No One Can ‘Have It All,’ But Some Get A Lot More Than Others

Hugo Schwyzer responds to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”

Like everyone else this month, I’ve been reading one of the great viral articles of the first half of 2012: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. Loosely defined as a satisfying, lucrative career, a stable romantic relationship and children to whom one is closely bonded, Slaughter argues that “it all” is as elusive for women as it’s ever been. Her lengthy Atlantic essay has spawned dozens of excellent written responses and been the talk of Sunday morning television. Predictably, a hefty portion of the discussion has been given over to whether or not men are in any better position to “have it all.” (The consensus seems to be that they aren’t.)

As almost everyone in the discussion agrees, no one can “have it all.” A culture of what Lindsay Beyerstein calls “performative workaholism” makes it nearly impossible to enjoy a successful career and a close relationship with children. In the middle and upper-middle classes, men have traditionally been the performative workaholics, outsourcing the nurturing of children to their wives. There’s a substantial genre of literature and film devoted to exploring the cost of that sacrifice; the gendered ideal of “separate spheres” for husbands and wives has long ensured that neither men nor women have any shot at “having it all.”

Born in 1967, I’m nine years younger than Slaughter. The son of two college philosophy professors, I was raised to doubt the possibility of ever having it all. Starting when I was in junior high, my mother often recited to me Yeats’ poem on the subject, the one that begins “The intellect of man is forced to choose 
perfection of the life, or of the work…” Mom knew all about choices, having put her own academic career on hold for several years for the sake first of my father’s career and then to raise her sons as a single mother after a divorce. She knew too, as the great Irish poet did, that male privilege wasn’t powerful enough to make tough decisions unnecessary. She expected my brother and me to work hard, but excellence, as she always reminded us, wasn’t worth it if it came at the cost of our health, our happiness, or our relationships with others.

My mother decided that she wanted to raise her children on her beloved Monterey Peninsula, close to other family and the rugged coast she loved so deeply. As a result, she made a choice: She decided to turn down tenure-track jobs at various universities in order to teach part-time at the local community college. As a result, we had very little money, and my mother (who had a Ph.D. from Berkeley) didn’t become a renowned scholar in her field of political philosophy. Her choice was to raise her sons somewhere safe and beautiful; she gave up much to give us that gift. 

Throughout my adult life, my mother’s example and Yeats’ poem have reminded me of the dangers of trying to perfect every aspect of my existence. Like my mother, I chose a community college teaching career. When I told him that I’d accepted an offer from Pasadena City College, my UCLA dissertation adviser told me I was a fool to give up a shot at a more prestigious academic career. (He wanted me to take the only other job I was offered, a tenure-track gig at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.) Today, as a father, I choose to spend time with my young children rather than travel to conferences. Though I once ran marathons and ultramarathons, I’ve given up the time-consuming high mileage to be at home with my family. My frame has thickened, my pace has slowed, but I know Heloise and David need their daddy’s body to be present more than they need it to be fast and lean. I’m a long way from what Yeats calls “the perfection of the life,” but I’m far closer than I would be if I were single-minded in my intellectual and athletic ambitions.

But as much of the commentary around the Slaughter piece has reminded us, the ability to make these kinds of life choices is a privilege. When I think about not being able to have it all, I think about choosing between training for a 50-mile trail race or spending Sunday mornings with my children. I’m choosing between two sources of happiness, as I did when I was a child at the ice cream store, choosing between mint chocolate chip and French vanilla. There’s a difference between choosing between competing goods (maximum fitness or quality time with children) and the kind of hard choices between essentials for survival that the less privileged make all the time (pay the rent or the medical bills; quality time with children or work three jobs to keep those same kids fed).  

One danger of these discussions about “having it all” is that we can elide the differences between what are essentially luxury choices (the kind I’m describing here, a kind that affluent people of both sexes get to make) and the hard trade-offs of necessity that far more people are forced to make. At the same time, it’s worth noting that even immensely privileged women still have greater obstacles to work/life balance than do men. I’m closer to 50 than I am to 40, and I have a 3-year-old daughter and a 6-week-old son. I was able to delay having children until I was—finally—fully ready to embrace the responsibilities of parenthood. Women don’t have the same biological flexibility that men enjoy, a reality that—as Slaughter points out—our workplace culture has yet to address.

Those of us who are lucky enough to get to choose between “perfection of the life, or of the work” do well to reflect carefully on the dangers of selecting the latter. No one, no matter how wealthy or talented, can avoid having to make difficult decisions surrounding things like career, romance, and children. Too few of us, however, are even in a position to decide between rival perfections. Before we can talk about the challenge of “having it all,” we need to ensure that far more simply we “have enough.”

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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