Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and more recently, the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, unleashed a firestorm with her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the July/August issue of the Atlantic.
Ms. Slaughter explains that she left government because, despite an incredibly supportive and helpful husband, she felt that her teenage son needed her presence at home.
In speaking engagements, she has acknowledged that she couldn’t be the kind of employee her job demanded and simultaneously the kind of parent her children required, whatever her feminist training had led her to believe and however much some of her female counterparts felt betrayed by her position – and her honesty!
Kudos to Ms. Slaughter for having the courage to speak out. I applaud that. Unfortunately I think she misses or glosses over two important points.
She suggests that women could, in fact, “have it all” if only the economy were restructured to reflect a greater appreciation of the important role of parenting and the crucial need for work-life balance. If only employers and businesses were more accommodating. I think this is a naïve and unrealistic point of view, perhaps (I apologize Professor Slaughter) a childish view of life.
If only the system were changed, if only motherhood was more appreciated, if only I won a million dollars, if only, if only…we all have a wish, or shall I say fantasy, list. But part of maturity is recognizing that life is full of tough choices, that no one can actually have it all, and that we create ourselves, our personhood, our unique being, through the choices we make.
Life has trade-offs, but we decide what's "worth it."
If we choose to become an expert in a particular area of study, we are closing off others. If we spend hours training to be a hockey player, we have ruled out a future in baseball.
But of course it gets more serious and more complicated. When we get married, we are narrowing many of our options – no other intimate relationships, someone else to be responsible for and to, another person to consult on decisions, another’s needs to take into account. We can’t just run off whenever and wherever we feel like it. Our finances our shared, our social lives merged. There are sacrifices and trade-offs that we have decided are worth it. But we certainly can’t “have it all.”
Once we have children, we also foreclose certain possibilities and deepen our responsibilities. If we didn’t already “find ourselves,” the moment has passed. Our children need us and they need stability. We may have to put the fancy vacation on hold to pay for their education, or camp, or even food and clothing. We may no longer to be able to leave a frustrating job to pursue a fancy, a whim, or even a passion because there are people counting on us, people dependent on us, people over whose lives we have accepted responsibility.
We may not be able to commute to Washington DC, work long, demanding hours, and then return home on weekends to be a bright and energetic mom. Life has trade-offs. Our choices have consequences. The problem isn’t the American economy’s distorted priorities. It’s too easy to try to assess blame and point a finger. But the real change is to face reality – and deciding who you really want to be. Because you can’t be everyone and everything.
There is another downside to the career choice that Ms. Slaughter gives cursory mention.
“…I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting – baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals. My older son is doing very well these days, but even when he gives as a hard time, as all teenagers do, being home to shape his choices and help him make good decisions is deeply satisfying.”
I wish she’d spent more than a paragraph on this point. It’s not just that our children need us. We need them. We are missing out on one of life’s most precious gifts if we aren’t around to raise our children and interact with them. Is it necessarily anti-feminist to acknowledge the pleasure in child-raising? Or to note, as is frequently pointed out, that no one looks back on their lives and wishes they had worked more.
It’s not just that our children need us. We need them.
Work-life balance is a struggle both for men and women. Financial realities may deny some the luxury of stay-at-home parenting. We all have choices to make along the spectrum. How much money is necessary? How many hours do I really need to work? And what price am I ultimately willing to pay? Who is the person I want to become? And what are the choices that will get me there?
I’m glad that Anne-Marie Slaughter has given this dirty little secret the press it warrants. Our children deserve attentive, involved parents. And we shouldn’t rob ourselves of the pleasure and the growth earned in the playing that role. Our free will choices make us the people we are today. It’s not easy to choose wisely. It wouldn’t be meaningful if there wasn’t a struggle, if there weren’t complicated and tough choices – and trade-offs and costs. This is the human condition and we need to pray we make the choices that will lead us to become the adults, spouses, parents and workers that we are truly proud to be.