Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

Image by Phillip Toledano, illustrating Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article

Today I want to talk about an incredible article which was sent to me after a feisty discussion about whether or not women could have it all, all at once – and whether it was ok not to want it all anymore.

A young graduate, a bride-to-be and a mother of two all faced with the realisation that great schooling, opportunities to travel the world, understanding partners and the fire of ambition weren’t always quite enough to get you to the top – or even to keep you in the rat race. That the minute your life changed enough that you started to want to have children, the fast train you’d been on all your life suddenly seemed to be moving a little too fast. That for all that we had been given, we weren’t equipped to deal with potential failure, or the idea of giving up – yet the years of studying and late nights in the office did seem a bit moot if you were going to have to jump off the bandwagon to be able to – err, have the children. The young graduate did not quite want to give up the romantic idea that she, through more hard work and naked ambition than her older sisters, was actually going to make it. The bride-to-be (me!), was stuck between her fading naked ambition and the seemingly obvious truth that wherever she was going these days, infants seemed to just be staring at her. The mother of two had had both the naked ambition and the children – and could only regret that in the face of your younger’s son burning fever, there just wasn’t much of a choice. You’re not much of a mother if you don’t skip that meeting.

I, for one, have spent a great deal of the past few months in a constant state of frustration over the fact that I just couldn’t seem to reconcile what I used to call the “old” me (the really, really driven one), with that new part of me that didn’t use to bother me as much before – the part of me that now wants more balance, a healthier lifestyle, and time for other people than myself (which, surprisingly, also translates into more time for myself). The part of me that wants the ability to want children without the guilt that I am letting the sisterhood down, and walking all over the chances I’ve been given. The part of me that just will not let me invest the kind of time you need to invest into a job if you want to make partner before 30.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, a mother who admits she struggled like any other and a woman of power, writes a bold, beautiful, and inspiring essay about why she thinks society still has a number of hurdles to overcome before women can, truly, have it all. Why the ambition of those women who choose to take some time off to see (and help) their children grow up is not necessarily “substandard”, nor do those women with an “unswerving commitment to the feminist cause” necessarily deserve a medal. She argues that, in order to ensure more and more women reach positions of power and don’t give up before they have even tried, older women need to first of all stop lying to their younger selves: success is indeed about ambition and hard work, and yes – it does partly depend on whether you have a supportive partner; but it is also and primarily about the context in which you are able to consider your options. For most women, choosing between a career and taking care of her children is simply not a choice. For them to be able to even consider that choice, the environment in which they work needs to be supportive of it. Mentalities (of men, of women) must evolve so that choice, in itself, is not considered a mere lack of ambition or commitment – but on the contrary is seen for what it is: a selfless, exhausting and worthy goal, and in fact more value-generating for society that choosing to invest the same amount of time in training for your next marathon…

Having it all should not be a matter of doing career, children and then career again, all in the right sequence and praying that the fertility Gods stay on your side and work with your agenda. It should be being able to do all of it, with varying degrees of intensity, when it feels right to do so.

For this to be possible, Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes simple solutions, sometimes so obvious that we do wonder why it isn’t easier for corporates to take them onboard – especially when plenty of research now shows that work places that favour flexible working hours (which doesn’t mean reduced working hours), work-life balance and out-of-the-workplace creativity do perform better than high-hierarchy, rigid, conventional ones. She suggests that a society where family values and the pursuit of balance and happiness would be given more weight might be better at integrating women, and that this isn’t only a women’s issue. It’s an everyone issue. We need a world in which women are allowed to be women, with their flaws and merits…

a world in which, in Lisa Jackson’s words, “to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.”

I still want a career. In fact, I think I still want several careers, as I think one life simply won’t do. Here’s to naked ambition. But right now, I just want to be in the right state of mind (and I want my health to be where it needs to be) so I can bring children into this world, and do the only thing that I will be asked to do, alongside their (sure to be fantastic) dad: be there when they need their mother.

Enjoy the read!

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the mother of two teenage boys. She served as the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.

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