Having it all? Women struggling with work-life balance are fortunate

Having it all – excelling in a meaningful career while having plenty of time for family – is a struggle for educated, privileged women, and the focus of a recent article in The Atlantic. But maybe the challenge of 'having it all' should be placed on society, not individual women.

Denise Applewhite/Princeton University/AP
Having it all is impossible, says former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter in an article for The Atlantic. She describes her struggles balancing a high-powered career with raising her two sons.
The Atlantic
This magazine cover image released by The Atlantic magazine shows cover from the July/August 2012 issue featuring an article by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” has become the most popular piece the magazine has ever published. 

And no wonder.

Slaughter, a Princeton professor, former dean of the school’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, former director of policy planning for the US State Department, (and many other things, all of which is part of the point of her article), has tapped into one of life’s most controversial and tormenting questions for young women of The Atlantic’s reading demographic.

How the heck do you “have it all?”

Or, how do you “balance” a fully satisfying work life, with professional advancement and workplace accolades, with an equally full family life, with time for children and spouse and maybe even sometimes yourself?

The answer, Slaughter suggests, is, well, you can’t.  At least not with the way the US workplace is structured.

And not only that, she says, but the idea that anyone possibly can have “it all” has been harmful for a generation of younger women who are increasingly seeing through the myth of feminist completion and have decided to give up either on families or on the high powered professional careers that they might otherwise enjoy.

I read Slaughter’s article with interest.

I am her target audience: relatively privileged, Ivy League educated, 30-something, trying regularly to figure out how to make “it all” work. I skate between diapers and deadlines; I regularly feel guilty either about not writing enough or not putting my baby to bed, despite the cries of “mama” coming from her room. I worry about taking time after dinner to work rather than spending those precious toddler-free moments with my husband, who has a heavy work-family load of his own.

You might say, actually, that I have no real problems.

And to that I would agree.

Because here’s the thing:  I realize that compared to about 99.99 percent of the women in the world, and even in the US, I have no problems. I am safe. I am not hungry. I have a beautiful child and a wonderful partner and even a couple of really cute pets that I have the financial ability to feed. (This sounds minor, but think about it – what a global luxury.) I have work I enjoy and that I even find meaningful. (Again – when did people get so privileged that we expected work to provide meaning, not just food? It’s awesome that I can even worry about it.)  I expect my daughter to have choices – maybe not “all,” but choices – and this, in the grand history of the world, is pretty incredible.

I realize this, and it makes me feel blessed. Happy. Fortunate.

Having “it all,” or whatever that means, sort of doesn’t matter.

I don’t write this to sound preachy, or to take away from Slaughter’s important and insightful points. The US work culture is problematic when it comes to families; her suggestions for modifying policies and attitudes would be a welcome relief for scores of women.

But I wonder whether a good bit of my generation’s apparent “opting out” comes not from frustration and disillusionment, but from a global recognition of our incredible good fortune. Or from a different sense of happiness, which Slaughter writes about at the end of her piece, and perhaps even an intellectual skepticism of the economic reasons behind our society’s melding of “work” and “life” for its most educated citizens.

(Even, I might venture, a more worldly understanding that this blend is not universal. I remember during my first months as a reporter in South Africa offending not a few high-powered executives for calling them after 6 p.m. The workday, they pointedly told me, was over.)

Slaughter admits that she decided not to return to the fast-paced professional life of the high ranks of the State Department because she believed her teenage children needed her at home.  And, she writes, she realized she wanted to be at home; that this choice would make her happiest. ("At home," here is back to a full-time tenured professor position at Princeton.)

And perhaps this is the lesson that my generation has already absorbed. That you might be blessed enough to love work, but work will never love you. It doesn’t even depend on you – no matter how much you might think otherwise. And sometimes, it feels like the right thing to do – the happiest thing to do – to put priority on those for whom you do, truly, matter.

This sounds, as I write it, incredibly conservative. But I don’t think it needs to be seen as such. There are scores of reasons why women and mothers should be in leadership positions, in boardrooms and hospitals and Congress.

But perhaps the question of “having it all” should be placed on society, not individual women. How can we, as a culture, have "it all" – educated women who have what seem to me to be quite reasonable, healthy priorities but who also have the ability to contribute to public life, broadly defined?

That’s a conversation that Slaughter has stared, and that we should continue.

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