On That Baby-in-the-Briefcase Story and the 5 Real Policy Fixes Women (and Men) Need for Work-Life Balance


Can women have it all? Probably not. Can anybody who isn't wildly wealthy "have it all?" I don't think so.

I have long admired Anne-Marie Slaughter as both a foreign policy intellectual and as a role-model for women. But I was filled with annoyance and dread as I read her Atlantic cover story, which, as Jessica Valenti notes, was rather problematically packaged. 

I'm annoyed because the problem of not being able to "have it all" is NOT about "the failures of feminism," but, in Slaughter's case–in which she left the State Department to return to her job as a tenured professor at Princeton–about the particularities of the Washington power structure and the intense expectations on high-up political appointees. I personally know both men and women who've struggled with the lifestyle of an appointee; indeed, no one seems to want to stay in these jobs for more than two years or so. I don't see why it's surprising that appointees often lose steam after a short time, since this kind of job isn't personally sustainable for the vast majority of people of either sex. A small number of individuals want to risk their personal relationships and private happiness for the sake of having an internationally important job. As Slaughter notes, more of the people willing to do so are men than women, because of the history of expectations on men to be breadwinners and women to be caregivers. Here I agree with Slaughter that we need to deploy technology in the service of changing workplace cultures to make them more flexible and family-friendly for both sexes. We should also acknowledge that working in the State Department or White House will always be intense and not suited for all people indefinitely. 

But I also felt dread. As a woman in my late twenties who is, in fact, incredibly privileged, I am sick of being told to approach my personal and professional future with anxiety and foreboding instead of optimism and activism. (Men are never expected to wring their hands in this way, though plenty of men I know struggle with the exact same work-life balance challenges.) I am sick of hearing about the failures of feminism when actually what we need to fix these problems for all families, across socioeconomic distinctions, is more feminism, not less. Such as:

2. Extended learning time at school, not just for more test-prep, but for art, music, sports, and other enrichment and supervision affluent kids get as a matter of course. This would help the school day better conform to parents' work day, which helps women (and men) work and parent (Slaughter also points this out)
3. A higher minimum wage and workplace representation in the service sector (especially helpful for single moms)
4. Paid family leave
5. More enlightened men – men who do chores! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest time-use study, men still do only about 25 percent of housework, 29 percent of food preparation and clean-up, and 33 percent of childcare.*
I'd like to see college-educated women and men who care about work-life balance devote some of their energy to advocating for the above proposals. We need to raise active support for these ideas among folks who are affluent enough to spend their way out of these problems, through nannies, private schools, housekeepers, and the like. 
*To answer commenter John Romano's question, the BLS stats show men still do more lawn-care, for example, than women. If outdoor and indoor chores are combined, men do about 40 percent of all "household activities." I'd only add that there is a minute-to-minute, day-to-day quality to food preparation, indoor clean-up, and childcare that "outdoor" housework lacks. Hat-tip to Doug Henwood for help analyzing the BLS numbers.

12 thoughts on “On That Baby-in-the-Briefcase Story and the 5 Real Policy Fixes Women (and Men) Need for Work-Life Balance

  1. John Romano

    I am curious about #5 with men and chores. Do those percentages include home repair, mechanical upkeep, cutting the grass, fixing the leaky faucet etc.? Or is this just dusting, laundry, dishes, etc.?

  2. Mara

    i don’t see what the problem is, the article was an examination of why things haven’t been changing and an exhortation to do exactly what you describe. did you only skim the article?

  3. Mary

    The only way to get more enlightened men is for women to not settle for less enlightened ones. When will women start doing this? Also, it might help if women STOPPED taking men’s last names when they get married. That would at least set the expectation that men and women are equals in the relationship.

  4. Dr. J

    As a 40 year old tenured professor with two young children, it’s disappointing to read that you’re tired of hearing about how hard it is. Yes, you should be optimistic and hopeful, but also anxious about how incredibly difficult it is to juggle home and work lives as a mother. I sequenced it (as Slaughter – among many, many others – puts it) ‘right,’ by getting tenure first, and then starting on the children track. I had my first easily at 35, but then suffered several lost pregnancies before having my second at 40. During my first pregnancy, my senior colleague, who, by the way, is male and a parent, told all our students that I was now ‘useless’ to the department. He hasn’t changed this mantra, and adds salt to this wound by simultaneously kicking up a stink around course scheduling & my childcare needs (luckily, he doesn’t have power on this one) and piling work onto my plate…despite my being far more productive in research grants, publications, student credit hours and service responsibilities than him or most people in the department. His attitude is reinforced by much of the senior faculty – male and female, parent and non-parent – towards all the female faculty who have become mothers since appointment. The faculty who become fathers seem to get rewarded for their parenting commitments – lauded for bringing their children into the office, congratulated for taking family leave, etc almost in the same breath that the mothers are being criticized for doing the exact same thing. Yes, I am pleased and optimistic about my future career and parenting prospects, and I am working with other faculty to change attitudes. But in the meantime, I am exhausted by the juggling act, embittered by the inaccurate & ongoing criticisms solely based on my becoming a mother, heartbroken over the babies I lost along the way, and deeply in love with my two amazing children and a husband who works outside and inside the home, and who, yes, deals with similar issues. Somehow I do find energy to advocate for your generation too, but I would certainly appreciate less of the eyerolling if we dare to tell you it’s not a rose garden.

  5. Student J

    Dr. J’s comments resonate with me. I’m 42, have two kids, work part time, and am currently in grad school. Sometimes I look around at all the fresh young faces in the room and think to myself, “You have no idea what you’re in for.” I was no slouch when I was younger, but I had no idea that I could (or would have to) work this hard. Ladies, it’s bloody hard, even with a reasonable number of advantages working in your favor.

  6. Anne

    The Atlantic exists solely to send messages. This is the Left elite telling its women to get barefoot and get into the kitchen. The same Left that attacked Palin for having a career outside the home and then attacked Ann Romney for not having a career outside the home. …and please, I’m not a Republican, I’m a Dem woman that often finds herself defending GOP women, from things like…hmmm you know,
    profiles in courage like T-shirts that say, ” Sarah Palin is a C—” Wow, I was proud to be a Dem that day ( not)

    And may I say it’s not clear at all that Slaughter’s son would do any more homework or class attending if she was there more.

  7. Ms. engineer

    I am a 30 yr old female and Dr. J’s comments also resonate with me. – “Somehow I do find energy to advocate for your generation too, but I would certainly appreciate less of the eyerolling if we dare to tell you it’s not a rose garden. ”

    I am not in academia, I work in industry where similar attitudes towards male parenting vs. female parenting exist, and that is what makes me sick.

  8. ERAGal

    Dr. J.
    I think you entirely miss the point of this essay. The writer doesn’t think that it won’t be difficult for her. She’s sick of the false message “have it all” or have nothing. Life is not zero sum game. Is your life entirely crap because you’ve encountered very real biases in the workplace? Is the work that you do and the care that you give your children worthless? Clearly not. Life is difficult, wonderful, frustrating and rewarding. No aware person is so ignorant at 25 or 45 to think there won’t be hardships. You’re frustration should be directed entirely at a crappy system which supports sexism, not the younger generation. FYI – I’m 47, mother of one & work for a nonprofit.

  9. Rebecca

    I would also add that the point of the article is to say that the original piece failed to highlight that men are also facing these same problems, and that it isn’t necessarily women that are finding things difficult, but also men who do half of the household/child rearing chores. I think if you started asking fathers of our generation if they also felt like they can’t have it all, they too would say yes. This is the part of the debate that is missing. Who is able to stay in top government jobs? People who don’t have kids OR who have partners (male or female) who are primary caregivers OR who have enough money to pay for daycare and don’t mind that this is where their kids are most the time.

  10. Gauri

    I think that Ms Slaughter would agree with you – while she did not outline in detail the broader issues you mentioned (universal childcare, paid family leave, etc), she did say that society, norms, and culture needs to change. Her article included topics such as: (a) improving education and changing school schedules to match work schedules, (b) more flexible work environments, capitalizing on technology to work from home, and (c) altering attitudes and norms about the importance of family life. Frankly, it irks me when people expect an article on a multifaceted yet personal issue to cover every single nuance and angle. I would encourage you to submit a longer, more detailed piece based on your point of view to The Atlantic, as I think you make good points. But please do not deride Ms Slaughter for not speaking to your points in depth, especially when she did touch upon those very topics.


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