While many Americans were toting their daughters to work a few days ago, celebrating "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," pundits were obsessing about the meaning of Karen Hughes' departure from her White House job.
Gasp: How could one of the world's most powerful moms abandon one of the most powerful jobs in the world, adviser to the president of the United States? What kind of message is she sending to young girls and women who are trying to absorb the myth that women can have both career and family?
It must be awful to be so important. A high-profile woman can't sneeze these days without America's confederacy of pop analysts inferring some sweeping conclusion about air quality.
The prevailing winds suggest that Hughes is sending a bad
message - that powerful, high-earning women can't also rear children successfully. Part of the reason Hughes reportedly is leaving her job is so that her teen-age son can finish growing up in his hometown of Austin, Texas, among his childhood friends.
Notably, some of those lamenting Hughes' choice haven't actually walked in her shoes. Show me a woman who says mothers can have it all, and I'll show you a woman who hasn't completed a pregnancy.
Here's a more likely interpretation of Karen Hughes' world, which, by the way, has little to do with the rest of us. She's been working a hugely demanding job, relocating her husband and son to Washington, D.C. Her taxing hours and stressful job have taken a toll on her family, which apparently she values above status, power and money.
Or does she? Is this an either-or equation - motherhood or career? - or is this instead a win-win deal we lesser humans should admire and seek to emulate?
In fact, Hughes is returning to Texas on her very favorable
terms. She'll still be in the political/power loop and continue to act as adviser to the president, though from the less strenuous environment of home. She'll return her child to his home to finish high school like the normal kid we all hope to raise. Presumably, the reduced stress on her marriage will result in a more commodious home life for all.
Hughes is getting the best of all worlds, which she surely has earned. But make no mistake: She's no more Everywoman than Dolly Parton is jest a country girl. Hughes has reached the top rung of her career ladder and enjoys the delicious choice of being able to climb down a few rungs.
That "lower" position, by the way, is nothing to wink at. Hughes is entering the coveted world of consulting! - the best scam going. She can work her own hours, set her own rates, call her own shots - and probably earn more than she's earned in her life.
This isn't a Mommy Track; this is a career track for any man or woman to envy. If you want to talk about setting a good example, Hughes has no peer. She's had her cake, eaten it and can hire someone else to wash the plate while she waters her impatiens.
Meanwhile, few adults are surprised any more by the news that women can't have it all. Baby boomers who invented the notion of "balancing work and family" have been there, done that, and have plenty of regrets - and lessons - to show for it. First lesson:
Family comes first.
It's also not news that the American workplace, despite our wish that it might be otherwise, isn't all that family-friendly. But isn't that like saying that the Everglades isn't that great a family vacation spot? You can build hotels on a swamp, but it's still a swamp.
Likewise, it's difficult to run a business and turn a profit while accommodating every family's immediate needs - time for maternity/paternity leave, school plays, doctor visits, elderly care. The list grows. Civilized, yes, but still a strain on the workplace, which demands certain rules and restraints if we wish to retain an open market.
A male friend of mine recently started his own small law firm and employs two women - a lawyer and a paralegal. Both are pregnant at the moment; both will be taking maternity leave at about the same time. Civilized, yes, but you can calculate the logistics and economic difficulties for the gentleman left holding down the fort.
Instead of worrying that girls and young women might get the "right" message from Hughes' choice - that family comes first and that hard work and planning pay future dividends - we should be celebrating the thing feminism promised and, indeed, has delivered. Choices.