The XX Factor

Fine, Women Can’t Have It All. Isn’t That Called Compromise?

Anne-Marie Slaughter on the job

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you haven’t seen it already, by day’s end you’ll probably glimpse the Atlantic’s new cover with a small child stuffed inside her mother’s briefcase. The headline: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Anyone who has contemplated the realities of adulthood at any point in the past few decades will quickly get the gist of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article: It’s hard to have kids and a career. Despite the universality of this problem, it’s disturbingly rare how little space we devote to solving it, and it’s great to have a formidable voice proffering some ideas. Yet, underlying Slaughter’s sound (if familiar) observations and her solid suggestions are harmonizing strains of the same old song. Here are a few plaintive melodies.

1. Blame feminism.

Slaughter begins the piece describing her choice to return home to Princeton after two years of long-distance parenting from Washington, where she was the director of policy planning for the State Department from 2009-11, because her teenage son is falling apart. This cues Slaughter, a hugely accomplished former Princeton dean, to accuse feminism of selling us the false promise that we can have it all. She writes:

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.

But feminism doesn’t tell us that we never have to compromise—America does. Feminism tells us we don’t just have to be a mother, or that we don’t have to be a mother at all. It doesn’t say we have unlimited time and unlimited options. And if we do choose to have kids, feminism doesn’t tell us not to focus on them. When fathers feel the brunt of work-life compromises—and despite the expanding mommy-verse of discourse, they surely do—no one lays it on the false promises of the Second Wave. Slaughter’s husband, a professor of politics, was the one taking care of both kids in Princeton when she was working in Washington. Was he having it all?

2. Working mothers have kids, plural.  

While not explicit in the piece, as in so many of these conversations, it’s assumed that mom is dealing with multiple kids. Every woman Slaughter quotes in the piece talking about the impossible juggle has at least two children. But in her entire section of solutions, never once does she consider, what if a mother just had one child

The absence of stronger role models in the workplace is in part due to women taking years off when their “children” are young. “The pool of female candidates for any top job is small, and will only grow smaller if the women who come after us decide to take time out, or drop out of professional competition altogether, to raise children,” she writes. As Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, could tell you, studies show that the women who do this, do it after the second kid. You can see why. The more children you have, the more years that are consumed by their beautiful youth. “As my youngest of three children is now 6, I can look back at the years when they were all young and realize just how disruptive all the travel was,” says Juliette Kayyem, who served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. “I learned to do everything else with a baby on my hip,” Elizabeth Warren remarks. But what if we had one-half, or one-third of those years with a baby on our hip? A few years of “when they’re young” instead of a decade? 

3. Let’s shift our focus to the home.

I love this quote in Slaughter’s article from writers Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin: “If we didn’t start to learn how to integrate our personal, social, and professional lives, we were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.” Integration of all these warring arenas is surely the hardest thing, and the most important. And yet, Slaughter includes this quote only to articulate the “flip-side” of her argument: Working women should “rediscover the pursuit of happiness, and that pursuit starts at home.”

What about our “personal, social, and professional lives,” that we’ve finally learned to nurture? Why must we focus on domestic happiness? Isn’t the whole point of an enlightened, liberated life to exist outside the dueling poles of the office and the kitchen, to be more than just worker or mother, understanding that compromise must be made across the board? The current generation of mothers does nothing if not fetishize the home, and all of its cozy, crafty trappings. I have no opposition to this: I baked and iced a bundt cake yesterday morning. But I cringe at the advice that we scale back our extra-domestic lives, as many studies show that having no life outside work or family is exactly what makes American women increasingly unhappy.

4. We need a woman president.

I’d like that too. But it’s the only lip service Slaughter gives to how government can help us relieve our burden. Though she talks about how workplaces could improve to become more family-friendly, she never mentions any policy that could help the work-life split. In the 12,000-plus words of this story, there’s no talk of state-sponsored day care, which most other developed countries offer working parents. Or even government incentives encouraging workplaces to support a different way of balancing our lives. Slaughter says we need leadership, that we need a woman in the White House. While I would love to see that, it’s clear that having Barack Obama in the White House did not magically reverse the centuries of racial disparity in this country, just as a woman president isn’t the cure.

Deep into her article, Slaughter quotes Bronnie Ware, the author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, writing that one she’s heard most often is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Right on. I’m sad Slaughter didn’t imbue her lesson plan with that yearning, as I believe she has in her own life. She has done meaningful work, raised her children, and helped to shape a conversation about how we could better live. Princeton, the State Department, a marriage, motherhood, and a crucial cover piece like this one in the Atlantic—man, what she’s done within the limitations of the 24-hour day. I wish she’d more boldly encourage the rest of us to do the same.