Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

‘Having It All’? Four Reasons Why I’m Having None of It

Guess who is still left out of the having-it-all debate

“…whenever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mention that I have two sons…my entire purpose is to make family references routine and normal in professional life.” So said Anne-Marie Slaughter in her much discussed article in the Atlantic magazine, “Why women still can’t have it all.”

In many ways, I have for years been working to achieve just the opposite. As a single person who has heard from thousands of other single people informally and studied them systematically, I find the flaunting of marital or parental status in professional domains gratuitous and inappropriate.

When a candidate says, “Vote for me, I’m married,” or “Vote for me, I have kids,” I am less likely to do so. I want to know your policies, goals, and your accomplishments – your work-related accomplishments. I worry that if you are calling attention to what a great family person you are, you are going to put your family ahead of your district’s or your country’s adults and children, and that you are not even going to see all the people around you who are single or who have no children. If you don’t seem to recognize that single people with no children exist, you are not going to understand the totality of their lives.

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When Slaughter or anyone else makes a point of touting their marriage or children in a professional context, I hear what is said very differently than Slaughter does.

Slaughter reveals with her anecdotes that she is surrounded by women who worry that if she keeps talking about her kids, she won’t be taken seriously and neither will other women. Her response is: “…my entire purpose is to make family references routine and normal in professional life.”

She thinks she is owning up to her family life at some risk to her professional life; she wants to make her comments ordinary and not risky. I, in contrast, hear her as trumpeting her status, and claiming her superiority over people who do not have spouses or kids. She’s doing it, I think, knowing that in our matrimaniacal society, no one will question her sense of entitlement.

The bottom line, for me, is this:

1.      Work rewards should be work-based.

In the workplace, no one should get extra consideration or extra pay or greater opportunities just because they do or do not have a spouse or children. Your value should be based on what you contribute, not who you are.

Already, violations of this very fundamental premise are written right into our laws. In some workplaces, married employees can put their spouse on the employer’s health care plan at a reduced rate, while equally hard-working and high-achieving single employees cannot put an adult such as a sibling or parent on their plan. And, no other worker can offer their discount to the single employee.

Social Security is similarly unjust. When married workers die, their benefits go to their surviving spouse (and, under specified conditions, a whole series of ex-spouses). When single workers (with no children) die, their benefits go back into the system.

In many informal ways, too, workers who are not married or who do not have children are often given short shrift in the workplace by bosses and co-workers who assume that they have no life. They are expected to cover for the parents, accept last choice of vacation days or holidays, and just accept that whatever they may want to do with their time is considered less significant than what others want. (For more details, check out the entries under “Workplace Issues” here.)  

The workplace should be about work, not marital or parental status.

2.      Children and aging parents are not the only ones who need care, and married mothers are not the only ones providing care.

 Slaughter seems to be on the right track when she maintains that “Changes in default rules should not advantage parents over other workers.” But consider her example of a laudatory workplace policy:

 “Two years ago, the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts decided to replace its ‘parental leave’ policy with a ‘family leave’ policy that provides for as much as 12 weeks of leave not only for new parents, but also for employees who need to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. According to Director Carol Rose, “We wanted a policy that took into account the fact that even employees who do not have children have family obligations.’”

 Expansions of leave policies to include care for a spouse, child, or parent are steps in the right direction, but they lead only to the doorstep of the nuclear family fortress. What about the care that is given to close friends, neighbors, extended family members, and any other people who cannot care for themselves – care which, by the way, is often provided disproportionately by people who are single? What about the care needed by adults who are not someone’s spouse or parent?

 Note, too, that the spouse, child, and parent triumvirate – also the basis of the Family and Medical Leave Act – offers more options for giving and receiving care to those who are married with children than to those who are not, as I explained previously (here and here and  here).

 3.      Not everyone shares the presumption that “work life” is a thing apart from “real life.”

With great admiration, Slaughter recounted Hillary Clinton’s response to a Chinese interviewer who asked about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding, “That’s my real life.” I respect and admire Hillary Clinton, too, but her answer slayed me. To imply that all that Hillary Clinton has accomplished in the national and international arena is somehow unreal, whereas her daughter’s wedding is what’s real, is, as Rebecca Traister said of Slaughter’s argument in her original Atlantic piece, “antifeminist, anti-woman, cheap, and reactionary.” (Bill Clinton said something similarly clueless.)

For those who have the great, good fortune to love their work – and that does not include only those who are celebrated or amply compensated for what they do – work life is not a separate and icky thing walled off from some ostensibly “real” life. It is real life, a big and wonderful part of it.

4.      The world’s kids trump your kids.

 As an example of what’s wrong with our values and priorities, Ann-Marie Slaughter tells this story:

 “At the diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service, one of his sons told the audience that when he was a child, his father was often gone, not around to teach him to throw a ball or to watch his games. But as he grew older, he said, he realized that Holbrooke’s absence was the price of saving people around the world—a price worth paying.”

 Richard Holbrooke sounds wise to me, and I think his son shares that wisdom. Slaughter, though, is not buying it: “Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities?”

 One of the chapters in Singled Out debunks Myth # 8 about single people: “Too bad you’re incomplete: You don’t have anyone and you don’t have a life.” After recounting examples in which Presidents and Presidential candidates from the left and the right proudly proclaimed their commitment to their wives over the job of President of the United States, I ended the chapter with this:

 To be there when your family needs you or just wants you around, to clear the brush because your spouse thinks it looks unkempt – all that is fine, maybe even admirable, if your responsibilities stop at the door of your own home. But the man or woman who would be President is entrusted with the care and safety of hundreds of millions of Americans. Studio audiences should not cheer, and White House reporters should not file fawning stories, when the leader of the free world claims that the one adult who is most important to him will always come before all others. They should gasp in horror.

The same is true for those who would elevate the needs of their children over those of the world’s children.

Even in Slaughter’s follow-up article, singles are still missing.

I appreciate what Ann-Marie Slaughter has accomplished in her professional life. I don’t think her Atlantic piece is a screed or an outrage. She wrote it thoughtfully, and in some ways, sensitively. Recently, she wrote a response, also in the Atlantic, to many of the reactions to her original piece. It was titled, “The ‘having it all’ debate convinced me to stop saying ‘have it all.’” That in itself tells you something about the author. She’s willing to listen and not just dig in.

 Consider a quote from one of the critiques she mentions:

 “seeking out a more balanced life isn't just a women's issue, it's a human issue, and we'd all -- men and women -- be a lot better off if we addressed (or at least legislated) the issue that way."

The emphasis here is on letting men in on the issue of a more balanced life. You would never know, from that one quote that Slaughter chose, what the article is really about. The title is “Single people deserve work-life balance, too.” (It was written by Kate Bolick; you might remember her from this.)

In my next post to another blog, I will describe one more example from Slaughter’s original article in which parents and workers with no children are hearing the same workplace conversations very differently. [Here it is.]

[As always, you can get your fix of enlightened singles’ bloggers at Single with Attitude. And, thanks to Cynthia for the heads-up about another great critique of Slaughter’s “having-it-all” article; it is by Lindy West over at Jezebel.]

[Photo credit: Phillip Toledano]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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