having it all.

by Liz on 06.26

I sit amidst the clutter of a busy weekend. Dishes are stacked by the sink, legos are strewn at my feet, and the baby runs around scattering crumbs from his toast as he goes. Periodically he brings me a lego tower he carefully built for me to admire. But, I sit on the couch with my coffee and a virtual stack of articles that piled up over the course of last week. Having it all, eh?

The question of “Having It All” is sort of near to my heart. I consider myself someone who temporarily gave up her career to be at home with her son (much to the outrage of the feminist world at large, it seems), though, it’s a bit more complex than that. I may have left a job that I loved, that already (though early in my career) had received recognition and commendation. But, in my time at home, I’ve further developed my own business, built a new company, and have begun to gain other means of enjoyable income while also flexing my creative muscles. I’m sort of a hybrid stay-at-home-mom and entrepreneur, never sure if I’m doing either successfully. Luckily, eventually, my son will start school and I’ll return to work. Teaching is terrific in that way. We’ll have the same daily schedule, with the same holidays and summers off. “Having it all,” for me, right now, means working from home. But it also means not having it all at once- shifting my focus to baby now, and back to career later. I’m very fortunate to have that option (at least in theory. Hopefully it’ll play out in practice).

Rather than true “balance,” some women of past generations of feminism seem to have overcompensated, neglecting family for career in ways they don’t even acknowledge. Specific accomplishments and milestones are available to a progressing career, enabling you to demarcate how far you move. With family, the only markers are negative. “We’re not divorced,” and “The kids aren’t on drugs,” seem the only means of proving success in the home. It’s easier, then, to let the family ball drop in favor of keeping up your job, and still say, “Look. I’m doing both successfully.” As a result, some of these same women (not to be interpreted as Feminism as a movement, but individuals) have shoved that responsibility onto the next generation, as well, with a, “But we did it. You should, too.”

I appreciated Slaughter’s article. I enjoyed her candor. I think we’re all always a bit surprised by how little we actually can accomplish in the face of all of our ambition. But, in my estimation, Slaughter does have it all, doesn’t she? She may have given up one high-profile branch of her career, but she certainly is still doing much more than loafing about eating bon-bons. Slaughter’s choice hasn’t been one of “either/or,” but instead one of percentages and compromises. She may not “have it all,” but she’s pretty stinking close.

Still, I think a bit of backlash like this is necessary against the increasingly outdated notion that a woman is only a valuable feminist if she’s working long, hard hours in an office someplace. Squeezing a woman into a one-size-fits-all mold is the opposite of progress. Meanwhile, considering motherhood and staying at home as less valuable than a lucrative career is just straight anti-woman. Many, many women continue to make this choice and lauding men as “progressive!” for doing such, but chiding and villianizing women for doing the same? This is feminism? This is pro-woman?

One critique of this article that I’ve heard repeatedly is that Slaughter ineffectively addresses the fact that men are not similarly torn apart over “work-life balance.” I appreciated that she reiterated a few times that her husband has taken on the majority of the child-rearing and I felt that was a satisfactory handling of the issue. “He’s helping, I’m still needed,” was the message I got. I didn’t feel that Slaughter is taking on the brunt of parenting and housekeeping, or that she is the only of the two who has made compromises in order to care for the children. Instead, it seemed a bit closer to what I described a bit ago. Her ambition got the best of her, ended up being too much, and she needed to take an unanticipated step back. This happens to many people for many other reasons, as well- not just in favor of children.

The general discussion may not often turn to, “How do men balance career and family?” simply out of habit. Women are expected to be home, (or in other circles, expected to be career women) while men are asked to show up for the occasional soccer game and be sure not to miss a birthday. Though this is the case in general, my personal experience is very different. Growing up, my own dad worked several jobs at a time (at one point, he was working one full-time job, two part-time jobs, and completing his Bachelor’s) and I know that he deeply felt the strain of missing his family. My own husband would greatly prefer to be the one allowed to stay home with my son and remarks that he’s jealous fairly often, but he works because he’s conceded to my own preference. Someone needs to pay the bills. The question of  “work-life balance” is very real to the men I know. They just don’t consider it an option or use the language that women do. In a way, the very decision that women are forced to weigh, is the choice these men do not dream their privilege to consider.

So- apart from my own husband and my dad- why are there sectors wherein the top ranks are completely filled with men? Do all of these men suffer from a level of disconnection from their families? Are they immune to it? I think perhaps a small piece may be the added work that women need to do in order to achieve the same status and recognition as men doing the same jobs. Sandberg discussed that women are not as likely to correctly value their worth, are not as likely to see their contributions as valuable, are not as likely to negotiate for a raise, and are more likely to focus on the flaws in what they do. This certainly is a piece of the problem. But perhaps another piece is that a woman needs to exert more effort to prove her worth than a man in the same position. Not because women need to work harder to do the same job, but because public opinion is less inclined to notice the contributions of a woman. This is not just a self-esteem issue. It’s a social perception issue. There will always be men who work long, inflexible hours, spending nights away from their kids in the office. But these men are not lauded for their absentee parenting, and chances are, their female colleagues are working just a bit more to maintain the same career status.

I disagreed with Slaughter’s disdain for, “You can’t have it all at once.” I recognize her point. If I were to continue teaching now, I would miss out on a chunk of my son’s beginning stages and milestones. But, by delaying my career for a minimum of five years (when he’ll start kindergarten), I run the risk of being unable to compete in the job market or prove my skills still relevant. This isn’t “it all” in the most specific, “the best of both worlds” sense. But it is Having It All in the truer, more flexible sense. I’m enjoying my time now, with some limitations. I hope to do the same in the future, perhaps with different parameters.

While I enjoyed this article, I also liked the response by Salon. In fact, they were both arguing the same basic point, as Salon’s Traister eventually admits. “Having it all” as a notion about work-life balance sets too high a bar, unfair to women in the name of “feminism.” My argument for some time has been that we need to redefine what it means to “have it all.” Does it mean that you have a little plate with partitions, each one filled with a specific amount from a buffet? I think, rather, it means choosing what is important to you in the moment, allowing your life to sort itself accordingly, and being open and flexible to that changing dramatically at any given time. Rebecca Traister argues that we shouldn’t redefine “it all”- we should remove the phrase entirely. I’m not sure that this move would solve everything. Even without the language, that  concept is still an important and pressing source of guilt for so many woman, and as such, should be discussed. It should certainly be dismantled from its position as Chief Goal, replaced with something more fair.

Perhaps instead of, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” this should have been titled, “You’ll Need to Make a Few Compromises and I Want You to Be Able to Choose Which Ones.” Then, perhaps Traister (and I, to be fair) could’ve jumped on board a bit more heartily. That’s the thing, right? Whether you are in a high-profile, demanding career like Slaughter’s or you’re a stay-at-home entrepreneur like me, you take what you have and make choices that afford you the most reasonable contentment.

 

SO! There’s lots of juicy stuff going on in all of these many articles. My reading made me think of the, “you can’t have it all at once,” and the difference between male and female decisions about work-life balance. What did it make you think about? What was your take-away? Did you like it, or dislike it?

 

For more:

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic.

Salon’s response: Can Modern Women “Have It All”?

Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk on Work-Life Balance and Barnard Commencement Address. (With some overlap in content.)

Penelope Trunk instructing you to Get Pregnant at 25 If You Want a Career. (Are you effing kidding me?)

New Statesman’s response: Feminism Didn’t Lie to Women.

Rebecca Walker’s several year old article on How My Mother’s Fanatical Feminism Tore Us Apart.

And a response that I think misses the point: Lisa Gottlieb on Why There’s No Such Thing As Having It All and Will Never Be. Rather than hearing Slaughter’s question as, “Why did I feel it necessary to stretch myself this thin and how can we ease that pressure?” Gottlieb interprets her article as whining. Nowhere do I hear Slaughter mourning the loss of her job in DC nor do I hear her blaming her teenaged kids for tearing her away or Feminism for tricking her into thinking she could have more than her share. Instead, I hear a woman wondering aloud why there aren’t structures in place to enable more women to have the highest profile jobs (and as a result, far-reaching influence) that would cyclically allow more women to have better options in balancing work and life.

And even this, Women Having It All: The Debate So Far, a more thorough presentation of the internet’s uproar, doesn’t get the full picture. Yes, Slaughter is talking from the stance of “privileged, educated women who have considerate husbands and household help,” but if even ladies with all of those assets (including what I imagine to be a pretty hefty paycheck) struggle to balance childcare and career, isn’t it something worth digging into deeper?

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