I am pleased to announce that I have been named Deputy Assistant Undersecretary of the Eventual Mission to Mars. This is, as you know, a high-powered job, commensurate with my deep and deserved career accomplishments. It is the sort of job I was destined to hold. And I don’t want to waste a minute of my precious and valuable time worrying about my family’s welfare when I’m out of the house.
In other words, I am out to achieve the elusive work-life balance at the very highest levels of the workforce. I am not, I realize, the first high-powered woman to tackle this important subject. The multitalented actress/singer/web curator Gwyneth Paltrow, on her website “GOOP,” once surveyed her accomplished female friends and came up with some helpful balancing tips, which included having “an amazing assistant” and getting a fishmonger who delivers. One of her friends found a salon where she could get a manicure, pedicure and facial at the same time! But she is not as smart as my friend, a Rhodes Scholar, who schedules meetings with her accountant at the nail salon, thereby discussing her taxes most efficiently while getting dead skin sloughed off her feet.
And then there is Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor and former State Department official, who wrote the much-buzzed-about cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Slaughter declares that women cannot have it all — with the exception of a short list of “superwomen” to whom you shouldn’t compare yourself because it would only make you feel bad.
From Slaughter comes a tip from a friend who always programmed her microwave to time-cook for “1:11” or “2:22,” so as not to waste precious milliseconds in the morning, typing different numbers on the keypad. This is the sort of idea you can come up with only if you are truly elite.
And yet, the trouble for us elite women is that we sometimes have disturbingly nonelite kids who do not match our levels of competence and skill and who distract us from the work at hand. For example, there is my 3-year-old son, whom I love dearly, but who currently takes a Bartleby-the-Scrivener approach to potty training. I was recently at a very exciting dinner party, filled with important people — P. Diddy was in one corner, conversing with I.M. Pei — yet I couldn’t stop thinking about my boy at home, wondering if he was going to leave another puddle by the potted plant.
At this point, I feel the need to issue a disclaimer: This entire subject is not meant to be relevant to the majority of women in America — the ones who work for a combination of needs that range from personal fulfillment to paying the mortgage, and who do not have tenured academic jobs to return to if a foray into Very Important Work doesn’t pan out. Those women discovered, years ago, some of the notions that occurred to Slaughter recently: that flexible schedules help with family lives, that meetings should be timed to match the school day, that bosses shouldn’t blanch when people leave to take their kids to doctors’ appointments.
These ideas, in fact, have been studied and promoted, and are taking hold in many workplaces, though not nearly quickly enough. So how to encourage faster change? Slaughter thinks the key to is to get more women into high positions. She points out, for instance, that her former boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, set a generous example of work-life balance by arriving at the office at 8 a.m. and leaving at 7 p.m. This is not, in fact, a workday that meshes with most school schedules I know. And it’s true that Clinton ran for senator and president, and took the job of secretary of state, after her daughter had left the house.
The trouble is, I want it all immediately. It’s not as if Mars can wait. What, you say? There are women who think differently? Who think it isn’t an admission of female weakness or societal failure to think that perhaps a son needs his mother to be in the same state? You say there are women and children who do not care who happens to be, at this current moment, the deputy assistant undersecretary of the Eventual Mission to Mars? Well, then, let them have their flex-time and go about their lives. I have more important things to do.