Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, has predictably stirred some controversy on the Internets. It’s a brilliant article, and one that people will likely be talking about for a long time to come. With the precision of an academic and the dignity of a compassionate mother and advocate for social change, she challenges several out-of-date falsehoods (Slaughter tactfully calls them “half-truths”) about women, work, and family.
Very few women can reach their professional peak and spend a satisfying amount of time with their family by simply trying harder, or doing things in the right order. That, argues Slaughter, requires a women to be very rich or a superwoman. Nice gig if you can get it. Back here on Planet Reality, we battle a lifelong sequence of deeply entrenched societal barriers which make it near impossible for women to be both mothers and professional superstars. It’s just set up that way, like trying to game the house in Vegas. One or two people might win big, but at the end of the day the house always comes out ahead. You won’t win by trying harder or sequencing the slot machines in the right order.
Now, I’m no professional superstar. More like a mid-level librarian who has dabbled in this and that at professional services firms for 15 years. I always got good reviews, but I’m not exactly, well, Anne-Marie Slaughter. But the article resonated with me because I just quit my job after being at the same firm for 10 years. I did it because I have a 3.5-year-old and a 2-year-old and I really want to be with them more. Slaughter’s prescriptions for trying to change the house rules include busting the “time macho” myth, redefining the career arc, and redefining family values. But it was her final remedy that really caught my eye: rediscovering the pursuit of happiness. Please bear with me if you’ve not read the article and this is starting to sound a bit kumbaya.
Describing her decision to leave her job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department (my dream job 20 years ago when I graduated with a degree in international history and politics), and head back to her tenured position at Princeton, Slaughter writes:
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.
The admission is startling. It is rare to see a professionally prominent woman admit that they simply want to be with the kids more than they want their high powered career. It’s not the central argument of her article, but it’s a significant confession nonetheless. It resonates with me, because I felt empowered in my final weeks of work to tell people I was leaving to spend more time being a mother. I wasn’t slinking away quietly, unable to admit what society has groomed us to believe: that I wasn’t prepared to try hard enough. In my farewell email to colleagues (a ritual that has now unfortunately become a necessary component of exiting a job in corporate America), I wrote:
…I cannot express enough how grateful I am for the support and flexibility I’ve enjoyed over the past few years as my family grew. I’ve also learned some important life skills at <professional services firm>, including that you make more progress with patience and compromise rather than banging someone over the head, and that you have to hustle to make something happen. I will be applying those skills to a greater degree on the home front as I embark on a new chapter which involves more time with my two young children. I have a small writing project on the side which will hopefully keep the little grey cells ticking over.
Again, I’m clearly no Anne-Marie Slaughter, but after sending an email that contained those defiant words, I felt – dare I say it – proud to identify with her message. Slaughter expressed a desire to spend more time with her teenagers and help guide their path into adulthood. I am choosing to spend more time with my two small children, the eldest of whom is starting to learn about being donor-conceived. This too will come with unique challenges, and I hope I will be up to the task of guiding them.
Slaughter makes one other comment which I think worth mentioning.
Abstract aspirations are easier than concrete trade-offs, of course….yet once work practices and work culture begin to evolve, those changes are likely to carry their own momentum
Reading this, it struck me how true this is for any sweeping changes. So many parents of donor-conceived children feel unable to take on the challenge of telling friends and family, and most importantly, their children, about donor conception. But, can you imagine a world where people embrace donor conception as a legitimate form of family building, first and foremost the parents of the donor-conceived, and how we could create our own momentum? It’s worth thinking about.