03 July 2012

My Thoughts on 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All'

I sat down to write a blog post on the widely discussed article Why Women Still Can't Have it All that is blowing up the internet. What came out is not a post, but much longer and more nuanced piece. I'm posting it here anyway, and invite you to read (warning: it's a long one). Please remember that I wrote it at my dining room table, without an editor. I guess I want you to know that it's not a standard blog post, but it's not a polished publication-ready article either. It's just my take on an incredibly important issue. Thank you.

"All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."

I just finished rereading Annie-Marie Slaughter's article Why Women Still Can't Have It All and, after days of mulling it over, a couple false starts and incoherent drafts, I think I finally have something to say.

My first reaction: Thank you. Immediately followed by: It's about time. 

I understand that people think her title was inarticulate. That the artwork of a baby in a briefcase trite. I heard (and disagree) that because her subject matter is the so-called ‘DC elite’ the entire article is inconsequential to the ‘average’ American mother, a self-absorbed rant of the privileged.

Acknowledging the criticism, I found Ms. Slaughter’s article refreshing. Her departure from the ‘You can have it all’ mantra rang truthful and honest in a way I haven't seen much of (aside from a rare moment of my own mother's candor). In the same way that the world facing a young Ms. Slaughter was different then the world that faced her mother, the choices young women of my generation must make are not the same they were years ago. The basic acknowledgement of this fact alone is huge. 

The question is then raised: If what we used to hold true -- that a dearth of women in positions of power is due to misogamy from the men and a lack of ambition from the women -- is not, where does that leave us? What needs to change in our society for there to be equal representation of women in leadership? Where do we go from here? 

"When many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”

I don't think this article answers these questions, but I found it hopeful and inspiring that they were even being asked, especially by someone so accomplished and intelligent as Ms. Slaughter.

* * * 

To be entirely truthful, I found many of the points in the article a bit obvious. Flexibility, spousal support, meticulous time management and planning… I knew these were not the surefire secrets to ‘having it all’ long before I picked up The Atlantic. It was eye-opening that Ms. Slaughter had to come into this knowledge, to realize that these ‘answers’ of feminism aren't addressing the questions of today.

While working for the State Department, Ms. Slaughter had an epiphany that flexibility is crucial to a successful blend of professional and personal satisfaction. This is absolutely true, and something I discovered when I left the world of corporate finance in exchange for a boutique marketing agency. Meetings at 7AM are fine by me if I don’t have to commute and can take the call from home. An evening call is manageable when I can go on a quick afternoon run during a lull. Flexibility means balance. Flexibility means control. Flexibility means happier and more loyal employees, if they are parents or not. As only someone of the iPhone/iCloud/iEverything generation can, I instinctively assume technology -- and therefore flexibility -- will be de rigueur in both my personal and professional life. Flexibility is not optional, even though I do not yet face the demands of motherhood.

While refreshing to have it validated, I also knew that a supportive partner would be vital for a successful work and family life balance. But it would be selfish, short-sighted, and even cruel to assume that because I wanted to work that my husband would make the larger time sacrifices to be present for our (future, hypothetical) children. He and I both, together, will have to find an arrangement that works for us, that balances all of our needs. Our marriage is a partnership. I don’t think the secret to ‘having it all’ can be to assume our partners will bend to our wishes without regard for their own. 

To Ms. Slaughter’s third point, I knew that trying to plan out the ‘ideal’ time to have kids, while perfectly understandable, is slightly unrealistic. To be frank, sometimes babies happen, and even the best-laid plans can be disrupted. What if my careful timing has me trying to reenter the workforce during an unpredicted downturn? What if my kids have an adolescence that required more attention then I expected? A learning disability that requires extra time spent each night on homework? No plan can possibly account for all of life's variables. At some point, you gotta wing it.

Toward the end of her article, I finally really felt like Ms. Slaughter was beginning to catch on to what my generation, the women of the 80s and 90s, has been getting at. Is it enough? Why pursue jobs with reckless ambition if, in the end, they are not going to make us happy? Why would I want to spend so much time away from my family? Looking at women and men who went down that path, do they seem happy? Fulfilled? At peace? Also, can you tell me how their kids turned out? (No judgment - I'm just trying to figure this all out). There is no ‘right’ or universal answer to these questions, but they are questions I am hearing the constantly, almost in surround sound, from my peers.

"One of the most complicated and surprising parts of my journey out of Washington was coming to grips with what I really wanted… I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.” 

I know that the path to success is not a linear line. It might have been true in my grandparents’ generation, but it’s not true now. I have no expectations of a 40-year career with one company. I have no delusions of pensions, or even a vested 401(k) and good health benefit plan. I know that my success is totally reliant on my actions, and will take risk, creative thinking, a bit of luck, and diligent work. I’ve already switched careers once and I’m only edging into my late twenties. While I spend time in Japan, I’m in an “investment interval,” as Ms. Slaughter described it. I expect the unexpected, the curves and detours, and don’t know a person under 35 who doesn’t. 

My mom (Hi Mom!), who has multiple graduate degrees, spent more then half my childhood as a primary stay-at-home parent before she reentered the workforce to take on a leadership education role when my sister and I were finishing up junior high school. Her role was challenging and often required her to be gone evenings and weekends, but it was fulfilling and I think she liked the work. She had two kids who were happy and well-adjusted (or at least I like to this so.) She had a husband who was enthusiastic to fill in when she was working (and had the flexibility with his schedule to do so). 

With stunning candor, told me when I was in late high school, “No matter what anyone says, you can’t have it all.” 

I remember being shocked, and almost dismissing her claim, as teenagers are apt to do with their mothers. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I bet I can do it differently.’ 

Now, as I begin to see my 30s on the horizon, I know with certainty that my mom was right. There are only so many hours in the day, so many days in the week. No matter how you slice it, only so much fits in. She wasn’t making a judgment so much as she was stating fact. This wasn’t a pronouncement on feminism. This was math. 

* * * 

While the questions and issues Ms. Slaughter raises seem easily identifiable to me, I cannot claim to know the answer, except to agree with my mom. It won’t all fit. I doubt I’ll ever find myself in the White House (though I have a mad crush on Hilary Clinton), and I have opted out of several career paths that I deemed incompatible with the life I want to lead. I have been diligent and persistent in striving for balance, going after jobs that make me think and work but where still have time to show up for my ‘real life,’ the life that includes my husband, my family, my friends. 

I think that my goals, and the goals of many women I know, are not always obvious to the companies we work for. In a firm where I was once employed, there was an initiative to increase the number of female partners. Women were 50% of the graduating class, and they were slightly over 50% of the new hires. They were promoted at the same times as their male counterparts and did equally well on performance reviews. Yet the percentage of female leadership in the company was lagging. Studies were conducted, Q&A sessions held, initiatives begun. As I attended, something seemed 'off,’ but I couldn’t place it.

Years later I figured out why I knew, intuitively, that the initiatives were missing their mark. No one asked the fundamental question: "Do you even want to be a partner?" 

I'm successful. Ambitious. Driven. I like working and love the camaraderie, the stimulation, and the fulfillment I get from solving problems, managing teams, delivering products. Yet not for one second did I ever think about pursuing a public accounting career, let alone a partner track at one of the firms.

Why would I want to the job of partner? Yes, the pay is incredible. The prestige immense. You, quite literally, own the firm. It's the highest one can rise in the profession. You also don't own your schedule, you are the first there and the last to leave, and it's a culture where you're in the office constantly. This is a great profession for some people. I am just not one of them. 

* * * 
"If we are looking for high-profile female role models, we might begin with Michelle Obama. She started out with the same resume as her husband but has repeatedly made career decisions designed to let her do the work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be.”

I knew there were better options out there for me. With less money but enough to pay the bills and live comfortably. With less external clout but more flexibility and options. I want a career I could form to fit my needs as they change. I want a career that, while challenging, is also supportive, and, again for me, support includes more then salary and title.

I have been exceedingly lucky in this pursuit. I have found myself (or did before this “investment interval”) in an industry that I find interesting. I found a career path that lines up with my natural strengths. I have work history and reputation that I am proud of. I admire many of the people I meet and work with. However, in this fulfilling career, I regularly pulled 50-hour workweeks. My husband did as well, in addition to an hour commute each way. Even though it was ‘only’ the two of us, our home life was difficult at times to manage. These days we own enough socks, underwear, towels, and sheets to go without running the laundry machine for a month. Four full weeks. We ate out more then I’d like to admit, often out of exhaustion (I am still sick of Subway sandwiches.) Our baseboards were disgusting and during my wedding week my mother and aunts had to show up early and help me clean my apartment. There was simply no time for us to do so. Adding a baby to this mix? As is? Pssshhh… we all know that when that time comes, some big adjustments, somewhere, will have to be made. 

I will say that I think Ms. Slaughter misses a point by making this a women’s issue, that it is up to us to change ‘a man’s game.’ I think that the world today needs to switch its thinking from a basic male / female gender dichotomy to reframe it and do away with the breadwinner / caretaker labels and instead acknowledge that all employees, male and female, are today fulfilling both roles. Employers (and society as a whole) need support them.

This whole work-life balance, funnily enough, reminds me of planning our wedding a bit. There’s this whole concept of ‘shoulds.’ You should have a poufy white dress. You should have bridesmaids, and colors, and a cake that you cut and feed to each other. In a dream world, we are told, your wedding should be perfect. In the real world, the world of budgets and limits and two people’s opinions, there is no way around compromise. Early in the planning, my husband and I made a list of priorities. We scraped any ‘shoulds’ that didn’t line up with these priorities, and we went from there. In the end, was it perfect? Heck no. Was it the best we could do? Absolutely. In many, many ways, it was exactly right. 

This is how we are moving forward in this big, unknown world of ours. Asking what makes sense for us. What can we do? What are our priorities and what do we want out of life? In the end, we won’t have it all, but I think what we do have will be good enough to be, in many ways, exactly right. But maybe that's just youthful optimism talking.


  1. Ah yes. The most recent article that Blew Up the Media.

    I liked it as well, and I felt that some of the response articles missed the freakin' point. I thought the viewpoints from the different generations is really remarkable, and shows just how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time. I've heard people flip from from the "Yes! You can have it all!" camp to the "You can have it all, but not at the same time" camp to the "Nope. Not a snowball's chance" camp. Personally, I think that you can have it all if having it all means an enjoyable, fulfilling way to make income and a stable home life with a great balance between the two . . . if, of course, we are talking about that work-life balance, and not "just" a family (i.e. children) and work balance. These days, I think so many people without children are suffering from the always-at-work camp, and that's not good for us either.

    As you mentioned, there's a healthy dose of realism here that perhaps your mother can dish out to everyone. If the job you want requires a 60-80 hour workweek, then guess what? Other shit just ain't gonna happen. Feminists have worked hard to make these choices available to women, but they aren't magicians. There are still only 24 (and a quarter) hours in a day. Sometimes, something's gotta give if you want something (in this case, a particular career) badly enough. You should absolutely have the right to go for it, but know what you're getting into. Likewise, if you want to have a brood of eight, or travel six months out of the year, or whatever, by all means! Do it! Just know that you might not be able to take other opportunities as well.

    Which brings me to the point you made about our generation . . . "Why pursue jobs with reckless ambition if, in the end, they are not going to make us happy? Why would I want to spend so much time away from my family? Looking at women and men who went down that path, do they seem happy? Fulfilled?" We know we have a bazillion options, but which ones are going to make us happy? I think what's tough for me is that I know that I'm not going to take that high-powered career . . . and if it comes to a choice between personal life (kids or not) and work life, my personal life is always going to win out (provided that we have steady income, of course). I do wonder, though, that if other women would make the same choice as I would, if the paths that have been forged for us will become overgrown from disuse. And then I get pissed off because, as you say, this isn't a women/men issue, or, as I see it, a work/mothering issue. (In Slaughter's case, it is, obviously.) For me, in case you haven't mentioned, it's a work/personal issue, that issue of work-life balance that we -- men and women -- just can't seem to get right.

    1. You are one smart lady, Ms. Kimberly. For reals.

    2. Well, thank you. I also like to ramble. So, there's that.

  2. What kills me most is that this is supposed to be a "feminist perspective" or a "feminist revelation." Excuse me, folks, but this is a societal issue. NO one can have it all, men or women alike, and the idea that we can do so without our families, our jobs, our health, taking the backseat for an indeterminate amount of time is part of what leaves our society, and most importantly, our kids, in the sad state it is today. And I don't mean that in a "family values" kind of way, but in the way that we've lost sight of what's important to us individually, and now collectively, as a society, we demonize anyone who seems to have found it. Good stuff, miss Sarah!


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