work and family. She just has to figure it out.
And that’s precisely why Groff’s refusal to answer troubled me so much. The sort of women who are publicly asked about what it’s like to be a working mother in the United States are almost always the ones more likely to have more resources to address the myriad challenges every working woman in America faces. But whoever is asking, and to whomever, the query is directed, that question is also always an opportunity to speak out about the injustices confronting all working mothers. It’s a chance to fight apathy over a national dilemma.
Answering the question whenever it’s asked before it’s asked, is an important element to raising the appropriate level of hell about the systemic injustice working mothers face. It’s time to come to terms with the “how do you balance family and work” question and its variants, in the earnest hope that radical honesty could help the effort to bring about radical change.