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The Problem With "Lean In" That No One Talks About

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Photograph by Lauren Moffatt.
What do you want out of your career? What are your family plans? And how are you and your significant other going to manage to juggle what can feel like two competing goals? In her new book, Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter urges young women to have some really hard conversations with their partners — and she wants us to get specific and be honest. To answer these questions, you have to acknowledge the elephant in the room that I usually like to ignore: When both partners in a relationship are ambitious, how does a couple manage to have a thriving family and successful careers? Is it possible to have it all?

Slaughter’s been pretty clear that it’s not possible. She practically broke the Internet in 2012 with her Atlantic Monthly article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In the 12,000-word piece, she explained her decision to step down as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department because she needed (wanted?) to spend more time with her teenage sons, one of whom was struggling. The article, which is fairly critical of Sheryl Sandberg’s idea of "leaning in" (the bestseller Lean In wouldn’t be published for another six months, but Slaughter references Sandberg’s much-shared 2011 Barnard commencement address), touches on the number of factors that prevent women from successfully juggling their work and home lives. Slaughter sought to dispel the half-truths that so many women (and men) hold dear: that we can do it all if we’re just committed enough, if we marry the right partner, and if we sequence our career and family plans just right.

I remember reading Slaughter’s article when it was published and feeling extremely frustrated. I wanted to have it all, and yet here was another example of a high-powered woman who had to compromise her career for her family. I perceived her dropping out as failure, and I was angry that I couldn’t find a female role model who was able to juggle work and home life (and who wasn’t a total jerk — or totally miserable).

I was angry that I couldn’t find a female role model who was able to juggle work and home life.

What I didn’t want to recognize is that maybe Slaughter was onto something. Maybe it was time to stop feeling disappointed that I wasn’t living up to some unrealistic expectations. And more importantly, maybe it was time to take a hard look at the problems in our workplace that make it so difficult for women to get ahead. Sandberg implores us not to "lean out" when we begin to think about starting a family, but the reality is that workplaces are not very hospitable to pregnant employees or new mothers. Our generation might talk a lot about work-life balance, but technology allows (and many employers expect) us to be connected 24/7. And finding the right partner sounds like a great idea, but the pool of awesome men who are willing to take on the lead-parent role is very small. It’s overwhelming to think of how much is stacked against us. Where to even begin?

This fall, Slaughter wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that touches on many of the themes she explores in Unfinished Business, and expands on the issues she wrote about in her Atlantic Monthly article. The weekend it was released, I spent a cloudy Saturday morning banging out a glowing response piece. I was inspired and excited, and for a moment, I really believed that millennials might be able to make these changes a reality. After all, we’re the biggest generation in the workforce — why can’t we shape it to fit our needs?

But as I started to read Unfinished Business, I was struck once again with the anxiety and frustration I always feel. Slaughter once again dredges up all the problems I want to ignore — and this time, she's pushing her audience to make changes. “If you want a life in which you can experience the joys and rewards of both a successful career and a loving family, you must plan ahead,” she writes. But, just two paragraphs later, she acknowledges the problems of planning: “even with the best plan in the world, you will encounter plenty obstacles.” I didn’t want to hear about those obstacles — I wanted someone to give me the answers and reassure me that if I just work hard enough, I can get what I want. The systemic problems she acknowledges felt too big to fix, and the intimate conversations she encourages us to have felt too difficult to initiate. But mostly, I felt alone. I have friends who manage to have babies and get promotions and run marathons all in the same year. What’s wrong with me that I can’t?

Days later, when I got Slaughter on the phone for an interview, I told her the book stressed me out. She laughed and assured me that was not her intention — since that’s neither a good way to sell books nor have influence.

“I do think millennials have a key role to play if they’ll seize it,” she said, pointing out our generation’s desire to have more balance in our lives. Many of us were raised in families where both parents worked, so we tend to be more realistic about what it takes to have jobs and families — we know how messy it can be. But maybe it’s our responsibility to fix that? Our mothers and grandmothers strove to break the glass ceilings so we could grow up to be anything we wanted. Now, it’s our turn to sweep up the shards and make the workplace truly work for us.
Of course, there’s a catch: Slaughter’s solutions to these big problems aren’t easy to implement. They involve us standing up for ourselves and having really difficult conversations with the people we love and respect, as well as the people who employ us. This can be terrifying. But if there’s anything I’ve learned doing this job, it's that work (as much as I love it) is mostly about having really awkward conversations about things you would rather avoid. And the same thing goes for marriage. I might have friends who seem to have it all figured out (perfect job, marriage, children), but if you scratch below the surface, you can see that nothing is perfect; something was sacrificed along the way.

But there’s good news about all of this, and that is: Life is long, and it doesn’t just belong to the young. I think most of us can agree our teenage years weren’t our best, and nearly every single successful woman I’ve interviewed doesn’t count her 20s or 30s as her best years, either. You don’t want to peak in your 20s, Slaughter reassured me, and you have to believe in the idea that when one door closes, another one opens. Leaving the State Department was no doubt a heart-wrenching decision, but the Atlantic article made Slaughter, to some extent, famous. Millions of women (and men) have since turned to her for advice. What she might have considered at the time as a career setback has taken her life in an entirely different direction. And if her former boss, Hillary Clinton, wins the presidential election in 2016, there’s a good chance there will be another policy job for Slaughter — just as her youngest son is heading off to college.

Slaughter also makes the point of driving home how important it was for her to step off the career fast lane for a bit. “I just can’t look back on my life and realize that I missed the last four years my kids were home. That’s not living fully. Living fully is taking advantage of that time that you have with people you love, when they’re here,” she said. “So I look back on it, and I think, Yes, there are lots of choices you can take, if you’re open to them... In a way, this is a call for us to reconsider our priorities. Family can’t just sit around the edges. We’ve got a system where you are made to feel bad if you put your family first, and that just cannot be right.”

Neither Slaughter's career nor her life ended when she stepped down from her role at the State Department. They just went in a different direction — one she could have never planned for. She got what she needed: more time at home with her sons. And she got something she couldn't have anticipated: a cause that needed a strong female leader.
That's something that I need to keep reminding myself — and that I want to share with other women. Whether or not I have kids, my personal life and my career will certainly have moments when the two roads deviate in wildly different directions, and I will have to make hard decisions. It’s likely that I will even step off the career track for a while. Slaughter’s advice is to plan for those times. Funnily enough, my mother said the opposite: “You’ll handle those problems when they come along,” she recently reassured me. I think I need to do a little bit of both. As scary as it seems, I need to ask my husband those hard questions Slaughter suggests in her book. And then, I need to recognize that, as much as I want to have it all planned out, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens and make adjustments along the way.

At the end of our call, Slaughter said something that really stood out — and that made me feel a lot better. She said the main thing she wanted women and men to take away from this book is that these anxieties about balancing work and family shouldn’t just be women’s issues. “These are social problems, workplace problems, and couple problems," she says. "It may not make the problem go away, but at least it’s not just falling on your shoulders.”

And with that in mind (and with that skin-crawling, ambitious feeling tugging at me once again), I’m going to keep going. I believe that part of my job is to write about these important and stressful topics in hopes that I can encourage other women to be the change they want to see.

Maybe that seems naïve. But how can the conversation change if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t encourage women to want to be the breadwinners, while also recognizing that careers are long, there will be ebbs and flows, and times we step off the track to take care of loved ones? That doesn’t make us any less ambitious or successful. It makes us human.
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