To spend a day with Anne-Marie Slaughter is to be convinced that women really can’t have it all. Also, that men can’t, either.
And that really the whole conversation is kind of a crock, achieving very little beyond inducing a low-grade depression in anyone who happens to be listening.
Anne-Marie Slaughter would probably agree with this assessment, despite having risen to national prominence with the publication of a 2012 Atlantic Magazine article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
You see, since the noise died down and the millions of incensed readers stopped clicking, she’s had some pretty significant changes of heart.
For starters: “When people say, ‘I’m home with my kids,’ I say, ‘You’re doing really important work,’ and I mean it,” she says. “Whereas before I was the classic woman that said, ‘Oh, what a pity.’ Like, ‘You’re not doing the real thing.’ ”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, Champion of the Stay-at-Home Moms?
Well, sort of.
It’s more like: Anne-Marie Slaughter, longtime law professor, former director of policy planning for the State Department, current head of a major think tank, possible future Cabinet secretary, non-lead parent of two sons and public advocate for increasing the societal value placed on caregiving — even if that’s not the primary path she’s chosen for herself.
Make sense? No?
Okay, let’s back up. Slaughter was born in Charlottesville. She went to Princeton University and then Harvard Law School. She became a professor and then dean at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She wrote some wonky foreign policy books and in 2009 was tapped by Hillary Clinton to serve in one of the most important roles at the State Department. She left after two years and then wrote the Atlantic essay that launched a million heavy sighs.
In it, Slaughter wrote of her weekly commutes from Princeton to Washington. She detailed her long days, her exhausting schedule and the psychic pull to be more available to her two teenage sons, one of whom was rebelliously toying with juvenile delinquency. She knew she was writing for an elite audience — professional women with ambition and choices, not the larger majority still grappling with survival.
And her bottom line was this: Even with a supportive spouse, intense professional commitment and a willingness to live life in chapters, the deck is still stacked against any woman who wants to reach the top of her career ladder while also caring for children or aging parents.
The essay quickly became one of the most-read articles in the Atlantic’s history, attracting nearly 3 million clicks. Suddenly, the foreign-affairs expert was spending all her time talking about the most domestic of issues.
“I would have these people come up to me and they would have tears,” says Slaughter, now 57. “They said, ‘You’re the first person who said how hard it was, and I thought I was a failure.’ ”
A book deal naturally followed, but so did a change in Slaughter’s perspective on the topic. In an irony not lost on her, the woman who left government office to spend more time with her family was now spending much of her time on the road making public appearances. The travel gave her an opportunity to talk to men and women across a range of ages and socioeconomic levels about the difficulty of balancing family and professional life.
But the biggest change came when Slaughter’s husband’s aunt sent her a small book called “On Caring.” Published in 1971 by American philosopher Milton Mayeroff, the book is a treatise on caring for others as the foundational work of society.
“It was like, wow, this is about investing in others. And this is a set of skills,” Slaughter recalls. “That was the moment I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, there’s a big idea here.’ ”
Slaughter’s book, “Unfinished Business,” which is out in paperback this month, hasn’t reached nearly as many readers as the Atlantic article but approaches the topic with much more nuance. She argues that across the board, we give caregivers the shaft, dismissing stay-at-home parents at dinner parties, barely paying nannies a living wage and punishing those who take career breaks to focus on family with a challenging on-ramp back to the professional world. We have no national standard for paid parental leave or universal child care.
But she doesn’t define this simply as a woman’s issue. Slaughter heard from enough men to see an often overlooked end of the equation: that the pressure to be the breadwinner comes at the expense of time and relationships with family.
But for Slaughter, and a growing number of families, the roles are reversed. Almost a year after the Atlantic article came out, Slaughter was named president of New America, one of Washington’s largest think tanks. The Amtrak commutes from Princeton to the District resumed, and so did the heavy workload. Her husband is a professor at Princeton, but he has long been what she calls the “lead parent,” responsible for most of the cooking, shuttling and caretaking. And though it was Slaughter’s choice and ambition that drove this arrangement, she does not let the trade-offs go unacknowledged.
“I vividly remember the first time one of our sons woke up in the night and called for Daddy instead of Mommy,” she writes. “My first reaction, to put it politely, was deep dismay.”
On a recent day packed with Washington meetings, Slaughter confessed that though her sons are long out of diapers, the trade-offs continue today. Her older son, who outgrew his teenage rebellion, is now a theater major in college. But when he was struggling with a monologue, it was Slaughter’s husband, Andy Moravcsik, who got the call to help.
“I talk to him briefly, but this is exactly where Andy is there to spend four hours with him on a monologue. And that’s partly just my husband, who is a fanatic perfectionist and will spend forever,” she says. “But that is partly time I simply don’t have.”
And later in the day, while Slaughter is on her way to yet another State Department meeting, their younger son, who’s away at jazz camp, discovers an old organ hidden in the recesses of the conservatory. Moravcsik, who happens to be in Washington for the day and is camped out in Slaughter’s office, gets the call with an excited, impromptu FaceTime concert.
“Somebody has to be there when they need you, and that is not consistent with this kind of job,” says Slaughter, who has a husky voice and a big smile. “I could never do this without a lead-parent husband.”
So, looking back with her newfound respect for the work of caregiving, would she have done anything differently?
“I think about that a lot,” she says a few days later on the phone from her home in Princeton. “Knowing what I know now, I wish I had taken one day a week when they were between 0 and 5 to be with them. I could have said, ‘Every Friday, instead of day care, every Friday is a mom day.’ We would have done fun things. It would have mattered. And it would have been a pleasure for me.”
But Slaughter is also deeply gratified to have a career that is still escalating. At New America, she has put into practice some of the policies she advocates — three months of paid parental leave for both men and women, flexible work arrangements and six weeks of paid time off for all employees. Now her name is appearing on lists of potential Cabinet secretaries in a possible Clinton administration.
At a midday meeting with her two assistants, Slaughter reviews a three-page list of requests from young women (and a few men) who want her mentorship. She can’t accept them all, but the ones she does take on will get the same advice she offers staffers and former students who ask how to balance work and family. It’s the same four words she lays out in the afterword of her book: “Don’t drop out, defer.” Meaning, she writes, “if you keep your hand in the workforce while you are devoting more of your time to care, it will be easier to ramp up than to get back in.”
Later, by phone, she adds this: “Enjoy it. Embrace it. Don’t look back and think, ‘God, I wasn’t even there, because I was worried about the logistics and I missed life.’ ”
But maybe that message is really the same: We need to value care as a society, but to do so we must first value it personally.
“The bottom-line message,” she says, “is that we are never going to get to gender equality between men and women unless we value the work of care as much as we value paid work — or when both men and women do it.
“That’s the unfinished business.”