Changing the Conversation from Having it All to Creating a Values-Rich Life - Women's Foundation California

When my twin brother and I were little, people would often ask what we wanted to be when we grew up. I usually said a clown. He usually said President of the United States.

We both wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I saw my role in that in small ways—general kindness and compassion for others, being “helpful.” He wanted to move mountains.

Today, Chris is a civil rights attorney for a small Bay Area law firm. He works from home most days, which allows him the flexibility to pick up his three kids from school, attend their events and serve as PTA president. When he took on that responsibility, I asked, “Why the heck would you do that? Don’t you have enough going on?” He said he liked being able to make a difference at his kids’ school and, as a bonus, he would gain the experience of managing a $300,000 budget, giving him a new skill set should he open his own law practice someday.

I remember early in my tenure at the Women’s Foundation of California, we held a community meeting in Riverside. I met an older woman, a lifelong community advocate, who offered me a motto I adopted on the spot. She said, “I know I’m going to do this work until I die. I might as well pace myself.”

Chris and I have both taken the long view on our careers. We’re both parents, we both do our best to keep up with our family and friends and we both love our jobs. I think Chris still has political ambitions, but he’s pacing himself. And I’m committed to equity and justice for all people and know that will take many forms in my life, not just in the jobs I choose but in how I live each day. There’s no ladder to climb. Just opportunities to put skills to good use and to create a life we are proud of.

As I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in the July/August Atlantic magazine, I imagined Carrie Bradshaw pecking out a question on her “Sex and the City” laptop, “Do you ever stop to wonder, what’s having it all anyway?”

Like others who have commented on the article, the mere concept of “having it all” rings false, entitled, and dated to me. While I’m grateful for women like Professor Slaughter and her trailblazing for many women, I felt challenged by her commentary and some of her solutions.

For example, she proposes that if more women were in elected office or corporate C-suites, things would be different – more humane – for all of us. If that were true, would Governor Brown – whose inner circle includes many women – have slashed CalWORKs (California’s welfare to work program) in the state’s new budget? Four out of five participants in the program are children. Would he have reduced subsidized childcare that helps low-income working parents stay in the workforce? Many women and men in the Legislature fought hard to prevent those cuts, as did the Foundation and our grant partners. Though the cuts were not as bad as anticipated, they will have a ripple effect that will jeopardize the economic security of many low-income women and families. It’s hard to feel okay about “pacing” when we’re talking about women and families living on the edge.

Professor Slaughter defines “having it all” as having the same choices as men, particularly in terms of career and family. Having it all was never how I thought about my life. Creating the life I want, one that is meaningful to me, is altogether different. It includes a career that aligns with my values, a loving family, loyal friends, good health, perhaps some travel.

In my 10 years at the Foundation, I have experienced many life-altering choices, particularly becoming a mother. I have to admit – I did cringe a bit when I learned just two months into my return from my first maternity leave that I was pregnant with my second child, not just because the thought of siblings 15 months apart scared me silly but because of the impact another maternity leave would have on my colleagues and the organization. Yet when I told our CEO Judy Patrick, her immediate response was, “That’s wonderful!” I suspect that her later thought was something like, “Aye carumba!” but she never said or did anything that made me feel guilty about my choice.

And in my absence others stepped up and forward, gaining the opportunity to show leadership. Still, I know my maternity leaves were challenging for some of my colleagues.

Professor Slaughter also says that empathy and flexibility are qualities missing in many workplaces. Not here. Empathy is a value I hold dear and one that has kept me at the Foundation for 10 years. When one of my kids is sick, I get an email from nearly every colleague wishing him a speedy recovery, checking in to see how he’s doing, and bringing me an extra cup of coffee when I return, because they know I probably had a long and restless night. This is the kind of place, and these are the kind of people, I’m grateful to work for.

Professor Slaughter’s article emphasizes the need to increase flexibility in the workplace so that employees can put family first if they choose. Flexibility is not just prized by parents. It should be a workplace standard whenever possible so that any employee can leave work early to get their teeth cleaned, visit a friend in the hospital or train for a marathon. We still have some work to do on that front. I received an email recently from a former Foundation colleague who left last year after her daughter was born. The pace of her life is not slower today, but she has control of her own schedule and she’s not away from her daughter 10 hours a day. She created flexibility when it wasn’t possible in the job she had here.

Striving for work-Life balance is a set up to feel bad. I have never cared for the term or concept of work-life balance. It doesn’t reflect the reality of how we live today. Work is part of my life; it doesn’t sit in opposition or across the scales from my life. Work is integrated, as is time for myself, time with my husband, kids, friends, family, exercise, acupuncture, volunteering, getting my hair cut, doing laundry and all of the other things that make up my days. If the federal government can replace the hierarchical and outdated food pyramid with a plate of balanced proportions of food, can we please stop referring to our lives in such a narrow dichotomy? Balance as moderation, or even integration, might be a better way to think about our lives. On my plate of life, I imagine different proportions for “work,” “family” or “health and wellness” that change every day. Who wants to eat the same thing every day in the same proportions?

There will be sacrifices. Whether we become parents or not, sacrifice, compromise, choice-making – however we describe it – is a function of the human experience. We simply cannot do it all, have it all, be it all. Accepting this reality and letting go of unrealistic expectations primes us to create the life we want.

Overall, as I read Professor Slaughter’s article and the subsequent reactions, I felt empathy for Professor Slaughter, not just as a fellow mother but as a fellow human being doing the best she can. And I felt gratitude for the conversation. We have a long way to go to creating a society in which individuals’ choices are valued and respected. But talking about what’s not working is the first step to creating something better.

This morning, “creating the life I want” meant staying in bed five more minutes with my son, watching him laugh in his sleep about whatever it is that babies dream of, then getting out of bed to write this blog post. Now, if I could just schedule that hair cut . . .

For more on the topic, check out Southern California Public Radio’s, AirTalk: Can women indeed have it all, and what does that even mean?


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