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In a recent, widely read and frequently shared article in the Atlantic Monthly, Anne Marie Slaughter wrote a piece entitled: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. While I desperately wanted to start this post with, 'Oh my god. Just stop.', I waited to bury that sentiment right there in the second line. Consider it said.
Ms. Slaughter was the first woman director of policy planning for the State Department. This is as big a deal as it sounds. Leaders from the original Women’s Rights Movement congratulated her and tried to commiserate on the generation of women who --sigh, roll of the eyes-- sometimes choose not to rise as high as professionally possible because they want more time with family. Unfortunately for those old-timers, Ms. Slaughter was secretly biding her time, waiting to be one of those very defectors from their ideal.
A Princeton professor appointed to her prestigious role in the State Department, Ms. Slaughter moved without her family to Washington, living there throughout the week because of the long hours her position required. That little thing called foreign policy never sleeps. She traveled home on the weekends to her two sons, 12 and14, and to her husband who, I think, was magnanimous in agreeing to this so his wife could take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity. Ms. Slaughter felt torn; one son was struggling in school and, although unsaid, she clearly missed a normal life. This was when she realized she couldn’t have it all. The minute her two-year commitment to State was up, she beat a hasty retreat back to her full time job as a Princeton professor, an author and a guest lecturer. She can balance all that and be a good mom, too. Apparently, having it all is defined as much more than this rather prestigious life.
Ms. Slaughter postulates, “the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” Perspective and definition appear to be part of the problem here.
I am not sure who Ms. Slaughter thinks of as a top professional if she, a Princeton professor and author, is not one of them. Ms. Slaughter’s main point seems to be that until women are able to reach the heights of their profession and still manage the role of Fifth Grade Room Mom, the odds are stacked against us in achieving it all. Unfortunately, no amount of top professional women will be able to magically add a few hours to the 24 hour day. And that is what is required here. Human beings are bound by time and the need for minimal sleep and a shower. Being a hands-on mom consumes time. Real time. If you work, you commit to giving up your own time, evenings and weekends, and more than a little sleep and privacy to be there for your kids. If you really want to do that, you can’t be in charge of foreign policy for the United States. You just can’t. But as Ms. Slaughter proves, you can still be a Princeton professor, an author and a guest speaker. Again, this sounds freakishly impressive and upper echelon-y to a woman like me, who works in an urban high school where I have to buy my own pens.
There’s no getting around it. There are choices to be made. I am not here to judge anyone’s, just to voice caution on their consideration. Be wary of the widely repeated axiom that men are not asked to choose between having children and a high powered career, but women are. A moment of realism: Men cannot fulfill the level of family involvement coupled with career accomplishment set forth in Ms. Slaughter’s essay any easier than women.
Ms. Slaughter’s own husband knows this. While she was working in Washington and having cocktails with the Obamas, he stayed back, worked a long day and then ended it with kids, dinner and homework. In this role of care giver/professional guy he was very obviously not in charge of foreign policy planning or CEO of a large corporation. Instead, he made compromises and struck a balance. Ms. Slaughter benefitted: her husband put her career and ambitions first. What more could any representative of feminist success want? To be close to her kids.
I hesitate to say women are wired to want to be with their children, but pretty much they are. Not that men don’t miss their kids or can’t be great care givers. Of course, they do and they are. But being an uber-successful women doesn’t cover the sense of absence from our children. This is a feeling that takes over sometimes just because, even without our kids struggling in school. It is underpinned not as much by culture as by biology and the experience of loving a helpless baby and doing everything for him. There’s no getting around it. And there shouldn’t be.
Ms. Slaughter asserts that this would all be easier if women were ubiquitous in true leadership positions, making the work place more accommodating to women’s needs. In particular this would facilitate changes in childcare and flexible hours. Maybe. But that's a big leap. Regardless of the gender of the boss, decisions are often made based on the bottom line of finances and company goals -- not much else.
Are these points relevant to most women? I am the primary provider for my three girls. I rarely work a sixteen-hour day. In fact, the people who often do are either the highly powerful or the very poor, as in: I have three minimum wage jobs. For poor working women, life choices are more like a series of ultimatums than anything else. No amount of women CEO’s will change that.
For middle class, mid-level workers like me, it is not so much a question of flexibility, or childcare, or prestige, but one of earnings. The dilemma I face is: should I take on more responsibility in order to earn more, knowing this may take me from my children physically or even just mentally, regardless of how it is scheduled? It’s a constant balancing act between providing for them and being present.
I do not need flexibility so I can go to my child’s Christmas show, school conference or soccer game. Most women working in professional and semi professional jobs can do those things. I have been a chaperone on a field trip more times than I care to; I’ll ditch that experience for more cash. I am in the 40% of women who make as much or more than the father, and so my income matters very much. There’s plenty of research on how many of us reside in the middle of that big bell curve where the issue is rarely flexibility, hours or the mom-friendliness of the workplace and is more likely to be salary.
Ms. Slaughter regrets the occasions where she sent the message that women can have it all and that somehow it’s their problem if they can’t juggle well. This is a good regret to have. Not because she told them a lie, but because she held up as the ultimate goal adhesion to a feminist ideal that was developed forty years ago in a vacuum of real experience. Since the 1970’s, real experience has tried to muscle into our conversation with the ideal, with mixed success.
Ms. Slaughter freely admits that once upon a time she praised herself for measuring up to this ideal. She was even a little smug about it. I praise myself for dragging my butt to work 45+ hours a week, for not eating that second donut and for agreeing to read “Is Your Mama a Llama” for the fifth time in a row to my daughter --but never, ever for being a role model for any political cause anywhere. If you are with me in the middle of that bell curve, I bet you can relate.
While the vanguard of the women’s movement may accuse the current generation of abandoning the perceived end goals of their hard fought fight, these pioneers gave today’s women an important benefit that we are just learning to exercise: real choice. I contend most women today have more choice in defining themselves than men have. As a friend commented recently, there are far fewer ways to be a man in our culture than to be a woman. And far more ways to be not a man. A woman can stay home with her child, not have children, work and have children or any combination thereof. She can be a supermarket checker or Secretary of State. It’s all good.
Women have many choices, but that sometimes creates confusion. To all the younger women out there, clarify your choices based on the knowledge of who you are and what you want from life. If you don’t know these two things, that is where you need to start. You do not have to be a slave to a culturally defined role any more than you have to be a slave to a politically defined one. You have the freedom and the right to define “all’ for yourself. Your definition may determine your success in achieving it. If you set the bar at being Speaker of the House, PTA president and coach of the soccer team, you may find yourself not just failing, but dead. Understanding the dangers of perfectionism, the power of illusion, and the trap of meeting others’ expectations at the expense of your own, are all part of this process. Feel free to redefine 'it all' as you go along. But remember, it is still yours to define.
Ms. Slaughter can define having it all – or not having it all --her own way. That’s because having it all starts with having this: the freedom, the right, and the power to define and choose what having it all will be for you. Thanks to that vanguard, we do. That, ladies, is not just 'it all'. It’s everything.