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Sept. 19, 2012

Vol. 113, No. 1


You can't have it all: Princetonians respond

By Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80
Published in the September 19, 2012, issue

Princeton is a family. One of the ways I know this is that Princetonians of every generation have not hesitated to write me with their responses to my cover story for the July/August issue of The Atlantic, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” We attract an extraordinary pool of talented young men and women every year by making it clear that the hallmark of a Princeton education is intensive faculty engagement with students; why should that stop just because students graduate? And indeed, I have laughed, cried, and learned from these responses (more than 100), just as I always do from the students in my classes. 

Let me review some of those responses, organized roughly by generation. One of the fiercest negative ripostes I received was from a cardiac anesthesiologist who described herself as a “Tiger family member” and who worked while her children, now adults, were growing up. Her point in writing to me was that I was completely out of touch with reality, due to my ivory-tower life. “Everything you mentioned has been dealt with by working women for the past 30 years. For 50. Forever.” This correspondent made her career work with a husband who applauded her more-rapid career advancement, took the kids to the ER when they were hurt, and made sure they got new shoes when she was too busy to notice shoes were needed. She argued, reasonably enough, that “patients rupture their appendixes around the clock,” and cannot be put on hold for a kid’s lacrosse game. She derided my suggestions for change with regard to more flexible workplaces and more variable career trajectories.


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This reaction was not uncommon among women about 10 years ahead of me; they were uniformly surprised that “this is news.” It isn’t news to the women who have lived it. But as I explained in the Atlantic piece, my generation has not been honest enough with younger women about how hard it is, telling them that they can make it work if they are just committed enough and marry the right guy. And younger women and men are no longer willing to accept promises and bromides (starting with the assumption that everyone can get a job!). What I have heard more than anything else from hundreds of younger men and women is gratitude for my candor, whether they liked my message or not.

Perhaps we have not been honest enough with ourselves, either. A woman from the Class of ’76 wrote about her trade-offs in deciding to commute rather than move her son away from a house and community he loved. Then “the teenage years hit, and I didn’t want to be missing my children’s lives,” she wrote. She added, simply and sadly, “I looked around and noticed that so many of my female friends in the Class of 1976 had no children, had one child, or gave up working.” That is the toll that we have not been sufficiently willing to acknowledge as a social and economic problem. Another woman from a slightly later class, an enormously talented musician, reported that she pulled back from her musical career to give one of her children the extra attention he needed; a decade later, he is thriving and she has resumed her music in a different way. She added that although Princeton has done a great job of celebrating successful alumnae at events such as the “She Roars” weekend in 2011, “the women who spoke and were featured in many of the wonderful programs did not represent the majority of women attending the event. I know many brilliant, talented women who have made sacrifices in their professional lives who will never be featured in an event like that.” And yet their stories also need to be heard, valued, and taken into account by younger women and men who seek to have both career and family going forward. 

On the other side of the coin, Lainie Ross ’82, who earned a medical degree and a Ph.D. and now practices pediatrics and teaches medical ethics at the University of Chicago, ­confirmed how hard it is to achieve a balance. She wrote that the dean of the faculty once asked her to “talk to the female medical students about work/life balance. I responded, ‘There is none.’ ... I sent him a YouTube video of a guy juggling electric chain saws. He agreed that I was not the right person to give the lecture!” 

Moving forward to the 1990s, a number of alumnae reported being surprised by the compromises they have had to make. One wrote that “as a law student, I generally stayed away from self-conscious involvement with ‘women’s issues’; I thought my generation was past that kind of thing.” She has found, however, that her own ability to have both a career and children has depended heavily on the support of neighbors and friends in her parish, leading her to emphasize the importance of revitalizing institutions such as neighborhoods, churches, and social groups that can support families and working parents in particular.

One working mother with young children told me that her sister had sent her the article when it came out and wanted to discuss it. My correspondent, however, had been traveling for work, “followed by deep child immersion.” She flagged the article in her inbox, finally reading it “under the covers at 1 a.m. ... lest my husband chide me for never sleeping.” This again was a familiar theme: Many working mothers wondered how I or The Atlantic expected them to read anything longer than a headline. 

A member of the Class of ’96 said she went to law school late, starting as an associate at a “BigLaw” firm that gave her “a generous maternity leave and the opportunity to work at ‘reduced time’ (40 hours a week) for the first six months” after returning from leave with her second child. But at the end of that six-month period, “I was told by the all-male leadership of my department that I could not continue on a flexible schedule, as it would hurt my professional growth.” She left, angry and frustrated, for a small firm that pays her a much lower salary. She concluded with a simple but overlooked point in our money-obsessed culture: “Flexibility is as valuable as compensation.” I would put it more broadly: Having a life that is more than work — living in the round — is as ­valuable as compensation. After all, Princeton admitted the vast majority of us precisely because we were ­multidimensional. 

Still another ’96er, a tenured professor of economics, wrote of her decision to go to work late and leave early, go to fewer conferences, and write fewer articles so she could spend time with her three children. In one of the most poignant messages I received, but one that is echoed by so many others, she wrote of her gradual awareness “that what holds me back professionally is ultimately my own unwillingness to be less present as a mother. Coming to that realization has helped me sort things out for myself, but there is still a sense of loss, and a sense of betrayal to my own younger, more idealistic, ambitious self.” It is precisely that sense of betrayal — indeed, in many cases, of failure — that we must address and eradicate; we owe it to our friends, sisters, daughters, and mothers.

Younger men also are questioning the work environment they have inherited. One former student, a man, wrote that “as long as it’s viewed as more ‘manly’ for men to prepare for marathons than to spend time with their children, those of us who want an ambitious career and a healthy family life — whether men or women — will be professionally disadvantaged.” Another weighed in with the point that “older male mentors have advised me to work my butt off for the first few years after my daughter is born since those years ‘don’t really matter that much since she won’t remember whether you were home or not.’ That just doesn’t seem like the way it should be to me ... . ”

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11 Responses to You can't have it all: Princetonians respond

Larry Dickson *71 Says:

2012-09-17 13:44:13

Due to technological advances, the amount of time each person (man or woman) needs to spend doing economic work should be decreasing, leaving more time for living. Instead, we are all clawing, terrified, for more hours. I call it the "accelerating slave." Solve that, and the other problems will solve themselves.

Lisa Herrington '89 Says:

2012-09-17 14:04:50

Thank you, Anne-Marie, for pointing out the need to use our minds AND hearts. We walked out the FitzRandolph Gate into wonderful careers. We knew how to work independently and sacrifice social opportunities to put in long hours working. We were worried about jobs and income. That was the easy part. Everything else was complicated. Today I advise female students to make time to cultivate their other dreams between 20 and 40: whatever they can negotiate. When my kids were little I was "wasting my time" on a side track. Suddenly the three bears grew taller than Mom on our Christmas card and friends said, "Whoa, you are raising a family!" It took you 15 years to see that? Now they ask, "Can we come to your home for Christmas?" My husband left 12 years ago, so I know how hard it is to raise children, manage a home and work. There are several other Princeton women in the same overcoming situation. Life rains unexpected change and heartache in a random pattern. Princeton women don't just "do it all," we "get it done."

Martin Schell '74 Says:

2012-09-17 16:02:50

Excellent article. I particularly liked: "But when women and men choose family over professional promotion, they very often are devalued." Perhaps the best place to start a revolution in this archaic attitude is to respect the work that a woman does at home. AFAIK, no country in the world counts the economic value of "housewife and mother" when tallying GDP.

Betsy Smith '03 Says:

2012-09-17 16:37:33

I think the issue is not "women can't have it all" but "nobody can have it all." Most especially - both parents can't have it all. She had everything that her male co-workers who were parents had. She had a great career, and she had kids. Women can absolutely have kids and a consuming career. They just can't be the primary caregiver and have a consuming career. But neither can men. Those men didn't have it all, either, if being a primary caregiver is part of having it all. I think only when the majority of men also want to "have it all" in the same way women do will we reach real equality. As long as "having it all" is defined differently for fathers and mothers, mothers will be striving toward a harder goal.

Cynthia Phifer Kracauer '75 *79 Says:

2012-09-17 16:51:53

There is no balance, it is a seesaw. In over 30 years of practice, I have found that I toggled between emergencies at home and crises at work. The space between the two extremes was a time of transition. There was never any static condition that could ever be called "work-life balance." When I am called upon to offer career/motherhood advice to young women, I stress the dynamic, not the stasis.

Susan Spock '76 p'08 Says:

2012-09-18 10:31:18

I was interested in your impressive accomplishments and your ability to recognize that they are due in part to your flexible schedule and supportive husband. I became a lawyer in 1983, but eventually dropped out of the active practice of law for a variety of reasons. In part, I found that the profession demanded more hours from me than I wanted to spend away from my family, and that I had too little flexibility. My husband is also a lawyer, so his schedule was nearly as constrained as mine. Furthermore, both of my children had learning disabilities -- and my presence at home and the tutoring and support I gave them were invaluable for their education and success. The part of your story regarding your son, therefore, struck me the most. It's all very well to leave children with other caregivers as long as they are happy and thriving; but when they start to have difficulties, the demands of work and the demands of children become less compatible. I know people who proudly say that their children have been fine while they have worked in challenging careers -- and that's often been true; typically those children haven't been seriously ill, or had learning disabilities. Those children have enjoyed reading, or have enjoyed the social aspects of day care. Those children haven't turned to a bad crowd, or drugs, or alcohol. So much of these things are a matter of luck, and the quality of the parenting can be irrelevant. I admire your decision to return to Princeton to support your son -- and I agree that the need to put children first constrains opportunities to do the work you might otherwise prefer.

Ed Musgrave '80 Says:

2012-09-18 10:52:10

When my chances for employment as a community college instructor in physics faded away, I took my two young children to Clearlake, Calif., and raised them by myself without ever working. Those were the best years of my life.

Harriet Patterson '98 Says:

2012-09-19 09:26:45

Thanks for this thought-provoking article. As much as I would love to believe you can have it all, most of the working parents I see (of both genders) seem pulled in a thousand directions and feel enormous stress. I think the hardest part of navigating career decisions is remembering to factor in one's life dreams, not just one's career dreams, something that was never discussed during my four years at Princeton but which has been a part of nearly every peer career conversation since I turned 30.

Ruth P. Walter '88 Says:

2012-09-24 09:28:08

I look forward to the day when choices made by women and men regarding their life/work balance are entirely boring to everyone except those directly impacted, including grandparents, employers, neighbors, co-workers and classmates. In truth that day will never come. We are all connected by a web of relations bound so tightly that the movement of someone six degrees away is felt at our most intimate core. We ask ourselves, "Would I choose that path?" or "How does that make me look?" We are judged every day in every way, and some judgments others make (she's a bad mom) or (he can't hack it) are just the price we pay for being visible (and for giving a damn what others think). Follow your convictions, be grateful for the choices you do have and realize there will always be trade-offs. The end. Please.

Pushpa Lall Gross '80, M.D. Says:

2012-09-27 09:32:11

Thank you, Anne-Marie, for bringing this topic out into the open. Dialogue is certainly what we need! 32 years after graduation, I find that there is so little respect for the freedom to choose what is best for each of us and our families. In particular, the remarks of the "Tiger family member" were particularly rankling. We physicians have a tendency to overrate our significance in the universe, hence her view that she alone was the only option for excellent patient care. Seriously, Tiger Mom, glad that's worked out for you, but get over yourself! Many of us, men included, simply want to be able to determine our priorities for ourselves. We are willing to accept the consequences, but for heaven's sake, can we show some courtesy toward those who have chosen a different road, and aid and advocate for each other instead of judging and criticizing? I have to admit that I have really had to "make it up as I go along" regarding work-life balance. From being the first woman to be pregnant in my residency program, to negotiating for part-time work hours, to homeschooling, I have tried many variations on the theme of trying to have it all. I have often felt discouraged, afraid, and pushed past the breaking point. I have also experienced exhilaration, excitement, and wonder along the way. I would love for today's younger women and men to be able to fashion their own solutions with our support and encouragement. Perhaps it has been worth it after all. My son, Class of 2015, sent us a link to this article, with the following comment: "Very thought-provoking. It makes me so much more grateful for the two of you." Anne-Marie, thanks again for your courage in starting the conversation!

Robin Mohr s'88 Says:

2012-10-11 09:18:55

I thought it was very interesting to read the PAW story in June (the same week I read the Atlantic article) about Erez Lieberman Aiden. At the very end of the profile of the brilliant young (male) alum, there was a brief reference to how he had recently changed his working habits to accommodate the new child in his life. I wondered, will he still be doing work on the same level? Will this affect his production? Will he have different but equally dramatic insights because of this new constraint? Will admitting it in public matter at all? I think the main thing is that we are all making it up as we go along, one heart-wrenching decision or flippant remark at a time.
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