Atlantic Readers Can’t Have It All, But Can We?

Atlantic Readers Can’t Have It All, But Can We?

When I pulled the latest Atlantic out of my mailbox and saw the words “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” glaring at me from the cover, I groaned–and thought about putting it straight into the recycling bin.

I’m 33, and I’m weary of the whole “having it all” discussion. That term is so loaded for me, so cliché and really, almost antique by this point. I can’t even use the phrase without a wry tone and a giant eye roll.

Nevertheless, later that evening I picked up the Atlantic and started reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover piece. I was surprised to find that–despite the sensationalist headline—I generally liked the article, in which Slaughter frankly described her inability to simultaneously do two important jobs to her satisfaction: that of top-tier State Department employee, and mom to two teenage boys.

Slaughter’s article is thoughtful; the content is meaty and worth discussing. She summarizes her personal struggle well, and the struggles of all professional women. She hints at meaningful solutions, suggesting possibilities like flexible schedules, off site work, and realistic work hours for both genders. And her voice rings with authority: Slaughter was born in 1958. She has enough experience to know what she’s talking about.

But her piece isn’t for everyone, as she acknowledges: “I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.”

And now I’m writing for my demographic

I was born in 1978. To my peers, Slaughter may raise some interesting philosophical points, but her arguments don’t directly affect our lives. We don’t want what she wants. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to say that our version of “having it all” is vastly different—and vastly more attainable—than hers.  

Maybe it’s because the women I went to school with had their sights set not on big business, but on professional ministry, education, or the nonprofit world, but my female peers don’t list “run a Fortune 500 company” as one of their life goals. They don’t want to serve as senator, or senior financial analyst.

No, most of my female peers just want to enjoy meaningful work, a strong marriage, and solid family relationships. Oh, and a balanced family budget. And health insurance. But we’re still struggling to figure out exactly how to do it.

While Slaughter waxes eloquent in the Atlantic about the impossibility of “having it all,” we’re busy on the ground trying to figure out how to do just that. We’re experimenting with new and creative ways to combine work and family. And many of us—by our own definition, not Slaughter’s—are succeeding.

It’s time for a new paradigm.

My peers—women in their early 30s and younger–aren’t striving to fulfill some impossible dream of “having it all.” That paradigm is dying, and a new one is gaining ground.

I’m going to call it the Share Care model, because I don’t have a better term yet. (Got one? Share it in comments, please!) Our family lives reflect a new home economics: one in which both parents are working—to varying degrees—and both parents are taking turns as caregiver while the other spouse works. The strict lines of demarcation between our work and personal lives are gone; now we’re seeking a more organic blending of the two.

To do this, we’re relying on the very solutions Slaughter proposes in the Atlantic: flexible schedules, off site work, and realistic work hours–for both genders. We are cobbling together solutions that change through the seasons in response to the family’s evolving needs. Some of us have full-time gigs, but many of us are going self-employed and part-time. We’re deliberately entering professions that have flexible hours or summers off. Slaughter might laugh at the idea of us “having it all”—but we’re happy with what we’ve got. And crucially, we’re getting it on our own terms.

And yet, even as we experiment with–and enjoy success in–new and creative ways to combine work and family, we’re still struggling to find ways to combine them elegantly. Effectively. Productively.

My inbox is full of emails from twenty- and thirty-something bloggers seeking my advice about their personal work/life negotiation. I’m not surprised. When I get together with friends, this is what we talk about. And we’re not just talking about making our lives work as women; we’re talking about making our families work, because most of our husbands are on board, too. (Or, we single ladies know that when we find that right guy, he’ll be somebody who believes in this new work-life blend.)

Desperate for New Models

This holistic viewpoint is not something I got in school, and it’s not something I was raised with. I had next-to-no role models for this new work/life paradigm. My husband and I have had to figure things out on our own. But women my age are desperate–desperate–to dialogue about navigating their work/life negotiation. They want to find solutions. They want to figure out how to make it work in their own unique family setting.

I’ve been watching–and participating in–these developments with interest. I’m fascinated by this emerging paradigm. That’s why for the past month I’ve been working on an ebook about this topic.  In it, I share the story of my family’s own journey, and stories from many of you who have been exploring this new paradigm in your own families.

I just finished my first draft and I’m eyeing September 13 as a release date. If you have a story to share, I’d love to hear it. (UPDATE: read more about How She Does It here.)

I would also love to hear your thoughts on “having it all.” Is this possible? Do you think the terminology is outdated? Are you trying to combine meaningful work with meaningful family life? Are you succeeding? What are your biggest challenges?

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  1. kalynbrooke says:

    Well, now I am just tickled pink you are writing an ebook about it. I have this conversation with myself just about everyday, and you’re right, it’s really hard to find a role model to ask advice.

    I find most working woman outside the home do only that. They work 40 hours a week at an office job, etc, and barely have time to make dinner or do something fun with the kids that evening.

    I think there can be a balance between working women and being productive at home, without feeling the need to be solely a stay-at-home-mom.

    We shouldn’t have to choose between one or the other, but we sure need help when it comes to time and energy management if we decide to do both!

  2. Ana says:

    I completely agree that “it all” means vastly different things for different women, but in the end, doesn’t “it all” really mean “a meaningful rich life”? You can be a full-time homemaker/mom, working in a low-profile job, or striving to be the CEO or Senator—as long as you are able to pursue YOUR dreams, then I think you “have it all”. You may be tired, and it may not be “easy”, but most mothers will likely agree that exhausting and happy can go hand-in-hand!

    My husband and I both work full-time outside the home but we still have time EVERY NIGHT for home-made dinners, weekends full of playing at the pool or park, and evenings to unwind. The things that make it work for us are 1) equally sharing the parenting & household duties 2) ruthless planning & efficiency at work & for chores (so that we have time for spontaneity & free play the rest of the time) and 3) outsourcing what we can.

    I don’t think we should be down on women trying to strive for high power jobs—unfortunately I see a lot of this in these conversations–its subtle, but I feel it. If we agree that women (and mothers) in government & leadership are beneficial in exerting the right kinds of family-friendly social change, then SOMEONE needs to step up to the task. Maybe you or I don’t want to do it, but we need to support women in our generation that do have that ambition, or not only will we not advance, but the strides made by women before us will recede. Its absolutely great that many women are striving for balance & family time over money & “success”, but there are also women yearning to be the leaders, to make changes they feel passionately about, to cure cancer & do brain surgery & negotiate peace throughout the world–“high power” jobs are not always about money or power. I do think there can be a push to shift our work culture such that women can do these things without having to give up what is often an equally strong desire for a family—but societal change requires our support. I think part of it is realizing that someone else’s ambitions for “more” don’t make our accomplishments “not enough”, and thus no need to get on the defensive (again, something I’ve noticed subtly occurring in a lot of comment threads to posts on this topic, not here).

    I hope I didn’t come across the wrong way, I think you’ve done a wonderful job with this post & facilitating this discussion Anne. I’m really looking forward to more on the topic!

    • Erin says:

      “I completely agree that “it all” means vastly different things for different women, but in the end, doesn’t “it all” really mean “a meaningful rich life”? You can be a full-time homemaker/mom, working in a low-profile job, or striving to be the CEO or Senator—as long as you are able to pursue YOUR dreams, then I think you “have it all”. You may be tired, and it may not be “easy”, but most mothers will likely agree that exhausting and happy can go hand-in-hand!”

      Ana, so well said!!!

  3. Katie says:

    Ugh. This is cutting too close to some things I’m unhappy about with my own life to give my perspective, but I love this post and the discussion.

    You touched on it briefly, Anne, but just to drive home the point: It really is as much a generational gap as a gender one. That is, yes, maybe this is more in focus for women because they feel that extra pressure (or desire) to be the primary child-rearer, but it’s become a problem for men, too.

    Our generation of husbands don’t want to be like their dads, too busy working to come to their sons’ soccer games or band concerts. Even if the majority still see themselves as the primary breadwinners and expect to have full-time, away-from-home careers (most men, I think, are still not looking for part-time/work-at-home options as much as women are), they still want to have a lot more flexibility and involvement in their children’s lives.

    When the DDH was applying for jobs, he ran into an older lawyer (probably a bit older even than Slaughter, but roughly that generation) who went off on a long rant about how new law school graduates were lazy and had no work ethic. And what he apparently meant is that new lawyers weren’t always super thrilled about putting in eighty-hour work weeks, staying late and coming in on weekends, to “pay their dues” at a law firm. People like my husband want to be able to be home in the evenings, have weekends free, take family vacations, be able to call in when their kids are sick, and shift their schedules around in ways that make sense for their lives rather than stick to one set by the boss.

    Part of it is because a lot of the young wives work, too, so both parents’ jobs need to be more flexible because there’s not one designated at-home caretaker who can cover doctor’s appointments and sick days and school trips–you share that responsibility. But part of it is that the male half of our generation has retooled its priorities just as the female half has (I speak in sweeping generalizations, obviously, and it is still more culturally acceptable for fathers to take those harsh career paths than mothers–as you say, we need better working hours for *both* genders, which is part of why there are still more male CEOs and Senators).

    Anyway. So right now, there’s this tension between what an older workplace expects and what its younger workers want, and that can spell trouble for men looking to advance their careers but not at the expense of their family time. But on the other hand, as more and more workers of both genders want to have that more balanced life (however they choose to define balance) hopefully workplaces–even law firms–will adapt to reflect that for *both* genders.

    • Anne says:

      Katie, I think you’re so right about the generational shift for bothgenders. Stodgy professions like law (the field I work in, too) are notorious holdouts for new (meaning: sane) work structures. Some firms even want to see the GPAs of attorneys that have practicing less than a decade. I’m all for good grades, but once you’re 30, who cares?

      But if corporate America is changing (and it is) maybe there’s hope for the legal profession, too.

      Also, Laura Vanderkam profiled a female attorney–I think in 168 Hours–who wanted to spend more time with her young daughter. As I recall, the key to dilemma ended up being figuring out that her firm valued face time at night, not early in the mornings. So she started hitting the office pretty late in the morning after putting in quality hours with her daughter and husband. Check out Laura’s site or the book if you’re interested in reading more 🙂

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