In this month's Atlantic cover story, Anne-Marie Slaughter writes about stepping down from her "dream job" in order to be more available to her teenage sons, and concludes that "women still can't have it all."
Many of us remember a similar cover story from about 10 years ago -- Lisa Belkin's New York Times Magazine article on the "Opt Out Revolution."
Here's the problem: stories like Belkin's and Slaughter's about women dropping out, ramping down or finding they just can't combine career and family get great media real estate. Articles about women making it work do not.
Women, who now make up half the workforce, are making it work -- and many are doing so in ways that leave them deeply satisfied. Some of those deeply satisfied women are entrepreneurs, some have full-time jobs at companies with enlightened work-life policies, some have spouses who are the primary caregivers. Some find that with quality childcare and connection to community, dual full-time careers with decent hours work just fine for their families.
Why aren't we reading their stories?
One simple reason is that editors believe that headlines that scare people sell magazines. The conventional wisdom says that a negative headline such as, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" sells better than a headline like, "10 Ways to Have it All."
But I think there is a second, deeper reason we don't see those stories on magazine covers, and it has to do with our culture's continuing inability to make visible, to celebrate -- to even witness -- the satisfied woman.
"Powerful women" aren't just those who have mega-jobs. A woman who feels satisfied, who feels deep, full-bellied satisfaction with her life and her choices? A woman who feels she is enough, who feels at peace with her mothering, her bank account and her thriving career? Where is she in our cultural discourse?
She is powerful and empowered. She carries the energy of her own happiness. She is not constantly sapping her own contentment with self-critique and guilt. She is strengthened by confidence in her own choices. She's got the satisfaction of knowing her skills and talents have value in the world, and can bring her and her family economic security.
Try and picture a magazine cover story about her -- the deeply satisfied, happy-with-herself woman. It's hard to even imagine, because we never see her in our cultural theater.
I don't see images of the women happily combining motherhood and career on magazine covers, but I do see her in my own life.
I think of my mother-in-law, who raised three children -- all of whom are now happy and productive adults -- while working full-time as a pediatric nephrologist. I think of my best friend's mother, an award-winning historian who worked a demanding tenure-track job during her daughter's childhood. Mother and daughter had lots of "study dates" together, working side by side, planting a deep love of literature in my friend, who is now a professor herself. I think of many other friends who run their own businesses and have the flexibility to be present to their families in the ways they want to.
None of these women would say it was a cakewalk, but they'd say that no area of their lives -- marriage, caring for aging parents, finances, dealing with health issues -- was a cakewalk. Why should this area of their lives be?
Slaughter's article wasn't about women working in these kinds of jobs, of course. Her central point, that many top leadership positions are structured in such a way that makes them inaccessible to anyone who wants to be an involved parent, is a critically important one. But it's also critically important that media cover the the story that is unfolding in so many women's lives -- a story of women contributing to the larger world while raising children, combining work and family in ways our society has never seen before, creating new possibilities for women, men and families.
It's time for media to fairly cover women's lives, our mothering and our work. Doing so means sharing stories of women making it work -- not merely the stories of women who found they couldn't.
The charge for women as consumers of media is to keep asking ourselves the following questions:
What truths about women's careers, leadership, and lives are being ignored in the stories I'm reading?
Is what I'm reading sound and sober -- or is it meant to invoke panic or guilt?
Is what I'm reading consonant with the women's lives I see in my "real life" -- and if there's a gap, what is it?
Perhaps most important: What narrative is the media selling me about the level of satisfaction I can expect to experience in my own life?
It's time for all of us to step way back and look at the big picture of what we've been taught. It's time for us to reflect on what has it done to all of us to have the happy, satisfied, guilt-free woman, the woman thriving as mother and professional -- absent from what we see in the news. What has it done to girls to never see that? To boys? To men? To women?
Tara Sophia Mohr is a writer, teacher and coach who helps visionary, change-agent women play bigger in their careers. The creator of the Playing Big women's leadership program and the author of 10 Rules for Brilliant women, Tara received her MBA from Stanford University. Visit here for Tara's free resources to help you play bigger in your work.
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