The XX Factor

Can You Have It All? Talking About the Atlantic Piece That Everyone Is Talking About

June/July cover of the Atlantic magazine.

Allison Benedikt: Hi, guys. This new Atlantic cover story on whether or not women can “have it all” is certainly getting a lot of attention! The whole how-can-women-work-and-parent-well-at-the-same-time is not exactly a new conundrum, but clearly something about this piece, written by former State Department official and current Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, and the magazine’s cover (a toddler stuffed in a briefcase), struck a chord with The Internet.

A lot of the negative reaction to the piece is aimed at Slaughter’s contention that feminism sold her a bill of goods. That she was raised to think that she could “have it all,” but that, actually, it’s not so easy. Feminist writers like Jessica Valenti and Rebecca Traister (and our own contributor Lauren Sandler) jumped to the defense of feminism. Here’s Traister:

Here is what is wrong, what has always been wrong, with equating feminist success with “having it all”: It’s a misrepresentation of a revolutionary social movement. The notion that female achievement should be measured by women’s ability to “have it all” recasts a righteous struggle for greater political, economic, social, sexual and political parity as a piggy and acquisitive project.

What does “having it all” even mean? Affordable childcare or a nanny who speaks Mandarin? Decent school lunches or organic string cheese? A windowed office or a higher minimum wage? Public transportation that reliably gets you to work or a driver who will whisk you from kindergarten dropoff in time for the board meeting? Does it mean never feeling stress or guilt? Does it mean feeling satisfied all the time?

So, what does “having it all” even mean? And do you think Slaughter is just unrealistic about life’s compromises?

Farhad Manjoo: Even though Traister argues that “having it all” is a straw man, I suspect that a lot of striving young parents—men and women—really do believe they can have it all, and are shocked when confronted with the reality. I certainly thought so. I thought that my wife could continue in her career, I could continue in mine, and that we could simultaneously be the sort of extremely doting two-parent couple who used to annoy me. But in our situation, for more or less exactly the reasons that Slaughter describes, my wife’s career had to go on hold. 

Also, it seems defeatist to me to give up on “having it all,” as Traister seems to be. It should be possible to have it all—perhaps not for the highest-ranking officials in Washington, but at least for most people in the modern workplace. It should be possible to advance in your career and take care of your family without going insane.

L.V. Anderson: I am in my mid-20s, single, and childless, and even though I will never be an uber-achiever, Slaughter’s article sent anxiety coursing through my veins. In combination with Elizabeth Wurtzel’s scathing critique of rich stay-at-home-moms, Slaughter’s piece made me feel that if I don’t continue advancing in my career if/when I have kids, I will have let feminism down.

I agree with Traister, to an extent, that “having it all” is a straw-man misrepresentation of feminism’s goals. But that seems like a quibble (and one mostly with the editor who chose the cover line and the picture of the baby in the briefcase) that’s almost beside the point of Slaughter’s article. I think what’s gotten lost in the brouhaha over this article is that Slaughter is talking about a very, very specific sliver of women: the uber-achievers who occupy the top handful of slots in a given field. She argues that changing the way work is structured for these women will trickle down to the rest of us. I am curious whether everyone agrees with this premise.

Matt Yglesias: Realistically, I think the idea that we’re going to have a work-family arrangement that functions optimally for people at the very peak of political and business hierarchies—and that it’ll filter down to everyone—doesn’t make sense. The highest rungs of professional success seem to be just inherently incompatible with the highest aspirations of parenting in a way that’s even true by the more relaxed standards to which men are held.

If you’re secretary of state and the president orders you to fly to Indonesia to attend an emergency summit to help resolve a border dispute in the South China Sea, you have to go even if it means missing your kid’s graduation. That’s going to be sad for your kids and it’s a tension that would exist even if we had totally optimal childcare and parental leave policies in the United States. Setting the bar for what needs to be done so high seems likely to induce unnecessary panic in the minds of people for whom “having it all” means “having a good job” rather than “running the foreign policy of the mightiest empire the world has ever known,” while inducing an unnecessary pessimism about the feasibility of useful political change.

Dan Kois: Look, maybe Yglesias is right that achieving at a Slaughter-level is simply incompatible with consistent family happiness, and that’s just The Price They Pay. (“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.”) And maybe I’m naive to think that if more women were in positions of power, there’d be a wave of family-friendly policy following—maybe the kinds of women who are gonna make it into the absolute highest positions of power and stick there are, by definition, high achievers who don’t give a shit about anyone’s family. But it couldn’t hurt!

Manjoo: Slaughter is right that having women ascend to positions of power is a necessary condition for some of these policies to change, but I also think her own situation suggests that this is not sufficient. Her boss was Hillary Clinton. But aside from slightly shortening people’s working hours, it’s unclear from the piece that Clinton did anything specifically to improve work-life balance at the department.

Sheryl Sandberg comes up often in the piece, but the story is the same at Facebook. It’s got great employee benefits, but it is absolutely the kind of hard-charging place where working all the time is seen as a path to advancement. Indeed, every few months Facebook has all-night “hackathons” that aren’t mandatory but are a really prized part of the culture. All-night hackathons just don’t work for families, and they set a terrible precedent for the rest of the tech industry. But Sandberg obviously sees no problem with it. 

Yglesias: What I think might help women ascend to the highest positions of power even more would be to relax some of our social expectations about family life. During the NBA Finals last night, nobody was asking if LeBron James is a great dad. Obviously he does a ton of job-related travel, works very odd hours, is going to be doing extra work at the Olympics even though he doesn’t really have to, etc. But it just sort of goes without saying that if you want to be the most successful basketball player on the planet this is what you do and so we pass over it without comment. For more women to be in the highest leadership positions, they have to also be allowed to be doing what it takes to be excellent without being made to feel guilty about it.

Benedikt: So can we talk for a second about all the working parents (I’m just going to change this from being about moms to being about parents) who don’t really have a choice? It’s not like most people get to consider if they want to pursue the cut-throat professional route or the more family-friendly one. How does Slaughter’s advice apply to those parents? You can’t work remotely if you are a Wal-Mart clerk.

Anderson: I don’t think her advice does apply to those parents. I think, as she acknowledges, her intended audience is a superprivileged one, and she thinks social and legal changes (the kind that might let Wal-Mart clerks have more flexible hours and not have to worry about getting fired if they need to take time off for their family) will come only once women have achieved equality on the upper echelons. It’s a bit bleak, really.

Benedikt: Did any of the youth among us feel condescended to by Slaughter’s piece? I’m, ahem, no longer young like you, but the hindsight factor in Slaughter’s piece annoyed me a little. I mean, yes, it’s all well and good to have climbed the ladder to great professional heights and then look back and question your choices, but had Slaughter made different choices when she was young, maybe she would be penning a cover story with the same coverline that’s actually about how she regrets not driving harder in the workforce.

Marcelle Friedman: I felt less condescended to by Slaughter’s advantage of hindsight, and honestly more intimidated. Much like Laura expressed, I hardly feel as though my ambitions would ever quite match the scale of Slaughter’s career achievements. Still, what did arouse fear for me was the idea that the parenting sacrifices are only warranted or socially accepted if you are taking on some high-power public service profession, and that doing a simpler job that still manages to compromise your parental priorities makes these sacrifices less legitimate.

Benedikt: To all the dads: Did it bother you that Slaughter doesn’t seem to consider (in the piece, at least) whether or not her husband, who has been the primary caretaker of their two kids, thinks he has it all?

Kois: I mean, I assume he doesn’t, because who does?

Dahlia Lithwick: It’s worth recalling that even the high-powered man in her narrative ends up regretting the time not spent with his family. The story about men who achieve great professional heights at the expense of their families and regret it later goes back to the Bible.

An awful lot of Slaughter’s piece is as urgently important for men as for women. All of us work too hard. We all shortchange our kids. We all buy a lot of stuff we don’t need. We are all pretty much a mess when it comes to balance. The difference is women agonize over the menu and men just order and live with it. Jan Rodak and I wrote a piece a few months ago that argued that as long as women see life as a sum of choices they will always fret and regret. Slaughter is right that for most women the juggle just FEELS worse. As one of those 4-a.m.-train moms who missed my sons star turn as “Monkey No. 2” last week at the camp play, I am aware that most of the guilt and regret are self created. But Traister is so right that anyone who tries to have it all has a problem: That’s the stuff of Disney and soap commercials. We need to make it easier for women at every level to balance work and home. But balance isn’t about constantly weighing what you have against what you don’t have. That isn’t balance—it’s a recipe for a life spent longing for all the things you bargained away.

Friedman: As a recent college graduate, the prospect of child-rearing remains a distant hypothetical, but that hardly means I haven’t thought regularly over the past decade about what my ideal adult life would look like. I personally saw my mother barrel through school to finish her degree when I was very young, only to abandon her career entirely to shuttle me and my sister around to our many activities and to take care of my ailing grandparents. Ambitious as I am, I’ve basically grown to accept, and in some moments, even welcome the idea that at some point in my life, raising my kids (if I have them) will eclipse my professional ambition. It’s something I rarely express to friends, in fact, because in some ways it feels lazy, shameful, or blasphemous to say that I can foresee a moment in my life when being a mother may seem much more important, worthy of my time, and potentially fulfilling than pursuing whatever professional goals I am setting for myself now. The pressure to behave as though motherhood will “fit itself in” somehow (in between efforts to save the world) seemed particularly omnipresent at Yale, where everyone seems to be on a mission of self-promotion, fueled by the belief that if you want anything badly enough it is possible. I intellectually reject the idea that choosing to prioritize one’s role as a mother is a defeatist cop-out of some kind, yet I can’t help but anticipate the personal feelings of disappointment or failure I might experience should I choose this route. 

Still, many examples of women who appear to “have it all” that I’ve encountered over the years do not appeal to me. The example Slaughter gives of competitive female lawyers taking a mere two years off to see their children learn to walk, only to work tirelessly throughout the rest of their children’s lives to regain lost ground, seems utterly unappealing. I think I also have different kind of skin in the game as a 24-year-old who lost her father at age 22. Knowing how much stress he was under from the burden of his bread-winning responsibilities, I wish desperately that he had worked less and been home more.

One thing that Slaughter brought up that I thought was interesting (and rather encouraging) was the notion of women achieving professional success in a stop-and-go, “stair-step” fashion. Do people with more work experience truly think this is realistic?

Kois: It’s certainly not impossible, but in order to accomplish it in many fields you are constantly pushing against the notion, held by most of your fellow employees, that a stop-and-go career is evidence of a fundamental unseriousness and lack of ambition.

Benedikt: Doree Shafrir on BuzzFeed wrote a response to Slaughter’s piece entitled “I Don’t Want To Have It All,” in which she talks about how unappealing and exhausting being a high-powered working mother sounds to her. Slaughter is obviously concerned about that point of view—that instead of trying to rise in their given profession, women will retreat to something safer or more family friendly. Do you guys think we are all worse off if women feel the way Shafrir does?

Kois: Of course not! Doree can choose whatever life she wants for herself. And it presumably IS exhausting to Have It All, Slaughter-style. But I do think it is important for women to have the opportunity to excel at good, important, interesting jobs (like Doree does at Doree’s job!) even if they have kids. That’s valuable for society, it’s valuable for feminism, and it’s valuable for the next generation of girls (and boys, too).

Manjoo: I think it’s great that Doree feels she has a choice. But I also think pointing out that you don’t want the life of a high-powered working mom is accepting that life as it works today. Slaughter’s point is that, with cultural and policy changes, that life can be less demanding. Would Doree want that life if there were certain policies that made it easier? She might. 

Anderson: What did the rest of you think of Slaughter’s assertion that women are less likely than men to want to take time away from their kids? That seemed to skirt perilously close to an argument that women are naturally better suited to parent than men. Does that observation about mothers and fathers ring true to any of your experiences as parents?

Kois: In my experience, women are a lot more likely to feel fucking horrible about time away from kids. Is that nature or nurture? Do they feel horrible because of maternal instinct or because society thinks of them as neglectful? Beats me.

Manjoo: Also kids feel more horrible without their moms. Maybe this will be less true as he gets older, but even though we’ve co-parented all the time, my son just likes his mom more than he likes me. When he cries at night, only she can comfort him. When he’s sick, he wants to be with her, not me. Is this nature? Is this something we did? I don’t know. But it’s true, and it makes true 50/50 co-parenting almost impossible.

Benedikt: I do think that Slaughter’s looking through a lens where it is unusual for a dad to be so involved, for a couple to co-parent, or for mom to make more money than dad. But for me and my friends (who are all in our mid-to-late-30s with young kids), I think the lens is different. We all just assumed, and rightly so, that we would co-parent our kids. And we all do. For women in their 20s, I’m sure that assumption is only stronger, which is why Slaughter’s piece, at times, felt a little passé.

Kois: My peers also (almost) all assume co-parenting as the default standard, but that doesn’t mean we feel like we’ve got it all. Mostly it just means that both parents feel guilty more often—or sidetrack their own careers (or both)—instead of just one.

Friedman: Allison, it sounds to me like you and your peers represent an intermediary generation that quietly does “have it all,” which Slaughter’s piece perhaps ignored because she focuses so much on the next generation of young parents, rather than the current one. Perhaps it is people in your position who should be giving talks to younger women, rather than the Slaughters of the prior generation who feel chewed up and spit out by their attempts to be superpeople and superparents.

Kois: Whoa whoa whoa, this is news to me! Allison, you have it all?

Benedikt: AND a Subaru Outback.