Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The "Having It All" Debate, Again: The Truth No One's Willing to Say

Perhaps it came to a head most with a front-page story in Friday's New York Times, "Elite Women Put New Spin on Old Debate." Here, writer Jodi Kantor summarizes the revival of the most trite of feminist slogans, that women can "have it all" by successfully juggling careers with family. The "new spin" is that highly achieving women--and I mean the 1%, who are powerful, wealthy and brilliant--once again fret over their desires to veer from tough, competitive and demanding professional tracks to embrace family life.

Furor was first fanned by the 2011 Barnard College commencement address by Sheryl Sandberg, in which the Facebook board member exorted women to push ever-harder to maximize their work-life potentials, a concept some cheered and others dismissed.

Well, not quite dismissed, as high-ranking women admitted the draw of their children over career, and felt guilt responding to that pull. A cover story in the July-August issue of The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and "the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department," under Hilary Clinton, takes us through the angst over issues with her teen sons that led to her resignation from that post. The hurdle, Dr. Slaughter tells us in an accompanying video, was admitting that she wanted time with her children. Feminists want to change the world; they're not supposed to want to change diapers.

But she's quick to reassure us that "I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book." The difference is that now she sleeps at home rather than away in Washington, DC. Some call that compromise. Not me.

Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter
Nor Lori Gottlieb, whose post on The Atlantic website snarkily docks Dr. Slaughter for her suggestions for solving the career-mommy conundrum, which include increasing respect for parenting, shaping work so parental duties are more feasible, re-defining success to allow career dips for motherhood, and roping in dads.  In other words, after forty years of family-friendly discussion and innovation, Dr. Slaughter trots out tired arguments that employers will gain if they structure their businesses around workers' parental duties.

Lori Gottlieb replies, redundantly because she's so tired, that "Time and space do not magically expand because you'd like to be two places at once or do more things than can fit into a 24-hour period or even a life span."  She very accurately mentions the vast majority of women who don't have nannies or mommy-esque husbands, and might be working two jobs to cover the bills. This is a tempest in a Starbucks cup, because while readers of Atlantic are buzzing about the difficulties fitting in yoga while they write another book and take the kids to karate, the rest of the world doesn't subscribe to the New York Times to even read about their plight.

This whole "are we spoiled or are we entitled?" back-and-forth, however, doesn't dare tell the real truth. Something no elite achiever, whether she's a time-out mother or a dedicated CEO can mention. But here it is: Women naturally want to be on the scene raising their own kids. And most men do not.

More succinctly: There are innate gender differences that explain the fact that all these newly-liberated and achieving women are in such a tizzy over this, while men are not. The women who are tops in their careers also want to be tops as parents, and the fact they can't is severely frustrating. The men who are tops in their careers love their children, but don't have that umbilical pull to be there raising them.

The women sounding off complain about constraints of organizations and professions. They moan that even with involved husbands and expert help, their children need them. They grouse about the guilt they feel for biting the hand that feeds them so well in tony restaurants, by stepping down from positions they've sought. They describe the lack of understanding and admiration their nurturing and lunch-packing and selflessness for their children earns compared to, say running a marathon.  But they never mention--they can never mention--that traditional gender roles might have some practical and natural basis.

No, they exist as role models to break those traditional gender roles. Dr. Slaughter repeatedly lauds achieving women, foremost among them Michelle Obama, whose current occupation as First Lady is "a very visible investment interval" for the benefit of her daughters, and, Ms. Slaughter assures us, "we should expect a glittering career from her after she leaves the White House and her daughters leave for college."

The elite feminist trope, as expressed by Dr. Slaughter, is that women should excel in their careers in their 20s and early 30s, freezing their ova to insure that when their trajectories are set, it's not too late to conceive. Then, in their mid-30s and 40s, they can intentionally relax a bit on the professional thrust to allow for parenting to weave itself through their meetings, after-midnight writing binges, and flexible office visits, resuming their quests for ultimate occupational fulfillment in their 50s, once the children are safely esconced at Princeton.

Sounds fabulous. Some of us, however, are unafraid to say at the outset that raising our children is a higher calling than advising Hilary Clinton, or even being Hilary Clinton. Some of us don't want to hear from the nanny that little Taylor or Dallas finished their brie-on-baguette sandwiches at the park after school. We'd rather make the snack, pick up our own kids at the bus stop and walk them to the park ourselves, pushing them on swings and asking them about what happened that morning in kindergarten. Every day. We want to be there, not just because we love them (yes, career acheivers do love their children, too) but because we consider it a privilege and a duty and a delight to nurture. We have no issue with that old fashioned idea that children need their mothers, and that mothers are biologically programmed to crave, care for and protect their children. And to imprint them with their values and styles so that they may thrive.

The truth no one seems willing to say is that men and women are inherently and inescapably different. It's not just socialization that causes these differences; it's nature, or God, or whatever you want to believe makes us who we are when we enter this world. Some people are tall, some are smart, some hate cilantro. And women are made to be mothers, and to mother. Women can be competent and excel in a range of other things as well, but the fundamental truth is that women are made to mother.

That's why we're hearing all these teary treatises from the super-successful. For them, it's not a balance; it's a clash. To some of us, being a mother, there with our children, is the epitome of "having it all."


  1. Yes, exactly. I read that article yesterday and I really wanted it to say things it didn't. It seemed like it would be an article about how a high-powered career woman realized that raising children was just as noble and powerful a life-calling as working in politics, if not more. But that's not what it was.

    I so agree with everything you said!

  2. Amen! You are absolutely correct!

  3. Thank you for saying these things that I thought were going to come out in the Atlantic article, but did not. Motherhood is a high calling, and sadly gets thrown under the bus today. I wrote a post about it not being a good idea to leave your small babies with caretakers while you go on a 9 day cruise. The post was picked up by blogher and the women over there that left comments were so vitriolic and hated what I said -- abot 150 hate comments left for me. I felt beat up and wondered how your husband handles it everyday? Do you know of any goo studies that show it is adverse to leave small children for a week? I could have used some research, but could not find any. Thanks.