Thursday, February 14, 2019

On Adulthood, (Not) Having it All, and the Marie Kondo Show


In some ways, 2018 was the first year I felt like a "real" adult. Although I graduated college nearly a decade before, and had been financially self-sufficient since, the path I've taken since graduation has also been rather circuitous, full of arguable fits and starts. I went from school to short-term academic fellowship; to law school; to what was technically a full-time biglaw job of open-ended duration (but because of the known end date to start my clerkship, combined with the firm's reluctance to staff soon-to-be clerks on long-term projects, it sometimes felt artificially like a short-term gig); and finally to the clerkship, another short-term job. For nearly a decade, everything had a definite expiration date that I knew about well in advance.

It's not that I wasn't technically an adult, or that I didn't act like one. In all that time, I made many big, grown-up decisions, some of them with huge financial implications. Going in to law school, I felt very certain of myself and what I wanted from life, and I felt quite grown-up as a result. I knew I wanted children someday (hopefully two, as it's wonderful, especially now, to have a sibling close in age, though we fought like cats and dogs as children), that I wouldn't like to raise them while living in the city (because I just couldn't imagine that, being a lifelong child of the suburbs), and that I'd like to continue working after (far and away the most common scenario for my peers and professional role models). I was fairly sure of all these things back then, and remain fairly certain about them now. 

Except that, looking back, I was also rather willfully not thinking about some of the practical realities associated with those things I wanted, as I started reflecting on last year. I still want these things nonetheless, but I hadn't really thought about just how hard it might be to have all of them at once. Heck, I've been known to get driven slightly to tears by the prospect of cooking a poorly-designed, highly inefficient Blue Apron meal after a long day at the office, in a week when my hours were biglaw-ish (and K's even more so, so if anyone was going to cook and avoid wasting food and money, it had to be me), and we don't even have kids yet!

2018 was the first year of my adult life spent entirely in a job or other pursuit with no clear, built-in end date. Because of that, it also felt like the first year I truly had an opportunity to begin thinking concretely about the type of life I wanted in the long term, that I would choose for myself. Do I want to stay in the private sector, or do I want to someday go into public service? Will I want, at some point, to make the tradeoff of taking a significant pay-cut for fewer working hours and greater scheduling flexibility? If and when I have children, will I be able to go to school events that take place during business hours? How much childcare and cleaning help do I expect our household to hire*, exactly, give that we are both likely to continue working full-time?

This isn't meant to be a sad post, by the way. By now, I think most women around my age have long since realized they probably can't have it "all", both a high-powered career and everything else they want at home. Nine times out of ten, "leaning in" probably won't work as well as one might have hoped. And in biglaw, new associates, men and women alike, quickly realize it's a tough industry in ways they didn't fully understand as law students, and that the hours and expectations might not be compatible with a lot of what they want from family life. That's if there's even room at the top for them to stay in the industry in the long, long term. (Let's not even talk about the particular challenges for women and minorities, that's a story for another day.) One has to be prepared for tradeoffs, that's just part of life.

And even after thinking about all these questions for a year, I (predictably enough, for someone who is likely still a few years off from starting to make any of those big decisions for real) don't have any clear answers. I would imagine that working through some of these questions is a lifelong process, one for which the correct answer, and the work-life balance or compromise captured in it, is constantly being revisited. Circumstances will inevitably change from month to month and year to year, and with that, one's position regarding all these concerns (amount of hired help; what salary one is aiming for; what expected working hours one can, or needs, to accept, etc.) will need to change too.

I maybe feel a bit silly writing all these paragraphs of introduction when I truly have no answers, only questions. Actually, the only thing I feel particularly sure about sharing today was my thoughts regarding episode three of the Marie Kondo show, about the Mersiers (a charming family of four struggling to downsize from a multiple-story house in Michigan to a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Los Angeles area). Specifically, the episode illustrated something I found painfully real about some of these questions surrounding housework, emotional labor, and the gendered dimensions of those things.

In that episode, unlike the others in the series that involved stressed-out couples with younger children still at home, I thought the couple had what looked like a mostly ideal relationship dynamic. They were in a situation that was frustrating and stressful for all, and no, the original division of household labor was not fair (with 3/4 of the family sheepishly admitting to feeling too overwhelmed by clutter to even keep track of the items and clothing they needed each day, much less do any household chores, so all the burdens fell on mom, in a context where both parents also seemed to work outside the home), but at least dad and the kids were appreciative and seemed genuinely motivated by a strong desire to do their part and help make things easier for mom.

Although I didn't love that Mr. Mersier openly admitted to being entirely unhelpful in the home, I still found the family refreshing because they never seemed to take out their stress on each other by showing signs of resentment or passive-aggressive sniping, unlike in the other episodes involving couples with young children. Mrs. Mersier was clearly exhausted, having taken on and internalized all the burdens of the housework and keeping track of where everything was (no small feat), but she was always calm with others in the family. During the episode, she talked about how she had realized it was time to ask for help, both from Marie Kondo and the rest of her family, but she didn't seem to assign blame to anyone in her family for not previously offering that help on their own accord.

It probably would have been better if her family had proactively shouldered more of the housework sooner, but I did appreciate that Mr. Mersier and the kids seemed genuinely grateful towards Mrs. Mersier and self-aware about how unfair the situation was. And they were never resentful, angry, or demanding about anything, even if they too were stressed out by the clutter, which wasn't a given in other episodes. In short, I felt as if, had Mrs. Mersier been able to bring herself to ask her family to take on more before the show came along, they would have tried to help without complaint, whereas I wasn't so sure about this with the other couples with young children (which is a judgment on the fathers**, as the children in those other episodes were very young).

The thing I found painfully real about this episode, however, was that it seemed to me like Mrs. Mersier would never, had the family not moved to Los Angeles and found themselves with a sudden and extreme need for decluttering assistance, have been willing to ask her family to take on more at home, no matter how unevenly the burdens fell to her, how much the status quo might not have been fair. Throughout the episode, the only thing she ever seemed truly upset about, to the point of tears, is that she considers all the tasks associated with building a home to be her sole responsibility, one that she thought she was failing at. And it seemed to me that neither the kids nor Mr. Mersier would ever think or say that, they seemed genuinely apologetic about how they constantly needed her help for everything to do with cleaning, organization, or even finding the clothes they needed each day, they really wanted to do their part. I found those moments of that episode, when she was so sad about feeling like she was "failing" at something she believed to be an important duty that belonged solely to her, to be powerful, and painfully real.

Even with a perfectly egalitarian partner like K, one with whom I share a fair division of labor in the home that comes rather naturally, one that's flexible depending on who is currently having a harder time at the office, some of the challenges associated with household labor (or at least, the prospect of what they'll feel like in the future) still feel profound to me, and associated with a heavy emotional weight that is not entirely rational. And we're still a few years removed from the prospect of having children, which will no doubt add levels of complication and challenge to it all, ones I'm not yet capable of imagining! Although we both do our part, when things get particularly difficult in the times when both of us are working particularly long hours, and tasks like cooking a simple meal once in a while or doing small cleaning tasks start feeling close to impossible, it does seem like I'm the only one, between the two of us, who starts to feel an extra layer of guilt and sadness, because I've been socialized and taught by a culture in which such things are a woman's duty. And any failures in that area will reflect poorly on her.

Darn, I promised this wasn't going to be a sad post, and I swear it isn't meant to be, for all that the words sound heavy and serious! I think some of these concerns are fairly universal for a lot of women thinking about juggling their careers and families, and there's no way around how complicated these questions might end up being for each woman and her family.

* In biglaw, one could certainly expect many occasions where one couldn't fully predict that there was going to be a late night of work until as late as that same evening. Granted, at a lot of offices, it's fine to take work home, it's even common for people to do so, have dinner with the kids and help put them to bed, then continue working from their laptops until very late. Some senior attorneys do have expectations about people staying in the office, however, and even when those expectations aren't explicitly stated, some firms may have a "culture" where people are expected to work in the office quite late. In short, it may well be necessary to hire help, for both business hours and after hours. 

** I'm mainly thinking about Mr. Friend in episode one, who resented that the family was paying for help with the laundry "it's not about the money, I just think we should be able to do it ourselves." Except that it was pretty clear his wife did all the housework, took care of two toddlers, and was doing some part-time work as well, while he worked his 50 to 60 hour weeks at the office. So he clearly meant "she" should be able to do it herself, he apparently hated paying for help on principle even if they could afford it, and also wasn't willing to take on the task himself, I guess because he thought it was "her" job, even though she was already doing a whole litany of other jobs at home. And I often work 50 to 60 hour weeks (or longer!) in one of the more intense professions out there, and still do my own laundry (K and I both do our own), so I don't consider that a good excuse. 

To me, it looked as if he, as the spouse working primarily outside the home, wasn't valuing her work as the mostly stay-at-home spouse enough. This casual disdain for the work of a stay-at-home partner is a trait I find extremely distasteful whether it comes from a woman or a man, as I mentioned here, about a discussion at Corporette

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