Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dissent of the Year - Slaughter's "Why Women Still Can't Have It All"

Given the recent mothering critiques/shit-shows/desperate attempts to generate page views in mainstream print media, I had largely given up on hoping to find the answers to life anywhere in those once-prominent but now largely-irrelevant magazines my parents used to subscribe to back in the day.

It's exceptionally rare that I come across a piece I flat out do not agree with in many ways, but enjoyed reading anyway. Anne-Marie Slaughter's July cover story in The Atlantic Why Women Still Can't Have It All should have rubbed me the wrong way. The title alone makes me want to vomit in my mouth a little bit - my knee jerk reaction being so where's that cover story on "Why MEN Can't Have It All" - oh wait, they can. Thanks, Patriarchy! She never once directly mentions patriarchy, and it can't be that she's never heard of it. I think her silence as to "patriarchy" alongside her descriptions of the way "men and women are socialized differently" means she basically gets it, but is choosing not to sound too feministy in the hope of appealing to a mainstream audience, perhaps, perhaps...

Slaughter offers up her own musings on the challenges of having a high-profile government career and parenting her 14- and 12-year-old sons the way she wants to. Note we are not talking about Good Enuf Mothering here; she strikes me as an unacknowledged uber-Type A parent (maybe ESTJ-type?) who demands excellence in all areas of her life. My own mom is a bit like that, so let's just say I know them when I see them. I'll admit this aspect was enlightening to me - I'd always assumed the demands are greatest with infants/toddlers/preschoolers (especially those trying 3.5 year olds) and that parenting gets easier with time and the child's independence. Turns out some young teenagers might actually need their mothers and/or some mothers might feel the need to reprioritize their work lives to spend more time with their 14-year-olds who are suddenly having some school issues and are not talking to anyone. Or it could be an overreaction to the normal mini-rebellions of the young teen phase - I'm sure Slaughter will get some pushback on the internets for it. That's what happens when you put yourself out there, I suppose.

She misses the mark where she overgeneralizes and projects her preferences and in/abilities on to all women, everywhere but also seems to acknowledge that's precisely what she's doing. Slaughter's personal narrative covers loads of familiar territory, and at first does not seem to be offering anything new that has not already been said a million times at those tired old corporate work/life balance panels. If you can stomach the crappy title, give it a read. She gets it right when she critiques the way our work culture is oriented today. Progressives like me will appreciate her suggestions that should allow for less face time, more telecommuting, school sessions that match the reality of the schedules of working families, and better day care options. She also gets the educated/rich privilege angle and explores it (briefly) in a way that doesn't annoy me.

It's a looong article, and I kept saying to myself whenever she mentioned the logistical tedium of dry-cleaning, and running kids to weekend events, etc "Why couldn't she hire someone to help solve this problem?" They're called Personal Assistants. And Babysitters Who Can Drive. She's rich and educated and feels she has enough knowledge of the topic to opine about it in a national publication under her real name, after all? So why not simply avail herself of those solutions? Clearly this is my own bias coming out. Yeah, yeah, I'm making big assumptions about her family's income level. Perhaps I'm just not getting it. I've definitely been accused of that before.

Your thoughts?


LauraC said...

Funny, I had just emailed my thoughts to someone who linked this article.

I thought her article was dead on. I too, thought the hardest part of parenting would be when they were babies but we had our hardest year this past year, the first year of kindergarten.

Despite working from home with flexible schedules, IT IS STILL NOT ENOUGH. Yes we hire people to clean the house and babysitters to help, but what my kids need right now is more of US.

And as much as I can hire someone to do all those things... it takes time. Hire someone to shop for groceries? Still requires a meal plan and a grocery list. Hire someone to drive the kids somewhere? Still need to find someone, coordinate with them, and make sure it happens.

At some point... and it sounds like the point she reached and that we are reaching... it seems so crazy to spend all the time and money to help raise the kids just to work when instead, you could not work and do the kid stuff yourself.

I'm not saying families can't have it all but we have to accept there are going to be times when priorities change. If your kids are happy and doing well, don't make changes! If they have problems, then you must change.

Shit she should have worded it that way.

Nataliya said...

I can say that I don't buy the "you can have it all" and never have. It is a big fat lie. You have to compromise, everywhere and on everything. By the way, the actual irony is that HER HUSBAND gave up his possible ambitions to support HER career. Is that not what women used to to for their husbands before??

The reality is that SOMEONE has to compromise/sacrifice either their career or their time with their kids. The logistics of the job are what they are and you cannot change that. And pretending othervise is what got us here in the first place.

Nataliya said...

JUST finished the article (should not have commented beforehand). I love her idea of plateaus in careers. My husband and I are trying to do this same thing. He did his masters, I'm about to start doing mine. He'll be doing his PhD after me. I think plateaus are healthy not only for family/life balance, but for stress management and husband/wife relations. Nothing like tag teaming to keep your commitment to the family (and each other) in the forefront.

Anandi Raman Creath said...

Thanks for linking this article. I'm sending it around at work :)

I'm with her up till the point that she thinks women/mothers are more likely to sacrifice job for kids because of some innate juju. I don't for a minute believe that's true. I think it's societal pressure, and maybe financial issues (if your hubby makes more, then you figure you can get by without your income), which is you know, the Patriarchy again.

I *do* think having the right partner is important and that men wrestle with these same questions. To make this solely a women's issue is not telling the whole story.

I don't think anyone that has a job where they aren't home *all* week would have a hard time being a great parent. Sometimes kids need both of their parents around (if they are lucky enough to have two) and at different times in life, they need more.

But I do agree, this one is not as annoying as usual articles in this vein :) Thanks so much for posting this!

And ITA with LauraC (hi Laura!) re: at some point even if you have the $, outsourcing tasks doesn't help as much as it seems like it should. Because someone still has to project manage them.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering what Cloud's annoyed tweet about using mommy wars to sell magazines was alluding to... perhaps this article. I think I'll also opt out of any other commentary. :)

hush said...

@LauraC - "If your kids are happy and doing well, don't make changes! If they have problems, then you must change. Shit she should have worded it that way." LOL!

The part about her 14-year-old's troubles being the supposed impetus for her job change really made me want to hear the entire backstory. That's what she opened her piece with - she "Did It For The Kid" right? BTW, that's a very socially acceptable reason in some circles. She's left high-profile gov't work in DC to move back to Princeton, NJ where she's still doing high-profile work in legal academe, and I'm also fairly sure she's being paid better and has more than just 12 days of vacation time per year. Those factors would be extremely relevant to me. But also, what was going on with her son that her husband couldn't adequately address? I'd love to hear more.

@Nataliya - "I think plateaus are healthy not only for family/life balance, but for stress management and husband/wife relations." Yep, that was one of the stronger parts of the article.

@Anandi - I'm glad you like it. I had hesitations about doing a post on it because the shitty sexist title is turning lots of folks off, but I think there are some interesting kernels of truth there. Thanks for validating my choice!

The outsourcing issue (and relatedly, carrying an potentially unequal mental load) can be really frustrating. I think it is part of the ongoing conversation that needs to happen in healthy relationships. But that's no reason to give up on one's career dreams. Not that that's what anyone here is saying - just thinking this through a bit, bear with me. I worry that articles like this will make people wonder if someone with Slaughter's abilities won't make it work, can I? And the answer may very well be hells yes you can, you're a different person than her. Maybe you'll work smarter and roll with the bumps better.

Anandi Raman Creath said...

Yeah, I agree the article can be seen as discouraging, but I think the *kind* of work she's talking about is unique - away from family all week, crazy hours etc. Most people don't have THAT kind of extreme schedules, I don't think. And I would think even a dad doing the same kind of job would face the same issues - the whole family would need to decide that for those 2 years it was important enough to that parent to make the sacrifices, etc.

The title is crappy, though. And the second half of the editorial was great, IMO, and unfortunately a lot of people will stop reading before that :(

hush said...

@N&M and Anandi - Agreed, I can't fault anyone for being too annoyed be the shitty title to want to even read it. What's that sound? The final nail in the coffin of print mags.

Cloud said...

I just posted my own reaction. Like you, I HATE the headline and almost didn't read it because of that (yes @Nicoleandmaggie, that was the cause of that tweet. I know mainstream media needs the help, but could they do it on the backs of men for once????) but then someone sent me the link and said it was good. So I read it, and it is waaaay better than the headline (which of course, Slaughter didn't write). I think it is worth a read. I thought the strength was in how she looked at the conflict between work and family and blamed the way we set up work, not women (either for daring to want both or deciding it was too hard to try).

I'll stop there and let you read my post if you want to know more of what I think.

Cloud said...

Oh yes, @Anandi- I agree, her situation was extreme. Most women (and men) will never face such a difficult work situation, so it seems a bit of a stretch to point at that and say THIS, THIS HERE is why young women are opting out/leaning back/whatever term we want to use.

But... I have gotten comments/read posts from people who think that the work-life balance I claim to have is an illusion, and that I can't possibly be happy living such a scheduled/busy life. And trust me, my career has not involved anywhere near the amount of family sacrifice hers has! So I am inclined to think there is something real in the worry. I probably have another post in me on this- about how I can be happy and sure that I have chosen the life that is right for me while at the same time thinking there are some aspects of our work system that are seriously screwed up and that if we would fix them, my life would be easier and better.

OK, rambling now. Will stop.

Anandi Raman Creath said...

@Cloud, I'm all about the fixing of our work system, which is why I am up front with everyone at work about my part-time schedule even though many are baffled by it and some others who work part-time "hide" it more by not being explicit about it and declining meetings on days they don't work, etc.

But so much of ALL OF THIS is a "to each his own" thing and people need to forge the path of what works for them and their families.

I can see people who *could* do the extended travel gig for years at a time (and in fact I do know them) and that's what works for them. I know it wouldn't work for ME, but I don't dare say that it's unworkable for everyone, because I don't know shit about other peoples' lives.

Isn't that what it always comes down to? People making proclamations and getting all up in each others' business when there's no need to do so?!

Got It, Ma! said...

Just got through the article. Lots to respond to but the short version is this:

I agree with all her notions for how to improve things. But it seems to me that there is a glaring hole. The single most important change that would help American parents structure their lives to support both work and family would be to uncouple health insurance from full-time employment. As long as one parent must work full-time in order to secure health insurance for the family, there's really not a lot of room for meaningful change, at least not for families who are not wealthy. We need a system that insures all citizens, regardless of their work status.

ana said...

Hi Hush, found you through CLoud's blog. I pretty much assumed there was more to the "kid in trouble" story that was left out for his privacy. There's a lot of scary shit a teenager can get in to, and just being around, observant, meeting his friends, etc... can help a parent figure out if this is just run-of-the-mill acting out vs. a red flag for something more serious. [so I hear, no personal experience except for my own adolescence]. Yes, she got some flack for the vagueness. I made the mistake of reading some of the comments on the Atlantic and quit when they devolved into "what kind of 14-year old pansy needs his mommy". I'm sure it was also partially due to, as she put it in the essay, her desire to soak in the last few years of being a parent to a child at home. We all make decisions based on our priorities, and having a job 2 states away is by necessity going to preclude attending all your kids' ball games & supervising their homework. She finished her term and still had a very successful career waiting for her. I'm not sure what she felt like she was missing for herself, though I very much appreciate her points about time-macho workplace cultures & the kinds of concrete changes that could help all workers.

hush said...

@Anandi - Yes, it's an exquisitely unique work situation Slaughter used to have.

That's why I didn't appreciate the fallacious reasoning going on in the piece. All we know is that this one atypical family did the cost/benefit analysis based on personal facts we'll never know and decided they needed to change. Ok. But why then must any of us in the more typical majority [who 1) don't do government work, and who 2) don't work FT a proverbial plane ride away from where our kids live and go to school] have to swallow Slaughter's rigid view that "all women everywhere" are limited by these constraints too?

@Cloud - Yep, that headline was so awful. I guess her editors really thought no one would have read it had they gone with a more accurate title such as "Why One Elite Family With Tweens Chose To No Longer Prioritize Out-Of-State Government Work"

I've enjoyed the discussion over on your blog as well, and everyone here should go check it out if you haven't already done so.

@Got It, Ma! - You are so right about that glaring hole. Health care! I swear, my bloggy friends here in these comments could write circles around these fools. ;)

@ana - Welcome! Totally, there's got to be a lot more to the 14-year-old's situation. I wish it were possible for Slaughter to share the whole story without in any way violating her sons' privacy. I'm sorry to hear there are crappy comments out there. You might find this perspective interesting (thanks @Amy P via 11D):

hush said...

A couple more links I want to share that you might have already seen elsewhere:

The Mama Bee's post on how this whole conversation needs an update and Slaughter didn't get it (Thanks @Cloud):

And Rebecca Traister's piece at Salon exploring how the "have it all" cliche improperly condemns feminism (Thanks @nicoleandmaggie):