In the well-publicized discussion spurred by Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “leaning in,” and in observing the lived experiences of my peers, I see one major tension. On the one hand, career advancement — at any and all costs — is an overarching pressure placed on all of us in our society. On the other hand, for those who seek it, getting married and starting a family is one of life’s greatest gifts that keeps on giving.
It seems like we have seen, in this public discussion, a body of thought arguing for working harder, both at the office and away from it, in order to have that perfect, seemingly attainable goal of being a high-powered executive while also maintaining a healthy family life (even if not everyone thinks this is possible). Another body of thought argues that the traditional model of one parent doing the bulk of the paid work, while the other stays home, might have more wisdom to it than we thought, regardless of which partner stays at home.
What is striking to me is that, in neither of these views is there a need to confront what might be wrong with the societal structure we have collectively built, and are perpetuating by placing ourselves anywhere on that continuum. There are many things that we can change about ourselves, our surroundings – and the technological revolution that so many of us take for granted has proven this beyond a doubt. However, one of the things that will not be changing in the near future is how our bodies are biologically programmed to be more fertile at certain points in our lives. What does it say about our society, and the discussions we are talking about, that our bodies tell us to start a family in our 20s, but so many of us simply do not feel ready — by society’s standards — to do so until our late 20s or 30s?
This sends a pretty clear message to me that we must, in whatever small ways we each can, try to change the system to adhere more closely to the natural, biological rhythms that are more fundamental to our lives than any given societal context. It’s not as if we have only done truly productive things since the advent of the modern understanding of the work/life balance. For instance, how about taking advantage of living longer than we ever have before by affording young people the resources to slowly build up a career while starting families without too much pressure to ‘succeed’ (read: climb the corporate ladder), while reserving the true career push for the second half of life, when we are more mature and experienced anyways?