Working Moms Will Never “Have it All”

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First it was the newest attack on stay-at-home moms. Now, the new cover story in The Atlantic magazine brings you the latest in the “working moms can’t have it all” meme. But the good news is this — for once, there is no flame throwing in an article about mothers and work. And no judging, a la the comments by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg that if mothers want to have it all, they just have to put their foot down and head out the door at 5 p.m.

I was ready to assume that this second piece on mothers in as many weeks from this well-respected political magazine was going to be a rehash of the same old tired “mommy wars” story. But it’s not! So exhale, relax and I’ll recap why this article is worth our time and how we can use it to actually move this conversation forward.

The article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,”  written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, is a truly thoughtful exploration of the expectations women like Slaughter and myself (aka “women of a certain age”) grew up with, only to have parenting reality smack us in the face when we least expected it.

I harbored the same assumptions about my life that Slaughter did. She’s a Princeton professor and recent member of President Obama’s administration who stepped down from a demanding inside-the-beltway job because of her kids. She went through her accomplished career believing it was possible to manage a demanding job and motherhood at the same time. And while it worked for a while, her family’s circumstances changed and it became clear that as her children were getting older, they needed someone around more. Slaughter hasn’t abandoned her working life, but she talks about choices she’s made that fly in the face of cultural expectations that real professionals will choose job over family.

I thought many of the same things as Slaughter when I was a teen and a college student. I believed there was no limit to what I could accomplish, thanks to the women who paved the way for my generation, and had no concern that I wouldn’t be able to be a committed professional, as well as a hands-on mother who could “have it all” and “manage it all” with no problem. And I believed we finally lived in a time when women’s choices about these things would be respected, allowing room for flexibility when family issues would need to come first.

Yes, you may laugh now.

Like so many women, I learned the hard way that that was a fantasy and that I would have to reassess at some point, because I couldn’t be everything to everybody in the 24 hours I had each day. I also hadn’t anticipated the serious personal reflection I’d have to do about what was important to me in the long run when serious parenting challenges arose. Like Slaughter, I became a mother later in life as a result of spending time pursuing my education and career. And I thought if I survived the baby and toddler years, I could figure out how to find my way back to professional fulfillment, knowing that the heavy lifting of motherhood was done.

I stop for a moment so you can laugh again.

Adolescence is tough and it just might be more important to take a step off the professional track when our children are in that phase of life than when they are toddlers, and that can throw a real monkey wrench into a professional career. As Slaughter writes in the opening of her article:

“Eighteen months into my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department … I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.”

I thought we were out of the woods on certain issues we worked on with our daughter when she was very little, and things are going well, but as she is turning into the early teen she is supposed to be, I can see we are going to have to revisit some of the attachment issues we thought we had successfully navigated. Plus, I have lived with her through some not-so-pleasant experiences in the world of girls in the last two years. And there is no way we could be a household with two parents working 60+ hours a week with demanding jobs and give her what she needs. I know it’s not just up to me to help manage, but in our family that’s what works for us. And I’m happy and grateful for that.

That doesn’t make me a traitor to the feminist movement. It’s just reality.

Now, there are plenty of people who will rightly counter that parenting is a team sport — it’s not up to one parent or the other to be the sole manager of our children’s lives or to help them navigate the rough spots. But so many of us who are mothers want to find a way to be there for our kids when they need us.  And they’re not going to tap us on the shoulder in middle school and high school and say, “Mom (or Dad), I need you.” Someone has to be around, if possible, to observe and anticipate when those moments need attention.

The one problem I have with the article is the title, because feminism was never a promise to women to have it all.  It was about being able to choose something other than the stay-at-home world most of our mothers knew or having more career choices than teacher, nurse or stewardess. But somehow the idea of women having the option to enter the workforce as equal participants morphed into a belief that that idea was acceptable as long as women also remained the managers of children and households. That’s the part of the bargain that needs some new attention.

So what does “all” mean? There’s no right or wrong in this debate (though many would have us believe otherwise). Parents who work full-time to put food on the table and make sure the mortgage gets paid are just as much full-time parents as ones who choose to work part-time or not at all (outside the home) to take on parenting duties, rather than hiring sitters or nannies to manage during work hours. As you can see from the comments in my last post, Blame Stay-at-Home Moms for the War one Women,  feelings run deep about the parenting decisions we make,  especially when we feel like we’re being judged.

I thought I could have it “all” — and I do.  My “all” is just different than someone else’s “all.”

The other focus in the current issue of The Atlantic is supposed to be “Ideas” — so here’s an idea to add to that list. Let’s change the title of this article to “Why Parents Still Can’t Have It All.” That would be a truly refreshing jumping off point to allow us to talk about how all working mothers and fathers can manage their professions and their parenting commitments without having someone looking over our shoulders and passing judgment on whether we’ve done it the right way.

Do you feel like you “have it all?” And what does “all” look like in your life?

Read more from me at my place PunditMom and in my Amazon best-selling book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America.

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