My 4-year-old daughter is a budding doctor. Undeterred by the unpleasant possibility of shots, she looks forward to going to the clinic, enjoys being examined and conducting her own exams whenever her sisters will let her. She has a million questions about the body. When our first-grader's school recently held a "science night," with a special session on how the heart works, we jumped at the chance to bring the kids.
We were not disappointed. Two young women from the UW med school pulled actual human hearts out of a vat of formaldehyde and passed them around - along with some lungs and a brain. They answered our daughters' questions seriously and completely. I watched our 4-year-old gazing at them and felt she was seeing herself in the future.
Two days later, after the same daughter was up all night throwing up, I was participating by phone in a meeting at my office. This was the third weekly meeting in a row I would have missed because of a sick child. I am lucky. I have an extremely flexible, part-time job that I can do from home (except for that one meeting a week), and a very patient, progressive employer. But I wonder: How is my budding doctor going to juggle her work and family life?
I hope she and her peers can resolve this seemingly eternal question. We are now well beyond the "gee-whiz" era of women in male-dominated fields. The problem, for women my age, is not getting into jobs once reserved for men, it's how to do those jobs without blowing up from stress once we have children.
Men expect to have meaningful work and families at the same time, of course. But women have to worry about a work culture that still treats employees as if we all had a mom at home to take care of those messy details of family life. If you are the mom at home and also an employee, things can get really difficult.
It is possible to have a society that accommodates both human aspirations - family life and work. Western Europe manages to do it. Lengthy, paid parental leaves for parents of both sexes; universal, high-quality child care; and a general social consensus that there is more to life than long hours at the office are normal in some countries.
Not so ours, where good daycare costs as much as college, and people are more overworked than ever.
Here is some good news, though:
"Unlike previous generations, for Gen Y work-life balance isn't just something to strive for - it's a given," BusinessWeek noted last year. "In a Universum survey of 37,000 recent college grads, 59% pegged balancing their personal and professional lives as their top career goal."
Time magazine concurs: "Generation Y is forcing companies to think more creatively about work-life balance. The employers who do are winning in the war for young talent."
People the age of those med students we saw are taking a more realistic view of their work and family lives than people my age did. Unlike our mothers, my peers and I had no doubt that we could do anything our male peers could do. But we didn't think a lot about how we were going to continue to pull that off after we had kids.
If young men and young women now getting out of college are thinking about how to accommodate their families, and forcing employers to think about it, too, that's good news for everyone. Especially the next generation of young children.
Ruth Conniff, the mother of three, is political editor of The Progressive.