Eighteen months into my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.
As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband commuted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”
She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.
Before my service in government, I’d spent my career in academia: as a law professor and then as the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed to be, and still get the work done. I had to travel frequently, but I found I could make up for that with an extended period at home or a family vacation.
I knew that I was lucky in my career choice, but I had no idea how lucky until I spent two years in Washington within a rigid bureaucracy, even with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts. For two years, I never left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done on weekends, amid children’s sporting events, music lessons, family meals, and conference calls. I was entitled to four hours of vacation per pay period, which came to one day of vacation a month. And I had it better than many of my peers in D.C.; Secretary Clinton deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and evening time with their families (although of course she worked earlier and later, from home).
In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.
There are a number of reactions to this article. Echidne is probably the best one.
I don’t know why this is framed as a feminism issue. I want to have it all too.
I want to be in perfect health, and never gain weight no matter what I eat. I want to be in great shape without having to work-out. I want a full head of hair that never needs to be combed and I want a bigger shlong.
I want a great job that pays really well. I want to go in late and leave early. I want nothing but innocent clients and I want to win every case. I want a great boss and a bunch of swell co-workers.
I want a super-model beautiful spouse who is a great cook, homemaker and sex goddess, and who is always horny whenever I am and who orgasms early and often and thinks I am the world’s greatest lover. She should always be in a good mood, and never tired, cranky or PMSing. I want kids that are always happy, get good grades and never get sick or in trouble.
I want bills that are always paid, a lawn that never needs to be mowed and every electronic toy on the market. I want more hours in a day and perfect weather all year round.
That’s what I want, but like my grandma used to say “It ain’t always what you want you get the most of.” She also said “The secret to happiness isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get.”
There are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a year and so many years in a lifetime. You have to sleep sometime. Life is a bunch of trade-offs. You have to balance work, family and social activities. If you work long hours you have less time for sleep, family and your social life.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is very lucky. She has options most of us don’t have. I don’t begrudge her those options or the success she has had in life. I wish I had her problems.
But her problems aren’t unique to women. A lot of people, both men and women, have it far worse. Millions of people have jobs they hate but can’t afford to quit. They want to spend more time with their kids but can’t. They spend their lives on a treadmill, running and running but not getting anywhere.
Anne-Marie Slaughter needs to quit worrying about having it all and learn to be happy with having enough.