Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Having it All

Perhaps you heard recently about a controversial article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic entitled, Why Women Still Can't Have it All. The article (and surrounding controversy) has been getting quite a bit of press lately. Slaughter is a former high-level director at the State Department who left her job because she found it impossible to juggle the demands of her career with the demands of being a mom. She felt her kids were not getting enough attention and were worse off for her living the have-it-all lifestyle, so she quit her State Department job to dedicate herself fully to raising her teenaged sons.

The article is an interesting read and the gist of it is that it's tough for working moms and "having it all" is either not really possible, or it's possible but not the optimal lifestyle women have been led to believe. I will answer this with a big AMEN.

What I would like to focus on, however, is how "having it all" has come to be defined for women in the first place and how I - as a child-free by choice woman - define it for myself.

Women are taught that we have three choices in life:

1. Be a stay at home mom
2. Be a career woman (with the ultimate goal of being a mom)
3. "Have it all" - i.e. be a career woman who is also a mom

For the past 40 years or so, girls and women have been given the impression that "having it all" - i.e. being a career woman with kids - is the ultimate goal in life, and it's been dangled before us as the feminist ideal; that is, women are no longer bound to the home and relegated to a life of monotonous scut work. They can be movers and shakers in the business world at the same time. They are all things to all people. They are superhuman.  They are woman, hear them roar.

There's a problem with this ideal, however, which is why Ms. Slaughter's article touches a nerve with so many women. The "have it all" ideal is a myth and women are becoming wise to the fact that they've been sold a bill of goods. Being a high-level career woman AND a mom is not ideal for most women. It's a full-blown stress fest where nobody - not the woman, not her husband, not her kids or her employer - receives the best from her. Every one of her roles is compromised by the unending demands of her other equally-demanding roles.

Yet, despite the fact that most women find the stressful "have it all" lifestyle unsustainable and detrimental to herself, her spouse or her children (if she has them), it continues to be pushed as the ideal for women. Stay-at-home moms, women who postpone childbearing to focus on their careers, women who choose not to have children and women who cannot have children, are viewed as deficient beings who walk the earth with a gaping hole that is just waiting to be plugged with the missing role. Only when a woman is running herself ragged like a headless chicken, shoving McDonald's food down her kids' gullets while she hurriedly tosses them and her briefcase in the car, is she deemed to be a full person, a real woman, a true success, and fully actualized.

Despite the fact that "having it all" has been defined for women in this one rigid way, the truth - which of course is kept from women - is that "having it all" really means different things to different people, depending on who the person is and what she wants to have in her life.

As a woman who wants nothing to do with having children and the lifestyle that comes with it, a life of career-plus-kids is the farthest thing from "having it all" that I could imagine. For me, that traditional lifestyle means having less - giving up what I really desire in life for something that provides little benefit for an enormous cost; sacrificing the things that are deeply important to me - such as my devoted relationship with my husband, family and friends, my dedication to learning, to exploring, to growing, to sharing, to taking care of my mental, spiritual, physical and intellectual health, to the interests and pursuits I hold dear to my heart and am so grateful to participate in fully. When I think of what "having it all" means to me, I feel so grateful because for the most part, I already have achieved it.  And the best part? I have given up nothing to live my have-it-all life. I have practically everything I desire in life while still getting a full night's sleep each night, having weekends free to do the things I enjoy doing, and being a fully attentive spouse, friend, daughter, sister, aunt and employee.  "But you gave up having kids, so you did give up something", you say?  Well, I never wanted to have kids, so not having them is no more a loss to me than not having a dog would be to someone who doesn't want one.

The problem as I see it isn't that our society is not set up for women to truly have it all. The problem is that women are not encouraged to decide for themselves what having it all means to them and are made to feel inadequate if they do not buy into the one rigidly-prescribed idea of what the optimal female life looks like. For more and more women the optimal life is one which is free of the burden, stress and unrelenting demands of childrearing. This freedom is not a gaping hole. It is space to be filled with the delights of our choosing, or to be left open and clear - for thought, for imagination, for ideas, for contemplation and creativity.


PensiveFashionista said...

Considering the recession we're in, I thought the article was very classist and just focused on a narrow subset of women.

So many people would be grateful for a job and probably ecstatic if they found one they loved.

I just found the timing of the article to be way off.

I'm also tired of the whole "having it all" myth which is also in the same category of "The American Dream" which is just a big ruse to keep us distracted from the shaft capitalism is giving us.

CFVixen said...

Where is the applause button?

Here's how I see it: there is absolutely NOTHING missing in my life. In fact, right now it's a tad fuller than I'd like it to be! Some things may need to be cut out. There is absolutely no room for a child, and that doesn't make me unhappy in the least. I never wanted them in the first place! How could I possibly feel like I'm missing out?

And like you, I do feel that I have it all. My life is completely blessed with everything I want (except maybe a few more hours in the day to do even more of what I want!).

Poochie said...

100% agree with you and CFVixen.

Yeah for real freedom.

Nicole G said...

I guess the part of this whole debate that really gets my goat (is that the saying?) is that this is NEVER framed in a way that suggests men have trouble "having it all." MEN do not worry how to balance their respective roles of husband, father, and worker bee, because they inherently rely on WOMEN to worry about all the things they can't. I know this isn't true in all relationships, but if you think about the average family dynamic, it probably describes many.

Society doesn't place nearly as much pressure or guilt on Dads who work late or miss a ballet practice. But Moms are supposed to make the lunches, be there for everything, help with homework, do housework, be desireable for their husbands, and oh yeah, maybe have some goals or aspirations for herself.

I mean, seriously, replace woman in your blog or in that article with man and it almost sounds ludicrous. What does her husband do? I'm sure if she is a high-ranking official her husband's not a janitor. Is he having the same anxieties? Is he quitting his job to be home with the kids? Probably not.

I think if we want women to be on equal footing with men, to earn the same for the same work, to enjoy the things they want out of life -- and for many I assume that means BOTH career and family -- then we need to work AS A SOCIETY on helping women do that, on removing the barriers (social, economic) that prevent women from reaping the same benefits at home and at work that men do.

Freelance Feminist said...

This was an interesting article and much better than other not-so-intelligently-written articles by other mothers. I agree with PensiveFashionista in that this article was a little more geared to the 1% and not the majority of the country, but the author still made some points that I'd like to address.

Here's a run-down of the article:

1. Get rid of some myths:
A)myth: just work harder
truth: demands of family irresistible
B)myth: just marry someone who will split child-rearing equally with you
truth: men often view work as more important anyway
C) myth: you just need to have your child(ren) at the right time
truth: there is no right time.
2. We need to get rid of the notion that more time equals more productive
-more time often NOT more productive
-work doesn't have to be done at office (video conferences, etc.)
3. We need to have a greater emphasis on family in the workplace
Now this was INTERESTING...apparently many parents feel the exact opposite of the childfree--employers accomodate non-parents while parents are given the short end of the stick. Huh.....Don't know how true this really is
-parents' needs should be accomodated (author doesn't give explicit example for how this would work)
4. Change "Corporate Ladder" to more of a "Corporate Mountain"
-women should deny promotions and accept plateaus and dips in career
BUT, in reality, how do you know this wouldn't be permanently damaging to your career?
5. Women should be honest with what they want
-you don't really want 80-hour workweeks anyway. You WANT to spend more time with your family (makes sense...)
-here, the author basically comes out and says, "NO YOU CAN'T HAVE IT ALL!!!" but she does it in an "I'm not a loser" way--she's not actually sacrificing...quite the opposite, she's getting what she wants!
6. Setting an Example
-companies with "family-friendly" policies actually more productive
-if more companies start doing this, everyone else will too
7. Get Men on Board
-men have started to express an interest in establishing "work-family balance"

she sort of rambled...

-women don't have to give up being women in order to be successful, blah blah blah blah blah

again, no practical examples for this argument...

In general, her argument was:
You CAN'T have it all + companies should try to accomodate parents' needs + redefine idea of what "all" means

I think she basically took a middle-of-the-road approach. She admitted that it's hard, if not impossible, for women to live the "have-it-all" lifestyle, but with a little bit of help, they can still have a successful career and family life. She's saying that some things need to change. I agree, but I'm also realistic about this prospect: things won't change that much any time soon.

Another observation:
She claims she got annoyed with people saying "Oh, you left your job because you weren't being a good enough mother." She adamantly denies this accusation, saying quitting didn't at all mean she wasn't pulling her weight at home. However, I don't buy this, because she talks about her son's "rocky adolescence" and how he was not doing his homework and being rude in class. She basically implies that her son was acting out because she wasn't around. I think it would have been OK for her to admit that being a high-powered career woman sometimes means neglecting your children, and that can have a negative effect on them. I wouldn't have judged her for saying that. At the beginning, she claims she was humbled after leaving her career and having to be on the receiving end of the condescending comments made by career women to women who have left their jobs. I don't think she was entirely humbled...

Francois Tremblay said...

I think you and Nicole both nailed it on the head. Women are disadvantaged both by the (patriarchal) propaganda they're submitted to and by the actual (capitalist) organization of labor. Both these factors are equally important, I think. Women are primary caretakers and have a career because they believe it's the right thing to do, and then labor conditions don't let them do both adequately. But no one could or should operate under such conditions.

Another part of the problem is that women's primary caretaking work (which they perform instead of sharing equally with men) is considered inferior and therefore unpaid. That part actually touches both these issues.

Spectra said...

I agree with it being almost impossible to "have it all". My sister in law works as a TV news producer. Her husband also works at the TV station and they work odd shifts. They have 2 boys who are in daycare a lot and the only REAL quality time they ever have is when they are on vacation. Granted, my brother in law helps a lot more than a lot of dads, but they are both very stressed out and uber-busy most of the time. Sorry, but a life where I have absolutely zero time to myself does not strike me as appealing in the slightest. I think I "have it all" right now--by minimizing our expenses, my husband and I can both start working only part time very soon, we can spend lots of time together, and we can pursue our own interests instead of having to watch "The Lion King" for the 11 millionth time.

Alex said...

The part where you said that the childfree don't have to sacrifice anything to "have it all" is an important point, and one that I think may be a major cause of parental resentment and jealousy towards the CF. Even parents who actually enjoy parenting still had to give up some things they wanted and valued in order to have kids, be it a more demanding job or the ability to shower in peace. But if you don't want to have kids, you don't have to give up anything in order to "have it all," however you define it.

It's perfectly possible to have a demanding job and hobbies and a successful marriage, but add a child to the mix and everything immediately either falls completely apart or gets a million times more complicated and stressful. Being CF truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

shell said...

like you and CF Vixen, I also feel that I have it all. My life is completely full with everything I want -!

Someone posted on your blog awhile back that she looks around and sees that a few mothers are excellent task-managers and are great at "doing it all," but the VAST majority of mothers are tired, stressed-out, broken down, and failing at holding their lives together. I agree and that's what I see too!

Dateline the other evening featured 3 families who are the "new faces of poverty in America". I think they were in boulder colorado. The husbands had lost their jobs. so this was a look a suburban poverty. 2 of the 3 families had 3 children. Did these families think they needed 3 children? Really ? The program showed the moms feeling defeated and ashamed that they had to go on food stamps and accept food from a community food bank. One couple had separated and another couple was fighting and seeing a marriage counselor due to the stress of their low finances. I felt bad for them all yet
I kept thinking probably none of these families would be in these desperate positions now if they had been childless or if they had even had had only ONE child.
The cost of raising children has been rising steadily and a new government report released last Thursday found that a middle-income family with a child born last year will spend about $235,000 in child-related expenses from birth through age 17. That's a 3.5 percent increase from 2010. I know I have been aware of the high costs of children for the last 20 years. WHY do people today feel the need to have THREE kids? I have a friend with 3 kids--ages 15, 11 & 7. The 7 year old was diagnosed a few years ago with autiusm. Why did she not quit while she was ahead? Every pregnancy is a crapshoot - you never know what will come through the shuffle! I know a young woman [ age 40 ] with an 8 year old and a 4 year old. She has felt trapped and stressed since the 4 year old was born. She's on Zoloft and complains
endlessly that she has no life. Don't these women ever think about what they sign up for by getting pregnant? Motherhood-it's a JOB that will last
20 years [ if you're lucky it will only last that long-! ] and the hours/days are 24/7 and there will be no pay and no days off and your needs will now come last.

Childfreeeee said...

Thanks everyone for all the insightful and intelligent comments.

I too wonder why people don't stop after one, or two kids MAX. Why three? Or four? What does a person get out of 4 or 5 kids that they can't get out of one or two? And who the hell can afford them? It's so expensive these days to even support a household of 2, let alone 5 or 6. I honestly don't know where people get the money.

Also, I agree that it's ridiculous that men don't have to worry about "having it all". The primary caregiving of kids still falls to the woman because she allows it, plain and simple. She ACCEPTS this plight instead of railing against it. And why? Because it's tradition for the woman to be the primary caregiver and people just can't imagine doing something differently than it's been done before.

And men "helping"? I'm sorry but a man doing work around the house is not HELPING. It's him carrying his weight.

Dave said...

Nice piece, Mandy.

Kelli Goff’s response in the Huffington Post was far more on the mark than Slaughter’s piece.

And in Slaughter’s piece, this part struck me as off the mark:

“Sandberg’s second message in her Barnard commencement address was: ‘The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.’ ”

Actually, the most important career decision one makes is whether or not you will have children. If one chooses a bad spouse, that can be undone, perhaps with some dfficulty but it can be done and in a perfectly legal manner (divorce). But having children is irreversible, it cannot be undone (at least not legally). Being married only won’t prevent someone from working long hours to advance in one’s career. Being married won’t put a strain on one’s finances, either. But whether or not to have children is a far bigger life-changing event. Shame on Slaughter for not recognizing this.

As for "having it all," I think *I* have it all because I can maintain my lifestyle without having to work any more, living off my investments and am no longer part of the rat race. Not hacing any children is part of that lifestyle, of course.

Shell, I recall seeing segments about "today's poverty" on several TV shows in the last few years, not just Dateline. And yes, most of those families have multiple children, often very young ones, so to me part of their problems were caused by their own poor choices. I have often muttered to myself, "Why did you have ANOTHER kid when your finances were going down the tubes?"

Anonymous said...

Something I heard recently that I thought was interesting was that obviously nature genetically programmed humans to enjoy sex. However, we're not necessarily programmed to enjoy raising children. In other words from an evolutionary perspective, nature gave us a biological desire so that procreation would take place, but it doesn't care whether parents enjoy all the stress, chores, and everything else that goes along with raising a child. I think technically the argument was that kids were a trick mother nature plays on parents, ha.

Roxie Harlow said...

I get so tired of this myth, too! I don't have a real career yet, but I am in school and working towards that goal. I wouldn't be able to do this as easily if I were stuck raising a child. Also, I just discovered that a couple I know (not friends with anymore) are expecting...again! The wife has 2 kids from a previous marriage (one autistic) and a child with her current husband. The husband has a daughter from a previous relationship. They're always struggling and on food stamps and other government aid. I can't understand why they think having another kid is a good idea! Especially since they don't really get along or have a decent relationship.

Erin said...

I loathe the phrase 'having it all'. What exactly does that mean? Apparently, society defines it for women as having a successful career, a happy husband, and adorable children. But what is it for men, if anything? Probably just a focus on their career as primary and family (if any) as secondary.

Frankly, I enjoy saying that I do NOT have it all. And I hope I die never having it all. Why? Because there is always more that I want to do, learn, see, & experience. If I say I have it all, then what else is there? If you achieve that goal of having it all, your life would appear to be pretty boring afterwards.

Sherri.S said...

When I first heard about this article, my first thought was "No, women never will have it all, as long as men aren't pulling their weight."
Seriously. Look around. Women do most of the childrearing. Women do most of the household cleaning. Women do most of the cooking. And where is the man during all of this? Probably sitting on his ass watching football.
Women could have it all if men did their fair share.

honeynettles.blogspot.com said...

I feel lucky - I didn't know that having it all meant having kids and a job! Maybe I lived in tupperware for the past 30 years, this is the first time I learn that the phrase means that. So this whole time, I always kind of made my own meaning of having it all. I have a devoted 10 year relationship, time to learn, relax, have a drink, meditate, hike, rescue animals, find ways to make extra money for charities, stay in kicking shape... Yes, I do have stress and wish I had more time to blow dry my hair for example (hippies chic is not a choice... It just makes it more practical to have a cohesive look). But for the most part I have it all.

But children would ruin it all. For what? Some say its selfish, but can I be called selfish for not sharing a future lackluster version of me with people who don;t even exist? I have a dog and she is a handful enough. I love her. But goddamn I didn't realize now I worry if she is ok when we go to dinner or a movie. Imagine that with a child. Ten fold. How could I enjoy my Malbec knowing a little kid is lonely wondering where mom is?

Plus. there are too many people on earth. Making more of them seems like the ultimate in selfishness.

Temujin said...

I don't know if anyone has said this yet, but NO ONE has ever really "had it all." You cannot literally do everything you want to do. No one can do absolutely everything he or she wants to do or get everything he or she wants out of life.

I hope there aren't any women out there thinking that any men have been able to do everything they've wanted to. I know it looks that way sometimes, but that's not true, either. It just seems odd that there's so much focus on women "having it all," when we men don't really get that same kind of media targeting.

Becoming overcommitted and being a workaholic in all phases of your life sounds like a recipe for disaster for anyone.

And yet I keep hearing that the rewards of having children more than make up for the headaches. So, coming home to your kids must be such a great respite from a hard day's work that it must be the best life ever, right?

Mona said...

I don't "have it all," and I definitely enjoy my life as unmarried and child-free.

As for the patriarchal dominance and propaganda that women still submit to, that is up to women to dismantle. As long as women submit to the traditional marital and parental roles, nothing will change for the better.

Freelance Feminist said...

I just had an epiphany.

I was thinking about this article recently, and mulling over one line that has stuck out in my mind. It bothers me for several reasons.

Slaughter says something about women like Condoleeza Rice with high-powered careers who "don't have a family."

You don't need to be childfree to be bothered by this line. We live in a "don't step on any toes!" society. When we are speaking formally about one group versus another, we're supposed to tread very carefully on the subject. We're not supposed to say that one side is "better" than another.

Even if I were married with kids, and I read that line, I would say, "Nonsense! You don't need to have kids to have a family. ALL types of families are acceptable! A family can be a Mom and Dad and two kids, a married couple with no children, or a single person maintaining ties to her family of origin. No type of family is better than another. Who is this Slaughter person anyway?"

I was very surprised when I read the "doesn't have a family" line. That line was blatantly socially unacceptable. Immediately after the first time I read that line I thought someone would call her on it. And someone did--Lori Gottlieb criticized Slaughter for this line in her rebuttal piece.

But pieces like this are supposed to be provocative, right? This line by Slaughter wasn't provocative. It was bad. It comes across as close-minded and unintelligent.

Why would someone as intelligent as Slaughter write something so unsophisticated? I have a theory.

Slaughter is in denial.

She is in denial that her life would have been easier, and better, had she not had children. She is looking at women who DO "have it all"--who have the careers they love with an uncompromised personal life, and can't handle the fact that that could have been her had she not had children. She is looking at her sorry existence of sacrificing her dream job so she can take care of her sons. It is simply too painful for her to admit that she had to let go of something she really loved so she could meet her responsibilities (jail sentence?) at home. It is simply too painful to admit that she's royally fucked up her life.

So what does she do? She jealously attacks (in a very subtle way) the women who have what she wants. Condoleeza Rice has the career she wants! She has what *I* want!...But she doesn't have a family! I DO have a family! So there! I'm not a loser!