It took me a few days to decide whether or not to weigh in on the latest “can you have it all” debate prompted by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic. First I wanted to read it, instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to it.
I take issue with this article, even though Slaughter makes strong arguments for the changes necessary to making workplaces more amenable to family life—no matter what your “family” looks like.
But as I do with most discussions of having it “all,” I found myself wondering what my grandmother would say over all this sturm und drang of having a career, raising children, dealing with a husband who may or may not help out, etc. etc. She raised six children, ran a farm, helped bring up her grandchildren, bought her own house when she was in her 60s and divorced that same decade after 40 years in a marriage that rarely, if ever, made her happy. I never once heard her say “I can’t do this all.” She worked two or three jobs after leaving the poverty of that farm in Eastern Utah to make enough money for a down payment on her own home. This I think was her proudest achievement—financial independence. She worked every day of her life and she did not distinguish between cooking meals for family or cleaning rooms in hotels for what constituted work. She did not have time to think about “work-life” balance. She did not expect to have it all. What she taught me about feminism and the women’s movement was all that it got us was the opportunity to choose our own way in the world. That was a remarkable achievement. But it comes with responsibility. What we do with those choices, well, that is up to us.
I also think about all the women, including my mother who was never married and has always worked, who do not have the money or the time to sit down and write a multi-page article (and I will assume Slaughter was paid for it) about how hard it is to be wealthy and educated in America. I think of my cousin who has raised a beautiful young woman while working full-time and then starting her own business. Never once have I heard her say “I can’t do it all.” She is my role model for motherhood and her husband is my role model for fatherhood. Are they perfect? No and they wouldn’t want to be. But they don’t wring their hands every time it’s tough to get up in the morning to go to work—for him, to building sites where he will work in all kinds of weather to make certain they can pay for her tuition and their mortgage. She will work until 1 or 2 in the morning to do the same. Maybe this is because we both grew up with mothers and a grandmother who worked hard to make ends meet and to make certain we had opportunities to grow and thrive. We learned to be happy with what we had not what we thought we should have.
I had thought I would take a less hard-line approach on this. That I’d try to be reasonable. I would try to be understanding because I don’t have children, I am not married, I must not know what it is like to “balance” my life. But I’m done being reasonable. You cannot have it all, especially if your “all” is so caught up in what society thinks your “all” should be. I am one of those women who friends worry about telling me about their decisions to stay home. I remember one conversation with a good friend on her last day of work. She professed to be afraid to tell me about her decision. I said, “You worked for 22 years, now you want to be with your child. Why would I have anything to say to that.”
What it comes down to, I think, is defining what your “all” is and stop worrying about what everybody else thinks of your decision. I do believe we all need to fight for universal inexpensive child care, I think flex time is important for everyone—including friends without children who also take care of parents, have spouses who need them, or those of us with neither who stand in as parents for nieces, nephews, godchildren whenever necessary. Or maybe just so we can live an enriching life outside the old 9 to 5.
I do think we need women who stay in the workplace to change the workplace, but not at the expense of themselves and their sanity.
So I ask you: “What is your “all?” How would you live your life if you could do anything you want? Oh wait, you are a woman living in 21st century America. You pretty much can do anything you want with your life. And don’t give me some excuse that you can’t. If my grandmother could buy a house when she was 60, and work three jobs to do it, I’ve really got no use for excuses. So stop pointing fingers at each other and go find your “all.”