Everyone’s talking about the latest Atlantic cover story: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Anne-Marie Slaughter confesses that it’s really damn hard to have both kids and a demanding career. After two years in her “foreign-policy dream job” at the State Department, she gave it up to spend more time with her family (she really meant it!) and return to a less dreamy but more flexible job as a professor.
She writes at length about what needs to change in American society to make it more possible for women to sanely combine work and child-rearing. More power to her: I fully support the kinds of changes she advocates. Women have gotten the shaft for far too long.
But despite all the chatter about this article, no one’s discussing or even noticing the huge assumption underlying it: that most women want both kids and a fulfilling career.
Over the past half-century, women have made tremendous inroads into the world of work, excelling in every field and earning opportunities our foremothers could only have dreamed of. Not only can a woman be dean of Princeton’s international-affairs school and director of policy planning at the State Department — two positions Slaughter has held — but that woman’s bosses can be women too — in her case, Princeton President Shirley Tilghman and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But while our career options have expanded dramatically, our family options can seem as constrained as ever. The Pill has been available in the U.S. for more than 50 years now, but despite the sexual revolution it brought about, expectations for women in the reproductive realm have changed little: We’re still expected to have kids, or at the very least to want kids and feel inadequate if we don’t have them.
How is it that one major aspect of our lives has become so much more free and open while another is still so narrow and stifled?
Slaughter’s article is aimed in large part at twenty- and thirtysomething women who are currently facing critical decisions about careers and families — and if you’re one such woman who has kids or knows she wants them, Slaughter’s got some good advice.
But for women who aren’t convinced that motherhood must be a part of their future, I have some different advice: Instead of just asking, “Can I have it all?,” start by asking, “Do I actually even want it all?” And step it back even further: “What does ‘it all’ mean for me?”
In my own case, having it all, having what I most want in life, means, among other things, having a satisfying career and not having kids.
I’m certainly not alone: There’s a small but burgeoning childfree contingent. And if we as a society talked openly about childfree life as a potential positive choice, our ranks might swell dramatically. But too many people still don’t even consider it as a serious option. Isn’t it time for women to feel free to choose any reproductive path, just as we’re free to pursue any career path?
Before consigning yourself to a series of tough choices about how to balance career goals and child-rearing (not to mention a romantic partnership, finances, elder-care responsibilities, friendships, health, exercise, sleep …), think hard about whether you really want kids. You might find that the answer is no, and that will make your life a whole lot easier.