Summer is the season of reruns, and the retro discussion this summer has featured a trans-Atlantic replay of the Can Women Have It All? debate.
First up was Anne-Marie Slaughter taking to the pages of the Atlantic to proclaim not, on the basis of her experience at the State Department. Then came newly installed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, seven months pregnant and announcing that she planned to take just a few weeks of maternity leave “and I’ll work throughout it.”
Now, Louise Mensch, a high-profile conservative member of Parliament, has announced that she is quitting to move to New York, where her husband works, and spend more time with her three young children from an earlier marriage.
“I am completely devastated. It’s been unbelievably difficult to manage family life,” Mensch, 41, told her local newspaper about her decision to quit two years into a five-year term. “I just can’t spend as much time with my children as I want to.”
Mensch’s glamorous pre-Parliament life included a stint in the music industry (her second husband is the manager for Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and writing chick-lit fiction — “Career Girls,” “Venus Envy,” “When She Was Bad ... ” — that Mensch proudly describes as having “no redeeming literary merit at all.”
Her glamorous during-Parliament life made Slaughter look like a slacker. She was a fixture on television, founded a social media site, Menshn, and worked on “a slightly more literary” new novel. She described to the London Telegraph how her “palms still sweat with adrenaline” when her husband enters a room, and she posed in a tight skirt for British GQ for an interview in which she said that she changed her name because she “was longing to brand myself with his name for a very long time.”
Wow. The Mommy Wars sure have more racy bits here. But the reactions are just as predictable, ranging from hand-wringing over the family-unfriendly life of a member of Parliament to blaming Mensch for being a Sarah Palin-style quitter.
Edwina Currie, the conservative former health minister, told the BBC that Mensch “absolutely” had “let the side down.” Currie bemoaned Mensch’s “assumption that you have to do it all yourself, that you have to be able to both make the speech and make the cake.”
Others were more understanding. “What we really don’t need is the reaction, ‘those girlies can’t cope,’ ” said Amber Rudd, a fellow Tory MP. “We mustn’t let it set back the goal of getting more women into Parliament.”
One of the striking aspects of the combined reactions to Mayer’s non-maternity leave and Mensch’s midterm resignation is how narrowly the lanes of acceptable behavior are drawn.
Mayer was widely — I think unfairly — criticized for supposedly letting down the cause of workplace flexibility by declining to take maternity leave. “I regard it with major concern when prominent women give the public impression that maternity leave is something that is not important,” German Family Minister Kristina Schröder told Der Spiegel.
On the other side of this cramped feminist alley, Mensch gets dinged for bailing out and putting her party’s seat at risk. In other words: You must take advantage of maximum workplace flexibility but can’t leave when even flexibility isn’t working for you.
Isn’t the point that each of us gets to decide for herself?
Being a CEO, especially a new CEO, is not consistent with being on leave; it would have been unfair to struggling Yahoo for Mayer to disappear for weeks. And maternity leave is lovely, but it is not a matter of necessity for someone with the determination and resources to ease the juggling.
I have more questions about Mensch’s departure; there was something off-putting about the combination of her florid agonizing and her unnecessarily jam-packed schedule.
During the inquiry into the British phone hacking scandal last year, Mensch showily informed James Murdoch — “We have children the same age, I think” — that she’d have to leave early to collect her children from school. Sometimes the mommy card is better left unplayed.
What I appreciate about both Mayer and Mensch, though, is their willingness to refrain from instructing others. “I like to stay in the rhythm of things,” Mayer explained, making the maternity leave choice firmly about herself. “Every family is different,” said Mensch, “and another mother might feel she can manage things.”
This is less “I Don’t Know How She Does It” and more “I Just Know I Can’t Do It Anymore” — a bit of Mummy Humility that we in the United States could stand to import.