The “Have it All” Trap

Lately, there has been talk and backtalk about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” which was printed in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. First, I will say this. I think Slaughter is spot-on. Spot on. I believe that she was courageous to say what she did and her “calling out” of the current work-life system was timely, appropriate, and necessary. Two of her statements especially resonated with me:

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But, not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged- and quickly changed.”

and this:

“in short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be”


She spoke my very soul. That is exactly how I felt when I was a Director (most of 2011) and is exactly why I left my Director role.

YES! BRAVO! THANK YOU! Thank you for putting this out there! I think her piece was gutsy and brave. And, I appreciated hearing from another working woman who re-evaluated her life and her priorities and made a choice- a personal and professional sacrifice that works- or at least works better for now- for her and her family.

What is sad, to me, is that she felt she had to do this. For various reasons, which she outlines in her piece, Slaughter felt that she (emphasis mine) could not, in her high-level government position, be the kind of professional and mother that she wanted and need to be, and that her children wanted and needed her to be. I thought that was the intent of her piece. Obviously, I am not her. I have no idea what her intentions were. But, I read it as a commentary on her own work-life experiences and her wrestling with the negotiation (my word, not hers) of motherhood and professional life. I was excited and energized. I thought, “Wow! Yes! Maybe now we will have a real conversation about current practices, policies, and practices that have become policies, related to work-life negotiation.” Let’s talk about the “uncomfortable facts” (Slaughter’s words) that need to be changed. Let’s talk about why she felt she had to do this.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm has already waned. The responses I am reading are ripping on Slaughter as elitist, privileged, over-achieving, not doing enough. All of which Slaughter also addresses in her piece.

One of the first responses I saw on-line was this article. In four or five paragraphs the author manages to:

1. complain about the graphic that was used- a naked toddler sitting in a briefcase. Okay. A little trite. Overused. Sure. But, really? I can’t imagine that Slaughter herself picked that graphic. And, it worked. Because you wrote about it and now thousands of other bloggers are writing about it, too.

2. bemoan the phrase “have it all.” Also trite? Also overused? Yes. Isn’t that part of Slaughter’s point? She admits that she fell into the “have it all trap” AND that she unwittingly made the generations behind her feel guilty for not achieving it all.

Finally, the author then says that the core problem with Slaughter’s article is that she frames work-life as only a woman’s issue. Okay, I am with you on this one. Currently, the work-life conversation is framed as a working-women-with-children issue. That is indeed part of the problem. (Although there are exceptions- see Brad Harrington and the new Dad study done by the Boston College Center for Work and Family).

Women are living it. Women are doing a lot of the writing and commentating about it. I think this was also Slaughter’s point.

And, sadly, women are also the ones doing most of the tearing down of other women and their choices. Which is my point here.

All of this makes me feel…overwhelmed. Annoyed. Frustrated. One woman cannot possibly be the voice for every other woman’s experience. Would we want her to be, even if she could? Slaughter wrote about her experience. I write about my experience. You write about yours. That is what makes the world go round. And, that is also what starts the dialogue and will push agendas forward.

Work-life is an issue for anyone who has a job and a life, which is pretty much, well, everyone. There absolutely needs to be more dialogue. Let’s focus on that & continue to advance the conversation.

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