Don't Try to Have It All: Just Live With Your Choices

There's no getting around this fact: We're more valuable to our employers at work, and we're more valuable to our kids at home.

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The Atlantic's debate on the Myth of Work-Life Balance, spawned by Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story explaining Why Women Still Can't Have it All, has been illuminating.

Laura McKenna agrees that we can't have it all and reminds us that most of Slaughter's concerns are unique to those in the upper reaches of the creative class and that it's simply not possible for both parents to have incredibly demanding jobs and care properly for their children. Debora Spar worries that women are feeling guilty for making trade-offs while operating on the odd assumption that men don't. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon argues that we should lie to our girls, letting them think they can have it all, so as not to squash their ambitions. Andrew Cohen, the other male panelist, claims men have long since given up on trying to have it all and settled on just muddling through. Meanwhile, Kate Bolick chimes in to say that single people without children have problems, too.

A debate on career and family See full coverage

The piece that touched me most was Dana Shell Smith's "How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children." She and her fellow senior State Department colleagues were "puzzled" that Slaughter found it so hard to balance work and family demands. Then she explained how she "turned down assignments that I desperately wanted but that I knew would not be a good fit for my family;" burned vacation time getting settled in after frequent moves; spent her days, nights, and weekends tethered to her Blackberry so that she might "continue my work regardless of my physical location and late into most evenings after my kids are asleep;" hasn't seen a non-animated theater movie in more than a decade; and how she and her husband "collapse from exhaustion most evenings." Oh, and she's also "missed the chance to be as involved in my children's school, extra-curricular activities, and homework routines than I would have liked;" felt "the pain of my first grader asking me why I couldn't pick him up every day after school 'like the other mommies'"; and doesn't have time for close friends, haircuts, or exercise.

My first thought upon reading this was: What an absolutely miserable existence! Even as a single parent with two very small children, I have more control over my life and more time for my kids and myself than that. But Smith says that her kids are happy and that she and her husband are, too. And I have no reason to doubt that's the case.

In my original piece, I noted that men can't have it all, either, and that we all have to make trade-offs. What Smith's piece and several of the others make clear is that we're all wired differently and will therefore not make the same choices.

Slaughter noted that at the diplomat Richard Holbrooke's memorial service, "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." While Slaughter wonders whether "this ethical framework makes sense for society," The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg retorts, "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."

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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