Women Can't Have It All Because Nobody Can Have It All

A controversial new article argues that elite women still can't be happy as working Moms.

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A girl came up to the crossroad at some rural hilly road and is deciding which is the right way to go. Can be used at any decision making situation.

Working Moms can face intense pressure to perform at the office, fulfill every demand as a parent, and still keep up with the nice-to-do stuff like working out and making time for date night.

But a lot of that pressure comes from an unlikely source: themselves.

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The latest lament on work-family balance comes from former State Dept. official Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose 13,000-word Atlantic cover story details her own frustrated attempts to blend an ambitious career with the parental fulfillment of raising two sons. "I still strongly believe that women can 'have it all,'" she writes. "But not today, not with the way America's economy and society are currently structured."

Slaughter's essay may provoke a few sneers from less-privileged folks who can only dream of an exalted career as a Princeton academic supported by a stable husband and offered a plum job one notch below Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Slaughter, however, acknowledges that she's not speaking for all women, and she makes a few insightful points about the nature of work in America.

Many employers, for instance, have rigid rules about working fixed hours at an office, which seem unnecessary in an era of 24/7 connectivity. And many men, she notes, stand to benefit just as much as women from more family-friendly policies.

But Slaughter also seems unaware of her own biases when she writes of the strain she faced while trying to hold down a "foreign-policy dream job," as she describes it, while commuting from Washington, D.C. to her home in Princeton on weekends to help raise her 12- and 14-year-old sons. As I read about the stress and fatigue she felt while trying to manage this highly demanding arrangement, I kept wondering: What did she expect?

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Unrealistic expectations, in fact, are often the core problem that working Moms face when trying to juggle the demands of office and home. Some working Moms have no choice but to try to do everything, because there's no husband or not enough money. But others do it because they choose to. You could argue that "society" puts pressure on Moms to work, because many now have the same educational attainment as men, plus, many husbands expect their wives to contribute to the family income.

If anybody is qualified to push back on such societal demands, it's Slaughter, who has a doctorate from Oxford, a law degree from Harvard, a tenured job that provides enviable flexibility and a Rolodex full of powerful friends. Yet she buys into a few hoary myths. Such as:

The superwoman myth. Slaughter seems to believe that she should be able to fit about 30 hours of work into a 24-hour day. For starters, running a division of the State Dept., which she did from 2009 to 2011, is more like an all-the-time job than a full-time job. Parenting two adolescents is demanding in different ways, since their needs can be constant yet unpredictable, requiring a high degree of attentiveness.

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Slaughter may be accustomed to accomplishing extraordinary feats, yet everybody has a point at which they reach 100 percent of their physical, emotional and intellectual capacity. For all her intelligence, Slaughter seems to hold the unrealistic expectation that she can operate beyond full capacity for an extended period of time, and still be happy. As many other parents have learned, that's not possible.

The appreciated-parent myth. Slaughter rightly observes that we tend to value hard work at the office more than hard work at home. "Workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism," she writes.

That's probably true, but the last time I checked, parenting was still one of those thankless jobs you're supposed to do because you love your kids and you're committed to them, not because others will notice and reward your efforts. Good parenting often requires a ton of sacrifice, which by its nature is something you don't tend to get credit for.

The men-have-it-easier myth. An unstated premise behind Slaughter's thesis (and the "gender wars" in general) is that men have an easier time balancing the demands of work and family. It's almost impossible to generalize on this, because so much depends not on measurable things like pay levels or professional attainment, but on mushier things like attitudes and expectations. My own contention is that this has become a bogus assumption, in part because of the wrenching changes working through the economy.

Women's economic power is rising, while men's is declining. Women enjoy a lower unemployment rate than men and earn a higher proportion of bachelor's and advanced degrees. They tend to be concentrated in the growing fields of the future instead of stagnant fields like manufacturing or construction. Women still earn lower pay for comparable work. But that's not just women's problem, that's everybody's problem, since many of those underpaid women are married to men who would also benefit if their wives earned more.

Meanwhile, we're in a difficult economy in which median incomes are falling and middle-class living standards are declining. Millions of American workers feel inadequate, especially displaced men accustomed to breadwinner status. Some of them feel downright despondent. To a lot of them, the idea of "having it all" seems absurd. They'd be grateful to have a little bit more than they have now.

Slaughter clearly believes in her own exceptionalism, acknowledging that she belongs to a class of "highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place." It's appropriate for Slaughter to air out the issues she has raised, since empowered women like her have the kind of visibility and leadership roles that allow them to make a lasting difference.

But "having it all" is an unrealistic standard out of sync with the times, at every socioeconomic level. Having enough might be a better standard. If that's what Slaughter aspired to, she might feel a lot more satisfied.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.