We've Gotta Have it
The Myth of “Putting Family First”
Can we please stop using this destructive adage?
When the renowned journalist Cokie Roberts died in September, the Sunday news show This Week aired a segment about her illustrious life. After lauding her professional accomplishments, they used the maxim, “Above all, putting family first.”
I am sure they meant it as a praising, positive statement. After all, “putting family first” sounds generally like a pretty good thing to do. But hearing that line, in the context of a memorial for a well-known female professional, rankled me. What does it mean to “put family first?” And would that line really have been stuck in there — amidst a eulogy about inspired international journalism — if Cokie had been a man?
As a woman who came of age in the 1980s, and worked for a time as an attorney (later switching careers to writing after my second child was born), I have spent many years deconstructing what it means to try to pursue some kind of professional career and also be available for my family. And it’s nothing new that women continue to struggle with this challenge.
I would not have quibbled with a statement like, “Cokie was also a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother,” or “Cokie always said that her family was the most important thing to her.” That makes sense on many levels. But it’s not the same as saying she put family first. Does that mean that every time one of her children had a teacher conference or soccer game, she dropped her interview with an international Head of State? Or that she often decided not to go to an important reporting assignment when difficult things were going on at home? Could it mean something as mundane as not going to a meeting at work because one of her kids wanted to talk to her on the phone “RIGHT NOW?”
If we take the statement, “Above all, putting family first” at face value, we all know it is a loaded one. And yet we hear it all the time. At least when applied to a woman. When was the last time you heard that in a man’s obituary? There is something inherently undermining if one feels the need to tell the world that, despite a working mother’s important career achievements, “Don’t worry, this working mother did not abandon her kids or her husband!” In fact, not only did she not abandon them while she was climbing the ladder of success and logging in probably over 100 hours some weeks at work, she put them first! Just like a “good” woman should, because we don’t like women who put their careers first, do we?
Broadcasting to the world that some women, no matter how accomplished they are, will above all choose their family over work, sets an impossible standard for all working women. The reality of a working mother’s life, and definitely one who has a high-powered career, is that there are clearly going to be times when she just can’t put her family first. Or — uh oh, even worse — won’t. So while maybe overall in her life she valued her family the most, on a day-to-day basis, how could she always be choosing family over her work?
When I worked late some evenings at my law firm, when my daughter was very young, was I putting family first? When I brought work home with me, and couldn’t really talk to my husband at night because I had to stay “on the clock” at my job, was I putting family first? These are the realities of many careers, not just those of the rich and famous.
I was the first woman at my firm to work part-time (four days) after my daughter was born, so in that instance I suppose you could say I was living up to this standard. But to be honest, I kept my sitter on my “day off” so that in between spending time with my child, I could actually go to a doctor appointment or get my hair cut. And then when my son was born a few years later, I decided to stay home. Did I do that because I was putting my family first? That was part of the reason why I stopped working those brutal hours, but the dirty little secret is that it was not the only reason. I was unhappy in my career choice and wanted to do something different, something more creative. And at that time I had the resources to make a change, as well as the circumstances to change them (a new baby). I’m not saying my son’s birth was an excuse to leave my job, but there were factors that went beyond putting my family first.
If we imagine a broader definition of “putting family first,” then maybe this phrase is less judgmental. If putting family first means that a woman’s career itself helps her family, in the sense that she is economically contributing, and also bringing to the kitchen table a set of skills and knowledge of the world that is something her children can emulate and admire, and that her husband can respect, then that would be less pejorative. And if her career also happens to make her fulfilled as a person, isn’t that good for her family, too? Putting work first sometimes means that women are making real change in the world, and not just in their immediate families. Men have been doing that for centuries. And everyone benefits from that.
And for the millions of women who have to work, who need to earn money to help support their families, they should not be made to feel “less than” because they could not always put family first in the sense of being at every school function or pickup because they had to be at work. Being able to “be there” is a privilege we need to acknowledge. Maybe those women don’t get vilified because society understands that having to work is not a real choice, and therefore we can’t criticize them for being “bad mothers.” But for those women choosing to work, in the sense that they are not doing it based on financial necessity, we too often create other measures of feminine fitness.
And what about the women who choose not to have children? Are they somehow less valued because they may have chosen work over family, time and time again? Are they to be viewed as sad sacks whose lives are somehow diminished by the fact that they put work first?
Then we have to think about women who did actually give up careers and stayed home with their kids, the ones who “walked the walk” in terms of putting family first. Many of those women, who are so often made to feel invalidated because they don’t have important careers, have made the choice to prioritize being home and available. But if they watch a eulogy stating that a woman who is a major career success also always put her family first, it feels not only false but extremely disempowering.
The implicit message in the Cokie tribute is that not only is it doable to “above all” put family first, even if you have a major career (and if Cokie could do it, why can’t you?), but it’s not enough that she accomplished so much in her career — it’s most significant that she was a mother, a daughter, a grandmother, etc. That’s what she wants us to remember? Loving your family, having close relationships, that’s all good, and a nice way to remember someone. But saying that she above all put family first, at the very end of a broadcasted eulogy, sounds a little defensive. If they hadn’t said that, would I have thought Cokie was a heartless professional, with children who resented her success? No, I would not. What we as viewers care about is what she did with her career. Her personal life, frankly, is not what made her someone worth eulogizing on TV.
So can we please stop saying, “Above all, she put family first” when we eulogize women, especially those who have forged very demanding careers? Sometimes not putting family first is a viable option and a good choice. Making choices based on what needs prioritizing at that time, even if it’s not family, shouldn’t demonize you. It means you might actually get that promotion to partner or manager, or maybe even be president of the United States. Is our first female president really going to interrupt a meeting with her Secretary of Defense to take a call from her son because he needs help with his algebra homework? I don’t think so!
But even if a woman’s job is less lofty, she will have to make these sometimes agonizing choices everyday. We don’t need to say she put family first to assuage some kind of collective cultural guilt about hard-charging women with prestigious careers. Or feel devalued if we don’t have a career like that. Let’s hear about Cokie and other exceptional career women’s accomplishments without worrying whether she sometimes had to let her family down. Because we all know she probably did, and we don’t need to be fed false platitudes about that. She shouldn’t have to feel bad about not always elevating family over work. And neither should the rest of us.
Pamela Weiler Grayson is a New York–based former attorney, a playwright/lyricist/composer, and a freelance writer, who may or may not put family first, depending on the situation.