Sally Ride did not go into space alone in 1983. She carried with her the hopes and dreams of a generation of women who were trying to escape the bounds of tradition in their more earthly professions.
Her triumph did not end when the shuttle landed. Her influence was not limited to the women who watched with awe as she put up with all the stupid questions about how she would go to the bathroom in space — and always with a smile. My daughter remembers when she came to her high school, inspiring her generation of young women to believe there was nothing they could not do, no limits on their potential, especially in the world of science.
Thanks to her courage, her determination, her genius and spunk, the world changed.
The question is: How much?
Last week, with the announcement that Yahoo! chose a pregnant 37-year-old as its new CEO, the media and message boards were abuzz with speculation as to how she was going to take that ride. She responded by saying she would take an abbreviated maternity leave and work through it.
I don't recall anyone ever asking a man with a pregnant wife how he would manage to do his job with a new baby on the way. But that isn't really the answer.
Maternity leave is the easy part. I have a friend — and I hope no one will be insulted — who used to jokingly refer to her newborn as a doorstop.
Put the baby in a baby seat, prop the door open, and the door will stay open. Toddlers wander away. Preschoolers cry when you leave. Preteens and teens need your attention whether they want it or not. Many (most) men are content to leave much of the parenting to their wives. Many (most) women want to do it themselves. Doing it while working 70-plus hours a week is, frankly, just about impossible.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's dynamic COO, urges women to follow their ambitions and find mates who will help them get there. Hear, hear. But it won't be easy — for the men. Difficult as it is for women to find balance at work, it's even harder for men, who are expected to work those 70-hour weeks and who are called worse names than women if they don't, which is why no one ever asks about the impact of their pregnant wives on their ability to be a CEO.
I used to believe that the answer was that no one has it all, but that so long as you don't want it all at once, anything is possible. Lately, I'm not so sure.
I look at my own life, at the offers and opportunities I turned down in my 30s and 40s, when my children were young, and that haven't come in my 50s, and I know that you pay a price for what you want, whether or not you know it at the time.
I don't regret the decisions I made. Men (most anyway) pay their own price when they look back at their lives and realize how much of the stuff that really matters they missed.
I used to think we just needed to make some design changes: a curtain for the shuttle bathroom, a flexible schedule for women, a day care facility on site, part-time partners, real sharing of all responsibilities.
But in a world in which someone is working somewhere every minute of the day and emailing questions, comments and even demands, I'm not so sure. I watch my female students making choices they didn't expect to make, not crashing the ceilings but cuddling their newborns.
I watch my male students living lives they didn't expect to live, not being the fathers they thought they would be. And I wonder how much of that design can be changed.
It's hard. It's incredibly hard.
But it's not as hard as what Sally Ride did. Ride, Sally Ride. And thank you.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
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