So, I started reading that Anne-Marie Slaughter piece in Atlantic magazine on Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. I started reading it, but bloody hell, I found it hard work. Perhaps I’m just tired. Perhaps I’m just tired from all the effort I put into having it all.
I’m not actually all that good at having it all. Or rather, I’m totally ace at the “not seeing much of the kids” side of it, but the “super career woman” bit – well, I wouldn’t rate me much on that score. Certainly not in comparison to Slaughter. This is a woman who has dropped out of her high-powered Washington career to spend more time with the kids and yet still – still! – she gets to piss all over the piffling achievements of women still clinging on to all the shit jobs they can find:
I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.
Presumably Anne-Marie also sticks a broom up her arse and sweeps the floor as she walks along. I mean, good for you, Ms Slaughter. Seriously. You’re really fucking amazing. Quite how this puts you in a position to comment on the compromises made by lesser mortals isn’t, however, totally clear to me.
I mean, yeah, it’s always difficult getting the work-life balance in order, even, as Slaughter comments, “with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills”. Often it’s just a total bummer (with or without the broom). Here’s how it was for Anne-Marie:
My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts. For two years, I never left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done on weekends, amid children’s sporting events, music lessons, family meals, and conference calls.
Yeah, tell me about it. Do you know how I cope with all this, Anne-Marie? I generally manage by fucking up. By always being the parent who forgets it’s non-uniform day, always being the colleague who’s late for early morning meetings, just generally always being “that person” who has to live with Allison Pearson narrating her every move. It’s not an ideal solution, sure, but once you come to terms with it and accept the essential fucked-up-ness of it all, it’s surprisingly bearable. And the bonus is, by doing all this, you get to have cute kids and a roof over your head. Result!
I don’t think there is anything necessarily gender-specific about my situation, or indeed Anne-Marie’s, other than that it’s arisen from working patterns failing to keep up with social change. I don’t have a househusband, therefore there’s no one there to pick up the pieces, yet workplaces still treat employees as though that extra person is necessarily there. And some employees do have stay-at-home carers as their partners. However, if you’re one of those who doesn’t, there’s a limit to how much flexibility you feel able to ask for. We should still keep on asking, though. Otherwise, why are we all working? What’s it all about? *rests hand on chin, philosophically*
One thing I definitely don’t believe is that there should be a special kind of guilt reserved for mothers. It’s not that I don’t sometimes feel it; it’s just that I know, fundamentally, that it’s not right. I think that’s part of being a feminist, and knowing that while, individually, I am a tosser, theoretically, as a woman, I am the equal of any man (apart, of course, from Jarvis Cocker). This is in many ways why I find the positioning of an article such as Slaughter’s genuinely discomforting (aka totally fucking annoying). She doesn’t seem to say much that I don’t also think (so how come she’s on telly and not me?). Yet it all feels so mummy-centric, so focussed on mummy identities and mummy responsibilities. There does, undoubtedly, need to be a shift in how businesses understand the commitments and responsibilities of employees. If not, it will mostly be women who lose out. Even so, I find myself cringing at assertions such as this:
Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments.
It’s not just the obsequiousness towards businesses (god forbid that anyone should just take the day off when their child is ill); it’s the demand that women still bear the “full load”, whatever the situation. Apparently it’s not our perception of motherhood that’s at fault; we just need new working hours.
There’s an unpleasant strain of essentialism running through Slaughter’s arguments. She doesn’t want to make workplaces more family-friendly; she wants to feminise them:
I [...] want a world in which, in Lisa Jackson’s words, “to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.” That means respecting, enabling, and indeed celebrating the full range of women’s choices. “Empowering yourself,” Jackson said in her speech at Princeton, “doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”
No, it sure doesn’t, whatever the fuck all that might mean. Presumably I need to watch more Oprah and it will all make sense.
I am, I suppose, just really sick of this whole fucking debate and the gender politics and assumptions surrounding it. The suggestion that there is anything remotely new about an older, successful woman turning around and saying “hey, this having it all lark isn’t so easy!” is ludicrous. You get it in the Daily Mail every week (thanks, Lorraine Candy). Sure, Slaughter is trying to be more constructive than that, but it really isn’t helping. Feminists did this, big shoulder-padded career women did that, SAHMs got sneered at, the career women had regrets blah blah blah blah blah. Do you know what really happened? Women tried to make the best of the opportunities offered to them but still struggled to gain ground because a) some people are sexist and / or hold restrictive views about what men and women can and cannot do [see Jackson quote above], and b) businesses are greedy and have been permitted to become even greedier. So it’s bloody difficult to ask them to treat you like a person, whether you’ve got children or not. And if your starting point is “ooh, I’m a mummy, please please please can I work at home and pull my weight while my toddler dies of consumption?” you’re not going to get very far.
Fundamentally, I am sick of mummies being put in boxes – SAHM, career woman, regretful part-timer. We do it for controversy, and debate, and entertainment. It’s become an abstract intellectual exercise. Do you know, it’s reached the point where we’re all so knackered, we’re starting to forget these aren’t just labels; these are our lives.