Why the dream of having it all is an impossibility


What women may need is to redefine success as having enough for a humane, fulfilling life, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

ANNE-MARIE Slaughter achieved what is probably every opinion writer’s dream, that is, being read by a million people, with her cover story in this month’s The Atlantic.

Called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, it explores why the system still militates against women reaching the top in their chosen profession if they also choose to be mothers.

The level of interest is perhaps surprising, given that the dilemma that sparked Slaughter’s piece definitely qualifies as a first-world problem.

She spent five days a week in Washington working with Hillary Clinton in a high-ranking foreign policy role while trying to cram caring for two sons, one of whom was a normal but troubled teenager, into the weekends back home in Princeton. After two years she felt she had to quit because her sons needed her more.

Not that she was quitting to be a full-time “mom”. Slaughter still teaches full-time at Princeton, has regular print and online columns and media appearances, gives 40 to 50 speeches annually and is writing a new book. She also finds time to cook breakfast waffles, watch “silly movies” with her sons and provide essential discipline and guidance.

It fascinated me that she never even mentions the possibility of any woman choosing to work full time in the home. The most she can contemplate is an “investment interval” in which a woman “steps back” for a few years, as epitomised by Michelle Obama, whom Slaughter expects to have a “glittering career” when her daughters go to college.

Yet, as the sociologist Catherine Hakim has demonstrated, there is a hard core of women, between 10 per cent and 30 per cent in every country researched, who aspire to work full time as mothers and homemakers.

Unrepresentative as Slaughter is, her article still generated an unprecedented discussion both in mainstream media and the blogosphere, not just in the US but everywhere from Brazil to Vietnam.

Then Marissa Mayer was appointed as chief executive of Yahoo!, at 37 the youngest of only 20 women who run Fortune 500 firms but also the only one appointed while pregnant. Mayer’s blithe announcement that she would continue to work through the few weeks of maternity leave she planned to take also generated fierce debate.

Were Mayer to find time in her more than 70-hour work week to read Slaughter’s article, she might find it could be summed up by, “I hope it keeps fine for you”.

According to Slaughter, none of the myths peddled to women about “having it all” is true. Take “it’s possible if you are just committed enough”. Only if you are Superwoman, she says. Saying that ignores structural problems such as the way neither men nor women are supposed to prioritise families in a driven work environment.

The second myth is that “it’s possible if you marry the right person”.

Slaughter married a tenured professor who is willing to take the lion’s share of parenting and homemaking, but this argument ignores the bone-deep desire women have to spend time with their children themselves.

The last argument she tackles is that “it’s possible if you sequence it right”. She urges women to be wary of the assertion: “You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.” It leaves women vulnerable to finding themselves unable to have children because they leave it too late. She herself “lived the nightmare” of trying to conceive for the first time at 35, although she was eventually “blessed” to have two sons.

Her hero, Hillary Clinton, like many other women of her generation, had one child relatively early, leaving her free to pursue her career later on. Slaughter acknowledges that having children early works best for women but then dismisses it as impractical, with an almost flippant suggestion to “freeze your eggs”.

It is even odder for someone who has been through the “nightmare” of trying to conceive late to suggest egg-freezing as some kind of panacea.

Slaughter believes the key to change is recognising long hours do not necessarily mean a better employee. She also talks about double standards. An employee who runs marathons is likely to be seen as dedicated, disciplined and willing to take on extreme challenges.

A mother who uses similar skills and energy balancing home and work is seen far more negatively.

While Slaughter makes many valid points, her viewpoint is not representative of many women and not only because she is so highly educated and well-off.

She is particularly likely to annoy the many Irish women who are not career-focused but feel they have to work just to survive financially, particularly in a recession. Numbers of women working full-time in the home continue to fall.

According to April 2011 statistics, the male unemployment rate is 22.3 per cent, compared with a female unemployment rate of 15 per cent, so more women are shouldering the breadwinner burden.

In a follow-up piece, Slaughter says she will stop using the phrase “having it all” and that a less catchy but more accurate title would have been: “Why working mothers need better choices to stay in the pool and make it to the top”.

Maybe though that’s not what women really need at all. Maybe we need a radical redefinition of success, based not on having it all, which is impossible for either men or women, but on having enough to live a humane and fulfilling life.

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