Thinking Through The Atlantic’s “Women Can’t Have It All” Essay

I love being a girl, and especially being a bro-girl, as some of my guy friends consider me. (Some also use terms like “chick with a dick,” which is less cute, but I understand the notion.) But I am not a boy. That became piercingly clear this year, when I was confronted with an unexpected job offer just a week after learning I was (also unexpectedly) expecting.

Suddenly, I had to consider the oft-discussed clash of career and family. Whether to stay at my entirely satisfying job at NPR, where I knew I’d be guaranteed certain paid leave and other flexibility because I am no longer “new” here, or whether to try a new challenge at a place where I’d have to prove myself as a baller whilst growing larger and inevitably unavailable during maternity leave.

I decided to stay at my job for many reasons that have nothing to do with family, but I can’t deny that I did have to consider the whole work-life balance issue for the first time. I sort of bristled at even being faced with the notion.

It’s my grandma at age 87. She’s a heroine to many, including me.


I come from a line of ceiling-breaking women; my grandmother, after fleeing China during World War II with her brothers and sisters, was one of the first female legislators in Taiwan, and a working mom (a high school principal) since the 1940’s. She says she never thought much about job versus family, because she considered both her service to society-writ-large and her obligation to her husband and three children as part of the natural order of things. She believes that really loving and caring for your family didn’t necessarily mean doing all the diaper changing and cooking, but that being a rockstar earner and a role model was just as valid a way to care for your kids.

Consequently, my mom didn’t love being raised by “help.” She says some of her most formative memories from childhood were with the servants and driver, and not with her mom, who was busy with work-related meetings and dinners on most evenings. My grandma has never apologized for what she had to do, and (in something we’ll discuss later in this post) Asian culture makes having several servants at home to help far more affordable and culturally-ingrained than here in the US. So despite her many talents, my own mom stayed home after having me and my little brother. She stayed home with us for 14 years. She was a field trip mom. She was always available to bring things to school when I forgot them, to help me with art projects, to have delicious snacks ready for us when we came home. In 8th grade, when she told me she was going to return to work, I teared up. I felt like I was being abandoned. She said not to overthink it; I would understand when I became a mom one day.

The Atlantic magazine’s cover story this month is a thoughtful argument (with a “backlashtastic” headline and photo) about how women in American society today cannot, indeed, have it “all,” insomuch as “having it all” means having a powerful career and enough time to really be there for your family, which is objectionable to many women. An excerpt:

“Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk. I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Thoughts I’m mulling over:

  • Is it a feminist argument to seek equality with men — having a satisfying family life and a career — or is it more-feminist to argue that we are inherently different from men, and therefore it’s silly to seek the same kind of linear career path and power?  I support equal opportunity, but not a black-and-white “equality.” I acknowledge women are inherently different than men, and may not want the same things in the same quantities or in the same ways. Women should certainly have the same opportunity to succeed, but a tit-for-tat or quota-based way of evening things out is too simplistic an approach.
  • A linear, climb-up-the-ladder path to power and success is the American way, but it’s not everyone’s way. Perhaps we should rethink the way our society views empowerment. As Slate reported, Dutch women are happy to stay at home and don’t struggle to “have it all” in the American sense, but winds up with high indicators for gender equality:

“The Netherlands bucks the women’s-development narrative in a pretty odd fashion: it has extremely high indicators for gender equality in every way (education, political participation, little violence against women, ultra-low rates of teen conception and abortion) except that women don’t work.”

  • Slaughter says “a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all.” But this should not be the work of women alone. As Bryce Covert writes in Forbes, “Real societal change can never happen if women and men are still expected to operate in two different worlds and have two separate slates of choices in front of them. All choices – work, family, time off – must be equally available to and expected of both genders.”
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter’s most convincing argument is the one calling out the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. She writes that Michelle Obama has the same, if not stronger, resume as her husband Barack. But she’s “repeatedly made decisions designed to let her do work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be.” Perhaps my grandmother was so successful in work and family was because she was in Taiwan, where affordable help was and is normative. Part of the reason my mom, who had emigrated to the US, stayed home with us was because nannies would cost more than she could earn. Let me bring back Covert:

“Concerns over childcare are a major factor in why women choose not to run for office and why we have therefore never had more than a 17 percent female Congress. Those are not choices Barack was, or is, expected to make, and therein lies the rub.”

2 thoughts on “Thinking Through The Atlantic’s “Women Can’t Have It All” Essay

    1. Thanks Miss Alexis. Certainly a lot of buzz about it in the past 12 hours. I think we women oughta quit taking issue with the various problems in the piece (like whether feminists are to blame for the “having it all” myth) and instead focus on the area we can all agree on: The need for larger societal change.

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