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Monday, June 25, 2012
AN American woman named Anne-Marie Slaughter, first female director of policy planning at the State Department in the Obama administration, has gone and said it.
Said what? Said that women can’t have it all. She’s said it in Atlantic magazine (Atlantic.com) at some length — maybe 10 times the length of the column you’re currently reading, thereby generating a storm of comment, roughly equivalent to the storm a few weeks back when another American female executive went to bat for the right to cry at work. Cry as in tears and sobs.
Ms Slaughter is no longer in her prestigious former State Department job. She gave it up because her teenage son was "skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adults who tried to reach him."
The bottom line, hammered home by the magazine cover, is that women can’t have it all, and — says Ms Slaughter — the younger generation of women have stopped listening (to older feminists) "on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality".
Of course she’s right. If the older generation of women had ever said that women could have it all, never mind ‘glibly repeated it’ or airbrushed reality. If.
The problem is that it’s quite difficult to find any feminist in their 70s, 60s or 50s who ever claimed that women could "have it all". At the recent 50-year celebration of the Late Late Show, I sat behind one of Ireland’s most famous feminists, Nell McCafferty, and across the aisle from another, Mary Kenny. Neither of them, to my knowledge, ever suggested that women could have it all. They had a simpler objective: To make sure women got what they were entitled to as human beings and Irish citizens. Modest stuff like that.
But then, it’s difficult to find any sane human of any gender who would make that wildly imprecise claim about having it all. "All" could mean giving birth to eight children, becoming chief executive of a multinational and winning an Olympic medal for synchronised swimming. Or it could mean three children breast-fed until primary school, garnering an MBA and becoming taoiseach.
Nobody in their right mind ever suggested that women could have it all. Or that men could, either. If the force is with you and the wind is in the right direction then, whether you’re male or female, you can get to the top of your profession, have children, get rich and even (shhhh — it’s probably illegal and certainly unacceptable in current circumstances) be happy. Some of the time. But former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once told a colleague who asked what screwed up most political plans: "Events, dear boy, events." Events screw up the most successful lives. Events like car crashes, cancer, recessions, children with autism, parents with dementia. Indiscriminate random events wait around every corner for everyone. But people (male and female) who have jobs that require them to motivate others tend not to focus on negative happenstance. This may lead unrealistic observers to believe that bad things don’t happen to them. They do.
The interesting thing is that almost any reasonably successful woman gets asked in media interviews questions that no comparably successful man gets asked. They get asked the "can you have it all?" question. If they have children, they get asked the guilt question — the one that implies they went to work, demonstrating ruthless personal ambition, even when their toddler had croup, mange, worms, and at least two broken legs. Fathers get a free pass on the guilt question.
Most women in this situation suggest modestly that they’re terribly lucky and have a supportive husband. Some (notably Miriam O’Callaghan) suggest that their grandparents and great-grandparents had twice as many babies and worked much longer hours than any 21st century mother, so let’s not get too overwrought about it.
Ms Slaughter doesn’t mind long hours, but she says the workplace doesn’t favour family life. She makes sensible proposals. Like that people might work from home one day a week (which, although she doesn’t say so, would have profound environmental benefits) and that countries should match their school holidays to work schedules or the other way around, so that parents don’t have to make major choices about who takes unpaid leave if it’s available, to take care of the kids during the long summer holidays.
Lots of people will agree with that, and lots of working men and women will sympathise with her problem of a rebellious teenage son. Indeed, sympathy may not cover it. The Atlantic magazine feature has broken readership records for the online edition, and there’s a good chance some readers will feel a shiver up their spines at the very thought of having such a son.
Well, here’s the truth, folks. Families where the mother has been a full-time homemaker still, now and again, develop 14-year-olds ready to write a new chapter in the horrible history of troubled adolescence. Hormones on the hoof are not readily tamed by a mother staying home to make fairy cakes.
Ah now, I hear you say. You should listen to this Slaughter woman. She’s prepared to put her career on the line, to sacrifice her personal ambitions, in order to straighten out a son she wasn’t seeing sufficiently often. That has to be admirable, right? Sorry, but no. Rewind here, just for a moment.
FIRST of all, Ms Slaughter hasn’t gone home to tend to her son’s problems. She’s gone back to her former job as a professor in a university. She would have lost tenure if she’d stayed away from that job much longer. Got that, have you? Right.
Secondly, there’s no evidence that her son wants any increased maternal presence. She says he hasn’t talked to her in months. But more importantly, his father has been his primary carer (along with his brother) in order to free her to fully express her ambitions. Bully for the husband. Not so great that his wife should go global with a piece which suggests that he has failed and that it’s time for Mommy dearest to put down her briefcase (well, partly put it down) and fill whatever gaps he has failed to fill in their son’s formation.
Thirdly, this piece wasn’t written anonymously. This piece identifies her husband by name and academic title. Ergo establishes beyond contradiction who her obstreperous son is. And, in case all his peers missed his mother peeing on him from a great height, the magazine runs a massive photograph of her on a couch, embracing both her sons and smiling sweetly at the camera.
He’s not named in the caption; neither is his younger brother, but their privacy has been grievously invaded nonetheless. Particularly the privacy of the troubled one. By their mother — in an ostensible vindication of family life.
Any parent who decides to sacrifice their personal ambitions in order to spend more quality time with their children is praiseworthy. That’s not what has happened in this case. In this case, a young man has been sacrificed to make a confused and largely invalid point. Neither good feminism nor good mothering.
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