Elsa Walsh and her daughter, Diana, in the late 1990s. (Courtesy Elsa Walsh)

Elsa Walsh is the author of “Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women.” She is a former Washington Post reporter and New Yorker staff writer. This essay is adapted from a speech she delivered at St. Mary’s College of Maryland on April 5.

In my years as a journalist, I have written and spoken a great deal about women’s lives and struggles, and wrote a book about the conflicts facing successful female professionals. But today, 16 years into life as a working mother and 23 years into a marriage, I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear. The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.

Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life.

I was born in 1957 and raised in a town called Belmont, just south of San Francisco. I am one of six children, five girls and one boy. My father was an engineer and my mother a housewife; indeed, growing up I had not a single friend whose mother worked. During my high school years in the early 1970s, revolution was in the air. Across the bay was Berkeley, the home of free speech. Twenty miles up the road was Haight-Ashbury, the home of free love. And almost everyone I knew was protesting Vietnam and embracing civil rights.

But what really excited me was the women’s movement. It’s hard to grasp now just how intoxicating it was as a young girl to hear Gloria Steinem tell us we could be anything we wanted to be. Or to read, during freshman year at my surprisingly progressive all-girls Catholic school, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” eight years after it was published, saying we could find meaning outside the home.

All this seemed possible because the pill had just become widely available, and for the first time women had control over whether and when they had a child. (I will never forget finding that oddly shaped, Pez-like dispenser in my mother’s bedroom right after the birth of my youngest sister; my mother called her “That’s It” for weeks before giving her a name.)

If the pill didn’t work, there was Roe v. Wade, which became law when I was 15. And I don’t know a single woman my age who did not have her first gynecological exam at a Planned Parenthood clinic — with or without her parents’ permission. It was a glorious time to be a young girl with ambition. Who would want to be a man when you could be a woman?

So, when I enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, I held three truths to be self-evident: I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer.

I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.

A year later, right after graduation, I moved to Washington and got that interesting job — as a reporter at The Washington Post. I embraced my feminism proudly. I always wore pants to work, and I swore off (stupidly, I recognize now) reading any fiction by male authors. I loved reporting. I loved working. I loved making my own money, even if, two years later, I discovered that a newly hired and less experienced male colleague was making more money. (When I quizzed him, his answer was simple: He had asked for more. No one ever takes the first offer, he said.)

Not long after arriving at The Post, I met a man who also was a reporter and editor there. Instead of hindering me, he helped and encouraged me. A year and a half later, we moved in together. Still, I announced — to my parents, my friends and yes, to my boyfriend — that I was never getting married. Marriage was a patriarchal system, and I wanted none of it. We would stay together because we wanted to be together, I said.

Seven years later, I married him. And I was happy. Instead of feeling trapped, I felt liberated and secure and protected — not by patriarchy but by love. He had a young daughter whom I adored, and of course, seven years after our wedding, I had a child. I’d been wrong about that, too.

The feminist battles in those years were over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Susan Faludi’s“Backlash” and Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth.” After leaving The Post and before joining the New Yorker magazine as a staff writer, I entered the fray with my book, “Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women,” an intimate look at three accomplished women in turmoil: a broadcast journalist who landed her dream job just around the time she gave birth to her first child after several miscarriages, a symphony conductor who was married to a governor, and a breast cancer surgeon who had been passed over for a top job in favor of a man. I chose women in their late 30s and early 40s who seemed to have all the advantages of wealth, education and opportunity and who had broken through gender barriers in their professions. I concluded that if even women of privilege were struggling — and they were — then we still hadn’t figured it out and perhaps had not come such a long way after all.

Nearly two decades later, Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of the best-selling “Lean In,” laments that far too few women are in positions of leadership — they make up only 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives — and that the numbers are so small because women hold themselves back. Too many women, she says, curtail their ambitions in anticipation of having a family and are not as aggressive as men in how they approach their careers.

As I read “Lean In,” I nodded in agreement with much of what Sandberg says: Negotiate your salary, take a seat at the table (and when you’re there, speak up), don’t reflexively turn down opportunities, and choose your mate carefully because that is the most important career decision you will make. It is.

But with other passages, I found myself shaking my head. By the time I reached the end, I felt deeply ambivalent, particularly on three points. First, Sandberg does not seem to get just how hard it is to have a demanding job and a meaningful family life if you cannot afford child care and other help. (She criticizes the lack of family-friendly policies in the workplace and recognizes that some women may find more meaning in staying home, but those small sections read like afterthoughts, or as if someone advised her to include them.)

Second, I suspect that she would probably have written a completely different book if her children were older and she were facing their imminent departure, rather than worrying about their bedtime. (With my daughter poised to leave for college, all I want is to have more time with her, not less.)

And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.

Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.

“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.

In my lifetime, very little has changed to improve the lives of working parents and their children. In fact, almost all of it has become worse since I was a young woman of 22, then a new mother of 38. And this is the most depressing measure of the women’s movement. Women like myself thought we had won feminism’s big prize — equal opportunity. But in our excitement and individual victories, we failed to demand the structural and cultural changes needed to make it work. In that, we have failed our daughters.

There is no real safety net for working mothers.

The vast majority of American women do not have a choice about whether they will work. They will, and most will have to work full time to support their families. Full-time work in America today is, for the most part, not compatible with family life, especially if you are a professional and have ambitions. Today, almost 40 percent of men in professional jobs work 50 hours or more a week; the average working woman with a graduate degree works almost as long. That’s five 10-hour days, not counting the commute.

When it is time for my daughter to make her way through this culture of overwork, I hope she follows some of Sandberg’s advice. I will tell her to work hard and take a seat at the table, speak up and, of course, always negotiate her salary. But I will also tell her to set her own course and follow neither my model nor Sandberg’s. I will remind her of the time when she was barely 2 years old and ready for her first real Halloween. I thought I had the perfect outfit for her — hand-embroidered Chinese silk pajamas in turquoise and matching slippers with gorgeous feathers — until her father took her to Kmart,where she bounded over to a red Teletubby getup. I balked when they brought home the cellophane package. “In her own image,” her dad gently told me. I keep a smiling photo of her in that costume on the table next to my bed as a reminder.

I’ll also tell her to make time for herself. Unplug from the grid. Carve out space for solitude. Search for work you love that allows flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them when you’re older, after you’ve reached that point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start planning, because no one else is going to do it for you. And don’t quit completely because, as wonderful as parenthood is, it cannot and will not be your whole life. Learn how to manage conflict, because the greater the level you can tolerate, the more freedom you will retain. Making compromises is a healthy approach to living.

For a woman to say she is searching for a “good enough” life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.

I’d also tell her, if she marries, to work hard on her relationship. It’s not only much easier than getting divorced, it’s more rewarding and more fun. Love. Full stop. That’s what matters.

When my daughter was 4, she came up to my home office one evening around 6:30. I was on a deadline and had been for days. She had two big bags filled with her stuff, her pajamas tucked in her backpack. She declared that she was not leaving the room until I came downstairs and played with her. I was frustrated and told her I was never going to be able to finish unless she left, and then I marched her down to her father.

The next morning I wrote a letter to myself. I recently found the note, dated Feb. 8, 2001: “Today is the day I decided to change my life.” My solutions weren’t perfect, but I tried to rearrange my work life so that I would be available when she came home from school. (I knew I had it better than most women. I had full-time help and could afford the changes, too, a luxury not available to all.) I had been in such a hurry for such a long time that “no” had become my default answer to her. Now it would be “yes.” I wrote less and cut back on traveling for stories. I turned down assignments and job offers. I adopted a slower pace. It was not always easy, but it was the right choice. It did not matter much to the greater world when my next article appeared, but it did matter to my daughter that I was nearby. And it mattered to me.

A couple of years later, my daughter came home from school one day and announced that she’d had the best day of her life. When I asked what had happened, she said it was just an ordinary day. I pressed — certainly something different must have occurred? She shook her head. Intrigued, I called her first-grade teachers and asked if anything special had happened in class. No, they repeated, it was just an ordinary day.

It took a minute or two to sink in. All this effort to create the big moments that working mothers everywhere strive to produce, all the bells and whistles I was madly trying to clang, and my daughter said the best day of her life had been an ordinary day. A good enough life.

Motherhood is not a job. It is a joy.


Read more from The Post:

Katharine Weymouth: “How do you ‘lean in’ if you don’t have someone to lean on?

Connie Schultz reviews Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’

Jessica Valenti: Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the perfect feminist. So what?

Ruth Marcus: Sheryl Sandberg’s valuable advice

Monica Hesse: Sheryl Sandberg wants all women to ‘Lean In’; she knows it’s an unfair burden

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