By Jen Greanias
In 2012, I was one year into motherhood when Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her now infamous article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. If you haven’t read Slaughter’s article, you should, especially if you ever contemplate the paradox of doing two hard things well and at once (e.g. juggling and texting; proofreading and watching Wanda Vision; snorkeling and sneezing). In the article, she cites many examples of high-powered women taking a knee to care for their families and dispels many half-truths that personal commitment, family planning, and partner choice can close the gap between happiness at home and success at work. Instead, she suggests that, in part, structural norms prevent women from reaching the top and recommends more remote-based work options, lenient work-family policies, and a cultural change to how we view the work-life balance as a means of overcoming obstacles to truly having it all.
Even though women have left the workforce in droves due, in part, to economic fallout from the pandemic, one bright spot may be a permanent turn to telework for certain sectors of the economy. This focus on technology as a means by which to attain greater flexibility in how, when, and where we work will go far to make the work-life balance as much about life as it is work. But more than technology, what I found most compelling (and challenging) was Slaughter’s focus on changing cultural norms. In a recent interview for a part-time gig (which I have since declined), I was point-blank asked how many kids I have (4, by the way) and how that will affect my ability to do good work. I was taken-aback and too tongue-tied to come back with some quippy, zippy, jab-in-the-gut response to convey the level of offense I had taken. Besides screaming into a pillow, what was I to do with this anger? I decided to look inward. I asked myself why I was so offended by this question, which may have been a completely innocuous miscommunication or a query about my time management skills and calendar conflicts (the not altogether invalid interpretation of my devil’s advocate husband).
Self-reflection led me to the conclusion that the core of my anger stemming from this interview was the need to classify a person into one identity category (i.e. professional) and prioritize that identity over all others. Slaughter deals with this in her article, recounting a personal story when she became the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School in 2002.
When I became dean...I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life. Thus, I would end faculty meetings at 6 p.m. by saying that I had to go home for dinner; I would also make clear to all student organizations that I would not come to dinner with them, because I needed to be home from six to eight, but that I would often be willing to come back after eight for a meeting. I also once told the Dean’s Advisory Committee that the associate dean would chair the next session so I could go to a parent-teacher conference.
After a few months of this, several female assistant professors showed up in my office quite agitated. “You have to stop talking about your kids,” one said. “You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.” I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice, but it is interesting that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together.
Ten years later, whenever I am introduced at a lecture or other speaking engagement, I insist that the person introducing me mention that I have two sons. It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me—and takes an enormous amount of my time.
When I came to this part of the article, I had one of those “Aha” moments: I finally understood why that interview bothered me. Slaughter’s insistence that her introduction include her credentials as an executive, academic, and mom highlighted for me the guilt I was made to feel about being anything less than dedicated to deadlines and deliverables. By demanding recognition for the full list of one’s life work, we are all taking responsibility for changing the cultural norms that hold us back.
At a recent Resolve Community Circle, facilitator (and Resolve Co-Founder), Graise Lee Jenni opened the session by asking everyone to describe themselves in 3 to 5 words or phrases. Graise chose “wife, mother, military spouse, academic, and business owner”, and I was floored by the effortless ownership and confident promotion of all the ways that make her whole. I followed suit and did the same, stating that I, too, was a mom and military spouse as well as a combat veteran, former intelligence professional, current Resolve project manager, and writer.
At first, this admission made me feel uncomfortable, like I was doing something wrong by including a reference to my home life (a big no-no in the government/military circles I had frequented a decade earlier). But rather than give into the almost primeval guilt of being a profession-not-person, I paused for a ‘me pep-talk’, coaching myself not to backpedal on Slaughter’s insistence (and Graise’s example) that true leadership resides in the sometimes uncomfortable space of changing norms both inside our heads and out in public as advocates of our own empowerment.
This is a lesson I learn daily as I cuddle my three-year old during work breaks. By celebrating all that makes us great moms, caregivers, professionals, volunteers, etc., we can chip away bit-by-bit (or, in my case, interview by interview) at the assumption that we can only be one thing. Instead, I seek to embrace the ethos that our beauty is in the many ways we can be Renaissance Women of our own making and heroes of our own success stories as long as we insist, demand, speak up, and dispel the myth that we are only the sum of our time cards and task lists.