I knew that Anne-Marie Slaughter's essay "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" had officially become a major cultural touchstone not when it was heralded as the most widely read piece in the history of the Atlantic's website, but when my mother, who still occasionally has trouble finding my own articles via Google, asked for my thoughts on the piece. At that point I didn't have any, since thanks to my travel schedule (and guilt about my own looming writing deadlines), I hadn't had a chance to read it, but at mom's insistence, I have now and here are my thoughts.
My first thought is that Slaughter is to be commended for having the courage to say what many women, particularly feminist women, are afraid to. Namely, that no matter how smart, talented, ambitious or gifted a woman is, there is no such thing as a perfect life, so we should stop aspiring to lead one. Just as important, we should stop perpetuating the illusion that any woman -- or man -- has one. Any person, regardless of their gender, who has made it to the corner office or the White House has made some serious sacrifices in his or her personal life to get there, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. (For those of you reading this who just said to yourself, "Well I made it to the corner office and my kids turned out fine," then chances are the personal sacrifices you have made simply took a different form, whether it was a strained marriage, strained friendships, lack of a personally fulfilling hobby, lack of exercise or lack of sleep.)
But my other thought about Slaughter's beautifully written piece is what a missed opportunity it was. Yet again, a powerful, influential woman had a platform to talk about the issue of choice when it comes to women, parenthood and power and chose not to discuss one of the most undervalued choices of all: the choice not to become a parent.
To be clear, Slaughter did discuss women who do not have children in her piece. But she discussed these women as cautionary tales, the ultimate proof of the grueling sacrifices highly successful women must make in order to make it all the way to the top. Slaughter writes:
...among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men. A simple measure is how many women in top positions have children compared with their male colleagues. Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children. And the third, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, began her career as a judge only when her younger child was almost grown. The pattern is the same at the National Security Council: Condoleezza Rice, the first and only woman national-security adviser, is also the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family.
Actually Secretary Rice does have a "family," aunts and others with whom she is close and who accompany her to events. She does not, however, have children. Being childless does not make one family-less. Apparently it never crossed Slaughter's mind that Secretary Rice or Justice Sotomayor don't consider not becoming a mother a sacrifice, but a personal preference or choice. And therein lies the problem.
For all of the thought-provoking solutions Slaughter proposes to help more women achieve greater work-life balance, she completely omits one of the most obvious: the need to change the entire conversation about how women define success, from a one-size fits all model that includes marriage, motherhood and career into a find-what-works-for-you model.
As hard as it is for some to believe, not every smart, ambitious, financially stable woman is meant to become a mother, and not every one wants to. But for all of feminism's victories, even today, a woman saying, "I know I don't want to have children," remains an even greater lightning rod for debate among women than a woman saying, "I am leaving my high-flying career to stay home with my children." For those of you who think I am exaggerating, I will pose the same question I did a couple of years ago when writing about this subject. Which of the following revelations do you think would make it more difficult for a woman to seek the office of the presidency? Saying, "Yes, I once had an affair," or saying, "It's not that I had trouble getting pregnant, but I just never had the desire to become a mother." I guarantee you it's the latter, and the scary part is I suspect that such a revelation about motherhood would actually cost this hypothetical candidate more women's votes than men.
As proof of just what a lightning rod the subject of being childless by choice remains, the last time I wrote about this subject I received a note from a writer friend who commended me for the piece and shared that she and her boyfriend were leaning towards not having children. But she was so concerned that those she knew wouldn't react well to such an admission that she closed her note with, "please don't tell anyone I wrote you about this."
This embodies perhaps the greatest contradiction of 21st century feminism. Women are constantly reminded that we have more choices than any generation before us, and therefore our success is said to be very much in our hands. Yet the messages we are bombarded with don't really highlight that much choice at all. As Slaughter pointed out, women who choose time with their families over career advancement are viewed as letting down the feminist sisterhood, but as Slaughter failed to acknowledge, women who choose not to have children are viewed as another species altogether. You could call them anti-feminine. In other words, there are bosses who are hesitant to promote women of childbearing or childrearing years because they worry that woman will be unable to put in the hours. By the same token if a woman doesn't marry or have children by a certain age -- even if it's by her choice -- that same boss is likely to presume that woman is defective in some way.
Remember Gov. Ed Rendell's comments about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano? He gave Napolitano the ultimate backhanded compliment to end all backhanded compliments when he said, "Janet's perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it."
Though she doesn't have children, I doubt anyone would seriously consider one of the most powerful women in the country as having, "no life." But Rendell simply gave voice to what many people think about women like Napolitano, even when those women are content with the choices they have made.
But what's troubling to me about pieces like Slaughter's is that yet again, the choice not to become a mother is completely left out of the conversation altogether, making it seem like it's not a valid choice at all. I'm not saying Slaughter believes this. I am saying that many people still do. As long as this belief system remains the norm we will continue to see people become parents who really shouldn't (including the ones I wrote about it in my piece on child abuse last week.) But we will also continue to see women killing themselves to juggle it all, failing to successfully do so and beating themselves up for it. Despite the fact that if some of these same women had actually stopped to ask themselves in grad school, college or perhaps even before, "Is parenthood really a ball I want to juggle?" instead of taking cues from their parents or partners, friends or society at large, they might have found their lives with one less ball to juggle and they may have ended up achieving the elusive balance -- and happiness -- Slaughter writes of.
Obviously this is not the case for all women. But it is the case for some.
In her piece Slaughter references the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, noting that the most common regret is "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." Yet I wonder how many people view parenthood as one of those cultural, familial and societal expectations you must fulfill because you are supposed to, right up there with paying taxes, instead of viewing it as a personal choice you make based on whether or not it will personally make you happy and you will be good at it -- sort of like choosing the right career. (More than a decade ago, author Laura Carroll generated extensive media coverage with Families of Two, one of the first books to examine couples that are childless by choice. She revisits the topic, and specifically researches why so many Americans feel pressured into parenting, even those who acknowledge they don't really want to, in her new book The Baby Matrix.)
As I have remarked before, no one expects everyone to make a good neurosurgeon and to want to become one. Yet we view parenting, which is harder, as something everyone with the physical capability to undertake must do, do well and enjoy, or at least pretend to. Oh, and we expect some people to actually balance the job of neurosurgeon simultaneously.
In addition to all of the other recommendations Slaughter makes for how we can and must evolve to become a happier and healthier society, here's another: We need to evolve into a society that is more accepting of choices that deviate from the traditional definition of the "American Dream." We must also become more adept at talking about different life choices openly, so that people become more comfortable making the choices that make them happier, healthier and more productive employees and citizens -- without worrying about being perceived as defective. For some, this will include the choice not to become a parent.
But this starts with influential women like Slaughter helping to reframe the conversation, because as she made clear in her piece, countless young women look to women like her for guidance. My hope is the next time Slaughter or another influential woman tackles this subject, they will make it clear that some women are meant to be great Supreme Court Justices and great mothers.
But some are just meant to be great Supreme Court Justices and that's it. And that's more than enough.
Click here to see a list of current world leaders, who also happen to be mothers.
Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate, out in paperback and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com where this piece originally appeared.