In an age of online trolls and public beheading via social media, no one is surprised by the avalanche of hatred directed towards Gwyneth Paltrow, aka Ms. “Conscious Uncoupling.” Plenty of traditional and social media has been dedicated to her recent comments about her impending divorce, but one in particular has drawn ire from working moms everywhere. In an interview with E!, Gwyneth states that “I think it’s different when you have an office job, because it’s routine and, you know, you can do all the stuff in the morning and then you come home in the evening. When you’re shooting a movie, you work 14 hours a day and that part of it is very difficult. I think to have a regular job and be a mom is not as… of course there are challenges… but it’s not like being on set.”
This was, of course, the comment that launched a thousand haters, and spawned heated editorial responses from working mothers. What has been most interesting, however, was the backlash to the backlash. Many GOOP supporters railed against the complaining working moms, claiming serious bouts of envy prompted attacks against dear Gwyneth. But they miss the point entirely, as do many. Dear Gwyneth’s comments are a feminist issue, as they reflect a deep misunderstanding of how long a working mom’s day really is, and what it entails.
No one is denying that being on set is challenging – being away from your family for weeks, if not months – can take a toll on any parent. You miss routine; you miss milestones – minutes that cannot be retrieved. If she’d left it at that, GP would have landed safely in the sympathy zone – mom of two getting a divorce. But adding on that working 9-5 is ‘routine’ and ‘easier’ was an instantaneous verbal Molotov cocktail. First, few decently paid jobs are 9-5. Most urban areas (especially NYC, where I reside) expect work done late night, on weekends, lunch choked down at your desk while typing with one hand. There’s no leisurely pace to be had. And by all means, if I am misguided about highly paid jobs that are 9-5 (especially those that do not require heavy math or science skills) please do let me know as I’ll be making a career switch ASAP.
But let’s take higher paid professional jobs in urban areas out of the mix. Let’s move to a world in the Midwest, or the South, where the pace can be a bit slower. Hypothetically speaking, take a middle of the road office job like working in HR or being an administrative assistant. Jobs that have some sense of assumed “routine,” if you will. How well do those jobs pay? Well enough to employ nannies and housekeepers? Private yoga instructors? Are they enough to afford La Mer instead of Neutrogena face creams?
Let’s even take all ‘struggles’ out of the equation: chronically ill or disabled children, dependent parents, a disabled spouse, living on one income due to divorce, any kind of addictions that any immediate family member might have. Let’s even eradicate chronic unemployment and instability of one or both partner’s jobs. That’s a lot of eradicating, but stay with me here.
Let’s take our Midwest mom and give her a husband with a worthy, hardworking career as a police officer. In a typical day, a married mother who has a routine office job, two children and a husband will wake up around 6-7 am, pull together a somewhat healthy breakfast, get herself and kids ready for school (no small feat to convince kids to dress and clean themselves), then face a commute of maybe 20-40 minutes. Her husband may work the nightshift, so he’s just entering the house exhausted after a full 12 hours, so he’s in no condition to be an extra set of hands. She gets to the office at 9 am, faces an unending day of paperwork, passive aggressive office politics, unexpected projects and demands made by sometimes hostile colleagues. Finally, the day ends and her children – whose school day ended at 3 pm but they are in an after school program because there is no one there to “make the school run” — are hungry, fighting and have an epic mountain of homework to tackle (Common Core, anyone?) But dinner is to be made, and there’s no chef on hand to make it, nor budget to include some of Gwyneth’s unrealistic, GOOP endorsed ingredients. And of course, as we all know, GOOP would rather DIE than let her kid eat Cup-a-Soup. Ok, so somehow dinner gets made. Homework was painstakingly completed. Kids cajoled into tooth-brushing and pajamas and put to bed.
But what about time for yoga? Working out? The fridge is half empty and it’s tough to go shopping on weekends, as the kids’ ballet, soccer and karate classes dominate a large portion of the daylight hours. Perhaps you can shop at night, after you’ve cleaned up dinner dishes and cut your coupons (because even in two family incomes, there’s a budget to adhere to). You dash to the supermarket before your husband leaves for his shift, return to unpack and finally settle down after starting a load of laundry. As your solitary “treat,” you eat a few Girl Scout thin mint cookies. There are no fabulous cocktail parties, movie premieres or award dinners to be had, though you can glimpse the fabulous life on TV as you brush cookie crumbs from the top you bought on sale at Kohls.
Let’s also stop to consider most Americans only get two weeks’ vacation, so time off is nowhere near the many months one can enjoy between grueling movie sets. Those two weeks are a brief respite from an otherwise grinding, relentless cycle of “routine” that could feasibly drive anyone a bit batty. Those two weeks may not even be a full two weeks: many companies to not allow a parent to take a sick day when their child is sick, thereby cutting those precious two weeks into a tiny nub of relaxation. “Vacations” with kids (sans nannies, chefs and personal assistants) is also not quite “vacation” as much as it is “work shifting.” Wherever you go, kids still need to be fed, cajoled into tooth-brushing and separated when playtime turns to fighting time. To pay babysitters on top of it all, to get a few fleeting hours alone with your spouse to get to a local Applebee’s for dinner; many times those sitters cost half to full cost of what you’d pay for your meal and movie tickets.
Have we mentioned elderly parents who need attending to? Not yet! They are on a tight budget and each year their needs slowly encroach beyond their means. Will Gwyneth know the pain of putting her mother in a nursing home because she cannot’ afford at home, personalized care? Will she ever know the conversation of telling your kids they cannot attend their dream college – even though they have the grades – because you make “too much” to qualify for financial aid, but “not enough” to afford to actually pay.
The point of creating this scenario is that when famous working mothers, who have never experienced a life hardened by financial or professional instability, a life without immediate connection to godfathers like Steven Spielberg, a life without paid help – when they comment about other’s circumstances being easier, it is not only ignorant or offensive. It provides an excuse for an existing patriarchal system to continue as is. The US is one of three countries out of 178 that do not offer paid maternity leave. Our daycare system and pre-K is deplorable. Women here cannot ‘lean in’, or rise through the ranks because of this basis in the fact that working while being a mother is ‘routine’ or ‘easy’. When it is reinforced by public figures, it hardens a layer preventing positive change.
Though some may begrudge those “born on third base, who think they hit a triple” (one of my favorite quotes, stolen from the brilliant Ann Richards) for their fame and fortune by way of birth. I for one do not. Many gorgeous, talented brilliant actresses lead lives of great wealth and privilege. But they do not make considerable effort to explain why their lives are “so much harder” than the “average working mom.”
My modest proposal is to see Gwyneth take a month – just 30 short days – to live among the hoi polloi. Take her kids to public school in a middle income area, living on a REAL budget, with no help. Let’s see how calm and routine one’s life becomes in the absence of a significant support system. I would gladly watch that reality show. If she succeeds and at the end of 30 days, still feels “working moms have it easier,” I will gladly eat my words. Somehow though, I think I’d have more luck having Ms. Paltrow serve me one of her delicious paellas herself.