Three years ago Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton, wrote a piece for The Atlantic called ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. It was published soon after she left the State Department and returned to her position as a tenured law professor at Princeton University. The reason she gave then was per Princeton University’s policy, if she left her post for more than two years then her tenure would be revoked, therefore she had to leave her ‘dream job’ at the State Department.
While this was technically the truth, the real truth however, the one that was not disclosed publicly at the time which is her older son was going off the rails at school and her husband, who had been the main caregiver since she began her job at the State Department could not resolve the situation on his own, a ‘maternal’ influence was needed. In plain speak, her children needed their mommy (she has 2 sons), and like millions of women in America (and elsewhere), she had to give up her dream job, the job that she worked her whole life for, to tend to the needs of her family. As for the Princeton situation, I am sure if she wanted, Mrs. Clinton could have easily placed a call to the president of Princeton to ask them to keep Slaughter’s position as a tenured law professor open until her services were no longer needed at the State Department. I don’t think Princeton University would object to this request.
I read her piece when it came out three years ago. It was well thought out, well nuanced and well written. It was clear she had been thinking about her situation and the choices she was forced to make for some time and when the tidal wave of strong emotions passed, she was able to commit her thoughts to paper. She was honest but in a polite, politically correct way, taking great care to not incite gender stereotypes and societal expectations of gender roles. She also acknowledged her own privilege of being a high earning and well educated woman and admitted that she could only speak to her own demographic, which is white, upper-class, well educated professional with far more resources at her disposal than a regular working class or middle class woman.
The op-ed was a long read, in an attempt to be inclusive and account for all scenarios and situations. But she could have shortened the length by half if she simply said, ‘had I been a man, I wouldn’t have had to make this choice, it would have been my wife’s responsibility to sort out the situation with my son. She would have done it without me asking. I would have had the privilege to continue in a career that I worked my whole life for. Such is the reality in the American workforce today.’ I would even go so far to say that had Anne-Marie Slaughter been a man, she wouldn’t have even been made aware of the seriousness of the situation with her son, she would have found out about it after the fact, when it was more or less resolved. Because most wives know better than to bother their husbands with these problems however serious, especially if their husbands hold very important job titles. They would have only gone to their husbands with children problems only as the last resort and she’s at the end of the rope and all of her own options are exhausted.
The truth is no amount of social engineering and the re-programming of how people think about gender roles will change the basic biological functions and reflexes of men and women. Women are not ‘better’ at being caregivers in the technical sense (i.e. cleaning, wiping, rearing and soothing children) than men but that women are better at managing the frustration and tedium at doing these thankless chores day in and day out. Women have been doing these thankless tasks since the existence of human history, women can manage the feelings of frustration and ennui better. Men on the other hand are not the same, they love their children as much as their wives do, but to task a man with taking on the bulk of child care is counterproductive.
Men are socialized to be ambitious, to be providers and breadwinners, even in this feminized age. Though stay-at-home dad numbers are on the rise, there is very little support for stay-at-home dads or the ‘lead parent’ as Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband Andrew Moravcsik calls it. As long as men still out earn women for doing the same work, when decision time comes on who’s staying home with baby or who will change jobs or career paths to accommodate the new baby, the most logical and economical solution would be the person that earns the least, and unfortunately, that’s usually the woman.
Next, there are still very strong stigmas and taboos surrounding the whole parenting versus work issue. Men who work backbreaking hours are seen as heroic, trying to provide for his family, regardless if the reason for the long hours are due to necessity or his personal ambition. If a woman does the same, she’s seen as an uncaring and selfish mother, leaving others to raise her children for her and to assuage her ‘guilt’ and satisfy the masses, she would have go about her working days with a pained expression so that others know just how much she’d rather be with her children but can’t, she would have to explain her choices for the remainder of her working life. There is still an expectation of martyrdom that surrounds parenting, for men, it’s sacrificing their disposable income and time with hanging out with his buddies in favor of screaming children. For women, she’s to sacrifice her career and personal ambitions and desires until her children are of an acceptable age where they don’t require her daily attention and care. People who do not conform to these norms are stigmatized. But I would argue that the woman suffers more. Trading an intellectually stimulating job and earning your own money to caring for small children and depending on a man to meet your daily needs is a huge blow (especially the latter).
One of the most difficult things for me transitioning from working mother to stay at home mother is the loss of economic independence. I wanted to be a full time mother until my children are in school, but giving up my monthly paycheck was the harder than I realized, much harder than giving up my independence, sleep or free time. Since I was 20 years old, I have always worked and earned my own paycheck, to suddenly lose that was a huge blow to my confidence. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
Anne-Marie Slaughter in her original op-ed sang heroic praises about her husband being the main caregiver while she was working in Washington working for the State Department. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve it, he does, but she was giving him praise for the same sacrifices that women do everyday without much acknowledgement. And in doing so, she’s also shortchanging herself for her contribution to her family. She was honest about her feelings of guilt when her sons needed her and she just couldn’t be there. The pressure was immense, knowing that her older son was doing poorly but could not be there to guide him.
Another uncomfortable truth is not many men like to be overshadowed by their wives. They want their wives to be successful, to be fulfilled, happy and reach their maximum career potential, but not so much where they are known as the husband of so-and-so. In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband’s response to the piece she wrote three years ago, he says:
From the beginning, Anne-Marie’s jobs at Harvard and Princeton imposed greater demands than mine, because she entered the university-administration track early on; she also accepted more outside leadership roles. And, as we learned, intense jobs tend to beget even more intense jobs—a phenomenon that, in Anne-Marie’s case, led to a deanship at Princeton, followed by one of the highest positions at the State Department, followed by the leadership of a major nonprofit.
Andrew Moravcsik is not as ambitious as his wife and he was happy being a tenure professor and at the same time he encouraged his wife’s ambition and goals. It worth pointing out that his view is not the norm amongst men, millennials or not. Society still has certain expectations of men, one being able to make something of himself. Men are still judged by the size of their paychecks and their occupation. Their worthiness is still determined by their willingness and ability to provide for a family. Moreover, most women still choose their spouse based on their earning potential, despite what Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter advocate – finding a husband who is supportive of your goals, including picking up the child care slack at home. Women will still choose their husbands based on his future earning potential, especially if a woman is planning on having children.
This sort of egalitarian marriage that Slaughter and Sandberg advocate can really only exist in their demographic. It would require that both spouses have advanced degrees and thus have a lot of employment and career options open to them. Their advice, however well meaning, do not apply to the average couple out there, trying to survive on two incomes and possibly downsizing to one income when children come along.
Slaughter is correct in pointing out the work-life balance dilemma could only be achieved by good public policy that benefit working families. Flexible working time for moms and dads are essential and must be supported by companies of all sizes. Prior to her job at the State Department, Slaughter and her husband had the perfect flex time jobs, they each could take turns taking time off. She never thought about a work-life balance until she began working in the State Department. She said her boss (Hillary Clinton) was great, but she was still a boss. You had to report to work by a certain time and leave at a certain time. It was then she realized she took her tenure position at Princeton University for granted.
Being a parent is the greatest privilege there is and it’s one that is denied to many. But being a parent doesn’t mean we are obligated to leave behind every single part of ourselves just to tend to our children. We were our own people before we became someone’s mother or father. We had dreams, goals and ambitions that didn’t involve wiping their little noses. Loving and caring our children does not preclude us from feeling frustrated, unfulfilled or boredom. Feeling bored, angry, unfulfilled or restless does not mean we don’t love our children or we love them any less. Doing the same thing over and over again regardless how tired you feel can take a toll on anyone, especially something as thankless as childrearing. The whole debate needs to shift way from judgement of the choices of others to being supportive of whatever parenting road someone chooses. This is more effective than any social engineering or re-assigning of gender roles. Biological impulse is not something we (the human race) can easily control but we can choose to be supportive and open minded of the choices of others.