In this corner there’s Sheryl Sandberg. In this corner there’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. And then there’s reality
A few hours ago, my husband came into the living room — where I hunker down writing most days — with a hopeless look on his face.
“I feel like a total dick,” he said.
His job is in Las Vegas, and he’d just gotten back in town Saturday and was leaving again today. Our 17-month-old was having an absolute meltdown in the kitchen, clinging at my husband’s legs refusing to let him leave the room.
Toddlers have meltdowns no matter what — particularly just before nap time. So my husband’s angst was less about any great trauma to Eli and more about his own guilt. We’re expecting our second child early April, so he’s been gone more than usual leading up to then. Each time it’s harder to leave his massively pregnant wife and son. And it’s not going to get easier: Two weeks after my due date he has to leave the country for another few weeks. He gets back, and then I have three PandoMonthlys and a conference to attend in May.
Substitute a woman for a man in the above scenario, and this is similar to the opening for Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ultra-link bait editorial from the Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Guess what, Anne-Marie Slaughter? Work/life balance is just hard, and it’s hard for everyone who feels passionately about their careers and their children. Has been for a long time. Probably always will be.
The story is making the rounds again — unfortunately — because it conflicts so mightily with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new, and more positive, book “Lean In,” coming out early next month. It’s ramping up a gargantuan press campaign now, and outlets like the New York Times are having a field day pitting Slaughter and Sandberg against one another as modern torch bearers of different camps of new feminism.
For her part, Slaughter has been happy to position herself as the anti-Sandberg, while Sandberg has tried to stay focused on her own message and devolve less into attention grabbing antics with inflammatory headlines. (Meanwhile, there’s a side drama about the book’s goal of creating Lean In Circles involving Maureen Dowd and Kara Swisher. It comes down to old media being haters and Swisher is obviously right. I don’t have much more to say on that one.)
The basic argument by her detractors is that Sandberg is rich, and therefore she can’t possibly be a role model to working women. There are three inane things about this argument.
The first is that generally role models are successful, and success in business frequently entails wealth. Should Oprah Winfrey not be a role model to young African American girls in the South because she’s been too successful building her media empire? Is there a point when you are building your career where you can be a role model, and then once you’ve had enough success, somehow you no longer deserve it? What about Sandberg while she was merely a little known executive at Google? Was that an unimpressive enough level of success to warrant her being a role model then?
I’ve never heard people say male role models should be disqualified for wealth. Should Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates not be a role model for the lonely tech nerd because they’ve built too large of empires? The media thrusts role model status on professional athletes — whether they like it or not — and guess what? They’re rich too, and get richer a lot earlier in their careers on average. Disqualifing someone as a role model, because they’ve had success seems to defeat the very purpose of selecting a role model.
The second inane thing about the argument is that Sandberg — or Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for that matter — weren’t born into this wealth that people like Slaughter describe as if it’s a character flaw. Nor did they get wealth from their husbands. They made it by taking jobs at intense, rapidly growing tech companies at opportune times. Aren’t risks and sacrifices like these the crux of the work/life balance dilemma? They weren’t born into these positions of influence — their stories are about how they got there.
But the most inane thing about the argument is this: Neither Slaughter’s life nor Sandberg’s should be a ironclad blueprint for any young women. It should go without saying, but somehow it doesn’t in our media culture: Raising children is highly personal. It’s the nexus of everything unique about your life: Your goals, your relationship with your spouse, your child’s needs, and even your religious beliefs. And yes, wealth plays a big role too, but it’s hardly the only determiner about whether or not a woman can “have it all.” Put another way, of course Sandberg can’t tell you how to have it all. But it’s not because she’s rich. It’s because you aren’t Sheryl Sandberg.
Some women have very engaged husbands, some have husbands who are never alone with their kids. Some women’s careers — even if demanding — can be location-flexible; others cannot. Some require travel, and some women can travel well pregnant, and others have harder pregnancies. Some women are lucky enough to have easy children, some have children who don’t sleep and scream all night. If you don’t think these little realities of life are very real factors in achieving work-life balance, what is?
Beyond that, everyone’s definition of “having it all” varies. For me, it’s building a company, being there for my employees, having a healthy relationship with my husband, and raising my kids. That’s pretty much it. It’ll take me a long time to lose baby weight, because my schedule doesn’t give me much time to work out. I don’t take vacations. I don’t have a group of tight girlfriends, or really many friends that I see regularly at all. My kids will not go to the most exclusive private school, because we can’t afford it.
Quitting my job to work at a startup meant almost no disposable income and even less time.Those are all trade-offs I gladly and willingly made before starting my company. But to another woman “having it all” might include a 9,000 square foot house and a designer closet. To another woman, “having it all” might include never missing a child’s haircut. To me, it does not.
Every woman I know who feels like she “has it all” — and there are many — has done it in a unique way. My mom chose to start her family young and start her career after her youngest was in kindergarten. That certainly wouldn’t work for a lot of women in a lot of industries, but it did for her. I did the opposite.
Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz has succeeded as a parent and a co-founder because she did both with her husband, Kevin Hartz, Eventbrite’s CEO. Talk about a playbook that wouldn’t work for everyone.
In the case of Slaughter, I’m sorry It didn’t work out for her to have it all. But I don’t see what the hell that has to do with Sandberg, me, or any other working mom. Why should she get to continually inflict her bitterness over her own choices onto everyone on the planet with ambitions and a uterus? It’s embarrassing that outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic keep giving her credibility and airtime. In fact, the only thing in this debate that strikes me as incredibly sexist is Slaughter’s utter disbelief other women could simply have had a different experience from her. Are we all supposed to be the same person just because we are the same gender? That’s as insulting now as it was in the days before the Feminist movement.
The fact is balancing high profile careers and families do work for a lot of other people. They don’t all write books about it, incendiary link-bait articles or even posts like these. They don’t jump up and down and wave their arms about how well its going either. Mostly because they are too busy just getting it done.
When people have asked how I’ve balanced starting a company with being pregnant and having a one-year-old, I’m happy to share my experience. But I always couch that the reasons it works for me are highly specific to who I am, who my husband is, and what we both do for a living. To a large degree, we’ve shaped the world around the lives we want to have. We weren’t able to do that because we’re rich (as a writer and a photographer, we’re as solidly California middle-class as you can get). We did it because we prioritized what really mattered to us and didn’t accept people like Slaughter telling us what we couldn’t do.
In general my method of “having it all” is integrating my family into my company as much as possible. Because God knows, when you run a startup it doesn’t respect 9 to 5 boundaries. But making that work in practice is a crazy quilt of a million little learned tricks and uniquenesses to my particular situation, my personality, my job, and my marriage. It’s not meant as a blueprint for anyone but me.
For instance, I work from home, so I get to see my son throughout the day and don’t feel like I’m missing out on his life. Given I work 80 hours or so a week, that goes a long way towards assuaging any maternal guilt. I don’t feel like I’m away from him.
For some women that would be distracting, but I’m used to working in boisterous newsrooms. It likely wouldn’t work if I didn’t have a house that’s more long than it is wide or I didn’t live in a city like San Francisco where there are parks all around and sunny days where he can get his energy out. And it likely wouldn’t work if I was in many other industries.
My advice to women is frankly not to listen too much to any advice. Definitely tune out anyone who tells you you can’t have it all, because she struggled. That’s like a failed entrepreneur telling other hopeful entrepreneurs that no one can ever succeed at building a company, because they didn’t. But take Sandberg’s lessons with a grain of salt as well — they may not work for you and not just because she’s rich.
Any woman who is capable enough of building a high profile career and managing a family should be capable of making her own rules for success and bending the reality of what it takes to her needs — just like any entrepreneur does, whether they have kids or not. The rest of this is a media circus to sell books and drive page views.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]