THE BLOG
09/07/2012 05:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2012

"Having it All" Myths: An Addendum to Ann Marie Slaughter

A provocative article by former State Department Director of Policy Planning Ann Marie Slaughter went viral as women resonated with the basic arguments: A working woman with children has a hard time competing in the career ladder. The Washington hierarchy is not friendly to women in general, especially to women with children. There are not enough women in positions of power to change cultural norms. As a result, smart women don't choose to work with government or don't stay in their positions. And the resulting economic and political policies end up hurting all women and men.

Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" caught our attention. I strongly agree with most of the article and am grateful that Slaughter took the time to reflect on these challenges. But I also found myself chafing at some of the framing and statements in the article. "Having it all," for women and men, means making choices and challenging some myths.

1. The Myth of What it Means to "Have it All"

Does "having it all" really mean being a working mother with an influential policy position? Do all women really want children? Do all women want jobs that bring them power, fame and wealth? No, of course not. Slaughter herself debunks this myth.

What if we opened up the definition of "having it all" as simply finding a sense of satisfaction and contentment in life? The definition of what it means to "have it all" should vary person to person. Buried at the end of Slaughter's article is a brief discussion of happiness. Isn't "having it all" basically a question of whether someone is happy in terms of their work, their relationships, and their health?

The US ranks low on every "happiness" index. One in ten Americans are taking anti-depressants of some kind or another. The Washington Times reports that Americans are a "Nation Overworked: Abandoning Happiness and Health for Paychecks."

A review of research on happiness find that while the media tells us that power, wealth and materialism will make us happy, longer work hours, longer commutes and hectic lives make us less happy. Happiness is linked to those with greater social connections, those with more time for pursuing recreation, and those whospend money on others (rather than on oneself).

I think Ann Marie Slaughter "had it all" when she was a Dean at Princeton in a job that allowed her to have a better life/work balance. She sounded happy in that role.

Like Slaughter and anyone else who is happy and satisfied with their life, I've made choices too. I don't make a large salary and I don't have a prestigious title. I come from a Mennonite background that taught me happiness comes not from powerful government positions or high salaries. Rather happiness comes from community, the beauty of small things and appreciation of living more simply with less hassled stress, and contributing to the global good. I crave a sense that my work is meaningful; that I am contributing to solving small or large problems in the world. I am the mother of two young children, I enjoy many hobbies, I work, and I invest in my community. So I fundamentally am frustrated to hear that somehow this does not qualify as "having it all" as if that was something for only those with powerful government positions.

2. The Myth of Motherhood - It does take a Village
It is a wonderful thing that women like Ms. Slaughter are sensitive to the needs of their family and change their work situation to allow for more attention to their children. But as Slaughter notes, part of the problem is that many men don't feel as attuned to their children, or are aware as Ms. Slaughter of the suffering caused by their absence. Perhaps the solution is for society to encourage more fathers to be active parents. Or perhaps we should return to thinking that it truly does "take a village" to raise our kids so that we create communities and lives that are extended support systems for working mothers.

As a working mother, I do have a special relationship with my kids; but no more special than my husbands' relationship with them. While I was flying off to Iraq and Afghanistan to work on peacebuilding there when my kids were young, he was home with them. My children look to their grandparents as extended sets of parents too. I think I perceive myself as "having it all" partly because I truly have a village - a strong social network in my community - to help raise my kids.

But again, this is my choice to live in a village that supports my family and me. Others would look at my life and likely find it lacking by their standards of success. Making a personal choice to define what it means to be happy - to "have it all" - is essential.

3. The Myth of Sisterhood
Slaughter describes a very real and pervasive system that makes it difficult for women to achieve influential positions in government and business. This unfair system is not only a result of sexism. Women are often in conflict with or unsupportive of other women.

When I talk to other women, we have many stories of men who reached out to support our careers and far fewer stories of women who helped us along the way. It was a friend who asked said "who do you think you are going to Washington and trying to change US foreign policy?" It was another who advised me my work would negatively impact my children. And in Washington, I watch women exclude and destroy each other every week.

There are widespread rumors in Washington about the conflicts between powerful women in the State Department and Obama Administration. And outside of government, women are also continuing to exclude and diminish other women too. Too often it is women themselves who choose not to support other women or exclude other women for the few chosen, and token, places at the decision-making table.

When women support each other, this can help women overcome some of the forces that exclude women. But women's power to empower one another is too often overlooked in these discussions of what prevents women from climbing ladders. The nature of women's relationships with other women also needs to be on the agenda for helping more women perceive themselves as 'having it all.'

4. The Myth of Long Hours: 14 hour workdays don't produce better work (or policies)
The same system that made it difficult for women like Slaughter to stay in governmental positions of power also makes others suffer. It is common for State Department staff to work 14-hour days, arriving at 7am and departing late in the evening. Some State Department colleagues note the peer pressure to 'look busy' and 'hang around just in case a crisis erupts.'

Fourteen-hour workdays are not sustainable by any human being, male or female, over years and decades. The problem is not that women can't juggle family life with 14-hour workdays. Men and women without children that work these long hours can end up having heart attacks, cancer, and profound loneliness as a result of this stress. This grueling schedule is a problem for everyone: people suffer personally.

But the quality of policymaking also suffers as a result. Research shows cognitive reasoning and problem-solving decrease among those that work more than 55 hours a week. Other research shows that working more than 40 hours a week increases anxiety and depression.

Important jobs do not require 60+-hour work weeks. Rather, the habits of happy (and successful) people require living a more balanced life. Worker's unions demand 8 hour work days because there is wide research documenting that the human mind needs 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of recreational activity in order to be productive and focused at 8 hours of work.

Clearly the quality of US foreign policy does not correlate with the number of State Department work hours. Exhaustion, depression and anxiety result more often in half-baked strategies. And caffeine-supported judgments cannot lead to smarter policies.

5. The Myth that Government has the Best and Brightest
Slaughter's assessment that the US government has already tapped all the smartest women who could plausibly serve in the US government seems overstated. There are a wealth of brilliant men and women who stay outside of the ivy-league networks and government circles intentionally. Many of them have not been tapped.

There are many reasons why someone would not want to work for the US government or the State Department in specific - in addition to not wanting to work 14 hour days. The State Department requires personnel to balance US values of human rights and freedoms in mind on one hand while responding on the other hand to political and economic pressures to protect US interests abroad. These two sets of priorities often conflict, resulting in cognitive dissonance and that uncomfortable feeling of saying one thing and doing another.

Some of the smartest Americans I know shun working for the US government because they simply cannot live with the cognitive dissonance of asserting US interests in human rights, freedom, and democracy on one hand, and defending US corporate oil interests in Saudi Arabia or the Canadian Tar Sands, or the US policy of selling weapons to people like Muammar Qaddafi or countries like Bahrain when US economic or short term political interests take precedence over human rights.

To most of the world, the US is a mix of magnificent ideas, people, and products on one hand, and horrifying policies that hurt rather than help many of the world's people. Many hardworking and brilliant leaders in the US simply cannot stomach the division between what America says it believes and does, and what it actually does in practice.

It is not a lack of patriotism that drives this critique of US policy. Rather it is a firm belief that public service-minded people may be able to better serve Americans and the global family by staying outside of government. But of course government won't change without deliberate efforts to bring about change. Ms. Slaughter is right that we need to elect more women to Congress if we want change in any of these areas. But this is a big country, and women who are at the top like Ms. Slaughter have a responsibility to be reaching out and finding the brilliant women outside of the narrow and elite Washington circles.

I agree with Ms. Slaughter's analysis of the problems facing women in the workplace. But as women we are not just victims of this system. The agenda for change is quite a bit broader. We participate in the very definition of what it means to have it all, to many design our lives based on other people's definitions of success rather than our own definition of happiness. We too often consent to the belief that long work hours translate into better outcomes and happiness. We too often think that women have to mother without a village to back them up. And we too often turn our backs on other women.

So with this article, I add an addendum to Slaughter's article. We can begin to tackle these problems by recognizing the extent of the problem itself, and shifting our orientation to "having it all" by choosing happiness over power and prestige in our own lives.