Nobody Has it All – But It’s Possible to Have a Family and Rewarding Career

A recent article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled “Why we Still Can’t Have it All” has garnered considerable attention and controversy on the net.  I’ve been meaning to comment – frankly last week was too busy – now that I’m on vacation for a few days I wanted to reflect on this as it’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

The author starts with an example of a work/parenting dilemma that she faces – she is in a very high-powered position which has taken her away from her children, and she’s not living with them during the week.  One of the children is going through some normal but stressful adolescent challenges and she is feeling quite torn being far from him.  As a result she gives up the “high-power” position for what she considers to be a “non-high powered” position as a tenured professor at Princeton.

The fundamental problem is that she postulates a “have it all” fantasy which implies that life has no limits or tradeoffs.  There are no constraints of space nor of time.  Of course problems in life occur because these constraints exist. And, by the way, they exist for both men and women.

Tradeoffs exist and choices must be made in all parts of life.  We are always making these choices with regards to where we spend our money – home, education, necessities, splurge items, etc.  I can’t have it “all” and must make tradeoffs even though I am quite lucky and have all that I need and much that I want.  Similarly with food – moderation, balance and a bit of self-discipline are key.

Time is no different – it is not limitless.  For women and men who want to have high-powered careers and be an involved parent – especially during the busiest parenting years, that will probably be about it on the big time commitment front.  Those two activities are consuming.  Personally I didn’t find this a huge loss.  My career and children were so rewarding that the clubs and non-profits – while worthwhile – were skipable.  Social life also is more limited than for someone who isn’t balancing both family and career.

How high-powered is high-powered enough?  Just because being a tenured professor at Princeton is not high-powered enough for Slaughter doesn’t mean that that logic should be applied to all women – I suspect that it would be seen as a pretty awesome level of accomplishment for most.  But even if not – maybe it’s a matter of timing.  Skills and opportunity aside, I’m not so sure I could have juggled being CEO of SugarSync 15 years ago with 4 young children.  That’s ok with me – I’m enjoying doing it now.

What about business travel?  That is where the rubber meets the road (or more accurately where the s—t hits the fan) for many working parents.  I did find this very challenging – I had international responsibilities for much of my career.  In some cases I took the kids.  I couldn’t fathom living apart so moved them with me to Brazil.  When they were infants I took them with me on business trips.    Beyond this my husband and I tried as best to juggle our trips such that we weren’t both gone at the same time and when we were, we were lucky enough that my mother-in-law (expert work/family juggler herself) was able to take care of the kids for us.  I know many successful professional women who made medium-term job choices to limit travel.  Certain professions (e.g., management consulting) have so much travel baked in that perhaps bigger changes are needed, though I know of many successful management consultant moms who take short term research assignments or focus on local clients.

The point that I hope is coming through here is that much is possible.  It takes tradeoffs, some number of years of less than ideal amounts of sleep but, in my opinion, the rewards are worth it.  Some situations seem to go beyond what feels like possible.  Slaughter’s situation of living apart from a teenager feels impossible to me – I certainly couldn’t do it.  I certainly don’t know if there were other solutions she could have explored.  Could they all have moved to Washington? That might have worked on the family connection but not for the children’s school – I don’t know.

But what I do know is that for our family that situation is not a gender issue.  I cannot imagine my husband being able to live apart from our kids for more than a few months.  He did it when we were in Brazil and that was very difficult for our family.  I knew when I went there it was not long-term without him.  Both my husband and I have been contacted by recruiters about some jobs in LA that would require commuting and being home only on the weekend.  We turned them down without much remorse, confident that we could find something we enjoyed close to our children.  I do not find that the absence of some extreme choices has overshadowed the many choices and opportunities I’ve had.

None of my views on the above changes my opinion that there are still barriers that should not exist and changes that should be made.

Childcare is a huge issue – both availability and cost.  When I started my first job at Informix and Steve was in Law School >50% of our after-tax income went towards childcare.  Things were pretty tight!  I agree with Slaughter’s point about re-valuing facetime.  The work/family juggle is made more doable if you can finish up a project at home after the kids go to bed rather than in the office from 6-8.  More women in leadership? I agree with that too (no surprise).  Policy and management changes to support this juggle are important to both men and women.  I don’t see that as a women’s issue but rather a family issue.

One other place where I take strong issue with Slaughter’s recommendations is around timing.  Yes, I think we should take the long view of careers and I recognize that we will likely work longer and that there are differing stages of one’s career where one may be more “pedal to the metal” than others.  The one place were we tend to have less flexibility though, is timing of having children.  I’ve seen way too many women friends and colleagues who decided to wait, have to put their bodies through a hormonal wringer or, worse, suffer heartbreak and disappointment in not being able to have any or the number of children they want.  Partnership or tenure or VP jobs can be done later with perhaps some extra sweat equity.  Women’s bodies are simply less flexible on this.  Loss of fertility is quite dramatic in the early 30’s – see here and here. If a woman at 32 had a couple of children and was upset that she missed out on some key promotion – I would tell her to redouble her efforts, find a new company, start a company – basically the opportunity is still in front of you.  If that same woman at 42 had the plum job but wanted and was unable to have children, the only response would be one of consolation.

I do not believe early motherhood needs to be the death knell of one’s career.  At 30 a woman can easily have 40 more years of  her career in front of her – lots of opportunity to make up for any lost time.   I do object to the focus on youth accomplishments – in part because it puts women in a poor choice situation.

It’s not easy nor as common as I’d like to see, but I don’t think the women who are both mothers and top professionals are, as Slaughter says, only those who are “superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”  If they are a top-professional, they may not be rich though they probably can afford good childcare.  Self-employment can be a great option but I don’t believe it is the only one.  I find that those women who do do both are determined to do both, a bit flexible and while not super-human, very hard working.  I believe many women can aspire to this combination.