Didn't We Never Have It All?

Anne Marie Slaughter’s July cover story in The Atlantic is causing quite a stir. In it she details how she left a top post in the State Department before fulfilling her three-year term because she felt she couldn’t do the job properly and care for her troubled adolescent son. She fled D.C. for her home and an academic position in Princeton and decided to write an article on what went wrong. The article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is a retelling of all the ways in which the deck is stacked against women, especially women with kids, from achieving superstar status in the world of politics. But, though she tries to extrapolate from her privileged experience to the wider public, her argument hinges on a belief — that any one person can “have it all” — that just doesn’t jive with reality. Name one person you know who “has it all” in the way Slaughter defines. It’s hard to do. Life is about tradeoffs — if you’re really committed to one thing, you have to make space and time for it by not doing something else.

If I have any qualm with Slaughter’s personal story, it’s that she seems surprised that working full-time in another city away from her family would come without cost — that not talking to her son for an entire summer (which she bravely cops to) wouldn’t engender some serious personal fallout. As any parent knows, once you have a kid, there will be moments — many thousands of moments — when you will need and want to be with your child, and when your child will need and want to be with you. It’s a little like algebra — you can compartmentalize all you want, but once the baby arrives, a new variable has entered the equation.

I remember the first time I realized the idea of “having it all” was a myth. I was feeling pretty good about myself working full time at a magazine while my husband and I had a one-year-old son. Sure, there were childcare annoyances, scheduling mishaps, and the chronic issue of the younger people in the office cheerfully telling me that I looked tired. But I was doing everything I wanted. Then one week our son came down with the stomach flu at the same time I was hard at work on a story. Home with him as he sat out daycare, I, too, came down with the stomach flu and, after a night of the two of us puking our guts out and my husband and I taking our son to the hospital for intravenous fluids, my editor called to tell me that she’d need my story that morning because they were bumping it up a month. I croaked a feeble “Will do!” (which I said often in my days of trying to have it all) and managed to drag myself out of bed and write the thing in a few hours. When the story was published, I received a flurry of angry phone calls and letters and raced home on one particularly stressful evening after work only to cry onto my baby’s feather-soft hair as he sat on my lap. It wasn’t the first time work and parenting felt like too much and it wouldn’t be the last. I knew I was in a very privileged position, and that my job was by no means back-breaking. But it was the beginning of my understanding that something would have to give.

In time I came to realize that it wasn’t possible to have it all and that what it would take for me to be perfect at work (all those “will do’s!”) and with my kids (all those library sing-alongs) would only make me miserable. So I opted out — not from work and not from my family, but from the ceaseless striving to attain some impossible vision of perfection. What I wish Anne-Marie Slaughter knew was that she didn’t have to write an article explaining her decision to leave the State Department after what sounds like a really bad year and a half. That choosing to leave an uber-high-stress, cut-throat job to return to a not-so-shabby position at Princeton and live a meaningful life with her husband and two sons — call me an underachiever, but isn’t that having it all?

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