I read The Atlantic piece written by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All this past week. Make sure you block off a 1/2 day from work if you want to read it. It takes a good number of minutes to get through and I found myself kind of staring at the wall after I’d finished. Slaughter does a beautiful job spelling out the glaring issues of our time for working women using her intense personal experience and her extensive education. She lays out her thesis for our inability to “have it all” as working mothers circa 2012 and she illuminates the traps so many of us stumble into as we work and raise our children. Yet knowing all this didn’t really help in the immediate.
Differing gender roles, division of responsibility issues at home, and the juggle (tug-o-war) many women feel with balancing the needs of their family and the needs of their careers aren’t new. But Ms Slaughter does draw us in. I haven’t had a chance to chat about it at any water cooler, but I have watched and listened and lingered online. The article was a huge success for the magazine; even my husband notices a dust cloud at work. A ripple in the lake of life for many of us, for sure.
Let me break down my response in a few chunks. This isn’t exactly steady and linear for me. This isn’t a thesis or rebuttal either, just a reaction.
No One Has It All; We’re All Missing Out On Something
I don’t think “I’ve got it all.” I’m not certain I’ve met anyone who does. At least, I don’t think they have it all, all in one moment. I do however have a career in medicine, two thrilling children, a thriving partnership with my husband, a dream to make change in the world, rich supportive friendships, and an overweight Labrador. Some days I don’t have time to eat enough, some days I do. Some days the stress is sky high, some days it isn’t. Some days I laugh a lot and pause to absorb the moment. Some days I work more than 15 hours. Some days I’m filled with a shivering mindfulness while in the midst of my boys. Some days I can’t imagine being anywhere else but in the exam room with my patients. Some days I can.
The discomfort for me is when I’m away from my children I am always less whole. Their needs continue to shift, the work-life-balance target moves, and all the while the distance from them remains apparent. It’s always easier for me to exist when my boys are only paces away. This is the hefty reality of parenthood that begins day one.
Slaughter points out this experience can be very different for women and men. And this could be very different if our society supported our dual roles better.
Even so, the concept of “having it all” gets distorted at the virtual water cooler as we’re urged to think about what we’re missing somewhere. If we’re educated and have skills to work, the minute our children are born we’re set up to miss out on something. And it can be torture in moments for either mom (SAHM or working mom). It’s either the opportunities that wait for us in our work or the time at home with our children, someone will always tell us we’re missing something.
This conversation is one that comes only with the privilege of choice (with work) anyway.
Regardless, it’s women who are still set up to do the heavy lifting in these conversations. I know men do, too. But in my experience (like Slaughter’s), it’s women who are suffering in these choices. Our stake in the conversation starts early for most of us –a pregnancy followed by a (short) maternity leave–people start to ask us about where we’ll “be” after the baby’s born and in my experience that question never stops being asked.
Women still make around 70 cents on the dollar for the same work. And studies have found women physicians, for example, may make less money because they chose to spend more time with their patients. So it may be that we working women want something different, rather than ‘it all.’ One take home from Slaughter’s article for me was that I don’t think I want it all–it’s not the goal. I want to use what I’ve been given, soak up the gift of my children, and give back all I can. I want to enjoy the choices I make, articles like Slaughter’s tend to take me away from that.
I certainly still stumble believing that others may “have it all” or that I should want it. I’ll meet a mom who will tell me she is working the “perfect amount.” Or a colleague/peer/friend/family member will tell me about a mother who is delighted to report that she quit her job and finds herself on a Tuesday in the park with her children. In these stories, this mother inevitably looks up to the sky and realizes “it’s perfect.” When I hear these parenting tales my stomach will drop, I’ll get a little shiver, or I’ll worry I’m in the wrong spot at the wrong time (in life). And I stumble.
I also stumbled as I bid farewell to a co-worker who left her job at our clinic to be with her children for the summer. She plans to find a job where her work schedule shadows her children’s schedule. And while I witnessed her struggle to leave a job she loved, I also saw her make the brave choice to make change; it all seemed so entirely sensible, so smart, and so centered. Stumble.
I stumble believing that another working woman’s equation or theory (Slaughter’s, for example) may illuminate my perfect equation for balance and personal/professional success. Trouble is, no one parent has the same set of circumstances, the same set of goals, the same set of education, the same set of skills, and the same children and partner as another. The lives we create are fingerprints–entirely unique.
All these rocks in the road that cause us to veer off path never weigh exactly the same as our own core. And so we continue to stumble.
I often return to the one solution I’ve come up with when it comes to “having it all” and/or striking perfection with long-lasting balance. Cloning. If I could just have a few of me, I could be simultaneously caring for patients in clinic, exploring the planet with my boys, communicating health stories to the public, and providing self-care (exercise, good healthy meals, rest, reflection, and relaxation). I could live diversely all the time for all those who count on me and chart the path I most want as well. Maybe then I’d really have it all.
Of course my neurotic solution is a ludicrous retort to the menacing problem The Atlantic article hones in on: the quest for happiness and balance among highly educated parents working and living chaotic lives with their children. And that’s the real lesson, I suppose. Perfection on the working/parenting fulcrum simply won’t and doesn’t exist for any of us. We may have to flush out our goals for happiness before we distill the path to perfection–and we may have to act like humans. We may just need to get up each day open to the possibility of enjoying it, changing it, and witnessing it. And some days, that must be more than enough — even for we working moms.
For more on The Atlantic piece here’s a few responses you may like: