Is the Work-Home Balance a Myth, or Is It Really Possible for People to Have It All?
Perhaps you’ve heard that Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former US State Department official, wrote an article recently for The Atlantic (the magazine I also happen to write for) about women who thought they could “have it all” learning the hard way that they cannot.
The reason I know Slaughter wrote this article is that it’s the only thing anyone in that small slice of America who is in a position to have it all — that is, a financially rewarding and non-agita-inducing balance between career and family — has been talking about this past week, at least until the Supreme Court did a favor for the other 99 percent.
Slaughter’s article is smartly written, and the plight she identifies is real: she raises a whole cluster of issues about how the American workplace is structured to thwart women who seek successful careers and also want to have a meaningful relationship with their children.
But Slaughter only nods in the direction of a few points I think she could address more deeply. The first is that professional women aren’t the only group having difficulty keeping work and family in balance. Men, particularly those who value an active role in their family life, now face a set of choices their fathers and grandfathers didn’t. This isn’t to say the problems are equivalent; women are most often the parent of last resort. But men, too, are tortured by the lack of time at home.
The most chilling image in her article — at least from the perspective of a father who never feels he is spending enough time with his children — is this: “At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service,” Slaughter writes, “one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke’s absence was the price of saving people around the world — a price worth paying.”
She continues: “It is not clear to me that this ethical framework makes sense for society. Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities?”
This anecdote stands out as a cautionary tale about the sacrifices men make for their careers. But it also suggests a certain level of naivete on Slaughter’s part. Is it really possible to imagine Holbrooke, in the midst of negotiating an end to war in the Balkans, informing Slobodan Milosevic that he would like to postpone negotiations on account of a Little League game?
There are some jobs that demand a level of commitment that leads to subsidiary misery. Slaughter herself seemed unaware that it might have been difficult for her to run a division of the State Department while keeping her family in Princeton, New Jersey. I’m sympathetic to her ambition — as I am to men like Holbrooke — but some work-family balance issues simply cannot be fixed.
The other issue Slaughter mentions too fleetingly is that the problems of most professional-class women are ultimately caviar problems. The vast majority of American women must work in order to feed themselves and their children; they have little time to consider their own fulfillment. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of women around the world who spend their days trying to keep their families alive by gathering firewood and water, and by scraping together a dollar a day.
Of course, Slaughter — formerly of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which is trying to make the advancement of women’s rights an integral part of American foreign policy — knows this better than anyone. I asked her by e-mail if she felt any frustration about the response to her article. After all, she’s a staunch advocate of human rights and humanitarian intervention, and this article has gotten her more attention than anything she has said about the US responsibility to the women of Afghanistan.
“To say I am ‘frustrated’ about anything given the unbelievable response to my piece would be churlish indeed,” she wrote me. But she added: “I wish I could get people so passionate about foreign policy. I think it’s human nature, however, to respond much more intensely to something that touches your daily life.
“I do not think it is accidental that as more women rise in foreign policy, they feel much more strongly, not only about the abstract advancement of ‘national interest’ but about the lived reality of people’s lives around the world, particularly women and children and communities. Indeed, I say something about that in the piece in terms of how our leaders will think about the impact of their decisions if they are fully engaged with family life at home.”
If men are indeed scared to make foreign-policy decisions informed by humane instincts, then this is all the more reason to encourage Slaughter’s campaign to get us to rethink the way we organize our professional lives.
The small tragedy is that, in real life, there may be no way for many of us to get home each night for dinner.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.