No One Can Have It All
For many women, there are no options.
What surprised me most about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic ("Why Women Still Can’t Have It All") about balancing a high-powered career and motherhood was that she had thought for even a nanosecond that there was such a thing as “having it all.” She says that she found it “impossible” to balance her exceedingly demanding, 60-hour-a-week job as Hillary Clinton’s policy director at the State Department with the relentless demands of parenthood. She seemed surprised that she was exhausted, miserable, and out of touch with her family.
As one friend of mine said in response to this: “Like – DUH!”
It is clear to many women that Slaughter was reaching for the illusive in trying to achieve balance with a high-powered career while also striving to be well-tuned in to the day-in and day-out issues facing her kids on the home front. There are a finite number of hours in the day and, more often than not, both work and the home front suffer. The exception to this well-established rule may be when there is a “stay-at-home” father on the scene. This I have seen work well.
I met a woman at a cookout recently who is a professor in public health at an elite university. We both received our masters degrees at about the same time. But as I veered off the professional track to start my family, she kept working full-time in academia, pursued her doctorate, and has an enviable public health position. When it was time to start a family, her husband stayed home with the kids.
“Wow,” I said to her, “you have an amazing professional life and your children are in the care of their dad, which must have simplified a lot of the daycare issues that many families face.”
She agreed that she and her family were fortunate with this arrangement, that it has worked for them.
The conversation probably should have stopped there. But I went on to say that sometimes I feel real regret at having jettisoned my entire professional life in public health to raise the children.
“Regret? Don’t you think I have regrets too?” she said. “You’ll eventually get back to the work you desire, but I’ll never get my babies back again. All women suffer regrets.”
Gulp. She is right, of course. There will always be painful trade-offs for parents. As my sister once said on the topic of working professionally after children: “Part-time, full-time, or not all – it all sucks.”
The decision for me to become a stay-at-home mom happened after my second child was born. Quality daycare is expensive and I did not earn enough income to have anything much left over after paying those fees. And then the third child came along and not only did it not make any fiscal sense to work, but it also became evident that our household ran more smoothly when one adult was paying close attention to the all-important but boring details of running the house and overseeing the day-to-day care of the children.
That person became me. On some unconscious level, I possessed a strong desire to be a central, constant presence in my young children’s lives. I don’t know whether, if I had to do it all over again, I would proceed the same way. The price has been high: I may never get back to the professional field I love (and especially at the level I was at when I left it), and we as a family continue to make huge sacrifices to subsist on basically one salary.
In the aftermath of Slaughter’s article, there has been a flurry of media attention on the topic of working mothers. Most of it seems focused on debunking the “having it all” myth and blaming feminism for daring to suggest that this was ever possible. This part I have never understood. Feminism never implied that women could “have it all.” What the feminist movement did, in my estimation, was fight for the equal opportunity to give women the choice of working or not. It did not promise that there would not be consequences on the home front in the wake of taking on full-time employment, but it paved the way for women to choose powerfully whether they wanted to be employed outside the home or not.
And there are many women who work because two incomes are absolutely required; it’s not about choice – there simply is no other option.
There are no easy answers and it certainly does not make a lot of sense to wallow in regret. While I did not once think I could “have it all,” I also didn’t grasp that I would feel the ripple effects of these choices for the rest of my life.
But, as I hear myself saying to my kids, “It is what it is.”