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June 25, 2012

We Can't "Have It All". Neither Can Men. Get Over It.

With respect to this age old cri de coeur, I find myself in violent agreement with Little Miss Attila:

The notion of “having it all” is a crock of sh**. Women can’t have it all any more than can men. Life is hard; why does anyone over the age of 16 need to have this explained?

What's all the fuss about? This month's Atlantic Magazine cover story: Why Women Still Can't Have It All and the reactions thereuntoappurtaining:

The Atlantic's recent cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," has torn up the Internet since going live Wednesday night. With 777,751 unique visits as of this morning and counting, and with over 1,500 comments, 126,000 Facebook "likes," and countless Twitter debates, readers are taking the debate to a new level. Formal media has weighed in as well.

What astonishes me most about this debate is that anyone still views the expectation that we can "have it all" as anything but a profoundly silly idea.

Men who work long hours, whether by choice or custom, don't "have it all". They have sacrificed one thing (time with their wives and children) for another thing (career success, status, or pay). This is categorically true whether or not they choose to acknowledge the practical consequences of prioritizing work over time with their families and whether or not time with their families is something they value personally. Incidentally, this study suggests that it is:

In 2008, 49% of employed men with families reported experiencing some or a lot of workfamily conflict, up significantly from 34% in 1977 (p<.001). It is important to note that the measure we use to define work-family conflict is bi-directional; it asks employees with family responsibilities (defined as those who live with spouses or partners, children, parents or other family members—representing 85% of all employed men) how much their work and family responsibilities interfere with each other. The rise in work-family conflict has been especially striking among fathers in dual-earner couples. As shown in Figure 1, work-family conflict among these men has increased substantially and significantly—from 35% in 1977 to 60% in 2008 — while that of mothers in dualearner couples has remained relatively stable (41% in 1977 and 47% in 2008, not a statistically significant change).

When's the last time you saw an article asking why men can't have it all (aside from pickup artist sites, that is)? Granted, asking the same question from the male point of view would be equally moronic, but at least we could all wallow in the gloriously gratifying knowledge that we have finally moved beyond outdated and sexist assumptions about the transcendent value of work/life balance.

I'm trying to think of a single important, long term task (and if you think having a stable marriage or raising strong, happy children is simple or easy, your attention bill is a good 60-90 days overdue) rational adults believe can be performed equally well whether they work at it in their spare time or make it their top priority?

Will you accomplish as much in 2 hours a day as you will if you work it full time? Not likely. This has nothing to do with "the system" and everything to do with the fact that time and attention are finite resources.

If you intentionally choose a highly competitive career with a crushing workload, you have effectively decided to spend less time and attention on your family. And that's fine, so long as your career choices are aligned with your priorities and you are honest enough to own the decision you've made.

If, on the other hand, you decide (as Ms. Slaughter did) that your family deserves more of your time and attention, you have effectively decided to devote less time/attention to your job. If your position doesn't require your full time and attention, your employer may well accept this as the price of retaining your services. Alternatively, your employer may decide to find someone who is willing to focus on the job. Or your employer may decide that 40 hours of work is worth less to her than 60 hours of work and adjust your salary accordingly. And your employer should have that freedom.

Whether your employer would be wise to do any of these things depends on the nature of your job, the availability of willing replacements, and your employer's value system. Either way, the idea that other people have some nebulous duty to bear the costs of your freely made decisions is preposterous. Other people have their own priorities and values, and there's no guarantee that they will match yours. You are not entitled to demand that their choices reflect your values. You can offer them something they value in exchange for something you value. I did that when I informed my employer that I would be leaving due to an upcoming move and my employer offered to make it possible for me to work remotely rather than lose my services.

Decide what your priorities are and then be honest about the fact that tradeoffs are built into in every single choice you will ever make in life. We are willing to pay the costs of some decisions and unwilling to pay the costs associated with other ones.

But the idea that every decision has costs (even if they're only opportunity costs) is not a matter about which adults should be arguing.

Posted by Cassandra at June 25, 2012 04:01 PM

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Comments

How very interesting! Yours is the 3rd post in a week that I've read discussing the 'have it all' syndrome.

You're correct. There will always be trade-offs of some sort when striving to have it all. Rather, when striving to be successful.

However, one of the other blog posts I read made an excellent point that sparked some great discussions with my girlfriends. What it boiled down to for us is this

"Having it all" has been defined by certain groups of people. And if each of us makes a choice that runs counter to that specific definition, well then we'll never 'have it all'. . . .according to that group(s) of people.

To heck with that. I'm going to define my own "having it all". I'm going to craft my life in such a way that benefits my family (now including a new Hubs!), benefits my career, and the quality of life we desire. Does that mean our life is going to be smooth sailing? Nope! Does that mean that I'll be able to look at my/our life choices with a sense of pride and accomplishment? That's my goal!

And by the way - if someone defines "having it all" as the only way to ensure happiness . . . I'd suggest they are putting all their eggs into the wrong basket!

Posted by: Nina at June 26, 2012 09:01 AM

I have to admit I did not read the entire Atlantic article once I got to the point where my reaction was, "This woman is an idiot." I did, however, read far enough to get to this line:

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.

Call me cynical but I wonder how much that whole tenure thing factored into her decision.

I also wonder how the son who is (or was) having a "rocky adolescence" feels about this article.

Posted by: Elise at June 26, 2012 12:00 PM

Wrt to women (and feminism) I have always understood "having it all" to refer to having all the freedoms men have traditionally enjoyed (choosing to work long hours, taking on demanding jobs that make family life difficult or even - quite frankly - next to impossible, making major career decisions without considering how their wives and children will be affected) without any of the drawbacks traditionally associated with that kind of unilateral decision making (wife decides she'd be happier with no husband than an absentee husband, kids grow up not knowing their father, you realize that you've spent 90% of your time and effort on something that isn't really your top priority, etc).

This may sound a bit weird considering how much time we spent apart during his time in the military but it was always understood around our house that I had a vote in his career decisions. I didn't expect that my vote was the only one that counted, but then I think he also didn't think his vote was the only one that counted.

I was rather surprised during his last few years in the Marines to have him tell me that he had counseled several Marines not to take their families and wives for granted. We had both seen guys who just did whatever the heck they felt like, without so much as consulting their wives. A lot of these guys aren't married any more.

I don't get the expectation that anyone (male or female) could take a high pressure job at no cost to family life. It's just nuts.

What I liked about the Slaughter article was that she was clearly grappling with what amounts to heresy in some feminist circles: the realization that time and attention are finite and for many women, making their career their top priority absolutely DOES shift some costs to their children and husbands.

Not to put too fine a point on it.... "Duh".

This quote, in particular, was worth the price of admission:

...the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. 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.

That quote will no doubt raise some hackles, but I thought it unusually honest.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2012 12:27 PM

I agree those comments are unusually honest but I stand by my contention that the conclusions she draws from them are ridiculous: that because woman naturally (literally) are more likely to want to be the primary care-giver we must therefore restructure, well, everything so women can have high-paying, high-status, high-power jobs and still spend as much time with their children as they (the women) want.

To me, this represents the final slide of feminism away from being pro-choice (in the universal sense) to being biologically constrained. Little Miss Attila references a Frisky essay and, yes, a lot of what Frisky says about capitalism makes my head hurt, too. But Frisky makes some excellent points including:

So, Slaughter argues, women really have no choice when it comes to making sacrifices for their families — it’s just an implicit part of a woman’s biological makeup. But this argument is exactly the same one that’s been used against women for centuries to deny women access and entry to traditionally male venues.

If Slaughter wants to truly argue that women have no choice about giving up jobs, career paths, etc., to spend more time with their children then she needs to explain why it isn't okay for employers to refuse to put women in positions that require a great deal of time, their undivided attention, and a reasonable expectation that they will stick around.

I also think Frisky's observation that the right question is, "Are we happy?" is spot on (although Frisky's answer sets my teeth on edge). If Slaughter is unhappy with a job that keeps her away from her family 5 days out of 7, she should find a new job - and be grateful she can do so. Claiming that what she is doing is a biological imperative rather than a choice means women really *can't* have it all. In fact, they can only have whatever bits and pieces they can manage in between being swept away by their biology. This is a very different thing than saying, "I want to spend more time with my children; it causes me distress when I can't do so; and therefore I am choosing to throttle back my career."

Posted by: Elise at June 26, 2012 01:00 PM

I stand by my contention that the conclusions she draws from them are ridiculous: that because woman naturally (literally) are more likely to want to be the primary care-giver we must therefore restructure, well, everything so women can have high-paying, high-status, high-power jobs and still spend as much time with their children as they (the women) want.

Well, FWIW I agree :p Hence, this (from my post):

...the idea that other people have some nebulous duty to bear the costs of your freely made decisions is preposterous. Other people have their own priorities and values, and there's no guarantee that they will match yours. You are not entitled to demand that their choices reflect your values.

If Slaughter wants to truly argue that women have no choice about giving up jobs, career paths, etc., to spend more time with their children then she needs to explain why it isn't okay for employers to refuse to put women in positions that require a great deal of time, their undivided attention, and a reasonable expectation that they will stick around.

I'm not sure she thinks it is OK, though. Where I disagree with her is in her expectation that employers having different priorities than (some) employees is a problem that needs "fixing" :)

Claiming that what she is doing is a biological imperative rather than a choice means women really *can't* have it all. In fact, they can only have whatever bits and pieces they can manage in between being swept away by their biology.

What if it's a biological imperative for men to be driven to compete and succeed, even at the cost of their relationships with their families? If everyone's biological imperatives must be accommodated, this rather implies that women should have to put up with anything that can be loosely tied to male biology :p

And I've seen conservative make this argument (without accepting the reverse). But that doesn't make it any more sensible.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2012 01:15 PM

As you cannot have it all, having had it all (figuratively), at one time or another, may be the pinnacle of self fulfillment. I think it boils down to stages in life, sometimes missed or skipped over. And that some people are just happy souls, and some will never be.

Posted by: tomg51 at June 26, 2012 05:15 PM

Oddly enough, some of the times I have been happiest in my life have been times when I got very little of what I thought I wanted, and figured out how to be happy anyway.

Conversely, the times when everything went my way have usually been a bit disappointing. I suspect that has a lot to do with the power of expectations, but I may also just be a big sap :p

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2012 08:01 PM

I'm not sure she thinks it is OK, though.

I'm sure she doesn't think it is OK [for employers to not hire/promote women because of their attachment to their children]. I'm feeling incredibly frustrated by Slaughter because she's argued us back around where we started 40+ years ago - and I’m not sure she even realizes it. Once upon a time, society or conventional wisdom or whatever insisted that women couldn't do a whole long list of things because their biology made them unsuited for such things. Feminism insisted that women could do whatever men could do if they were only given a chance.

Increasingly, though, women (who claimed to be feminists) insisted that women were intrinsically different from men. Women are about peace, men about war; men are confrontational, women are cooperative; women understand what's truly valuable, men see only money and power.

Somewhere this began to morph into an insistence that women's biology really did require accommodation. Sandra Fluke is a great example of this. Slaughter has simply brought us to the logical conclusion: women's biology makes them unsuitable for a wide range of jobs. We're right back where we started.

And, yes, I agree: If we accept Slaughter's insistence that she has no power of choice in the face of her biological imperatives then that opens the door for justifying an awful lot of bad male behavior - as well as a lot of bad female behavior.

I find all of this particularly frustrating because Slaughter's definition of "it all" is so far out of the norm as to be ridiculous. She is claiming she can’t have it all because she can’t stay in a “high-level government work” and instead must settle for the following horribly circumscribed life:

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.

My heart bleeds purple peanut butter.

And, yes, this whole thing is causing me to rant and rave and write excessively long comments.

Posted by: Elise at June 26, 2012 10:30 PM

Slaughter's argument (which by the way, would be a great band name) is basically the Patriarchy is making work unfairly biased against women. In that because men are not biologically compelled to stay with the children, they have an unfair advantage in the workplace. And doggone it! That's just not fair! So it's not that women CAN'T do everything a man can do (and better! ... because men and women are the SAME), it's that the workplace is inherently structured to keep favoring men's biology (because men and women are DIFFERENT) by rewarding long, soul-crushing hours and business trips far away from home. CLEARLY this is the Patriarchy in action keeping women relegated to the lower ranks of business! And it's most certainly NOT an employer expecting equal work out of two people regardless of gender (which is what we've demanded for decades)!

Posted by: MikeD at June 27, 2012 08:22 AM

yes, this whole thing is causing me to rant and rave and write excessively long comments.

Then remind me to write more of this kind of post! I always enjoy your comments, Elise. Ruth Marcus has a great column up today that essentially says, "Hmmm.... it would seem that women can actually have quite a lot!".

If we accept Slaughter's insistence that she has no power of choice in the face of her biological imperatives then that opens the door for justifying an awful lot of bad male behavior - as well as a lot of bad female behavior.

It never ceases to amaze me when either side plays the biology card. They're never consistent about it, which sort of undercuts the notion of biology as a trump card. If it trumps all for one side, then that implies it should trump all when the other side uses it.

So we get the feminists who can't quite seem to decide (Biology again! Those women and their vexing, indecisive ways!) whether to deny that there are real differences between the sexes or cite them as justification for preferential treatment of women (but never men).

And then you have conservatives who attributed the fact that women/girls used to earn fewer degrees and weren't doing well in the job market to biology (back in the day there was no such thing as a hostile environment - girls simply weren't as well suited by nature for all this competition and book-larnin', and misguided attempts to make school/work environments more inviting/accommodating to females and their pesky biological traits were just plain silly, not to mention unnatural).

Of course, now that boys are earning fewer degrees/not doing well in the job market the real culprit is emphatically *not* (NOT, NOT, NOT!!11!) biology but a cultural environment that's hostile to boys/men. The solution is obvious: we need to do for boys what was wrong and silly back when feminists were asking for special accommodations for women.

Somewhere in here there's probably a reasonable middle ground (maybe we have biological differences that help or hinder men/women in various environments, and maybe we have innate interests/likes/dislikes - some advantageous and some not - that plausibly explain disparate outcomes)! :p

So it's not that women CAN'T do everything a man can do (and better! ... because men and women are the SAME), it's that the workplace is inherently structured to keep favoring men's biology (because men and women are DIFFERENT) by rewarding long, soul-crushing hours and business trips far away from home.

Exactly. Never mind that not all jobs involve these things, because they don't. My oldest son specifically looked for a career that would allow him to be there for his wife and sons. He traded more pay for a more stable home life.

Surely women with our vastly superior reasoning and juggling skills (/sarcasm) should be able to do likewise?

Posted by: Cassandra at June 27, 2012 12:39 PM

I have close friends and relatives who are convinced it's unfair that the things they naturally enjoy doing, the things that make them feel most fulfilled, don't happen to be the things that pay a lot of money. I think Cassandra makes exactly the sensible point about this: it's not up to other people to place high values on the same things that we do. It's up to us to trade them something that they find valuable, and if it's not an even trade in terms of hours, well, boo-hoo. So I've heard about all I ever want to hear about how terrible it is that we don't pay our teachers or our social workers as well as we do our investment bankers and CEOs. (And no, I don't feel obligated to transfer a portion of the money I made as a lawyer to either my close friend or my sister, who chose to be free-lance photographer/musicians and social workers and union reps -- why do you ask?)

Posted by: Texan99 at June 27, 2012 06:40 PM

How do you feel about highly entertaining bloggers? It's a sadly underpaid profession as well.

Posted by: Grim at June 27, 2012 07:30 PM

So I've heard about all I ever want to hear about how terrible it is that we don't pay our teachers or our social workers as well as we do our investment bankers and CEOs.

No one ever mentions garbage men when making this argument. And yet I could live far more easily without teachers or social workers than I could without garbage men.

I have close friends and relatives who are convinced it's unfair that the things they naturally enjoy doing, the things that make them feel most fulfilled, don't happen to be the things that pay a lot of money.

I increasingly view this attitude - like Ms. Slaughter's - as one of, "I want what I want when I want it." Or, more accurately, I want everything I want when I want it." I think one of the reasons it makes me so crazy is that it took me more than 50 years to get over that attitude myself.

I highly recommend David French's response to Ms. Slaughter's essay:

http://bit.ly/Qm4ZoS

Obviously, I disagree with Mr. French's characterization of Ms. Slaughter's essay as "thoughtful, interesting, honest" but I like the way he changes the viewpoint to focus on the issues of importance and (freely chosen) obligations - especially since an inflated sense of one's own importance so often goes hand in had with the "I want what I want when I want it" syndrome.

Posted by: Elise at June 27, 2012 07:30 PM

How do you feel about highly entertaining bloggers? It's a sadly underpaid profession as well.

Tell me about it.

My last paycheck was so small it might as well have been invisible :p

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at June 28, 2012 07:42 AM

How do you feel about highly entertaining bloggers? It's a sadly underpaid profession as well.

I feel that they are valued beyond rubies. And when I'm Lord and Master of the Universe you will get your just rewards. But until then, I'm afraid you'll need to be satisfied with love and respect.

Posted by: MikeD at June 28, 2012 09:59 AM

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