When I first began teaching, I was assigned to a lot of 8AM classes. When I asked why, I was told that no one else was available to teach them. This, despite my seeing some of my colleagues arrive for classes that began at mid-day or in the late afternoon. When I tried to request later schedules (say, classes starting at 10AM) I was told those classes were already given to the professors who had children. After all, they had to drop children off at school or daycare before they could be at work, and if some professors were leaving at mid-afternoon, their excuses were, off to pick up kids at school or meeting kids at the bus stop. This singling out of the single gay male bothered me, and I admit, I grew resentful at some of my colleagues. It seemed having children was the answer to getting the schedules I wanted.
Last summer, when my 18-year-old cousin from Arizona stayed with me for a month, I had to teach summer school the day he flew home. Something had happened at the airport and he missed his flight. When he called me, I panicked. He wouldn’t know what to do; this small town boy had only been on a plane once and that was when he flew with me from Arizona to Washington. I pictured him wandering the airport, confused. I rushed to Reagan National to meet him. We bought his new ticket, had lunch, got him some snacks for his flight before we hugged and he went through security. When I got back to work I was lambasted by a colleague for missing a meeting. “Couldn’t he have managed on his own?” she asked. “Couldn’t you have talked him through the process by phone?” she argued. I had little energy to argue my side, that my cousin had never flown on his own before, that an airport can be a big scary place for a first-timer, that he wasn’t like her children who most likely had taken family vacations by plane from an early age. But bringing up personal issues as well as class differences seemed too much of an argument for missing one meeting when I knew this particular colleague had missed her share of meetings for her own reasons (related to her family).
I thought about all of this as I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“. Slaughter, a former director of policy planning at the State Department, left her job after two years because she struggled to find a work-life balance between raising her teenage sons back in Princeton, New Jersey, with her foreign-policy “dream job” in Washington, D.C. When she left D.C., she was criticised for admitting, in some unspoken way, that women can’t have it all, as that would be admitting defeat in a male-powered world. When she told a female colleague she wanted to write an op-ed on the topic, she was talked out of it. As Slaughter explains: “What [my colleague] meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman — a role model — would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women.”
Slaughter reveals issues of choice and self-determination I had long wanted and now take for granted. An academic herself (she and her husband are professors at Princeton), she realised that teaching college classes afforded her the opportunity to make her own schedule, one that would give her the time she needed to spend with her husband and her sons while still keeping her obligations at the university. When she went into public service, however, she discovered that women in the rest of the working world really do have to struggle to maintain a work-life balance. She writes, “I knew that I was lucky in my career choice, but I had no idea how lucky until I spent two years in Washington within a rigid bureaucracy, even with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.”
Slaughter’s feminist dilemma forces me to face my own resentments, too, which she admits are reasonable responses from people who are in the office at hours when their colleagues are not. Also, she reminds me of the gender bias at the foundation of our society and its systems: it privileges men being able to put family second, profession first, but it can be very unforgiving to women if they can’t strike a balance between work and family life. As Slaughter says, “men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver.” She adds that when she shared her struggle with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the senator said exactly what Slaughter felt: “‘There’s really no choice.’ She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ is reflexive.”
Slaughter goes even further than simply pointing out our social systems’ problems; she reveals lies women tell themselves and offers a path for a working revolution. Here are the lies: It’s possible to have it all if you’re just committed enough, which is to say anything is possible, sacrifices and trade-offs can be made, if you really want to have both a work and family life. Next, it’s possible if you marry the right person, meaning if you marry an academic or an at-home entrepreneur or the like, mom can be at the office and dad can be at home in equal amounts of time. She admits to deceiving herself with this lie (while also thanking her husband for being the at-home parent while she was in D.C. those two years). And finally, it’s possible to have it all, if you sequence it right: have babies early in life and a career later. She cites Justice Ruth Bader Gindsberg who had her children before she became a judge. But, with the economy as it is, these statements are mere lies, she admits. Today, often both partners need to work to maintain a household and many women are putting off having children in order to start climbing the corporate ladder for earlier success.
Why does any of this matter to me? Slaughter’s struggle to maintain a work-life balance, choosing family over career, and her call for a real conversation on the ways we can change the system so it can be fair to both working mothers and fathers, made me realise how much I had not known about my colleagues with children, colleagues that include all three department chairs (all women) I’ve served under since starting at this college and the Dean of Humanities, a woman with teenage twins. Yes, they’re fortunate to be working in a college environment where they can request schedules that work for them, but I had taken for granted that I don’t have to make the kinds of sacrifices they sometimes have to make… yet. At some point in their lives, they had to come to terms with needing or choosing a career where they could contribute and succeed but which also gave them flexibility because they also chose to have families. After they put in teaching hours, they still have to go home and put in parenting hours; as a man who hopes someday to have children, who experimented with fatherhood by having a younger cousin stay for a summer, I will eventually share this routine.
I pride myself on being a feminist, heck, I was thrilled to read Slaughter’s article and her ideas for balancing our social systems. One idea is, if we’re really a nation of family values, let’s put families first by making school schedules match work schedules! What a revolutionary thought, right? Because of Slaughter’s experience, what I realise now as a “male feminist” is this: carrying the struggles alongside my sisters is merely theoretical for me, practiced by choice as a single male, while for women, to be a feminist is to be confronted with the day-to-day pressures of balancing careers and families and being judged when they seem to privilege one and drop the other. In our culture, the decisions women make are open to public scrutiny and criticism while the decisions men make are often left alone or largely ignored. I know it’s important that men start taking up the banner of feminism for progress toward equality to occur, but it’s important that those of us who already do, recognise that it can be too easy to judge and too easy to resent the women feminists trying to balance work and family life. And if we men become smug at the notion that we can balance career and personal life, snidely asking why women aren’t fully capable of doing so, I will be the first to admit that having such thoughts is not feminist thinking at all.
To read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s full article at the Atlantic, click on the pic below.