Sunday, July 01, 2012

Weighing In On Having It All

The Atlantic published two pieces this month by women at the State Department on the notion of "having it 'all'." The first was by Anne Marie Slaughter, who served as the Director of Policy Planning at State, and was titled "Why Women Still Can't have It All." The second, "How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children" was by Dana Shell Smith, the Principle Assistant Deputy Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

I have been having a number of discussions about these two articles, to say nothing of The Atlantic's decisions to essentially pit two women at State against each other, with lots of my friends inside and outside of the Department.

It took me a long time to decide to weigh in, and even now, it is mostly because of the way the debate is being framed. No one seems happy with either woman's conclusions. Not that Slaughter concludes that society has to change and not with the amount that Smith admits she has given up.

First of all, I think the framing of the debate as women having it all is bogus. No one, not women but not men either, gets it "all," at least not if you have decided to buy into what society says "all" is.

It reminds me of the paradox of Israel. Thomas Friedman posed it this way: Israelis want to have a Jewish state that is a democracy in the Biblical lands of Israel. But they can only have two of those three things. That can have a Jewish state that is a democracy, but then it can't be in all the Biblical lands of Israel because there are non-Jews living there. Non-Jews with a higher birth rate that they have. So they could have a Jewish state in the Biblical lands of Israel, but it requires disenfranchising those non-Jews, so it is no longer a democracy. Or they could have a democracy in the Biblical lands of Israel, but it would not be a Jewish state because of the numbers of non-Jews there and their aforementioned higher birthrate.

The same is true of those wanting what society has decided is having it "all." Meaning, high-powered career and family with happy, well-adjusted children that you get to spend time with.

My wife and I are child free by choice. Most days, this is a decision I am happy with. When I was younger, I always assumed I would have kids. I like kids. But I have made a choice that children don't really fit into the life that I want for myself. And like Smith argues, I have owned that choice. I don't think that I can have a high-powered career, do all the travel I want, and give kids the kind of parent I'd like to be.

Of course, I have also made choices that mean I am unlikely to have a high-powered career. I work late when necessary, but only when necessary. I am less concerned about getting ahead than I am having a happy marriage. The same is true of my wife. She turned down a tour at the NSS, thought to be a career-maker in the Foreign Service, because she wanted to come to Estonia to study Estonian while living with me. Because we have both decided that at the end of our careers, we want to have each other to share our memories with. And so we have made choices that may slow down our career trajectory but definitely are in the best interests of our marriage.

But I reject too that any of this means we don't have it "all." What I have come to understand is that if you look to society for your definition of having it all, you can never succeed as an individual. You have to decide what it is at the end of the day that makes you happy and go for that. If it is the high-powered career, go for that, but recognize that it means you won't get time for your kids or your pets or your spouse or your hobbies. If you want time with your family, recognize that this means your career may not be as face paced as you'd like. If you want to spend all your time with your kids, be a stay at home parent. All are valid choices, but choices we have to make.

And realize that maybe all for you is not getting to spend as much time with your kids but finding a spouse who will. Or is raising kids who hopefully understand you won't be there for every recital like you'd like but that it doesn't mean you love them less. Or not having kids at all, and still choosing to go home at five to spend time with your husband, wife, or pet. Or to read a book, or train for a marathon.

We all have to decide what work-life balance is for us. No one can decide what "all" is for you. And society isn't going to change for us. Yes, we could, and should, hire more people so that we aren't "doing more with less," the ever constant mantra in the State Department. But even if we did, there would be those who would work those extra hours for whatever perceived advantage it got them.

No one gets society's "all." Not men. Not women. Not single, married, with or without children. We all have to make choices that fit what will best achieve our own personal all. And go for that.

And as an added bonus, let's not make judgments on what someone else's "all" is. Let's all own the choices we make, and make the choices that make us happy.

And by that definition, I have it all. And I hope you do too.


Consul-At-Arms said...

Well said.

Did you see this piece at Outside the Beltway:

Anonymous said...


Heather Dray said...

Very, very well said!

Heather Dray said...

Very, very well said!

Nomads By Nature said...
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st said...

fantastically written! Thank you for so eloquently explaining what I have felt since reading the articles.

Mr. Crab said...

As a fellow FSO child free by choice couple, my wife and I were thrilled to read your post. Well said!

Tabbies in Tow said...

Totally agree - very well said. It seems so easy for the "all" to end up as the "none," frankly.

Unknown said...

this is very well written. I agree with you. Having it all actually is based on a persons idea of all, Unfortantly Many veiw the all on a wide range of things, when having it all sohould be based on what you value most. If family is more important, then making choices about placing family above career will give you "all" that you desire. The term "all" should reflect what each person feels is important to them. Somewhere along the way one has to realize, Such as your Jewish state example, one has to give up something to obtian other things. Base your idea of "all" on the most important,two or three, goals.