Why How to “Have It All” Advice Comes Up Short

How women can achieve work-life balance and “have it all” remains a hot topic, and some high powered women have lots to say about it. Take Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), Sheryl Sandberg.  Named Forbes magazine 5th most powerful woman in the world and Fortune‘s 12th most powerful women in business, she believes a key to having it all “starts with parity in the division of labor at home.” She also advises women to “keep your foot the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to take a break for a child.”

Then there is Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. In her recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” she outlines very real challenges mothers still face when trying to balance career and parenthood, and posits that the ability for women to have it all boils down to changing the culture of our workforce, including more acceptance of flexible working hours, and moving away from “male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.”

But these and other women leaders all too often come up short when talking about having it all. Why? Keli Goff says it best in response to Slaughter’s piece: “For all of the thought-provoking solutions Slaughter proposes to help more women achieve greater work-life balance, she completely omits one of the most obvious: the need to change the entire conversation about how women define success, from a one-size fits all model that includes marriage, motherhood and career into a find-what-works-for-you model.”

anne-marie slaughterWhat’s a major driver of this one-size fits all model? Embedded pronatalist beliefs about motherhood. One belief that’s scrutinized in The Baby Matrix is related to a pronatalist “Destiny Assumption” which says we all will want to become parents someday. Another is related to a pronatalist “Fulfillment Assumption” which says that having children is “the” way to experience true fulfillment in life. Both point to the assumption that a key component to having it all means having children.

What’s the truth? “All” can mean many things, and it does not include parenthood for everyone. The change that is needed around having it all is a mindset change.

What having it all means needs to change from a three-pronged script to answering the question, “What is my definition of success?” That answer is unique to each person, and does not automatically include parenthood.  If powerful spokespersons gave their advice from this mindset, it would not come up short. Instead it would expand what having it all can mean, and help people on their journey of figuring out for themselves what it means to them.

From what you read about how to “have it all,” where do you think it comes up short?

13 thoughts on “Why How to “Have It All” Advice Comes Up Short

  1. First of all: The basic problem I see is that these women who say they want to “Have It All” really mean they want to have as much freedom to be mommies and do mommy things as they want, and STILL get a full salary and all the credit at work, even if they are not earning the full salary or credit. And that’s what frustrates the rest of us, when we DO earn our full salary and credit. Listen, if you want to be on the Mommy Track or even the Party Girl Track (work is your last priority, you’d rather be out partying, and you only show up because you want the paycheck), that’s fine. But those of us who do love our work and careers should be rewarded for our loyalty and making work a priority. That’s all we’re saying.

    One could possibly argue that the corporate culture isn’t fair to ANY workers, what with demanding more and more of our time while wanting to pay us less and less. Yet that’s about ALL employees, not just mommies who want full pay for half the work.

    The idea of changing how one defines sucess to “find what works for you” model is tricky for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I *could* define sucess as sitting on the sofa eating myself to 900 pounds until the paramedics have to cut a whole in the side of the house to get me out. However, I’m not really sure that other people would define success the same way. So while a mommy can define success as, “I played with my kids for 18 hours straight today!” she’d better not be all that upset when other people don’t take that kind of “success” seriously. If she’s okay with that, more power to her.

    Additionally, I rather cringe at the idea of this “anything goes” society and telling girls and young women (hell, even grown women) that “success is whatver you decide you want to do with your life!” and not encouraging them to reach higher. Shouldn’t feminism be about wanting what is best for all women and encouraging them to be responsible and make smart decisions? This whole “don’t judge!” society is screwing up a lot of young women and society as a whole! We should be mentoring and encouraging the next generation to do their best, set achievable goals and chase them instead of giving them permission to give up and go the “easy route” because like, school is hard, and bosses are like, totally annoying, so just drop out of school, have three kids and call that “success”.

    A slight side note: A couple of months ago, a local woman dropped her kid off at a park and disappeared for a few hours. It was a small kid, too — three or four. The local news people were posting on their facebook pages about the child and the search for his mother. Eventually she showed back up like it was nothing. I don’t know what happened to her; probably nothing. What I do recall, however, is that a lot of people on facebook were defending the mother saying, “Don’t judge! You don’t know her situation!” Um, really? This is how low our standards of parenting are as a society now? It’s okay to just dump your three-year-old at the park for a few hours and no one is allowed to judge? That’s now an acceptable definition of “success”? *sigh* No, not acceptable.

    1. Love that Phoena fire! 😉

      I sure am not advocating “anything goes” the way you describe when it comes to advocating people find their own definition of success. I too want young women to be all they can be — figuring out what is most important to you, what you want to experience in life, and how to make that happen is taking one’s life seriously from a fulfillment standpoint. Figuring out one’s own definition of success to me means figuring out what will constitute a meaningful, fulfilling life. And there is no cookie cutter solution to that even though society jams that cookie cutter down our throat. I want men and women to think beyond the life script that society hands them and come up with the script that is most meaningful to them – that way they know what having it all means to them, not just what others tell them it should be….

      On another note, your story about the mother in the park reminds me of the a law that would have kicked in if she had dropped her baby off at a hospital or police station and never did come back — it is the Safe haven Protection Act. Withing 30 days after birth, parent (s) can drop off their baby at either of these places, and never come back. The law even has a slogan: No shame. No blame. No names. If a parent does not come back in 21 days the State terminates their right to be parents and allows for adoption. It exists in all 50 states. How we allow parents so easily absolve themselves from the responsibilities of parenthood is beyond me.

      Back to definition of success…if more people knew what that was for them Before they decided to have kids and how kids fit into that picture, they’d end up making better parenthood decisions before they come on the scene and my guess — better parenting decisions once they are raising them. ~L

  2. Goff’s response was far more on the mark than Slaughter’s piece.

    And in Slaughter’s piece, this part struck me as off the mark:

    “Sandberg’s second message in her Barnard commencement address was: ‘The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.’ ”

    Actually, the most important career decision one makes is whether or not you will have children. If one chooses a bad spouse, that can be undone, perhaps with some dfficulty but it can be done and in a perfectly legal manner (divorce). But having children is irreversible, it cannot be undone (at least not legally). Being married only won’t prevent someone from working long hours to advance in one’s career. Being married won’t put a strain on one’s finances, either. But whether or not to have children is a far bigger life-changing event. Shame on Slaughter for not recognizing this.

    Phoena, good to see you around again.

    1. Hi Deegee, Both women, Sandberg and Slaughter come from the career+ husband + children = having it all. Slaughter’s piece went super viral real fast such that the Newshour had her on last night, along with two other women talking about “having it all.” Slaughter stuck to her message that women need more flexibility to work from home in order for them to have it all, which she seems to be defining as having children an reaching high level positions; another spoke to how far we’ve come in the last generation or so when it comes to women in the workforce, and another’s position was Stop Whining – we all make choices, men and women, one choice means not choosing something else, and the work-“family” balance is a moving target – some decisions work, some don’t and when they don’t you make a different choice that you think will work, etc. Interesting, but on another level disheartening – no mention at all about not choosing motherhood, and what would be even better– that many women don’t include motherhood in their formula of having it all to begin with. Not having kids is still seen as choosing “not” to have it all. Got a ways to go….

  3. What is described is a subset of the “you are not a real grown up if you’ve not procreated” assumption. Simple as that. Workplace / career discrimination against the child-free-by-choice (and sadly, really, all child free whether by choice of not) is still very real and disgustingly widespread.

    These “super women” being good sharks learned this fact early in life and no doubt whatever their inner most thoughts about motherhood, they played a good game and got where they are.

    1. Maybe as the subset it could also be phrased “you are not a successful grown up if you’ve not procreated…And have a great career outside the home”…

  4. “Actually, the most important career decision one makes is whether or not you will have children.”

    So very true. I used to work in an office with graduate degree-level professionals, mostly women, who gave up their careers once they had children. Our executive director, an astounding woman and mother who tended to her business as closely as she did her own child, once remarked that she didn’t see any point in a woman getting a graduate or post-graduate degree if she didn’t intend to put it to good use. As harsh as it is to say, I understand why she said this. Why even bother with a career when you decide one day that you’re just not going to show up? Just be an administrative assistant, receptionist or sales assistant. Jeez.

    I think that a lot of women would sacrifice a couple of fingers to have one of these high-powered careers, to which we could dedicate our all. Color me a bit miffed when women like Slaughter seem to take the privilege to work for a prestigious university for granted rather than being grateful she was entrusted with such an awesome responsibility.

    1. Lisa, you bring to mind some recent research done by Ariene Kemkes Grottenthaler who examined the motivations of female academicians who had a lot invested in their careers–some were clear they did not want to become mothers; others kept putting off the decision to a point in life where they felt it was too late, and while they ultimately chose not to have them, they felt it was more like a “forced choice.” I think the phenom of “perpetual postponers” as I have seen it called is happening more these days…

  5. “while they ultimately chose not to have them, they felt it was more like a “forced choice.” ”

    This to me is the biggest part of the problem. A man can choose to not have a family and change his mind at 60, women do not have that option. Whatever your views on having children is, surely you can appreciate that we should not be structuring a society where a biological reality prevents women from having successful careers?

    1. Indeed I do: like I write, mothers do face very real challenges in the workforce, and I agree that more needs to be done so that there can be more of a balance of career and parenthood – for both mom and dad. However, those same benefits, like flex time, paid leave or time off, etc. should not just favor those who are pregnant or have children. This is an excellent article that gets at this point: http://piperhoffman.com/2011/08/26/bloomberg-did-not-discriminate-against-women-by-treating-new-mothers-the-same-as-other-leave-takers/

  6. So you don’t believe in maternity leave at all? I’m not American, so I don’t have an inherent understanding of the legal background surrounding the policies. In South Africa, you may not work for 6 weeks after the birth of your child, if you do, the employer can be fined/prosecuted. You are entitled to 90 working days leave (the 6 weeks mentioned are included in the 90 days). Your employer is not obligated to pay you during this time, though you may claim from an Unemployment Insurance Fund (similar to social security from what I gather) during this time. After that you’re on your own. Our leave system allows 5 days family responsibility leave to tend to members of your immediate family – this leave is available to anyone. From what I gather, you are opposed to the 90 days leave, not the 5 days family responsibility leave. Is this correct?

    1. No, I think maternity and paternity leave is a good thing and studies show it is good thing for companies and the parents as well. In the big picture, however, I am in favor of everyone getting equal treatment when it comes to leave policies. It should be the same for those with and without children.

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