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Caught in the parent trap: women and the skewed work-family balance

The Having It All trope won’t go away. It’s the Gordian knot of gender relations, and doesn’t it bore you silly?

When my sons were small and I was editing a magazine, I would return home wrung out from a wretched commute to find them adorable in pyjamas, and a silky inner voice would pipe up: “You’re doing this job for what? To see your kids one hour a day? Why struggle? Just let go . . .” Almost all my women friends had tumbled from the career tree. If the first baby didn’t push them off, the second would.

But another inner voice, angry and obdurate, kept me going. “What was the point,” it raged, “in all those years working late, fighting for a big job, if you flunk out now? Old men said this always happens: promote women and they only quit to have babies. Why prove the bastards right?”

In her book Unfinished Business Anne-Marie Slaughter describes playground conversations I remember well. “I’d been the woman smiling the ever so faintly superior smile,” she writes, “in the face of another woman ­telling me that she had decided to take time out to stay at home or pursue a different, less competitive career track to have more time with her family.”

As I rushed for my train, I would see women who had been doctors, lawyers, designers . . . going off to baby yoga, and think, “What a waste.” But then I abruptly had to reconfigure my own work-family balance: I was fired. Slaughter, however, walked away from Hillary Clinton’s state department, where she was director of policy ­planning. This job came in a rare and wondrous alignment of stars: Slaughter’s political party took power when she was at the height of her academic career. And so for two years she lived in Washington all week while her two boys stayed in Princeton with their father, also an academic. Then one of her sons grew unhappy and got into trouble with the police, and finally, as Slaughter wrote in a piece for the Atlantic in 2012, “I wanted to go home.” Admitting this felt like a betrayal, she says, of not only her younger, ambitious self, but other women who toiled uncomplainingly away from their families.

Her article, entitled “Why women still can’t have it all”, on which Unfinished Business is based, caused a storm. Not that the subject isn’t well trodden. But, hell, if one of the highest-ranking women in American politics – rich, well connected, with a husband happy to take over front-line parenting duties – has to abandon her once-in-a-lifetime career chance, what hope for the rest of us? I find Slaughter’s situation extreme and insoluble. Five days a week away from everyone you love would dent anyone’s spirits (ask MPs) and no family-friendly legislation could make Princeton closer to DC.

But the Having It All trope won’t go away. It’s the Gordian knot of gender relations, and doesn’t it bore you silly? During the week I was reading Unfinished Business I collected all the related newspaper articles I could find, and gathered quite a pile: from “Generation of have-it-all women is cracking up under stress” to “High-flying family men cut their working weeks”. This book joins a 21st-century work-family- wellness genre that includes Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive and Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner.

Beneath the whole debate lies a continuing unease. First an enduring societal angst that the old certainties of dad breadwinner and mum carer – the roles of our parents which most of us were raised to perform – are in perpetual flux. And second, a disquiet among women, as we step ever further from the “natural”: are we screwing up our kids, are we killing ourselves and is it all making us happy? One feeds the other, and endless Daily Mail articles telling women that the penalty for exceeding their capacity is ageing skin/divorce/alcoholism/cancer don’t help. Besides, this debate is bathed in privilege: poorer mothers who have jobs rather than “careers” have toiled on, never thinking they could have very much at all.

Slaughter runs through all the structural changes that might improve working women’s lives. (And here, we Brits must shake our heads once more at our poor American sisters, who receive no statutory maternity pay whatsoever, and must pray Hillary will step in.) But we’ve heard all this Nick Cleggery for years. Yes, sure, flexitime, remote working, parental leave, going part-time without forfeiting later promotion, early cuts to see school concerts, yada yada. And British corporate culture has changed significantly in the past decade as companies try to retain female talent.

But where Slaughter is more interesting is in her attempts to drill down through attitudes prevailing in the bedroom rather than the boardroom. Are certain desires innate: is it only mothers who have a visceral need to be close to their children? Do most women want a man who will provide? Is it possible to fight through millennia of cavewoman conditioning to desire a guy in a pinny? This is tangled stuff. Slaughter, no domestic goddess, recalls surprise at her own urge on returning to Princeton to get up and make elaborate breakfasts for her boys: eggs, pancakes, French toast. It wasn’t guilt, just a deep yearning to nurture.

Sheryl Sandberg pointed out that if women are to be equal at work, men must take an equal share of the duties at home. If only. British women with male partners still do 70 per cent of all the chores. Yet Slaughter wonders if this imbalance is to some extent our fault: women loathe to relinquish domestic command or we nag men into doing tasks the “right” (ie, our) way. As men have learned to lose dominion at work, so must we at home. But the question is: do we want to? If your three-year-old cries “Daddy” when he wakes in the night, you are no longer the Indispensable One.

And for a woman to reach the very top of the inflexible corporate or political worlds, the unspoken secret is to find a man-wife who will put his career on hold, who is happy to move cities, and who will do the emotional-domestic grunt work of keeping the family united. Yet in surveys, this beta guy is often seen as unattractive to alpha women. Indeed, Wolf explores a trend for associative mating: where alpha men once used to marry lower-status women who’d keep house, they now marry alpha women with careers and this gender stalemate results in them having statistically fewer children.

Perhaps we need to work out what we want more honestly before we get married, in order to avoid a clash of expectations. When Harvard Business School graduates were asked whose career would come first in a relationship, women, the idealistic fools, said they expected equal precedence. Men overwhelmingly said “mine”. This is when the gender pay gap begins; leaning-in young women defer to a partner’s ambitions – to the old order – often regardless of who earns most. It is why so few offices have older women: wise, fiftysomething broads who can shine a spotlight on the road ahead for younger women.

Slaughter ventures that heterosexuals should look to same-sex marriages. Here there is no “natural” carer or breadwinner. A couple simply assess who likes homely pursuits best, whose job is more flexible.

But the biggest challenge is convincing men that caring has the same status as paid work when bum-wiping and laundry aren’t just “women’s stuff” but, let’s face it, thankless, repetitive and boring. Which is why, after all, post-Friedan, middle-class women fled to the office. And although the government aims to encourage women to re-enter the workplace, offering ever-greater tranches of free childcare, there is no corresponding push to get men to contribute more at home. The Scandinavian policy of offering a month’s extra paid parental leave only if it is taken up by the father has so far been rejected in Britain and the United States. Yet this is the main reason why Scandis, shoved in at the domestic deep end, are such capable and confident fathers, doing a larger percentage of household chores than other European men.

Yet there are small shifts here: at the top end of business some men – like women – are starting to value time as much as money, working four-day weeks to see more of their family. There are roughly 229,000 British men who stay at home with their children, up from 111,000 in 1993. (This is overwhelmed, however, by stay-at-home mothers; despite declining by a third in 20 years, they still number two million.)

As Slaughter says, it is misguided, even cruel, to assume that fathers living far from their families as she did missed their children any less. Yet I must say of my few female friends who kept climbing, who are right now at the top of newspapers or big companies, that they are more guilt-stricken about being absent from home than their male peers; they are still scrabbling to care for ageing parents, to deal with troubled teens, as well as tending the elaborate organism of the home – and still complaining that their husbands are oblivious to it all. This business is unfinished all right.

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter is published by Oneworld (353pp, £16.99)

Janice Turner is a columnist and feature writer for the Times

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires

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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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