I’ve been monitoring with interest the reaction to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s brilliant, discussion-changing article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Though Slaughter’s primary audience may have been working moms, her message resonates with this working dad just as much.
In case you missed the article, Slaughter calls into question whether a professional woman can adequately keep up with the demands of her career in today’s workplace while responsibly raising children. Slaughter herself recently left the prestigious post of Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department to spend more time with her family.
Adding to the controversy, she takes to task Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who in a highly publicized commencement address at Barnard in 2011, lamented the small number of women in positions of power in government and business. Sandberg urged young women not to “leave before you leave,” meaning that when a woman starts thinking about having a family, she saps her own ambition and lessens her chances for advancement. Sandberg decries an “ambition gap” — arguing that women don’t dream big enough.
To Slaughter, Sandberg’s message contained more than a hint of reproach. Slaughter writes, “I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger American’s social and business policies, rather than women’s level of ambition, in explaining the dearth of women at the top.”
Slaughter also sees a larger problem, a societal one:
Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all. [W]omen would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume… that they will understand ‘supporting their families’ to mean more than earning money.
I agree men need balance, too. And our attitudes are indeed changing. In some law firms and companies I know, it was once considered a badge of honor to miss a child’s birthday or Christmas. Some partners even boasted of the number of divorces or broken relationships they’d taken for the team. This is no longer the case. Many of my male friends, tired of working long hours and missing soccer games and birthdays, don’t want to be known as just the breadwinner. They want to be more involved in their children’s daily lives.
But there’s a price. Though men don’t face the same workplace challenges and barriers as women, many feel just as much work-life anxiety. I’m a case in point. As a lawyer who’s worked in New York City and Washington, D.C., the work-life calculus turns constantly in my head.
Make no mistake, there’s no ambition gap with me. As a former federal and state prosecutor in NYC and a partner in a DC law firm, I had no hesitation with working long hours or doing whatever it took. Conscientious and dedicated, I placed no self-interest over work obligations or client needs.
All that changed when my sons were born. Suddenly my dedication and commitment to work had a new focus. And my energy shifted to an even greater responsibility — raising my kids to be, in Slaughter’s words, “responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.” Working as I did no longer cut it. I wanted a job that allowed me more time with my sons as they were growing up.
So what did I do? I left the legal world for a job in the public sector. Though I often work 12 hour days, my schedule is more flexible, my travel more reasonable and the work environment more family friendly.
But I’ve had to make sacrifices. I no longer work in my chosen area of expertise. I worry that what’s left of my dwindling marketability is going fast down the drain. And then there’s the question of money. Our reserves are slowly eroding, and I brace myself every night when I return home from work to a new stack of bills or the frequent refrain from my family, “You’ll never guess what needs fixing in the house today.”
The internal stress I place on myself isn’t helped by comments I receive from those in the testosterone-charged legal world I used to inhabit. Caring for kids is a little too nurturing in their book. As Slaughter correctly points out, some men view the choice of spending more time with children as selfish, or believe, as I’ve often heard said, that men who choose to spend time with their kids over time at the office “don’t want to earn a real living.”
Slaughter was right: Workers who choose their families first are often overlooked, dismissed or accused of lack of ambition. The modern, competitive workplace is simply not structured for women or men who want to be totally committed parents.
But you’ll hear no whining from me. I believe it’s all about choices. Men today have to make choices just as women do, none of which are perfect, and live with the results, good or bad.
Looking back, did I make the right choice? Only time will tell. I just know it was the choice I had to make. And my choice might not work for other dads. Not everyone has the option of choosing a job that keeps them close to home with manageable hours. As my male friends say, you gotta do what you gotta do.
But for now, I’m enjoying the benefits that came with my decision. Not just because it’s my responsibility to be a good father, but because spending time with my kids makes me happy. I love being part of their daily lives. I’m glad I’m around to teach them things and watch them grow. And I’m grateful for the special times we share.
Since my boys were little, I’ve created original stories with them at bedtime every night. I credit the hours spent with my boys developing stories as the greatest treasure of my life, one which I wouldn’t have experienced working late every night in the office.
In her article, Slaughter urges that we as a society need to rediscover the pursuit of happiness, one of the founding principles on which this country was built. For this working dad, rediscovering my own pursuit of happiness starts not at the office, but at home with my family.
John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of “Dad, Tell Me A Story,” How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors’ website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com, or read their regular posts on The Parent Network at http://ptvn.org.