Back during an earlier round of this summer's seemingly endless "mommy wars," FeMOMhist had an excellent tweet, in which she declared her neutrality:
I loved it then, and I still love it now, during our latest round, in which we're debating whether or not women can "have it all," spurred on by the Atlantic piece written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the title of which declared that we could not have it all even as the content argued that we should change our systems so that it would be easier to combine career and family, and even though by almost everyone's definition of career success, the author is a star.
I liked the article, but truly hated the title- and I was not alone in that reaction to the title. It has occurred to me, as I watch the back and forth and find myself agreeing with much of what people on both sides of this particular debate say that perhaps part of the problem is generational. As Slaughter herself discusses in her follow up piece in the Atlantic (which I found via this article, tweeted by @bluemilk), for her generation, "having it all" was a rallying cry. For my generation, it is more of a bludgeon, used to beat women who dare to try to have great careers and full family lives back into our kitchens. How unreasonable of us, to want "it all." How very selfish. When we talk about the societal changes that would make our lives a little easier, we're often told that our problems our own fault, brought on by trying to "have it all," which, of course, is impossible, so why should anything change?
And still, some of us are doing it. When I hear someone say that women can't "have it all" I think that perhaps the person saying that thinks that women like me don't exist. Or maybe he or she thinks that I am not succeeding in my career, or as a mother. Or maybe we're just defining "it all" differently. The phrase is useless at best and demeaning at worst. So when I read the Atlantic's headline, I groaned and thought "here we go again". The title felt like purposely inflammatory link bait, or at least extremely tone deaf.
Slaughter seems genuinely surprised by the almost visceral reaction so many of us had to that title. Her response is gracious and balanced, and I do think that she and I want the same things. I also think, however, that she isn't quite getting the full point of responses like Dana Shell Smith's excellent essay about how she manages to have a very demanding career and a full and happy family life. I liked Slaughter's original article, but I loved Shell Smith's response, due in no small part to the fact that as I read her words, I felt like I was reading a description of my life in a parallel universe, in which I work for the State Department and live in cool foreign cities. Shell Smith argues what I argue- that you can have both a great career and a great family, and be happy, albeit rather tired, doing it. She tells her story openly and honestly, describes the trade offs she's made and explains why she doesn't think they are undermining her career or her kids.
But if I take Slaughter at her word, she agrees with Shell Smith, too, and thinks they have arrived at the same result via a different path. And here, I think my generation should cut Slaughter and her generation a little more slack. The way Slaughter frames the issue is different from how we view it at least in part because she has fought different battles than we have, and has different scars. While the approach Shell Smith outlines seems obvious to me, I should acknowledge that this is because I do not have to deal with the overt sexism of yesteryear, when ambitious women were advised to hide their families and never turn down an opportunity. I, on the other hand, am completely open about the fact that I have kids, both at work and in job interviews. I figure I don't want a job at a company that has a problem with me having a family. I can do that because I am confident that I can find other, more family-favorable opportunities if necessary. Women of Slaughter's generation could not count on that, and the fact that I can is due in no small part to the fact that they were willing to do what it took to break down barriers. I should thank them for that, not snark at them for having a slightly different view of work-life balance than I do.
And I am also grateful to Slaughter for moving the discussion back to include the adults' needs, not just the children's. So much of what is written about women's choices tries to justify one choice or another based on what is best for the kids. That is, in my opinion, crazy. Children need love, shelter, food, water, stability, and adults who will help them learn and grow to find their place in this world. There are as many ways to meet those needs as there are families. Children can thrive in all sorts of family configurations. This debate is not about what is good for children, as much as some people want it to be. It is about whether or not society should support families in finding the arrangements that work best for all of their members. There is no universal right answer, only the right answer for each individual family.
I do not want to convince everyone to choose the arrangement my husband and I have chosen, only to convince them that it is a valid option. I also see many other valid options- from cutting work hours back, to finding more flexible jobs, to deciding to leave the workforce altogether for awhile. None of these choices should automatically derail a career. I hope that one day my daughters will be as puzzled by my strident assertion that I can have both a career and a family as I am by Slaughter's apparent belief that leaving one great job after two years to return to another great job is scaling back her career. I take as a given Slaughter's argument about the need to view careers over the long term, and expect them to accommodate some ebb and flow as family needs change- and I can do that because Slaughter and her generation have shown that to be true. I want to build on that for my daughter's generation, so that they can take as a given the idea that every woman has a choice about how to arrange her life.
I do not need to belittle anyone else's choice to do that. In fact I want to celebrate the many different paths women take to find fulfillment in their lives. So I am officially declaring my neutrality in the mommy wars, and heading off to find some chocolate. Who wants to join me?