You Want It All? Be Careful What You Wish For
By now all of you have heard about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic ‘Why Women Can’t Have It All’. Apparently this one article boosted The Atlantic’s circulation to record numbers, and the public response has been remarkable and passionate. Slaughter makes certain recommendations which I heartily endorse – company policies that are more parent-friendly, family leave that is more flexible, etc. But here is my very ungracious perspective – get over it. If you define having it all as being the best parent, spouse, adult-child, employee, friend simultaneously, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I do think you need to re-think what it means to have it all, and perhaps if considered through a different lens, you may feel differently.
I have not met a highly successful business person who hasn’t given up something significant in their trek up the mountain. I have seen young associates (men and women) sacrifice eight years of their lives in a bid for partnership. Billable hours are budgeted at a high number, the expectations that you will also involve yourself in firm activities (recruiting, timely submission of needed administrativia, required continuing ed credits, showing your social ‘fit’ – it takes a lot of time. Perhaps you squeeze in a wedding and a honeymoon. You return to a peer group that is constantly jockeying for the inside position (I think that pun is intended). You have to quickly get your rhythm and get moving, competing at the level of the thoroughbred you’ve been assured you are. One in four attorneys abuses some substance, divorce rates are second only to those of doctors. They have the money (in Big Law you get paid a lot of money to gallop on that track), they can even step aside to have a baby and take a generous maternity leave – but one day the call is heard to return to the galloping horde. This is not solely a professional services phenomenon – career development is a competitive, challenging, time-consuming, energy-sapping commitment.
One of the women who works in the hair salon I go to told me that she had cut her hours to three days a week. She’s a divorced mom with two teenage children and felt that they need her more during their adolescence than ever before. No one pressured her to do this – her personal value system led her to this choice. (The hair salon is a post for later this week – but it’s magical – I go in with a Pepe LePew stripe and come out with blond highlights).
Some people give up their social skills. Their ability to develop relationships is stunted by years and years of isolated work and limited meaningful interaction. To me – that’s an irreparable, life-altering sacrifice – though I know many people who have lost their interest in and concern for other people over time. Their focus has been so precise and narrow, they have fallen behind in their personal growth.
In my world, I was more successful than I ever imagined I would be (ok, so it wasn’t on Broadway, but I didn’t have the talent for that anyway – or the ego strength). I made it to the C-suite, fought for an equally sized seat at the table (no comments about my feet not touching the floor please), raised children who so far have not dipped into the therapy fund I set up as soon as I knew that they were going to have me more for a mom. I married a wonderful man who brought with him my wonderful third son (and another therapy fund). And I made choices…I chose not to have a job that was going to require that I travel all over hell and creation until my kids were away at school. I found mentors who could guide me through the dissonance of having conflicting wants and needs. All those mentors were men – an interesting topic in and of itself. I chose my family more often than not – though there were some baseball games I missed and I always felt that I could be doing more. I called my parents every day – and eventually they knew my secretary who in turn would call to give them a heads-up if my 9:00AM call was going to be late. And there’s the segue..
You need a rock solid support system willing and able to pick up the balls that you need to drop. And you will drop the ball sometimes. In days past, nuclear families lived in close proximity to each other, back up was ready and available, there were additional arms and meals and hugs. When I moved to DC, I had to create a safety net, and it always had holes.
I want women to achieve their goals, dream big dreams, reach on their tip toes. I also feel that having it all – all at once – is asking for a Roman feast that looks magnificent on your plate, and is impossible to eat in one sitting. Perhaps we can have it all if we define this concept in more digestible bites. And then we might even have room for dessert.