But Men Can’t Have It All Either

It’s not a new conversation. We’ve been having it since women broke out of the shackles of 1950’s thinking and began carving lives for themselves outside of hearth, husband and home. Finding balance, advancing ambition, spinning plates, and determining how we do it all without destroying the family paradigm – or driving ourselves nuts at the fear of doing so – have all weighed heavily on the minds of women now out in the work force yet still trying to be the best possible wife and parent they can be. It’s a tall order.

The women’s lib movement declared that women not only could have it all, but should. Some in the movement even went so far as to say that struggling with the pull between family and career was the mark of a woman not fully liberated, but many became confused when the “have it all” mantra proved rosier in theory than in practice. Certainly there has been progress: gender roles have been redefined, doors have been opened, glass ceilings have been shattered in industries, career paths, and institutions that, heretofore, had only been regarded as bastions of men (even the venerable, vaunted, slightly musty Augusta National Golf Club has opened its doors to women, though only a couple so far, Condoleeza Rice being one). Like many other cultural evolutions, advances are quantifiable and, yet, problems remain; even as new ones spring up.

The conversation came into full relief recently when Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, unexpectedly quit her post – a job she loved and excelled in – and explained why in an article in The Atlantic titled, somewhat to the point, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

…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.

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).

Her article goes on to analyze, through her experience and that of others, how deeply the notion of “having it all” can clash with the reality of work demands vs. the primal desire to be there for the children you’ve brought into this world and feel a grave responsibility toward. She discusses the rigid work schedules (as she had) that often put many women at odds with their roles as mothers (and wives) and leave them attempting to wear all hats at the expense of their health and emotional well-being, as well as that of their children. She champions the concept of “flexible working hours, investment intervals and family-comes-first management,” but also acknowledges that, outside higher level professional positions, the average working woman cannot expect those accommodations, nor do her financial responsibilities give her the flexibility to demand them. Slaughter concludes that both men and women in positions of leadership must work together to create working conditions that address these concerns not only for those higher in the food chain, but equally for “women working at Walmart.”

Some of the criticism Ms. Slaughter has endured since writing this article has been swift and, in some cases, cutting; not unexpected when you’re taking on the veritable foundation of a movement designed to champion women along the “I am strong, I am invincible, I am WOMAN” lines. Even Hillary Clinton was asked to weigh in on the thinking of her former employee, and her comments, recorded in recent Marie Claire interview, stirred up their own controversy. In the portion of the interview in which the interviewer asked Ms. Clinton about her former employee, Marie Claire attributed the following quote to Ms. Clinton:

“I can’t stand whining. I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they’re not happy with the choices they’ve made. You live in a time when there are endless choices. … Money certainly helps, and having that kind of financial privilege goes a long way, but you don’t even have to have money for it. But you have to work on yourself. … Do something!”

However, shortly after this interview came out, a State Department spokesperson took Marie Claire to task for “taking Clinton’s comments out of context.” According to the interview transcripts, Ms. Clinton had discussed Holden Caulfield with the interviewer’s daughter and made her statements in relation to that. As the NY Daily News reports:

The former State staffer Anne-Marie Slaughter was not the person Hillary was slamming. It was Holden Caulfield, the fictional character from the cult favorite novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” who happened not to be mentioned in the article.

“With all due respect to JD Salinger,” Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said in a release about the resulting confusion, “it’s clear as day from the transcript that the only person being called a whiner is his fictional character Holden Caulfield.”

And then, of course, the Marie Claire interviewer came out with her own quote in The Huffington Post defending her article and whining about the whining about the word “whining.” Dear God, how can we “have it all” when we can’t even talk about having or not having it all without having a hissy fit?!

But this is not just a problem for women. Men can’t have it all either. Men who think they can because they have powerful jobs, loads of money, and wives who take care of the expensive house and those privileged children? Odds are they know better than anybody what they gave up to get there. Perhaps relationships with their children that go beyond the cursory and superficial. Perhaps a level of emotional intimacy with their wives that’s been lost along the way. Maybe they wish they could shuck off professional responsibilities to hit the road in a camper but wouldn’t think of it for fear of losing position. Likely they’ve missed important family events, school plays, occasions when their absence was sorely missed for the sake of job demands, the relentless need to stay on top of things, stay ahead, be one step ahead of the next guy. And the men who didn’t jump on that gravy train so they could have a more involved role with their families? Likely, like any woman who made the same decision, their professional trajectory was commensurately stunted. It’s the way the game is played. The only gender difference is this: working men often have working wives who also do the laundry, clean the house, make dinner and take care of the kids; most working women rarely get that kind of partnership equity in return. Now, if working women could have wives too…

Forget having it all; no matter what they say, that’s not possible. It’s all about trade-offs and anyone who faces life with a modicum of candor and honesty knows this. Decide what you want, decide which of those things is most important, then go for it. Understand that the demands of one will impact the other and choose accordingly. Don’t kid yourself; be honest about what you can provide to a family before you have one; be as honest about what you can contribute to a job before you take it. If you have kids and go back to work, understand how that will feel for you and for them. Whatever your decision, man up, own it, and do the best you can. And if you discover conflicts after the fact, adjust your decision and make the necessary changes. Frankly, I admire Ms. Slaughter for doing exactly that. She adjusted. Regardless of what it looked like on the outside, regardless of the browbeating she took from feminists, others in the field, or women and men who might be afraid they’re in the same boat as she but don’t, perhaps, have her courage to make such a phenomenal change, she recognized the problem, acknowledged her priorities, and took action. I admire that.

I can also think of no more liberating a move. Acknowledging your priorities and making a choice. That is, after all, what the woman’s movement was all about: the freedom to make choices. Let’s stick with that.
LDW w glasses

Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

14 thoughts on “But Men Can’t Have It All Either

  1. Susan K.

    As a new mother trying to figure out whether to go back to work or take a little more time to be full-time parent, I really appreciated the attitude of this article. I’m so sick of people either making me feel unambitious for wanting to stay home, or materialistic for wanting to go back to work. You’re right, it’s all about “trade-offs.” I’m figuring it out. Thanks.


    1. LDW

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. If it helps, know you’re not alone in that conundrum. It’s a very personal decision and one only you can make. I wish you luck and best wishes on yoru new baby! LDW


  2. solara p

    If women could have the kind of “wives” most men have, you’re right, this would all get figured out. Too bad most men won’t do women’s work.


    1. LDW

      Solara: I’ll agree that some men won’t, but I’ve known a few (my husband included) who was very hands-on in parenting and taking care of the household. But you’re right that it takes a willingness to step outside of traditional gender roles and find the balance for both partners in a family with children. Women cannot be expected to carry the burden of being both a working mother and the housekeeper. Many marriages struggle with that, but I’m seeing more and more men stepping up. That’s progress! LDW


  3. It is absolutely about choices: figuring out what choices are available to you, then deciding which is for you. Trying to have it all is actually refusing to make choices. Some choices are more mutable once you’ve made them than others.


    1. LDW

      You’re so right, Heather. That’s a hard message for a lot of women (and men) to grapple with, but ultimately it’s what we’ve got: choices to make. They all come with their own positives and negatives; it’s just figuring out what you can live with and what your priorities are, isn’t it? LDW


  4. This conundrum has been around since the 70’s when I was first part of the women’s movement. We talked about choice then, as now. Its not easy. I just hope that America becomes a little kinder towards its families and that business begin to understand that concept. I lived in Spain for l5 years and there it is all about families. Work evolves around family schedules, not the other way around. Can America ever get there?


    1. LDW

      Pixie: I hope America can be kinder too. It’s so important. I was listening to an NPR story about why there are fewer women “geniuses” than men and the conclusion was exactly this issue. Hard to pursue “genius status” when you’re being pulled this way and that by the many elements of real life! Much to be sorted out still. We will. We have to. Thanks for your comment! LDW


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