Can Any of Us Actually Afford to ‘Lean In?’

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This post is the latest in a series, Conversations Between a Twentysomething Single Woman and a Thirtysomething Married Woman. Chiara Atik is a writer for The Date Report, Glamour, Gawker, and other venues. Her first book, Modern Dating: A Field Guide, will be published in the spring. Melissa Wall is HowAboutWe’s director of content.

Chiara: This article inFURIATED me!!! It was a list of childcare costs — nannies, preschools, and, sort of weirdly, housekeeping (I don’t spend 5 hours a week doing housework, am I supposed to be?) — and concludes that the total amount (about $96,201, according to the article) is prohibitive.

Which, yes.

But rather than concluding that this exorbitant cost is a problem that has to be addressed on a national and business level by both men and women, the article huffily surmises that it’s too expensive for women to lean in.

Like, childcare (and housecleaning?) is super expensive so actually women should just stay home — rather than stay at their jobs, fight for better options, or, god forbid, rope their husbands into doing a load of laundry or two.

I think it’s so silly to point out continuously that women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are remarkably privileged — of course they are. Thank god they are. Thank god there are women COOs and CEOs, who are also mothers, who are in positions of authority, who can fight for things like paid maternity leaves (for men AND women) in their companies, for parking spots closer to the offices for pregnant women, for all kinds of measures that will make working and having a family easier for women who aren’t as well off.

And I think the insistence that only very rich women can afford to really lean in to their careers while still having families is insulting to me, and insulting to my mother, who leaned in hard to her career when I was growing up — though possibly still not as hard as she would have were she doing it now in 2013.

My mom had me when she was 28, and over the next 26 years worked her way up the academic ladder, from grad school to dean. And there were corners cut and sacrifices made for au pairs and babysitters and pre-school, and the house got messy sometimes, but she did it and we all survived and I am so proud of her and grateful for her example. And obviously an academic doesn’t make nearly as much as the COO of Facebook, but to put forth ANY message that says that it costs $96,201 dollars to be a working mom is irresponsible, in my opinion.

Melissa: I agree, the actual cost breakdown was excessive, but to me the importance of the piece was the larger point: If we want to lean in, it is going to be costly, and we are wise to start thinking early about what those costs will be, from a practical standpoint. Women as a whole lag far behind men in financial planning, saving, and investing. I think it’s a great idea to encourage women to start a savings account for their “Leaning In” BEFORE they have children.

Also, start having open discussions about who is going to take on the majority of tasks. What does your network look like? Who lives nearby, and would be willing to take on some of the responsibilities? Talk to your mother-in-law, talk to your husband, talk to your siblings. Assess your financial goals and be realistic about what you’ll be able to afford — does it make sense to buy a bigger house? Or use that money to pay for a regular housecleaner?

I didn’t get the sense that she was saying “nannies are expensive, so just stay home.” Rather, I took it as a call to action — get your finances in order before the actual “leaning in” is upon you. Be responsible for planning how your life will look after you have children – don’t leave it to your husband, or your parents, or anyone else. That’s a powerful message.

C: Financial planning is so important, and something that I think my generation as a whole is….not doing as well or as much as they should have. (Oh god. I’m so guilty of this!) And I think the idea of a husband and wife “squirreling away money for a ‘nanny fund'” is an excellent, excellent idea.

But I hate the fact that it’s framed as financial planning is something that WOMEN should start, that it’s OUR responsibility to figure it out ahead if time, no matter what. And men don’t have to worry about it or do this because no one ever questions that of course, for HIM it won’t be an issue because he will be working and the preservation of his career will never, ever come into question, whether he has children or not.

I’m a huge fan of Caitlin Moran’s test of whether something is sexist or not. Just ask yourself, “Are men worrying about this? Are men doing this?”

And this is the issue that I take with the “well, start financial planning for childcare now” thing. Why should I, as a 26 year-old woman, be told to start worrying about how I will possibly manage work and children while my male peers aren’t? When no one is treating it like it’s their issue whatsoever?

M: Agreed, there’s an assumption that women will “handle” this because it’s “a woman’s responsibility.” But the reality is that for many women, having children is more of a priority than it is for many men. And it is more of a REAL concern for women from a much earlier age, due to the biological pressures — we have a distinct amount of time in which to have kids, and no one is as acutely sensitive to that timeline as we are.

Maybe I’m overly practical, but in my view, rather than gnashing our teeth about whether it’s fair or just that men are or aren’t expected to be worrying about these things, let’s just get in action and start a financial plan. If you’re married or partnered, of course this means including your partner in the plan. And if he’s the one driving it, great. But don’t expect him to show up on your third date with a bank statement showing the balance of his “Childcare Savings Account.” We’re making men wrong for something they haven’t even done yet. And we’re faulting them for not considering things they were never told or taught to consider.

As for the last point, if I were 26 (insert comment here about just how long ago that was) then I would be saying the same thing you are. But now, I’d say that as a 26-year-old woman, don’t take an article like this as an indictment of your financial or career plans. Just keep living your life, and if you meet someone amazing and decide to marry him, then remember this piece and use it as incentive to open up a conversation about a savings account for when you decide to have babies (assuming that you decide to have babies at all!).