Mothers have a genius for on-the-spot problem solving. Sizing up a looming crisis in a nanosecond, we flip through our mental list of optional responses, then implement, discard, and substitute possible solutions until the crisis is resolved and order restored. Every single day mothers meet multiple opportunities for this kind of “rapid response” engagement head on. As the days multiply and the children get older, our maternal management skills get honed and polished. Soon we can anticipate trouble and head it off at the pass with such skill that our “below the radar” scrambling goes all but undetected. If everyone is happy, productively engaged, and more or less quiet, it’s because we are terrific at what we do. Mothers have that ability to see just over the horizon, identify threats, and turn the situation around to best advantage.
When I look to the horizon now, I see serious challenges ahead. Economic security appears to move further away. Jobs are scarce, wages are flat, and health costs climbing. Planning and saving may not deliver the hoped-for retirement if the market takes another dive or continues to reflect the volatility of recent months. Upheaval has taken up residence in many families, with formerly employed parents out of work and at home, and stay at home parents now going to work, surprised to find themselves the only or the primary wage earner. We’ve had to adapt, react, improvise, and generally find a workable solution in unforeseen circumstances. Growing income inequality, deeper poverty, and more barriers on the socio-economic ladder mean less prosperity and fewer opportunitites. It’s been widely reported that it is harder to move up from one class to another in the US than in Canada and many parts of Europe. Social mobility, the essence of the American Dream, may have just moved offshore.
But in addition to the stress and anxiety this big shake-up brings, I wonder if a few cracks in the foundation might make it easier to bring about some positive changes. More men and women than ever will soon be providing family care as they age but remain connected to paid employment. Longer lifespans mean working adults will be caring for their elderly parents, often in addition to holding down a job. These grown children will be delaying retirement due to smaller savings and fewer benefits, and will themselves periodically need time off to care for their own health, or for that of a spouse or partner. Working people in great numbers will have family obligations similar to those of parents of young children. Just as putting food on the table is a task all parents share, adult sons and daughters will be caring for parents, partners, and children. Never before will so many people simultaneously be working and caregiving. For them, workplace policies will have to provide for family obligations, regardless of gender, industry, or income.
Events also seem to be heading towards a crescendo in leadership in both business and politics. In spite of women’s breath-taking educational achievement, very few of us direct financial institutions, sit on corporate boards, run Fortune 500 companies, or hold elected office. The results of male leadership are apparent. The status quo has delivered manipulation of both profits and politics to the interests of a very few high earners, mostly men. The disastrous results of aggressively risk-seeking behavior were buffered by public funds. Now restored to financial solvency, financial institutions direct their pay-offs into private pockets, lengthening and deepening the recession and prolonging high unemployment. Under the dome of the Capitol, the US Congress (83% male) perpetuates its infantile race to the bottom of legislative productivity and professional civility. Approval rates are in the low single digits. (Well, that’s not actually true, but it’s close!) With no lack of major and very serious issues to be addressed, it’s astonishing so much time (and public money) is devoted to checking the opposition rather than governing.
Some may wonder if women would do a better job. I believe so, but the bar has been set so low, clearly they could not do any worse. Putting women into policy-making positions at all levels of society is an approach we have simply never tried. Only the US Supreme Court, and there only very recently, has women’s representation risen to the 30% necessary to have an impact in the decision-making process. Now that we stand in the barren wasteland of legislative paralysis, the argument that men possess inherent leadership abilities, or are somehow better suited to positions of power and authority, can hardly be stated with a straight face. Whatever it takes to get women off the sidelines and into the game, that is what we must do now, and quickly. Vote, run, lead. Insist, argue, persuade, push, demand. We just may pull this nation back from the brink…and put dinner on the table, pick the kids up from soccer, and throw in a load of laundry. It only looks easy because we are so good at what we do.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington