Life is full of trade-offs. It's not possible to "have it all." It never was. And it never will be. For women or for men.
When my copy of The Atlantic came in the mail this week, I was a bit bemused to see that the cover story featured Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
In her piece, Slaughter -- whom I've had the pleasure of meeting professionally and interacted with on Twitter -- explores the epiphany she had while holding her dream job as director of policy planning at the State Department. After years of building an enormously successful academic career and raising two sons, she realized in Washington that she did not, in fact, have it all. That, by holding her State Department job and doing it well, she was sacrificing time with her oldest son at a critical stage in his life.
When she left government to return to the more flexible schedule of academia, she found that her female peers viewed her with a mixture of pity and condescension. This infuriated her until she realized that she had previously reacted the same way to women who put their careers on hold in favor of work-life balance.
Now, Slaughter is part of the first generation of women for whom it was widely possible to even try to "have it all." And there's no doubt that there are unique pressures on women. Although women are approaching something like equality in the workforce, biology still puts the burden of childbirth on women and gives them a limited window in which to do it. So women are often pressured to make sacrifices at a critical point in their careers, whereas men are not. Relatedly, society holds mothers more accountable than fathers for the well-being of their children. And yet, as Slaughter's story illustrates, superstar women are judged more harshly than their male peers when they choose to put family ahead of career.
That said, men can't have it all, either. At least, not by the standard Slaughter outlines, and which I happen to think is spot on.
Once upon a time, it was the norm for a successful man to have a wife who gave up her career, if she had one to begin with, to take care of the children. Nowadays, most professional men are married to women with careers of their own. An increasing number of men are less successful than their wives, in terms of income or job title. That's true of many of my contemporaries, especially those who went into academia and public policy while their wives went on to law school or business.
Until recently, that was my situation. My wife was the chief operating officer of a major political polling firm, having worked her way up from the bottom over 15 years with the company. I'd chosen the less lucrative path of teaching college and, eventually, working in a foreign policy think tank.
She died suddenly last November, leaving me alone with two young daughters, then not quite 3 years and 5 months old.
While I married and had children relatively late, I'd long valued a flexibility schedule and work I found rewarding over long hours and big money. Now, that flexibility of schedule is a necessity rather than a preference.
Not long after my wife's passing, I was offered a promotion that would have helped bridge the loss of her income but would have required much more time at the office. Professionally, it was a good move. It also made sense financially, even though it would have meant paying for a few more hours of childcare. I nonetheless declined because my daughters needed me to spend that time with them. And, frankly, I needed to spend that time with them, too.