I Don’t Want it All: My Frustration With the Work-Life Balance Debate

…glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality.

-Anne-Marie Slaughter

 A little back story on this post: two weeks ago, I heard this amazing interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter is this power-house of a woman. Amongst other things, she “is an academic, foreign policy analyst, and public commentator. She served as Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department from January 2009 until February 2011 under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is an international lawyer and political scientist who has taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard University.” source

And, Slaughter is also a mom.

In 2012, she famously wrote The Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” after she left a high powered, high profile job in DC to return home (Princeton, NJ) to tend to her family, namely her two teenage sons. This decision, along with her article, got a lot of push back.

Her kids are now grown and out of the house, and she has returned to work in DC. The interview I listened to focused on how she believes more than ever in the stance she took in her 2012 article. (*It should be noted that she continued to work when she went back home, but it was far less hours and involved far less travel. Slaughter acknowledges that, being in a higher than usual income bracket, offered her far more choices than most people. She never had to worry about paying for childcare, for example. I’m not using Slaughter as the poster child for stay at home moms, because she wasn’t one.)

Slaughter’s interview really inspired me however, as someone who has hit the pause button on my career to make raising my family my job. She voiced many of the same thoughts, concerns, and frustrations that I’ve felt as I struggled to make the best decision for myself both professionally and personally. The conclusion that I came to, and that she discusses in her article, is that the two are really mutually exclusive because they are two separate jobs.

In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be.

-Anne-Marie Slaughter

Think about it this way. If you are a nurse and were considering becoming a teacher, would you for one instant entertain the idea of doing both jobs simultaneously? No, absolutely not. That idea is absurd because we know that would be impossible. And yet, women try to do it every day. They try to juggle a full time professional job with a full time family job. It is an impossible task, one that sets you up for failure in a context where failure is really not an option.

Let me pause the conversation here to say this – I’m absolutely, 100%, unequivocally not saying that if you are a mom and working that you are somehow failing at both. Gosh, this life is hard enough, and motherhood ranks at the top of the hardest of hard, without someone coming along and telling you that you are failing at it, or that you aren’t doing it right. So please – please – hear me when I tell you that’s not what I’m saying.

I do  think that caring for a family is a full time job. But like all of us, we all have different full time jobs, don’t we? So the issue here is not me judging your full time job, or you judging mine; the issue is a collective societal failure to recognize the weight, scope, value, and worth of caring for a family.

Slaughter talks a lot about the failures of America’s working system that are, in reality, anti-family. Employers could do a lot to acknowledge this dilemma and work to create a strategy to help alleviate some of this tension. She also talks about how in order for one marriage partner to find professional success, the other partner needs to be the “lead parent” at home. She believes that the professional success of one, depends on the commitment of the other to be successful at home.

In a way, this is the scenario that Mike and I have found ourselves in for the past few years. In order for him to pursue some professional goals, he needed me to “hold down the fort” at home to ensure our family’s success. This scenario does not demean or repress me. On the contrary. I take a lot of pride knowing that my family and my husband’s success is owed largely in part – to me. I also know that this scenario is temporary. One day, it will be my turn to take professional risks and chase down career goals, and Mike will support me by picking up for me at home where I left off.

What strikes me most about this issue, though, is the idea that we are all so frantic to throw all of our eggs in one basket. We have to do it all, and we have to do it all right now.

I don’t understand it.

Think about it in terms of a lifespan. The average person will spend 50 years of their life working. Fifty! We have so much time to focus on work, but how much time do we have to spend solely on making room for care? To care for the needs of our kids. To care for the needs of our family. To care for the needs of ourself, and others.

We seem to have inverted our priorities in life. We place this huge emphasis on a job and career when, the emphasis is naturally made by the sheer longevity of our working years. Our years to raise and care for a family are relatively short by comparison, and we seek to shorten them by dividing our time between job and family.

What’s more, we are told that if we are feminists – if we believe in equality amongst male and female – then women need to add going to work on top of raising a family, and keep up. Why is no one discussing this? In order for me to pursue equality in the workplace, I need to figure out how to be both mom and career maven, while men continue….just focusing on their career.

I find that we have inadvertently played into the inequality by this idea that we “can have it all.” We demand that we can do both when in reality, men don’t do both. Most men’s careers have been built on the backs of the women who stay home and raise their families. In our efforts to “have it all,” we’ve doubled our workload without stopping to wonder if the question isn’t of more, but when, and how.

I believe raising a family is a full time job, and it’s one that has immense value and import. It’s so true that sacrificing a career to raise a family comes at a cost – no one knows this more than me. You have no idea how difficult it is to raise a family on a single income until you’ve done it yourself. But for me, the budget’s bottom line doesn’t dictate my decisions.

I’ve also heard a lot of people say they could “never do” what I’m doing. As if what I’m doing is so foreign or undesirable. This perception, that some of us are cut out for it and others – not – is perhaps the most disturbing to me because I feel that it is reflective (again) of how we have collectively devalued raising a family as a full time job. Staying home to raise a family can look however the heck you want it to look. You can literally do whatever you want, so what is so intrinsically awful about it that makes some people look down their nose at this occupation with anything from mild scorn to full blown contempt?

Again, our desire to do it all has undermined women’s abilities. When we say that we could “never stay home,” don’t we realize that we are placing our power in that of a career? You are the powerful one. You are the creative one. Your job doesn’t give you that. You can apply your intelligence, creativity, and energy into anything, including staying home. Goodness. It drives me nuts when people talk about staying home as if it’s on par with being a telemarketer. Staying home to raise a family is many things, but boring and one dimensional is not one of them – unless you are boring and one dimensional.

I get the fact that there are plenty of “pros” to add to the old pro/con list in terms of having a career. I’m not dogging careers. It’s just that I know a career will always be there for me. I will always have the option to re-enter the workforce. But the window for me to invest in my family and make caregiving my job, is relatively small. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Do I ever worry that I’ll somehow lose my edge as a result of being “out of the game” while I’m raising my kids? Absolutely not, because I’m not an idiot. I’m educated, and I’m fierce. I will pour the same energy into re-entering the workforce that I’ve poured into figuring out this crazy career called motherhood. If I can figure out how to potty train a strong-willed kid, then good grief, I’m not worried about finding a job in the future. And if I ever sit across from an employer that looks down on what I’ve chosen to do with my life during my baby raising years, then I will know exactly how to respond to that sort of small minded rubbish. I won’t be taking that job, you can count on that.

Do I worry that my kids are becoming my focus and that I’ll “lose myself” in the process? Heavens no, for two reasons:

1.) I believe we are here on this earth for everyone except ourselves. I believe my number one job is to serve others. It just so happens that the people who receive most of my service these days are small, difficult, and constantly covered in dirt. That’s ok, because it’s not about me anyways.

2.) I find it crazy that we worry so much about losing ourselves in motherhood, yet when we work, we tend to define ourselves solely by the job we have or the work we do and no one seems to find that unhealthy??? I find that bonkers crazy. I won’t lose myself in raising my kids in the same way I didn’t lose myself to my career – by being a well rounded, multi-faceted person. I have interests. I have hobbies. In short, I do stuff other than my job.

I don’t believe we can have it all…at the same time. I believe that our physical, emotional, mental capacity, and, lets not forget time,  simply won’t allow it. I do believe in seasons, though. I believe that we can have all the things we desire – job, family, hobbies – spread out over a lifetime. This, I think is the key. We have to view our desires against the backdrop of a lifetime, and not a moment. We don’t have to try and do it all right now, because that is simply a recipe for frustration, disappointment, and burnout.

Instead, we can choose one thing, right now, and we can be amazing at itPerhaps it’s time for enough of us to say that the current model for work-life for women is bogus. Perhaps it’s time that we demand some time to raise our families, and to be taken seriously when we are ready to re-enter the workforce. And perhaps, it’s time to recognize that staying home to raise a family isn’t a second rate option. We spend all this time, effort, and sometimes even money in order to conceive and start a family. Why not take some time to enjoy it? To make family your focus and the recipient of all your creative and intellectual abilities? Why not take a few years to say no to a career that will not be there for you in the end, to love and care for the ones who will?

As a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson and the university he founded, I grew up with the Declaration of Independence in my blood. Last I checked, he did not declare American independence in the name of life, liberty, and professional success. Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness, and let us start at home. -Anne-Marie Slaughter

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