Two cultural events have caught our attention this season. One is the stern graduation speech at Wellesley (Mass.) High School in which teacher David McCullough Jr. told pampered students, ”Do not get the idea you're anything special.” The other was an article in The Atlantic magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled, ”Why Women Still Can't Have It All.”
Somehow the two belong together.
Slaughter's story: While deeply engaged as a high official in the Obama State Department (after serving as dean at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs), she decided that her two teenage sons needed more of her presence and so left the helm to spend more time at home.
The conclusion: Ambitious women can't have it all.
The implication: They ought to.
My confusion: What the heck do you mean by ”it”?
The one thing that's clear: There's never enough of ”it.”
Slaughter seems to divide the Earth's rotation into two halves — scrambling up the pole of executive power and raising reasonably well-adjusted children. Her complaint is that corporate America doesn't give female competitors time flexibility to succeed at both tasks. Nor does it respect the feat of motherhood.
I really do want to sympathize with the sisters, including those like Slaughter with money and helpful husbands. It's probably true that women could accomplish more if they didn't have to work on someone else's schedule. But that would be the case for men, as well.
Slaughter rightly complains that the culture of ”time macho” — putting in all-nighters and 60-hour weeks — penalizes those seeking work-family balance. Trouble is, no amount of high-quality child care and control of the clock changes this hard reality: There are only 24 hours in the day.
I asked a college-degreed friend, a mother raising three kids full time, what she thought of Slaughter's dilemma. Her three-letter response was ”Duh.”
Meanwhile, this micro-organizing of life into either work or family seems itself narrow. There are other things to do: Play the guitar. Watch sunsets. Chat with friends. Worship. Barbecue ribs. Ride horses. Bet on horses. Get a good night's sleep. The worker-drone existence also swallows male executives, at the expense of their cultural growth and pleasure. Are they having it all?
Incredibly, Slaughter refers to a 10-month sabbatical she, her husband and their children took in Shanghai as a time of merely treading water, as ”putting money in the family bank.” How many Americans get paid sabbaticals? What Slaughter regarded as one of the ”plateaus” in her career, others would consider the pinnacle.
A basic problem for Slaughter, really, is that she needs ”rubbies” from strangers. Rather than quietly accepting the trade-offs she's made, she demands recognition for taking care of her family. When giving a lecture on foreign affairs, for example, she insists that the person introducing her note that she has two sons, like she deserves a medal for that.
Here's where McCullough's graduation talk comes in. Many commentators misread it as a pure dressing-down of entitled kids whom elders call ”genius” after every right answer. There was much of that in the speech, but also the more spiritual questioning of a life centered on making big money, accumulating fame or otherwise racking up points on a scoreboard designed by others.
”I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance,” was the take-home line. (I'd add some money would be nice.)
A life of self-imposed drudgery in the quest for having others think you're special sounds pretty grim. Slaughter talks of striving female professionals wanting role models who make ”it” all work. A more useful inquiry might be into exactly what the models should be modeling.