I take my cues from the front page of the New York Times just like any other
effete intellectual member of the Media Elite. And today, Jodi Kantor delves into the latest paroxysm of debate about women trying to "have it all," and, hey, whaddaya know, this time it's an Atlantic cover essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter that's set it off. I've had my friendly disagreements with Slaughter in the past, and I'm afraid I'm going to have another one after reading "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." But in this instance I want to stress the "friendly" part of the "disagreement."
Slaughter's title pretty much sums up her thesis: after spending two years in a hard-charging job as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, she discovered that the opportunity costs to her home life were too great:
I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.
The essay is worth reading, if not quite as groundbreaking as others would like it to be. It ceetainly references
political minefields issues I've raised here in the past on women pursuing foreign policy careers. Rather than launch a full-blown critique, however, I'd just raise three questions:
1) Is this just about women? As multiple critics have pointed out, the issues Slaughter raises -- balancing work and home life, etc. -- are hardly unique to women. She suggests that women face this challenge more acutely because... well... they're moms:
From years of conversations and observations, however, 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.
Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
As someone in a more traditional marriage than Slaughter, I'd tweak this just a bit. First of all, unless someone is inheriting a trust fund, there's also really no choice in providing for a family either. Seriously, there isn't. Second of all, a difference between men and women is that when parenting issues come up, it's totally cool for women to anguish about it -- in print, no less -- while it's happening. For men, it's totally cool to drink Scotch, brood and repress feelings about the costs of careerism for years until it all boils to the surface at some family vacation when the kids are grown up and resentments can be aired. But trust me, men have to cope with this as well.
Third, I wonder if the choice is really that stark. There are hard-charging jobs and hard-charging jobs. There's being an active parent and then there's... American parenting in affluent zip codes. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry noted:
YES, you can have it all. You can have a successful career and a good family. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and there is absolutely no doubt about that.
What you CANNOT have is a successful career AND helicopter parenting. This “it” you cannot have. And if you want the best for your kids, you’ll choose the career and ditch the helicopter. They’ll be better off, and take it from me, they’ll be grateful.
2) Is it the international dimension? Slaughter was trying to write as general an essay as possible, but I was struck by how much of her anecdata consisted of women in foreign affairs/national security careers. I have no doubt that professionals in other sectors face this issue, but one of the biggest challenges with "international" careers is that they tend to spawn international travel.
I know and admire some professionals who go overseas and bring their families with them, but that's not for everyone. The one piece of advice I can proffer here is to cram intense foreign experiences early in one's life. One of the jumpstarts to my own career track was spending significant amounts of time in eastern Ukraine during a time when no Westerners wanted to be there. I was able to do that because at the time I was unattached and childless. There is no way -- no way -- I would have made the same choice if I was married and a father. Plan accordingly.
3) Are the solutions worse than the problem? Finally, I am skeptical that Slaughter's suggested reforms will really work. I like her suggestion that we reconceive our career arcs so that they peak in one's late sixties rather than twenty years earlier -- but that won't happen unless wages get less sticky. Older workers woiuld have to be comfortable with declining rather than rising wages, because otherwise Slaughter's suggestion would act as a massive barrier to hiring younger workers.
Furthermore, some of Slaughter's recommendations would likely have unanticipated consequences that would exacerbate the very problems she wants to solve. For example, one of the issues that she raises is family leave for raising children. Now, this is an innovation that has been cemented into the academy pretty well -- but the effects have been somewhat perverse. That's because after maternity leave, paternity leave got institutionalized. This sounds great, but I know from personal experience that women and men use these leaves differently. Women tend to use it by being moms. Men tend to use it by being more of a dad, but also by using it as a semi-sabbatical to publish more. I should know -- that's what I did. So an innovation that was designed to allow redress gender imbalances actually exacerbated them.
Now is ordinarily the time in the blog post when I offer my own suggestions, but I can't say I have any great ideas. So I'll leave it to the readers: what is to be done?