Thu. June 28
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
The interviewer looked forlorn. “I pull out pictures of my kids while I ride the train into the City,” he told me. “I commute over an hour each way, and I work long hours,” he explained as he went off script.
The interviewer, a partner at the prestigious New York City law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, fought back tears. “Most weeks,” he said, “these pictures are the closest I come to seeing my children.”
In an unexpected moment of candor, he was not only off script but way off message. He had abandoned any pretense of trying to persuade me that I would want the job he might offer.
So began my introduction, twenty years ago in law school, to the issue now euphemistically called “work-life balance”–the inevitable dissonance professionals face when pursuing success in a demanding career while raising a family.
Most well-educated, high-functioning women can relate. In the nonstop race to achieve both career and family goals, they work around the clock in the office and at home to continue accumulating the gold stars they started winning in kindergarten and somehow never stopped.
They question their choices even as they make them, ever-seeking that perfectly optimal and equally elusive balance of work and family life.
“The women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed,” Anne-Marie Slaughter argued recently in a controversial Atlantic essay now spreading like wildfire among Facebook friends–conservative, liberal, and in between–and others online.
Slaughter, a tenured professor at Princeton University who served for two years in a high-level State Department job, set out to explain her own struggle and career choices. After down-shifting her government career for the sake of her family–that, and Princeton University’s public-service leave policy, under which “after two years of leave, you lose your tenure”–Slaughter calls for changes in the social and economic order so that women like her need not face the same intractably difficult decision.
Slaughter, the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, relates her avowed determination to “not drop the flag for the next generation.”
By “next generation,” she means young women, not the two teenage sons living under her own roof. When her son’s midweek emergencies forced her several times to return home from Washington to Princeton, the balance began to change and “the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet.”
Most people would characterize Slaughter’s imagined travails as high-class problems. She has degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard. She has “written or edited six books” and “over 100 articles.” And she spends her time “publishing op-eds in major newspapers, magazines and blogs” and “curating foreign policy news for over 20,000 followers on Twitter.”
Happily married to a husband who spent more time with their kids than she did, she moved to Washington for two years while her husband raised their two healthy boys back home in Princeton.
She wants women to be able to succeed in both their careers and their family lives simultaneously, lamenting that “a balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men” without offering any persuasive evidence for that claim.
High achievers allocating scarce resources–whether an extra half hour or an extra bit of energy–tend to direct those resources toward efforts that return the most immediately recognizable achievements. Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen pointed out the pernicious effect this can have on professionals balancing career and family.
The business of raising children is a decades-long process. There are no quick hits on the home front, no immediate gold stars from an extra half hour of effort. As a result, “people who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers — even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness,” Christensen observed.
His observation recalls some career advice I received early on as a young lawyer in a major law firm. “You cannot be a good mother and a partner in a national law firm,” a partner told me when I was pregnant with my first child and working long hours at the firm.
“It’s no different for men,” I shot back, knowing some of the struggles he had with his grown children. “Being a good father is directly at odds with being a partner in a national law firm,” I said.
He instantly retreated, offended at first, only to acknowledge my point just a few hours later. Visibly pained, he recalled the constant trade-offs he had made over the years in his own family life to succeed in his career.
Slaughter is quite right that women still can’t have it all. But then neither can men. Those who work their way to professional success may find themselves staring longingly at wallet-size photos of children they rarely see.
Both women and men of all ages want to find success in all areas of their lives, but Mick Jagger was closer to the mark than Slaughter: You can’t always get what you want.
By its nature, achievement is uncommonly noteworthy and difficult. Were it otherwise, we wouldn’t call it achievement. In the realm of human endeavor, C. S. Lewis said, the claim to equality “is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior.”
“No man who says I’m as good as you believes it,” Lewis said. “The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain.”
Mandating success creates a hollow victory, one that will not satisfy. “Everyone’s special,” Dash’s mother says to him in The Incredibles, to which Dash replies: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
You can’t always get what you want. But choose your own definition of success, and you might get what you need.
Gayle Trotter is a writer, lawyer, and mother of six who lives in Washington, DC.