The Real Reason Women Still Can’t Have It All

Hint: It has to do with the color green. And no, it's not money.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s son is having a tough adolescence. And the whole country gets to know about it now.

If you didn’t hear Slaughter on Terry Gross last week, or read her epic piece in the latest Atlantic—it’s called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—I’ll catch you up. Slaughter, who had her troublemaker son when she was 38 and his younger brother when she was 40, found herself a few years back in proud possession of her dream job: the first female director of policy planning in the Obama State Department. She’d taken a leave from her tenured professorship at Princeton to join the State Department, and had moved to Washington, D.C., while her husband held down the fort at home in New Jersey. She came home only on weekends—and for emergencies, when her son’s misbehavior demanded it.

Slaughter and I are just about of an age; my kids are a little older than hers. And I found her Atlantic piece to be a stunning recitation of the many ways in which our society could regroup, rethink and reimagine the roles of women and families and our notions of career and “success” to make modern life work better. But mostly, I identified with the woman picking up the phone when her husband called to say there was trouble in paradise, and that her 14-year-old son was in hot water again.

Slaughter left her dream job two years in. When she explained to other women that she’d returned to Princeton for the sake of her family, she says, she got reactions “that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great.’)” The latter, she writes, triggered “a blind fury” in her. And with whom was she angry with? Nobody but herself:

All my life, I’d been on the other side of the exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family.

I feel her pain.

For a long time, like Slaughter, I thought I had it all. I had a job I loved, a husband whose willingness to stay home with the kids made my career possible, and two wonderful children. I was on top of the world. And then, in the space of just a few years, all hell broke loose. My daughter developed an eating disorder and acquired an unsavory boyfriend. My son acted out so much in and out of school that he required counseling for “anger management.” My stressed-out husband had become a housekeeping fanatic, relentlessly vacuuming dog hair off the living room rug. All the pieces of the puzzle that was our lives had fit together so well for so long. Nothing had prepared me for this—or for the shame and guilt I felt over how my perfect family had become a perfect mess.

Yes, Slaughter’s right that if, say, schools conformed their schedules to that of the business world, instead of following a mom-at-home model that hasn’t worked since the 1960s, everyone would be better off. And yes, it would be helpful if we as a society were less venerating of supernovas like Mark Zuckerberg and appreciated those whose paths to “success” are more circuitous and thus less speedy (or even if we defined success differently). And, oh God, yes, we should stop insisting that everyone put in 70 hours a week at the office when so much of what we do there could much more expeditiously be performed from home.

But Slaughter glosses over the biggest obstacle of all to women struggling to find that elusive life/work balance: our envy of those who seem to have found it, and our conviction that somehow their success detracts from us, devalues us, instead of raising all of us up. I’m sure, from what I’ve read of her experiences, that she’d agree: None of us can see behind the closed front doors of our colleagues and neighbors and friends to know the heartache and fear and pain even “successful” families are forced to cope with. And even worse than that pain and fear is our inability to be honest with one another, to admit our inadequacies rather than present the seamless front that is the lie of the perfect family.

I think this is why I found myself so haunted by the suicide of Mary Kennedy last month, so soon after Mothers Day. To the outside world, she led what seemed like a charmed life, but her solitude and private pain took a terrible toll. And finally, the mother of four beautiful kids gave up the impossible challenge of pretending to the rest of us that all was well.

How quick we are, we women, to judge: the mother whose baby is screaming in the supermarket; the wife whose husband is cheating on her; the mom-to-be who opts for an epidural because of the agony of natural childbirth; the overweight woman munching a candy bar instead of carrot sticks. Hey, life is hard! Couldn’t we acknowledge that, and share some of our failures and not just our successes (and those of our kids) with each other? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of cutting one another down, we helped support each other? If there’s one thing that being a mom has impressed on me, it’s that it’s exactly when you think you have it all that you ought to be most careful. We desperately need to make womanhood a judgment-free zone. Until we do, the rest will never fall into place.