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?

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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 appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires