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Top Executive or Great Parent: Choose One?

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Did you know that next month, October, is National Work and Family Month? What a better time to talk about working and having a family at the same time. Full disclosure, I am not a parent, so I won't be giving you my family story, but I thought that I would be a good person to look at this somewhat objectively. I am, however, the child of a working single mother and I know lots of working women and men who have dual responsibilities as the primary care giver and bread-winner of the family.

I got this idea after a good friend of mine passed along (ok, she posted it on Facebook) an article in the July/August edition of the Atlantic Monthly written by a former senior State Department official named Anne-Marie Slaughter. The piece, entitled, Why Women Still Can't Have It All, discusses the challenge faced by women who want to balance a traditional role in raising children with a high level career in today's world. Dr. Slaughter opens the discussion with her tale of conflict in serving as a senior diplomat and raising her teenage son.

Dr. Slaughter, who is no slacker -- she previously served as president of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton -- started what I am comfortable calling a firestorm of opinion on this issue. Most of the comments I heard and read were from professional women who felt that it was either right on target or severely misguided. I didn't find a lot of professional women who had read it and didn't have an opinion -- always a good test of relevance.

Dr. Slaughter makes the case that the demands of top jobs such as significant travel, evening and weekend work, and often relocation (she came to Washington while her husband and son stayed in N.J.) severely impacted her ability to be an active and involved parent and her family suffered. She is not saying that women should not seek top jobs or not have kids, but that the 40-year-old feminist myth of "having it all" needs to be better understood. Choices must be made. I must also tell you that she is very clear that she had advantages many women lack such as a co-parent at home and financial resources, so this is not her tale of woe. Rather her point was that if with these advantages she still couldn't make it all work, how could a single parent cope?

In response, there were many counterpunches from women across the spectrum including another State Department official. Many of these responses actually helped prove Slaughter's point that work/life balance, is, well, a balancing act. Some even called into question the gender norms of parenting. In a two-parent house, is dad less important than mom in day-to-day child rearing? Both candidates for president want you to believe (if speeches and campaign ads are a good indicator) that they have been both a great executive and a great parent. But what does that mean? The president, according to the first lady, makes the evening family meal a sacrosanct priority in the White House. If the person with the arguably hardest job in nation can do it, why can't we all? Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and Jenna and Barbara Bush have all turned out pretty well and all indications are that Sasha and Malia Obama are doing just fine.

POTUS (because we all love acronyms in D.C.) has a couple of advantages over the rest of us mortals. One of which is that he, wait for it, works at home. Federal personnel honcho John Berry often calls him the "Teleworker-in-Chief." Does this really make the difference? Can it be that simple? No, there is no silver bullet to work/life issues, but I believe that when we elect a woman president she will be able to do the job and be a great mom (single people are not really electable as president) because being able to prioritize and balance difficult choices is a very important qualification for the job.

Not every employer is going to give you a nice house on top of your office and a few hundred staff to run the place and move you around, but more and more, employers -- public and private -- are realizing the value keeping people closer to their families and not on the road all week. It's a win for the families, it's a win for society, and there is hard evidence that it's a win for the corporate bottom line. Getting top people is not usually about paying the most or having the best perks or reputation. People make decisions on where to work based on best value and for many parents, family friendly policies can tip the scale.

There are great moms and dads who have made a huge personal sacrifice to protect our freedom by serving in uniform or who, for economic necessity, are away from home while their kids grow up. But I'll wager not one of them would hesitate a second for a chance to come home and fight about who is going to take out the trash, get their homework done, or clean up the dishes in the sink. I agree with Dr. Slaughter that choices need to be made, but I think you can have it all, you just need to define what "All" means for you. I know women who have walked away from great opportunities to travel less and be with their kids at night and on the weekends. That is not giving up their dream; it's living it.

I hope you will give me your thoughts on this issue by email at jsawislak@teleworkexchange.com or commenting on my blog at TeleworkExchange.com. If you are in D.C. on September 25, please join us at the Telework Town Hall Meeting at the D.C. Convention Center to talk about these and many other important issues about work and life.