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You Can’t Have it All
Mom with a View

You Can’t Have it All

Our children deserve attentive, involved parents.


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.

June 25, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 30

(19) Anonymous, July 9, 2012 5:49 AM

what is child care considered to be?

Are we talking day care centers here? If we are, then, yes, I do understand the stress reported. There are often too many kids to a care provider. There is also the physical stress of being shlepped out at an early hour in the morning in ALL types of weather, spending the day outside your own things, your own home and coming back at exhausted at a late hour. In short, the child is going to work because the parent is going to work. It does not learn how to develop it's own resources and imagination among it's own things.When they're not in a crowded environ, they don't know what to do with themselves The child does not have the development to deal with the stress of going to work. They also have the stress of getting sick more because they will be with more chidren at a young age. Not a good situation. I felt I needed to work. I couldn't be dependent on a spouse's income. What if something G-d forbid did happen? I also felt it made us unequal if I am not contributing to income as well as household things. If he has to be involved with kids and earn a living...don't I, as well, have to do those things?Also I found I was NOT giving my kids attention when I was home. I was too busy cleaning the house. I do more when I have help with childcare and housecare. THEN when I am home, I CAN teach my children etc. I was home for the first four months of my kids lives. I hired a sitter to watch them AT HOME. I stayed around the first month to make sure things were working out. My husband adjusted his schedule to be home on Fridays. In 20 degree weather, I went to work but my kids could sleep secure in their home. Thank G-d. People have to do what works and sometimes daycare is the only option. I do feel that it is a last resort, though.

(18) Donna, June 30, 2012 2:49 AM

Excellent article. I too struggled with the choices that Ms Slaughter had. I wanted to work, and I needed to be seen to have current skills in the job market. My late husband was considerably older than I was, and I went into marriage, and chose to have children knowing that I would only be home with them until they were 12 years old. As it turned out, I had to train for another career by the time my youngest child was 5 years old (my husband had lied about his age on both his passport and C.V.) but I don't regret the time I had at home to train, educate and play with my children.

(17) Anonymous, June 29, 2012 10:18 AM

This question does not have an easy answer, so I hope we will stop acting otherwise. Re: Mothers who wok inside vs. outside of the home. There has been more than one stay at home mother who did NOT give her child/children the love and nurturing each child needs in order to thrive. I wonder what people have to say about that phenomenon. Also, the phrase "having it all" has been blown way out of proportion. We ALL make trade-offs. My father was an attorney who was home for dinner every night. He did not make a billion dollars, but that was not his goal in life. His choice enabled him to balance a fulfilling legal career with a satisfying family life. We women are asking for no less than what my father was able to achieve.

(16) Molly, June 29, 2012 6:00 AM

I respect your difference of opinion on where the research points re: day care. Are you not aware of the NICHD study? It was quite well respected, and national. I also want to point out that *many* babies with working mothers thrive. It is also true that center based care should be a last resort for children under three. I find it baffling that you would expect a child to get more responsive care when he is one of 6-12 toddlers per two adults instead of one or two with one mother. As I'm sure you know, children under three do best when a caregiver is responsive and can bond with them long term. This can certainly happen in many care situations, but is unlikely in a typical center. That is why I am against encouraging mothers to work outside the home if they would not otherwise choose it. I'm not sure how you missed the overwhelming evidence in that regard, but I assure you, I have never gotten my information from "Focus on the Family".

(15) Anonymous, June 28, 2012 4:44 AM

Why can't there be serious part time work for women w/ kids?

Just my opinion: I searched desperately for a part time job in my field (graphic design), as I had 8 children, 5 still at home, the youngest three years old and 3 college-age, when my husband was killed in a terrible highway crash. There were no part time jobs, not one, zilch. I was seriously being considered for a position that expected a 50 hour work week and trips to China. That obviously wouldn't work for me. If there were part-time jobs, women could work and still be there for their kids. Can anyone explain to me why our system is this way?

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