“Why are working mothers so furious all the time?” I was asked recently. An answer, not entirely rational, springs to mind: “Personally, I could use a travel agent.” It’s a joke, sort of. School vacation is coming up. I’m swamped at work, and trip planning has become a time-consuming hell. A simple family vacation requires innumerable visits to destination websites; a suspicious scouring of rankings and reviews; and, at the heart-stopping final moment, a purchase on a site where prices and availability seem to change by the second. In the old days, it was simple. A woman would call a travel agent, and voilà! The trip would be booked. Now agents charge $35 a ticket. Don’t get me started on fees.
The yearning for an old-school travel agent is a metaphor for deeper and probably insoluble problems of domestic life, circa 2011. First, any illusion that mothers might have had about full-time employment as a “lifestyle choice” has, in this economy, been stripped away. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 77 percent of American women with school-age children work; a quarter say they sometimes work from home; a third work on the weekends. Why? Women fare better than men in this employment market. Those stories of a decade ago—Yale-educated mommies struggling with career angst as they mop up yogurt spills—seem as out of sync with today’s realities as Leviticus.
Second, the “service economy” of the boom years has, thanks to the technology revolution and corporate cost-cutting, become a nightmare of self-service. Individuals, under increasing pressure to perform at work, have to do for themselves all kinds of things that other people—middlemen, customer-service agents, HR managers, and administrative assistants—used to do. This has given rise to the most tedious household chore of all: domestic administration. Health-insurance forms, 401(k) planning, personal banking, tech support, expenses, gift returns—these have become existentially excruciating, a maze of portals and passwords. And on the phone? Robot voices that lead nowhere in the direction of human help.
“You’re focused on making the reservation, and the email, and the deadline at work tomorrow,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute. “We’re supposed to be paying attention to all of it, all the time.” Beneath these newer realities of modern life lies an indisputable truth: American corporate structures and marriages still do not fully accommodate the working mom. Which means, for better and worse, that women are still in charge of haircuts, doctors’ appointments, and birthday parties. That’s why vacation planning on the Internet, though innocuous in itself—and a prelude to fun—feels like the very last straw. Linda Stone, a Seattle-based writer on technology and modern life, describes the mounting pressure this way: “I have thousands of little ants crawling up my legs. I have thousands of things to check into and to manage. Even the most compulsive, obsessive, organized individual feels that it’s a lot.”
Some companies are endeavoring to make life’s chores not completely soul-sapping. LifeCare Inc., offers concierge services as part of corporate benefits packages: “If someone calls in and says, ‘I’m having a birthday party for my daughter, and I need a life-size cutout of Lady Gaga,’ we help with that,” says CEO Peter Burki. Zappos hires only upbeat salespeople, hoping to make the inanity of buying shoes online resemble something fun. “It’s not about the itinerary,” insists Jenn Lim, a consultant to Zappos on happiness and productivity. “It’s not about the details. It’s about your experience in the world.” Fine. But first I have to redeem those frequent-flier points.