The XX Factor

In America, There’s No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is not home for dinner.

Photo by Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

Writer Kate Tuttle became a housewife by accident. She earns a lot less than her husband does, and she’s the go-to parent when it comes to signing permission slips, carting children to and fro, and cooking and cleaning. In a new essay in Dame magazine, Tuttle says that she wants to reclaim the word housewife. “We accidental housewives need to own it,” she writes, arguing that  “the work we do is valuable, difficult, and irreplaceable.”

Tuttle’s essay comes at a time when more and more people seem to be finally acknowledging reality: that in our current system, it’s really difficult to have two working parents with full-time jobs, because home life requires a lot of necessary man-hours and a huge emotional investment, too.  

One of those people who is being radically honest is PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi. At last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Nooyi spoke to Atlantic owner David Bradley about work-life balance. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf called it “as frank a discussion of work-life balance as I’ve seen from a U.S. CEO.” Nooyi talked about working until midnight regularly—none of the “you can be CEO and home for dinner every night at 6” fantasy that we hear from Sheryl Sandberg. Nooyi also talked about how her parents and her husband’s parents were intimately involved in the raising of her two children.

This real talk came in response to questions about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Here’s more from Nooyi:

I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms …

You know, you have to cope, because you die with guilt. You just die with guilt. My observation, David, is that the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. Total, complete conflict. When you have to have kids you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers.

It’s not just women who can’t “have it all” (though let’s all agree that that phrase is basically meaningless at this point). When former Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson asked Tesla’s Elon Musk about his five kids, Musk basically said he barely sees them, and when he does see them, it’s with a nanny in tow. Men with big careers don’t spend much time with their kids, either. This should be obvious by now, but there still seems to be a strong strain of “you can do everything if you just try hard enough” in the culture.

So, yes, Tuttle is right when she says we need to shake off the second-wave feminist baggage and elevate the work we all do at home. But I don’t think reclaiming the word housewife will be enough to make caregiving a more respected occupation. Tuttle talks about the hit her 401(k) will be taking in her caregiving years and the difficult financial spot her own mother was in when she got divorced. If we really value the work that goes into raising a family and maintaining a home, we need policies to reflect that.

The Center for American Progress suggests reforms to Social Security so that people who step back from work to do the brunt of caregiving—but have worked enough to have paid into Social Security at some point—still get a fair share of survivor’s benefits. The current system is based on an old model of the middle-class wife who never had a real career, and it needs to be revised to cover women like Tuttle, who work and then step back. Another reform is family leave paid through the Social Security Administration and funded by payroll taxes, which is the gist of Rosa DeLauro and Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act. Neither of these reforms is going to happen in the near term. In the meantime, I still bristle at the word housewife because it is gender-specific and describes a type of person instead of a person doing a type of work—maybe reclaiming homemaker is a tad better?

Correction, July 7, 2014: This post originally mispelled Kirsten Gillibrand’s last name.