Our Culture of Exhaustion: Let’s End the “Having It All” Debate

In her excellent article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” former Woodrow Wilson School Dean and tenured Princeton professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter tackles the canard that modern women can expect to combine megawatt career success with domestic felicity.

In making her case, Slaughter tackles Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s well-circulated commencement address at Barnard College last year, in which Sandberg described women who don’t “lean in” to their careers as hard and as long as they possibly can as, well, disappointing.

Sandberg told the class of 2011:

We try at Facebook to keep all of our employees thinking big all day. We have these posters in red we put around the walls. One says, “Fortune favors the bold.” Another says, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

(Apparently, Facebook is not a place where the faint of heart are made to feel welcome.) Sandberg followed up her depiction of the office decor with this exhortation:

Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire.

That sounds nice. But maybe better would be: don’t confuse fear with desire. That is, don’t confuse your fear of what society expects with what you actually want.

Slaughter gets many things right, especially her critique of Sandberg, but I wish she had gone further. She doesn’t really challenge the culture of success itself, only the method by which success is to be achieved. After all, this is still a society in which even the pursuit of happiness has become a full time project.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about a goal and going full bore on it. But at the end of the day, if even being happy is a project, complete with it’s own to do list, what have we got left where we can just wing it?

In her eye-opening book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain does a superb job of both describing and critiquing our modern culture of personal success, and demonstrates convincingly how this culture has come to dominate our educational and professional environments. Is it really any wonder that it has taken over our notions of motherhood and personal satisfaction too?

Thus today, everyone is supposed to have a “bucket list”, and woe to the timid, who put things like “go skinny-dipping” on it. Today’s bucket lists are packed with skydiving and Everest climbs, trips to Tahiti and entrepreneurship.

And moms? Well, who has a bigger list of must-dos or else than moms? According to both Sandberg and Slaughter, we had better add finding the right husband to the list, too. Pick the wrong guy and your career is torpedoed for sure.

Slaughter describes today’s working moms in glowing terms, comparing them favorably to marathoners in training. One working mom is even praised as having developed a method of microwaving her food that saves precious seconds each day.

“They [moms] work like crazy, they just work flexibly!” we are told gleefully in the video interview that accompanies the online version of the Atlantic article.

Why is this sort of ruthless domestic efficiency considered admirable? Because this is the only way to get employers to buy in to flexible work schedules? I don’t want to live in a world where my everyday life is run as exhaustingly as a marathon. Do you?

And if combining motherhood with career means doing this, is it any wonder that the relatively small number of women who actually have the luxury of choosing say, “No thanks.”?

An entrepreneur once told me, “I’ll relax when I’m rich.” This is the culture we live in. But I’m not buying it anymore, and I guess neither are a lot of moms. It’s time we reclaim our right to do nothing while the food is in the microwave. And to recover our peace of mind. Whether other people think we’ve “earned” it or not.

Guest contributor Carol Schiller is the Social Media Director at Cozi, the leading calendar and list app for organizing a busy family. A mom of three school-age kids, Carol currently lives in the Seattle area and blogs irregularly at her eponymous website. Disclosure: Carol is a graduate of Barnard College, mentioned in the article.

Image via iStockPhoto/Maartje van Caspel

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