Why Americans Can’t Have it All

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Feminists are wrong.  Contrary to what some glass ceiling-breakers and other female trailblazers claim, a high-flying career isn’t compatible with motherhood.  The two are mutually exclusive; partaking of one precludes doing the other well.  Women can’t have it all.

The sober message comes courtesy of Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official, who concluded after two demanding years in her “dream job” that juggling the professional demands of her high-profile government position with being a parent, even with a flexible boss and devoted husband willing to pick up the slack, isn’t possible.

It’s a reluctant message that pains Slaughter, but one reflecting a reality she hopes will change.  “I strongly believe that women can ‘have it all,’” she writes in the Atlantic Monthly.  “I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’  But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Slaughter’s lament reads like that of an aid worker who belatedly realizes that the Third World rat hole they have parachuted into is indeed quite shitty.  Her insight is both remarkably unexceptional and pathetically out of touch: most jobs, from the mailroom to the boardroom, are incompatible with family life.

Collectively, Americans, not just those in the rarified, gender-specific demographic of interest to Slaughter, work among the most hours per year (1,787) in the industrial word, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.  In a recent report on work-life balance, the OECD concludes: “Finding a suitable balance between work and life [in the US] is a challenge for all workers, especially working parents.  Some couples would like to have (more) children, but do not see how they could afford to stop working.”  The situation is aggravated by the fact that America is the only OECD country (there are 34) without a national paid parental leave policy, although some states do have them.

The well-heeled women Slaughter is speaking about may confront real challenges, but they aren’t under severe financial strain, unlike nearly a quarter of American workers in low-wage fields, or jobs that pay less than $10 an hour.  More pressing concerns like paying the rent and putting bread on the table confront the “working poor,” not whether they can make partner while having time for junior. 

Slaughter’s focus on the current and future one percenters—a Rhodes Scholar, precocious attorney, and UN hotshot are among those she cites—reinforces the stereotype that feminism is an elitist enterprise.  But to her credit, she’s up front about her exclusivity.  “I am well ware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article,” Slaughter admits.  “Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances.”

The same can’t be said of NYU’s Katie Roiphe, who takes Slaughter to task in the Financial Times for complaining about the strains of balancing a demanding career with motherhood: “‘Work-life balance?’  Why is balance necessarily good?  Isn’t part of the skill or joy of life in the imbalance, in the craziness…I am a huge believer in parenting in non-ideal conditions…I prefer to revel in the non-ideal conditions, to embrace the unconventional and to enjoy the freedom [my emphasis] of it.”

I doubt very much that the cleaning woman at my office, who is the mother of two and who must hold down two poorly-paid jobs to make ends meet, relishes her “freedom.”  It’s unlikely she celebrates her “non-ideal condition.”  She might even take umbrage at the notion had she time to do so.

The grim reality largely ignored by Slaughter and totally disregarded by Roiphe is that America’s economy doesn’t work for most Americans regardless of gender or class.  According to the Census Bureau, household income fell to its lowest level in a decade, while median household net worth is down to levels reached 18 years ago.  To compensate for falling living standards, Americans are working harder than ever—yet they can’t keep up.  And this at a time when corporate profits are soaring and the super-rich are making out like thieves.

In this context, a feminist critique about the fabled work-life balance is maddeningly irrelevant.  The salient question doesn’t relate to the travails of privileged women, but rather the travails of almost all Americans, women and men alike.  A good place to start would be to ask why is the pie so unevenly divided.

Until this key question is addressed, Americans, not just upwardly mobile “feminists,” won’t be able to have it all.

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