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A Letter to My Daughter on Balancing Work and Life

01/11/2013 06:54 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2013

Dear Anna,

I watch you carry on with your dream of going to medical school and I'm already worried about the work-life balance issues you will inevitably face. Having a profession will present you with a unique set of challenges that men don't encounter. We are socialized to be the family's primary caregiver; men are ingrained to be the breadwinner. It's changing, but it's changing too slowly.

Maybe I've come late to the party, but a book by Michelle Cove and an article by law professor Anne-Marie Slaughter have me reaching deeply into my own life. Let me start by saying that I want more for you. It's not that I don't have enough or I haven't made a successful go of my writing career. But my earnings don't reflect the hours and the keen effort that I put into my work. While that's been a source of frustration for me, on the flipside, I have control over my schedule. I can run an errand or stay home with a sick kid. But if I do that, you can be sure that I'm working after dinner to make up the time.

Slaughter was a high government official in the Obama administration who decided to return to her teaching position at Princeton after two years. Her son was in the midst of a rocky adolescence and Slaughter went home to spend more time with her family. She published an article last July in The Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." At first glance, that title is very provocative. But that's not why I resisted giving the article a close read. I was scared to hold myself up to this super woman who worked closely with Hillary Clinton and then returned to a tenured position at Princeton University. Until she went to Washington, she was Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. Slaughter and I are not in the same league. But I read on and I found some comfort. "There are genuine super women," Slaughter writes. "These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure."

Let me back up and mention that I read Slaughter's article after I read Cove's book, I Love Mondays. It's a unique book for the way it crosses genres as both a handy reference guide and a practical self-help book for working mothers. Subjects range from how a mom should minimize her guilt if she misses a soccer game to moms, like me, who have home offices and must establish strict boundaries. In a recent interview, Cove agrees with Slaughter that having it all is "completely unachievable. It's not a sustainable state. Power constantly shifts and we need to be much gentler on ourselves."

Anna, I think the generation between us is dealing more realistically with the work-life balance than my peers or I have. Slaughter quotes a pair of 30 year-old women who realize the importance of linking together every aspect of their lives. I quote them through Slaughter because I want you to hear their bluntness.

If we didn't start to learn how to integrate our personal, social and professional lives, we were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of the mahogany desk who questions her staff's work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.

This scenario begs a question you'll have to grapple with someday -- "finding the right sequence of family and career." When do you marry? When do you have a baby? Slaughter and Cove agree that there is no definitive answer.

Cove has been thinking about these issues for a long time and her book was a natural successor to her documentary Seeking Happily Ever After. The film was a retort to media representations of 30-something women who were either career-obsessed or so desperate to get married that they were driving men away. Cove notes, "As a journalist and a writer, I was interested in why the headlines were proclaiming there were more single 30-something women than ever. I picked up a video camera and did street interviews." The big takeaway for you, my dear Anna, is to know that women can define their own "happily-ever afters."

I have faith that your generation will finally tease apart the false morality and promises of "family values." That by speaking up about implementing family-friendly policies in this country and acknowledging the importance of work-life balance, you and other women will close in on the "leadership gap" in the White House, the corridors of multinationals and yes, even the home.

As for me, I'm starting to understand my choices as part of "the new gender gap" -- that is, measuring my success by my well being rather than a paycheck. Maybe I'm not too late to take advice myself. In fact, I think I read Anne-Marie Slaughter's article and Michelle Cove's new book just in the nick of time.

Love,

Mama