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.

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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."

Indeed there are. There are jobs at the highest level of government and industry that come with an obligation to society or fiduciary duty to shareholders that trump the day-to-day demands of one's own children. There are also many less glamorous jobs, including those in the armed forces, which call for very steep sacrifices. As McKenna suggests, it's unreasonable for people who hold those jobs -- and director of policy planning at the State Department is among them- - to expect to be able to be truly active parents during their tenure.

So, it probably means those jobs should be held by people who have a spouse who can take care of the kids mostly on their own. Or by people without kids. Or by people whose kids are grown.

Not everyone has control of their hours. Many are paid very little on an hourly basis and have to work far more than 40 hours a week just to make ends meet. Still others have very few job options and feel trapped into working very long hours because they receive the message, overtly or covertly, that if they don't someone else will.

Many others, though, especially those of us in the so-called creative class, work long hours out of choice. We're passionate about what we do and derive pleasure from doing it; we have careers, not jobs. Some of us nonetheless manage to work something resembling a "normal" schedule--at least, one that seems that way in comparison to others that we know who seldom seem to not be working. The workaholics, at least those who somehow maintain productive energy during those long nights and weekends, are simply going to get ahead of those who seek this "work-life balance" we're debating.

For some, probably especially the women, they'll feel guilty about time not spent with their children. Some won't regret it until after it's too late. And some will be perfectly satisfied with their choice. But there's simply no getting around the fact that they're more valuable to their employers than the ones deciding to fill hours they could be working raising kids, enjoying friends, and otherwise having a life. Frankly, they ought to get ahead at work.

The rest of us -- male or female, parents or childless, married or single -- simply need to accept that reality. Those of us with the luxury of setting our own priorities shouldn't complain too much when our choices come with inevitable consequences.