Unpacking the ‘having it all’ trap

August 19, 2012 23:35 0 comments

Second wave feminists have left us with the gift of opportunity. The notion of that women can do anything, or ‘Have it all’, is perhaps its most important message, and the belief structure behind record numbers of women in management and executive positions in the UK and United States.


Rochelle Burgess and Teresa Whitney


Ironically, it seems that this gift has come with a price. The idea that it is possible for women to be both successful working professionals and mothers, able to manage the demands of motherhood and a successful career has gained renewed public attention via the recent article Why women can´t have it all.

The author, the Princeton professor and former director of policy planning at the US State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has stirred a significant amount of debate on the Internet and around water coolers in the past few weeks, inspiring similar articles at the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNN, the Independent, and a second article in the Atlantic.

It’s no doubt that women are tormented by this pressure. The debate turns over and over again in their minds, as they attempt to tick off a social to-do list: job (the definition of success largely dependent on salary), large and varied social circle, homeowner, husband, and children. And let’s not forget that pesky ‘perfect body’ obsession.

It’s a tall order we create for ourselves (which is so kindly reinforced by media representations that it has imbed itself not as an option, but as a necessity).

Slaughter argues that the feminist ideal of having it all is a myth that has never been attainable. In the push for equality, some feminists have argued that it is possible, that as long as you manage your time well, you can be both a successful professional and a great mother.

In today’s economy and social mindset, Slaughter asserts, this is just not possible. Women are constantly pulled in competing directions by society’s expectations of them.

If you spend more time on the job, you are neglecting your children. If you spend more time with your children, you will never succeed professionally. This double bind is built upon assumptions about what it means to be a woman, a mother, a professional.

We are caught up in society’s (and, in fact, our own) assumptions about these roles, but that does not mean that it must always be this way.

We are surrounded by the notion that a woman can be both a good mother and a good professional, if she can manage her time well.

This, however, places the onus completely on the individual, ignoring the societal restraints that she must work within and struggle against.

Slaughter argues that this can change, via changing the way we work (working more remotely), placing more emphasis on family values, redefining a successful career path, focusing more on the pursuit of happiness, corporate policy innovation, and recruiting men to the cause. But it’s very likely going to take more than that.

As the Independent’s Laurie Penny points out, Slaughter’s article focuses on a very narrow demographic: Western, largely white women – who, unsurprisingly, start their journey from positions of privilege.

These women are not representative of the average woman. One of the glaring absences of the ‘having it all’ debate is the recognition that not all types of work are created equal.

What about women who are professional care-givers (i.e., nurses, daycare workers, teachers, nannies, maids/cleaners, etc.) – can they have it all? It seems in taking up the claim that we can ‘have it all’, the only forms of work that are validated in this process are quintessential ideals of ‘men’s work’ – and that in order to be successful, women must succeed in male dominated arenas.

Women may only find ‘true’ feminist liberation by “high-heeling their way up the corporate ladder,” and if they don’t feel liberated or empowered, “they only have themselves to blame.” Penny questions if we’ll ever see the day when “personal freedom for women means the same as it does for men”.

Slaughter quotes Lisa Jackson, stating that she too wants a world in which strong women “don’t have to give up on the things that define you as woman.” She defines this as “respecting, enabling, and indeed celebrating the full range of women’s choices.” We argue, however, that society would be better served if we continue to critically redefine what it means to be a ‘woman’, or a parent the first place.

Anne Marie Slaughter

There are still many gaps within this discussion. We cannot talk about women’s roles as parents or professionals without discussing the role(s) men play. Socially, we still focus on only ‘women’ as the primary parent – so much so that media campaigns are continually skewed in that direction. Our definitions of good parenting – for both men and women, remain marred by these old norms. Why must the definition of a good mother be so different from that of a good father? Can’t both just be a good parent? Same sex couples trying to raise families are already familiar with the downsides of this debate.

Another important argument resides in the decision whether or not to have children in the first place.

This ‘unspeakable’ option, highlighted in a recent piece by Sociologist Lisa Wade, reminds us that, while it is a viable option, it likely gets very little attention because we are too busy re-enforcing one of the oldest norms about women’s societal value: that a woman must, at some stage, bear children.

If a history of developmental psychology tells us nothing else, it is that the role of parents, and most often mothers, is CRUCIAL to rising positive and healthy children and adults.

If we continue to live in systems where women are not adequately supported in this process during their career plans, then kids are suffering. And it’s no one’s fault.

It’s just how the system forces it to be. Babies need parents or caregivers who are present, just as much as society needs more women in politics and positions of power.

But, beyond this, we should also consider that in a world of 7 billion people, having more kids may actually do more harm than good (Wade particularizes western kids who are raised in cultures of consumers to hammer in that point).

But to make this option a possibility, we need to present the ideal that a full and meaningful life can be imagined in the absence of children.

And the worst case scenario? Perhaps a shift back to views of communities raising children: aunties and uncles who play significant and critical roles in developing the leaders of tomorrow. Men who remain childless bachelors are rarely penalized for such decisions to the extent that women are.

On the flip side, men who make decisions to stay at home with children are ridiculed for such decisions, finding their ‘manhood’ critiqued in the process.

Facilitating women having it all, or something close to that, will become easier when it is socially acceptable for a man to be a stay-at-home father and when we live in a world where ‘women-ness’ isn’t automatically associated with bearing children.

We need policies that promote a multiplicity of roles involved with child rearing – including suitable maternity leave, and paternity leave, equal coverage for same-sex couples, and adoption-leave.

We need a social shift that re-engages with the valuable role of extended families (who themselves aren’t extended because they have their own family responsibilities) in caring for children. The sooner that happens, the sooner some of that pressure associated with having it all can disappear from the shoulders, and psyches of young women.

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