“It’s time to stop fooling ourselves”, says Anne-Marie Slaughter in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” Anne-Marie held top positions of power, and chose to leave the State Department to go home to be with her teen-aged sons when they needed her. She got a lot of grief for her choice.
My heart breaks that we still struggle with this basic disagreement! What really matters to the future of our world – the number of hours worked or the health of our children and families?
At first I also did the supermom routine. When my beautiful daughter was born my days were like this – nurse, work, nurse, work, sleep, nurse. Take the sitter with me to consulting contracts so I could see and hold my baby during the breaks. Soon I was exhausted, but determined to not let it show. In one meeting, I startled myself, realizing that for a nano second I’d fallen asleep. Luckily no one else saw me. Once I was joyfully pregnant with my son and I knew things had to change.
The choice to stay home for three years was super hard for me – it meant a loss of identity, confusion about my priorities – and I couldn’t figure out how to slow down! What was I going to do with all my energy? While I was competent as a professional – it took me many months to learn how to really show up as a parent.
Anne-Marie tried for years to do it all – to have it all. Eventually, her heart chose – her sons needed her at home, now. Even though she was the first woman to hold these positions, her sons couldn’t wait until the next big policy was in place or until after the election. After completing top positions at Princeton and Harvard, she left a senior position as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State to spend her time as a mom.
Subtle gestures, unspoken assumptions, and direct comments place a low value on child care in comparison with other activities. They make it a lot harder for a primary caregiver to get ahead.
What is your experience? Do people in positions of power place more value on parenting activities or on other activities like training for a marathon more outside of work? My experience matches Anne Marie’s, that the marathon runner is considered dedicated while the mom is sidelined.
This story from Anne-Marie goes to the heart of the matter: “An employer has two equally talented and productive employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he is not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself to get out there even after a long day. That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance. That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in.
Be honest: Do you think the employer makes those same assumptions about the parent? Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children’s day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have a housekeeper—and does much the same work at the end of the day. Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s indefatigable chief of staff, has twins in elementary school; even with a fully engaged husband, she famously gets up at four every morning to check and send e-mails before her kids wake up.
The discipline, organization, and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20 to 40 miles a week. But that’s rarely how employers see things, not only when making allowances, but when making promotions. Perhaps because people choose to have children? People also choose to run marathons.”
There are real barriers and flaws in the system young women today have inherited – systems that make it tough to parent and succeed at work. Women are still underrepresented at the decision making tables – and so are their values and priorities. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, some fundamentals need to change.
Women are over 50% of the college graduates and wield over 50% of the financial resources in the US and Europe. While Linda Tarr-Whelan, Ambassador, Senior Policy Advisor to the UN and author of Women Lead the Way, asserts we need a 30% solution. Anne Marie proposes that we will see changes in what is expected only when we elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. We are a long ways from those numbers.
The system needs to change – and women need to change. As women, only when we value our feminine wisdom will we insist that society value parenting – whether it is a man or a woman as primary caregiver.
Anne-Marie took a risk in publishing this article – and a quick google search shows lots of hostile responses. I’ve lived this story as well – stayed awake worrying about my kids when I traveled and wished I was home when the disasters struck – and I have to say I agree. We can’t have it all, not in the existing system.
Only when the subtle and overt system barriers change and women wield positional power in sufficient numbers will we create a workplace and a society that genuinely works for women and families.
The good news? This will be a world that works for everyone.