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:
Men Never ‘Had It All’ or Can Women Have It All? or Mothers: Don’t Lie To Your…
I haven’t read the whole article, as you said it’s long, however the part that was hard for me is this notion that women of my mothers, or my grandmothers, generation look at women my age as dropping the ball on feminism because we want to find that balance between work and children.
It’s hard that it’s still viewed as this either/or situation. Women who work looking at women who chose to stay home and raise kids as throwbacks to an earlier time. Or women who stay home looking at women with kids who work as incredibly selfish. Neither is helpful to the other.
I work and have only made the amount time time I spend away from my child work for me by not thinking about it too much. I focus on the time I do get with him and try to make sure that time is as free of distractions as possible.
I wish there was more support in corporate America for job sharing. I’d take a job with no benefits and reduced salary to keep my skills current and spend more time with my kid.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Lori, I agree. It’s unfathomable that we’re dropping the ball simply because we’re making a different choice.
We are indebted to the pioneering women ahead of us. We are thankful. But it doesn’t mean we’re imprisoned to work the ways they did or work in the ways men did or even chose to work today. In reality, I don’t think all pioneering women would want us to.
Your comment reminds me of a controversial, stirring piece by Dr Sibert in the NYT about women physicians called, “Don’t Quit This Day Job.” She believes all women docs must work full time to fulfill a professional and clinical obligation.
Amy Hardin says
Love your articles and as a full time pediatrician with a great husband and two teen daughters I especially love this one and agree 100%. I am a “despite the grass being greener, you have to love and care for your own lawn” kind of girl
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thanks, Dr Hardin!
Emily Gibson says
I actually thought of you as I read the Atlantic article last week because you are in the middle of it all –you have a busy clinical career, and growing social media and video/television career, and children who are still young. I wondered what your take on the article would be. I know my reaction was mixed but agree with Slaughter that we are fooling ourselves to believe we can be effective full time workers as well as wives and mothers. It just can’t be done and done well.
As a now late-fifties doctor whose three children are off to jobs and college, my perspective is mostly retrospective. I have regrets about how I juggled church, family, farm, career but not many. I knew I could not have it all without making sacrifices that I could not live with.
I knew if I stopped being a physician, I would not go back to it–it is almost impossible to leave even temporarily without significantly jeopardizing one’s clinical skills, knowledge base and expertise. My husband and I knew I needed to be the primary care taker of our growing family, not just because I was breast feeding, but because our children were the most important priority in our lives. We were committed to raising them on a farm as both of us had been, teaching them the responsibilities of shared chores, raising your own food and caring for animals. It was worth it for me to be home, to decline traveling for professional reasons and to be home evenings and weekends.
My husband’s off the farm work did not have a part time option, so I worked part time most of my medical career. After giving birth to our second child, I left my private practice to work in college health, allowing me the kind of schedule that matched our childrens’ as closely as possible. I gained time with my family, which was critical for us all at that point. The compromise was on call phone consultations while I was at home, a significantly lower salary, and little opportunity for professional advancement.
I was also fortunate that my children were cared for by their grandmother as I worked part time. That means they were more than just cared for –they were loved, nurtured and taught by someone who was not just in and out of their lives like an au pair, nanny or day care provider. She was their second mother in every way and I am deeply appreciative of all she meant in their lives then and now.
What I sacrificed most during those “family” years was deep friendships with other women, and my own self care. I’m trying to rediscover both now that our children are on their own. I’m much more involved in church activities, and in non-medical volunteer work in my community. I’m writing regularly and taking classes and trying to exercise more. These are all things I wish I’d done more of during twenty five years of childrearing. But I hope to have some years of discovery and renewal now.
There is no “perfect” work/home balance, but I can tell you that children grow way too quickly and are gone. Mom and Dad are children’s most important critical teachers/mentors/role models. You will never regret sacrifice made on their behalf while they still need you as intensively as they do now. Those years fly by. I’m still pinching myself that it could have happened so fast. Life is an incredibly complex gifting of ourselves to others–it is others that matter in this equation, not how successful we are at the balancing act.
David Hoffman DO says
Your closing paragraph hits home with me, and it really applies to all adults, educated or not, parents or not. Every one of us gets dropped into a one-way ride called life, and like you said, “We may just need to get up each day open to the possibility of enjoying it, changing it, and witnessing it.” If we are earnest in our efforts, and are appreciative of our gifts and opportunities, then we may not have “it all,” but we have enough.
John Brownlee says
Melanie, my wife, can negotiate a 7-figure figure software deal with a client while at the same time knowing the precise whereabouts of “blue babba” (our little guy’s beloved blanket) at all times. She makes choices every day that are much more complex than mine are. She has both worked, and stayed at home, and the idea that she’s only honoring a femist tradition when she’s “working” is absurd. The gift feminism gave her was the ability to choose, thank God. I don’t think “having it all” should be a goal for any of us, men or women. Mindfulness is probably a better quest. Great post, WSS!
Yolanda Wong says
Although happy with the decisions my husband and I have made for our version of work-life balance, I still frequently stumble and doubt too. However, I’ve also come to realize that the doubt I feel is not so much uncertainty about the decisions I’ve made, but some “other” emotion that clouds perspective. Sometimes it’s envy, or pride. Often it’s a perception of societal judgement. Sometimes it’s just nostalgia and the ache of watching children grow. I’m learning to call it for whatever it is so that I see it has less to do with the solid decisions we’ve made for our family, and more to do with emotions on any given day. It clarifies what’s really going on in my heart rather than casting doubt on the actual decision. It also reminds me to be thankful for the freedoms, choices, and options that I do have. These are luxuries I know many don’t have.
Denise Somsak says
Slaughter suggests that women stand up for societal changes that promote work-life balance. As soon as men value, want, openly discuss work-life balance, things will be more equal. However, I still think biology cannot be ignored. It just needs to be valued and respected. Pregnancy and breastfeeding while demanding are not as disruptive to work-life balance as raising a medically fragile child, caring for an ailing parent or spouse, but these are the care giving roles that generally fall to women. They make for gaps in a resume that are usually frowned upon but are more indicative of work ethic and strength than any formal work experience.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thanks, Dr Somsak. Great wisdom here.
Kali Sakai says
I just read this post TODAY and found myself raising my eyebrows at how closely my own ruminations on this topic of “having it all” converge with yours in my post called “Careful Not to Step in That” from 7/21–https://evidentlyblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/careful-not-to-step-in-that.html. It pivots off of the recent appointment of Marissa Mayer to Yahoo’s CEO role. I come at it from the point of view of a former hi-tech professional who thought she would be a career woman first always but becomes a SAHM. I also reveal what things I feel I’m “missing” in my SAHM role but overtime have found ways to temper that longing. I had not read the Atlantic article prior to today either though I had heard about it. I am now on page 2 (it is long but well worth the read). I guess I just wanted to add my voice to the fray. The one point I do try to make is, I think you can have it “all” but the definition changes with the introduction of motherhood and so does the timeline. I would have never conceived of that possibility before having kids.
Keep up the great posts. I always learn such great tips here.