Why Women Still Can't Have It All

Have you read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article about why women still can’t have it all?  She’s a mother of two and was the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, so she would know. She was on the fast track of commuting for her high-profile job while on a 2-year leave from Princeton University. After 18 months she returned to her family not only because they needed her, but also because she wanted to.

I listened to an interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter on Fresh Air while I was–no joke–freezing jars of homemade strawberry jam. I was nodding and “mmm-hmmmm”ing in my apron while my 4 kids orbited. The irony is not lost on me. I’m one of the women Slaughter owes an apology to. She’s been saying we could have it all for years. (Preach sister.) But, as it turns out, you can’t have it all.  I’m kind of thinking, “I KNEW IT.”

Just so you know, I feel no pressure from society to make homemade jam. It’s archaic—but so delicious. I know I can buy it and I know making it is a big pain. I’m free to choose and I choose to make jam. Just like I chose to have 4 kids and stay home with them. I’m lucky to have a choice. Most people don’t, including my mom who had to and still has to work. Most work-life balance conversations are for privileged people. Anne-Marie Slaughter gets this. But she also gets that change has to start somewhere.

Slaughter hates to admit that women can’t have it all because she really believes in a world where women could and should have it all.  But we don’t live in that world yet. Her article includes specific, realistic suggestions for making the workplace better.  For years she thought that if a woman was committed enough, was careful about her timing, and had a supportive husband she could “make it work.” Slaughter met all of these criteria and having it all–the high-power job, the happy family life–was still untenable.

“I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet,” she says. And her boss was Hillary Clinton! So it’s not like she was taking dictation from Don Draper.

“I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet.”

Many women take time off when their kids are little, assuming they can head back to work when the kids are in school. I’m finding, as Anne-Marie Slaughter found, your kids still really need you around during those years. I actually continued to teach college writing part-time after I started having babies, timing births around school breaks, with the intent to return when my kids were all in school. Guess who will have all their kids in school this fall but has no desire, energy, ambition, or even one block of time during the week long enough to teach a class and hold office hours? This guy.

I married pretty young, but I put off having kids until my husband and I both got graduate degrees. Then I started having babies. I wanted to. After a certain age it’s harder to get pregnant. I mean, I hate to be the one to break it to you. Fortunately there are options like adoption and fertilization but it’s expensive and doesn’t always work. Them’s the facts.

Anne-Marie Slaughter had her kids later in life in order to kick start her career. Seems like a good plan. And it was! She was thrilled to have her two sons in her 40s. But at age 50 when many woman are killing it in their twilight careers, she found herself with an increasingly surly 12-year-old son who needed her. So she willingly hopped off the fast track and went home.

One could argue that Anne-Marie Slaughter does have it all. She left Washington to return to a flexible job in academia. I don’t think she’s complaining. But she thinks the world would be better if some of those high-power jobs could be held by committed family types. Because committed family types have a lot to offer. Don’t you think?

How do we do this? One simple but earth-shattering suggestion is to make school schedules match work schedules. They used to match when we were more agrarian. Wouldn’t that help? Having it all is not possible in many types of jobs. You have to be able to control your schedule. Nevertheless, Slaughter thinks that a change in baseline assumptions about how we work would benefit everyone. She uses the example of a marathon runner. Say this marathon runner gets up early to train and is disciplined about getting work done so he can take time off for races. His boss probably thinks he’s admirable, efficient, and amazing. But a mom who loses sleep over sick babies and gets her work done early so she can make it to parent teacher conferences is regarded as a slacker–even though she’s demonstrating the same qualities.

When I taught college I worked for two departments. I was part-time faculty in the English dept which was mostly full-time professors. I never knew what was going on. They didn’t reach out to the part-timers. The professors saw each other in the hallway and had staff meetings (which part-timers weren’t invited to) where they talked about all kinds of things relevant to my class. I felt marginalized. You might say that it’s a pain to deal with part-timers and I should make more of an effort to get face time in the department. True and true. But the English department hired a huge adjunct staff to teach those first-year writing classes that no one else wanted. Ostensibly, they did need and want us.

Contrast that with the Honors department, which was a weird hybrid of departments where all the writing classes were taught by part-time faculty. I loved it! We did everything through e-mail. There was one major meeting a year (planned well in advance) which nursing babies famously attended.  Our faculty was made up of men and women. We got high teaching evaluations and the university thought we did such a great job they commissioned a book about the history of the department.  At one point a group of fellow teachers who were moms my age were fitting it all in during the four hours of preschool our kids had three times a week. I felt valued and I did a good job.

The baseline assumptions in that department were different than the assumptions in the English department. I worked hard in both jobs, but I only felt successful in the honors department.

I love this quote Slaughter gives from Lisa Jackson, “To be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman. Empowering yourself doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”

Working from home and blogging while you raise your kids is a great option for so many moms.  Blogging has been a real game changer for moms, which is why I wish bloggers would be a little bit more responsible about whoring out the “mommy wars” for page views. They’re over guys. Get with the program.

“To be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman. Empowering yourself doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”



I hope Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article will serve as a cease-fire on the non-productive “This vs. That” mentality so we as women and men and parents and employers can focus on making the workplace a happier and more productive place for everyone. Everyone has everything to gain. Except the misogynists. And people who hate families and/or parents. And anyone who does NOT want more productive, creative, and efficient employees–Those people will all be mad if we take this article seriously and implement some of Slaugther’s forward-thinking ideas.  Let’s do this.

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