Not Having It All? Two Answers for the Real Question


Brava Anne-Marie Slaughter for inviting the conversation on having it all and please forgive me for being unfashionably late in responding.

Why am I late, you ask?

I was having a combo business and vacation piece of IT ALL, while paying less, but not zero, attention to some aspects of the work piece of IT ALL, for the moment.

This is the way it works for many men and women, children too for that matter. All of us make choices all the time, and when we choose to have one IT, we simultaneously choose not to have or participate fully in other ITs.

The Real Question

The question, as I see it, is not whether women or men can have it all, because the truth is we can’t. The problem is that we have been stuck, by virtue of our gender and societal beliefs, with limited choices about which IT of the ALL we can have. This is as true for men as it is for women.

For centuries in developed economies, where this question of having it all applies, cultural beliefs about gender have determined in which of the two adult domains, work or family, men could play, and in which domains women could play. Our gender determined whether we were destined for a life of production, achievement, recognition, and possibly intellectual or artistic stimulation outside the home; or whether we would nurture all that exists within the home and garden walls. In earlier times, gender determined whether we stayed close to the cave or tent picking berries, or ventured and adventured far from home in search of meat to feed the families we left behind.

Over the past several decades, these gender-based rules have been changing more rapidly than ever before. Now both men and women have more choices about where to spend their time and energy.

The goal and the question is not about HAVING IT ALL, but having choices and support regarding which part of IT ALL we want most, when, for how long, and of which part of IT ALL we will have less, as a result. At the same time, we must balance the needs of family and society with our own desires.

Changing the System

Anne-Marie, your ideas about flexibility and work as a virtual space are fine, given the current structures of families and professional roles. But the system doesn’t work well for current or future generations. We need the crutches you suggest to hobble along on for now, while we transform work and family systems in two ways.

1.  Create different structures for the roles and careers of high-powered professionals, which should in turn create changes for all who work outside the home.

    • The overly demanding and unsustainable 24/7 presence, virtual or real, required of high-powered professionals needs to be disrupted.

2.  Develop real parenting partnerships that challenge and change assumptions about which parent, if either, is best suited to meet specific family needs.

    • The parent who most wants to be present is not necessarily the best woman or man for the job.

Real Partnerships: Real Choices

Let’s begin with item two. The parent who most wants to be involved, often the mother, is not necessarily the best one to meet the child’s needs at all stages of development and in all situations. Let’s instead choose the best man or woman for the job. In my own family, depending on the child’s age and the particular problem, this person is at times my husband. My status, or yours, as mother does not automatically determine that we are always, or even usually, the better of the two parents to address the situation.

Contrary to your views, the child-parent magnet does not, by default, exert greater pull on women. This too, is a notion that may be socially determined to some degree. Many men don’t want the forced choice of work over family in order to sustain or grow their careers. They simply have learned to expect and to put up with it. Like you and the women you reference in the Atlantic article, more men are making career choices that allow them to play a significant role in family life and on the home court.

My own husband, a talented leader, wanted to advance his career but was not willing to take on the high pressure lifestyle required to do so, nor did he want to live in Washington D.C. He chose instead to be more present as a father. Like you, Anne-Marie, he opted for a flexible work life that involved his remote presence at work and his physical presence at home.

A business associate, identified as a possible CEO successor, recently turned down a promotion that would have secured this path, because he did not want to move his family to the area surrounding corporate headquarters. Why? The local values and culture do not reflect or support how he wants to raise his children. Nor does he choose to be an absent father or husband, a side-effect of the current executive work-styles and role structures. Working as he does now, at a distance from corporate headquarters, allows him to escape these pressures to some degree.

    • More men are opting to be the stay-at-home and secondary income in support of Her career. According to a 2012 Businessweek article, seven of the 18 women CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies were with a stay-at-home husband/partner or one who chose to back-seat his career so she could front-seat hers. I suspect these decisions are made in partnership.

Professional Role and Career Structures

Regardless of whose career takes precedent, our current work-no-other-life model, is unsustainable.

Because of gender-based expectations, many men don’t feel free to complain or do anything to change this system. It’s the way things are, the water in which they swim but do not see.

Women, who did not create the system, are in a better position to see and to change it, especially when we are in power roles. And do so we should, but in ways that go far beyond flexible work hours and work from home options. To reconstruct professional roles and careers, we need transformational ideas, such as the following:

    • Create family-friendly workplaces where children can be seen, heard, and supervised while doing homework and at play, then later have dinner with Mom, Dad, siblings and families of co-workers if they choose.
    • Design two-in-the-box job structures such that covering the 24/7 clock is split between the two, and where one covers while the other attends a school event or tends to a sick child. Job duties include the time it takes to collaborate and create a seamless boundary between the two in the role.
    • Offer sabbaticals that allow people to disconnect and reconnect to family or other life engagements. We might even be amazed at the new ideas and perspectives that emerge.

In conclusion, none of us is HAVING IT ALL, nor is HAVING IT ALL the goal. IT is ALL about increasing the choices, and the support for those choices that ALL of us HAVE.

Author: Anne Perschel, Co-Founder of 3Plus International

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