When the latest issue of The Atlantic hit mailboxes and screens last week containing a confessional essay by Princeton professor and former State Department director Anne-Marie Slaughter titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” one could practically hear the buzz ripple through playgrounds and office pods alike.
In her frank article, Slaughter pulls the Band-Aid off some taboo topics: She outlines how, at the apex of her career, she decided to leave the State Department because she wasn’t parenting her struggling teenage son the way she wanted to while immersed in the high-pressure job. The article goes on to expose the “half-truths” Slaughter says women tell ourselves: That we can have it all if we are committed enough, if we choose the right partner, and if we sequence our career and childbearing milestones properly.
Slaughter’s dilemma — having the career she desires while being the parent she wants to be — is one many mothers (and fathers — more on that later) can relate to.
The words “having it all” bring me immediately back to a place I’ve been before: Working a full-time office job until 6:30 p.m., two toddlers in daycare for 10 hours a day and a partner working 50 hours a week, desperate to keep my career aloft but more desperate to enjoy my daughters’ fleeting babyhoods.
Lacking professional guidance, with seemingly no options for flex time or job share and torn in a way I never imagined I could be, I quietly quit the job I had worked years to secure.
Despite how common these experiences are, they still seem like dirty little secrets we’re ashamed to talk about.
So I could barely suppress a little whoop of joy as I opened The Atlantic (even as the clichéd cover illustration of a headless female employee holding a leather briefcase which appeared to be birthing a toddler made me squirm slightly).
But before I, and probably most busy mothers, had even made it through the article, already the usual waves of criticism and backbiting were rising like a noisy swarm of familiar, pesky locusts.
Within hours, online opinions spewed forth and stacked up: Slaughter is too feminist, some critics said. She’s antifeminist, charged others. Still some accused her of being elitist and said she has it all already so what’s she complaining about. The economy will collapse if we accommodate parents, it seemed. Also, it will collapse if we don’t accommodate parents.
So which is it?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m sick of us circling around this issue like rabid wolves, fanning the flames, using trumped-up arguments as bait for the mom-vs.-mom wars and the man-vs.-woman wars, then forgetting to work on sustained, positive change over the long haul.
I feel like the important discussions about parenting/workforce challenges and the politics that surround them are obscured by blame-placing and nitpicking. The minute the discussion breaks open on a large scale, the noisy locusts swarm, distracting us.
What I love about Slaughter’s gutsy article is that it goes well beyond sound bites and burrows in to some of the issue’s least-often discussed angles, including how economic and family values intersect, and why electing a female president and 50 women senators (she requests no less) is critical to closing the leadership gap.
Three angles I think are too often missing from the working-parents conversation, and these Slaughter begins to address:
1. Real women, AKA the 99%
Most working mothers and fathers are not asking themselves how they should work in order to realize every personal career goal, salary bracket and accolade they dream of. They are not rich or über-educated. They are not taking a high-profile State Department job in one city while their family, and their tenured Princeton job, waits in another, as Slaughter was able to do.
Instead most are faced with how to earn enough money to maintain a home and provide three squares a day and a decent education for their children while still being around enough to provide guidance, love and moral character modeling.
We need to listen to the needs of regular families — of middle managers and blue-collar workers and those who might be able to better climb the ladder if they weren’t dinged for having children — and craft policies around helping parents successfully balance work and home.
(Slaughter — highly educated, sought-after and at the top of her industry — acknowledges that not many people have her version of the dilemma; she then moves on to make the case that there’s a strong connection between family-friendly workplace policies and economic performance on many levels of corporate life).
The 1 percent (Slaughter, along with this woman) does play an important role for the rest of us: Unless they pave the way by demanding respect for personal time, nothing will change. If an executive wants to attend their child’s Halloween play, he or she should state that clearly and without shame to their peers and superiors. This will change culture over time, and those at the top have the luxury and responsibility of taking a stand.
Slaughter tells us that she makes a point in her professional persona of not hiding that she is, too, a mother: “Whenever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mentions that I have two sons,” Slaughter writes. “It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me.”
I love that.
2. Fathers are parents, too
The fathers I know often provide equal childcare, and sometimes the lion’s share. They do pickups, they do drop-offs, they do ballet buns, they do sick days.
When we talk about “having it all” we can no longer just muse about mothers. If women want change, we need to change the language of the conversation. Slaughter acknowledges this, but I think she can go further.
It is workers who need family-friendly policies. In dual-income households, critical policies like flex time, paid parental leave and job shares are just as likely to benefit men as they are women.
Recognize and accept that, and now we can begin to talk about the economic cost of family-hostile work places and reasons why even more change must visit the culture of corporate America.
3. Real career guidance
Sea change takes time to sort out. In the meantime, I want advice that will help my generation and the ones behind me navigate their career paths and support their families. Slaughter provides some of this, in ways that might surprise young women, but I think does much to advance the discussion.
For example, she recommends that women establish themselves in their careers first but then have children before 35. The most demanding parenting years are when children are aged 8 to 18; women (I would edit that to say any parent) can aim for career flexibility and career plateaus (what Slaughter labels “investment intervals”) during that window and then come “back on line” and rise to the top by their 50s.
I would have loved that advice early on in my career.
When I was a young employee, no mentor ever pulled me aside and advised me on the land mines I would soon face and how to best navigate around them.
And when I decided to leave one full-time job in order to be more present for my children, there was little available to me on how to piece together a newly improved version of my career, version 2.0, or why it was critical that I kept my career on the warming burner and not shove it in the deep freeze.
Working parents need to know how to lobby employers about work/life balance. We need tips on how to remember to be present with our children during the time we have with them. We need executives who are sticking their necks out for those behind.
We need programs for retraining. As women we need to know how to figure out if our male counterparts are being paid more for the same job done, and what to do about that. And we need help crafting new resumes that don’t scream, “I had a child so now I’m a bad bet.”
Any air time the issues of concern to working parents get, the better. I hope Slaughter’s brave article does much to push the envelope and stimulate valuable discussion, instead of fueling more sand-throwing.
Because above all (employers take note), parents are incredible multi-taskers. We’re busy juggling and working hard, and we just don’t have time for another bout in the sandbox.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle mother of two girls and a former Seattle Times journalist who has written for newspapers and magazines around the West. In between school drop-offs and coffee binges she writes essays and blogs at pugetsoundmom.com.