The other day, I got to attend a talk by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning in the U.S. State Department (she worked for Hilary Clinton) and current Professor of Politics and International Studies at Princeton University. She chose to leave the State Department and go back to working at Princeton because her kids needed her and that was most important. At Princeton, she could largely set her own schedule and that was more compatible with family.
So, after her experience, she published this article, basically explaining why women can’t have it all. They can’t have a glorious career and have a family and do everything well and be happy and not have a nervous breakdown. They can’t do all this at once because our society doesn’t give them the support they need to be able to cope with it all.
Lots of women were pretty angry. They said that Slaughter is setting back the women’s cause by saying that women can’t do everything men can do. Women have fought for so long to be treated equally and now a woman is speaking out and saying it’s not true? Not to mention that it’s such a discouraging message to young women just starting out…
But I think Slaughter is right. It’s better to tell women the truth, tell them that it’s hard to have a career and a family and that they will probably have to choose at some point. It’s better to tell them that when it comes to childcare, women and men are not treated the same. Somehow, whether a future father will be able to handle a baby and a job is never a question. I vote for the truth, because, as hundreds of women have already expressed, I would have preferred to know how things really were. My choices would have been informed and I would have understood the choices that were available to me better. As it happened, I wasn’t expecting to have to make a choice at all and, in effect, like so many other women around me, felt like a failure because I didn’t manage to do both the career thing and the family thing, be everything to everyone.
Make no mistake, this is powerful societal guilt! A whole generation of women fought hard so that I can live like I live, so that I can do whatever I want. I can vote, I can work in any career I choose, I am not my husband’s property, etc. I am so much more than a mother and a wife. So what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I handle having it all?
I finally realize that the fault isn’t mine. It lies with the expectations society has of me, which influence what I expect from myself. It lies with how we have structured our world and how we are conditioned to look at it. And it can be conquered, changed.
Does this mean that we can’t have it all, ever? I agree with Slaughter, absolutely not. Her solutions are better family leave possibilities, better daycare, deep flexibility at work and changing the mindsets we widely hold.
The family leave possibilities that we need are obvious. In Europe we have loads more choices than people in the States do, but the situation is far from perfect. It should be possible to have longer maternity leave , paternity leave should be normal, we need leave possibilities to cover school holidays and when kids get sick. And there can’t be any judgement attached to taking family leave. Slaughter says that “If family comes first, work does not come second” and this is so important. Men especially seem to get a lot of judgement of their ‘manliness’ when they ask for family leave.
The need for accessible, affordable, high quality daycare is obvious. Mommies and Daddies can’t go to work if there is no daycare.
Deep flexibility is a tough one – though, according to Slaughter, Americans are doing well in their attitudes towards it, it’s just their laws that need to catch up. Here in Europe, it’s just the opposite. We have pretty good laws, but we haven’t had a shift in our beliefs yet and as a society are relatively conservative. Allowing one in ten employees to work from home every Wednesday is not deep flexibility. Moving to a results-based working environment and not keeping track of hours worked or time in the office, as long as high-quality work is produced, that’s what we need.
And our mindsets, all those years of conditioning, need to change. Equality isn’t just a women’s issue and it won’t happen as long as it remains a women’s issue. Women and men alike need to comfortable being both breadwinners and caregivers. As Slaughter points out, why do we only talk about ‘working mothers’, not ‘working fathers’? Why do so many women say that they don’t want a husband who stays at home? Why is the macho man image still so prevalent if so many of use are shouting out about equality? Why is it that women judge other women’s choices more harshly than men do? Why are our corporations and institutions modeled on the parent/child relationship, where we have to ‘ask’ our ‘superiors’ for ‘permission’ to do things and where we are not trusted to just get the work done?
I know that this isn’t true for everyone and I understand that there are jobs that don’t mesh with a flexible lifestyle. I also know people who don’t want flexibility because it blurs the line between work and private life and they don’t want that. But this ‘having it all’ thing is true for many of us and if we think about it and talk about it then maybe we can make the world better for us and for our kids. I fully expect to work flexibly for the rest of my life and to have the time I need to raise my son like I want to raise him. I’m hoping that believing in it will make it true. And I would love to think that my son will be free to spend as much time as he wants to or needs to with his family because he’ll be working in a system flexible enough to allow for that and living in a society that doesn’t judge him for his choices.
There is so much to say about this subject and I have pages and pages of notes from this talk, but have to make a selection of ideas. This post is long enough. But if you want to discuss any of these things – or any related issues – some more then let me know, maybe we can do that somehow. For me, the conversation Slaughter started is so very important, as it shows me and other women like me that we’re not alone and gives us hope that if we band together we can change things.
So, let’s change things, one conversation at a time.