Who’s in charge here?

Several years ago, Ann-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic magazine entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have it All . She tells the story of what happened after she became the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department. She “had it all” as the saying goes. She was happily married, the mother of two boys, and had a job that was astounding. However, soon after the job started, her 14 year-old son began to exhibit the typical symptoms of early adolescence – procrastination, lack of communication, poor school work, you know the drill. Her husband supported her totally so that she was able to continue in her dream job, but eventually she came home to her family and her previous job of university teaching. Slaughter’s observation was that the way that high powered jobs are structured prevented her from being effective in both her job and her family life – she had to choose between them. The problem was that the requirements for work meant that the only time she had for herself was on the weekend, when she also needed to be there for her husband and her sons.

work-familyWomen notice these differences because they feel so responsible for those in their families. Men who have careers and jobs similar to Slaughter’s usually depend on their wives to make sure that meals are on the table, that clothes get cleaned, and that children are taken to and from their various activities. Recently, Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravcsik, wrote a piece to describe what it was like to support his wife in her high-powered job.

This pair of essays by a very successful couple outline what much of the problem is with families today: the emphasis is on success and little or no accommodations are offered that allow people to have a life. Slaughter is a brilliant woman whose abilities put her at the top of her field, and she is supremely lucky to be married to a man who managed to survive being the main caregiver for their children. But as he says, “A man in his 30s who cares for a baby is adorable. A man in his 50s who attends to a teenager is suspect.” Part of the issue is that it is difficult for a man to be publicly in a subservient role – to be the one in charge of the house and the one who makes less money.

Years ago, my husband and I found each other in something of the same position. We had a new baby, I had a teaching job and my husband had just started a new practice as a landscape architect. His office was in our house so even though we had a baby sitter, he was the main parent. As our son got older, I did drive carpool, but so did he and he took our son to his after school activities. It was not always easy, but he was determined to be a co-parent in every sense of the word.

Now that our son is in his early 30s, his affection and connection to his father is a joy to see and rather extraordinary. Sometimes I feel a bit jealous of their connection, but then I am extremely proud that they do have this relationship. I hope that my son will be able to do the same for any children that he and his wife may have.

But here’s the thing: we had an unusual situation. My husband’s office was in our house and he worked for himself, setting his own schedule. As a teacher, I was able to have free time during traditional family times such as major holidays and the summer and, once our son was in school, he and I had similar schedules. Slaughter has just come out with a new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, in which she elaborates on this theme. The point she makes is that her job as a full-time professor at Princeton allowed her flexibility that her government job did not, and that made all the difference. She is seen as someone who gave up an important position to go home, but what she went home to was an equally prestigious position, just not as public.

Slaughter has choices that many of us do not. But the choices that she made are ones familiar to us all – who comes first? Family or self? Feminists tell women that they should not have to compromise on their careers for family. A good partner will solve all the problems – they can “have it all.” However, parents of boys frequently find that they need our physical presence and without it, our sons can come unglued. Slaughter’s oldest son told her that she couldn’t quit because she was a role model, but his behavior, while normal for a young teenaged boy, told her he needed her. She stayed two years at the State Department and then came back to Princeton where she could more easily juggle her academic career and her family. Even though she had the right partner who was willing to hold down the fort at home, allowing her the opportunity to serve our country, she recognized what her absence was doing to her sons.

My point? If you are a parent, your children need you. If your children are boys, because of their emotionality, they absolutely need you. Yes, it is not fair that some jobs, particularly high powered jobs, make that difficult. In fact, men should not be working that hard either. While much has been said about the problems of boys raised in one-family households, the same could be said about families where the father is rarely home because he has a high-status position that expects long hours. The difference between the two groups is financial, but the cost in lack of parental presence is something we need to think about.