Prices to Be Paid for Having It All

By Jamie Stiehm

January 17, 2014 5 min read

The perfect Washington lunch featured two women at the top of their fields and in a dialogue about women's lives as "a candy store of choices."

Wait, that's not quite right. Women's lives still have trade-offs, and growing girls should know they may be miserable if they try to "have it all." That carries freight, and a personal price to be paid. The messengers were, perhaps, more impressive than the message. This event took place at the Aspen Institute.

The two women, good friends, are Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College in New York and Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation in Washington. They represent the peak plum harvest of the women's movement, which peaked in 1973 when they were 16.

All kinds of higher education, athletic and professional doors opened for the first time. Even West Point had to admit young women as cadets in 1976 — by order of Congress. Indeed, they were the first American young women coming of age to be told the horizon was limitless, theirs for the taking.

Now in their mid-50s, Spar and Slaughter are publicly reflecting on their most fortunate generation of American women, holding up their own lives to examine for lessons. Spar's 2013 book is "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection." Slaughter wrote a provocative piece in The Atlantic in 2012, on "Why Women Can't Have It All."

Clearly she hit a cultural chord, as it became the best-read essay in the history of the magazine.

Together, their conversational duet described nice problems to have: job offers versus commuting between cities, and raising toddlers versus teenagers when you are going back and forth between, say, Princeton and a high-powered job in Washington. Their goal was to "shake up the current conversation," Slaughter said, in hopes their experiences on the family/work frontier has meaning for younger women. They belonged, to be sure, to a wave of social pioneers.

Their notes from the front are not breathtaking social change, but incremental, savvy strategies. A husband willing to become the main caregiver of children for a given period of time is a major but rare asset. Women can also take some pressure off themselves at home. Avoiding the happy talk of social media is also recommended.

"You have to give up on the pumpkin all-nighter and the perfect cupcake," Spar said. She also realized she'd have to give up on the PTA, a symbol of good motherhood. She could not fit it into her travel and teaching schedule when she was a professor and dean at Harvard Business School. A quest for perfection in all spheres made her feel guilty and miserable. A married mother of three, Spar said she experienced "a sense of failure. But nobody has it all." Slaughter added her young son once "drew me as a laptop," which got a good laugh. She declared she would be "a terrible mother" if she stayed home.

Even well-educated women who left the workforce as young mothers — many of my peers — are not living in domestic paradise. Years later, when they get ready to re-enter their fields, it's hard to get hired and hard to catch up. The choice model was not ideal for them, either.

Spar and Slaughter agreed, "It's easier in some fields (for women) than others." Academics is a hard slog until one gets tenure, they said, but then one has much more flexible control over one's time and space. My own mother, a professor, often worked at home behind shut doors while I was growing up. Then and now, however, it is often every working woman for herself.

"We need more white guys grappling with these problems," Slaughter said, on how to integrate work and family with more child care and paid leave.

Spar found the larger truth beyond sharing vignettes. "Our generation privatized feminism," she said, losing cohesion as a movement.

Sitting to my right, Alicia Sokol, 40, told me about her blog and book project on weekly greens and healthy meals. Married to a surgeon, raising two children, she quit her full-time job do "a crazy, risky thing," she said.

Something had to give.

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