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Dimensions of Balance in Women’s Lives

Maureen A. Mahoney, Ph.D.
International Conference of Women, Business and Society
Madrid, Spain, April 3, 2006

I was thrilled, back in January, to be invited to participate in this conference. In February, as I drove back and forth to work and at other random moments, I enjoyed contemplating what I would say about the challenges women face in defining success for themselves. In March, the enjoyment began to be replaced with anxiety about how I would ever carve out a few consecutive hours to commit my thoughts to paper, polish them, and have something worthy of this gathering in time for the meeting.

It did not take me long to realize that this progression from anticipated pleasure in a task near to one’s heart to anxiety about time to accomplish it symbolizes a theme of this conference. How do accomplished, ambitious, professional women, who also have family obligations, find the time to reflect on our lives and reassess periodically what is in balance, what is out of balance, and, even more deeply, what matters to us the most? A cacophony of external voices sets expectations for success; for women, the freedom to choose what suits us has always been deeply constrained by a confluence of social structures rife with contradictions. Even for those of us who resist, and I would say that this audience is filled with resisters, we experience external expectations as guilt. We are always in doubt about whether we can be successful in our personal lives as well as our work lives. Will our relationships and children suffer if we are ambitious in our careers? Will our careers suffer when our family obligations require us to miss meetings and decline travel? We are so exhausted by carrying out our obligations and worrying about their consequences for our families and our careers that we rarely take time to assess whether we are reaching our goals. Indeed, we often lose track of whether we have goals of our own at all.

That we are in this predicament is the result of long and difficult social change in which women’s rights to pursue careers have been forged. I am Dean at Smith College, the largest all-women’s private college in the United States. Since 1875, Smith has been a destination for young women who desire to make a difference in the world. Only the best and the brightest are accepted. Our graduates have been pioneers in the professions since Smith was founded in 1875. But as recently as fifty years ago, we were also in the business of producing accomplished wives and helpmates for the male graduates of Harvard and Yale. It was in the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s that two distinguished Smith alumnae published books that addressed the conundrum of definitions of success for women.

One book, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), fueled a nascent women’s liberation movement in the United States which inspired increasing numbers of middle class American women to follow their own ambitions rather than, or in addition to, supporting their husbands. Friedan argued that women could only be truly fulfilled if they pursued careers. If we adopted the “feminine mystique” of domestic arts and devoted ourselves to the support of husband and children, Friedan argued, we became depressed, dissatisfied, restless and unfulfilled.

Today, more than seventy percent of American women with children work outside the home, driven, of course, not only by their desire to work, but also by economic necessity. Are they happy and fulfilled? Do they count themselves successful? There is no doubt that they are devoting themselves to their children as well as their careers. Recent studies in the U.S. find that working women are spending more time with their children than stay-at-home moms did in 1975. This is only possible because they are sleeping less. And it is taking a toll: the front page of the March 2nd New York Times carries an article with the headline “Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work.” Yet work is not now a choice for most women: it takes a two-income household to maintain a middle class lifestyle in the United States.

In answering Betty Friedan’s call to work, we have found a sense of accomplishment. Our children enjoy as much time with us as they did thirty years ago. But how do we locate our own goals in the midst of these demands? A second, much quieter book by Smith alumna Anne Morrow Lindbergh (indeed, Charles Lindbergh’s wife) was published only a few years before The Feminine Mystique. In Gift from the Sea (1955) Lindbergh does not advocate radical social change: rather, she suggests that the complications of work and family are inevitable and to be accepted as part of the fabric of our lives. Lindbergh did have a radical notion, however: that women need time periodically to sit quietly and reflect on the inner life that holds these tensions in balance.

In Gift from the Sea, a meditation on self and solitude, Lindbergh writes “the problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.” (p.23) Lindbergh suggests the answer is building solitude into our lives so that we have time to think systematically about these matters. She writes, “if women were convinced that a day off or an hour of solitude was a reasonable ambition, they would find a way of attaining it. As it is, they feel so unjustified in their demand that they rarely make the attempt.” But, in an observation that is perhaps more timely now than when she first wrote it, even when we find such moments, we are unskilled at taking advantage of them. “Instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous chatter and companionship to which we do not even listen....When the noise stops, there is no inner music to take its place. We must re-learn to be alone.” (p. 36) I read this book fifty years after it was written, and it resonates so deeply for me that I am nearly brought to tears.

I am a product of the women’s liberation movement that Betty Friedan started. My expectations for my own success have been shaped by it: I never doubted that I would pursue a career as well as a family. But this was an inchoate ambition, completely non-specific about how I would manage to achieve these goals. I earned a PhD in psychology in 1977 and started my first full time job as an assistant professor at the same time. I have been working full time ever since. In the midst of it all, I was married in 1976 to a man who was proud of my accomplishments but also enjoyed the dinners I cooked every night. We had a daughter in 1981. Our jobs were in cities two hours apart. We lived in between, separated from friends in both locations. Our daughter was in day care where we lived, an hour and a half from my work and an hour from his. I used every ounce of my energy commuting every day, giving 100 percent to my job, and worrying about whether I would be home in time to pick my daughter up before the daycare center closed. This pace took a toll on my marriage; my husband and I divorced just as my daughter turned five. After my divorce, I moved to the town where I work. Eventually, I got married again, to a wonderful man who is a much better cook than I am and prepares dinner for me every night.

I only had one child, who is now 24 and flourishing in her own life. But even without the responsibility of a young child at home, and even with a husband who does all the cooking, I remain busier than I have ever been. I love my work but I despair sometimes when I look at my daily calendar and see that I do not have even 15 minutes to gather my thoughts between meetings that are scheduled from 8am to 8pm.

I see that my daughter suffers from the same exhausting busy-ness in her job as a teacher, and she does not yet have children of her own. I see students at Smith College with appointment books that are nearly as packed as mine. The question that Anne Morrow Lindbergh raised in such a different context fifty years ago persists: How to remain whole in the midst of the demands of work and family. The missing piece is not only sleep. It is time to sit quietly and think; to reflect deeply on one’s life, one’s goals and one’s understanding of success in the various dimensions of human experience.

It is to provide opportunities for reflection that Smith College is launching a new program for our students and alumnae. We want to educate women about the importance of developing a habit of self-reflection and we want to give permission to our alumnae to incorporate self-reflection as a legitimate ambition in their lives. Called the “Women’s Narratives of Success Project,” we will offer week-long workshops for undergraduates and shorter workshops for alumnae in which we provide structured opportunities to think through the dimensions of success and balance in life. We use the concept of narrative because we understand these reflections as stories that each woman tells for herself. We also know that the stories change as life circumstances change, so we build in the opportunity for recasting the narrative: one’s story of success when one is 50 may be very different from one’s story at age 20.

Work goals and family goals will be at the heart of the project: what kind of work and how much? One of the most perplexing problems for young women is deciding on a career path that suits them. Exploring with them the intersection between their unique interests, training and talents will be at the heart of the workshops. Definitions of success also entail one’s financial goals and how one’s career will meet them. It is our sense that women, especially young women, do not pay much attention to this issue, and it is only when they are divorced or widowed that the urgency of financial independence becomes acute. We must also ask how much financial success is enough? In the words of Laura Nash, at the Harvard Business School, it is important to discover how much is “just enough” to reach one’s goals and allow pursuits other than money to enter into one’s life as well.

We will raise the theme of family and suggest it is a choice, not a destiny. Does one want a lasting partnership in the form of a marriage or other commitment? How does one think about success in this regard? Does one want children? Will one work outside the home when children are young? How does one make the decision to sacrifice work for relationships or relationships for work? How do friendships figure in a life and how does one sustain them?

The project explicitly expands concepts of success to take account of life goals beyond work and family. How does one incorporate one’s ethical values into one’s life? How does one contemplate one’s social responsibility and the legacy one leaves behind? Again, how much is enough?

Finally how does one replenish oneself in the midst of the competing demands one sets oneself? Do you value leisure? Do you ensure that you laugh and have fun? How do you look after your health and wellness? Do you build into your life a habit of exercise? How do you manage stress? More deeply, how should creativity and the arts figure in your life? What are the dimensions of creativity that infuse a life and sustain it?

Every person who contemplates these choices must confront the question of desire: are the goals I identify my own, or are they motivated by a need to fulfill the expectations of family, teachers, mentors and friends? Each workshop will provide structured opportunities for participants to examine family legacies and narratives of success. What stories have been told in one’s family about “successful” women and how do these stories become embedded in one’s own assumptions and expectations?

In addition to workshops and discussion, we plan to use electronic-portfolios so that each participant can rewrite her life story after she leaves the workshop. Workshops for alumnae will explore the way life experiences shape and change understandings of success. We expect to develop an electronic communication network so that women can share their narratives of success and our students and alumnae can learn from each other.

Ultimately, the goal is for women to experience themselves as agents of their own lives in the midst of intense pressures urging them in one direction or another. We hope to instill a lifelong habit of reflection, a practice that helps us locate and relocate ourselves on the multiple dimensions of success. We embark on this project not so much because we are experts in achieving these goals ourselves, but rather because we have failed at them. My own life has been immensely satisfying as I step back and look at the broad outlines. My own mother did not go to college and she did not work outside the home. I take pride in my education and my work. I am grateful for a supportive husband who knows who I am and takes as much satisfaction from my accomplishments as I do. I am wildly proud of my daughter. But I cannot say that all this happened because I took time to think through my own definitions of success as I moved from one stage of my life to the next. The price I have paid is not told by the meta-story of what I have done. The price is in the persistent experience I still have of facing too many responsibilities and having too little time to reflect on my priorities and ultimate goals.

When I do take the time to reflect, I find that my own goals right now are not far off of those Anne Morrow Lindbergh set for herself when she was in mid-life: “Simplicity of living, as much as possible, to attain a true awareness of life. Balance of intellectual, physical and spiritual life. Work without pressure. Space for significance and beauty. Time for solitude and sharing.” (p. 112)

If the Women’s Narratives of Success Project helps Smith students and alumnae understand the shifting dimensions of success in their lives and reach toward a daily sense of well-being, I believe we will have made an important contribution.