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Work and family: Can women have it all?

An essay in “The Atlantic” by the first woman to serve as policy director at the State Department has reignited the issue of work-life balance.

From the outside, it must have looked like I was living the feminist dream, said Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic. In 2009, I became the first woman to serve as policy director at the State Department, acting as a key adviser to Hillary Clinton. Until then, I’d blindly accepted the idea that a woman could “have it all,” with a career as ambitious as any man’s and a family. Yet like so many professional women, I found it impossible to balance a highly demanding, 60-hour job and parenthood. When my rebellious 14-year-old son wouldn’t speak to me and started spiraling out of control, I realized I couldn’t be “both the parent and the professional I wanted to be.” So I gave up my State Department job and returned to teaching. If career success requires working from dawn to dusk, no woman can “have it all.”

The idea of “having it all” was always a myth, said Mona Charen in NationalReview.com. For too long, feminists have told women that they could enjoy “a satisfying career, a high income, a loving husband, and 2.5 ego-gratifying, low-maintenance children.” But one person can only do so much, and most women “want to be there for the first words, the Little League games, the school plays,” and the countless intimate moments that “are some of the sweetest parts of life.” Wait a minute—feminism never promised that women could “have it all,” said Maha Atal in Forbes.com. The movement fought for equal opportunity and choices for women, not a fantasy world “in which each woman does whatever she wants without consequence.” And unlike the privileged Slaughter, regular parents struggling with bills don’t have a choice when it comes to juggling work and family—“they ‘do it all’ because there is no other option.” 

The reality is that no one, male or female, will ever achieve a perfect work-life balance, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Even if we make the workplace more family-friendly, the employee who’s willing to stay later “will always, always have a professional advantage over a peer who wants to leave at 5 p.m.” So let’s at least be honest with ourselves about the trade-offs we have to make as parents, “rather than holding out hope that we, alone out of all the generations of humanity, are about to find a way to have everything we want.”

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