Sometimes the best way to tell what’s occupying me is to see the open tabs in my browser. I just closed eight that had to do with the recent Atlantic piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The responses I’ve been interested in focus mostly on what it might mean to “have it all” rather than taking up the well-trodden “mommy wars” positions that have become so predictable as to be boring. Perhaps the furthest from Slaughter’s original piece is Tim Kreider’s “The Busy Trap,” a lovely paean to what he calls laziness, but may simply be sustainable living. While Kreider doesn’t reference Slaughter at all, Ellen Ruppel Shell does in her similarly-themed essay, “In Praise of Downtime.” These responses to Slaughter suggest that while perhaps the “elite” careers (such as the government position she traded in to return to the professoriate) may require more time than most people, let alone mothers, may really be willing or able to devote to a career, most careers may not—or, perhaps, should not, even if they do. I cringed to find myself in Kreider’s piece, remembering how often my response to “how are you?” is “crazy busy.”
Now, as I look over my materials to complete my annual review, I also note that “crazy busy” was true. Committees, courses, coordinating a program—all of these things really do take time. They take even more time to do well. So what is the solution, really? Laura McKenna, an ex-academic blogging at the Atlantic’s site, suggests that it’s not just elite jobs that require more of us than is often compatible with parenting, and it’s not just women’s careers that could be taking the hit. She also recognizes how unlikely it is that important policy changes that could help parents will actually happen any time soon—though I think it’s still important, as do Judith Warner and Stephanie Coontz, to push for them.
Maybe I should just, as Laurie Essig suggests, “do everything half-assed” (she’s quoting Rayna Rapp, but she appears perhaps to miss the point that Rapp’s “everything” may have included her work, not just her parenting). But it’s really Lee Bessette’s piece here at IHE that resonates the most strongly with me, despite our different positions. While Lee has, perhaps, sacrificed career “success” for family, in our house it’s my husband who has done that, and I see the consequences every day. The good consequences are that he has time to do errands, take our son to the pediatrician or, last week, California, to make dinner and do art and kayak. There are days when I envy him deeply, when his life looks to me a lot like the one Kreider describes. The bad consequences, though, are the ones Lee seems to worry about as well. There are financial, psychological, and emotional consequences to “failing” to achieve what we typically recognize as “success.” Until there’s some massive cultural shift that recognizes both men and women for both career and family work, I don’t see that changing.
Every year at this time I think hard about success and failure and what academic ambition means, as I assemble my annual review materials and assess my progress towards the next stage, whatever that may be. By any measure, I’ve already achieved success: I have a healthy family, a supportive spouse, a rewarding career. It may take the slower rhythms of the summer, though, for me to recognize and appreciate what I’ve got.
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