How Should We Balance Our Work and Personal Lives?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

balance (Huffy Houghoughi/flickr)

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a busy woman. She's a professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton, a former director of policy planning at the State Department, and a mother of two boys.

Last week in The Atlantic, she published an article called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The article is as honest as its title, and as frustrated, and hopeful as that "still" in the middle. It speaks to those men and women who would like to see more women on the Supreme Court, and in the State Department, and at the head of major corporations — and who would also like those women to be able to have families. Maybe even happy families.

Slaughter says there's no dearth of ambitious women or devoted mothers, but outmoded social policies and career tracks that still treat "male choices" and "male behaviors" as the norm. "Our workplace culture and our social norms and expectations of what a successful career is are all still stacked against working mothers and working parents if you have fully engaged fathers," Slaughter says. 

After serving two years in the State Department under Hillary Clinton, Slaughter, who is the first female director of policy planning, felt that she was needed at home by her sons. "That, in the end, was something that I felt was more important than what was going on in foreign policy, and I think that's a choice that we ought to validate for all working parents and particularly for working mothers." 

"When women have children, their options are still far more constrained than men's are, in terms of being able to both have kids and have a career. Most importantly there are a whole bunch of changes that we can make that can make this easier," Slaughter says. 

Her readers have been glad to continue the conversation. On online message boards, in hallways at the office, women (and men) are talking about what those big changes might look like, and what it would take to make them. Fatema Sumar, a foreign policy advisor in the Senate Foreign Relations committee and a mother of two with a third on the way, is one of those women. She studied at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Foreign Policy, where she got to know Slaughter.

When Sumar's first daughter arrived, she was working at the State Department, where long hours and limited maternity leave make work extremely difficult. When Sumar began working for the Senate Foreign Relations committee, the flexibility she found made work much easier. She and her boss agreed that Sumar could work from home on Fridays, which has cut down on the working mother's stress and increased her productivity.

"It's made me able to juggle having two young girls and a high-profile job in the Senate," Sumar says. 

Slaughter believes that this kind of negotiation is the key to evening the playing field for women in the workplace. 

"What my generation has not been willing to say, out of fear that it would set the cause of women back, has been, 'Look, this is very hard to do, and you may well need to take some time, not take that promotion, defer for a while things that you want to do professionally to be able to be with your kids," she says. "Plan for that, and above all, start asking for what you need, because we do need to change the workplace and our broader culture." 


Anne-Marie Slaughter and Fatema Sumar

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Posey Gruener

Comments [13]

anna from new york

"Academic opportunism at its most flagrant."
Mike, of course. This country need a civilized labor law (and good education). Read some of the idiotic comments.

Jun. 27 2012 04:44 PM
anna from new york

"I am thankful we have jobs and employers that understand what it means to simply make ends meet - never mind having it all"
A genuinely moronic population. Zombieland

Jun. 27 2012 04:42 PM
Wheeler from Manhattan

Has anyone considered creating a law that forces men to be less dedicated to work or work less? Rather than trying to get women up to some "man standard" [which has proven not to be effective] it seems easier to reduce the time men spend at work.

Here is a quote from Amanda Marcotte:

"there's a tendency not to talk publicly about the disparity that many women are experiencing between their entirely reasonable expectations of an egalitarian relationship and what's actually available. There's a fear that if we tell women about this problem, they'll reject feminism"

Men must be made to change.

Jun. 27 2012 03:30 PM
Meera Singh from New Jersey

I have been frustrated by the lack of attention given to this issue and also how deeply engrained it is in what we want. I have done a whole series of artwork called "Wonder Woman." Wonder women are stuck in two worlds: the world of equality with men; and the world of their mothers, home and family. They want both these worlds. They want career, money, marriage, children, home, AND the perfect body. Each one of these requires a lifetime of endeavor. We want it ALL. To see this artwork go to:

Jun. 27 2012 11:45 AM
Rose from NYC

While I don't disagree with Anne-Marie Slaughter's basic premise of a call for flexibility in the workplace, the main issue that I do have with the context of her argument that she doesn't address is that having children is a choice. I am single, in my 30s, a woman, and I don't want children - but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't benefit from and would also like policies of flexibility to apply to me, even though I don't have a family. I work full time, volunteer, and go to grad school in the evenings. And what about people who have to juggle two or more jobs to make ends meet because one job alone doesn't pay enough? Or, as Martha points out, someone who has to care for an ill and/or aging parent? Though I certainly support the need for people with families to have understanding and flexible workplaces, it falls into the same problematic realm as, for example, one employee with a family getting promoted or receiving a better raise over a single employee on the basis of (all other things being equal) the former having a family and therefore "needing it more." Having a family is a choice, and one with certain economical and social consequences that are certainly obvious (i.e., kids are expensive and require extraordinary time commitment - we all know this). And this brings into focus the point that policies promoting work-life balance (and opportunities) must apply to everyone, not just women (or men) with children or those who occupy the upper echelons of the workforce.

Jun. 26 2012 08:03 PM
Nancy from Denver

Another unfortunate situation that occurs in our culture is that the voice of women and men that are not in high ranking government jobs or have an academic position that allows them to write their opinions is not heard. Instead of writing about the futility of the situation let's consider the great resource of the small but significant pool of women in the "previous generations" that weren't afraid to speak up and ask for what they needed and do feel like they "had it all".How about the less fortunate in low paying jobs where some choices are not possible or allow a family to grow and prosper? I agree with Fatima's suggestions about asking for what we need and making a choice to skip a promotion as well as a concrete solution such as changing applicable laws. But, these couple of opinions are limited in scope.

Jun. 26 2012 04:38 PM
Machi from NYC

I have a 9 months old baby. I came back to full time work after taking 3 months maternity leave. Although I work harder than ever, I didn't get promoted or get good raise this year. I am constantly reminded " I am lucky to have this job" by my boss. Also I got 2 weeks paid out of 3 months. I know so many women who got fired during maternity leave. Also I know so many women who quit their jobs because they don't make enough money to hire nanny. Another challenge is pumping at work. Men don't have to sacrifice ALL these issues.

Japan where I am from has a lot better maternity leave policy, child care from government(300 dollars a month) and day care is much cheaper. This country is not an ideal to be a working mother.

Jun. 26 2012 03:55 PM
glork from Glen Ridge, NJ

Why has fatherhood never been held to the standards of motherhood? It's acceptable for men to skip dinner and bedtime rituals in favor of office responsibilities, but if my thirty year old daughter stays late for a meeting, and mentions her sacrifice at work the next day, she is excoriated there as well- in order to equivalently balance the heaps of home guilt. Many who chase after it "all" do so out of greed more than necessity and many others employ a hidden, low wage workforce to aid them in appearing flawless in covering both bases. When the poor make these sacrifices out of necessity, there are no cover stories because lousy jobs lack glamour. Stop rehashing an age old dilemma that cannot be changed. If it's so bad here, try Nicaragua or Rhodesia.

Jun. 26 2012 02:31 PM

Dear smart media people and smart professors and smart people in general: PLEASE Stop asking "Can women have it all?" and ask the question "How do we all take care of each other throughout our entire lives?"

Many Parents AND non-parents are likely to have their lives badly disrupted by a parent's illness or a spouse who suffers an injury. Nearly ALL of us will have to face dealing with aging parents. And let's just face it: the support system for this in this country? Sucks. Big time.

While Dr. Slaughter acknowledges her privilege, I wish she had gone farther in terms of talking about laws--not just "asking your boss." We didn't get to a 40-hour work week solely by asking our nice bosses. We got there because people fought hard for LAWS. As long as we discuss these issues in terms of individual actions dependent on the kindness of authority figures, there is unlikely to be much change soon. This isn't the way change happens--not if you want it to stick.

Further, as long as we phrase this in terms solely of parenting, we will continue to leave out the many many people in this country, like me, who had her life and career disrupted by a parent dying of a cancer, or my husband, now in his 50s, who has had to curtail his work to care for 92-year-old father. I support making it easier for mothers to work not because I am a mother--but because I am a human who knows what's it like to be torn between getting a full time job and spending precious time with her father. We are all connected.

Jun. 26 2012 01:05 PM

Having it all? I don't think anyone can have it all - I agree with Malka from NY - my husband works long hours and wishes he could spend more time with our daughter - but it just isn't realistic - especially in this economy. I would like more discussion on how families who don't have those high profile jobs can be helped. Neither my husband or I have such a job - we both work so we can provide a home and food for our daughter and ourselves - we are blessed that our childcare is provided by our parents - otherwise I don't know how we could do it. Have it all? I am thankful we have jobs and employers that understand what it means to simply make ends meet - never mind having it all.

Jun. 26 2012 10:50 AM
mike brennan from Florida

Something similar happens when a feminism seminar is held and the glass ceiling discussion collides with the female circumcision discussion. Slaughter has the narrow focus of the deeply over-educated, and fails to recognize that this is not a gender issue, it is a fact: if pursuit of career, power, or wealth receives more of my resources, then my family will receive less, and maybe less than they need. Better that she should simply advocate workplace reform, and skip the spurious gender distinction...but then she might not get published. Academic opportunism at its most flagrant.

Jun. 26 2012 10:11 AM
Eileen McMahon from Boston

Flexible working hours are a good start but we need to go much further - create 24/7 services that support working women like weekend and evening day care, give tax incentives for building co-housing complexes which allow families to more easily share responsibilities for raising children, reform Wall Street so that our financial resources aren't held by 1%, and mandate 50% of our Senators and Congressmen are women!

Jun. 26 2012 10:08 AM
Malka Margolies from New York City

I have not read the piece in "The Atlantic" so I can only comment on the question I heard on the radio while dropping my son off at camp this morning. The question itself is fundamentally flawed. By asking how can women have it all (career, family etc.) it implies that men can have it all but women cannot. It implies that the expectations placed upon women are far greater then men. My husband works all the time and travels all the time. I work and take care of home life. Does he have it all? Absolutely not. He does not have the family time he wishes he could have although he does have the career he wants. I made a change in my career to reduce my hours in order to also "run the household." But the ideal situation would be a society that allows men and women to have the resources needed to pursue rewarding careers and have family time. This will (sadly) never happen.

Jun. 26 2012 09:42 AM

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