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When You Realize You Are Going To Have To Address Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Article, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:08am

So it’s been a kerfuffle of a week. Let’s take on the Internet bit, shall we?

It all began when The Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s fine article on her decision to leave her job as a director of Policy Planning in the State Department, and return to her position as a professor at Princeton. Entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” we sum up her point as:

One cannot succeed at certain kinds of high-impact, high-profile jobs and still be a high-impact mother of children at home.

Brouhaha ensued. Slate held a video talk. Jezebel wrote something, I’m sure there’s more out there. But I spend more time in intimate blog/social network circles than professional ones, so was more affected by Twitter conversations, and posts by people I talk to. This, by Liz of Happy Sighs and A Practical Wedding, articulated many young women’s feelings. We will sum up Liz’s point as:


I’m being flippant. Please go read Liz’s posts, either on her blog or on A Practical Wedding. Meanwhile I will expand. Apparently for many young women there’s enormous pressure now to do exactly what Professor Slaughter recommends, i.e. immerse yourself in motherhood. And women of that generation, at least a segment of them, quite resent the zeitgeist.

There are probably 100 things we could say about all this. Nay, 127, 816 things. Verily, 1,983,445 things. But let’s not. Let’s rely on root causes to illuminate why the questions of women, motherhood, and life paths are so complicated right now.

It’s technology’s fault.

Before birth control, women had little control over when to have children. If they wanted to have sex, in many cultures, they had to get married first. So, little control over when to wed.

Before cars, men who hunted or fished while women were nursing babies, couldn’t fly across the country. Before gas lamps, and then electricity, it was hard to pull all-nighters, or work on oil rigs, or whatever.

In particular, before cars, everyone lived close together. So women could maintain roles of authority – in the female hierarchy that is – with babies to hand. Besides, the big kids took over baby care very, very young.

I get that I’m describing a village. This is not new news. But I wanted to make an analogy.

Motherhood in 2012 has the same ideological flu as nutrition. But worse. Technology has made certain things possible. We do not know if these things are good for us and getting data is hard because we are unwilling to experiment too rigorously on human beings.

The issues around motherhood are harder yet than those around fat in our diets, artificial ingredients, or soy. Because motherhood involves babies, and we’ve got a soft spot for babies. They are designed that way. Unfortunately they don’t come with a dashboard telling us what they really need to grow up functional and happy in the 21st century. Nor an Off button, but that’s another subject altogether.

OK then.

As always, when decisions must be made under uncertainty, try to nail what you know first. Start with your certainty. Feed babies, hold them, look into their faces. Easy. But soon they will push you for more than you want to do and then you’re going to have to start making decisions. I can only suggest that you look for data. It’s vast land of not knowing – for everyone who isn’t doing what their mother or their culture insists upon. Or doesn’t have an insistent mother or homogeneous culture, for that matter.

When my kids were little, being the sort who trusts cognition over feeling, I would ask my Ph.D. brother what the actual studies showed, about Piaget’s work and so on. That counted as data to me. I found parenting books torturous – all second-hand inferences, sometimes based on data, sometimes not, and always, always, just someone’s opinion.

But studies get you only so far. The rest of knowing has to come from living. I know. Sorry. Live an examined life. Do as best you can, and observe that baby carefully. I wish I had better advice to offer, but I don’t. Not at arm’s length. I’d be happy to come over and tell you what to do, however. Also bounce your baby while humming.

The one thing I believe, with certainty, about motherhood, is that you shouldn’t take it on unless you vow to do the best you can. Now, what the best you can actually means? That is up to you and your circumstances and your psychology and your biology. And, your baby.

If you absolutely must hunt up some advice – meaning non-data but opinion – look for it from those who a) you understand  b) support your strongly-held values. For example, in reaction to Slaughter’s article, I’m guessing Deja Pseu is going to say something that works for me, here. Find parenting books that don’t come at you from left field, because it’s very hard to catch those theories without falling over.

Then, one fine day your children may tell you this kind of story.

With that, one of the most endearing little podcasts ever, I leave you to a lovely, peaceful Saturday, in which doing the best you can may involve staring out the window as much as is humanly possible.

27 Responses

  1. I read the article, even though I’m not a mother and haven’t had to face the same issues. What I thought was interesting came toward the end of the piece — her suggestions about making the workplace more flexible, that it should be about the work itself not where you do the work. Seems like a win for everyone. I don’t envy young women who want a family and a career and have to figure this all out.

  2. Thanks for this, and the wonderful podcast.
    This isn’t simply an issue for women, but for every family. In households which have two parents ‘working’, it seems to be the case that it’s difficult for both to make progress in their careers. Many, many families seem to agree that one will charge on and the other potter along

  3. As I said in my book…It’s ok to have it all. And it’s ok to not want it all.

    I have to wonder if more women were content to be home with their children…would suicide rates drop dramatically.

  4. Well, I got pretty hot and bothered over this, and wrote about it at my little “crazy-but-not-so-crazy” thinking spot – for two days, in fact.

    I agree with what you’re saying (beautifully put), and in particular, that a great deal depends on your kid(s).

    In Slaughter’s case, there were issues of geographic distance (though her husband was a very hands-on participant in parenting, as she seems to describe him), and there was also the fact that one of her kids – a teenager – was really struggling with her not being around (at least, that’s inferred).

    The point being – one kid may need X, the other needs Y, and a third may need neither.

    But ultimately her point was the lack of infrastructure in our economic, political, and social systems to support families – which does exist (more) in some European countries. (Check OECD data on education, leave policies, health care built into the society… and check productivity as well as “quality of life” factors.)

    Our society is not structured to accommodate the sort of changes that many of us, as women, undertook in the 1970s and since. Period. And so everything still falls on women (mostly), along with a sizable dose of well-conditioned guilt.

    What I find a more interesting juxtaposition to Slaughter’s viewpoint was a piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel in The Atlantic a week or two earlier. She wags her finger (irritatingly) at all “well-educated feminists” who “choose” to have families rather than “work,” and that’s a whole other (though related) problem.

    There are no easy answers. Social change takes generations – apparently more rather than less, when it comes to women.

    And yes, our country has gone cuckoo with what it “expects” of mothers now. It’s not good for the kids, and it’s surely not good for the mothers or the fathers.

  5. I haven’t read the article but I did see her on Morning Joe. And she annoyed me. Here’s a woman with more options than I could dream of in a lifetime–I mean, she’s still going back to a high level position as a professor at an Ivy. Sorry, I know it’s not PC. But I have problems ginning up a lot of sympathy. Many women would kill to have that type of sacrifice to go back to.

    1. True she has a very privileged position but she is using it to highlight a very important point. Most parents don’t have the kind of contacts to swing a op ed piece in Atlantic Magazine.

  6. I’m a long time reader, first time commenter. I have a PhD and work as a professor in the same field as as Anne-Marie Slaughter. I had many thoughts swirling in my head in response to this, as someone on the likely verge of tenure at 32, married, and trying to figure out my own motherhood path, but ultimately, her own concerns could not be further from my own life.
    The best response I’ve read to this has been the following post in Racialicious. Rather than rehash my thoughts, I’ll just post the link:

    1. Very interesting link. A level of sophisticated analysis that wouldn’t have occurred to me had you not commented, and very valuable. I believe she also makes clear something I thought but didn’t take the time to say. After we nail what we know in this debate, it is all about the emotional, personal, and political beliefs that we individually hold. Thank you.

  7. I read the article, and my impression of it was that like most of the things written by mothers about motherhood, it was an endorsement/apologia of the author’s choices. Read that way, it’s great! We have so many choices! But they do all cost you something. Where you fall on the “having it all” issue seems to depend mostly on what currency you wish to spend.

  8. Very good point about bouncing the baby while humming :).

    I read the article and Pseu’s post but not all of the other links. The Slaughter article doesn’t suggest that young women immerse themselves in motherhood. It advocates for the institutional supports parents need as workers to do their best as parents.

  9. I’m glad someone provided a link to analysis by Tressie McMillan Cottom. I read that on her blog sometime last week before I read the Slaughter article. She makes some good points. And I agree with you that it’s all about “the emotional, personal, and political beliefs that we individually hold.”

  10. I found the article very interesting, because my husband and I have had a lot of similar conversations, actually. Because frankly, in order to be at the top of most professional fields, you need a big support network – and usually, that looks like a spouse who isn’t also working a top professional job, who is taking care of all the background details that allow you to concentrate on your career. I have to admit to taking some solace that I’ve actually followed her ideal timing – got my architecture license in my late 20’s, got married at 30 (to my architect husband) while we started our own firm, had babies at 31 and again at 34 – and at 42, am reaping the benefits of having a flexible schedule. Because you really, really do need that flexibility unless you want to hire nannies to do all of the after school care and homework help, etc, considering how involved the schools want parents to be!

    I will say, Gen X men are much more likely to share child-rearing responsibilities, and will schedule meetings around their kids’ schedules. Not always, but it happens.

  11. This is probably what your Dad was talking about when he wondered why you didn’t write about more serious things, he’ll like this blog entry. DejaPseu says what I too feel.

    Disqualified from this conversation having neither career, children, ambition, nor agile mind enough to read beyond 2 of the 6 pages of her argument, I’ve nevertheless enjoyed the comments and hope there will be more.

  12. I did not have children in the early seventies because of a demanding career where time off was almost laughable. I applaud women who can manage a career and have a family at the same time.

  13. Wow. For some time now I’ve grown to hate the angst created over the years of competing genders. Finally, someone of Slaughter’s metal comes forward to share her story. Her history. Her take on it all. What has and hasn’t worked. A purely subjective view. Entirely her’s to own. Which might just be the bigger lesson learned, as you point out. The Who, What, Where, When & Why are up to each of us individually. Not open to speculation of any sort. Sure, we need not ignore legislative/corporate change, but let’s not go overboard in thinking we collectively all want the same things.

  14. Oh, that podcast! It put a much-needed smile on my face, after a week involving more work than I could possibly have done were I a parent. Of course, it also made me want to have delightful little storytellers around.

    1. ….with incredibly advanced vocabularies, mastery of idioms, precision and exactness of expression, emotional honesty — they were incredible!

  15. One thought that was upper most in my mind was that she’s going back to be a prof at Princeton. That isn’t exactly a small job. I would think it’s at least 50 hours a week during term time.

    A better way of putting it is you can’t have a job that consumes all of your time and effort to the exclusion of all else and still be able to be a good parent. That goes for men as well as women.

  16. “The one thing I believe, with certainty, about motherhood, is that you shouldn’t take it on unless you vow to do the best you can. Now, what the best you can actually means? That is up to you and your circumstances and your psychology and your biology. And, your baby.” I completely agree! On a personal note, I am in a male-driven profession, and have the potential to work much more than I have, but have compromised so that I was as available to my children as possible and still manage to work in my field. It’s what worked for me, not for everyone.

    1. “The one thing I believe, with certainty, about motherhood, is that you shouldn’t take it on unless you vow to do the best you can.”


      And if enough good women feel as Lisa does [above quotation], then we owe those good women affirmation for the mindfulness behind their choice. God knows Hallmark hasn’t dedicated an occasion bay to: Congratulations That You Have Decided Against Bearing Children cards and party packs.

      Meanwhile gals who accidentally get pregnant by the enduring [mindless?] fundamentals of lust and libido, are celebrated far and wide by Hallmark’s very best card and shower party packs.

      We need affirmation rituals for women who’ve struggled to come to a mindful decision about their own motherhood. Their decisions are as sacred as the babies who weren’t born to them.

  17. Always a complex and difficult choice, and any time we have choice, we have the opportunity to do something we regret.

    My take is, if a woman thinks she has the ambition and gifts to be exceptional in her chosen field *and* thinks she might not miss the experience of being a mother, she ought to go ahead and put all her gifts into her work.

    But most women will contribute in a solid, effective but not world-beating way. And if you’re not totally in the service of your work (or employer), you can indeed have a family and a career. But maybe not at the most demanding, elite, dedicated-to-my-work level.

    The thing is, when you’re young, you think you have all this potential, and most of us *are* capable women, but we’re not gonna cure cancer.

    I would not forgo the love that children bring into one’s life to, say, help a corporation meet its sales target. I would have that baby and still be very competent at my work- maybe not the best ever, but very good, and that’s fine.

    As far as being a SAHM, if that’s her choice, that’s her business.

  18. Did you happen to read Lori Gottlieb’s response to slaughter?

    I think she has some great things to say as well as the writer from racialicious. Slaughter really does strike me as almost bratty, which is a terrible thing to say about someone so accomplished and so smart. One what planet did she grow up on that it should have been an expectation to have it all? Everything in life is about trading something to get something else.

  19. Delighted to see you tackling this with your usual wisdom & eloquence.

    I read the article and Tweeted/Facebooked the bejeebus out of it, thinking then & now that it raised such worthy points for us all to chew on, whether or not we agreed with them. My happiest moment of that was when my male law school buddy replied with his counter-arguments; sure, that was just one fellow (and a wonderful family man at that), but I was so encouraged at the prospect of this moving from just the all-female, “having it all” loaded discussion to one perhaps we all, male or female, are hoping to change as a culture.

    And I nearly fell off my fainting couch laughing at this oh-so-true line – “Find parenting books that don’t come at you from left field, because it’s very hard to catch those theories without falling over.” *Your* parenting book, I would read; the rest I’ve learned to largely keep at a distance while I endeavor to watch the actual kid in front of me.

  20. I read Slaughter. Having been on the receiving end of those sad smiles that telegraph, “you just didn’t have what it took to get ahead”, I found it amusing that once SHE couldn’t do it all then it’s a social problem.

    When someone like ME couldn’t do it all and opt-ed out then it wasn’t a SOCIAL problem, it was ME.

    Apart from that I had two thoughts:

    1) she wasn’t working in a field where they pay enough. I don’t think that Sheryl Sandberg (who she likes to compare herself to) spends her weekends doing errands – she’s got staff.

    2) a Chief Exec taking on such a high level position would have negotiated more leave for him/herself. Four hours a pay period is hard for anybody to cope with. High demand jobs need time for breaks.

    Beyond that I totally agree with you – it takes a village to raise a child.

  21. I’m such a non starter in life – no kids and no career. There are many things which I would do differently.

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