Does Anyone Really Need to Have It All?

By now everyone and their mother is discussing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article for the Atlantic claiming that women can’t really have it all: a high-powered career and a happy home life. Slaughter would know. A law professor and then dean at Princeton who got a great gig being the director of policy planning at the State Department, she also had a husband willing to keep the home fires burning. In other words, by Slaughter’s own admission, she  had all the privileges in the world and still couldn’t find a way to balance career with being what she assumed would be “good parenting.” Slaughter admits that

such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, 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.

In a way that is now all too familiar, Slaughter makes this lack of work/life balance the fault of feminism rather than living in a country where we work more hours than anywhere else, there is no subsidized daycare, and class reproduction requires a full time parent to “invest” in the kids so they can have the grades, extracurricular activities, high SAT scores, and other resume requirements to get into a good school and go on to have a good career. For Slaughter, there are few solutions for women other than withdrawal from career commitments. That’s because there is something about mothering that requires putting kids first:

 I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

Slaughter argues that workplaces should be more flexible, but also that women have to consider leaving their careers for at least some part of their careers (i.e. when they’re kids “need” them). Slaughter sees Michelle Obama as a role model because

 She started out with the same résumé as her husband, but has repeatedly made career decisions designed to let her do work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be. She moved from a high-powered law firm first to Chicago city government and then to the University of Chicago shortly before her daughters were born, a move that let her work only 10 minutes away from home. She has spoken publicly and often about her initial concerns that her husband’s entry into politics would be bad for their family life, and about her determination to limit her participation in the presidential election campaign to have more time at home. Even as first lady, she has been adamant that she be able to balance her official duties with family time. We should see her as a full-time career woman, but one who is taking a very visible investment interval. We should celebrate her not only as a wife, mother, and champion of healthy eating, but also as a woman who has had the courage and judgment to invest in her daughters when they need her most.

Slaughter is a victim not of feminism, but of a sort of reinvigorated momism, the belief that mothers must sacrifice themselves and all their needs for the well being of their children or risk raising sociopaths. This neo-momism is sometimes called “helicopter parenting” (although it’s not parents as much as mothers who engage in it) and is linked to the trend among middle and upper class families to produce adult children who are unable to launch independent lives.

Slaughter’s neo-momism, like momism, will not lead to better lives for women or their children. Instead, a real and sustained commitment to feminist principles will.

When I was a young woman I asked Rayna Rapp, a successful professor, feminist, activist, and single mother how she could possibly do and be all these things. I asked her because I wanted to grow up to be just like her. Her answer has always structured my work and my home life.  She said:

Oh, I just do everything half-assed.

I wish Slaughter had learned that lesson of feminism — that it is not the job of women to be “perfect” mothers or “perfect” workers, but to be good enough mothers and workers. We must change the structure of work in this country. That part Slaughter gets right. But we must also change what we think of as good mothering from “perfect” to “half assed” because children who are not the center of the universe of family life but rather just one among many moving parts grow up to be adults and that is a very good thing for everyone.


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