Where Are The Role Models For Not Having It All…And Making It Work?

Clarisse Thorn discusses her own privilege, her dad, and The Little Mermaid in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” Atlantic article.

When I read the recent, much-discussed piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” my reaction dovetailed with a lot of feelings I’ve been having about my own “career” (such as it is). It’s hard for me to separate it all out in my head; so I am just going to try to tell you a piece of my own story, with The Little Mermaid playing a starring role.

First I must highlight two excellent responses to Slaughter’s piece. Number one, by Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post, is called “Women Who Don’t Have Anything Close To ‘It All,’” and points out that two-thirds of working mothers earn less than $30,000 per year. The second piece, by Tressie McMillam Cottom in Racialicious, is an excellent analysis of power dynamics, and why less powerful women are rightly suspicious of powerful women who claim that a better situation for women at the top will supposedly make things better for “all women.” What you’re about to read will showcase my own privileged background very thoroughly, just as the original article showcased Slaughter’s privilege—and hey, I’m not saying our stories aren’t valid, but let’s not pretend that this conversation is remotely relevant for most people.

My own reflections on “having it all” start somewhere around 6 a.m. on the day I turned six years old. It’s always been nigh-impossible to get me out of bed in the morning, but I woke up at 6 because I was so excited to be six. I immediately put on my prettiest dress and ran downstairs onto my suburban lawn. There, I encountered my father, who was just returning home from work at his ostensibly 9-to-5 job in the city. I was excited to see him; I had no clue that this portended a 20-hour workday. So I said, “Daddy, I’m six!” and jumped on him. “Yes, honey,” he said gently, and went to bed.

This is a perfect example of the sacrifices my father made, to give himself and his family an upper-middle-class lifestyle. There is zero doubt in my mind that my father loves me very much, and loves spending time with me. But he never got nearly as much of that time in my youth as my stay-at-home mother did.

Here’s a narrative I’ve seen in some other responses: the everyone makes sacrifices for high achievements narrative. What I haven’t seen is an acknowledgment of how it seems to be particularly expected of men. My father seems to enjoy working, or maybe he doesn’t know how not to work. I’ve wondered, though, how much masculine programming goes into that for him: the constant pressure for a man to Achieve At All Costs. In her article, Anne-Marie Slaughter talks about how men don’t have to make as many hard choices as women, and maybe that’s true. But maybe that’s partly because men have fewer apparent choices.

I know more incredibly driven corporate or political professional men than people of other genders, but every truly driven pro I know spends a completely obscene amount of time on their job. Maybe more middle-class women than men have opted out because it is obscene: because it is easier for women to get validation and social support without forcing themselves through these hoops. Maybe the fact that men so thoroughly outnumber women “at the top” is not only an example of women struggling for status (although I do agree that it is an example of that). It could also be an example of how we emotionally brutalize our men.

I visited Dad’s elegant offices a lot in my youth. I also had access to extraordinary museums, endless summer camps and after-school activities, and expensive child therapists. I was extremely miserable in school, but it was a good school, and my grades were excellent, as were my evaluations in various extracurricular academic programs. I went to college when I was 16: partly because I’m just that smart (watch me preen), partly because my background gave me a lot of advantages, and partly because high school was not fun. Sometimes I figure that I tacitly collaborated with all the bullying, etc. because I refused to be a team player, but I also suspect that I couldn’t have fit in if I tried.

I never felt out of place at Dad’s office, though. Not until I started getting into my mid-to-late 20s. Until then, I’d always walked through the glass doors and passed the doormen with total unconscious nonchalance, even when wearing ripped jeans and three-year-old sneakers. I majored in philosophy and art (seriously) (I know). So far I’ve spent my 20s working in fields that pay very badly, but presumably qualify as Following My Heart. It didn’t hit me until maybe age 25, quite how thoroughly I’d opted out of Dad’s world—the security and lifestyle of my childhood and teens. And maybe that was when I started dropping my eyes as I passed beautifully made-up, well-dressed young female professionals on the street. Or hesitating when I say “hi” to the doormen. It’s not my world anymore, and maybe it never can be again.

A couple years ago I re-watched my favorite childhood Disney flick, The Little Mermaid, and I remember being struck by what a lovely farce it is. In the original version (published in 1836 by Hans Christian Andersen), the little mermaid does not merely sacrifice her voice in order to join the handsome prince on dry land. In the original version, every step the mermaid takes on dry land feels like she’s walking on hot knives. She smiles through the pain, hoping to earn his love; she Follows Her Heart, and then she fails: He marries someone else and she commits suicide. On the bright side, in the end she’s given the opportunity to earn an immortal soul (apparently mermaids aren’t normally born with them).

The Disney version, of course, involves a much tamer sacrifice—just her voice, right after she voices her longing for exploration in the song “Part Of That World.” There’s no talk of souls, and I was particularly interested by the so-called resolution: The prince does fall in love with her, and defeats some enemies for her. Then the mermaid gets her voice back, the two marry and live happily ever after. Wait, what? Yeah, I know. Apparently the moral of the story is that you might have to make some sacrifices, but don’t worry, they won’t last too long or be too harsh, and you’ll be able to have it all in the end.

So although, again, I’ve seen response pieces to Slaughter’s that talk about how everyone makes sacrifices, I don’t feel like there’s a good narrative for that in our culture—certainly not for motivated women. The grrrl-power narrative is grrreat, and I’m not sure the original Andersen Little Mermaid is quite the message I’d want kids to receive. But seriously, folks, what does it look like for a woman to make sacrifices and be OK with it? Or even more revolutionarily, how about what happens after a huge failure? I know it’s different for every woman, but just one Big, Popular mainstream narrative would be nice. I can’t think of any.

On another note, what does it look like for a person with a non-mainstream career to do that? As I’ve been developing a crisis of anxiety, I asked Dad recently if he’s proud of me, and he was stunned that I asked. “You’ve done amazing things,” he said. “In a non-traditional way, yes; but I think you’re very accomplished.” But you can probably already tell by the way I put “career” in quotes that I’ve become highly uncertain about this. So far I’ve lived quite a life. Being a professional sex writer and educator might be my favorite twist, but I’m not sure, because there’s been some serious twists. As a freelancer, I’ve never had to work my father’s absurd hours for longer than a month or two, and I’ve been able to travel and do weird projects. Yet I’m also beginning to recognize the price of following my heart. At this point, I’ll never qualify for Dad’s glossy office, let alone Slaughter’s walk through the halls of power. And I’ve realized that this payment will echo down the rest of my life.

I will be honest: I’m scared. I have moments of being really, really scared. I’m in my late 20s, so many of my friends are getting married and settling down and some are pulling down six-figure salaries, which doesn’t help. I also broke my neck this year and spent months in recovery, which was the most forceful reminder of the benefits of solidity and security that I could ask for. My friends who have stable office jobs congratulate me on my independence and I’m like, “Right, so can you buy dinner?” They complain about the hum of the office copier and I’m like, “I fantasize about the hum of the copier.” Of course, realistically I understand that if I’d actually chosen my dad’s life, I’d likely feel wrung out, and I’d wish that I’d chased my dreams. I did what I did because flexibility, freedom, and being who I am is overridingly important to me. Will it justify the loss? We’ll see. There are no guarantees. I guess there’d be none even if I’d chased his—or Slaughter’s—life.

I know that I am, ultimately, lucky. With my safety nets and class background, I am probably going to be just fine. Indeed, I’ll be better than fine, especially when measured against two-thirds of working mothers. It is a mark of my privilege that taking absurd risks on my career almost certainly can never doom me to sleeping under a bridge. I’m nervous about potentially becoming a working single mother, but even if it happens, I doubt I’ll be one of the working single moms that I believe we as a society should pay the most attention to. And yet. Now that I’m hitting my late 20s and beginning to tally the sacrifice, I’m wishing that I had role models to show me what it is to Not Have It All … and make it work.

Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.

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