The Second (and Third) Shift

Serena Williams cover photo from Vogue - in a flowing light blue dress on a beach with her daughter holding - and peeking out from behind - her train

This week, I’ve (finally) been reading Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, while at the same time, Serena Williams’s deeply moving and personal article about her impending – and not fully wanted – retirement from tennis came out in Vogue, and Bloomberg published a piece on how “work from home” has turned out to be a trap for a lot of working women, moms in particular.

In between Ms. Obama’s heart-warming stories of her childhood growing up surrounded by a large and close-knit family in Chicago, her recounting of her own academic and career accomplishments and success, and her sweet tale of falling in love with “Barry,” we also get a glimpse of how difficult his ambitions made her life, particularly once their two daughters came along.

Or, as Ms. Williams put it in Vogue:

Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.

(Not for nothing, Tom Brady WISHES he could be as awesome as Serena Williams. But I digress.)

Meanwhile, the other night at boxing, there were only three of us in class – all women, good friends – and shit got a little too real for our male coach when we were bemoaning the idea that we’ve had to “train” our male partners to not live like feral hogs and, as I pointed out and my friends affirmed, most of us would be unwilling to do that again, which is part of the reason women often don’t remarry after divorce or widowhood.

Relatedly, Spouse and I had one of our very rare fights about a month ago on this very issue.

(Briefly, one of the benefits of running my own business for many years has been schedule flexibility, which I’ve been able to use for things that benefit me and things that benefit us. And in the first six month of the pandemic, I pretty much had NO clients while, due to the nature of Spouse’s work, he was INSANELY busy, so I took on more. Thing is, my project drought ended more than a year ago, and the “us” work never re-balanced. About a month ago, I finally lost it and mentioned – rather energetically – that I was sick of being treated like the maid. Things have since improved.)

To credit the Bloomberg article, the author, Anne Helen Peterson, recognizes that this is far more than a personal issue:

There’s one significant catch in this WFH utopia. That additional flexibility opens up a space, and that space is quickly filled with responsibilities that were once more equally distributed: between partners in a relationship, but also between citizens and the society of which they are a part. (emphasis added)

Because while this is definitely about who always ends up running & emptying the dishwasher (and feeding the cats & the fish and taking out the trash & recycling and paying the bills and scooping the litter boxes & cleaning the tanks and doing the laundry and doing the meal planning & writing up the grocery list and running the social calendar & scheduling all the appointments AND AND AND) AND taking a stand on putting the kids to bed at a regular time and it being on Dad to make sure he gets home in time to see them AND who actually has to do the work of, you know, BIRTHING the kids, it’s about WAY MORE than that, too.

Again quoting Ms. Peterson:

But at this point, the infrastructure of care has been crumbling for decades, and, in many places, has been completely wiped out by the pandemic. Most corners of society are still stubbornly organized as if every family includes a person who attends to the needs of the family full time. (emphasis added)

I don’t have the answer. Neither do Ms. Peterson, Ms. Williams, or Ms. Obama, sadly. I do know that, as Ms. Peterson points out, we must, as a society, “fundamentally reorient the way we’re able to organize, share, and distribute care and domestic labor.” And the first step is probably recognizing that it’s happening in the first place (which was eye-opening to say the least for my spouse).

Turns out, those “the personal is political” second-wave feminists may have been on to something. It’s a shame we’ve made so little progress in the 50 years since then.

GORGEOUS photo of Serena Williams and her daughter from Vogue, of course!

Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @MrsWhatsit1.


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