“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was the provocative title of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article for The Atlantic last summer. With her autobiographical piece, Slaughter joined the growing chorus of commentators who have decided that women who want to be mothers while still pursuing challenging, high-profile careers face challenges unique enough to merit lengthy and repetitive discourse.
In the piece, Slaughter wrote about the glittering world she inhabited as a policy director at the State Department, but noted that, even as she sipped champagne and rubbed shoulders with foreign dignitaries, “I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier.”
It was moments such as this one that prompted Slaughter to leave her government post to spend more time with her family. Locally, we recently saw a similar choice, as Otsego County Economic Developer Carolyn Lewis stepped aside after more than a decade in her post.
Let’s make one thing clear: I have no quarrel with these women’s decisions. Decisions about parenting and career are deeply personal ones for which there is no obvious template. Each family must negotiate its own unique needs, taking into consideration a staggering array of variables. No longer simply a question of who the chief wage earner is, work-life balance is today informed by questions such as access to day care, health insurance, travel to and from work, and potential career trajectories.
But that’s exactly my problem with articles like Slaughter’s. The supposition that this is a uniquely female problem does a huge disservice to parents of both genders.
First of all, portraying this as a women’s issue gives the still-predominantly-male power structure a really good excuse for ignoring it. Less than a quarter of the members of Congress are women; the percentage of women executives at top Fortune 500 companies is even smaller. So decisions about wages, about paid time off and family leave, about child care, are still being made by men. And if we keep telling these men that this is a women’s issue — well, then, it’s not really their problem, is it?
Secondly, it is insulting and ludicrous to suggest that fathers do not experience the same conflicted feelings as women about spending time away from their children. Yet we are constantly talking about the “work-life balance” that women need to strike — as though this is somehow not an issue for any men.
In a recent radio interview, Slaughter offered an explanation for this.
“As my friends say, they drop their kids off at day care and feel guilty for leaving them; their husband drops the kids off at day care and feels good that he dropped them off at day care because he was being an active parent,” she said. “In my experience, women feel much more strongly that they should be at home.”
And why do women feel this way? In large part, because society tells us to. Because we keep reading articles in magazines about “having it all” that remind us of the reality all working parents face: that you can’t be at little Timmy’s soccer game when you have a business meeting to run.
But you know what? Dad can’t be at little Timmy’s soccer game when he has a meeting, either. And I bet dads feel just as guilty and unhappy about missing the soccer game as their wives do.
In an era when dual incomes are increasingly a necessity, rather than a choice, it is ridiculous to keep pretending that “work-life balance” is a women’s problem. It’s not. It’s a societal problem. And until we can view it as such, we don’t stand a chance of addressing the symptoms of this problem.
If we can understand this, we might see that we’re living in a world where success at the top of most career ladders is only achieved by working the kinds of hours that were outlawed for most people decades ago. We would see that quality child care is hard to find, and expensive when you do find it. And we would see that we have created a culture that simultaneously shames women for not spending more time with their children, but penalizes them when they do (with lower wages and fewer advancement opportunities).
If we can stop talking about women “having it all,” and start talking about the much more complicated, messy and diverse set of issues that families face when making decisions about careers and child-rearing. Maybe then we’ll start to see our way toward solutions that could work for everyone — not just women.
EMILY F. POPEK is assitant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at email@example.com.