Nobody Has It All: Careers We Can Believe In
By now, lots and lots of people know that Anne-Marie Slaughter doesn't have it all. Even though she was extremely high-powered, as Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton for two years, she was not a perfect mom during that time, getting on a train to Washington, D.C. each Monday morning at 5:30 a.m. and returning home late Friday night. Her teenage son wasn't talking to her and her 12-year-old was more bonded to her husband than to her.
She says everything's better now that she's back to her normal “low-powered” job: teaching at Princeton, writing 12,750-word cover stories for The Atlantic, and traveling around the world on the speaking tour in her off-hours. She's more able to be flexible for the inevitable crises of teen boys, and she has a lot of time to think about how the world — especially the U.S. — is set up all wrong to let women be the superstars of home and career we all believe they should be.
If I sound snarky, it's not intended. I'm so much like Anne-Marie, except for the part about “extremely high-powered” and “Hillary Clinton” and “Princeton University.”
I'm Anne-Marie Slaughter!
We're all Anne-Marie Slaughter.
My story began in high school, where I was student body president and valedictorian and an editor for the paper and a “Royal C” athlete. I won a scholarship to a prestigious small liberal arts college and got a degree, with honors. I vaulted straight into investment banking, then Ivy League MBA program, then Merrill Lynch. I got into dotcom management. I was a COO at 29.
This is when I also became pregnant with my first child, a move I blithely thought wouldn't make much difference.
It made a difference to my bosses.
I left that job under bad circumstances (though my boss later hired me back for another project, apologizing for his hasty judgment of me back then) when I failed to successfully juggle 10+-hour days and an infant. By the time I was pregnant with my third boy, I was working for AOL in another pretty high-powered job. One of my bosses announced she was stepping down and I angled to replace her. I had all the requisite experience and skills. The timing was perfect!
They said my impending maternity leave had nothing to do with the fact the job was given to a man (who I admired, to be sure) who had no children.
A year-and-a-half later I was, to be honest, failing. My job really required 10 or more hours a day of absolute focused dedication. My oldest child was — like Anne-Marie Slaughter's — having very desperate behavioral problems, requiring frequent meetings with school officials and early pick-ups. My youngest child was given to angry fits in which he would pull every single thing off my desk and bookshelves. My middle child seemed sweet, but he was seriously speech-delayed and would end up being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (a mild case), only after I'd insisted on not one, but two, months-long and very involved educational assessments.
“I need someone who can give more than 100%,” said my boss.
“I can't do that,” I said.
I quit my job that day. It was the best “quitting” I've ever gone through; I transitioned seamlessly into a freelance position that paid fairly well and required zero conference calls and never ever a traffic report or meaningless growth spreadsheet. Over time I would accept less work when my kids were having a really hard time, and more when they were doing well. I let my husband take over as chief breadwinner (admittedly, this is still something we're working out; it's not easy for either of us, and you'll probably see a column from me soon on money and relationships). I began to have more time to devote to my real passions, including more literary writing. Eventually, I won an award that gave me a leg up into other opportunities, and realized one day that I was traveling upward in another career.
One day some other parents and I decided we should start a parenting literary magazine. And I vowed to myself as I began to never let any of us put this project before our kids, our spouses, or our parents, no matter how great it was or could be. But I don't think any of us have to vow to each other, because it's just assumed. It's part of our fabric now.
What Anne-Marie Slaughter Can't Have
I think Anne-Marie Slaughter did a pretty good job of setting up what she called “revaluing family values.” Her premise is that caring for a family should be as respected as any other work/life balance decisions we make. She compared devoting time to the needs of children to devoting time to training for a marathon; or following an observant faith tradition. Later she suggests that family-friendly policies are an innovation whose time has come.
What she doesn't mention is that it's not only young children who need to be re-valued, but all families; and, in my opinion, this whole life that is outside of work, that everyone has outside of work. Except for some creative pursuits (I often tell myself that, for a writer, every minute of every day is part of my work), there is no job that can exist without some life outside of it.
In a discussion on the radio here in Portland, I couldn't help but call in and tell my story. Later a man called in who said something like, “You mothers need to stop complaining about your kids and get to work! That's your real life, work!”
I can't agree. I believe that a career — even a super rewarding career made up out of whole cloth, like mine, or a super important career, like directing international policy or working in a pediatric emergency room — should never be “real life.” Real life is what your career should support. And any time your career is encroaching so much that you have no real life, that you are calling in to radio stations and claiming real life equals work, I fear that you may be missing the point of all this.
There may not be plentiful jobs out there, but there are plentiful ways of finding a better life by making different choices. They are things we talk about every day here at Get Rich Slowly, whether it is choices to rent an apartment instead of buying a house; or riding a bike or taking the bus instead of driving; or sending your kids to public school instead of private. Whatever job you have, I guarantee that there is — somewhere out there — a job that demands somewhat less than all of your life.
You know the cliche about people on their deathbeds never saying, “oh, I wish I'd worked harder!” (It's cliche, but true.) Whether you call your offspring and your spouse your family; or your siblings and parents; or you've created a family that's less traditional, with neighbors and friends not connected by blood; I doubt anyone really wants to be the guy or gal who has achieved everything that our society agrees equals “having it all” at the expense of any loved ones.
My friend and babysitter used to work at the airport, preparing airplanes for the wealthy people who have their own. He was telling me Tuesday night about a billionaire who has every success one could imagine: He founded one of the biggest companies in the world. He was vastly wealthy and dated famous, beautiful people. He owned sports teams. (I won't go on, because it'll be too obvious.)
But every time he got into a jet or a limo he would sit in his seat without talking to the people around him, nearly all of whom were always paid employees. He was alone and silent. Perhaps once he arrived at one of his mansions or apartments he conducted some richly happy life, but to all appearances he was miserable.
Getting It All
Whether or not the billionaire is happy is beside the point, really. I have my own life, and I will probably never found one of the biggest companies in the world. I probably won't get the Nobel Peace Prize nor work for the President. I think back to that job I wanted when I was pregnant with my youngest and I am only happy I didn't get it. I think back to my life as an investment banker and remember how great the work was, how great the money was, and how conflicted I would be every day if I did that now.
I'm happy now — stressed and busy and not at all wealthy and happy. And if I could give job seekers any advice it would be to tell all about how much you love your family in that interview. “I can do the job and will do it well,” you should say, “but I do love my time with my kids/spouse/siblings/rich community of friends.”
If you're not hired because of this, I would be willing to bet this will avoid a future of conflicts over which is, indeed, your “real life.”