Lori Gottlieb and Anne-Marie Slaughter

A vote of thanks to Lori Gottlieb for her response to Anne-Marie Slaughter's infuriating record-breaking piece for The Atlantic on having it all. The first few thousand words or so of Slaughter's article--about as much as I could manage--left me in a state of spluttering exasperation. To critique the article myself, I'd be honor bound to read it all the way through. With my other commitments to family, friends and paid employment, that was a sacrifice I was unwilling to make. But somebody sure needed to take on the job, and Gottlieb has done it with commendable thoroughness and ill-will.

Can we agree on one thing? Nobody can have it all. No man, no woman. Life is about choices and trade-offs. The very desire to have it all is infantile. I think of Slaughter as a brilliant foreign-policy analyst. So when I read that she found it "unexpectedly hard" to meet both the demands of an extremely senior government job in Washington and the demands of her children at home in Princeton, I was stunned. How could somebody so smart be so dumb?

My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began--a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people's drafts. For two years, I never left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done on weekends, amid children's sporting events, music lessons, family meals, and conference calls. I was entitled to four hours of vacation per pay period, which came to one day of vacation a month...

In short... I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be--at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office--at least not for very long.

You don't say. Perhaps it should have been obvious.

Gottlieb:

How does a smart woman like Slaughter still believe in the childlike notion that people (of either gender) can have whatever they want whenever they want it, regardless of life's intrinsic constraints? Imagine if this article had been written by a kindergartner:

"But I want to go to my gymnastics class and I want to go Rosie's birthday party and they're both on Saturday morning!" rails the 5-year-old journalist. "Why can't girls have it all? This is so unfair! Somebody has to make it possible for socially ambitious girls like me to be at gymnastics and Rosie's party! The solution is to accommodate me by moving Rosie's party or the time of my gymnastics class. I want justice, because no girl should ever have to feel trapped like this!"

Well, any reasonable adult would explain that the world does not revolve around one particular person; that the child can't be two places at the same time; that she must choose one activity or the other; and that, in so choosing, she gains one opportunity but forfeits another.

This isn't because the child is a girl. This isn't a feminist issue. This is Life 101, something all people learn as kids -- until they grow up to be a high-level government official who has to choose between one six-figure job near her kids and one far away, and can't accept life's inherent limitations.

Just so. Certainly, women should be free to choose career over family. Just as a man should be free to take the Washington job, commute home at weekends, see very little of his children, and ask his partner to shoulder those responsibilities, so should a woman. Undeniably, society still makes that choice much harder for most women, in some respects needlessly so, and I agree that's unjust. The division of labor within the household should be arrived at more equitably. But here's the simply amazing thing about Slaughter's article. Her marriage is a model of that very gender equality. She and her husband had the choice and exercised it. But that's not good enough, because she wants it all.

Granted, if people criticized Slaughter for the choice she made, they were wrong to: It was her and her husband's business, and none of theirs. What she shouldn't do, though, is object to the patently unavoidable terms of their decision. If only things were arranged a bit differently--a bit less face-time in the office, a bit more time locked in the study at home--mothers (and fathers) could finally give their all both to running the country and being there at all times for their children? I don't think so.

Here at the Aspen Ideas Festival I see that Gottlieb and Slaughter are both in attendance. On Sunday morning Slaughter is scheduled to be interviewed by Katie Couric on the subject, "Can Women Have It All?" I defer to nobody in my esteem for Katie Couric, but could this programming please be changed? Gottlieb is the right interviewer for this job.

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