There’s an expression my husband and I use whenever we catch ourselves griping about unimportant stuff. It might sound racist and sexist, but you’ll get the point. “That’s a white people’s problem,” we say.
Some examples of white people’s problems are running out of Starbucks coffee at the cottage, or your kid not getting into Dal. Barring catastrophic illnesses and accidents, most of the problems of the upper-middle class – whatever their skin colour – are white people’s problems. They are the kind of problems that 99 per cent of the human race can only dream of having.
Anne-Marie Slaughter has white people’s problems. That is the only way to summarize her much-discussed cover story in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. In it, she reveals her dismay at the discovery that being a good mother is sometimes incompatible with having an elite career. Quelle horreur!
Ms. Slaughter is no dummy. She is a renowned foreign-policy expert who, as she acknowledges, teaches a full course load at Princeton, writes regular print and online columns on foreign policy, gives 40 to 50 speeches a year; appears often on TV and radio, and is writing a book. The ultimate goal of her work is to improve the lives of people to whom the world is brutally unfair. This article isn’t about that. It’s about how tough life has been to her, as well as to other highly gifted, high-achieving women who are struggling to juggle family and career.
Her problems began after she landed her dream job at the State Department, where she “sipped champagne” with the most powerful people in the world. Her job was all-consuming. Her family stayed behind in Princeton, where her extremely supportive husband looked after their two sons. She went home on weekends and left to go back to work at 5:30 on Monday mornings. The whole thing came unglued when her 14-year-old ran into trouble. He began disrupting classes and flunking school. She decided her only option was to quit her job and move back.
But of course that wasn’t her only option. She could have stifled her guilt and carried on, the way men do all the time. I’m not saying that she should have. I’m just saying that she had a choice.
“Among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men,” she pronounces. But how true is that, really? My impression is that anybody who takes a top job in the power centre of the universe can pretty much kiss a balanced life goodbye. Anyone who doesn’t know this in advance must be an idiot.
Ms. Slaughter also seems surprised to have discovered that even if you are the most organized, efficient parent in the world, sometimes your kids need you on their schedule, not yours. And even if kids have nurturing, supportive dads, sometimes they need their mothers. No matter how brilliant and important your career may be, sometimes your kids come first.
Ms. Slaughter regrets that these untidy realities have destroyed the gender balance in the Obama administration. After four years of pressure-cooker politics, the White House is now almost entirely male. The women left for family reasons. (So did many of the men.) The truth is that no matter how you try to level the playing field, men and women tend to calculate their family obligations very differently. High-achieving dads are more inclined to let their families fend for themselves while they’re busy changing the world (although this too is changing). High-achieving moms are more likely to decide their families need them more than their country does.
I know other moms who’ve been in Ms. Slaughter’s fix. One was a prominent executive who was at the top of her career when her adolescent daughter ran into serious trouble. She dropped out of school and took up various forms of self-abuse. Mom asked for – and got – a leave of absence for a year so that she could hang around and just be there for her. I had two reactions to this decision: Good for her. And wasn’t she lucky that she had an understanding employer and could afford to take the leave. Most working women aren’t so fortunate.
There’s still a lot to do to make workplaces more family-friendly. As Ms. Slaughter rightly argues, the tyranny of face time needs a serious rethink. So does the necessity of business travel. Some work environments are still so macho that that they ought to spike the drinking water with estrogen. But some work environments will always be inherently unfair to people who put family first. You can’t run the White House like a daycare centre.
Ms. Slaughter has lots of advice for ambitious younger women, such as: Freeze your eggs if your career gets in the way. But life and kids don’t work like that. You can plan your future like a PowerPoint presentation, but it probably won’t turn out the way you think.
The most important thing to know about having children is that they have a way of upsetting every plan you’ve got. The best time to have them is when you have a loving and reliable partner, and don’t wait too long to find one of those or else it really will be too late. Also, life’s not always kind or fair. But even when it’s not, don’t get too fussed over white people’s problems.