WorkLife Matters

Life and work and parenting.

Families Ache

Why One Mother's Work-Life Story Went Viral

Work-life balance tops lists of issues debated in 2012, catapulted by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” about the impossibility of juggling an always-on top job in the State department and the parenting two teenagers residing in a different city.  

Slaughter’s article went viral despite similar arguments appearing regularly by scholarsjournalists, and advocates. Why? Her story resonated with millions because she is a high-powered, successful woman forced to consider the same tradeoffs as the ordinary working woman next door. She wrote from the heart and struck a nerve in us all, honestly voicing the legitimate tug between work and family. She nailed the anxiety felt by a generation of young career women not raised on or represented by a single brand of feminism to guide them through the jungle of work, work, and more work. 

Americans thought and talked a lot about work in 2012, argues Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times:  who does it, for how long, and what responsibilities employees and employers hold to one another as well as to society (by paying taxes, for example). Giridharadas describes a new book called Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller, a Christian theologian, particularly it’s critique of the role of work in Americans’ lives: 

Surveying the United States’ privileged “knowledge classes,” Dr. Keller describes a population that is “work obsessed,” holding their jobs to be the fount of “self-fulfillment and self-realization,” seeing leisure as merely “work stoppage for bodily repair” and allowing office principles like “efficiency, value and speed” to infuse and overwhelm their personal lives. In this world, where work becomes the chief source of identity and meaning, families ache and — from Wall Street to elite sports to political office — dishonesty abounds, because professional loss can sink a person’s sense of being. “They just have to keep their spot,” Dr. Keller said.

Families ache. That’s it, in two words: the reason millions read, shared, and discussed “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter reveals her own ache, describing her 14-year-old son “skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.” We could relate; we shared the link.

Families ache and suffer when parents over-identify with a job or profession, tolerate overly-demanding bosses, allow spillover from work into family time, accept technology’s destruction of the work-life boundary, or endure two jobs at once because each pays so little.  Because families ache for other reasons too—pressures from marital conflict, children with special needs, parents of parents needing financial and physical care—people are hungry to learn they are not alone.  We emailed the article to our best friends.

Was it mostly women who read and shared the article?  I suspect yes. Why? In “She Can’t Sleep No More,” Sarah Leonard hones in on the time bind:

Everyone knows that men can work all the time by ignoring their families. But women give birth. They’re natural nurturers. What if they can perform both roles and somehow center motherhood and CEOship? She becomes a superworker, “balancing” two loads too heavy to be borne in any proportion. Women insist that they can “do it all” so as not to appear disadvantaged in comparison to their male colleagues; this scrabbling not to be left behind merely legitimizes the insane work ethic.

Leonard argues that “time is a feminist issue.” Mimicking men by sleeping under a desk at work, skipping maternity leave, breaching the boundary between work and home – these increasingly common work behaviors lead to more aching families.

In 2004, The Atlantic published a precursor to “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  Caitlin Flanagan’s essay spoke the “unpleasant truth” that no one really can have it all.

What few will admit—because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities—is that when a mother works, something is lost. Children crave their mothers. They always have and they always will. And women fortunate enough to live in a society where they have access to that greatest of levelers, education, will always have the burning dream of doing something more exciting and important than tidying Lego blocks and running loads of laundry. If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can't have something. If she works she can't have as deep and connected a relationship with her child as she would if she stayed home and raised him. She can't have the glamour and respect conferred on career women if she chooses instead to spend her days at "Mommy and Me" classes. She can't have both things. I have read numerous accounts of the anguish women have felt leaving small babies with caregivers so that they could go to work, and I don't discount those stories for a moment. That the separation of a woman from her child produces agony for both is one of the most enduring and impressive features of the human experience, and it probably accounts for why we've made it as far as we have. I've read just as many accounts of the despair that descends on some women when their world is abruptly narrowed to the tedium and exhaustion of the nursery; neither do I discount these stories: I've felt that self-same despair.

Quiet anguish and private aches: these explain the massive reach of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Much of the pain, however, is beyond control by individual women and families.  Global macro-economic forces will exacerbate work-family conflict rather than make it disappear. Like Slaughter and others, I have argued for meaningful change to enact family-friendly business policies, including flexible work practices such as telework, results-only-work environments, career lane changes and part-time without penalties, allowing babies at work, and building high-commitment organizations. These will not eliminate the ache, but they are worthy of progress in 2013.



Nanette Fondas. D.B.A., M.Phil, is co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where, and How to Work and Boost Your Bottom Line. more...

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