I DO Want To ‘Have It All,’ Starting With What Women In 178 Countries Have

Lyla Cicero offers her fiery take on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Iceland, Germany, Japan, Malta, New Zealand, Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Czhech Republic, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, Ecuador, and a total of 178 countries have federally mandated paid maternity leave. Fifty of these countries offer leave to fathers. (Yes, they all should!). The United States has no federally mandated paid parental leave. ZERO.

I have read so many reactions this week to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article Why Women Still Can’t Have it All (which discussed societal barriers to women achieving the work-life balance the feminist movement has been striving for). So many of these responses have disregarded and negated an important feminist policy agenda by blaming women and feminists for the inability to “have it all,” and drumming up in-fighting among groups who should be banding together to advocate for the policies Slaughter calls for. They have criticized the idea of wanting to “have it all” as a privileged, selfish pursuit, bemoaned women expecting too much and having too high expectations, and discussed the fact that men, too, struggle to “have it all.” They painted an overall picture of neurotic, perfectionistic modern mothers driving themselves crazy and needing to take it down a notch.

OK, maybe no one “has it all,” as this Jezebel article argues, but women in Malta have 14 weeks of 100% paid maternity leave. Women in Sweden enjoy 16 months of 100% paid parental leave, which they can use or share with the child’s father until age 8. In France, every child has access to free daycare, early childhood education, and healthcare. Clearly the women in these countries need to stop buying into some fantastical feminist line about a work-life balance no human being can attain!

If American mothers are driving themselves crazy, it’s because they are being fed an unrealistic and unnecessary ideal of motherhood and then being scapegoated when they can’t attain that ideal. They are being told they should be able to “achieve work-life balance” in a society that is structured to prevent that. It’s not Feminism playing this mind game on women, it’s the folks and forces who prefer the status quo.

But according to critics of Slaughter, if women can’t achieve work-life balance it’s because they want too much. Silly rich women demanding what women in Ecuador enjoy. They should just accept that life is hard and try to do less. Besides, men find work-life balance hard too. And anyway, women have exercised the choices feminism has provided them and “chosen” their way out of positions of power in government and corporations just like Anne-Marie Slaughter did, because they prefer to be with their children. Only 16% of Congress is female because women would rather be with their kids, right?


Tell that to the women of Sweden who make up over 45% of their country’s government. Are women there less interested in their children? Curious that so many of the countries with more women in power also have more female and family-friendly policies. What about Rwandan women? They have the most women in parliament of any country at 49%. Women there must be leaving their children for dead. Maternal instincts be damned. The feminist agenda has clearly set Rwandan women up for inevitable disappointment, what with demanding all that pesky equality!

I refuse to accept that wanting the kind of policies women in countries from wealthy Germany to war-torn Bosnia consider as basic as the postal service makes me unrealistic or neurotic. I fail to see how wanting to be an involved, present mother (or father) should preclude me from excelling in my career or gaining power in the public or private sector. Women haven’t made our lives hard, U.S. work policies and structures combined with a continuing gender gap in pay and an ever-widening income equality gap have.

And I absolutely fail to see how men’s attempts at achieving work-life balance, on the whole, can be compared to women’s. Yes, some involved dads struggle like many women do, my husband included. And you too, Hugo Schwyzer. But these charts illustrate that moms are overwhelmingly taking the hit to their work lives when children come along. Even in families where male and female parents both work full-time, mothers are doing more childcare. Women are also still doing more housework than men, despite being 60% of primary or co-breadwinners. The work women (and some men) do caring for children is still devalued and under-appreciated.

Well, but men don’t WANT to parent as much as we do…REALLY? 1)This is offensive to fathers, and 2) People who don’t want to parent shouldn’t have children. Suck it up and do your share. Work-life balance means balance within a family as well. We need to stop making excuses for mothers having the brunt of responsibility for children. Of course one partner can have the preference for childcare and another to work. But right now those decisions are fraught with gender stereotypical, societally reinforced notions of who should want to parent, does want to parent, and can parent. There is a social stigma toward women who want to parent less and men who want to parent more. Of course we all believe we are immune to such stigma. Talk about an unrealistic fantasy! Decisions about who should work and how much are also profoundly impacted by the lack of flexible work options, for both men and women. The choice for women to maintain full-time work means 70% of a male salary. Where flexible options are available, they are disproportionately available to women and not men. Our work policies are forcing men to prioritize work and women family.

Just as gender and mothering instincts are used as excuses not to provide reasonable family policies, class issues are as well. Just because Anne-Marie Slaughter is white and privileged and her choices may not apply to other women, doesn’t mean her arguments about policies that would help families are wrong. YES, there are many families who don’t have the privilege of choosing between work and family. That is also a problem and needs to be addressed, but it doesn’t negate the fact that having gender inequality and family and work policies on par with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea in the United States is just not good enough (no offense to Swaziland, I’ve been there and it’s quite beautiful). This is not an either/or, people. Family-friendly policies would help poor families and give them more choices.

I can hear them now: But you CHOSE to have children, why should I pay for it? Then go live in a society with no children. See how you like it. We are in a recession, we can’t afford this! According to a recent Huffington Post article, “Human Rights Watch, which interviewed dozens of parents for its report, said lack of paid leave has numerous harmful consequences—fueling postpartum depression, causing mothers to give up breast-feeding early, forcing some families into debt or onto welfare.” Healthier, better adjusted children, and more financially sound, healthy families, will save us all money in the long-run. Right now we are paying astronomically for the consequences of not having relatively cheap social programs like paid parental leave.  New Jersey’s parental leave program is paid for by a small payroll tax. Compare that to the lifetime mental health and medical costs of treatment for a woman with post-partum depression and her children alone.

A mother who is completely frazzled, working too much, doing more than her share of childcare, the majority of housework, pumping her breasts in a storage room between meetings and phone calls, and beating herself up about how inadequate she is, is no good to herself, her family, or her employer. THERE IS NO ARGUMENT that family-friendly and female-friendly work structures and federal policies SAVE MONEY. They save the government money and they save companies money. That’s why many of the most successful corporations voluntarily offer paid parental leave and flexible work schedules. Well-run companies who can afford to know that they will be saving more in the long-run by retaining talented female employees (and males who want to be involved dads) by letting them work less hours, work flexible hours, and giving them paid leave so they don’t abandon their jobs or leave the workforce.

Who is benefiting from convincing women that it’s our own privilege or perfectionism that’s the problem rather than inequity? Who’s benefiting from morphing an article promoting a feminist agenda into class warfare? Who’s benefiting from piling more and more parenting responsibility on moms and involved dads without making life in this country any more workable for them? Who’s benefiting from mothers spending on average significantly more hours a day with their children than their own mothers did even though they are vastly more likely to be working? Who benefits when 60% of the workforce is also doing the majority of childcare? Who benefits when the feminist blogosphere spends two weeks on semantics, debating the meaning and utility the term “have it all?” Who’s benefiting from mothers walking around with feelings of guilt and failure about their ability to balance their lives instead of being mad as hell that they don’t have rights enjoyed by most of the world? Who is benefiting when parents are convinced their children are their responsibility alone and not the society’s?

Those who would lose privilege if we gained it.

Those who prefer us to be too poor, too busy, and/or too pissed off at each other to demand political change.

I’m not falling for it. Whether you call it “having it all” or not, I’m still demanding what most of the world considers basic women’s rights. Who’s with me?

Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.

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