But why not forward to the high powered men in our lives as well? Or any of the men, for that matter?
As Slaughter astutely points out, as does Sheryl Sandberg in her now-famous and heavily referenced Ted Talks and Commencement speech on the issue: this is not a single-gender problem. To clarify, while both Slaughter and Sandberg suggest that a solution would require men to be more proactive in equalizing professional opportunities for women - they agree that such a step is necessary, but not sufficient.
After all, what about the men?
Do they “have it all”? Perhaps, but I know many men at the top or struggling to get there while balancing their own desires to create meaning at work and in their personal lives, if they even have time for personal lives.
The high-intensity lifestyle Slaughter describes, including early calls, late meetings and traveling 4-5 days a week takes its toll on men too. As my mother, an extremely accomplished physician and former head of her hospital’s ER (falls squarely in the ‘superwoman’ category), said in response, “That is NOT a life-style, that is a work-style!” “Women are insane to take on role models who live impossible lives... do you think they have it any better?”
What then, is the alternative? We agreed that shifting standards of work/life for both genders closer to Europe’s labor standards might not be desirable, but perhaps there is a middle ground, including some of the flexibility outlined in The Atlantic. However, in the immediate term - especially for the women and men described in article (those with education, income and options), it may come down to crafting a life formed around explicit values, and personal choice.
To this point, one of Slaughter's references resonated - the astonishingly honest report from Bronnie Ware, a woman who managed palliative care for years: in it, her summaries of the regrets of the dying.
Number 2: “I wish I didn't work so hard.”
She writes “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
This is the data. It is precious knowledge because it is the rule, not the exception, but perhaps it is not true for everyone.
Some people will be fortunate enough to find work they are passionate about, a career that provides deep fulfillment - so this is in no a way a judgment on those who place work first, nor is it a universal prescription to solve life’s tensions by working less and spending more time with loved ones.
The gold nugget? Number 1: “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Ms. Ware writes from years of privileged and compassionate observation, “This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way.”
For both women and men, perhaps the right question is not how to ‘have it all’ in general, but what ‘having the best for me’ means, specifically, and then going for it. Knowing that there will be trade-offs, and that prioritizing can hurt.
We all make choices every day. A dear, double-ivy-league-educated friend said “I also never really bought into the having it all ideal. Mostly because it conjured up images of women in power suits wearing sneakers on the subway... (SHUDDER). So in the meantime I'm just going to set limits with my coworkers and prioritize (family, job, friends- in that order generally but not always).” I revisit Ware’s reflections in this context, because many of the things that bring satisfaction, joy and success, as defined by each individual, can be optimized by that individual.
I am in no way dismissing the importance of changing the legal and cultural infrastructure that perpetuate gendered imbalances in opportunity. I applaud Slaughter for adding thoughtful and wise fodder to a conversation that matters, and in doing so, opening her own life to study and critique. I am loving the discussions roiling over twitter, email and across both conference and kitchen tables. I am also actively engaged in professional organizations geared towards women’s advancement, I mentor male and female students, and I write my congressional representatives regularly on these issues. Resolution at a societal level may be a long time coming.
In addition to this work, it may be worth pausing to take a hard look at what matters...most, a little closer to home.