A Facebook friend of mine recently posted The Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” on her business Facebook page, asking what her followers thought. I have been interested in reading women’s responses to this article, which primarily argues that despite great advances in women’s rights, the balance between family life and professional life remains elusive to women.
But I found a few responses to this article (on Facebook and on the web) rather disturbing. The most upsetting response was that women needed to “redefine what having it all means”.
My instinct was to fly into a feminist rage. We wouldn’t ask men to redefine their career goals for the sake of their family. Women have been trying to make it in a man’s world for how long and now you’re asking them to give it up? Be satisfied with less? But it was the sense of passivity that concerned me the most.
I understand where this sentiment comes from. It comes from a conciliatory “all moms are working moms, we’re all winners” attitude. “Don’t set such high standards for yourself — you don’t need to be a super mom” seems to be the general idea. And I appreciate that on many levels; if we were discussing Time Magazine‘s Are You Mom Enough?, for example, I would have been right with her. In this particular case, however, I found that kind of message downright dangerous.
Imagine you have a very close friend that comes to you and says that, though they are completely in love with their spouse, they are nagged with an unhappiness in their marriage. Some part of their marriage isn’t working for them. They are tired, and they feel like they are losing touch with themselves and their needs aren’t being met. They feel their marriage is sliding out from under them and, with it, so many other parts of their lives.
We would probably react in a similar way: we’d take a moment to listen to their feelings and express sympathy, then try to find a solution, or help in some way. We might say something like “What do you think needs to change so that this marriage works for both of you?” or “What do you feel is missing and what do you need in order to be happy?” Then we’d encourage them to take action, we’d tell them to talk to their spouse, get a hobby, go on vacation… whatever changes they discussed. Then we’d express our confidence that things will get better and if there is anything we can do, call.
It is unlikely that we would turn to our suffering friend and say, “Well, I think you really need to redefine happiness. Let’s just say how you are feeling right now is happy, and anything beyond that is just icing.” We probably wouldn’t tell our friend to “let it go” or “that’s just the way it is, I guess” because we know it doesn’t solve the problem. What we want for our friend is true happiness, and we have hope that their marriage can fulfill that for both partners. We wish the same for ourselves.
At this point in our culture, most of us can agree that women have a lot to offer in the workplace and that companies, businesses, etc can benefit greatly with women playing a key role. The women mentioned in Slaughter’s piece are extraordinarily hard working, intelligent women. The kind of women “super moms” aspire to be. And this isn’t working for them. That’s a real problem. We can’t simply brush it off by asking these women to desire less, nor should we ever do that to ourselves.
Asking women to redefine their goals, dreams and desires for their home and professional lives is like telling your friend to redefine “happy”. It doesn’t solve the problem and doesn’t empower anyone to make the changes that are clearly necessary. Our response should have the same consideration and care as it would be to a friend. We should respond with questions: How do we fix it? What do we do so that women (and men) can have the best chance of building successful careers while living fulfilling family lives? At the end of the conversation we should encourage each other to take action.
Creating a workplace and a society that places a higher value on the balance between work at home doesn’t only benefit women; men and children need that balance, too. We should be moving toward this goal anyway. When these issues are presented, it is in everyone’s best interest to keep this conversation going. Slaughter offered the framework on addressing this issue. Our job now is to ask our own questions and brainstorm solutions.