Can anyone have it all? Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent cover story in Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” unleashed a firestorm of controversy on just this question, including a stream of Twitters under the hashtag “Having It All.” Just when we thought it was over, Yahoo’s new CEO announced she was pregnant but would not by taking more than a few weeks off to give birth. Marissa Mayer called maternity leave outdated and unnecessary in a world where we can be “on” 24/7, thanks to technology. Slaughter wants a society in which men and women can more gracefully balance work and family life, while Mayer asserts that she will parent the way highly powerful men always have and give her all to her work.
Many others have commented on the very privileged positions of both women who do not struggle with the more serious difficulties that mark the lives of single mothers and minimum wage workers. I concur, but Slaughter is well aware of her privilege, yet notes that her transition from professor and Dean at Princeton to director of policy planning at the State Department meant that she had a more “typical” job in that she was “working long hours on someone else’s schedule.”
This is typical, as is the dilemma Slaughter sets out: she wants to be the most successful woman she can be, she wants to see women in positions of power, but living in Washington during the week while parenting in New Jersey on the weekends just doesn’t cut it.
The solutions Slaughter proposes are reasonable: beyond family leave (which she assumes is still necessary) we have to:
1. Challenge the culture of “time macho,” with its unrelenting pressures to work longer and harder.
2. Revalue family, by rewarding employees who make time for their spouses, parents, and kids.
3. Redefine the arc of a successful career, acknowledging that working parents who “take time off periodically” (think Michelle Obama) will peak later in life.
4. Rediscover the pursuit of happiness, especially in our family lives.
As a working Catholic mother of three, I value this call for individual and institutional change. I know that the balance I have been able to achieve owes a great deal to the flexibility of academia. I hope that more people will eventually have more balanced lives.
One of things that initially attracted me to feminism was its radical vision of a society in which work and family were deeply integrated. I find a similar balance in contemporary Catholic social teaching (see Familiaris Consortio no. 23), which affirms the work of women in the world and their work as mothers in the home (though I wish more were said about men).
But I hope “having it all” isn’t defined simply as balancing family time with the drive for success. I worry when people like Slaughter call family “the dimension of my life that is most important to me” or “my real life” while Mayer’s supporters describe work as their life and seem to ignore the work and joy of home. The Catholic tradition wisely rejects a division between meaningful home life and self-centered work. For Christians, as Pope Benedict so beautifully pointed out in Caritas in veritate, all is self-gift. A good life is not about having it all, but about giving it all in love, both at work and at home.