On Mothers “Having It All”

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has a provocative title when in the end, after I read it through three times, I concluded that she actually goes about suggesting how we can have it all. I don’t know about you but I went through a range of emotions while reading her piece. Here’s the progression of my reaction:
  1. First, I thought, what can she possibly say that is new on this topic – when are we going to start seeing some ACTION on work-place flexibility instead of just more talk talk talk;
  2. Then I went through a period of finding her totally obnoxious while also commending her brutal honesty in revealing just how horribly judgmental she was of women who made choices she viewed to be less ambitious than they were capable of (read: slowing down a career to tend for…gasp…children);
  3. As she highlighted the reality of working in a demanding successful career in Washington, DC, I recoiled. I spent a dozen years working along or near K Street and don’t need to preach to this group how un-family friendly and how incredibly intense and stressful managing a career in Washington, DC is – whether you have kids or not. Remember what a joke that Parenting award was last year that nominated DC as a family-friendly town for working parents? I’m still laughing.
  4. Then I progressed into cheering out loud. I highlighted some quotes. I re-read them. I realized that we all like to read articles about managing work and kids because we like to know we aren’t alone in the chaos, the confusion and the difficulty of it all.
  5. Then I wanted her to run for Senate or Congress or start a lobbying shop and hire me – so we could start to make some of her ideas actually happen.

Does she "have it all"?

Was I alone in this roller coaster of emotions?
Frankly, her piece is so long and extensive, just working through how to write about it feels like a daunting task. I’ve decided to focus on the few areas that resonated the most with moi.  In the end, I think that the core of what Slaughter advises and discovers in her own experience, is similar to what we’ve talked about on my blog through endless posts on work-life choices and what we’ve all read elsewhere countless times and that is this: Having It All is about you. It’s about having confidence in your decisions regarding work and family, having the confidence to ask for what you want and have earned in the work place, it’s about suspending judgment of other mothers and it’s about being realistic.  How so, you ask? Here’s how.
Judgement. Instead of a litany of reasons why working moms have it so hard, a notion that many in the media particularly like to stoke in terms of the mommy wars, and which Slaughter flirted with until she left the comforts of Princeton for the brutal reality of intense Washington, she nails it with this quote: “Many people in power seem to place a low value on child care in comparison with other outside activities. The discipline, organization and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20 to 40 miles a week.” Let’s delete her inclusion of “at top levels” and just make this a broader statement and then stand up and cheer. AMEN SISTER. A the hell MEN. I absolutely loved her comparison to how a boss might consider someone training for a marathon to be highly disciplined and respectful that this worker gets up early and runs, or leaves work promptly to train but a woman up at o’dark thirty to tend to her children or leaving “on time” – isn’t viewed as disciplined or revered like the marathon trainer.
But here’s the rub, women are guilty of this. In my experience, female bosses can be harder on working moms than male bosses. I fought that battle day in and day out in one of Washington’s largest, most influential trade association for years. It’s a hard battle. And the way I handled it was this: sneaking in the side door at 9:30ish hoping no one would catch me, displaying pictures of my kids but avoiding discussion of the at-home realities of the late nanny, the sick nanny, the sick child, the parent teacher conferences – things that all happened – gasp – during the WORK DAY. It’s an inconvenient truth in Washington that personal life happens during business hours, even though business hours happen at all hours. I was practically being eaten from the inside out because of the stress. It was like motherhood was a personal disappointment to my boss. If there had been a chart on the annual evaluation form and she could have gotten away with it legally, she would have given me lower points simply for gestating.
I agree with Slaughter that it’s time to speak openly and honestly in the work place about the challenges raising children – challenges that are shared by all parents no matter their level of professional success and the number of hours they work per week – because again, many parenting challenges happen between 9AM and 6PM. Slaughter correctly states “Changing these policies requires more than speeches. It means fighting the mundane battles – every day, every year – in individual workplaces, in legislatures, and in the media.” She is exactly right, we can’t sit around and complain about these challenges unless we personally are also attempting to DO something about them in our own lives, push the boundaries, push for the flexibility.  And part of that is in not perpetuating the idea that child care warrants a low value – which again – women do to each other.
Confidence. Slaughter quotes Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, as saying “To be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.” Here is where feminism/professional success and motherhood collide for so many women. Frankly, I have never understood it – and as I’ve mentioned countless times before – I even minored in Women’s Studies.
Why did Slaughter spend so many working years assuming that she shouldn’t admit that she ENJOYED being home with her children, that she wanted to leave a powerful position to see them or that women were somehow letting down future generations by stepping off a high powered career track to spend more time at home? Why can’t you enjoy being a mother, why can’t you enjoy raising your children and still be a feminist? Who says you can’t work less, opt out of becoming a CEO or a tenured professor or a Vice President, and still have strong, independent values that make you a powerful woman and positive role model for your own children and future generations of girls? Who makes these rules? And why are so many of us buying into it?  Slaughter’s overall points on confidence and judgement are wrapped up together like my kids knotty post- swim hair but they are equally important points. I firmly believe that if a woman believes that stepping off a career path to tend to children, or to admit publicly that you have children at home that you want to leave work to go see, makes you seem weak, less committed to your career or too dependent on your spouse – then it means that woman herself places a low value on child care, even if she also has children. And it also tells me she lacks the confidence in her own choices about her own career and how it impacts her family. I think that being unafraid to admit just how important your family is to you, how much you value time home, and having the confidence to push for the working arrangements you need – is the key to combining professional success with a commitment to family. It’s a different model for every single one of us – but it takes confidence to be honest and to ask for what you’ve earned. In my experience, I was guilty of sneaking in side doors and trying to be discreet in the reality of childcare at work, but I pushed where I felt I could – which was in terms of not working late in the office and resisting work travel as much as possible. It didn’t end well for me and my female boss – but it definitely sparked internal conversations about working mothers and flexibility – so hopefully I helped push for change for future working moms in that office. Who knows.

Do they "have it all?"

Being Realistic. Just the phrase “Having It All” sets any one of us up for disappointment. Who has it all? Let’s forget about work and family and apply this concept to other facets of life. Who can eat as much as they want and still have the perfect body? Wouldn’t that be “having it all?”  Who can never spend a minute working out but still have muscle tone, a flat stomach and a strong heart? Certainly that would be “having it all” for many of us. Who can drink as much alcohol as they want and not become an alcoholic? Others, maybe even moi after a particularly horrible day, might consider that “having it all.” But no one has these things. Sometimes it seems like they do, particularly after the Victoria’s Secret Angels Fashion Show airs right around the time you are stuffing your face with Thanksgiving Dinner. But my point is – we all know moderation is the key to life – so why are we even worrying about “Having it all?” in terms of work and family life.  What is it all, anyway? How is thinking you can rise to the top of your chosen career while simultaneously being super mom who raises perfect Ivy-League bound children who eat only home-made (by you) organic food – any different than thinking you can drink as much as you want and not become an alcoholic? It’s the same thing. It’s absurdity.
The bottom line: No one ever said having kids makes life less complicated. Part of ascribing to the famous WM “Moi Loves Moi” mantra is just being realistic.  Which was why I loved Slaughter’s “The Arc of a Successful Career” section – a topic again, we’ve discussed here, multiple times. Her metaphor of the lattice that we are climbing, not the ladder, because we often take side steps, steps down or steps up – but recognizing this and being comfortable with this non-linear path takes confidence. Not to mention a realistic perspective on your family’s needs and your own personal career goals.  And I will insist until I am blue in my face that career side-steps or career steps down DO NOT fly in the face of feminism or disappointing future generations of women.
Finally, Slaughter references some research that reveals that measuring the gender gap by well-being rather than wages is a more current, modern way to assess the gender gap. This was the first I’d heard of that concept but it makes practical sense to me. And while I agree that closing the leadership gap and having more women reach the top echelons of business and government will help with the gender gap, I also think our perceptions and the realistic lens we view the world, helps with our own well being and perspective on “Having It All.”
So where does this leave us? Hopefully not in the tired old place we always are. Hopefully women will keep speaking up, asking for more work-life boundaries and find confidence in themselves for the choices they make. I have always believed balance is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, so is “having it all,” so long as your lens isn’t warped and distorted.
What do you think? OH, and be sure to “Like” the Wired Momma Facebook page, because there, we “have it all.”
4 Responses to On Mothers “Having It All”
  1. Kristen
    June 25, 2012 | 1:52 pm

    As usual, I find myself agreeing with your analysis. She had an interesting perspective that I found myself nodding at one too many times. I do have hope that things may change for the better some point soon. Although I realize it may take awhile because there are still those bosses who retain the mentality of “well, when I was your age [mind you, my boss is only 5 years older than me], we had to stay at the office until 11:00 p.m. blah, blah, blah…” Technology has made it so easy to work anywhere. Now we just need to convince the higher-ups that is the case!

  2. Valeire
    June 25, 2012 | 4:40 pm

    I object to the “having it all” framework – women want to have meaningful work, economic security, and healthy family relationships, in different ratios and different times, just like anybody else wants and/or needs. Why shouldn’t this be possible? We work hard, we love fiercely. It’s not “all”, it’s a worthwhile life, for heaven’s sake! Outdated policies and attitudes impede this – let’s make the necessary shifts so we can get on with it.

  3. Mel
    June 27, 2012 | 3:19 am

    Spot on, Wired Momma. I will never forget being in a cab heading to a reception on Capital Hill and telling a colleague that I had to be home at 8pm to relieve babysitter. My male colleagues head spun around because he was shocked and floored I had a small child, “didn’t think you were the type”. Idiot.

  4. JenE
    July 5, 2012 | 10:15 pm

    We moms, working outside the home and working in the home, have to OWN IT. Until we can accept and love ourselves and our choices, no one else will – especially the childless. Your thoughts are on point. It’s hard to have that kind of confidence in myself, but it’s what I want to instill in my kids so I’m working damn hard on it. I do the best I can for myself and my family, every day. – Which makes me better able to do the work for others that I choose to do.

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