No. Women cannot have it all. No one can or should expect to, particularly in a society based on any sort of equality. Wanting it all is an entitled fantasy born of privilege and naivety.
Having a successful career and building a family today requires a plan coupled with healthy doses of compromise and sacrifice. Ideally, for heterosexual committed couples, both parties are willing to give so that families thrive and both partners find some sort of personal fulfillment. That is what gender equality is about, not “having it all.”
As I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-talked-about article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic, it struck me that the “women” in question did not include women like me — middle class, African-American women. Perhaps, given our history and present reality, we are keenly aware that for one person to have everything she wants, several other people have to get less than they need. When have we not known that everything in life comes with tradeoffs? That black women’s gains in education and employment, for instance, would leave people speculating that we are unmarriageable? “Women” certainly could not include poor women or brown, immigrant women, who very often make “it all” possible for men and women who are whiter and wealthier.
But Slaughter writes about leaving her post as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department:
A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).
I wonder — if Slaughter’s friend was not making compromises to balance family and career, who in her life was sacrificing, because I guarantee someone was. Slaughter adds:
All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession.
Feminism that looks to patriarchy for the blueprint to success is some useless feminism. That generations of men were able to have high-flying careers and what appeared to be stable home lives is all down to the very inequalities that civil rights activists and Slaughter’s generation of second-wave feminists fought against. It’s easy to climb the ladder when you have a spouse with no choice but to be solely responsible for home and hearth, or people with fewer opportunities to scrub the floors, shine the shoes, raise the children, and pave the way for your success. But did even those patriarchs have it all? If you’re balling and shot-calling, but your partner is unfulfilled and your children troubled and estranged, and a bunch of folks oppressed, do you really have it all or just what looks like all in a consumerist society?
It is no surprise that Slaughter eventually concluded:
In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be — at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: Having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: Having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office — at least not for very long.
Slaughter goes on to write about how our current careerist society makes work-life balance difficult. That’s true. Employees, especially high-ranking ones, are asked to take on more and often be willing to sacrifice personal concerns. Commutes are longer. We pay lip service to the idea that child-rearing is important, but our society doesn’t think so really. Childcare is expensive and varying in quality and accessibility. American family leave pales next to that of many other countries. And we have still not reached a point in gender equality where we respect women and men who make the decision to be homemakers and primary caregivers. And even if we respected male primary caregivers, men are not socialized to want that job. (Slaughter points out that all of our male Supreme Court justices have families, but two of the three female justices are single with no children.)
The reality of a family with two adults working outside of the home means deciding if and when to have children; where to live; how to handle education; how much time together the family needs; who cleans the toilets; and who gives up what when. I remember my dad giving me wonky pigtails on Saturdays while my mother pursued her masters degree. It never occurred to me that any sort of success occurs without sacrifice.
With my husband, I navigate every day how we can be successful at our jobs; endure lengthy commutes; deal with occasional odd hours; maintain the house (we’re going into week three with the dryer on the fritz); keep everyone fed; be there for my step-children and our families; make sure the dog gets his shots and the cats don’t kill each other; stay healthy; make sure the lawn is mowed and the garden weeded; and find some alone time — and neither of us has fancy State Department jobs. We’re just an average suburban couple living life. And here’s another thing I know: There are women and men who make a lot more sacrifices and compromises than either of us do from our precarious position of some class privilege. And as more and more men and women make the decision to have children outside of marriage, and have to navigate all this stuff without two adults in the home, balancing it all is likely to get much harder.
We need more talk about how to build a successful modern family — the real nitty-gritty, not platitudes about having it all. One failing of the endless discussion about black women and marriage is that it focuses, reductively, one how women should behave to attract a man. Fat lot of good dumb advice about keeping your legs closed and not being “too independent” is when you’re trying to negotiate who will get little Malik to soccer practice while you take night classes. We learn from Tyler Perry’s oeuvre that black career women ain’t no good, but little about building the sort of partnerships that allow ambitious black women to strike balance in their lives.
But even the right partner doesn’t guarantee “it all.” That we don’t get everything we want is simply how life works for all but a lucky few. Biological clocks are real. Some job opportunities come once and never again. Fortunes change. Children and partners get sick. And then, there is this reality: Healthy families take time and energy. Successful careers take time and energy. Human beings only have finite reserves of time and energy to give. Everyone has to choose, to juggle. Assuming you can have it all with no sacrifice is to assume that someone else is going to pick up your slack — a rather selfish assumption.
Rather than lament reality, I’d rather we talk about how women can identify and work toward the things that are most important to us: how we make choices; how we find partners that will support our choices; how we support our partners; and how we cope when we are the one making the bigger sacrifice and when we are not. And how we collectively nudge our culture toward one where more of us can assuredly get what we need, as well as at least a little of “it all”
But no one gets to have everything. No one at all.