I was at a dinner party recently where a woman accused me of being anti-feminist. I was really taken aback; I’m a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice for over 25 years. I’m a working mother. As someone who believes in the equality of women and men, I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist. When I asked why, she told me that criticizing daycare and advocating for women to stay with their children as long as possible before they turn 3, which I do in my new book, was anti-feminist.
I don’t agree. I strongly believe that women and men should have equal opportunities and choices and receive equal pay for equal work. I’m thrilled that a woman can have a career and support herself; that she can choose not to marry or to have children; and that a man is not considered less masculine if he wants to stay home and care for the kids. I also believe that both women and men, whether they work or not, should put their children first in every way. Yes, I may be child-centric, but that doesn’t make me anti-equality.
The feminists of the 1970s were committed to giving women choices: to choose a more career-oriented life and have the same opportunities, salaries and power in the workplace as men. Their work and the work of those who followed has freed women to be independent, to fight abuse and to feel empowered in a world where they have often felt disenfranchised. Some of these early feminist leaders chose professional ambition over having children. That was their choice, and I respect it.
But having choices means not that we should, but that we can, if we want to. Many mothers must work to support their families. But the lines about what we need and what we want have in some cases become blurred. Instead of valuing and prioritizing relationships with our children, many women race back to work too soon — and those who don’t are sometimes judged for putting their families first.
People can do many things at once, but they cannot do them well all at the same time. Young women who have been pushed their entire lives to achieve at a high level tell me that they’re afraid that if they step off the corporate ladder in order to care for children, they’ll never climb back to the same level. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes true — and it’s a symptom of the sexism that persists in our culture. You may never become a chief executive if you choose to make your family your first priority, and that’s a loss. But sacrificing the chance to create a close relationship with your children is a loss, too.
I would never want to go back to a place where women didn’t have the choice to live the lives they want for themselves. But I dream of a society where women aren’t asked to put their careers before all else at the risk of stunting their own potential, and where mothers can structure their lives to be with their children when they’re needed most.
Erica Komisar is a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice in New York City for the past 25 years. Her book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, was recently published by TarcherPerigee.