Part of what makes the Olympics so enthralling is that it’s the final chapter in so many individual stories. All these athletes have made incredible sacrifices in pursuit of an Olympic dream. They’ve invested countless hours and significant financial resources to train for their sport. A few hours in Rio de Janeiro will determine for many whether all the sacrifice was worth it. Some will feel that all their hard work was justified. But undoubtedly some others will regret having spent so much of their lives pursuing a goal that didn’t live up to their dreams.
This is how life is. Most of us don’t have Olympic-size dreams, but we are all in the business of allocating our scarce time and resources in pursuit of happiness. We all run the risk that we will realize we could have used our time better: we may end up wishing that we’d spent more time at work advancing our careers, or more time smelling the proverbial flowers, since the payout at work wasn’t so great after all.
Modern feminists seem particularly frustrated by this reality; they also appear to believe that the right mix of public policies can alter this basic human condition. Take Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times. Her recent essay, “How to Fix Feminism,” laments that in spite of the feminist movement’s many successes, women still struggle to balance their desire to reach the heights of professional success with their desire to care for family. To address this, she calls for a new version of feminism:
Let’s call it, for lack of a better term, “caregiverism.” It would demand dignity and economic justice for parents dissatisfied with a few weeks of unpaid parental leave, and strive to mitigate the sacrifices made by adult children responsible for aging parents.
Shulevitz struggles with what this revolution would actually entail. She discusses the possibility of creating a societal expectation that parents stagger their careers: First, mom takes five years off from work to focus on family life, and then Dad does the same. She wants the government to credit caregivers for Social Security, even when they aren’t paying taxes. She certainly wants more than just 12 weeks paid family leave, and presumably sees the government providing major funding to make these extended leaves of absences economically feasible and to give parents the “dignity” that she feels today’s system doesn’t afford.
Yet even if policymakers adopted these purported policy solutions (and let’s ignore, for the sake of argument, the economic effects of these proposals, which would be significant and result in women having far less economic opportunity) one suspects that Shulevitz would still be dissatisfied. After all, such a system may make it economically feasible to take more time off, but opting out of work would still be a sacrifice. Other people—particularly those without children—would continue to work more hours and therefore get further ahead. And this seems to be the root of what really frustrates Shulevitz.
The modern world gives us lots of opportunities to compare ourselves with others. This isn’t limited to the work world, where we can read about women and men earning eye-popping sums of money and attending swanky conferences around the globe. Parenting is increasingly its own competitive sport. Parents (but particularly moms) jockey to give their kids the most enriching, fulfilling, nurturing, healthy childhoods, which we assume will give those favored offspring a leg up in adulthood.
People who dedicate themselves fully to one arena, whether that’s work or parenting, are almost always going to achieve more in their chosen specialty than those of us who dabble in both. That seems to gnaw at Shulevitz:
Women like me who scale back in the face of impossible expectations feel themselves morphing into caricatures: attachment freaks, helicopter moms, concerted cultivators, neo-traditionalists. These stereotypes are just plain sexist, but I don’t know many mothers whose careers, paychecks and sense of self-worth haven’t been eroded by all the compromises they’ve had to make. Our worlds have narrowed; our bank accounts have dipped below the minimum balance; and our power within the family and the world has dwindled. We’d be quick to tell you that we wouldn’t have done it any differently. Still.
Maturity requires understanding that we can’t win every competition. Just as the most dedicated athlete seeks to increase her odds of success by training 10 hours a day—which puts those with lesser dedication to the sport at a competitive disadvantage—talented people willing to work 12-hour days deserve extra compensation for their extra contributions to the business. And stay-at-home parents who run the PTA or homeschool their children will probably end up doing more for their kids than the average parent.
Most of us are going to end up somewhere in the middle, and we hope to strike a balance that seems right to us. The good news is that society has become more innovative and created many more options for how we allocate our time. However, that doesn’t change the basic fact of life that our time is finite, and that not everyone can win a gold medal in everything they do. Contra feminists, the answer to this isn’t more expensive government policies; it’s a reality check.