Friday, June 22, 2012

Why No One Can Have it All

Or Why Anne-Marie Slaughter is wrong.

While a number of very smart women have chimed in and written great articles about why this interminable essay was bad, missed the point, is dangerous, or simply stupid, there aren't a lot of men who have or will.  I grew up in a household were my mom went to work and climbed the corporate ladder.  My dad stayed home, ran his own business, and waited until both kids were in or done with college to have what you could call a traditional career.

Arguably you could say, my home life was very much a product of the feminist revolution. I have been called on occasion a feminist.

But before going on to my thoughts on The Atlantic article, I asked two people who also lived in my house to comment on the article:
“Jesus, I got to the end of the first page and saw there were six more pages. No wonder she couldn't get her work done. Fucking academics -- they don't know when to shut up. – Mother, 58, Senior Executive at a Fortune 50 Company

“Ugh. This has been floating around all day and I've been avoiding it, because I don't give a shit why The Atlantic thinks I'm going to be barefoot in the kitchen.

“I just think [the concept of the article is] so stupid. Men make the same choices, it's just that they don't care as much -- or maybe they do! And then they step down too! Like, cool the fuck out; life is full of compromises…obviously you have to make compromises. I just think this is so dumb and backward ...  You can't be a traditional stay-at-home mom and a high powered executive in the same way you can't be a high-powered executive male and coach all your kids’ sports teams. There are 24 hours in a day, regardless of your sex.” – Sister, 25, Ivy League Graduate and Third-Year Medical Student at a Top 10 Medical School
My mother went on to say that the unbelievably long essay was a "six page cop-out" of the ideals that the author allegedly still supports and was riddled with hypocrisy and contradictions. 

And I agree.  The issue at the heart of this essay should be what do you value you more, not finding a way to have everything at once.  Feminism, as I understand it, was (and is) a fight for choices, not a fight for women have the same life as men.

Everyone, as my sister notes, must make choices in life.  This does not mean that society couldn't shift slightly to help make those choices easier.  And there is no doubt that because of women (and men) who came before my sister, she is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and is well on her way to earning her M.D. at one of the best medical schools in the world.

The only thing she has to thank them for is opening the door.

And while that door was a real pain to open, she had to learn, study, lose sleep, sacrifice health, and make many other CHOICES to make it to where she is today. You cannot take away the fact that my sister -- not some conceptual fem-ubermench -- worked hard.  There were real sacrifices that were and continue to be made. 

The entire concept of work-life balance is a myth.  You either work more or you "life" more. There is never a perfect mix if you are racing to the top. Something has got to give.  And the sooner you realize that, the sooner "having it all" becomes just as meaningless as an essay written by an academic who had to live through two years of what every female executive at a large or growth company deals with everyday.

But this isn't just a women's problem.  The ability to do everything all the time is not possible for men either. And the examples Slaughter gives to prove otherwise are weak and somewhat offensive.  The Orthodox Jewish example is the most offensive.
I have worked with many Orthodox Jewish men who observed the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Jack Lew, the two-time director of the Office of Management and Budget, former deputy secretary of state for management and resources, and now White House chief of staff, is a case in point. Jack’s wife lived in New York when he worked in the State Department, so he would leave the office early enough on Friday afternoon to take the shuttle to New York and a taxi to his apartment before sundown. He would not work on Friday after sundown or all day Saturday. Everyone who knew him, including me, admired his commitment to his faith and his ability to carve out the time for it, even with an enormously demanding job.

It is hard to imagine, however, that we would have the same response if a mother told us she was blocking out mid-Friday afternoon through the end of the day on Saturday, every week, to spend time with her children. I suspect this would be seen as unprofessional, an imposition of unnecessary costs on co-workers. In fact, of course, one of the great values of the Sabbath—whether Jewish or Christian—is precisely that it carves out a family oasis, with rituals and a mandatory setting-aside of work.
Lew is one of the rare examples of a super powerful, super smart, super good at his job type that people will make accommodations for on a regular basis.

However after working in New York, I can tell you for sure those who are Shomer Shabbos are often not staffed on projects or are replaced due to their observance, and that respect is short in coming. These men are forced to make up time every Sunday, regardless of what is happening over the weekend.  But that doesn't have an affect on salary, bonus, or advancement because it is a religious issue. Oh, it does...huh?

That analogy is proof that if you choose to do anything that impacts your job, be it religion or another aspect of your personal life, you may have to deal with the effects of this choice on your career.  While this is a short-sighted example that Slaughter didn't seem to develop past the singular example of Lew, the Marathon Running Man vs. the Executive Level Mother missive is just plain stupid.
Many people in positions of power seem to place a low value on child care in comparison with other outside activities. Consider the following proposition: An employer has two equally talented and productive employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he is not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself to get out there even after a long day. That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance. That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in.

Be honest: Do you think the employer makes those same assumptions about the parent? Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children’s day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have a housekeeper—and does much the same work at the end of the day. 
I run marathons.  I don’t care what my boss thinks of my dedication to the sport or what it means about my work ethic.  The real thing that gets me in this comparison is that there couldn’t be a more selfish choice to make than to run marathons.  I run for me: for my health, for my sanity, and for my ego.  This choice effects those around me but only for about 18 weeks.  When my lovely wife and I choose to start a family of our own, it will effect every aspect of our lives for the rest of our lives.  If my work day is nuts, I can skip a few days of training but I couldn’t skip a few days parenting. 

Running is a luxury choice.  And while choosing to have a family with children is a choice at first, once you got'em they are your responsibility. Now if I choose to run marathons, which I do, and make it work without impacting my performance in the office, then that is impressive, but there is no comparison to raising a child. Missing your 20 miler and missing your kid's appendectomy don’t have the right to be compared. Period.

Additionally, society has changed over the past 30 years -- men do more at home and most women work to provide income for themselves or for their families.  But there are some things you can't change. The office culture can't shift to make your choice to attend the big meeting or the annual dance recital, scheduled months in advance for the same time.  Your boss can't and shouldn't schedule the conference call with the client around Little League play-offs.

Women in the work place must make the same choices as their male counterparts.  The thing that can and should change is the scorn that is dished out by "traditional" moms toward those moms who work for a living.  And for that matter the praise that is poured upon both bring-home-the-bacon and stay-at-home dads for showing up to kids events should end.  Everything that two parent households do is in balance and calls for compromise.

Finally, that last sentence exposes another HUGE problem with Slaughter's essay.  She is approaching this "problem" from a place of extreme privilege.  The Bitch Magazine article linked above explores this at some length.  I would like to point out here that all of the examples to make life better for working mothers presented in the essay only impact those in offices and those with the flexibility to manage her own schedule.  It is almost to say that a real feminist is elite and couldn't possibly be a working class woman.

Life is about choice, and that was the goal of the feminism I was taught.  Both of my parents worked hard to teach and show me and my sister that we came first no matter what.  And I did not know for sure if their choices impacted my mother's career or my father's out-of-the-house career in his late 40s.  Because of their very hard work and choices, all I know is that they were there for us.

Now as an adult building a career, I know that there must have been opportunities lost for both of them that were a result of us kids.  But I didn't know it then.  Our family was extremely strong and loving. Not to say we didn't have our trying moments, but it was clearly about family first.

And that was the choice my parents made.

Arguably, having those kinds of strong feminist role models with extremely traditional values in our house simultaneously is what made the products of that household strong enough to make it today.  You could say, I had it all...but that was a choice.

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