Of lofty ideals, dual careers & long-distance motherhood - guest post by Milasoa Chérel-Robson
Milasoa Chérel-Robson works for UNCTAD and her reflections on the challenges and trade-offs of combining her international career with family duties highlight many personal insights into bigger debates in gender and development.
This is a perfect long-read for the weekend after Mother's Day that spans a historical trajectory from Madagascar and the socialist aspirations of the 1970s to the limits of “leaning in” in Geneva and contemporary Rwanda where Africa is celebrating a bright economic future.
On 21 March 2018, I was in the hall of the Kigali Convention Centre with hundreds of other guests. We were all listening to “hauntingly beautiful songs” throughout the signature ceremony of the establishment of the Agreement for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Taking in the historical dimension of the occasion I told myself: “This is why I made those choices”. I had spent the previous months, thousands of kilometers away from my children. UNCTAD, the UN Trade and Development organisation that I am honoured to work for, is a strategic partner of the African Union. Dr Kituyi, the Secretary General of our organisation, has been a long-time Champion of the AfCFTA. As the Acting Head of the Regional Office for Africa, I had the privilege of accompanying him to two African Union Summits. I contributed to outreach and advocacy events and spoke to entrepreneurs about the opportunities that the establishment of a single market of 1.2 billion people could bring.
I took up the assignment at a momentous time in the history of the African Union. I was there at the time of passionate speeches about the need for financial independence in the running of the Union. I was there and witnessed the ecstatic reactions of the audience to the first speeches of the new Presidents of Angola, Liberia, Zimbabwe and South Africa: countries where change had been acutely longed for. I also lived in Ethiopia during a State of Emergency and had seen the emergence of the new 42-year-old Prime Minister. His stature and first speech to parliament were “Obamaesque” wrote the Financial Times. So, yes, as I sat there, after four weeks of intensive meetings in Kigali, supporting the last stretch of the negotiation process, I repeated to myself: “It was really worth it.” My thoughts wandered and brought me back to Madagascar.
My story with Africa began long before my birth.
It began when a ravishing young man, a learner of politics, and a strikingly bright, beautiful medical student met through a mutual friend. My parents fell in love over discussions about their post-independence hopes and dreams for their country, Madagascar and shared a belief in a united Africa. “Une certaine idée de l’Afrique”.
I grew up with tales of African revolutionaries and Pan-Africanists. One of them, Thomas Sankara, was of the same age than my parents. He trained in the Military academy of Madagascar in the early 1970s, and later became the iconic young president of Upper Volta, the country that he renamed Burkina Faso, the “Land of Upright Man”. My parents and a group of like-minded friends spent evenings debating his speeches. From his calls for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt, to his rebuke of foreign aid (“he who feeds you, controls you”) and to his famous, visionary feminist speech entitled “The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women”. Coming to think of it, Sankara’s call to put an end to the “roar of the silence of women” might have contributed to the development of my own voice. There were heated debates in my parents’ living room, chuckles and cheers over Sankara’s decision to sell off the government fleet of luxury cars to make the Renault 5, one of the cheapest cars sold in those times, the official service car of the ministers.
Then there were the Machels, the iconic first couple of Mozambique. My parents met the President at a social function during their visit to Madagascar. My heavily pregnant mother was so subjugated by his charismatic charm that she entered a territory until then reserved to my father. She chose the name of their newborn son and called him Machel.
Sadly though, both Thomas Sankara and Samora Machel died tragically.
And sadly still, Africa’s dreams of shared prosperity have not yet turned into a reality. Or rather: they have been postponed to 2063.
I often think of how Sankara’s and Machel’s only few years in power marked a whole generation. I often think of how that generation, my parents, slowly abandoned their Marxist ideals and embraced Capitalism, albeit not wholeheartedly.
On my first day in the office in Addis Ababa, uneasy in an enormous, male designed executive chair, it dawned on me that I was now “sitting at this table” because I did lean in as advised in Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Then as the chair swiveled, it occurred to me that this might not be the kind of leaning in that Ms. Sandberg had in mind. Indeed Sheryl Sandberg often spoke of her ritual of leaving the office at 5.30 pm everyday to be with her children. She would resume work from home, later in the evening, after the sacred family time. I imagined her in a red dress, as in that Time Magazine cover some years back, confident in her stride, walking through a space filled with colleagues, still hunched over their computers. It is with this image in mind, oddly enough, that I wept when I heard the news about the tragic loss of her husband.
And yet, I thought, stopping the swiveling, here I was: a woman who has left her own husband to be a single parent for many months.
In doing so, we joined a small but growing trend of dual career households in the world’s international hubs. In Geneva, where my family has its base, we know a few of them. Couples, families, living the same model than that of Anne-Marie Slaughter, the author of Why women still can’t have it all, the essay that became viral after its publication in The Atlantic in 2012. Slaughter moved from New Jersey where she lived with her family to take up a prestigious foreign policy job at the State Department in Washington, D.C. She worked with Hilary Clinton, as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department. The kind of opportunity you do not say no to (more on that later).
There is the man who has been commuting back to London, from Geneva, every weekend. Then, there is this other man who travels back from China every school holiday. Oh, and this other one who comes back home every three weeks, after assignments in exotic locations where his work takes him. And the mother of three who took a job in duty station thousands of kilometers away from her family. And finally, I can still remember the face of that woman who wrote a testimonial in our staff magazine to defend the new mobility policy. A mother, she left her family to go to years long postings in war zones. She did it not once, but three times.
Armed with all these examples, when offered this temporary assignment, I told my household: I think I can do this. In fact, I added: I think our family can do this. I explained why I needed to accept the offer. We reached a consensus: it was worth it. Little did I know that the experience was going to be more strenuous than we all thought it would be.
On that first day in the office, looking around my new surroundings, I appreciated the flower arrangement and the welcome note that my new colleagues left on my desk. I also had a sudden rush of yearning for the plants that I left in my office back at headquarters. I told myself: you are here because it is a platform for influence, an opportunity for greater impact. After going back home after my first meal sitting alone in a nearby restaurant, I took solace in the memorabilia on my bedside table.
I wanted the experience to be an educational one for my children. For them to learn the longing that comes with missing someone you truly love, for them to grow in autonomy in their day-to-day lives.
A workaholic, fully devoted to the work of the organization I work for, I had also wanted space to gather my thoughts, to reflect on what the work-life routine of the past decade and more had meant and on what could come next. Little did I know that the job would be so consuming that I struggled to carve that space. Worse still, I did not expect the pain of being far away from my loved ones to be so raw and so unbearable. I often wondered if what I had done during the day was a suitable justification for that pain, and for the growing estrangement that I felt from the other people in my life. Communication challenges in my new location meant that my connection time was spent mostly with my children as they took turn to talk to me. There was little space left for other people who mattered in my life.
One morning, staring in the mirror, I faced the truth: the myth of achieving professional fulfillment at the cost of personal sacrifices was broken. Shattered on the floor. It was there, in pieces. However much I loved my job, it did not fulfill me. My skin is not tough enough, my heart is not strong enough to make too great personal sacrifices for professional advancement.
In many interviews, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of one of the world’s largest multinationals, a lady who has reached the heights of her profession, a well-known role model figure to many female executives talks candidly about “great sacrifices” she has made to get her “entry ticket into a man’s world”. In a 2016 video, she shares how, as a little girl, one of her daughters had given a letter that read:
“Dear Mom, I love you. Please come home.
Please please please please please come home.”
“Come home, mum. I love you.
But I will love you more if you come home.”
Subsequent anecdotes give hints that her commitment to her job, the frequent travels, the long days and evenings spent away from her family might have affected how her adult children now relate to her.
I can still feel the resonance of the knot in Indra Nooyi’s voice and the weight of her words.
--Be careful on the choices you make.
You will look back and it hurts.---
But do you regret it? The interviewer asks.
--Regret is too serious a word.
But the heart aches and it hurts---
So why are women/mothers and other parents making those choices? Why do many of us believe that the thrill of high-powered jobs is such that it numbs the pain of the sacrifices that come with it?
In fact, not so many women occupy the power space within Fortune 500 companies. In 2017, a report by Executive Search Firm Heidrick & Struggles, based on 2016 data showed that women were appointed to 27.8 percent of director seats that turned over or were added to the boardroom roster of Fortune 500 companies. This was a two percentage-point decline from the previous year. In contrast, a report by Deloitte showed that 15 per cent of all board seats were filled by women globally, up from 12 per cent. What this means is that although a growing number of women are still "sitting at the table", fewer of them did so at the world’s most powerful gatherings. These numbers are likely to be the outcome of the confluence of factors ranging from the personal, to the societal to the political.
In Why Women Still Can't Have It All, Anne-Marie Slaughter explains why she left her prestigious job to resume living with her family.
“At the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world”, she writes, “on a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier…” she then continues on to set the scene for a looming family crisis.
She later decided not to renew her assignment at the State Department. Facing disapproval from her equally successful friends, she realized that all her life, she has been on the other side of this exchange: “the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family”, “the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause”.
In fact, Slaughter became the woman who wrote in her essay that in today's societal norms and values, it's simply not possible for women to “have it all.” For that to happen, she writes in a sequel 2017 book, Unfinished business: Women Men Work Family, society needs to change.
But some things never change. It struck me for instance, how Meghan Markle, the American actress who is due to marry the UK’s Prince Harry later on this week, gave up her country, her career and her own communication platform to answer the call of love and be Harry’s princess. The woman I remember is the one who made that moving, engaging speech on women’s empowerment at a UN Women event in 2015. The woman who "is proud to be a woman and a feminist". I like her. My daughters also listened to her speech and saw a video footage of the 11 year old princess-to-be speaking about the letter of complaint she wrote after seeing a sexist TV advert. They liked her too and commented how she looked “cool” and “international”.
So, as a feminist, one might say that women who have made personal choices off the fast track career ladder have dropped the ball.
But no, I would argue. These are women who have chosen to act with integrity and authenticity, who are aligned with their desires and aspirations of the time. Women who are privileged enough to have choices. Women who are living in the small bubble of a new wave of feminism where the freedom to choose must and shall be exercised.
As I sat in that big executive chair in my office in Addis Ababa, a few months into the job, I reflected on how my (temporary) title changed the nature of some of my work- related interactions, how it somewhat made my voice listened to. This type of thrill might give a sense of achievement mixed with a feeling of being at a key milestone on the (em)power(ment) journey.
I was very grateful for the opportunity and gave it my very best. And yet there was also that little voice that reminded me of my commitment to what I coined the “A-square path: Ambition with Authenticity”. That little voice could not quieten my authentic self. And that authentic self was first and foremost a mother whose heart bled every evening when the show was over and the curtains down.
So no, I would reiterate. Women who choose Love are “not dropping the flag for the next generation”, nor are they dropping THE ball. They are simply temporarily dropping one ball out of MANY that they must juggle with every day.
These are women who will not suffer the burden of too great personal sacrifices so as to be symbols of power in a male defined world. Women who dance to the beat of their own songs and not only to those of manifestos. Women who chart their own course, unfazed at the sight of an opulent executive chair. Women who make different time preferences. Women who are aware of the ephemerality of life, of children who grow up too fast.
These are women who consider life as a marathon, and not as a sprint.
Women who are projected to have longer and healthier lives than men.
In fact, these are women who choose to have it all and pick from the menu on “their own table”: job satisfaction, influence, impact, slicker office furniture, and the joy of quickening steps every evening, the excitement of a heart beating faster when opening the door to “Home”, the gratitude of hearing the lively chatter of children voices and of knowing that they are yours, the sounds of a soulful music in the background, the cuddles, the kisses, the “I love you”, and the smugness of smelling the wondrous aromas of home cooked meals. Meals cooked by a man, their own man.
My assignment has ended with laudatory comments from my managers. I am back home, seated on the living room’s main sofa, helping my son get ready for his history exam. I diligently ask a list of ready-made questions about the compensation-based ancient Germanic law in the early middle ages. My son moves his lean body around the room, jumping up and down as he often does when talking about a subject that he enjoyed immersing himself into.
“How much was the fine for killing a free woman?” I ask away whilst looking at the LOVE sign on our balcony.
My son provides the right estimate and adds:
“Though women had much lesser rights than men, the fine for killing a woman was substantially higher than that of killing a man.”
“Why was that so?” I ask again.
“It is obvious, isn’t? A woman was seen as being worthier than a man. Because, they valued the fact that, unlike a man, a woman could become a mother.”
I am shocked. Stunned for words. “That is discrimination!” I say. Then remembering that this was in ancient middle age times, I regain my composure.
“Do you think that there are still some subconscious remnants of this valuation system in contemporary times?” I ask.
“Yes, of course. Obviously”. My son says. That word again. His tone is too confident for my liking.
He stops his jumping, sits down next to me, lowers his head, looks me in the eye me and says: “Why are you surprised, Mother?”
This post is a slightly revised version of Mila’s original post “Of lofty ideals, long-distance motherhood and choices” on LinkedIn.