'Having It All'? How About: 'Doing The Best I Can'?

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I am a single father and a work-at-home dad. The duality of my life is always with me. It's my anchor -- in many senses of the word.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter's remarkable article Why Women Still Can't Have It All clearly has meant different things to different people since it was published and posted. To me, first, it is further evidence of what I have come to believe after 46 years on this planet: most women are not just smarter than most men but braver and more aspirational, too. There is the noble, ancient striving to "have it all." And then there is the earnest and thought-provoking debate, largely between and among women if I am not mistaken, over exactly what that phrase means and whether the quest to achieve it is even worth it.

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Men? Please. Such an earnest public conversation on this topic between and among men is impossible to imagine (no matter how hard The Atlantic tries). That's why so many of us diplomatically stayed on the sideline last week. And haven't men as a group largely given up hope of "having it all" anyway? Did we ever have such hope to begin with? I don't remember ever getting a memo on that. Without any statistics to back me up -- how typical of a man, right? -- I humbly suggest that a great many of us long ago decided in any event to focus upon lesser, more obtainable mottoes, like "doing the best I can" or "hanging in there," as we try to juggle work, family, and a life.

The genius of Slaughter's piece wasn't necessarily her analysis, her conclusions, or her suggestions for societal change. It was also that she was bold enough to aspire to publicly ponder the question again in the first place. The conversation she started last week -- the one that is still taking place today -- is welcome for many reasons. For example, it reminds cynics and pessimists like me that there are still millions of bright people out there who have the time, energy and eloquence to appreciate and explain their pursuit of a lifestyle that is rich, rewarding and successful in all of its many facets.

I have little standing to assess Slaughter's article on its merits -- few men do -- except to say it's my general belief that no one should be so quick to judge the way anyone else balances the priorities in their life. That said, I don't know any men who "have it all," or who say that they do, or who complain that they don't. I know men who are happy in their marriage and unhappy in their work. I know men who are happy in their work but unhappy in their marriage. I know men who are happy but stressed. I know men who work too hard and those who don't work hard enough. And I know many men who don't give a shit about any of this.

When I go out with the boys, and we rarely go out anymore anyway, we talk about the specific work problems we are facing at that moment. We talk about how we can better parent our kids. We talk about women. We talk about sports. We talk about everything, really, except about whether we've "have it all" or want to have it all or think anyone else can have it all. That's not surprising, is it? My dad never talked about "having it all." Having enough was his goal. He had neither the eloquence nor the self-awareness to spend time on anything other than trying to provide for his loved ones. 

I am a single father and a work-at-home dad. Like many other single parents, like many parents, I struggle daily, hourly, to successfully mesh whatever career I can muster with my obligations as a dad (and, still, as a son). I've sacrificed professionally to be a better dad. And I've sacrificed personally to try to be a better professional. Sometimes I am conscious of these choices in the moment. And sometimes I am not. Work and parenting. Parenting and work. The duality of my life is always with me. It is my anchor in many senses of the word; an anchor, I suppose, or on some days a pendulum.

There are moments -- like when the day's work has been posted, the boy is doing homework at the counter, and I know what to make for dinner -- when I feel both pride and peace. Is that what people mean by "having it all?" If so, maybe we should spend more time thinking of the concept in temporal terms. In this sense, many people I know do, indeed, "have it all" -- but only briefly, episodically -- between periods of chaos and conflict as we try to raise our savvy teenagers in the Age of the I-Phone. (Hey, don't knock fleeting glory. It's better than no glory at all.)

What I found most fascinating in Slaughter's piece was a counterpoint; the wisdom her young muses brought to bear on the topic. I mean, here are all these bright people not yet beaten down by life's disasters and disappointments, not yet laid low by bad luck or connivance, who have every reason in the world to think they are going to kick ass one day, and even they realize before it all really starts that "having it all" may be an illusion -- an old exhortation rather than a future promise. Good for them for speaking out. And good for Slaughter for listening. Here, as in many other things about life, the process is perhaps as important as the result.

I also give Slaughter credit for acknowledging in her piece that she was focusing only upon a tiny minority, an "elite" sliver The New York Times would say, of the diverse American scene. The vast majority of the rest of us, she well knows, whether we are men or women, live nanny-less lives of quiet desperation, just hoping that the choices we make, for ourselves and our families, end up being sound ones. I can understand why many people -- men and women alike -- think that Slaughter's piece is a form of extravagance. But I bet that many more people learned something significant from it. I know I did.

I don't think women should want to be like men in any way except for salary, income and job opportunity. I think women should strive instead for much higher. And to reach high you've got to aim high. You want to try to "have it all"? Go for it. Be my guest. Good luck and keep us posted. And if you find the magic formula, make sure you share the calculus with the rest of the class. In the meantime, now that this piece is done, it's time for me to get back to work. The boy's laundry is on the basement table and I forget to defrost the chicken for dinner.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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