The hot button issue of the day is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic entitled “Women Still Can’t Have It All.” From the New York Times to two different NPR programs (On Point and the Diane Rehm Show), to countless blog posts, comments on the articles and radio shows online, what Slaughter wrote is being discussed. I believe this was her point, despite the criticism she’s taken personally as fall-out from her article. The article addresses mommy guilt along with women’s identity after childbearing, two topics inContext covered over the past few weeks.
Slaughter claims we need to change our culture and society where women, work and family are concerned. The author states this kind of change would not only benefit women, but also men and children. I hope to contribute to the national discussion on “having it all.” Some of what I write may seem combative, and my last point might seem downright ugly or anti-woman. I don’t take issue with Slaughter’s experience or her article so much as hope to expand it, and widen the experiences represented in the challenge all families, women, children and men face. I want to ask difficult questions, not to plant seeds of doubt, but rather to expand the discourse.
For a great majority of women, myself included, Slaughter’s stance that women feel compelled to be there for their own children is accurate. Whether this is partly biological and partly socio-cultural, it exists and is palpable for many women who must make sacrifices and difficult choices. When Slaughter writes about “having it all,” she means a high-powered career and also a family, for whom she is available as needed. This idea of “having it all” is a women’s issue, on the one hand, because women invented it. It is not the issue of men, as men have never “had it all.” They are either successful in high profile and/or high power positions and largely absent from their families, or even if available at times, they do not perform the greatest portion of household tasks or childrearing duties in addition to their high-powered paying job. Certainly, in today’s world, where women represent almost half the households in the country as main breadwinners or contribute at least half of a family’s total income, and men who stay home are as marginalized as women who do not work outside the home, the issue has expanded to include men, who have taken up the other half of the banner along with women. On the other hand, more men do want to be active, involved parents, and thus have spoken up about wanting and needing more flexibility in the workplace themselves.
In our global, capitalist, twenty-four hour, technological world, I don’t think work/life balance and the flexibility a family requires are even remote possibilities. The news cycle, business, politics, foreign policy, and caregiving never sleep. For some positions, ultimately those in power, one simply cannot be available for family and also be in charge. (More on this later.)
Slaughter admits her own privilege in her article, and knows that her situation is very different from the majority of the population wherein her work has had greater flexibility than most people can afford or find with employers—men or women. There are also plenty of women who don’t have the option of leaving a post after two years when their junior high school children struggle with school. I refer to our women in uniform, specifically. When a military mom is deployed, she can Skype her child who might live with grandma or an aunt, yet she definitely has no choice to leave her post and rush home to fix the homework problem. Women who are single heads of household who work three jobs to meet the rent also do not have the option to quit their jobs to be available for algebra assignments. And, no amount of change in the corporate or governmental structure is likely to change this for men or women in particular positions.
We’re horrified by women who choose careers over full-time motherhood. I wrote about Rahna Reiko Rizzuto (inContext, July 21, 2011) who left her children for work. Another example of such a woman is Dorothea Lange, who (along with her husband) essentially abandoned her children to the 1930s equivalent of foster care when her dream photography job came along. What interests me most about Ms. Lange is that her husband chose to accompany her as her assistant. Their own children, the Lange offspring, do not harbor negative feelings toward their father for leaving, yet they do blame their mother and question her motives. Technically speaking, it was her job, and their father might have easily remained home as the primary caregiver, a role that I know was virtually unheard of at the time. And yet, it is Ms. Lange who suffered the criticism, not her husband.
So, while Lange and Rizzuto are two examples of women who do not share Ms. Slaughter’s and my propensity toward being as present as possible for our children, even at the sacrifice of our strongly desired careers, as I stated earlier, I believe most women find themselves equally pulled toward parenting no matter how much they value their work. If we focus on women in positions of power, which Slaughter and other women of her ilk say may be the answer to the conundrum, let’s take the presidency as an example. Our president must be infinitely available to handle all major national and international crises, no matter what is going on at home. While he might, on occasion, read over an essay or assist with word problems, I do not believe President Obama allows these concerns to enter his mind when he’s in the situation room at the White House. If we believe Ms. Slaughter, then we have to wonder whether we want a woman as president, or at least a woman who has children still at home. We can’t elect a woman who will decide the job is too much as her teenagers begin high school or junior high. She can’t really quit after a two-year stint, either.
This discussion is important because as we continue to wonder about a woman as president in the United States, we need to explore what it is we ask of women, what we will accept from women and even from men. Presidents are “family” men historically. We like to think of our presidents as at least a little “like us” and understanding of the challenges families face. We recognize that some women will choose to forego public service careers to be more present mothers than such career choices might allow. When we find women like Lange or Rizzuto, we need to avoid rushing to judgment and vilify them. What is wrong with a woman choosing her career goals over her role as mother? “Plenty!” is the answer I hear from women and men. Yet, we never, ever question a man doing this very same thing. In fact, we commend him for his sacrifice.
As a voting public, we must decide what it is we ask of women, at all job positions and all levels of income. We need to re-examine what we desire in a presidential candidate, male or female. Whether you agree with her politics or not, Sarah Palin faced sharp criticism and questioning as a female vice presidential candidate with a very young child on the campaign trail. She also faced severe criticism for embracing policies about abstinence as sex education, when her own daughter obviously did not choose abstinence. Pundits were quick to ask whether Ms. Palin should have been home a bit more than in a governmental office so as to have prevented such circumstances.
If I take a moment to propose a male candidate with a young baby and pregnant teen daughter, I have to say that I can’t imagine the media wondering about his ability to lead or his dedication to his family. In that instance, it would be the daughter who was blamed for “marring” her father’s candidacy, and the mother would be questioned about her mothering skills. Overall, these issues would never come to bear on the male candidate’s ability to do his job.
I don’t have an answer to this difficult, challenging and volatile question of how we both honor women’s desires to be present when needed by their families and also in positions of power and prestige with rewarding careers. I applaud Slaughter for opening the floor for discussion of an issue so many women only whisper to one another about, and for speaking from the heart about her personal struggles with being drawn to work that requires so much from her, and which also asks too much of her when she feels that parenting is the primary task at which she must excel at a particular moment of her life and career. This issue is one that men, women and families definitely need to address, at all ends of the socio-economic spectrum. The challenge is to keep Slaughter’s comments from promoting a dismissal of women as contenders in powerful positions.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.