Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
By many standards, my husband would appear to “have it all”, a phrase thrust into the media mainstream by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial article in The Atlantic this week. My husband works as an English professor in a tenure-line position: his work is intellectually fulfilling and he enjoys his colleagues as well as his students. His summers are devoted primarily to research, making his time flexible and largely self-determined. During the semesters, the department works hard to accommodate our schedule so that my husband can work full-time while I teach part-time and we share childcare duties. We are by no means wealthy, but the combination of satisfying work, independent scheduling, and financial security mean that my husband, by most social definitions of the phrase, has got it all.
I, meanwhile, have taken what is typically known as the “mommy track.” I work part-time, sacrificing any chance at a tenure-track career to spend the majority of my time raising my children. (That I hold a PhD, jointly in Women’s Studies, probably makes my choices seem even stranger to someone like Slaughter.) That means my days are occupied by play-dates and storybooks and Sesame Street, yet when I look at my life, I feel both satisfied and fortunate for the time that I get to spend with my daughters, their friends, and their friends’ mothers — who form a supportive and loving community for my family. My husband and I have made sacrifices, professional for me and financial for us all, so that I can stay home with my children. It is part choice and part privilege, a decision we’re able to execute precisely because my husband has it all.
I recognize the gender and class implications of our situation. I’ve discussed already the false divisions perpetuated between stay-at-home mothers and working-outside-the-home mothers, and that’s not where I want to go here. Slaughter writes:
Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand “supporting their families” to mean more than earning money.
Indeed, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to achieve their preferred work-family balance, but that doesn’t change the fact that no one really gets to “have it all.” My husband gets more affirmation from his profession than I do, but he exchanges it for less time with our children; regardless of gender or class, the fact remains that someone in the family needs to earn money and someone needs to look after the children. The latter can be outsourced — I’m not so sure about the former — but that too is a trade-off even when affordable, high-quality daycare is available.
Ultimately, though, Slaughter’s premise is founded on the principle of paid work as providing a person’s core identity and comprising an individual’s value. She calls for a more flexible culture of work for all (a welcome change), yet her role models are all women in positions of power and prestige. I admire many of those women too, but I don’t aspire to be them, nor do I aspire to be in my husband’s position — though any of those roles would garner more social capital than my current status of mommy and adjunct.
It is still anathema is this culture — where “having it all” gets defined by material success and social prestige — to simply be content. To opt out of the endless striving is seen as a failure instead of an expression of gratitude. Maybe I don’t feel the pressure to be superwoman because I understand who I am and whose I am outside of any profession or parenthood. I agree with Slaughter that our culture of work needs to account for things like happiness in our personal lives, but I don’t think we’ll ever come up with the same concept of “having it all.” And for that, I am grateful.