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 ... . ”