Women “Having it All?”: Our Culture of Exhaustion

Sun, June 24, 2012

Mom Vote 2012

We haven’t had a guest “mother of intention” for a while, but my wonderful friend Carol Schiller was sharing some amazing thoughts about the recent “debate” about whether women can have it all.  So I persuaded her to share her thoughts with us, and she’s probably going to be sorry, because after this, I’m going to ask her to writer more posts!

In her excellent article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” former Woodrow Wilson School Dean and tenured Princeton professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter tackles the canard that modern women can expect to combine megawatt career success with domestic felicity.

In making her case, Slaughter tackles Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s well-circulated commencement address at Barnard College last year, in which Sandberg described women who don’t “lean in” to their careers as hard and as long as they possibly can as, well, disappointing.

Sandberg told the class of 2011:

We try at Facebook to keep all of our employees thinking big all day. We have these posters in red we put around the walls. One says, “Fortune favors the bold.” Another says, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

(Apparently, Facebook is not a place where the faint of heart are made to feel welcome.) Sandberg followed up her depiction of the office decor with this exhortation:

Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire.

That sounds nice. But maybe better would be: don’t confuse fear with desire. That is, don’t confuse your fear of what society expects with what you actually want.

Slaughter gets many things right, especially her critique of Sandberg, but I wish she had gone further. She doesn’t really challenge the culture of success itself, only the method by which success is to be achieved. After all, this is still a society in which even the pursuit of happiness has become a full time project.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about a goal and going full bore on it. But at the end of the day, if even being happy is a project, complete with it’s own to do list, what have we got left where we can just wing it?

In her eye-opening book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain does a superb job of both describing and critiquing our modern culture of personal success, and demonstrates convincingly how this culture has come to dominate our educational and professional environments. Is it really any wonder that it has taken over our notions of motherhood and personal satisfaction too?

Thus today, everyone is supposed to have a “bucket list”, and woe to the timid, who put things like “go skinny-dipping” on it. Today’s bucket lists are packed with skydiving and Everest climbs, trips to Tahiti and entrepreneurship.

And moms? Well, who has a bigger list of must-dos or else than moms? According to both Sandberg and Slaughter, we had better add finding the right husband to the list, too. Pick the wrong guy and your career is torpedoed for sure.

Slaughter describes today’s working moms in glowing terms, comparing them favorably to marathoners in training. One working mom is even praised as having developed a method of microwaving her food that saves precious seconds each day.

“They [moms] work like crazy, they just work flexibly!” we are told gleefully in the video interview that accompanies the online version of the Atlantic article.

Why is this sort of ruthless domestic efficiency considered admirable? Because this is the only way to get employers to buy in to flexible work schedules? I don’t want to live in a world where my everyday life is run as exhaustingly as a marathon. Do you?

And if combining motherhood with career means doing this, is it any wonder that the relatively small number of women who actually have the luxury of choosing say, “No thanks.”?

An entrepreneur once told me, “I’ll relax when I’m rich.” This is the culture we live in. But I’m not buying it anymore, and I guess neither are a lot of moms. It’s time we reclaim our right to do nothing while the food is in the microwave. And to recover our peace of mind. Whether other people think we’ve “earned” it or not.

Carol Schiller is the Social Media Director at Cozi, the leading calendar and list app for organizing a busy family. A mom of three school-age kids, Carol currently lives in the Seattle area and blogs irregularly at her eponymous website. Disclosure: Carol is a graduate of Barnard College, mentioned in the article.

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8 Responses to “Women “Having it All?”: Our Culture of Exhaustion”

  1. Redstocking Grandma Says:

    The Mommy Wars mean inhumane corporate capitalism has it all. I admit I am more committed to America’s children than to any adult. Parents struggle desperately to hold onto what they have, and children take psychiatric drugs by the millions.

    Dear Human Beings, Not one of you will ever have it all. Love God. No URL

  2. mamikaze Says:

    I I have been in this circular discussion with my husband. Working from home is a trade-off to offset daycare costs. Working from home means I can’t have a June Cleaver house. I enjoy my work but he is allowed to speak up if I submerge into it and lose track of family time. Balance is a fallacy. It’s about priorities. We will eat frozen lasagna so we can take the dogs for a walk. We will drive used cars so we can send the kids to dance class. I know too many families that run themselves into the ground working and lament over how they can’t keep their house Martha Stewart clean. Puh-lease. Dirty socks build character and Martha has a people to clean her house.

  3. Moomettes Magnificents Says:

    As someone who started working full-time in the 70s, the answer is still No, you can’t have it all. Don’t even think about trying to. I came across a Pinterest post recently that illustrates this emphatically, and I paraphrase, “Nobody every said on their deathbed, ‘I wish I spent more time at the office’”

  4. Elizabeth Aquino Says:

    Great review of that article — and I have one to recommend from a former attorney who gave up, not willingly, her high-powered career in San Francisco to care for her severely disabled child. It’s a subset of mothering that often gets short shrift in these larger debates — it’d be great to have a guest post from a pundit in our trenches! Here’s Sally’s post: http://sfmaggie.blogspot.com/2012/06/having-it-all-whatever-that-is.html

  5. PunditMom Says:

    @Elizabeth, Thanks for that link. I can completely relate to the experiences from that blog post, as I graduated from law school in 1988 and was on a similar path for a while. There is no successful “mommy track” in the corporate world. It is a dead end in most situations.

    @Moomettes, I know so many of us have moments when we think we can “have it all,” but learn that it’s not possible, so why do we continue with this “debate?” And why do magazines, etc., not publish articles that ask the same about men?

    @mamikaze, so good to hear from you! Yes, working at home means other things have to give. That’s another thing I struggle with, as well, though the more I think about that, the more I realize my daughter expects me to “do it all” — work and cook and clean and be there for her — in a way she doesn’t expect from Mr. PunditMom. Culture or our own fault?

  6. Carol Schiller Says:

    It’s wonderful to see so many thoughtful responses. Thank you @Elizabeth @Moomettes @mamikaze @Redstocking Mama for coming by. Interestingly, someone asked on Facebook (in response to this post) as follows:

    “Why do people keep saying this is an excellent article? Are they afraid of Slaughter? Are they afraid of rocking the narrative that has so permeated our society that places the entire “balance” and childrearing burden on women? The article goes on to make some good points but the framing is terrible, not “excellent.”

    Since she makes such good points, I decided to reply here to further the discussion. Gloria, here’s why I thought the article was excellent despite the flaws you so rightly point out:

    First, Slaughter did a great job of showing the flaws in Sandberg’s assumptions point by point.

    More importantly, she publicly staked her considerable personal reputation on this issue. Few people have the gravitas and stature to take on someone in Sandberg’s league. Slaughter does and she knows it, so I think it is wonderful that she stepped up and was willing to say things that few at her level would: that it’s OK to be really smart and accomplished and STILL think it’s important to bake cookies with your kids; that her kid was struggling (who really wants to admit this?) and that her own absence might have played a role in that; that even with a supportive spouse, women have a parenting role to play that is unique to them as women. These are powerful admissions, and it’s very gratifying and freeing to hear them from a woman at her level.

    I was put off by Sandberg’s speech when she made it (at my alma mater to boot), but if I had written about it, who would have cared? Slaughter is excellent at the every least, because she is Slaughter, and she had the guts to take Sandberg on.

    Where I thought she fell short though, was in trying to explain that if employers would only give moms more flexibility, they could indeed have it all. To that, I’m saying, “Not so.”

    Even with all the flexibility in the world, there are still only 24 hours in the day. If you spend 4 of them running errands and baking cookies and attending school functions, that’s 4 hours you’ve got to spend up late at night doing the work you missed. No amount of flexibility is going to change that.

    The only way to get past this is to say it’s okay to do less. For some that means making less money. For others it means baking less cookies. But something has to be sacrificed. And oh how we all hate to be made to feel that we are stupid or unambitious, or selfish and greedy for choosing one or the other of them. And THAT is why women can’t have it all.

  7. Amy S. Says:

    I agree that our notion of success and “the American dream” has gotten so distorted. Somehow we’ve arrived at a culture where the goal is to work yourself silly, to the exclusion of all else, so you can have the best title and the most money. That’s why I liked Slaughter’s point toward the end of the article that we have to redefine the ultimate goal — to have a happy, productive life. I also very much liked Slaughter’s suggestion that we need to redefine that culture of exhaustion for everyone — not just parents. I think, unfortunately, to reframe that issue for everyone beyond moms will realistically get more traction.

    I did not feel Slaughter was celebrating that marathon that we working moms run. I interpreted it as a proxy for the feats of strength and endurance that we working moms must employ to “hang on to our careers with our fingernails” (another euphemism I read in another article by another working mom). It’s really more of a decathlon than a marathon. But I also completely agree with Slaughter’s point that it’s not the marathon that’s the problem, but the fact that we don’t talk about the problem with the marathon enough to help anyone realize that it’s ridiculous to expect women to maintain it.

  8. Jenn Says:

    And this is where my “I don’t care what other people are doing” mentality gives me an advantage. I take life one day at a time and I am not “going” 24/7. We only live once and all of those accomplishments? We can’t take them to the grave with us.

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