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In which I go on for ages about a completely new topic

This is totally off-topic from what I normally talk about here, but what the heck. Have you read the (very lengthy) Anne-Marie Slaughter piece in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All? Really interesting stuff. I chose the opposite track from Dr. Slaughter, I’m more than a decade behind her in parenting and life, and I’ve made choices that all but guarantee that I’ll never be in any seriously powerful career position. But I made those choices in a really informed way, and I’ve been very grateful for the thought I put into it many, many years ago, in addition to the luck/flexibility I’ve ended up having now. (That is to say, my choices do not reflect on yours! Everyone goes about this differently and I respect whatever arrangement you’ve made. Also I know I’m lucky to be able to choose to stay home rather than have a choice made for me for whatever reason.)

From the article:
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.

Before my senior year of college I was very seriously considering law school. I come from a family packed with lawyers of every stripe–judges, ADAs, corporate types–and I’d always really enjoyed talking through their cases, pulling the facts apart, understanding how they argued one side or the other, etc. I’m a logical thinker and in general really felt like the law was the flip side of the coin for me, if I didn’t pursue my by-then-almost-a-decade-old journalism dreams. (What can I say, I latched onto this career very young!) I spent some time that summer shadowing my uncle, then a corporate defense litigator and partner at a big firm in Portland. I spoke with as many of the women in the office as I could, especially the ones who had come from the white-shoe firms in NYC, where I assumed I’d end up, and asked them about work-life balance. I will never forget one of them looking at 20-year-old me and saying “Honestly? There were two female litigating partners in my office. One never had kids, and the other would send out memos when her nanny was on vacation asking things like where to buy kids’ shoes or easter candy.”

The same summer, a friend loaned me Flux, by Peggy Orenstein, and I read it in about two days. The book says a lot of what Dr. Slaughter does, that very few women can actually “have it all,” and no matter which path we choose we tend to end up questioning ourselves.

I went back to school determined to stick with journalism, and I never bothered to take the LSAT. I didn’t want to choose a path where if I eventually wanted to stay home with kids (and if I’m honest, I always assumed I would) it would be at a crucial point in my career where, as one of my uncle’s colleagues said, stepping a toe off the conveyor belt would mean giving up any chance of getting where I wanted to go. I graduated, interned, temped, and eventually worked my way onto the staff at Fortune, and then just when I’d gotten the promotion that meant I could really begin pursuing my own bigger stories, I quit to get married and move to New Hampshire for a year. A year in consulting after we moved to Boston, followed by a couple years of full-time freelance work, and then Tuck came along and here I am. I do a couple freelance pieces for Fortune each year, and I have other projects here and there, but 90% of the time I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be doing something else.

That said, I still have moments of real doubt, where I question where I’ve ended up. Did I squander my potential? Where would I be if I’d stayed in NYC (the answer for an awful lot of my colleagues is “laid off,” so…), or even if I’d been more ambitious once I actually got the job? Am I lazy? What will I do for a Second Act when my kids are in school? It’s not like full-time magazine work is thick on the ground in New York these days, much less Boston, and is that what I’d want, and where would I be going back into the hierarchy? One of the things that was hard to take when I was in consulting was starting at the New-College-Grad level despite seven years of work experience, since I was jumping industries. Will I look back when I’m in my late 30s and wish I’d stayed on *some* conveyor belt, or will continuing to write and blog and freelance be enough to keep a toe on?

When I was at Fortune I got into a pitched battle with a very senior (female) writer about CEOs in the Fortune 500. She is of the generation that has fought for every step up the ladder in male-dominated fields, and her career is her life, from what I saw. I was probably about 25 at the time, and I remember she asked me when I thought my generation would get to the 50-50 split in terms of CEO slots. I thought she was joking, but when I realized she was serious I said “That will never happen.” She was FURIOUS, but I stuck to my guns–as I told her, I think my generation is less willing to make the sacrifices her generation did, and in any group of 100 equally-qualified men and women there will never be as many women willing to give up what they would have to give up to be a CEO. I was amused to see Slaughter mention the generation gap in her article:

Only recently have I begun to appreciate the extent to which many young professional women feel under assault by women my age and older. After I gave a recent speech in New York, several women in their late 60s or early 70s came up to tell me how glad and proud they were to see me speaking as a foreign-policy expert. A couple of them went on, however, to contrast my career with the path being traveled by “younger women today.” One expressed dismay that many younger women “are just not willing to get out there and do it.” Said another, unaware of the circumstances of my recent job change: “They think they have to choose between having a career and having a family.”

And yet she closes her intro by saying the best hope for changing our current situation is to have 50-50 representation everywhere from the Senate to the C-Suite. That, I’m afraid, is putting the cart before the horse. People like me won’t choose a path that leads to a position of power when we look to those positions and see nothing but sacrifice. (Side note: The year I argued about women CEOs the Most Powerful Women cover story was about stay-at-home husbands. And when Dr. Slaughter addresses the husband issue, she rightly points out that assuming marriage to a man willing to pull more weight with the kids solves the problem doesn’t address how women vs. men feel about being away from their kids. The section talking about this very sensitive topic is *fascinating.*)

One last thing. I loved this from a Q&A about the story on the NY Times parenting blog:
We need to have managers who will look at someone who’s still in the office at midnight and say, look, you’re not managing your time as well as the person who can do the same amount of work and be out of here by 6:30. Then, things change.

Seriously. I remember one of my editors used to be out of the office by 6:30 or so almost every night, and yet her section was always the first one finished. She managed her writers and her own time exceptionally well; why should she stay until 11? This is why I prefer to bill my freelance work by the project, not by the hour: I work fast and I write fast, and I don’t think I should be penalized for it.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to write about this. Maybe because I think almost everyone I know is struggling with some aspect of it, or has in the past, and we need to be honest about our fears. It’s sensitive stuff, made harder to discuss by the fact that I think everyone tends to get a little defensive and assume they’re being judged, no matter which decision they made. Ugh. If you get a chance to read the article, do. I’m interested to discuss with anyone who is in the mood!

6 comments to In which I go on for ages about a completely new topic

  • [...] people are all over that article in the Atlantic.  Kate has an interesting take on the notion of having it all here.  One of my favorite takes in the [...]

  • Deb

    Hey Kate… Yeah, so we’re all talking and thinking about it. I liked the story about the conversation with the senior Fortune writer. I often think that Boomers are so clueless about what our generation wants/needs. I also thought it was interesting that you always thought you would stay home with the kids, whereas I never thought I would. Anyway… thanks for your thoughts. :)

  • Kate

    Ha, just catching up on Google Reader and saw your post. Lots of food for thought, right?

  • Suzanne

    Kate – you wrote:

    ” I’ve made choices that all but guarantee that I’ll never be in any seriously powerful career position.”

    We really need to talk because I used to think that, too!

  • Kate

    Aunt Suzanne–
    HA!! Excellent point.

  • Laetitia

    Hi Kate,
    Very interesting topic indeed. I think about it all the time. I made the opposite decisions you made. I used to think women could definitely have it all. Then just last week, one incredible opportunity came along, perfect fit for the job, great job title, more than twice what I earn today… required that I worked much longer hours. A dream come true as far as career progression goes. I turned it down. One quarter of me was livid. The other three quarters, well, I have a wonderful 17-month old who is on my mind every day and I cannot live without seeing his smiley face, and I’m pregnant with the second one. The choice was made for me in a way. And the “sacrifice” became a new mentality all together: I know what my priorities are. Not easy though as banking is demanding and not working-mum-friendly but I’m working on it to achieve a level of balance I’ll be ultimately happy with. Can I say I have it all? (goes back to how one defines “all”) Just not everything I want or thought I wanted but I feel I have all of what is important to me today.
    Tks for posting and starting a very interesting discussion.

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