I have thought about Christine Lagarde a lot in the last week as an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic has stirred a national debate. Many years ago, I had lunch with Christine Lagarde. She completely impressed me. The woman spoke four languages and ran an international law firm, overseeing thousands of lawyers, most of them men. She was poised, intelligent and destined for even greater positions of influence.
We talked a lot about the legal business, but what stuck with me was our conversation about family. At the time, Lagarde had two sons in high school. She spent most of her time in the United States where the law firm was headquartered and her teenage sons were back in France with her husband. I remember her telling me that one son in particular was going through a rocky adolescence and was going to repeat his last year of high school. The other had decided to attend boarding school. Lagarde also mentioned she was apart from her husband more than they were together. They eventually divorced.
I admired Lagarde and her candor about the tradeoffs for her career choices. Lagarde now serves in the even more powerful position of managing director of the International Monetary Fund. What would Lagarde say about the headline on Slaughter’s article: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All?’’
The article has irked women and men, both single and married, and I’m thrilled it has hit a nerve. We need to be talking openly about conflicts around balancing work and family now that more families have two parents who contribute income to paying the mortgage. I’ve been writing about work life balance for a decade. I’ve interviewed hundreds of women and men trying to raise children and run companies, climb the corporate ladder and succeed in their professions.
Here’s what I’ve learned: All working parents experiences conflict throughout their careers. At the end of the day, the choices around balancing work and family depend on two things: financial need and tolerance. A working mother or father will accept greater work demands if they need the money or their ambition allows them to tolerate the tradeoffs required.
Slaughter is a Princeton politics professor who left her dream job last year as the first woman director of policy planning in the State Department, in part to spend more time with her family. To make the job work, she had been living in D.C. during the week and returning home to her husband and two sons in Princeton, N.J., on weekends. But 18 months into the job, she was having trouble with her 14-year-old son and his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting class, failing math and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Slaughter had been on a two-year leave from Princeton University to take the job in D.C. When her two-year leave was up, she says, “I hurried home as fast as I could.”
She was unable to tolerate how her work schedule was affecting her home life.
The experience, she says, made her realize: “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life.”
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.