Are Professional Women Acting Like Cry-Babies?

Time travel is fun!

Here’s Lori Gottlieb’s take on the Anne-Marie Slaughter piece at the Atlantic in which she argues that highly educated professional women are delusional narcissists to think, as Slaughter suggests, that if we just fix all the gender inequalities and structural problems in the workforce, women will be able to have it all:

Like a kindergartner, Slaughter seems to think that she — and women in general — should somehow be exempt from universal realities that have nothing to do with gender inequality and everything to do with the fact that you can’t defy the laws of physics. Forget biological clocks. Time and space do not magically expand because you’d like to be two places at once or do more things than can fit into a 24-hour period or even a life span. Somebody might want — and have the talent — to be an Olympic gymnast, a Nobel-winning mathematician, and a professional ballerina, but there are age and health and time limitations involved. There isn’t a policy in the world that could change the fact that if you choose to be in Washington five days a week , you can’t also be at home tucking in your children and dealing with their issues back in Princeton.

Did Slaughter, despite her intelligence, somehow imagine that she could be an involved, engaged parent while living in another city for two years? Where is her responsibility in this, and what does this have to do with inequality?

And this:

Thirty years ago women used to complain that they wanted “a wife.” Now that women like Slaughter have wives (in the guise of her husband who, functioning as a single dad, took care of two kids and the entire household every weekday for two years while he also held down a job and earned a living), they don’t like being the husband very much. To their surprise, it turns that husbands don’t “have it all” either. And Slaughter is mad as hell to have worked this hard and given up so much only to discover that being the husband kind of sucks. Being the husband requires far more compromise than she and many high-powered women ever imagined.

I’ve been struggling with my reaction to the Slaughter article for several days, preferring to scamper around the rebuttals than to engage it head-on. On the one hand, I think we are due for a rethink on our machismo work culture and the necessity of endless travel and “face time.” We all know the 24/7 lifestyle is increasingly twisted, and she makes a good case that creativity and productivity can be cultivated with a more flexible notion of work. (She calls this the California solution, and evidently it works for Google.)

Cool. So the Google thing sounds great for a lot of people. But, seriously, for everyone? Remember when George Bush was taking those three-hour bike rides and he responded kind of peevishly that he was sure “America” wanted him to be well-rested and healthy? Well, you know what? Not this American! I remember thinking, here’s the deal, Mister: You get to be the leader of the free world for a few years (and we’ll treat you like an emperor for life) and in exchange, we expect you to work yourself to the bone, look prematurely aged after 18 months, and reassure us that you’re totally on the ball at all times. I think this is why we get so worked up by presidents playing golf and sailing on Nantucket. We’re okay with a little down time but we actually want people in high status, high-paying, high stakes jobs to put their work first. Sorry! That’s the way it works in grown-up land, and no amount of feminist enlightenment – alas – will fundamentally alter that equation.

My dad was an obstetrician in a solo private practice for many years. I know he regrets missing many of his kids’ milestones — he spent much of my childhood in a state of near-narcolepsy — and I also know that he’s a huge proponent of the changes in medicine that have enabled women to enter medical school in equal proportion to men. (He often says that women doctors “saved” obstetrics and gynecology, though I sure haven’t seen any evidence of the kind.) Even by the standards of the day, he was on the absentee end of the spectrum. At the same time, his choice to prioritize work over family enabled me and my siblings go to good schools and have opportunities my parents missed as young people. Does he wish he could have been a different father? Do I wish it? In some alternate reality universe, yes, of course I do. And Slaughter is right that our 2012 work-life culture would have given him more options, and her imagined one would probably offer even more. (I’m also willing to concede that some people are just workaholics, plain and simple.)

But my dad delivered something like 8,000 babies in his career. He assumed primary responsibility for all his cancer patients, often making house calls to personally oversee the chemotherapy. I once found him in tears after attending the autopsy of a 35 year-old mother who’d died of ovarian cancer. Parents named their babies after him.

When I was a teenager, I resented my dad’s disconnection from my life. Now I wonder why I ever imagined that one human being could possibly have it all.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
This entry was posted in My story, Public Policy, Women-related. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Are Professional Women Acting Like Cry-Babies?

  1. ashleynrobinson says:

    One of the major problems with Slaughter’s argument is that she makes a sweeping assumption that upcoming professional women (or men, for that matter) really think that we can “have it all.” In fact, she says that “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.” And as you point out, this belief is frankly complete nonsense for anyone; a successfully balanced life is predicated on choices, sacrifices, and concessions both personal and professional. Slaughter acts almost surprised at this reality in discussing her experiences.

    Slaughter does allude to the ultimate goal of focusing on balance for all and no longer talking about whether or not women can have it all, but frames it within the premise of putting a woman in the White House and also says that “We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.” Unfortunately, her solutions are part of the same paradigm within which she frames her problems. Instead of recognizing that this myth of “having it all” is emblematic of an unrealistic (privileged & androcentric) system of defining success and recommending that we eschew these expectations altogether, she seems to be offering a suggestion to make it work until we really do “have it all.”

    The reality is that most young professional women know that we can’t “have it all” in the way Slaughter suggests. Nor do we want to have it all. Those women she talked to at Oxford are concerned about work/life balance because we have seen many sisters before us fail in this area. We have been latchkey kids, raised on daycare, TV, dance lessons and parents who obviously couldn’t have it all. We are coming of age in a time when the American dream seems DOA, we have seen nothing but war in the news for the most formative decade of our lives, when our parents’ retirement funds went bust, our student debt is knocking, half of us can’t even get a decent job, and most of us reasonably expect to get a divorce at some point if we get married. As young feminists, we regularly see women’s health, reproductive, and other issues ripped to pieces in the media and political arena (when we thought these things were taken care of). And that really only covers those of us who have white, upper/middle-class, college educated privilege. So “having it all” means perhaps simply feeling pretty good about who we are, what we are doing, doing good by people we love, and not existing under crushing debt.

    Slaughter’s argument is thought-provoking but often short-sighted and elitist. How can we possibly expect a privileged system to be changed by following its’ rules, getting to the top, and then what, throwing a feminist coup?

  2. I say, yes, throw a feminist coup when you reach the top! So that women coming behind you can find a way to balance work and life better. Otherwise, we end up with a society where the only people making the decisions are women who do not have children, or men. Mothers have lot to add to the political and corporate debates and decisions and we need their voices there.

    I wrote about this on my blog, but I think a lot of women in my generation (40ish) did feel like we could have it all – that is what we were told when we were young. And many women, myself included – focused on their careers in their 20s and early 30s and then found that they were unable to have children when they finally had the ability to focus on that part of their lives. It shouldn’t have to be that way for a woman to have a successful career.

    But I think that women – and mothers – are capable of doing amazing things in the highest levels of the workforce and that companies – and more importantly, society – is missing out by not having those voices more respresented.

    I think there should be a way for people like your father to have an incredible career taking care of people and delivering babies, and also to be able to be home more to enjoy being a dad. I am so happy about the great discussions that this article has sparked. Thanks for keeping this conversation going!

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