The Secret Shame of the Working Mother

A woman who wants to make it home for dinner shouldn't have to sneak out of the office.

A woman who wants to make it home for dinner shouldn't have to sneak out of the office.


I remain, a week later, slightly baffled by the hostility to the Slaughter story. I figured the average woman writer would get to the end of it, shrug, and think, "Don't we know that already?" But instead the story -- and particularly the notion of "having it all" -- has been described as piggish, acquisitive, a misrepresentation of feminism, the equivalent in sophistication of a five-year-old's tantrum. Slaughter should have known that she was testing the goddesses when she took a job at the White House while she had difficult teenage boys. You can't really have all that.

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But it seems to me that when Slaughter moved from her professorship to the White House, all she did was put herself closer to the position of the vast majority of American women. That is, she lost the flexibility that many of us in the creative class take for granted. Now she was suddenly running on somebody else's time, beholden to the boss, constantly watched, unable to sneak out and get a haircut or go to a parent-teacher conference -- all of which would also describe the life of a nurse, a teacher, or a cashier at Walmart.

Defining "having it all" as the pursuit of organic string cheese and ultimate happiness belittles the enterprise. I think most working mothers understand it to mean being able to pursue your chosen (or obligatory) profession and also be a presence in your children's lives. But it's amazing to me how difficult this simple equation is, and I think most people writing about her don't understand that because they have jobs like Slaughter did at Princeton. They are bloggers, or write books, or work at new organizations that don't have insistent and constant deadlines, so "having it all" in the most basic sense seems like not that big of a deal.

Each of us has to invent a one-woman ecosystem of special deals and rituals, all conducted in half secret and shame.

When I had my first child, I was working at The Washington Post. That newspaper is one of the most family-friendly institutions in the United States, but still I felt guilty when I asked to work four days a week for a little while. Sneaking out at 6:15 most days was my own little walk of shame. I still recall the elaborate ritual I went through to stash my coat by the elevator so no one could watch me get ready to leave. I ultimately left the Post and went back to writing for magazines, and that worked out fine, but I thank the goddesses every day for my luck. I could have ended up like a lot of ex-newspaper reporters I know, regretting the day they left a decade-plus later.

In retrospect, my rage is not directed at the paper but at the idea that each of us has to invent a one-woman ecosystem of special deals and rituals all conducted in half-secret and shame, that it should come as a surprise every time to an employer that a woman -- or man -- who has a child should want to spend some time with that child. And maybe a little extra dose of rage that we all agree that if he or she does take that time, it should come at some cost to his or her career.

Now, with three children, my life is hard but not nearly as hard as it could be, because I can take an hour off during the day for a recorder concert and do my writing at night. Most of the mothers at my public school can't get away with that. If they are doctors or teachers or government workers they have to take a scheduled leave far in advance of events. If they are service workers, they can't get leave at all so they miss the concert -- all the concerts. They even miss the parent-teacher conferences most of the time.

To cast this as a problem limited to poor little professional Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg is just wrong. It's becoming the central problem for most American women. When I wrote that women were dominant, I did not say they were thriving or happy or even making it through the day. In many cases, "dominant" means being the only one left at the end of the day making money to take care of the children. Try talking to these women about having it all. How about a little paid maternity leave?

The average American worker gets something like 14 days of paid vacation. In my school, you'd use up ten of those taking care of your kids on teacher professional days, then tack on a couple more for kids getting sick. When you do the simple math, the American workplace seems utterly inhumane in its unwillingness to adapt to the fact that women make up half of all workers.

Economist Claudia Goldin has made a career out of studying what she calls the "career cost of family." The industries that thrive and hold onto talented women are the ones that figure out how to minimize the cost of taking time off for your family. It's not all that complicated. They take advantage of technologies to let parents work at home or be more efficient, they schedule shifts, they minimize face time, they let people do what Sheryl Sandberg says she does: go home at 5:30 and pick up again later after her kids are in bed.

Feminism was about making women's lives less constrained and giving them more choices. Right now, most women have none -- not because they are spoiled and unrealistic and want to do lunchtime yoga, but because they are working hard to support their families and everyone is colluding in the fiction that they have nothing else on their minds. I return to a modest proposal I made last week in Slate, inspired by Slaughter: Mothers, fathers, don't lie to your employers about the kid things you have to (or want to) do during the day. If you are taking a kid to the doctor, say so. Ditto for parent teacher conferences or the school play. At this point, honesty would be a radical act.