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Culture & Religion

Why “Having it All” Is Not Just About Having it All

What happens when you do make it to the top of your field, only to find that it’s not exactly what you’d expected or been told to expect?

Several weeks into the phenomenon sparked by an essay written by former of Policy Planning for the US Department of State Anne-Marie Slaughter, we’ve heard that men don’t have it all either; that actually, women can at least have most of it; that only the very elite still hope to have it all; that having it all means having the shitty stuff too; and more existentially, that no one can have it all ever.

What’s the Big Idea?

Watch our interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter on gender equality: 

Salon’s Rebecca Traister demands that we strike the idiom “having it all” from the feminist lexicon, never to use it again, because the wording recasts a revolutionary social movement as a depoliticized “piggy project.” 

The essay’s title – and the accompanying image of a sad baby stuffed inside a briefcase like a newspaper or a pack of lifesavers – has exasperated women and men for all the right reasons. The phrasing and iconography is glib in a second-wave sort of way, harkening back to a more culturally, economically, and politically homogenous time for mainstream feminism. Where are the shoulder pads, you wonder, and the spike heels?

But the title of Slaughter’s essay should not distract us from the fact that it is precisely this individualistic, feminism-as-search-for-personal fulfillment framework which she is arguing against. 

It is a fierce argument, made stronger by the fact that Slaughter is a highly-successful and privileged professional – which she acknowledges in the very first paragraphs. This is not an essay about open discrimination and injustice, because Slaughter is self-aware enough to know that she would not be the most powerful person to write about those (ever important) topics. 

It’s an essay about what happens when you do make it to the top of your field, only to find that it’s not exactly what you’d expected or been told to expect.

Slaughter secured the dream job, excelled at it, and was able to create a life that fell neatly in line with the conventional narrative for achieving career success. There’s no question that she has a quite a lot. And yet the goal of high-level leadership remains elusive. She’s not sorry for herself. But she wants to know: why? I want to know: if this woman can’t swing it, who can?

For all of its flaws – I’m thinking particularly of the somewhat measly and half-hearted solutions at the end – “Why Women Can’t Have it All” (WWCHA!) has done more than reignite the old “mommy wars” media debate, in which privileged housewives were pitted against equally privileged career women, as if every woman’s adulthood inevitably came down to the choice between Stepford and Goldman Sachs. Slaughter’s essay has publicly and popularly called for a redefinition of the way we talk about achievement, productivity, and fulfillment. 

As Debra L. Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families, writes in her response:

The truth is that our country’s failure to adopt family-friendly workplace policies makes it impossible for either women or men who hold jobs to have it all, regardless of whether or not they have children. More than 40 percent of the nation’s workers don’t have a single paid sick day, the vast majority don’t have access to paid family or medical leave. Millions suffer from inflexible and unpredictable work schedules. 

What’s the Significance?

 The struggle for work-life balance is not just a women’s issue, but because 62% of women in the United States now earn half or more of their family’s income, and 74% of all mothers with school-age children work, it’s a particularly pressing one for many of us, especially those with children.

It’s easy to take the moral high ground and claim that everything is possible, but to do so without being able to back it up is irresponsible. “It’s this assumption that underlies Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s widely publicized 2011 commencement speech at Barnard,” writes Slaughter, “in which she lamented the dismally small number of women at the top.”

When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, ‘she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.’ Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach.

Slaughter’s perspective: developing a thick skin is an intrinsic part of adulthood, but let’s not ignore the very real factors that are there to push back against even the most ambitious and intelligent women. Let’s fix them, for everyone. 

What do you think? Is work/life balance a struggle? What can we do about it?

Check out our new series, inspired by Slaughter’s essay, Who’s Afraid of Having it All?

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