Glaring holes in the dialogue on how women can 'have it all'

Published: Tuesday, July 24 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Acclaimed Princeton University professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter recently sparked an international discussion on the cultural changes still needed before women can "have it all." Her provocative piece may have raised more questions than it answered.

Anne-Marie Slaughter herself conceded that the discussion resulting from her explosive cover story convinced her "to stop saying 'having it all'." And why? Perhaps because "having it all" is trapped by a definition of having a career that children and a husband fit into without requiring any adjustment in professional pursuits. After all, isn't life about becoming self-actualized, unhampered by obligations that may put boundaries on perceived self-development?

But that isn't what Slaughter discovered about what it means to "have it all." In fact, her decision to leave a prestigious state department position in order to spend more time with her 14-year-old son who was struggling with "bad choices" was simply "the right thing to do." As she described, she had a responsibility to him as his mother that could not be given to any other. In the end, it didn't feel like a choice. It was something she "had to do."

Her feelings reflect the reality that women are not just independent automotons seeking self fulfillment. Rather, "having it all" involves doing right to those for whom we are responsible, and for whom we can never be replaced.

Slaughter's story helps explain the maternal stress and depression associated with the large and growing number of women working more hours than they would like to be. Nationally representative surveys, including The 2005 Motherhood Study, have consistently shown that there is a large gap between women's preferred work situations and those they are actually in.

In fact, contrary to what is assumed in most "have it all" discussions, 41 percent of mothers were working full time, but only 16 percent actually wanted to be. That gap has only increased during the current economic crisis of sustained and dramatic job losses for men. For many mothers, the challenge of working more hours than they would like to be touches their most intimate maternal concerns — concerns that center more on the development of their children and families than on breaking through the glass ceiling.

For another large and growing number of mothers, "having it all" seems like a pipe dream unless there are changes in the likelihood of stable family relationships. Many of the 516, low-income mothers who participated in a well-known 2008 study described the stress they felt when their income was inadequate to meet both essential and desired expenses, like birthday gifts.

Most of these low-income women represent the moderately educated (high school graduates with no college), for whom the likelihood of marriage dropped from 73 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent in the 2000s. Half of the children born to these less-educated mothers are born out-of-wedlock compared to only 2 percent of children born to more educated women.

These less-educated women express the same aspirations as their more educated counterparts, but having the stable marriage and family life core to even think about "having it all" seems out of reach.

Sadly, these realities and their solutions are often glaringly absent from discussions about women and "having it all." Even Slaughter's solutions focused almost exclusively on altering the work world to give working mothers "better choices to be able to stay in the pool and make it to the top." But when we take a closer look at what most women really mean by "having it all," we find that in the end, what matters most is a happy, stable family life.

As Slaughter's own story revealed, when it comes right down to it, women's happiness is bound up in being able to be true to the relationships that are the foundation for every part of "the all." Wouldn't it be more useful then for us to discuss cultural changes that would actually enable those relationships, their quality and stability to be a reality?

Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

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