We finally read the recent Atlantic article Why Women Still Can't Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter. For context, I haven't read any of what I imagine was probably a classic Internet brawl over it, except for an angry tweet here and there when it first came out.
Overall, I liked the article ok. It's nice to hear something like realism from a highly successful woman with children.
But there are two things screaming for attention in the whole thing that were almost completely ignored.
The first is the obvious one: Why are we still only talking about women? Why do we take it for granted that successful men have no desire to have a life outside of their work, a life which involves spending non-negligible time with their children? Or with anyone or anything else they might care about? Maybe some don't. Maybe some do. Maybe, in a different culture, more would. I certainly didn't expect Slaughter to go deeply into these questions, but I was disappointed that she skimmed past them almost as if they weren't even there.
Instead, there was a whispered assumption that most women want to have children and want to spend lots of time with them, but men don't. Later in the article, she said some nice things about fathers nowadays wanting more time for their families, too, and it's possible that if the article had been titled "The Future of Work-Life Balance in High-Powered Careers" I would have read it with a different attitude. (And it's quite possible Slaughter didn't come up with the title.) But.
Second is the existential question at the center of the whole mess. (It continues to amaze me how rarely anyone publicly contemplates existential questions.) What is all this for? Are we here to scramble like crazy in the highest echelons of power each of us is capable of reaching? If so, is that because we are here to amass as much prestige as possible? As much intellectual stimulation as possible? To do as much valiant, hero-scale good for as many people as we can?
On the other hand, why have we brought our children here? For our enjoyment? For our pride? For our naturalistic imperitive to carry on the human race? The vestigial animalistic pleasure of seeing our genetic material carried on into another generation? Our economic duty to supply future workers?
Slaughter's article was supposed to have me thinking about family leave policies and ambitious women's potential career paths, but her "of course this is what my job was like" description got me stuck on the existential question. Woah. What on this earth can one person be doing at meetings, on phone calls, at receptions, in hearings, in speeches, on their computer that can possibly justify this ceaseless level of busyness, of sheer hours awake and "productive"?
Either these careers absolutely require all this if the human race is not to fall apart (or, more parochially, our country is not to fall apart, or our way of life is not to seismically shift... except that MIGHT not be a bad thing...), or no career requires this (and actually doing a good job may be damaged by such excess!) and maybe we should be wondering why it seems so necessary.
Either way, it's unsettling to realize that we who are hoping to improve the playing field for men and women, parents and non-parents, who believe that frenetic working must be tempered with time for contemplation, with time for relationships, with time for living, are largely dependent on an elite in power who may think they believe in those things (or may simply not), but cannot (or feel they cannot) actually speak those beliefs through the one life they have to live.
And that is either tragic or terrifying. Or maybe it's just curious, something to think about, something that maybe could actually change someday.
Slaughter brushes past this question, too, but there's a glint in there when she describes working with Orthodox Jewish men (including the current White House chief of staff) who, of course, do not work (or even commute) from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. To keep this commitment, to faith, to family, to something other than work, is apparently possible (and is — the irony! — greatly admired by coworkers) even in "an enormously demanding job".
There's another, related question, but it is too messy for me to tackle in my own words today. If you can handle reading radical stuff and honestly considering the points being made even if the rhetoric sometimes gets a bit heated, you might try this short piece: Housework Under Capitalism, the Unpaid Labor of Mothers. I know nothing about the author, it was just what I got when I googled "capitalism unpaid labor women" and it makes a lot of the points I'm gnawing on, though not always in quite the way I think I would make them.