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100 Days after the Women's March

23 January 2017

When is being a mom an accomplishment?

Image by Erik Kastner on Flickr
When Yvonne Brill died in 2013, her New York Times obituary famously led with her culinary skills. Her beef Stroganoff masked her innovative work on a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits. The feminist internet clapped back until the NYTimes edited the dish out.

Last week Brenda Barnes, former CEO of Sara Lee, died. The Chicago Sun-Times framed her professional accomplishments along with her title of "Perfect Mom." Fortune called her a hero to working moms.     

I remember reading about her stepping down to attend to her children during their teen years and then later her ramping back up. For a bit, I quite obsessed about Barnes. Why wouldn't I be? In Barnes returned to full-time employment in 2004 I was still a rookie mom with big career aspirations. Anytime I have big dreams, I scour the world for role models to study as if to find clues as to how I can replicate their success. I was still operating under the adage that under no circumstances does a working woman take more than a year off from work if she wanted to stay at the top of her field. I was still healing from being burned by being pushed out of an org after taking family leave from feminist organizing. What magic did she have?

I feel like I saw her speak once. Most likely at some women's professional conference here in Chicago. Or maybe I just read about her enough that I feel like I saw her speak. The two lessons I took away from her was 1) never truly stop working. Fortune mentions this, but belittles her board work while as a "stay at home mom":
she stayed on the sidelines serving as a director on numerous Fortune 500 boards.
This ignores the time and commitment necessary for such board work and the pay. Sure she wasn't a CEO or President of a company, but she was working. Fast Company outlines her "stay at home mom" duties as:
Unlike some women executives who have famously dropped out, Barnes did not go home to write her memoirs or devote herself to charity and her children's soccer schedules. She just chose what is, for her, a less demanding path: She serves on the board of six major companies, among them Sears, Avon, and The New York Times; she's taught at the Kellogg School of Management, and stepped in as interim president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts in early 2000.
The Wall Street Journal similarly noted her work when she was hired at Sara Lee in May 2004.  Never stop working is advice often told to women who want to take extended time off for caregiving. Stay connected to your workplace via committee work, mentoring younger coworkers, etc.

The second lesson I think learned is that Barnes downshifted her career during her eldest kids' teen years. She said something about how the time when they least want you around is actually when they need you the most. As my daughter is now in her teens, I think about that a lot. I  have heard it said by other moms too. I repeat it to others.

Every piece written about her since her death remarks about her role in the never-ending juggle that working moms contend with. Few note that she never really did stop working, she just downshifted. None truly acknowledge the privilege she had to downshift in the first place or how easy it was for her to on-ramp back to the top.

I do think she will always be important to the story of working moms, as I have said, I learned a lot from her. But other women have helped me see the holes in her story, the holes that leave too many mothers without much choice to downshift or even go back to work when they want. I would hope she would want us to notice those wrinkles too.

Thanks, Brenda. Goddess bless you and your family.

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What I'm Currently Reading

I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame
The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation
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