Jane Swift, and the feminists' dilemma

I wouldn't want to be in Jane Swift's shoes, and not just because she just had twins. The acting governor of Massachusetts has a difficult situation to deal with, and her dilemma is important to all women who want both work and family.

The question for Ms. Swift is: How will she reconcile having three children under the age of 4 as well as a career that clearly means much to her? And how will she deal with the flak she is getting for trying?

As women, most of us want to nurture our intellects without having to say bye-bye to parenting instincts. We want a full life, with all its inherent challenges and opportunities.

For the record, former governor and Boston mayor James M. Curley conducted mayoral business for five months in 1947 from a jail cell (where he was incarcerated for mail fraud), and no one called him ineffective. Nor are audio or video conferences unconstitutional, as some have suggested.

Still, young women with high-profile professional careers must consider the reality that the Swift situation represents, and I'm the first to admit it. Some years ago my feminist ideology was put to the test when a friend and colleague of mine had a baby six weeks prematurely. The early arrival of her child meant that my friend had to cut back to part time, which was not in the original plan.

Her maternity leave clearly started earlier than anticipated and lasted longer than expected, throwing the rest of us off balance. We compensated nicely, everyone cheerfully chipping in to fill the gap. But when a major set of documents had to be produced, tensions ran high in the office, and I could understand why.

As a manager, I sympathized with the people I was supervising, who were well on the road to burnout. At the same time, I wanted to support the new mother, who had her hands full at home, while worrying about how we were coping on her behalf. When I grew weary of doing her work as well as my own, I couldn't let on. It seemed disloyal on all counts.

I felt guilty whenever I was angry about the dilemma. I wanted to be a good feminist and a good manager. But as hard as I grappled with those two roles, reconciling them wasn't easy. It still isn't.

So I wish Jane Swift, who has a lot more support than most mothers do, all the best with her budding family and bright future. I have every confidence that the great state of Massachusetts will weather its governor's having newborn twins just fine.

What I am less sure about is this: When deadlines loom, who's going to do what by when? It's never been simple. Somehow, mothers and managers will just have to work it out.

Elayne Clift's latest book is 'Love Letters to Vermont: A New England Journal' (OGN Publications, 2001).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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