How can we measure our lives?: The crisis edition*

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As I received with hard-won indifference a job rejection this week, I contemplated how the do-it-all feminism of the nineties on which I had been raised had rested on two assumptions: (1) that there were plentiful sufficiently-paying and meaningful jobs; and (2) the existence of cheap childcare. The latter, I now understand with a clarity that eluded me in my twenties, was synonymous with the maintenance of a set of class, racial and gender hierarchies in which less-educated and often Black women provided care to professional, often white families. 


At middle age, I am now old enough to have had both of these assumptions thoroughly dispelled. There are some people whose interests and training have been lucky enough to correspond with market demands and structural expectations, but I trained first to be an academic and then (primarily because of the failing academic job market) to be a lawyer. I have stayed home for the last few years due to a combination of desire, complications with remote working and never finding the right job in the same city as my spouse. I cannot presently work firm hours with two children and a limited support network. Although outsiders often suggest that I find a public sector position or hang up my own shingle, I know that such jobs are extremely difficult to get (I’ve been rejected from every one to which I’ve applied) and that starting a business is no easy lift (and one for which I have no passion). Although I wouldn’t consider the dismantling of my career(s) a privilege, I enjoy being with my children far more than I expected. I know that if I went back that I would give up some things I value.

My story, however, is just a personal anecdote in what has become an ongoing generational economic and identity crisis. Since entering adulthood in the early 2000s, I have witnessed two major economic downturns that have left many members of my generation stranded. While some fields have thrived, others like academia have imploded or paid workers less while demanding more, using narratives surrounding careers, difference-making and passion to benefit themselves more than their employees. The pandemic has opened opportunities for remote work that I hope will benefit families, but it has also left childcare in tatters and stretched parents to their limits. Even if the pandemic hadn’t pushed childcare to the brink, however, I can no longer conceal from myself that I am deeply uncomfortable with a society that profits by underpaying or not paying those who raise its children, whatever the individual outcomes for those children might be.


From the vantage point of 2021, it’s impossible to deny the fragility and inequity of our economy, institutions and environment. As these change, so must the metrics with which we assess our lives. Values and feminisms intertwined with a collapsing economic model cannot be the philosophies by which we take stock of our pursuits. Feminist debates that structured and reflected the economics of the Twentieth Century–whether prescriptive arguments in favor of women entering the paid labor market or staying home to provide unpaid labor–no longer matter to me when I cannot even make sense of what a career looks like in the Twenty-First. True, there will always be inspirational stories of women who somehow achieved “balance.” In fact, quite a few recent LDS pieces have wanted to persuade me that this is desirable and possible, but it hasn’t yet worked out for me. Similarly, as I browse books like Clayton M. Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life (2012), I can’t help feeling that while I enjoy his framework and theories that he makes basic assumptions, like the fact that one will have a career, that no longer feel applicable to me.

It’s a humbling admission that I no longer feel that the kind of feminism I grew up meets the needs of this moment given how much I’d previously staked on achieving career goals–and would pray in desperation for permission when they seemed in conflict with the gospel. Ironic, even, when the idea of mothers working for pay finally seems to have morphed from a dangerous idea to a concept now so commonly accepted that even official Church venues routinely highlight women’s career achievements. Feminist aspirations directed towards the workplace that I once (and often still) share have become normalized at the very moment the American workplace is itself being called into question.

And so I find myself asking again and again during this pandemic how to live when almost every aspect of our lives is in a state of crisis. What happens when we discover that our values and aspirations are tied to outdated assumptions? How do we measure our lives, to paraphrase Clayton M. Christensen, when the metrics we used no longer make sense (and, frankly, never worked for many women and other minorities in the first place)? When we begin to see that many of the metrics, philosophies and values to which we have clung are tied to temporary economic conditions that don’t have eternal, or even decades-long, relevance? What should I do–and to what should I aspire–as a woman and a latter-day saint in unstable times?


I’ve changed my politics, of course, in response to the failures I’ve experienced. I now long for a feminism that focuses more on universal safety nets rather than exceptional achievement and values unpaid as well as paid labor. But I’ve found answers about how to live my own life in the most LDS of ways: turning to The Book of Mormon, a book that is less about success than it is about the total destruction of societies due in large part to the same issues we confront today: inequality, racism, corruption, member infighting and political partisanship. It’s a book that models how to live in troubled times, not good ones. It does not offer a consistent political philosophy, which is itself a lesson in what matters to God. Certainly few people in it are succeeding in ways we’d value today. Quite a few are refugees.

What it offers instead are examples of people who, to quote Nephi, were “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” What I hear in these words, spoken by a prophet whose entire existence had just been uprooted and whose family would soon splinter apart, is that living well in transitional times means letting go of our preconceptions and being open to unexpected promptings. To not insist on a favored ideology or life plan, but, in the words of our Prophet, to “let God prevail” as He directs a future only He knows. To measure our lives not by temporary metrics but by how well we are willing listen.

*My title is a nod to and critique of Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon’s How Will You Measure Your Life? (New York: Harper, 2012).

Comments

  1. Love that line, “To measure our lives not by temporary metrics but by how well we are willing listen” (to God).

  2. This is a powerful dissection of the structure of modern workplaces and systemic inequality. I want to type some pithy reaction, but instead I think I need to just … sit with this for a while.

  3. My own context and timeline are different and so are the details, but I agree with basically all of this. Thank you.

  4. This is honestly awesome. I pray for your happiness and that you can feel fulfilled. Often folks have to adjust their expectations as they age based on circumstances.

  5. I think our existing society and govt are not able to modify the realities is the national and world socioeconomic realities of our time. Not within my lifetime, I think. Too many competing societies, national interests and global reality. I don’t want to pessimistic, but I do want to be realistic.

  6. My husband provides excellent free childcare that has enabled my own career. Perhaps addressing only one half of the gender equation (empowering women to aspire to work outside the home if that’s what they choose) without changing cultural expectations around men’s contributions to family household economics has been a significant oversight. (That said, I realize that being able to live on my single income while my husband provided full-time childcare is rare and that a stay-at-home-husband is not a cure for the issues you mentioned.)

    Maybe we need to learn from Nordic countries, but they’re so SOCIALIST ;-).

  7. Elisa, excellent point, but I work with some Nordic companies and even they admit their standard of living is in decline.

  8. @JC that’s depressing. I wonder what they mean by that & what is going on there.

    I have been really fortunate but I can’t help but think that if things keep going the way they’re going, my kids are in all likelihood going to have a worse standard of living than I do as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Also depressing.

    I must be about the same age as the OP because I saw her situation play out with many peers and it really did seem like the rug was pulled out from under us all.

  9. I GREATLY enjoyed reading this! I am also an Attorney, and though I am single, I think all the time about how I will manage “balacing” it all. Your words reminded me of an excellent book I read on the subject—highly recommend. Woman’s Work: A Reckoning with Work & Home by Megan K. Stack, in which she asks some of the very questions you have asked, and comes to the same realizations you have.

  10. Not a feminist says:

    There seems to be a running theme lately to blame feminism for making women believe they can have rewarding careers while raising a family, when the harsh reality is that except for a fortunate few women, it’s almost impossible to do so in the US. But why is the predicament the OP and others like her find themselves in the fault of feminism? Why not blame the lack of a social safety net, and the religious and cultural beliefs that traditional care giving/domestic work should be done for free by women? Regardless of whether you identify as a feminist, religious and cultural assumptions about what women should be doing with their lives have far more practical and negative impact for people like the OP than any feminist ideology.

  11. This is a very thoughtful and well written piece. I particularly appreciate her interpretation of the Book of Mormon and how that idea ended the essay. It felt like finding a beautiful well-cared for little garden in a neighborhood seemed to be all broken windows and trash. I’ll remember this essay when I read the BOM, and I hope to read more of her work in the future.

  12. Not a feminist — I think Natalie IS blaming other factors, including how much America does not care about work/life balance, it’s refusal to pay women for domestic labor, and the structure of work itself.

  13. Natalie Brown says:

    @Not a feminist: I consider myself not so much blaming feminism as realizing that the feminism I was raised with was more aspirational than reflective of reality in a country that lacks the supports to make it possible and doesn’t recognize caregiving as labor. I would absolutely love to see this aspiration become a reality for more women–and for our focus to shift to how we resolve the structural problems in America so that it can happen–though I’m a pessimist about that happening in time to really help me and my generation. In the meantime, I hope that I can be a small voice in support of putting those changes in place. I think feminism has made create strides in helping us reframe ideology in ways that are less prescriptive of what women SHOULD do, and now needs to center on how we can create an economy and supports that in practice allow them more choices.

  14. Natalie Brown says:

    @Not a feminist: I suppose, too, that I see the OP as ultimately less about feminism or any other ideology and more about how we can live our lives in a world that is going to undergo numerous changes that force us to reevaluate the ideas to which we’ve clung and how we lead and measure our lives.

  15. Grateful Reader says:

    Taking care of someone else’s children, without having the authority and dealing with the demands of the children and parents is walking a tightrope that demands superhuman patience. Many people wanting childcare don’t recognize that, so they aren’t willing to pay more than fast food service.

    When I was raising my child alone, I paid a premium for childcare, which meant I didnt have much of a paycheck in the end. But I had insurance coverage and a pension. It was hard. But I told myself I was lucky. But I was sad.

    Yeah, life and the world is so much different than what I thought it would be when I was 24.
    So much different that I’m basically starting from scratch and coming up with a diff def. of fem. now that almost 50. One where I expect and demand more from the man in my life, so I can breathe.

  16. Beautiful, cogent expression of the times we’re in. Thank you for the reminder of how God can lead us to places and experiences we might not find on our own. In times of crisis and uncertainty it’s so easy to attempt a way forward using my own (often brilliant and useful) devices. It requires a unique kind of courage to surrender to a higher power who can restore us to sanity and lead us forward to peace — personally, professionally, and otherwise. I needed this reminder. Thanks again.

  17. richellejolene says:

    I always value your thoughts, Natalie, and am so glad you’re blogging for BCC again! The issues you raise here also affect those of us without children, just in different ways. While I sympathize with your “hard-won indifference” at the job rejection, I’m also painfully aware that until VERY recently when I started sharing more finances with my partner (long-term relationship, unmarried), I didn’t have the luxury of opting out of the unfair academic/academic-adjacent job market. All the same, because he doesn’t have stable employment himself, I’m going to have to run the gauntlet when I graduate anyway, despite the slim chances of securing even a low-paying or precarious job that I remotely enjoy doing.

    All this is to say something you already know: the system is totally broken. But also, the Church narratives of marrying, having kids, etc, don’t only affect the women who successfully do that and then also understandably want a career and community support. There are also lots of single women who are stuck in this same economy with no second income for their household, so while they’re not fruitlessly looking for affordable childcare (a predicament I don’t envy), they’re also not able to opt out of whatever unfulfilling or low-paying work they’re offered.

    And all that is to say something you already know: the Mormon narratives are broken and have to change. As it stands, the demographics and realities for Church members are changing, but the dominant script is still to live like it’s the 1950s and be occasionally pitied over the pulpit if you can’t pull it off. This feels like a moment of reckoning, and yet somehow I have my doubts our generation will see meaningful change in time for us to benefit from it.

  18. Natalie Brown says:

    @richellejolene: What a well-expressed, important comment. I personally hope that you will consider writing an essay about your experiences of this moment. There are so many pathways into the conclusion you express that “the system is totally broken,” and each of those deserves to be explored.

  19. A wonderful piece, but the challenges are hardly new to this generation. Go watch the film “Gone with the Wind”.Ignore for a moment everything to do with race. This film was popular in the 1930’s because it portrayed the very challenges being faced by everyone in America, how to survive and find happiness in a world where all the assumptions you had been raised with as to how your life would progress were swept away by war, or for people living in the 30’s, economic collapse that would soon lead to war.
    I believe the phrase is “Choose you this day” and the acceptance that life is really a test of choosing what you value most and then seeing how you react when everything else is denied you. It is truly a test of not what you achieve but who do you become.
    I have wondered sometime what dreams Jesus had that needed to be abandoned in order to fulfill his mission. Did he dream of gathering his grandchildren around him in loving affection when he grew old only to realize that could not be? Did he love music and want to compose inspiring songs? Did he have a thirst for adventure he had to ignore? Who was he as a man before he became our Saviour and what can we imagine of the personal sacrifices he made to follow God? It is not about the times in which you live.

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