Can Women Really Have It All?

With opportunity at work and little ones at home, how do you decide what to do?

Posted Jun 28, 2012

There is not much humor in the Bible; don’t ask me why.  But someone did laugh, and guess what?

It was a woman.

Sarah, the original matriarch had one of history's earliest recorded laughs. But why?

At an advanced age, Sarah was told by the Almighty, that she was to bring forth a child. She laughed because she was incredulous.  And she laughed thinking to herself how much she now had to do. Who can’t relate to that?

For today’s women, it’s their time. Or, to paraphrase Spiderman, with great choices come great responsibilities. With the debate about contemporary feminism as current as ever, and I would like to add my piece. But first let’s look at what’s stirring the pot today.

The New York Times recently featured a piece by Jodi Cantor dealing with the time worn question of contemporary professional women: How do I strike a balance between work and parenting? This is not a small question as the opportunities for women in the workplace continue to expand. On all measures, there are now more women graduating high school, college and professional school than their male counterparts. This is a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. So, women today are confronted with real choices.

How do I really want to live my life?

To summarize, Ms. Cantor presents us with two prominent professional women, who each apparently have a different take on the work vs. parenting debate. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former Obama administration official reports that she decided to be home with her family in a more active way. Her argument in feminist circles is that the workplace must adapt to the needs of quality professional women.  On the other side of the debate is Facebook executive, Cheryl Sandberg, who stands for women competing at the highest level and with the same intensity as men.  In a sense, this constitutes full equality; after all, if men are willing to put in the time and effort, how can women compete if they don’t?

Having graduated Vassar College, as a member of one of the early coed classes, I am particularly sensitive to the power of the feminist cause, whether it was the Edna St. Vincent Millay’s brutally honest poetry, Jane Fonda’s activism, Gloria Steinem’s advocacy or the obvious success of Hillary Clinton, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Cheryl Sandberg.

Yet, let me add a piece to this debate, from a slightly different perspective.

Values are deeply infused in culture. It is not something that is easy to sense. And, while the debate about feminism and the workplace brings up some basic issues about fulfillment and opportunity for women (and men), there are other cultural values that inform this debate as well.

Since I have been writing about divorce for a number of years, I’ve been struck by the changing societal values that are so apparent on the couch.  What motivates us? Are we aligned with what is good for our clan, and therefore take pleasure and honor in the personal sacrifice required to make a family work? Or, is the primary good located in personal happiness, with one’s commitment to the clan trumped by one’s right to be happy?

We are in a culture war that informs, but is separate from feminism. In contemporary western culture there is a huge emphasis on the pursuit of personal happiness. I can’t tell you how many divorces come down to this. He wants out because he wants to be happier. After all, we only live one life, don’t we? She can’t believe that he won’t give the family more of a chance, because after all, doesn’t the family come first?  Obviously the gender can easily be reversed, but you get the idea.

So, in the debate of work versus children, I would like to put this notion into the mix. A marriage takes sacrifice, children require time and attention and work does as well. And, time is a limited commodity.

We have been trained to see the world through a male dominated prism. The expansion of the self is in the context of work responsibilities and how much money one makes, more or less. The pressures on all of us to provide in a tough economy only fuels this paradigm. This is a powerful modern ethos, and is supported, by Ms. Sandberg’s admirable approach to work life.

I can understand Ms. Sandberg’s devotion. There’s a preciously short window for any professional to make it to the highest level. She’s entitled to actualize her talents; and she’s a role model to many other women. But, values can differ, and they do.

The clan has been a core commitment for centuries, both in religious and secular culture - and it is not going to go away so easily. The notion of gaining a sense of power by submitting voluntarily to something bigger than oneself is an ancient good. In addition, many women continue to have a strong maternal instinct which begins as a biological imperative but nuances into one of the great love affairs known to mankind; that between a mother and her offspring.

I understand why Ms. Slaughter decided to spend more time with her family. Just as Ms. Sandberg knows that time is of the essence and you can’t have it all, so, Ms. Slaughter understands that life is a limited experience and that her kids will truly only be young once. For Ms. Slaughter, the nuanced arguments for the role of good nannies, great schools, and helpful fathers, just doesn’t cut it. For her, ultimately, clan loyalty trumps personal achievement.

Sarah, the Matriarch, understood that it’s not easy to have it all.  Women now have the opportunity to enjoy a relationship, experience pregnancy, have babies, go to Harvard, have a great job and raise children. If that is having it all, then you know that something has got to give. Life is not a neat package, nor is it always fair.

The way to have it all is to know what your core values are. Stay true to them, and the decision of when to work and when to parent will be a little easier. I agree that society should accommodate capable women in business, finance and elsewhere. We need great people running our institutions, and we all lose when we have to settle for less because a parent needs to be home as well. Let’s hope and push for change,

Yet, ultimately, your happiness and that of your family will depend on understanding who you are and what’s really important to you. You can have it all when you clarify to yourself just what makes you tick.  Then at some point it may all change; and then have the courage to change with it. 

Enjoy this very complicated life. And, like Sarah, laugh sometimes at its impossible demands and ironies.