You Can’t Have It All, Ladies (Or Men!)

Building Cathedrals, thanks for the discussion about the Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Can’t Have It All.” I understand how Anne-Marie Slaughter’s handling of the myth of “having it all” earned your respect.  However, consider Lori Gottlieb’s gentle rebuke of the article’s author.

I may get Slaughtered (pun intended) for this post, but somebody has to state two basic facts:

(1) Nobody, male or female, married or single, young or old, tall or short, educated or not, pretty or plain, wealthy or poor, with kids or without, can have it all — neither in the very narrow way Slaughter defines “it,” nor in the broader context of life.

(2) Recognizing this makes people happier! In fact, the people who accept this don’t lie awake at night wondering why they’ve been handed the keys to the palace but the gilded moldings just aren’t sparkly enough.

How does a smart woman like Slaughter still believe in the childlike notion that people (of either gender) can have whatever they want whenever they want it, regardless of life’s intrinsic constraints?

Imagine if this article had been written by a kindergartner: “But I want to go to my gymnastics class and I want to go Rosie’s birthday party and they’re both on Saturday morning!” rails the 5-year-old journalist. “Why can’t girls have it all? This is so unfair! Somebody has to make it possible for socially ambitious girls like me to be at gymnastics and Rosie’s party! The solution is to accommodate me by moving Rosie’s party or the time of my gymnastics class. I want justice, because no girl should ever have to feel trapped like this!”

Well, any reasonable adult would explain that the world does not revolve around one particular person; that the child can’t be two places at the same time; that she must choose one activity or the other; and that, in so choosing, she gains one opportunity but forfeits another. This isn’t because the child is a girl. This isn’t a feminist issue. This is Life 101, something all people learn as kids — until they grow up to be a high-level government official who has to choose between one six-figure job near her kids and one far away, and can’t accept life’s inherent limitations.

Read the whole thing here. It seems that Anne-Marie Slaughter begins and ends her article on the faulty premise that life on earth can be perfect, if we just tweak a few things here and there.  Actually, realizing — and appreciating — the inherent limitations of life would be more liberating for women of all ages.

(A version of this article appeared here.)

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  • Kellie “Red”

    Nancy, I completely agree. I do think, however, that Lori Gottlieb’s piece was far from gentle! I actually thought she was pretty harsh on Slaughter, sarcastic, and at times I wondered if she had even read Slaughter’s full piece. Aand believe me, I have no love for Slaughter’s worldview!. Slaughter makes some excellent points in simply acknowledging the huge tradeoffs at play (something most of my feminist Princeton professors, including Slaughter herself at one point!) refuse to acknowledge.

    I also think these tradeoffs are much harder for women than for men. A point that Gottlieb glosses over and which made me feel her post was a bit dishonest. Part of the reason these choice are more difficult for women is our nature (a point Slaughter seems to admit but doesn’t really want to talk about!), and part of the reason is the consistent inability of organizations to value parenthood and allow a good work/life balance for their employees. In MANY professions, being a mother and working part time is not possible (most legal jobs and medical doctors), a woman must pick between the two (at least if she has children in her 20′s). There is nothing wrong with pointing out that our culture would be a better place if that changed. I thought Gottlieb’s piece was a bit lame in failing to see this as the main point of Slaughter’s article.

    Slaughter is of course wrong in her assumption that there exists a perfect policy or a perfect world in which these conflicts wouldn’t exist. But she is VERY right to admit the conflict exists AND to insist that a better work life balance is possible. We will never “have it all,” but things can certainly move in a better direction in terms of work/life balance for both genders.

  • Teri Elliott-Hart

    Agreed, Kellie. Well said. I actually thought that Slaughter busted the myth of having it all, and that in fact was the point of her piece. She is trying to redefine “all”… and help people see that relentless pursuit of the once sought after “all” for professional women comes at a very high price.

    I wish that some of the voices here that are critiqueing things from the larger culture did not have to be so glib, for it distracts from dialogue.

    May all women and men of faith seek God’s abundant life, inclusing children and contributing to the greater good as called and gifted!

    Teri E-H

  • Karen

    Gottlieb completed missed the point of Slaughter’s article. Slaughter herself notes that sometimes crises require extra attention, especially at the level she was working. I think any kid should be able to understand that Mom missed the dance recital because she was preventing WWIII. That said, Slaughter failed to emphasize that no one should be forced to choose between love and work because she is a she. The problem is when Walmart routinely requires. Double shifts or extra shifts without notice. There’s also the unaddressed issue of why so many men think that laundry soap will make their penises fall off. I am raising my sons to understands that housework is just as unpleasant for women as it is for men and they are responsible for doing whatever needs doing on their own. Don’t wait for me to tell you to wash your dishes or fold the towels. When they marry they’ll get a cookbook from me.

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  • Mary Kelso

    You know that verse, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” in Psalms? Well, that’s my version of having it all. If I truly delight in God, He doesn’t give me everything I want, but He adjusts my desires and amazingly I begin wanting what I have. It’s very refreshing. :)

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