After reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s viral piece in the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, I came away wondering not if I could have it all or if I even deserved to. As long as I am 5’1” with no athletic ability, and I’m pretty sure I will never have it all. That’s OK. I wanted to know if this woman with a teflon resume, high-powered career, and a family is actually happy. Hers is a fundamentally joyless account of life at the top, a Rolodex masquerading as manifesto.
Life among the elite, it seems, is all about economizing time, squeezing one more second from every day for preservation. Slaughter, a former State Department official, and her high-achieving peers spend a lot of time shuttling from obligation to obligation without any sense of true fulfillment. In one bleak anecdote, Slaughter's equally powerful friend confesses that she programs her microwave at “1:11” because punching the same three numbers saves time. I’m not sure if this is innovative or depressing.
But at least it seems human. This tale underscores the underlying if unintentional message of Slaughter's piece: Having it all doesn’t seem like very much fun at all. Slaughter makes a worthy point: Most workplaces (where “all” is apparently found) are not set up for work-life balance. But her solutions seem utterly bleak and robotic, not to mention unhealthy. Here’s one passage: “Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments.” Behold life at the top: One long astonishing feat of compartmentalization executed for fear letting someone down.
Slaughter is strong on mechanics, but there’s something missing from her story: a sense of joy. Before women ask themselves if they should work from home or opt out for a couple of years to have kids or wire their homes for video-conferences, why not take a step back and redefine fulfillment? Colleges prepare us to land the job, but they don’t teach us how to balance a checkbook. This is similar. Slaughter wants to tell us how to balance the marquee moments (Show up for work! Show up for soccer practice!) but not about actually living them. She is big on ideas but small on details.
I wish more women in Slaughter’s position, women who could function as role models for young women, focus less on the bullet points, the classic conflicts between carpool and conference call, and actually illuminate the nitty-gritty, dirty, humanly emotional details. What it’s like to be at work at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night while your teenage son is having a meltdown in another state. How it feels to wake up at 4:30 a.m., before the kids are awake, to send emails. Slaughter hits all the marks, but was it worth it? Does she have regrets?
The intent of her article is noble—the parameters of elite (and ordinary!) workplaces are not set up for families, and that’s a point well worth acknowledging. We could and should do more for working parents (men are absent from this debate, but they deserve to have family time, too). But I found myself cringing at her definition of flexibility to the point that I put down the story and asked: Why does she even bother? Isn’t a successful life about more than just getting from point A to point B with minimal trauma? It’s as if she bought the big house and then became unhappy with the view.
So maybe it’s time to change the view. The Atlantic’s cover showcases a baby stuffed into a briefcase. Work and family: check and check, co-existing in uneasy harmony. That’s all, and it’s completely binary, much as the Time magazine cover portrayed a gorgeous woman breastfeeding her toddler, as if motherhood is mainly about (a) looking good and (b) assertively feeding your child. (While we’re at it, can we please stop using kids as magazine cover ornaments?)
I see this as an extension of the egalitarianism that has affected elementary schools across the country. These days, every kid is a winner at field day. Everyone gets the gold star, whether they deserve it or not—because, for some reason, the end game has become about winning.
This is field day for adults. Yet not every adult has to be crowned a “winner” in the classic sense. (And by the Atlantic’s definition, being a winner sounds pretty damn tiring.) In real life, not everyone will get the big promotion, land the fancy job, and produce the well-adjusted children. Men have dealt with this for years: In life, quite simply, there are trade-offs. Why can’t we accept that? Not every kid gets the blue ribbon at field day, and not every parent gets to be wonder-woman or superman. Doesn’t true fulfillment, a true sense of “all,” come with knowing that? This should be liberating, not a letdown.
Why not a letdown? Because the truest, happiest moments in our lives are not spent on conference calls and at board meetings. I finished Slaughter’s piece wondering what it is that makes her tick. Does she love her job? Does she love the life path that she carved out for herself? Any young woman emulating her should ask herself why she's doing it. We’ve earned, after all these years, the right to ask that question. We shouldn’t feel compelled to fulfill some feminist obligation paved by our mothers to be and do it all because women before us didn’t have the option. The very point is that now we do have options; we can define happiness for ourselves. There is more to life, for some of us, than a briefcase and a baby. All is an old word. Enough is more to the point—having enough to make you happy and, hey, maybe actually enjoying the ride. Success is about more than just showing up.
So if you want to work long hours to get ahead, do it! If you want to opt out and hang out at home with your kids (and if you can afford it), go for it! If you want to be a childless farmer living off the grid in Idaho, that’s great! But realize this: Life will forever come with sacrifice, and no amount of working from home, videoconferencing, and microwave-programming will change that. And so, for the vast majority of us muddling through somewhere in the middle, I hope that we can remember that sometimes “having it all” might be as simple as calling in sick, eating cold pizza for breakfast, spending the day watching bad TV or playing with our kids—and realizing that the world will indeed carry on.
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