08/31/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

Being a Working Mother Is Hard -- That's Not News

Much has been written about Anne-Marie Slaughter's provocative article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," which ran in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine. Slaughter wrote the piece after stepping down from her post as the first woman director of policy and planning at the State Department because, as she explains it, the logistics and demands of the job made being fully present for her children, in particular her struggling teenage son, impossible.

Personally, I found the article unnerving on a number of levels.

First, "Having it all" is a 20th century slogan. Few of us who are part of today's conversation about how women balance achievement with family frame the dilemma in those terms anymore. For decades, working parents have known that everything -- for women and men -- is a trade-off. If you are reaching for the C Suite, then you will probably not become the first grade room mother, attend every performance and game or be home every night for dinner. What being a high-achieving mother doesn't mean, however, is that your children will necessarily suffer emotionally, which of course is the implication in Slaughter's story, whether she intended it to be or not. Unfortunately, it's an implication that plays directly into the sexism that continues to impede women's ascension in the workplace. As an educator for 25 years, I can state with confidence that the children of stay-at-home mothers also struggle in adolescence.

When I counsel ambitious women at work who seek greater leadership, a return to graduate school, or those who are simply struggling to balance family and work in their current positions, I am honest. Being a working parent, no matter the end of the economic spectrum one sits on, is generally hard and exhausting. And, if we are talking about conventional, heterosexual marriages where both parents work, it's often harder and more exhausting for the woman. Why? Because despite the fact that the distribution of labor in the home is certainly more equitable than it was fifty years ago, research shows that women still do the majority of care-giving, scheduling, communicating, shopping, cleaning and all the general administration that keeps a modern household from melting down.

Thus, like Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, I urge women to expect from their partners equal responsibility in housework and child care. That said, no matter how equitable the partnership, my general message stands: "It's hard and exhausting." My intent is not to discourage. Quite the opposite, actually, because I'm quick to add that the hardest, most exhausting parts don't last forever. Babies grow out of diapers, learn to feed themselves, talk, manage their own schedules, help with younger siblings, drive and eventually get jobs of their own. Family, like career, happens in segments, a truth Madeline Albright, first female Secretary of State (and women's college graduate), makes often when asked to comment on balancing motherhood with high level achievement. But the key, again to reference Sheryl Sandberg, is not to give up when it gets hard or, as she put it in her famous Barnard commencement address, "Don't leave before you leave."

Unfortunately, Slaughter's article may have just given women everywhere permission to do just that: aim low, if not bow out entirely. To her credit, Slaughter rightly calls for more generous and supportive maternal/child care policies and workplace structures that give parents more time for parenting. However, her very public retreat from her uniquely grueling post (which required her to live apart from her family during the week -- a situation which even the most generous policies could not have mitigated), just made it harder to convince women -- the very women who will ultimately change policy -- to reach for the top.