Recently, I had a fascinating conversation about the concept that women can have it all. Ever since the women’s movement of the 1970s, we have been told that we can have both professional fulfillment and a healthy family life. And we have been made to feel guilty – or ungrateful for the struggles of generations of women before us – if we choose a different way of life. But there is a choice to be made – for both men and women. Of course, both men and women should pursue fulfilling careers. But we should approach the decisions we make in life differently.
Both men and women who work 40 hours a week or more and spend most of their time in an office simply cannot spend as much time with their children as they likely feel is ideal. But there is a pressure that women are saddled with that men have largely escaped. Women, even today, are expected to be the primary caregiver for their children. And many prefer to be. And to be told that we can fill that role while also living up to the expectations of a demanding career just sets us up to feel like failures. Something needs to change.
First, I believe many men are choosing to become more involved in the lives of their children than fathers of previous generations. As they do so, they are beginning to understand the struggle with which women have been grappling for 40 years. This is promising, as it brings the conversation to the societal forefront.
There is certainly still significant sexism in the workplace and women are still constantly objectified by the media and brainwashed into believing in arbitrary conceptions of what it means to be a woman. These are serious problems that must be dealt with. However, the immediate need for women to prove themselves capable of professional success has abated somewhat. As a result, many women are considering in greater depth the totality of their lives and what kind of lifestyle they want to live. We are realizing that balance is important – there is, after all, more to life than work.
Women – and men – are realizing that seeing their children only for the brief time before school in the morning and before bed at night is not ideal parenting. We no longer want to depend on nannies to raise our children. And many of us can’t afford it.
So can we have it all? Yes and no. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning under Hillary Clinton, argues, women can have it all, but not all at once. We should invest ourselves deeply in our careers until we feel the desire to have a family, and then cut back our hours or find a job that allows for more flexibility, Slaughter says. The same is true for men, too, of course, but in the past, no one questioned a man’s decision to put career before family. Recently, however, that decision has been questioned more by men and women.
In addition, choosing the right kind of career can have a major impact on a woman’s ability to achieve a satisfying work-life balance. Doing something entrepreneurial, or something that allows for partial amount of telecommuting or flexible hours can have a significant impact. As Slaughter writes, working 40 hours a week on someone else’s schedule simply does not allow for enough family time. What is important is the flexibility to at least largely plan one’s own schedule.
On a societal level, our priorities in life need to shift – for both men and women. It is not only the need to prove ourselves that has led to women being pressured to be superhuman. It is also our country’s workaholic tendencies. We get significantly less time off and maternity or paternity leave than other developed countries. When our culture finally begins to prioritize family and community, women will feel less pressure to do it all and employers will be more willing to seek solutions that allow for a reasonable work-life balance.