Our ‘Having It All’ Versus Their ‘Having It All’: A Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter

On my way into work, I heard Anne-Marie Slaughter’s take on “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  She was doing a radio interview on NPR about her two-year stint for Secretary Clinton and how difficult it was to juggle her family responsibilities with her high-power job.  I immediately had a flashback to the infancy of my career and how, since then, this topic buoyantly re-emerges in the lives of many of my closest friends and colleagues.

When I left my first cushy job as a law clerk for a judge here in Washington, I began practicing as a legal services attorney.  I represented low-income families in civil matters and most of my colleagues were liberal, white and ivy-league degree touting women, much like Ms. Slaughter.  Not too long after I started, I recall one of them saying to me, “You can’t have it all.”  She was a mother of two young children and her husband was a psychologist.  She worked four days per week and usually left by 5:00 p.m. but she was a leading expert in her practice area and extraordinarily productive.  I had no clue how she did it.

Maybe within two years of her comment to me, a close friend and fellow litigator said, “You can have it all.”  She was newly married, barely 30 and had one child at the time.  She was still fresh on the high of newlywed bliss.  Now, a few years later, she has two young children and is caring for an aging relative.  The last time we spoke I knew life’s demands were weighing on her.  I offered my help but I know her kind.  The quintessential “strong black woman.”  She doesn’t ask for help too much because people will fault her for it.  She doesn’t say “no” too often because people will call her selfish.  So she grins and nods and takes more and more on her plate until she either gets ill or her husband demands that she let something go before he goes.  I’ve seen it happen. 

I can think of countless women friends who, as Ms. Slaughter described, had high-power careers and the ones with children always had to choose between work and home. I know a few who are still holding on until their kids get older but I am not certain it gets any easier.  A good friend left a job she loved as a civil rights lawyer to be home with her children when they turned 7 and 9.  It was a huge sacrifice for her family as she was the breadwinner, but her husband supported her stepping down so she could cultivate her entrepreneurial vision and read their kids bedtime stories at the same time.  Arguably, she has it all now.  I think a woman has it all when she is able to follow her dreams, passions and pursuits and has the wholehearted support of her family and her spouse or significant other. 

Ms. Slaughter is correct that my generation of women (late twenties to early thirties) do not quite relate to the feminist message, at least not in a purist sense.  We have seen successful women who ostensibly “have it all” by society’s current definition- the money, the notoriety and replaceable men-but we don’t consider them relatable role models.  We just think they are uber-rich, angelically gorgeous and annoyingly overexposed.  We view those women as images.  That is what they are.  They may have children but we don’t look to them for advice on how we raise ours.  They may even have husbands but we don’t expect them to show us how to have healthy, long-lasting marriages.  We want real role models.  If it means being transparent about how hard it is to work 12 hour days and then come home to your “second shift” then that is what we want to hear.  To our feminist foremothers (who may disagree with Ms. Slaughter’s candidness): you are not letting us down for your honesty.  We crave and appreciate it. 

We know we can be successful in the boardroom.  We (at least those of us privileged with opportunity and access) are achieving it every day because other women paved the way.  Because of them my generation has the privilege of talking about “work-life balance.”  This topic was not a thought for my grandmother who worked by day as a nurse’s aide and then at night as a maid for a rich woman so she could help grandpa care for my mom and her three younger siblings in the 60s and 70s.  This is a far cry from Ms. Slaughter’s mother who aspired to go medical school but didn’t because she got married and had kids.  My grandmother, who lived in the Deep South, faced many more barriers that made such aspirations impossible at that time.  Opportunities were and still are different for women based on race and class, and the opportunity gap will grow wider as the achievement gap continues to grow. 

I like that Ms. Slaughter defined what “having it all” meant to her because it made me realize that having it all looks different for women in my generation.  For Ms. Slaughter it means having the same choices about work and family that men do.  Most of my friends with multiple degrees could care less about having the same choices as men.  Again, we are the beneficiaries of our feminist predecessors who fought hard for equality so our “all” looks different from theirs.  Most of my friends are doing what they want to do in their careers and, while some of them have not achieved the level of success they seek just yet, they do not want to wait until they have “arrived” before they have a family.  These women don’t feel like they have it all until they pop out a few babies.  I admire their ardent desire to be mothers and wives at the risk of having to slow their climb to the top. 

The notion of “having it all” as presented by Ms. Slaughter, makes it seem like if you stay home with your kids or take a pay cut or pass over a promotion for the sake of your family, you are letting yourself down.  This shouldn’t be the perception.  In my view, women who stay home during their kids’ formative years are making huge sacrifices that will pay tangible and intangible dividends for them and their children.  These women are today’s heroes. 

It takes courage for a professional woman, with a wall of accomplishments and a bright future to step back and count the cost of her forging ahead with her career at the risk of missing her kids’ birthdays, soccer games and dance recitals.  As a dear friend told me when she left her very demanding post working for the U.S. Attorney General, “Life is too short, Yaida.”  She said this in the midst of being named one of the “Top 40 Lawyers Under 40.”  I was in awe to see her step down in her prime, not because of what she gave up but because of what she gained in exchange- a chance to pick her kids up from school and take them to the park.  These are priceless moments that she would have missed but for her courageous move. 

So to Ms. Slaughter and her generation- we applaud your successes.  Some of us would not have the opportunities that we enjoy today but for your hard work and dedication.  But I applaud women all the more when they choose to put family first.  I know I may seem like a cop out to some because why should a woman have to choose? That is the wrong question for my generation.  We don’t see it as a choice we are forced to make.  It is a choice that some of us want to make.

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