I sometimes like to amuse myself by imagining a world in which men are torn by guilt over the idea of “having it all.” I picture them gathered in a pretty apartment over a bottle of chardonnay, scented candles flickering. After they’ve finished talking about the latest Ann Patchett novel, one of them says: “You know, Bill, I am so stressed out. I forgot to finish making my daughter’s skating costume, and my boss was on my back because the report was late, and I’ve been too tired for sex for weeks. I’m the world’s biggest failure.”
“I know what you mean, Charlie. I was making a pot pie to take to my sick friend, and it burned because I was trying to help my son with his homework and – oh, screw it, the Leafs game is on. Can you turn up the sound?”
Yes, you’re more likely to believe that Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires. Somehow men seem to accept the cracked, duct-taped lives they’ve been given, while it is women’s lot to constantly imagine themselves next to a yardstick marked “perfection,” wondering how they might earn those last few inches.
It’s no wonder, then, that women are less happy now than they were 40 years ago, as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in her much-talked-about cover story for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Actually, that cover line, while sure to draw readers the way fish guts draw sharks, is misleading: In the piece, Prof. Slaughter writes, “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can, too). … But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
Prof. Slaughter was at the pinnacle of accomplishment when she discovered her work-life balance was out of whack. She was working as Hillary Clinton’s director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, the first woman in that role. She also had a troubled 14-year-old back home in New Jersey, and something had to give. The job gave. She left Washington to return to teaching at Princeton (which, in a normal world, hardly seems like a relaxing downshift).
In the never-ending “having it all” debate, which sometimes feels like Groundhog Day with a pedicure, voices can get a bit shrill. This week, for example, Cherie Blair – the wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair and a top lawyer – turned her rhetorical cannon on women who have lost their zest for success, who want only to “marry wealthy men so they can stay home.” Earlier this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg caused a mini-storm when she railed against women’s “ambition gap,” blaming it partly on a culture that values affability in girls rather than grit.
But Prof. Slaughter’s argument is more thoughtful and humane: It’s not women (or men) who are to blame, but a system that is “time macho” – obsessed with hours at the desk – and fails to prioritize family life. Having more women in positions of legislative power, she writes, might help bring about a cultural shift.
I’d add this: We need to stop using that horrible phrase. Even Angelina Jolie doesn’t have it all – although she does have Brad Pitt and a pilot’s licence, which is probably as close as anyone will get. Maybe we should return to a sustenance-level measurement of satisfaction: Not having it all, but having enough. We could learn to live with different expectations, so if you went to bed at night saying, “Everyone in this family is still alive, and nothing caught on fire,” it would be judged a good day.
But assumptions can be tricky beggars to shift. I had a horrifying realization while reading Prof. Slaughter’s article: Every time I’ve interviewed a powerful woman who has children, I’ve asked how she manages the juggling act, without once considering the inherent sexism of the question. Sometimes the answer was incredibly poignant, as with novelist P.D. James, who wrote her first novel while raising two children, working full-time and living with her in-laws; her husband had been in a psychiatric facility since returning from service in the Second World War. She told me, without an ounce of self-pity, that in return for child care, she provided her in-laws with newspapers and gossip, and that this bought her time to write.
While I’ve grilled all sorts of women on how they maintain the holy trinity of work, life and sanity, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a single male interview subject the same question. It feels like a glaring oversight – something I plan to rectify. I’ll add it to my to-do list.