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Friday, July 6, 2012

Dear Abby: I Want It All, And I Want It Now

This week's Dear Abby post is one that is very near and dear to my heart. 

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."  (For an electronic copy, go here.)  A reader asked for my thoughts on the piece.

Boy, do I have a few. 

As its title suggests, the article tackles the "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" anthem that we, too, can have it all -- just like our male counterparts.  The "it" in the article -- just like the "it" in the anthem -- is the opportunity for both a full family life and a full professional life.  And as the negative conjugation in the title further indicates, the author does not believe that the anthem is true.  She even thinks it's unfair that the mantra remains in our popular lexicon.

I absolutely agree with her.

Let's get some foundational points out of the way.

1.  As Anne-Marie also notes, this debate is in many ways a luxurious one.  Any woman who can engage in an exercise where she asks herself whether she can pursue the career she wants while having the family she dreams of is a lucky one.  It necessarily means she has some say over (a) whether she works outside the home; (b) if she does, how much she works; and (c) her family planning.  For many women, a job is a must and babies aren't planned.  So yes, I feel fortunate that this is an issue I even have room for on my plate, and I acknowledge the "poor little fortunate girl" aspect of this quandary.  But I'm going to move forward with the analysis.

2.  The anthem/mantra is unfair, even as framed.  To have a family and a career don't really seem to be having "it ALL," they seem to be having the basics.  A better way to frame the issue is whether women can have all the same stuff and opportunities that guys have.  So "having it all" should really just be understood as a shorthand.  A somewhat misleading one, but most shorthands probably are. 

With that, away we go.

I do not think it is true that women can have it all, and I think the anthem/mantra stinks.  I base this conclusion on my own personal experience, but that experience includes the many, many conversations I've had with colleagues, friends, and mentors about their own struggle to balance their professional pursuits with their familial ones.

I didn't always think this way.  When I graduated from college, I headed straight to law school.  I was 22 years old at the time, and starting my own family seemed (and was) a long way off.  But in some twinkling part of my inner eye, I saw myself as a successful trial lawyer by day and a fully-engaged wife and mother by night.  Indeed, I think for as long as I had a vision of myself as an adult, it was a vision of a woman who was doing "it all."

After law school, I clerked for a federal judge in Newark, NJ and then moved across the Hudson into Manhattan to begin my stint as a litigator for a large law firm.  I had the stereotypical young lawyer experience: late nights, long weekends (in the office), no vacations, lots of (work) travel, and no life outside the office.  I got good reviews for my work and progressed through the ranks, but it was all I could handle to carve out time with my husband. 

A few years into that grind, the alarm rang on my biological clock.  I got pregnant in August 2007 and had my daughter in May 2008.  I took four months of maternity leave, hired a full-time nanny, and tried to go back to work "just" 4 days a week.

It didn't work.  I spent my Fridays at home working with my daughter next to me.  It was stressful and uncomfortable and disappointing for us both.  So I went back to work full-time.

I left our apartment at 8:30 in the morning and was home by 6:30.  That is pretty awesome, actually.  My firm was considered forward-thinking and mommy-friendly -- by third parties and by me -- for letting me leave at that hour.  I would give my daughter dinner and a bath, and I would put her to bed.

And then at 8PM, I'd sit down at our dining room table or our home office and work.  And work.  And work.  Usually until midnight, sometimes into the next morning.  Then I would wake up with my daughter.  Repeat.

When she was 6 months old, I got sent to Delaware for trial.  I was away from her for 3.5 weeks, and missed her first Thanksgiving.  Over the next two years, I was on repeated trips to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Phoenix -- as well as dozens of other towns and cities across the U.S.  Sometimes those trips were just for a night, sometimes they were for a week.  I missed doctor's appointments, play dates, nursery school events, milestones, and bedtime after bedtime.

When I was home, work was always a looming presence.  My daughter's naps and bedtimes were non-negotiable, as I always had to use that time to finish a brief, respond to a client's question, or close the loop on research.  I took conference calls at the park.  I answered emails during dinnertime.

I was neither fully present as a lawyer nor fully present as a mother.

Eventually this lifestyle got to me.  I was worn down.  Exhausted.  Frustrated.  Even scared.

The final straw was trying to have a second child.  I always wanted my daughter to have a sibling, and I thought it would be wonderful if that sibling would be close in age to her, just like me and my sisters were.  The thing is, I couldn't get pregnant.  I took medicine.  I injected myself with hormone shots.  I was measured and poked and prodded on a weekly basis.  Nothing.

Until April 2010.  One day I got the call from my fertility doctor I'd been waiting for.  I was pregnant.  Joy.  Jubilation.  Relief.

Six weeks later.  Mother's Day.  I start to miscarry.

Four hours later, I am in a car headed to the airport.  I fly to Phoenix.  I wake up the next morning.  I am still miscarrying.  I sit down in an office building and spend the day taking a deposition.  I take breaks because I am still miscarrying.  No one knows that this is happening to me as I ask questions and enter exhibits.  I board a red-eye home.  I land and go immediately to the fertility doctor's office.  He confirms I've lost the baby.  I go home, shower and change, and go to work.

I never told anyone at work that I'd just lost the baby it'd taken me a year to try to conceive.

I also never told anyone at work that, on that day in May 2010, I resolved with myself that I needed to get out of this situation.  I couldn't do the work I needed to do and be the mother I wanted to be.  Or the wife I wanted to be.  Much less the me I wanted to be.

I became a partner at my firm in October 2010 and quit 2 months later.  We moved to Maine in January 2011, and one week -- ONE WEEK -- after we arrived in Maine, I found out I was pregnant.  In September 2011, my son was born.  Joy.  Jubilation.  Relief.

I am back at work now.  I am not at a law firm.  I am not a partner.  I am working as a lawyer making 20% -- TWENTY PER CENT -- of what I made when I left my old life.  But my hours allow me to pick my daughter up from school.  Every day.  To make dinner and give baths and read stories and do bedtime.  Every night.  To have adventures and run errands and go to birthday parties.  Every weekend.  Work stays at work and my family time is sacrosanct. 

Sometimes I miss the energy and the challenge and, yes, the prestige that I used to feel.  Sometimes I don't recognize myself doing a job when I always envisioned myself having a career.  Sometimes I imagine what I would be doing with all that money I used to make. 

I never think I could go back to that life.  I never know what I could have done to make it easier on myself, my husband, or my daughter.  I never understand how some women can confidently claim to have the exact career they want and the exact family life they want. 

Whoever those women are, congratulations.  However you have managed to do that, wow. 

My experience is, of course, not everyone's experience.  Not all jobs are as grueling as mine was (and some are much more so).  Not all women feel the same about the way they want to mother as I do.  But I think that for most women, the struggle is real and no day is ever easy.  The one thing I've consistently heard working mothers say about their juggled life is "It is so hard."

Why is it so hard?  Get ready for an awful-sounding statement: I still don't think the workplace accommodates mothers.  It surely has come a long way: there are lactation rooms, extended maternity leaves, and even "flexible hours" like the ones I enjoyed when I left the office at 6:30.  Many places allow you to work from home, sneak out for a doctor's appointment or a school play, and my firm in New York even brought in speakers on topics important to parents.  But when the industry thrives on competition -- usually of the cutthroat variety -- and the stakes are high, the clients demanding, and the technology advanced, work is omnipresent.  To leave work behind is to be irresponsible, unreliable, and unworthy. 

I never told anyone about my workday miscarriage, so you'd better believe I never told anyone when my daughter was sick or hadn't slept well or was excited for her Gymboree class.  I never shared my anxiety over childcare coverage or my plan to bring my daughter to the office on Saturday with a stack of DVDs so I could finish a brief.  When my lawyer hat was on, my mommy hat had to be stashed away, lest I appear any less committed or focused on the legal task at hand.  No, I didn't want to get judged as less than by the men, but I also didn't want to get judged as less than by the women.  You know -- the women a few years or decades ahead of me who had navigated these tricky waters somehow, and now expected me to do the same. 

Unless there is a complete revamping of the priorities and mindsets at work and in control in corporate America, this woman doesn't see how women can enjoy a high-paced career and a highly-functioning family (at least, a highly-functioning family that counts her as an active participant).  The decks are too stacked in favor of a round-the-clock availability and work schedule that undercuts any notion of hands-on parenting. 

But here is the thing.  Compromise still exists.  Maybe we can't have "it all," but we can have a lot.  I am still a working mother, I'm just working at a different job and in a different capacity than the one I started off with.  Maybe someday I'll have longer hours, meatier assignments, and a bigger paycheck.  Right now, though, I have the job that works for the family I'm raising.  I've been afforded the chance to make a choice.  That's pretty awesome.  Probably better than having it all.

Here's the other thing.  It's counter-productive to pretend that women are the only ones facing this struggle.  Men have to decide how much they want to pursue a career at the expense of their wife and children.  Perhaps it's of a different scale and flavor, but it's still there. 

My advice?  Embrace your options.  Recognize that you're never stuck.  Admit to yourself what it is you really want, and try to do that.  Be okay with the fact that your career may not be a constant ascent, but may look more like a staircase, with steps up and flat-lines across.  Ease up on yourself, because telling yourself that you have to manage what no one before you has managed is masochistic.  Let go of the men-versus-women battle, because it just adds unwarranted friction.  If you want your struggle to be appreciated by the opposite sex, start by appreciating theirs.  Remember that many, many people feel your pain.  And that you're really lucky to be able to call it a pain in the first place. 

This is all easier said than done.  But so is getting a job.  And being a parent.

Then at the end of a long day, when your coworker dumped his work on your lap and your children were fussy and your husband forgot to buy charcoal for the grill, you sit yourself down with a big bowl of Ben & Jerry's Banana & Peanut Butter Greek Frozen Yogurt.  And you have it all.

Submit your idea or suggestion for a "Dear Abby" post by emailing me at All the other intricate details of this something-for-everyone are explained here.


  1. Good Abby! The other day on Morning Joe, Mika Brezinski said something close to this: " that because of her job, everyone in her family suffered a little, but no one in her family suffered directly from her husband's job".

  2. Great said everything that I have ever thought so clearly.
    I completely agree with the "having it all" issue not being just a female issue...I know my husband struggles to spend as much time as he would like with our son. And what you said about the mothers who have come before us being the harshest critics is too true.
    I suppose as a mother and as a working mother I am luckier than most.
    I used to be a trader at a NYC hedge fund but when I was about twenty-seven...well before I had my son...I realised that if I ever wanted the kind of life where I could have kids and be present for those kids I could not continue to work on Wall Street. So I quit my job, moved to Australia, went back to school and now I am nurse. I have a fourteen month old, I work three days a week at a job that does challenge me but that is also flexible in terms of shifts and that is done when I leave the hospital every day. I am so fortunate to have struck a good work-life balance.
    Somedays I do wonder what would have happened if I had stayed at the hedge fund. Certainly every December I pine for a hedge fund bonus!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this matter!

  3. Well said, real and thoughtful. I like that you also spoke to issue of fathers needing to make choices and compromises as well as mothers.