Wednesday, July 4, 2012

...having it all.

"Why Women Still Can't Have It All", Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2012

This month's cover story in The Atlantic augurs a new low in the magazine's attempt to straddle the line between seemingly provocative long-form journalism and newsy relevance. Slaughter's argument is stunningly banal, self-pitying, and directed towards the privileged elites who want to assuage their guilt for maintaining that privilege. Never let it be said that The Atlantic editors know not their target audience.

Who better to deliver this argument than the former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and mother of two? After all, she's credible: "I have worked very long hours and pulled plenty of all-nighters myself over the course of my career, including a few nights on my office couch." Drawing from such experience, Slaughter argues that work-life balance is, in fact, a balance in which trade-offs must be made. If your work-life definition of "having it all" means that you must aspire to Secretary of State while still carving out time for home-cooked meals with your kids, then yes, you cannot have it all. A job that definitionally requires extraordinarily long hours and heaps of travel will never make good bedfellows with prolonged family face time. A more self-evident truth could not exist.

"Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable [sic] tensions between family and career."

But first, let's back up. Slaughter implicitly suggests that her tenure at Princeton--heading up a prestigious public policy school no less--and raising her two young boys (aspiring Mandarin speakers both!) was not a sufficient level of success. She yearned for a "position of power" in government, and so chose a job which required that she be physically estranged from her family for five-sevenths of her waking hours. After realizing that this decision shortchanged her family, she penned this article to relate her woeful tale of sacrifice and re-prioritization. The real wonder is that such a smart woman took the feminist credo at face value in the first place.

"Both [young women] were very clear that they did not want that [career-centric] life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family."

It goes without saying, but men and women in positions of power have been making this trade-off for a long time. Those who strive to be at the top of the professional ladder and those who are—-yes-—most "committed" are those who invariably will rise to the top. My friend's father was CEO of a major bank and not a major presence in the home during my friend's upbringing. The father consciously chose to prioritize work responsibilities over family time, and as far as I know, never complained about not "having it all." And not for nothing, his hard work paid generous dividends—-quite literally—-for his family after all, which was surely part of his motivation.

Slaughter, on the other hand, hopes that our societal norms will evolve to meet her wants: that our society's most demanding jobs (of which she is desirous) will become...less demanding. Her wish is as unlikely and unwise as it is unnecessary. Several countries in southern Europe have experimented with legislating free time for citizens with decidedly dangerous results. What's more, in a place like America, there will always be those willing to sacrifice almost everything for their job-—Type A workaholics, annoying as they are, are here to stay.

Instead of asking the world to meet Slaughter on her own terms, she should think more holistically about the competing desires in her life. Rather than silo them, combine them. If her metric for "professional success" were to include some measure of meaningful family face time, then she should well be able to square the circle of having it all. It may rule out Secretary of State or CEO of a Fortune 500 company much like it will rule out 18-week vacations each year, but it might allow for—-oh, I don't know-—dean of a graduate school at Princeton who routinely leaves work at 6pm.

"We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable."

But Slaughter may also do well to re-examine decisions that she and her husband have implicitly made. She deems the double paycheck "indispensable." Perhaps it is when you define happiness as the ability to purchase a large house in the right zip code, send your kids to the best (read: private) schools, take an extended leave of absence to China so the kids can pick up Mandarin, and eat at the finest restaurants. But do not forget that these are self-imposed choices of the privileged classes, and I surmise that most people from that demographic realize that access to such things entails some level of sacrifice. Slaughter has the option to live more simply and pursue happiness more directly-—trust me, I know a lot of poor, happy families in Honduras—-but she has chosen not to. Or better said: if your conception of happiness is so idealistic as to be unobtainable, why would I want to listen to you bitch about it?

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