By Ronnie Polaneczky
Philadelphia Daily News.
BACK IN 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in the Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
It was a fierce, fed-up essay about how tough it remains for women with kids to advance in their careers, 50 years after feminism was born.
The essay went viral and Slaughter has broadened it into a new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, which she’ll discuss at the National Constitution Center on Monday evening. I’ll be interviewing her there, so I’ve been thinking a lot about work-life balance, an issue that has consumed me since I became a parent 19 years ago.
I remember racing around the kitchen one morning, congested with a cold, my baby fussing on my shoulder, stuffing bottles into a bag, racing to the sitter’s and then speeding into work, only to find I was wearing two different shoes. I burst into tears.
“Are you OK?” a pal asked.
“I’m having it all,” I wailed, “and I want to give it back!”
What I meant was, “I want to give more of it to my husband.” My working-mom friends shared the sentiment. We were bearing the brunt of working parenthood, even though we were working as hard as our husbands were.
“And these are the good men,” we’d tell each other, baffled that our spouses didn’t recognize the unfairness of our burden.
Now that my kid is raised, my burden has lifted, picked up by other working moms of young’uns.
“It’s all we talk about,” an exhausted mother told me about chats she has with other moms about getting the men to pull their weight. “It’s infuriating.”
Which brings me back to Unfinished Business.
Slaughter makes the case that men and woman alike have the need to give care and to compete in the workplace; she refers to these activities as “giving” and “winning.” They’re at either end of the same stick, yet society pooh-poohs care and praises competition, making care harder and shutting out men in the process.
What if we were to acknowledge the importance of both, for all of us? She points to a 2013 Pew research study showing that almost as many men as women bemoan the stress of meeting the demands of career and home life.
Then Slaughter drops a bombshell: America needs a men’s movement the way it needed a women’s movement. If women deserved to be perceived as being as capable in the workforce as they are at home, men deserve to be seen as both breadwinners and viable care providers.
Balance must go both ways.
But first, Slaughter says, we need to change the language we use to describe what we’re trying to balance. Figuring out how to manage the needs of hearth and home while also creating a career is not a “women’s issue”; describing it as such perpetuates the issue as distinctly feminine. She proposes we instead call this a “care” issue, a neutral, more honest term that unshackles care from gender and marital status.
Further, she says, if feminism taught America that it was not unfeminine to both bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, a new view of masculinity will require both men and women to view a man who does both as still being attractive to his romantic partner and a guy to be admired, not snickered at, by his buddies.
None of which is easy. Old gender roles die hard and accepting a new reality can be confusing.
“But we can at least be honest about that confusion,” she writes.
Leading the way by example, Slaughter says, are LGBT couples who are negotiating family care without need to pay homage to the traditional stereotypes.
Regardless, she says, caregivers of any stripe are still hamstrung by how little society and employers respect and accommodate those who pause in their careers to care for loved ones. Or who decline time-sucking promotions that would limit the ability to take a sick parent to the doctor or to be home in time for supper and kids’ homework.
That’s because providing care is not respected in America beyond a gauzy, apple-pie regard for at-home motherhood that’s not backed up by an acknowledgment of how difficult and necessary caregiving is.
Not by employers who question the ambition of workers who leave the office for a teacher conference. Not by society, which argues for quality daycare but balks at paying decent wages to those who provide it. Not even by mothers themselves, who wage “mommy wars” at one another for parenting choices they dislike.
So we need a new way to frame care’s concept and image, says Slaughter.
On a public scale, when we see a hunky actor like Brad Pitt carrying a baby in a Snugli, we see that it’s manly to care for a child.
When we hear that a sports star like Mets second-baseman Daniel Murphy skipped his team’s first two games to be with his wife during the birth of their child, we see that family can come first in life’s big leagues.
When we learn that a millionaire CEO like MondoDB’s Max Shireson left his job for more play time with his kids, we see that money can’t buy the joy of being with the little people you created.
But how to get those messages to trickle down to bosses who employ us commoners? How to get them to change their motto from “Lean in or get out” to “How can we make this work”?
By convincing them, Slaughter says, that skills honed in care-giving can enhance the workplace: knowledge, patience, adaptability to different rhythms, honesty, courage, trust, humility and hope.
The aspects of a caring personality, she says, “though commonly derided as ‘soft’ are actually just as vital, at home and in the workplace, as any of the ‘hard’ aspects of a competitive personality.”
In fact, they’re complementary. Valuing one over the other, instead of embracing both, is feminism’s unfinished business.
Slaughter is a heavyweight in her many fields. She’s president and CEO of think tank New America, a Princeton law professor and former policy planning director of the U.S. State Department, the first woman to hold that job.
So she has the clout to help change America’s conversations about work-life balance — or at least its predominant question.
Instead of asking, “Can women have it all?” we need to ask, “Can working people have it all?”
Once it includes all of us, we just might get somewhere.