Society makes it nearly impossible for women to have it all 

Balancing Act

Fifteen years ago, when I was in graduate school, one of my mentors was a brilliant faculty member who'd written a number of outstanding books. She also had kids. She would talk at length with me about her research, but almost never about her life with her children. I remember being curious about that. I wanted to know more, but I wasn't sure if I could ask.

What I didn't figure out until years later was that back in the 1990s when I worked with her, she was the only female full professor at that university who had children. Almost all the men at the school had kids, but the few women in positions of power didn't. They'd had to make a choice: a career or family. So as a woman who had both, she had to be careful and keep quiet.

Most of my friends today have kids and careers. Yet it's clear that our society hasn't changed enough. It's still hard as hell to have career ambitions, a romantic partnership, and healthy child rearing, and rather than openly sharing strategies, many of us are wary that talking about our kids undercuts how committed we seem to our jobs. So we stay quiet — or talk carefully — about making this balance work.

For the last few weeks, blogs and journalists have been weighing in on this topic thanks to a cover story in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter in which she takes on the challenges of balancing personal and professional lives. Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former state department official, doesn't actually contend that women can't have it all. Instead she argues that we live in a world that makes it nearly impossible for women to have high-powered careers as well as satisfying family lives.

What Slaughter and others have noted is that our society was designed for a really aberrant moment in human history — a moment when many households could be funded by one wage earner, when "work" and "home" functioned as two entirely separate spaces, and therefore the person with the Ward Cleaver suit and tie was working, and the person with the June Cleaver dress and pearls was at home with the kids, cleaning, vacuuming, buying groceries, making meals, doing the laundry, taking the kids to the doctor, going to PTA meetings, etc.

We don't live in that world anymore, and honestly, a lot of us never lived in that world, Not everybody was white and middle class in the 1950s. We're now in a world where most families don't have an adult who's not working outside the home, and yet the design of things makes this reality incredibly challenging. For instance, the school day and the work day don't coincide, and while most kids get the summer off, most parents don't. As E.J. Graff writes in The American Prospect, "80 percent of American children are growing up in households with all adults in the workforce, which means most families are desperately trying to patch up the gaps."

And yet we're still often pretending that work and home are entirely separate. Our desperate efforts to "patch the gaps" aren't recognized as evidence of discipline and commitment (or creativity and cleverness), so we generally hide them. When my daughter has a doctor's appointment, I say that I'll be late to work or that something came up and I won't be able to attend a meeting. I pretend that I'm Ward Cleaver, but in fact I have no interest in living his life. I love my job, and I love my family. I bike to campus in the morning eager to start the work day, and I bike home in the evening equally eager to spend time with my daughter and partner.

What Slaughter is arguing — and what many of the responses from the blogosphere are echoing — is that all of us who choose to have children should be able to have a full life with both work and family. If we want to have a society that's functional, productive, efficient, and, let's please not forget, happy, we need changes that make it possible to have the multiple components that many of us want and need. Sharing our experiences — the challenges and the successful strategies — should be part of our professional culture. We need to be honest with ourselves and with each other about the trade-offs we're making. And we should create workplaces where fewer and fewer of those trade-offs are necessary.

This is not just good for women. It's good for everybody.

Alison Piepmeier directs the Women's and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston. She's also a spouse and a mother, and she's trying to make it all work.


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