Though I heard about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic just after it was published several weeks back and read a bit about the ensuing debate about whether Slaughter or Sandberg (Sheryl; her TED talk and commencement speech at Barnard in 2011 as “the other side”) had it right regarding women having it all (or not), I only recently found the time to read Slaughter’s piece, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, and find myself still immersed in a thought process of it.
Slaughter, the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, and Sandberg, COO of Facebook since 2008, are, no getting around it, incredibly accomplished women. Both are extremely well-educated, successful throughout their careers in a number of impressive positions at many impressive places, and concurrently, wives and mothers. On the surface, it would be easy to both say they had it all and wonder how in the world they did. I feel stressed just thinking about how they managed to handle pregnancy, birth, heading back to work, raising the kids, succeeding more, traveling, public-speaking, exercising, their marriages and so forth. Women like these truly do appear to be superhuman. I’ve got a lot of energy, and I can really pack a lot into a day, but nothing, NOTHING, like this.
As it turns out, Slaughter ultimately felt that while she did “have it all,” she also didn’t. She left State after her 2 year term was up and returned home, feeling that the needs of her teen sons (in Princeton) just couldn’t be met with her in Washington most of each week. And she has a terrifically engaged husband who was the primary parent when she was away! The reactions to her decision to leave government and write the essay fell largely into two camps: piteous- leaving was sad and unfortunate OR condescending- she must not have been committed enough. There were also comments along the lines of “don’t do this, what kind of example will you set?!”
And this is where Sandberg was drawn in, for she feels that one of the primary reasons there aren’t more women in top leadership positions is that there’s an “ambition gap,” that for a variety of reasons, women aren’t dreaming big enough. Slaughter questions this, and so do I.
First let me say that in no way can ambition(s) be generalized among women. One’s dreams are another’s nightmares. One’s idea of balance is another’s idea of insanity-provoking mayhem. For some, motherhood is IT; for others, it’s a choice about which they feel ambivalent or wholly uninterested. The same is true about women’s thoughts on careers. And let me also say that I write, as do Slaughter and Sandberg, as a woman who is financially secure, able to stay home by choice, able to think about these issues in ways many others cannot. I feel inordinately grateful for that.
Though mine are not of the ilk of heading up any large corporation, I certainly do have ambitions; on the simple end of the spectrum, I’d like to read more than 2 books a year, and on the other end, I’d love to have more time, real and sustained time, to commit to cooking, catering, teaching and writing. I could have done this before I had children. Indeed, I remember those years in which I could immerse myself in my studies and interests, my job and relationships, I remember myself before kids.
But I always wanted to be an at-home mom, a really good one (an ambition in and of itself!), and I know that without my kids, I wouldn’t feel complete or be the woman I am today. I might not have the same ambitions I do now, might not strive for the balance I do, might not know what for me constitutes a good and healthy and happy life.
The issue here, then, isn’t one of ambition but one of balance and possibility.
Parenting children well requires an enormous amount of time, attention, love, input and creativity. If you’re not doing it, someone needs to be or is, or the children will suffer. So for mothers with ambition, that’s the first challenge. You’ve got to put your interests on hold, get some serious help in the childcare department, or find a way to work around naps and other breaks from your kids. If you’re putting your stuff on hold, you’re either thrilled to do so OR you’re going to have to work on acceptance rather than resentment. If you find that motherhood isn’t the end-all-be-all in the fulfillment department, you’re going to have to reach out and get some help. This is often much more fraught than it sounds.
How do you know who to trust? Will they do it as well as you might? And are you OK if they don’t? What does that even mean? What role will your partner play? Is that role good enough aka is their way acceptable in the context of your way? Can you handle leaving in the morning if kids are wrapped around your legs asking you not to go? Can you handle coming home in the evening hearing that they took their first steps or said their first words? Can you take off your parent hat, don your work hat and then switch again later?
These are really tough questions, and they’re even tougher in actuality. It’s one thing to do it, and it’s another thing to process and act on it. As I knew I would stay at home but then found I couldn’t do it 24-7, I know how hard it is to find a balance there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left one of my boys with a babysitter, someone I know they like and have fun with, for just a few hours, only to have a wailing, distraught face in the window as I head away. It is wrenching and awful (although it generally lasts no more than 2 minutes because they realize it’s OK and get distracted doing something else), and this is what I’m talking about regarding possibility. I can’t work at home unless I leave and sneak back in through the basement. Because my kids have never been those who nap for three hours at a time, fitting more than a shower into their 45-60 minute sessions was nothing more than a pipe-dream. My ambitions have been relegated to the babysitting hours in which I hide in the basement or force them all upstairs while I cook, to the times they’re at school or camp, and to the hours after they go to sleep.
Slaughter’s article includes a whole section on the ways in which men and women think about their careers in the context of parenthood. In essence she says, and I agree, men just do not have -by and large- the same sense of parental urgency, for lack of a better word. Yes, fathers love their children, but most men don’t do so in the same ways as do their wifely counterparts. She says:
“the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.” She has not found this to be the case, nor have most women I know.
“To many men…the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish” to which I would add uninteresting or not considered in the first place.
“If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then the will continue to do that” because that’s what’s best for their children.
This is not to suggest that men suck. My husband is an involved father who listens to me and acts upon my pleas [dictates] to be more engaged (his father was not terribly involved so he had no role model for that); he spent many hours today helping Jack build a catapult and delighting, with me, in the boys’ imaginative play before bedtime. He took care of breakfast and let me sleep in.
But I still maintain, as I think would Slaughter and many, many women out there, that the most basic, elemental response is, for most men and women, very different. Once our children are in bed, it’s out of sight out of mind for T. He can sleep through anything, never thinks to go in and check on them, literally takes off his parenting hat when their doors are closed. He adores them, but… Extrapolate to the times he’s at work, traveling etc. Me? I’m sitting here typing but also listening to every cough that emanates from Oliver’s room, have already changed the diaper of one sleeping boy, checked to ensure the other isn’t listening to yet another book-on-tape. I’m thinking about what to put in their lunches tomorrow, what needs to be packed in their camp bags.
In this context, it seems if not impossible than maybe frivolous to consider more than keeping my ambitions on par with my children’s needs, with what I, as their mother, owe them. Here is another point I feel I have in common with Slaughter: until society changes -flexible schedules, the assumption that fathers will take paternity leave with no repercussions, the idea that “stepping down to spend time with his or her family” ISN’T a cover for being fired (see p 5), the availability of really excellent childcare that won’t make you go broke, the willingness to really talk about these challenges and admit that this shit is hard – there really is a disconnect between what you might want and what you might feel you can realistically do.
As I said earlier, I don’t have grandiose plans for myself and already I feel stretched to the edge much of the time. I cannot imagine how single parents, financially-challenged parents, parents who truly love and want to succeed in their fields, do it and must feel. I am happy but I would never say that anything is a breeze or that I don’t feel pangs of loss and acute awareness of making hard choices every day. I do. Regularly. Frequently. It is worth it, but it is damn hard.
Can Women Have It All? has always sort of bothered me as a question. It’s so nebulous, so one-dimensional. Truly, what does it even mean? The answer is different for each of us and it changes as do we. There are definite societal inequalities -women make just .77 per dollar that men make in the US; some societies don’t value women at all- but by and large, I think that having it all means simply that you as a woman feel fulfilled, be it in your career, your relationships, your life choices, your sense of self. I am still searching for more balance, I think motherhood is really hard much of the time, and looking ahead, I hope that things even out some- the kids need less, I have more to give…In the meantime, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Honesty, real, authentic dialogue about these struggles helps, it connects us, diminishes differences, illuminates similarities. The most ambitious career woman and the most ambitious mother still have that drive in common.