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The myth of having it all
There’s a debate raging on the Internet about the conflict between work and mothering. The debate itself certainly isn’t a new one, but in the last month it has coalesced around a long article published in July in the US magazine The Atlantic. In the article, headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” its author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, examines the dilemma of powerful, educated women who struggle to balance their careers with the demands of parenting. Slaughter is a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for the US State Department. She is also the mother of two adolescent boys. She writes about working long hours and keeping up a demanding travel schedule while trying to be a good parent: “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…I realised what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.”
She concedes that many other women who have less education, less powerful jobs, or less supportive partners (indeed, sometimes no partners) also have it hard, and questioned the feminist myth that women can “have it all”—ie, career and family at the same time. She adds that if this is to change there must be shifts in women’s access to positions of power, changes in the way we think about careers (do we really have to go to an office every day to advance in a career?), and changes to the structure of families so that more men play an active role in parenting. It is the last part of the equation that I want to engage with here. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering night assignments, working weekends, I was generally too busy with work to spend time with my first daughter. Thank God I had the support of friends and relatives, but there were still too many evenings when my daughter was left in school until sunset because that was when I finished work. She suffered while my career thrived. Women today take it for granted that they can be educated and have high-level jobs outside the home. These gains have been hard-won. (And there is still much to fight for: pay gaps between men and women persist and, as our recent Cabinet reshuffle has proven, just because there are educated, competent women available doesn’t mean that they will get put into those positions of power that exist.)
However, I maintain that instead of giving women a choice between working at home as wife and mother and being in the paid workforce, feminism has made it seem that women have an obligation to do both. As Slaughter points out, women who choose to do the former despite being equipped to do the latter are often looked at with scorn and condescension, as if they were inadequate or betraying the women’s movement. This has to change.
Until there is a mass of men willing to wash dishes and wipe away tears, shuttle children to and from school and football practice, supervise homework and comb hair, working women will continue to do this double duty and they and their families will suffer for it. Of course women should be encouraged to work outside the home if they want to; but there must be a corresponding push for men to work within the home or we risk leaving our children without nurturing and support. Children must have parents. They need people who will see to their physical and emotional wellbeing, not from afar but right there in the home with them. Parenting by telephone cannot be a satisfactory alternative. Until there are enough men willing to do this “women’s work” of parenting, women will always have to choose. Women must be involved in making and implementing policy at all levels, or we squander half our human resource and ignore the different solutions women might bring. But men have found out the hard way the cost of working 12-hour days: poor health, early death, and lack of engagement with their families. Asking women to blindly step into men’s shoes without changing these patterns is foolish and will ultimately benefit no one.