Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Trade-offs Are Required

Lots of people have already weighed in on the "mommy war" aspects of Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All". In it, Slaughter decries the necessity of a high flying career woman having to make decisions that involve putting either her family or her career aspirations first. The opening makes it clear that we're talking about a very rarified group of people from the get go:
EIGHTEEN MONTHS INTO my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.

As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband commuted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”

She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. 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. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.
To give her credit, Slaughter realizes that she's talking about a very small group of people who are already incredibly well off in terms of money, power and bragging rights:
I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.
However, she goes on to claim that it is only by making it easy for women who are at the pinnacle of money and power to feel like they can balance their family and professional responsibilities that things will get better for the rest of American women who have real problems.

I'm deeply unsympathetic to Slaughter's line of thinking here. Long time readers certainly know that I am not an absolute opponent of income and social inequality, but what Slaughter advocates here is essentially a subsidy to the richest and most powerful in our country. Right now the equations is roughly that if you are smart, skilled, willing to give up most of your life to the endeavor, and well connected, you can enjoy living at the top of the American pyramid. Lots of people are smart and skilled, so two of the big filtering mechanisms are the extent to which people are willing to sacrifice all else to the quest for advancement, and the extent to which they are well connected. If, as Slaughter proposes, we remove the necessity of sacrificing one's time and balance in order to "reach the top", we leave being well connected as the primary remaining filter. That doesn't strike me as in improvement.


bearing said...

See now, she lost me at the blithe "dual incomes have become indispensable," followed by the blind pivot into a paragraph expressing pity for single parents.

I'm sure the fact that she and her husband could not possibly "dispense with" one of their two ginormous incomes will make that pity go down so much more smoothly.

Peter and Nancy said...

I don't agree with her that having more women like her in positions of power would automatically, magically make things better for all women. My mom stayed home for a few years, but it was necessary for her to work again when her 3rd child was very small so that our family could survive. She worked in a blue-collar job at a printing company (as did my dad, in HVAC) -- which bears zero resemblance to the author's situation. I often wonder if high-earning career women would even recognize themeselves in women like my mother . . . or even speak to them in a public setting that wasn't staged for political purposes. The vast majority of mothers/women have very different struggles to face than this author.

Jenny said...

Agreed, bearing.

I don't agree with her that having more women like her in positions of power would automatically, magically make things better for all women.

I agree but not for the same reasons. As a mother with a solid white collar job, it is my experience that many women in positions of power have the general attitude of a) I gave up my home life, why shouldn't you or b) it was your choice to have kids, not my problem, live with it.

I find myself with sympathies on both sides of this issue. I generally am opposed to the standard "women's problems that require big government solutions" line of thinking. However I do think there is a biological reality that cannot be avoided. Women have the babies. If these same women are also holding full time jobs (which many are), we, as a culture, need to come to grips with how we treat maternity leave in this country.

Let me tell you, I understand why so many people have two kids and quit. It is dang hard to have a kid every 2-3 years as an ongoing lifestyle when it takes 2-3 years to build up enough paid time off to take a maternity leave. What's a vacation?

Anonymous said...

It's stupid to have women on the same career track as men. The old bad rules in some jobs where women had to quit being single in their late 20s or early 30s did at least acknowledge biological reality better than modern bleating for maternity leave without career penalty.

The dead-simple solution of not expecting women to have careers until after their 30s as a default is not a bad one. By then most women have had some children, are more balanced and the children are old enough to not require a lot of adult supervision (i.e., childcare). Another biological reality is that childbearing keeps neurosis at bay for many women and delaying it has fairly obvious psychological costs.

A workforce consisting of 20something on up men earning for their households and 30something on up emotionally balanced women earning some extra now that the kids are old enough to tend themselves would probably be more friendly to both men and women than the current workplace model.

Jenny said...

Well I have three children so I'm glad to know I must not be neurotic.

Just to clarify, when I speak of biological realities and paid maternity leave, I do not mean European style years off. I mean a few weeks to allow the bleeding to stop.

Anonymous said...

But it's still problematic to expect women to be in the outside of home workforce full-time when that perfectly normal aspect of life is likely to happen. I mean, this was partly the point of the traditional models. Women weren't employed outside the home so that they could have some weeks of rest after childbirth.

Under the misfortunes of modernity, a decent stopgap would be giving people the option of savings accounts set aside for post-baby time (what european countries do by taxing, but voluntary instead).

Many workplaces already allow the six weeks for the bleeding, it's just not forced on most or all workplaces in a technical sense in America (in other countries, the law says one thing but the realities vary wildly for women in practice).

Darwin said...


Given that different women, for various reasons, find themselves on different timelines, I don't think that it makes sense to have a single expectation as to how their careers will be scheduled around having children or whether they will work or stay home. Since most people move around between companies and even between industries/careers with a certain rapidity these days, I think it works just fine to leave those decision up to individual people and let some kind of solution emerge on a case by case basis.

More generally: I'm not against concessions to family balance in general. While I think that European style benefits impose so much dead weight cost to the economy that they virtually mandate that all families be two income families (something I'm not in favor of, obviously) most good companies offer some kind of short paid maternity leave such as Jenny mentions, and I think that's a good thing and something which should be encouraged. (Beyond that I get rather conflicted, as when I hear coworkers talk about how they want company paid for childcare, flex schedules and such, I can't help thinking this means single income families such as mine implicitly subsidizing two income families who are often twice as well off as us, since we'd all take a long term pay growth cut in return for benefits that wouldn't be of any use to me and my family. Since my coworkers who are part of two income families make more than I do, I figure they should have to bear the costs of that lifestyle.)

My beef with Ms. Slaughter is not with women-in-the-workplace concessions in general, but that she seems to think that you should be able to hold one of the top jobs in the country in politics or business without it cutting into your free time -- without having to make trade offs between personal and professional life. I think that those trade offs are a somewhat valuable way of making those positions less attractive, and thus encouraging turn-over at the highest levels of income and power.

bearing said...

Another thing about this that bothered me: Okay, so she was trying to "have it all." So why the heck was her husband trying to have it all at the same time? I mean, sure, it isn't every day you get a chance to work at the job she was offered, and I don't begrudge her wanting to say yes to that. But why couldn't *his* job have taken a back seat to the kids' well being? Why doesn't she discuss that -- she has already restricted herself to wealthy two-career couples, so presumably there are some silent husbands in the background here. Husbands who might have been willing to take leaves of absence, or cut their own work hours to watch closely over their kids while giving their brilliant wives a chance to change the world.

I mean, the will always be different pressures on mothers and fathers, such that it makes sense more often for Mom's career to be contingent on the kids' needs than for Dad's. But individual families have a range of ways to set the priorities such that kids are cared for mostly by a parent. Dads can and do fulfill the primary-caregiver role, maybe less often, but they step up when that is what makes sense. Which makes me ask about this situation, "Okay, but where are the dads in this equation?"

Jennifer Fitz said...


I think as a nation we'd be better off if top-end jobs did allow more balance between work and family life. Because can you really trust a man who abandons his own children in the quest for wealth and power? Um, no. [I do not propose some policy solution though. It's good enough that our feudal lords don't wage war on each other much, I'm happy with the status quo.]

The article (as quoted -- haven't read the original) points to me towards a few thing, though:

-Dittoing Bearing - two incomes are *not* indispensable. The essayist is delusional.

-Whoa, hey, kids need parents. Gentlemen, when you give your life over to your careers, no the kids are not alright, even if your lovely wife has it all under control. School-age kids need their parents. Both of them.

-Teenagers. Even with a decent homelife, sometimes they're just difficult.

The Sojourner said...

I kind of feel like Slaughter can't grasp basic scheduling mathematics. You simply cannot spend more time with your family unless you spend less time on something else. You could sleep less or spend less time on your hobbies or cut back on your work hours, but the time has to come from somewhere. Every single person who lives on earth (man or woman) has to decide what they want to do with their time, has to give up an infinity of worthwhile options in favor of those few priorities that can be fit into 24-hour days. I do think it's somewhat more socially accepted for a man to work a job that forces him to only see his children on the weekends, but he's still making trade-offs. (I know a fair number of people who feel like they didn't really have fathers in their lives because their fathers--mid-level professionals, not Washington bigwigs--were always at the office instead of home. I'm not saying that there's no good reason to work long hours--feeding your family is one--but working those long hours means compromise for men as well as women.)

I've only read the first page, so maybe she says something brilliant later on, but right now I'm deciding to spend my time doing the dishes instead of reading the other 5 pages of the article. ;)

Jenny said...


Whether or not a short, paid maternity leave is offered seems to depend a lot on the area of the country. Around here I do not know of any company that offers paid maternity except, ironically, the hated Wal-Mart. Everywhere else "maternity" leave amounts to being allowed to use already accrued sick and vacation leave which means you better not get sick and you aren't going on vacation if you want to be paid after childbirth. I completely agree that companies should not subsidize the two income lifestyle. They already have the extra money.


You made the better choice with the dishes. The first page was the best. Why Slaughter thought she could move to another state and still parent her child, I don't understand.


I got the impression that her husband was highly involved with their child, but she felt helpless in the situation since she lived in a different state. I can completely relate to that feeling. In my house, my husband is the primary care giver and it is sometimes so hard to know something is going on and you just can't be there. Even when he is handling everything just fine and the kids *are* alright.


I think Slaughter did come to the realization that children do need their parents. That she was surprised by that fact doesn't speak well of the groups in which she moves. Abandoning your family for a job (career, whatever) always has consequences even if some do not want to admit it.

I do not think fathers feel absence from the children in the same way as mothers do. When a father goes to work, he thinks about work. When a mother goes to work, the children are never far from her mind. I don't mean she fixates on them when she should be working. I mean they are always one of the multiple trains of thought a woman has. Therefore I do think it is more likely for a mother to be more concerned about balance, but that is only because the lack of it stabs her in the heart.