This Monday on the radio program Think Out Loud the topic of discussion was Anne Marie Slaughter’s cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It is again about the age-old problem of work-life balance, and the argument is made that women can’t rise to the highest levels of their chosen careers and still have sufficient time with their families. It’s the first time I felt compelled to call in to the show — it’s on while I’m driving my daughter to preschool in the mornings so calling in means I have to pull off the road — but of course it was hard to really hash out what I’m trying to say in a minute or two on air.
There were several working women on the show, including one whose job involves advising companies about employee rights, and it was a fascinating discussion. One topic that was discussed at length was simply the idea of “having it all.” Can anyone — women or men — expect to “have it all”? I think that depends on the definition, but the article’s implication is that “having it all” isn’t simply a matter of being satisfied with your work-life balance, but to reach the pinnacle of your career ladder and be a thoroughly involved parent who can be there for their families whenever they’re needed. To me, that’s simply unrealistic.
I’m not going to argue here that men and women are treated equally in the workplace or that there aren’t any financial inequities in our system. As I’ve mentioned before, I know that attitudes toward women and men are different. Working men who get involved in their kids’ lives are praised as super dads — “Hey, it’s so awesome that you make time to spend with your kids!” Working women who get involved in their kids’ lives are treated like either irresponsible employees or irresponsible mothers, or both — “Don’t you love your kids? Why don’t you prioritize them instead of working?” It’s a bias that stems from the persistent idea that parenting is women’s work, and not the responsibility of both parents. Some of the women on the show mentioned that when they had to take time off work to handle family matters — a sick child, for instance — they’d often lie about it, as Slaughter mentions in the article. I didn’t understand the impulse, but perhaps that is more of the same bias: I imagine a man who misses work for a sick child would play it up, be a hero. But what do I know? I haven’t been in an office situation for years.
The good news is, according to the statistics, that we are doing a better job in general as parents. In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Bryan Caplan explains that working mothers today spend as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms did three decades ago, and fathers (working or not) spend more time with their kids than those from earlier generations. So we’re getting better at it, but there’s still a long way to go.
Still, I think I would argue this: nobody can “have it all.” You have a limited amount of time and energy in your life, and you try to make the most of it, but you simply can’t be everything to everyone, 168 Hours notwithstanding. If I put in sixty hours a week at a job, then that time has to come from somewhere: I can’t do that and still spend eight hours with my kids each day and cook gourmet meals and have a spotless house and run marathons. If I choose not to home-school my kids, I can’t expect also to come away at graduation having spent the same amount of time with my kids as somebody who did. If I spend my free time reading books and playing board games, I can’t also spend hours honing my skills at Call of Duty or staying caught up with the fifteen different television shows that everyone says I really must watch. Moving to a bigger city where my kids have access to violin lessons and archery lessons and I can find cheap delicious take-out for dinner means that I can’t also let them just hang out at the library on their own while I go grocery shopping as I did in a tiny rural town.
Life is a series of trade-offs. One of the first things we learned in high school economics was “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” because even when you don’t have to pay something, there’s always an opportunity cost. Maybe the real question isn’t why so many women feel they have to step back from their jobs to be with their families, but why more men don’t. Slaughter bemoans that the “standard Washington excuse” — leaving a job to “spend more time with your familiy” — is a euphemism for being fired, implying that nobody would actually step down from a job for parenthood. (To that, I might argue: I never really feel like people in Washington are really representative of the way most Americans behave anyway.)
Of course, not everyone gets to make choices. If, as the article points out, you’re a poor single mother then you aren’t going to have the same choices as a woman who has a supportive husband and a high-paying job. I know that not everyone can afford to have one parent stay at home full time with the kids. But Slaughter, the woman complaining about not being able to “have it all,” is somebody who has choices, and isn’t happy that she has to make them. Her argument is that, if somebody like her can’t have everything, then it’s simply hopeless for those who are less privileged. What I think is that we need to stop griping that we can’t pick “all of the above” and instead focus on ways to enable those less privileged to be able to make choices.
Slaughter does eventually make this point, too: the idea that there’s a systemic problem, that there needs to be vast reform so that people — both men and women — can work without having to sacrifice their family life. She (and the folks on Think Out Loud) talked about paid family leave and more flexible work schedules and a shift in the attitudes toward how employers see their employees. One person on the show argued that letting your employees have a fuller, more well-rounded life actually makes them better and more productive at their jobs. And then they got a call from a man who said, “Look, there’s a recession. I run a business, and I have a stack of resumes and I don’t want to hear about your family or your RV or your vacation plans or time off. Just get to work. Do your job.”
The host Dave Miller raised the question: should people get rewarded at work for the time they spend with their families? Should a parent who wants to have the flexibility to stay home with a sick kid or go to a soccer practice be promoted the same as the childless employee who chooses to work sixty hours a week and forgoes other hobbies? Because it seems that some of this “systemic reform” that people were proposing does just that: it says that you should be able to take paid time off when your child is born and still be at the same level as the person who went straight back to work (or the person who didn’t have kids at all).
Part of me thinks, okay, sure, it would be great for us as a culture to value the employee as a person, to encourage personal development whether it’s raising a family or running a marathon. But there’s another part of me that really doubts that will happen. There’s a passage in The Gone-Away World where two characters are arguing about the nature of a particular corporation, and one argues that when the corporate machine gets going, eventually it will run over people. And it’s not because the corporation is necessarily evil, but because everything it does should serve its single-minded purpose, and at some point in the cost-benefit analysis it doesn’t make sense to stop. In fact, there are several bits in the book that talk about this idea, about the way a person gives up their own motives and personalities to become a cog in a machine — it reduces their humanity but makes them a better fit. It’s a cynical view, of course, but you can see the evidence for it in the real world. Individuals who would never choose to harm others surrender their own will to further the aims of their company, and as a result the company makes decisions that have damaging effects.
So could reforms and legislation really change that? It would be nice, but I doubt it. Even the government itself is a sort of machine (again, cf. The Gone-Away World) and ultimately most of them make decisions that make them a better cog rather than a better human, lest they be replaced. When asked whether this conversation would be any different ten years from now, one of the women on the show responded that it wouldn’t, because we were having this conversation ten years ago, and ten years before that. Until there aren’t any people who are willing to give up their personal lives for some form of corporate gain, I doubt we’ll ever have corporations who truly value happy employees over well-oiled gears. That’s a massive cultural shift and I’m really not sure how to fix it.
It seems, ironically, that what you need are people who value family above professional advancement to somehow attain positions of power to give that cultural shift a push in that direction — but of course this requires them to sacrifice their own families. Slaughter lists a series of suggestions in her article, and I agree with some of them but I know it will take a very concerted effort (and some very uncomfortable sacrifices until things change.) If things don’t change, though, we may end up with a situation like Japan’s: one in which there are now more dogs than kids. There are a lot of factors there, of course, but among them is the fact that it’s hard for women to have children and continue working, so more and more women are choosing puppies over babies. While on the face of it this may not seem like a terrible thing, The Guardian states that if the trend continues then Japan’s current “population of 128 million will fall to 43 million over the next century.” Think we have a problem with Social Security now?
Slaughter’s article is lengthy, but definitely worth a read: I don’t agree with all of Slaughter’s assumptions or conclusions, but she does raise a lot of questions worth discussing, and makes some valuable points. It’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about as I raise my own daughters: what sort of expectations should I give them? What will the world be like when it’s time for them to enter the workforce and raise their own kids? How do I prepare them?