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.
For the last week, I found myself amazed and infuriated by the reaction to Slaughter’s article. It has ranged from criticism of her for being ridiculous enough to think anyone could ever have it all to praise for being upfront with the future generation of working parents.
Lori Gottlieb, the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,
writes in response: “How does a smart woman like Slaughter still believe in the childlike notion that people (of either gender) can have whatever they want whenever they want it?” Gottlieb thinks it’s obvious that choosing one option might impact the feasibility of another and wonders why it’s women who don’t get this. “Men don’t lose sleep over the fact that they have to make choices.”
I disagree. Men lose sleep over their choices, too. But for men, financial need for their income usually has a greater influence on their tolerance for sacrifices in their family lives. Men who are CEOs and world leaders usually don’t feel as guilty as women when their work demands turn them into absentee fathers.
It just sort of goes without saying that if Dwyane Wade, a single father, wants to be the most successful basketball player on the planet he needs to do job-related travel, practice long hours and spend extra time at the gym — so we pass over it without comment. For more women to be in the highest leadership positions, they have to also be allowed to be doing what it takes to be excellent without being made to feel guilty about it. As a society we just aren’t there yet.
Because women are having children later, they tend have made their ascent in their careers when their children become teens.
The next generation of parents, particularly the growing ranks of working moms, need to know that drive by parenting does not work with teenagers.
Raising teens requires parents to be at the top of their game. Teens test boundaries, cop attitudes and tune adults out. Someone has to guide them day in and day out. And if you are traveling and handling workplace crises most of the time, it’s not going to be you. I know women who have accepted that, handed the responsibility over and thrive in their careers. Others discover they don’t have the tolerance.
We need women like Lagarde to lead with charm while making radical economic reforms. We need women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies and on corporate boards to make buying and management decisions that improve the lives of female customers. And we certainly need women in top policy making positions who are more likely to push decisions that benefit families.
We need role models for young girls who should dream big. But we also need involved parents to guide the next generation into adulthood.
Slaughter believes we need policies and workplace changes for when, where and how work will be done. We already see some employers who get it and both offer and encourage flexibility to make the juggling easier. Still, most working parents are giving it all at work and home and finding maintaining balance is a struggle every day.
We need to do more as a nation to make family friendly policies a reality in more workplaces. We need to stop judging parents who re-evaluate their situation and make changes or mothers who want to make the necessary sacrifices to climb to the top.
We will never stop trying to have it all, but it’s OK to like what you have. Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit worklifebalancingact.com.