One of the questions I’ve heard in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” is “Who said you could have it all?” The Broad Side Editor-in-Chief Joanne Bamberger discussed this question eloquently here a few days ago. I’m sure everyone out there has a different answer to this question, but mine is this: You did! My parents, my friends’ parents, my teachers, my future bosses, the media—every authority figure I encountered during my childhood encouraged me to live up to my full professional and personal potential. (That, by the way, is my definition of “having it all.”)
It was a great time to be a woman! I didn’t have to stay at home. I could choose any profession I wanted; there were women astronauts, a woman Secretary of State, a woman vice-presidential nominee, and Oprah. After centuries of inequality, women were finally getting their due, and the women in my generation were born at just the right time to take full advantage of our foremothers’ blood, sweat, and tears. The glass ceilings were shattering; all we had to do was climb up and through.
I believed it all. In fact, I thought having it all was my responsibility, because so many women had worked so hard to give me the opportunity to have it all. It wasn’t until I started working at a law firm that I began to realize that I’d been seriously misled. A few of the female partners had young children, but most of the female partners didn’t have children at all. I eventually learned that many of them had put off having kids until they made partner, a seven- to nine-year process. When I spoke with the women attorneys who had children about how they balanced family and career, they inevitably gave credit to their supportive spouses, who had flexible schedules. As the wife of a doctor, I started to get nervous when I realized there were very few lawyer-lawyer couples or lawyer-doctor couples with kids. I also learned that most of the male partners—who were almost all fathers, too—were married to women who stayed at home or had less demanding jobs. That meant that while there were more men than women attorneys at the firm, especially at the partner level, the calculation was the same regardless of which parent was the attorney: childcare required at least one parent with a flexible schedule, or alternative caregivers who provided rides to and from school, meals, bedtime stories, lullabies, potty training, and, presumably, advice about everything else.
Now that I’ve realized that I can’t have it all (at least not under current working conditions in this country), what am I doing? Honestly, I’m still figuring it out. I am self-employed and work part-time. I’ll get back to my full-time career for a few years after my daughter starts school, and again after she’s in college. (I’ve heard the teenage years are pretty demanding.) I can’t give up my work because I love what I do, and I don’t have the strength or stamina to be a full-time stay-at-home mom.
Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I don’t think men can have it all, either. While women are feeling the pinch more at work, where we’re discovering that we’d rather spend less time at the office and more time with our children, many of my male peers are feeling the pinch at home, where, after coming home from their still demanding jobs, they’re expected to cheerfully help out their exhausted, having-it-all, doing-it-all wives. As hard as it is for a professional woman in our society to opt out of the rat race for a few years to make time for her family, it’s harder for men. It’s just “not done”—or done only rarely. In other words, men aren’t getting any slack at work, and when they come home, they can’t relax with a beer in front of the television like their fathers did. Instead, they’re cleaning, cooking, and changing diapers.
I think that most of my male peers are happy to be married to professional women, and happy to participate more in what’s going on at home. But it’s hard on them to be stretched so far, just like it’s hard on us. If you and your spouse don’t frequently remind each other that you are teammates and not competitors, you’ll be in trouble.
I don’t mean to rebuke those of you who told me I could do it all. What else could you say? This was a new day for women! But I won’t tell my daughter exactly the same things. I will be honest with her—honest about how exhilarating it can be to find work that you love. Honest about not settling for a job that doesn’t suit you, even if the pay is good. Honest about finding a career that pays enough. Honest about the fact that balancing work and marriage and children is hard, but not so hard that it’s not worth the struggle. That’s what life is all about.
If I had a son, I’d tell him the same.
Guest contributor Eileen Youens teaches and advises local governments and government contractors about public contracting, public construction, and conflicts of interest. She also puts her litigation training to good use in negotiating with her two-year-old daughter. Eileen tweets at @eyouens and blogs at youensconsulting.com.