Anne Marie Slaughter’s controversial article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic was followed up recently by Madeleine Kunin’s piece in the Huffington Post, “Why Men Can’t Have it All Either”. Both discussed how the confines of the American workplace make it near impossible for anyone to take full advantage of career opportunities without feeling like they’re making serious sacrifices in their personal lives. But in both cases, these sacrifices were discussed only in the form of parental responsibilities. Two questions came to mind:
1. Why are these articles titled with “women” and “men” when they’re really only talking about “mothers” and “fathers”?
2. Why would you want it “all”?
The Childfree are conspicuously absent in this discussion of whether we can have it all. The reason many of them are Childree in the first place is because they agreed: working mothers and fathers do have it all. But why would you want it? Having a bit of everything on your plate is a little like going nuts at the lobster buffet in Vegas. You feel like you’re supposed to experience everything and get your $29.99’s worth, so you heap it all on there. Thirty minutes later, you’re seriously regretting that ramekin of drawn butter. You’re feeling guilty that you’ve largely ignored that heaping scoop of fettuccini you just had to have. You’re living in a relative state of concern about the button of your pants popping off without warning. You want nothing more than to hit the re-do button and not take on so much, or at least gracefully crawl under the tablecloth for a quick nap. There are some alarming parallels here to the complaints I’ve heard from parents…
All jokes aside, taking on so many different responsibilities usually means not having enough time to focus on the things you enjoy most, or to reach your fullest potential for any one aspect of your life. It reminded me of an article I read once on how multi-tasking may no longer considered as desirable a trait in the workforce. More highly valued is the employee who can put their attentions towards a limited number of activities, and do them very, very well – without allowing themselves to be continually interrupted with things that prevent them from achieving their goals.
Single working parents or dual-income parents in households where childcare responsibilities are equally shared don’t have this luxury. These parents attempting to put just as much concentration into their career as they would have without children is admirable, but frankly, unrealistic. Kids don’t disappear from the hours of 7 am to 6 pm so their parents can get to work on time and stay till five each day without interruption. Shoelaces are lost. Temper tantrums explode. Homework is eaten by imaginary dogs. Calls about projectile vomit in the classroom are received. These things happen. They happen all day long, whether Mommy or Daddy are already late to work. To assume they won’t is at best, naïve. And though it’s definitely frustrating for Childfree co-workers to have to re-schedule meetings or pick up the slack from time to time, we don’t expect parents to shortchange their kids. They’re going to be running the world someday (while we’re still in it), and we’d rather they be well-adjusted, productive members of society instead of ill-mannered sociopaths.
In fact, I’m all for the policy changes Slaughter proposes that align working hours with school hours, or change the way corporations view a parent who passes on a promotion, makes a lateral move, or even takes a step down to make family commitments their top priority. As our under-funded school systems do a worse and worse job of educating our kids, making a career sacrifice is some parents’ only hope of churning out an intelligent, kind, happy, well-adjusted child. And as they’re so quick to remind us, the task of successfully raising a kid these days is an enormous undertaking. Some classify it as the hardest job in the world. So then how is it reasonable to expect parents to keep up with the increasing demands of the American workplace and still be the best mom or dad they can be? Should we even want them to?
Some of the Childfree will say yes – that parenthood is a conscientious choice and they should be prepared to bear the consequences of shouldering a 50-plus hour workweek on no sleep with a few billion pressing needs floating through their minds. But do you really want all your co-workers with children to be panicked about how they’re going to find time to pick up cupcakes for Susie’s graduation or whether they should have sent Jacob to school with a slight fever, instead of focused on their work? What good does that do us as a fellow employee, as a company, as a society?
Parents will never stop focusing on their children – nor should they. But until the current confines of the American workplace are adjusted to make families and work/life balance a priority, there will always be tension. There will always be people feeling like they should have it all, but can’t. Kunin’s argument was that the battle for work/life balance should not be a mother’s issue exclusively; it should apply to fathers as well. I’ll go one step further and say it should be an issue for any human being who wants to be more than a robot, who wants to have a meaningful, rewarding, well-rounded life in addition to their career.
We just need to make sure that the definition of work/life balance (which seems more like work/parenthood balance these days) includes benefits for the Childfree – who also happen to have families. We have spouses, pets, siblings, parents, nieces and nephews. The difference is that in most cases, we’re not responsible for raising them or ensuring their livelihood. We can put in a full day at the office and still attend our niece’s ballet recital – if we want, and if something hasn’t come up at work. Though parents also have the option of missing recitals (and unfortunately, frequently do), it’s not without a giant heaping of guilt and resentment. And some very major changes in workplace policies and culture are the only feasible solutions.
But until that happens (if it ever does), it seems like the Childfree are the only group that can truly have all that they want, exactly how they want it. Perhaps we’re fortunate that we don’t want more. That we’re content with simple pleasures like putting in a solid day’s work at a job we love because we didn’t opt for a career that was based on needing to support a family; or taking a long stroll with our spouse after a romantic dinner-for-two where we can discuss something other than Junior’s private school tuition; or taking time to volunteer and give back to the community; or retiring early to travel the world and really enjoy life before it passes us by.
Sounds like more than enough to me, even if it’s not considered all.
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