When I arrived to meet my cousins for lunch last week, one of the first questions posed to me by the recent college graduate who will begin work as a Fulbright Scholar in the fall was, “Nan, what do you think about the article by Anne-Marie Slaughter [in The Atlantic]?”
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As it happened, I had been reading “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” on my train ride en route to our lunch, so a good portion of our conversation was devoted to it. Slaughter – who left a prestigious position at the State Department in Washington, D.C., to be more hands on at home in Princeton – seems to have earned the respect of young women who keep hearing from seasoned career women that it’s possible to have meaningful professional lives and families simultaneously, but are not quite buying it.
“The audience was rapt, and asked many thoughtful questions,” Slaughter writes of a speaking engagement she had at Oxford. “One of the first was from a young woman who began by thanking me for ‘not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.’”
Here we go again.
As a life coach, for me this boils down to a story about math and about living with our choices.
Let’s start with the math—this is what the topic of work/life balance is really about, numbers and the basic rules of addition and subtraction. (Before I really get going, where did we get that term? Isn’t work a vital part of life? Isn’t this really about work/child-rearing balance?)
Despite my deep admiration and respect for Slaughter’s decisions, frankness and vision on this topic, as a coach, when a client comes to me with this goal in mind, I don’t have the option of telling her (yes, it’s a ‘her’ 100% of the time) that maybe someday the U.S. will revamp its whole work day to match the school schedule, or that all employers will suddenly develop stellar daycare facilities for employees or that her spouse will undo all his socialization and feel as compelled as her to make cupcakes for the Halloween celebration at school.
My client wants to know how to make it all work now. The job she really likes, the upkeep of the home she treasures and the raising of the miraculous being(s) she’s brought into the world. That doesn’t begin to include all the other stuff – friendship maintenance, working out, hobbies, extended family obligations, etc.
We look at what we must ‘subtract from’ in order to ‘add to’ in her life. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, though. The answer to balance is as individual as a finger print. And it keeps shifting and morphing even within one person’s life. One year it might be self-employment, the next it might be a corporate job with top-of-the-line benefits. Answering to no one vs. being part of a team where members can pick up each other’s slack. Sometimes it’s staying home for a few years and scaling back on lifestyle.
Slaughter acknowledges that much of what she writes is directed to women of means, higher education and powerful jobs. And really, while those women might have more choices allowed by finances and such, we’re back to math. Time spent working outside the home is not time spent with children, period.
What we need is the confidence to opt in to one or a combination of both of those and to live with that choice. Stand in it. Be present in it. Because if there’s one place I disagree with many of the women in my generation, it’s what feminism was about in the first place -- giving us that very choice.
To be more specific, some of us read the overarching message of feminism thus – if homemaking and parenting leave you thinking you want something more from your life, you should be able to work outside the home and not feel like there’s something wrong with you (hello, Betty Friedan). That is very different from this -- there’s something wrong with you if you don’t want a high-powered career, 2.3 kids, a sprawling home and all the latest gadgets/vacations/cars/clothes/appliances at the very same time. The idea of feminism was to make more choices available to women by opening more doors, not to make them feel entitled to “all of the above.”
“I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book,” writes Slaughter, whose article had more than 148,000 ‘recommends’ on Facebook as of this writing. “But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great’).”
Alas, the judges will always be out in force. Again I say: confidence. Not just in one’s choices, but in the knowledge that those choices aren’t necessarily permanent. We can change our minds. We can trust our instincts and realize in the grand scheme of things something else might come along at just the right time and we will be in a better place to seize the opportunity. On the flip side, we can learn how absolutely content we feel creating a loving home environment and even see it as a luxury.
We must learn to be better at living with our choices. We must. As a self-employed coach/writer who never had a desire to be a parent, I can’t relate to much of this “having it all” discussion, but I absolutely do understand what it means to choose something and stand in it. As an artist, I require more solitude than the average person and love it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when I crave company when there is none. It means on balance I’ve chosen well for me. I went the self-employment route and it comes with sacrifices sometimes, but on balance I thrive in the tradeoffs. My daily life is phenomenal. Again, I chose the right route for me, for now.
Here’s the gauge -- rarely do I think the grass is greener somewhere else. In fact, I’d say I think the grass is greener less than 1 percent of the time. That’s called living with my choices. It’s not saying they’re perfect or that life doesn’t back up on me. But on balance, I’ve got it nailed.
I want my clients to feel that on balance the life they chose is the right one in the moment.
Perhaps Slaughter’s ideas will come to fruition someday, maybe in my young cousin’s lifetime. Maybe, as she suggests, there will be more women in leadership roles and that will help. Maybe.
But just reading that in the article brought to mind a young female entrepreneur, an ambitious go-getter, I interviewed a while back. She told me unequivocally that the people who most resent occasionally hearing her child in the background when she is on a conference call are women who have put their own children in daycare to be at the office.
So, like I said, maybe what we really need are women who are more confident in the choices they’ve made regardless of where they fall in the employment hierarchy. They’ve figured out their own personal formula and they are all too willing to help the rest of us with ours.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.