Putting The “Having It All” Debate In Focus

Before I get into the substance of this post, I’m going to start with an anecdote that is going to ultimately illustrate one of the main points of this piece:  my sophomore year of high school, there was a massive heat wave in New York.  People were passing out left and right at school, and my mother went to a school board meeting where they were discussing how to deal with the problem of this insane heat wave.  During this board meeting, another member, in response to my mother’s concerns, said, “Well I brought my kids water fifth period, you should have done that”.

My mother’s response was that she worked.

My mom is a teacher.  She has weekends and summers off, and most of the time if I was home, she was home too.  She is in a traditionally feminine career and she always found time to be a parent.  So how dare this woman-~-how dare anyone-~-imply that she was a crappy parent for not being there to give me water in the middle of the day?

Remember my post about succeeding in the workplace?  I want you to keep that in mind during this conversation about “having it all” and whether or not that is possible for women-~-or anyone, for that matter.

Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Dept official and a professor at Princeton University, published an essay in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”.  And all of the sudden, criticisms were coming from all directions about how it’s not just women, MEN can’t have it all either, and so on and so forth.

Not that, you know, that was the point Slaughter was making.  In fact, if all of these critics had taken the time to really read the article, they’d see that the solutions she poses would help both men AND women.  And on top of that, Slaughter does not totally ignore the fact that men are also forced to be excessively competitive and make sacrifices along the way.  The work-life balance, as she rightly points out, is difficult to attain for everyone.

But let’s face the facts here: it IS still harder for women.  And in the end, women aren’t necessarily listening to Sheryl Sandburg’s pep talks and all the second-wavers telling us that “we can have it all”.  At this point, as Slaughter points out, “you can have it all” is something of a lie that feminism has sold us.  It’s not like it’s easy to balance a career and kids and a personal life…all of that takes a whole lot of time that can be pretty tough to manage.  The difference is that men are EXPECTED to make sacrifices for their careers; when women do this, they’re told that they are bad mothers.

And that’s exactly what happened to my mother, even though she WASN’T making huge sacrifices for her career.  She has one of the most flexible and parenting-oriented careers possible.  So can you imagine the attitude that a woman who had to work a high-stress, time-consuming career that does require greater sacrifices?  It’s not ‘being a woman’, and it’s not ‘bringing home the bacon’; it’s not even ‘being a good feminist’ anymore.  It’s “being a bad mom” and feeling like your kids are slipping through the cracks.

And that’s where the real problem comes in.

And Anne-Marie Slaughter is saying all of this from the ideal location: high-profile career, super-understanding boss, and a husband willing to do the lion’s share of the parenting–which, unfortunately, is not actually as common as it could be.

And that’s where half the problem comes in.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still spend SUBSTANTIALLY more time taking care of other members of the household and taking care of household responsibilities than their male counterparts.  And because of this, women still feel obligated to do more of the work at home and are therefore made to feel guilty if they have demands coming from their work life.

On the flip side of that, women are conditioned to feel like they have more to prove in the office.  Because of this, they feel like they need to come in earlier, stay later, make more sacrifices.  Because of this, they feel like they don’t have the right to ask for time off to take care of their kids, or like they are going to be seen as a lesser employee if they need to take care of their parental duties.  And in a society where companies invest less in women because they’re going to become mothers but DON’T cross-apply this to men who will become fathers, in a society where women aren’t promoted as quickly and aren’t as likely to be hired from the start, that’s a pretty big double-standard, and it’s like the odds are still stacked against you.


It’s not perfect, but it CAN get better

What Slaughter suggests is that work schedules need to be made more flexible, and the career trajectory needs to change as our lifespans grow longer and we’re able to work for more years, so we’re not peaking at work when we’re also trying to raise children.  And that seems fairly reasonable…but until the people who make the rules are more sensitive to women’s issues, that’s not going to be achievable.

I still stand by a lot of what I said in my last post on this subject.  You should still absolutely go after your dreams and fight for what you want; you should still take your chances and not make decisions based on having a family until you’re actually in a position to have a family.  And you still should never let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes.  You absolutely do.

But I would be lying if I said I thought it would be easy.  I didn’t exactly choose a field that was conducive to settling down early, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t occasionally concerned.  But realize, even if it is hard, it is a battle worth fighting.  Even if we can’t have it all, we can still put ourselves, as Sheryl Sandburg rightly pointed out, in a position so that when the time comes to choose between that high-profile career and the extra time with our family, we still have that choice to make.


~ by Randi Saunders on June 25, 2012.

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