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I Don't Want It All

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If you are a mommy blogger on this here Internet, you can't shake a keyboard without hitting a response to the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic (July/August 2012) in which Anne-Marie Slaughter boldly offers an explanation as to why women still can't have it all.

My gut reaction? I don't want it all.

Oh. That feels good to say. Imma do it again: I DON'T WANT IT ALL.

"All" is defined as the trifecta of career, children and relationship and more specifically, career, children and relationship in perfect balance and harmony. Slaughter offers a diagnosis of why having it all is not possible and presents her readers with a prescription for how to fix it so that having it ALL becomes achievable.

Her diagnosis is an interesting window into the lives of working women 20-30 years older than me. I honor these gals, as they did not have it easy. Because of them, I had it easier. After my first child was born, I opted to return to work on a part-time basis. My dad, a working class white man and 72 at the time, embraced the arrangement I had created -- "You'll be away from your daughter just enough to appreciate her more when you're with her." If a man like my father can be converted to embrace a woman's right to choose her path in life, your movement has been successful.

Dr. Slaughter notes that personally, she felt caught between an older generation of feminists and a younger generation of women more often opting to remain at home and raise children full-time, abandoning their professional selves in the process. She believes in and is working towards striking that elusive balance that will allow her to have both a personal and professional self. The personal self, it should be noted, appears more related to being a mother than a wife. Dr. Slaughter wants it all and believes she can have it, but only if her prescription is followed by the larger society.

Quite honestly, reading this article made me feel anxious and panicky -- and I am not prone to either of those things. And full disclosure: Slaughter appears to be addressing her concerns and solutions to women and others like herself -- white, privileged super achievers. She says as much herself. Now granted, I am white and privileged (and simply being white is its own privilege), but the whole super achiever thing is what gets me going.

I used to be on a path to stardom. I had a graduate degree, worked in a gracious setting doing meaningful work and was recognized for my achievements. I had a good life. Really good. I got married at 31 to a man that is lovely in so very many ways. I was on the fast track in my career (clinical social work) and placed enormous pride and identity in my professional self. My husband was ready for children long before I was. I bargained with him occasionally -- "soon," or, "we'll talk about it this summer." I honestly believed I didn't have space in my very rich and full life for children; that I would suck as a mother because I was too self-involved.

And then I moved to Cancerville.

My Mom was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in March 2004. The day after she bled out in front of a slot machine in Biloxi, Mississippi, I was scheduled to present at a professional conference alongside one of my rock star mentors, something we had been prepping for months. I woman-ed up and got through it, but there was a cosmic shift for me in the weeks that followed.

My folks moved back to Chicago and I left the office 4-5 nights a week to drive to their makeshift home, a rented apartment close to her hospital. I cooked, I cleaned, I carted their laundry home. I bathed and toileted my Mom, as her hemorrhaging tumor would leave her paralyzed for the last year of her life. I woke up one day a few months into this new routine and realized I wasn't nearly as selfish as I thought I was. I was a caregiver. It was an epiphany -- if I could care for my Mom, then I could certainly care for a baby.

No longer did I stay at the office until 6:30 or 7 every night, feeling more than faintly superior towards my colleagues. No longer did I book speaking engagements or submit conference proposals. No longer did I supervise a University of Chicago social work intern seeking his or her own fast track to clinical stardom.

I cooked and I cleaned and I laundered and I wiped and I carried and I shopped and I loved and I cared and I laughed and I listened and I cried and I stopped. I stopped wanting the next thing. I stopped thinking that thing was somewhere outside my orbit, or even my home.

I stopped wanting it all, or even imagining that was possible.

When my daughter was diagnosed with her own aggressive brain tumor in March 2007, I knew the caregiving drill. I left my career immediately, only half-way looking back at the big promotion I had achieved -- my first(!) -- just seven weeks earlier. In the face of my daughter's cancer, having it all held no relevance whatsoever. None. For me at that time, having it all would have meant a cure for my Donna, but in Cancerville, as in life, having it all is simply impossible.

Donna died and I had another cosmic shift. I am still finding my way. I returned to my career, such as it was, fourteen months after burying my girl. I no longer do clinical work, as I no longer have the capacity to listen to the problems of strangers. I do good work for a meaningful cause, but the emptiness I live with goes with me to the office, just as I carry it everywhere else.

And this is where Slaughter's prescription raises my blood pressure. She seeks to create an environment where happiness is valued, where family responsibilities are acknowledged and accommodated, where having it all -- career, children, relationship -- is not the struggle it is today. And how does she do this? In a nutshell:

  • Allowing women to work from home using flex time, evenings, and weekends;
  • Integrating technology, enabling a worker be involved without being present;
  • Encouraging remote work locations;
  • Changing school schedules to accommodate working parents;
  • Recognizing "mandatory setting-aside of work" times, e.g., a Friday Sabbath;
  • More strategically planning children's birth to accommodate a professional "arc";
  • Scheduling "professional pauses," like a year in China, so your children can learn Mandarin;
  • Eliminating business meetings between the hours of 6-8PM to accommodate family meals;
  • Embrace a "national happiness project";
  • Integration of non-work lives with work lives;
  • Bringing our men along for the ride (oh yeah, men are part of this equation, too).

You see what I mean? Even as I typed that list, my blood pressure rose. There is so very much wrong with Slaughter's prescription that it makes me want to slap her. then run home to hug my child, whispering sweet nothings into his toddler ears while I bake him chocolate chip cookies.
What Dr. Slaughter is proposing is a complete blur of boundaries between personal and professional selves. Somehow, some way, she believes "face time," as she calls it, is optional for both office and family. She values a two-hour slot for family meals every day from 6-8 PM, but makes no mention of commute or cooking. It is as if a parent can transport home and press their Jane Jetson button in the kitchen that will produce a fully cooked and no doubt nutritionally balanced meal. Slaughter wonders in amazement at the Jewish professional who can set aside work responsibilities every Friday to recognize his Sabbath. For her, this is aspirational -- the act of not working for a 24-hour period on a regular basis. All I can say is "oy vey."

So, no, I don't want it all. I want none of what Dr. Slaughter is selling. I reject it in total and will leave it to the super achievers of the world to find that balance. I embrace my mediocrity and feel in my bones that having it all is not humanly possible. I require a separation of personal and professional self and value it as strongly as our forefathers valued the separation of Church and State.

Life is short, you see. Sometimes it is achingly, brutally, cruelly short. We get one shot at this, folks. I don't have time to delude myself into thinking I can do it all well. Knowing your limitations is not demonstrating a lack of feminist credentials. Opting out of super achiever status does not reflect a lack of commitment to anything other than a deep dislike of chaos and organizational madness. When the solution to 'having it all' involves strategizing about how to most quickly program a microwave oven using the fewest number of buttons, I know that is not the life for me.