The picture alone filled me with dread: a baby in a briefcase. (Do go look at Jessica Valenti’s hilarious compilation of images from this genre.) That sick feeling only increased when I got to the hideous headline: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
There they go again! Once again, The Atlantic has put on its spike heels to gleefully dance on feminism’s head, this time reviving the imagery of the “mommy wars” while trotting out an astounding successful woman to bemoan her failure. Veteran journalist Caryl Rivers has accurately diagnosed this as “The Atlantic’s Woman Problem.” Someone there doesn’t like us, except when we’re agonizingly single, or home with our babies, or killing off men’s careers. Someone there got stuck on some 1980s Time magazine misinterpretation of feminism as exhorting us all to be “career women” (does anyone really use that term?) in shoulder pads and sad little bowties, leaving our babies home alone, refrigerator open, to fend for themselves while we try to Have It All and Reach The Top. And someone thinks we should just give it all up already and go back to being nice girls. As Rivers puts it,
If the proverbial Man from Mars knew about women only from reading the Atlantic, he would believe that their hormones go completely haywire at a certain age, making them unstable, unreliable creatures (The Bitch is Back) /and at the same time they are on the verge of taking over all the power in society, leading to The End of Men. They are selfish careerists destroying their children, or they have decided they really can have it all and are disdaining marriage. Or, they use other women's resentment of men to succeed.
…The leitmotif of much of what the Atlantic publishes about women is that female gains are dangerous -- to children, to families, to marriages, to themselves, and to men.
But despite the magazine’s hideous framing, here’s the good news: For the most part, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new article today is useful and important—so important, in fact, that I hope it will prompt serious examinations of our public policies.
Prospect readers have surely heard of Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, and currently a full international affairs professor—a named chair, at that—at Princeton. She’s one of the public policy elite, one of those few whose opinions automatically get attention. When she weighs in about career problems facing the ladies, well, ladies have to pay attention.
So what does she have to say? Despite the title, Slaughter hasn’t left the elite policy realm by any means, as she notes early on:
I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.
All this with two teenage sons! I can only dream of being that productive and organized. If she considers herself a dropout, what are us normal folk, chopped liver?
But, as she notes, she’s managed that because academic royalty (er, elite institutions' faculty) inhabit exceptionally flexible workplaces. That's not at all true for university staff, and less so for faculty in less-prestigious institutions. Her rude awakening came when she joined an uber-elite government policy job, becoming part of the machinery that sets the country’s agenda instead of advising it from afar. In the quote below, the emphasis is my own:
The minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.
Excerpting that paragraph brings me near tears; that’s how close to the bone her insight cuts. She’s right about this core truth: Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems. When I talk to friends who’ve just had children, here’s what I tell them: Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can’t be done right, so don’t blame yourself when you’re failing. You’ll always be failing at something—as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker. Just get used to that feeling. Slaughter’s entire article is worth reading for her nuanced exploration of that alone. It's true for people at the top; it's even more true for people at the bottom, who have no sick leave, no choice in their shifts, no freedom to run over to the school if a child is sick.
But I'm going to focus here on the article’s core error: It frames the work-family conflict as primarily a woman’s problem. Here’s Slaughter's comment:
I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.
Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
Perhaps Slaughter is right that that’s what most men and most women would choose. I’m not so certain. Her own marriage is a counter-example; her husband, she explains, ran the parenting and home realms so that she could pursue her ambitions. And even those men can get dinged when, however briefly, they need to put their family lives first.
Let me indulge, briefly, in anecdata. My brother is one of those round-the-clock high-flying career guys. I won’t list all his degrees and accomplishments, because it would sound like boasting about something that’s not even mine to boast about: He’s absurdly productive, in work so important that it makes me feel embarrassed to spend my life mouthing off. But when his wife was fighting a brutally aggressive cancer, while our father was dying of a brutally aggressive cancer, while his two sons deeply needed him around, my brother spent more than a year being not fully present at his job. It cost him, significantly. His income ran into trouble. His boss called him out. But he felt the same way that Slaughter and Shaheen say they felt: that there was no choice between his wife, his father, and his children, on the one hand, and his job on the other. He had to take care of his family. His job had to take care of itself.
Yes, that’s an anecdote. But it’s not unique. Maybe I have an exceptionally kind eye for the mens (as my great-grandmother would have put it), because, as a lesbian, I don’t have to live with one. But I’m on a listserv that’s been discussing this article all day. The women are talking about their supportive husbands, like Slaughter's, who go all-out to back up the women's work needs. Many of the men are angry that their sacrifices aren't mentioned, confessing en masse that they too feel agonized by having to abandon their children if they’re to keep the jobs that underwrite the household. Some are confessing that they, too, have left government policy jobs (albeit not as high-level as Slaughter’s) after two years, precisely because it took them away from their families. But men can't be honest about that, because who expects to hear men talk about having real feelings for their families?
I run into this in person, too: Men who have downgraded their jobs in order to spend more time with their kids. I’ve seen it in the upper-middle class, where men take fellowships or consulting jobs to pick up their kids from school and put them to bed at night. I’ve run into it in working-class families where the men figure out how to be there for every bedtime, every sports practice, and every game.
Here’s what I believe: This conflict is built into the way we live right now. But strong and deeply enforced cultural expectations push men to choose work, and push women to choose family. Women are asked, early and often, about this divide; men are expected not to care. As I’ve written before, what’s the difference between a deadbeat dad and a working mom? Gender. Both are perceived as failing their God-given responsibilities to their children. Our ideas about parenting, and about work, are leftover from the 1950s. A man is supposed to provide. A woman is supposed to nurture. That hurts us all.
And yet the 1950s model was a bizarre exception from the norm. Historically, the vast majority of women have worked while raising their children; they’ve subcontracted the daily care work to adolescents, who were saving up so that someday they could launch a working household of their own—a vineyard, butchery, farm, bakery, or some other small workplace jointly run by master and mistress. That changed when work left home, and men were shoved out of the house into factories or offices while upper-middle-class women were padlocked inside. The 1950s were a brief moment when the United States dominated the world economically—so completely that, for about a decade, one man could support an entire family, even deep into the working middle classes. But that time is gone, and will never return—and yet, as law professor Joan Williams has written repeatedly, our workplaces are still run with the expectation that this “ideal worker” will be available 24 hours a day, because that worker has delegated all household and emotional labor to a live-in helper—a helper who exists only for the very poor, where families do keep a woman at home, or for the very wealthy, who can afford to subcontract that labor. Meanwhile, as Slaughter notes, our schools are still run on an agricultural schedule, getting the children out in time to milk the cows and keeping them home all summer to work the fields, while their parents are both on the job. What that means: 80 percent of American children are growing up in households with all adults in the workforce, which means most families are desperately trying to patch up the gaps.
Slaughter has some suggestions about what needs fixing, and I profoundly hope that they will be seriously discussed. She urges managers at every level to reconfigure inflexible workplace cultures that confuse office time with work time. She urges leaders to set the example of going home for dinner and returning later, whether in person or via technology. She asks that family care be taken seriously as a credential: Anyone who can manage the children’s day and still be productive on the job should be taken as seriously as a marathoner. She writes about how women might consider sequencing their careers and their chlidren, although her discussion assumes that all women are in control of when they meet the right life partners. She points to important research by Ellen Galinsky and her colleagues at the Families and Work Institute about how flexibility contributes to productivity. Dana Goldstein has some great ideas, by the way, about more particular education policies that would both improve children’s well-being and learning, and make their parents’ lives less frantic.
Slaughter strikes me as having a limited idea of what feminism is. The feminists I knew in the late 1970s and early 1980s wanted to restructure work and family life. Few of those structural reforms got enacted. One key change did come: Women were able to to crack into high-end careers—but that was as far as they could go. They couldn’t also, in that generation, push for structural reforms that changed the workplace for everyone. Then came the backlash, from Phyllis Schlafly (whose high-powered career was saying that women don’t want high-powered careers) to Caitlin Flanagan (ditto). No movement, no generation has an infinite amount of energy or power to accomplish all the changes needed. Now it’s time for the next generation to reshape education and work in ways that enable all of us to have balanced human lives—lives where we can care for our young, our sick, our old, and ourselves without losing either our minds or our jobs.