Authors: Anne-Marie Slaughter
PUBLISHED BY RANDOM HOUSE CANADA
Copyright Â© 2015 by Anne-Marie Slaughter
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is a work of non-fiction. Some names and identifying details have been
A portion of this work was originally published in
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Slaughter, Anne-Marie, author
Unfinished business : women men work family / Anne-Marie Slaughter.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
eBook ISBN 978-0-345-81291-9
1. Work-life balanceâUnited States. 2. Work and familyâUnited States.
3. Women employeesâFamily relationshipsâUnited States. 4. Women employeesâUnited
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In December 2010 I was working round the clock with my team on the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department to finish a major eighteen-month project for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was bitingly cold; as one of my colleagues and I walked home in the early morning hours, we would turn up our collars against the wind and play the endless Washington parlor game of speculating on who would take which job as people came and went after the midterm elections. I kept quiet, but I had been getting unmistakable signals that I could be in line for a promotion myselfâto one of a tiny handful of higher positions. I was excitedâand deeply conflicted.
I had been working for almost two years as the first female director of policy planning, reporting directly to the secretary of state and responsible for helping her develop and implement big-picture frameworks and strategy for U.S. foreign policy. When Secretary Clinton, a woman I greatly admire and a truly wonderful boss, had called two years earlier to offer me the position, a foreign policy dream job, I immediately accepted. At the same time, I told her that I could only stay for two years. That is the normal period academics receive as public service leave from their universities; if they stay away longer they must give up lifetime tenure. Still, both my husband, Andy, and I expected when I went to Washington that if the opportunity arose for me to stay
on in a higher position, it would be very tempting. I had been a professor my entire career, but foreign policy was my lifelong passion.
This was my moment to “lean in,” to seize the advantage of being in the right place at the right time and propel myself forward. I certainly had no guarantee I would get the promotion if I put myself in the pool, but I had a reasonable chance; the job I wanted was yet another one that no woman had ever held. I would also have a chance to continue advancing an approach to foreign policy that I believed in strongly and that had become a signature of Secretary Clinton's tenure.
The woman I always thought I wasâthe career woman, the law professor, the dean, the undergraduate who planned to go to law school as a route to the State Departmentâwould have said yes, without hesitation. But while the professional side of my life was moving forward, the personal side was more complicated. When I first took the job at State in 2009, Andy and I decided it would be much better for him and our two sons if I commuted to Washington every week rather than uprooting the family. The boys were ten and twelve at that point, in fourth and sixth grades in schools and a community they loved and in which they were deeply rooted. They heartily agreed; as upset as they were to hear that I was headed to Washington, when I suggested that everyone come with me their reaction was essentially “Bye, Mom!”
Andy is a tenured professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. He has always been home more than I; my previous job as dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and my various foreign policy activities required much more travel than his work did. And even when I was home, my computer was never far from reach. Indeed, in first grade our older son was asked to draw his family; he drew me as a laptopânot a woman sitting at a laptop, but a laptop itself!
Still, at that point my office was only a mile from home and their school; I was able to be at teacher's conferences and school and sports events, and the academic schedule also meant that even if I was gone or very busy for stretches, we could always manage catch-up time where we could take a vacation or hang out at home together. I was very present in the boys' lives and considered myself incredibly fortunate that I could be both an engaged parent and a committed professional.
Because Andy and I had somehow always made it work, I assumed we would again simply adapt to new rhythms. But the change was wrenching. Over the span of two weeks, between the time Secretary Clinton offered me the job and I started, we went from a world in which my office was a ten-minute walk away from home to a world in which I left the house at five
Monday morning and came back late Friday afternoon or evening. This schedule was not unusual among political appointees in the Obama administration; I knew a number of other women and men who had left their families behind in New York, Pennsylvania, and even California. Moreover, high government officials who have their families right there in Washington do not see them very often; the hours are punishing, precisely because of the importance of the work. World events will not wait on family schedules; crises pile on top of one another and can disrupt even the most cherished family celebrations. As for vacations, I got one vacation day a month, generous by U.S. standards, but by June I still had barely enough for a week away.
As a professional, I reaped the benefits as well as the costs of my choice, which Andy certainly understood and supported. But for our sons, the costs were immediate and large. My younger sonâonly tenâwould cry on Sunday nights when he knew I had to leave the next morning. Once I opened my mouth to try to comfort him and he yelled out, before I could say a word, “I don't
want you to go. And I don't care about the country!” I had explained to him earlier that he was serving his nation just as I was, something Secretary Clinton also told him when she met him, but he had had enough.
Our older son tried to be mature about my leaving, even offering to take over responsibility for the breakfast smoothies I made every morning. He understood how much I wanted the job. He also understood something more universal about my new position; early on in my commute, when I was still learning the Washington ropes and was frustrated enough to have said something about quitting and coming home (not really meaning it, of course), he looked at me and said, “Mom, you can't quit! You're a role model.” He had heard that from someone, probably the mother of one of his friends, and already had internalized it.
He was proud of me but also newly in middle school, with new friends and more demanding classes, and suddenly all his routines were disturbed. And as puberty hit, he turned into a creature so familiar to many parents: the sulky, taciturn kid who responds in rude monosyllables when he responds at all. His friends changed, and over the next eighteen months he started skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. He fought with his father and did his best to ignore me completely. By eighth grade his behavior had escalated; he had been suspended from school and picked up by the local police. I received several urgent phone callsâinevitably on the day of an important meetingâthat required me to drop what I was doing and take the first train back home (Secretary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, were always understanding, but it put a strain on my office).
Plenty of parents assured me that my son's behavior was typical, that nothing I was facing was particularly unusual. Teenagers rebel; parents of teenagers tear their hair out. And Andy was
there, after all, doing his level best as the home parent. Still, my son was constantly on my mind. As much as I loved the work I was doing, I would get a call or a text with the latest upset and wonder why on earth I was sitting in D.C. when my son needed me in Princeton.
I played with various scenarios, wondering if I could perhaps eke out one more year in D.C. but knowing that any of the jobs I might be considered for would require Senate confirmation, which could take three to six months, and that Secretary Clinton would rightly expect a two-year commitment, until the end of President Obama's first term. I thought about asking my husband and sons to move to D.C. after all, but that would have left Andy commuting back to his job in Princeton and would have completely uprooted the boys in ways I truly thought would be very bad for them, particularly our younger son. We had moved to Princeton in the first place precisely because of the quality of the public schools and the kid-friendly nature of the community.
Money was also a consideration. I had taken more than a 50 percent pay cut to go into government and was now paying rent on a tiny studio apartment in D.C. as well as commuting expenses. If the family moved down with me we would be able to rent our house in Princeton, but then Andy would be commuting and we would be saddled with all the costs of a move and life in a more expensive city.
Deep down I knew the right choice was to go home, even if I didn't quite recognize the woman who was making that choice. So I did. Secretary Clinton gave me a wonderful going-away party that will be one of the things I'll remember when I look back on my life. My entire American familyâparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousinsâcame, four of them from as far away as Hong Kong. Andy and the boys were there, beaming, with an audience of so many dear friends, old and new, to see me receive
the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor the State Department gives. Amid the speeches, jokes, and gifts from colleagues I had come to love and admire, it never occurred to me that I was “quitting” or “dropping out.” Just making a decision to move sideways rather than up.
I packed up my apartment the next day, a Friday, and was back in the classroom teaching at Princeton by the following Tuesday. As I recovered my own balance after the grueling Washington schedule, and as our family righted itself, some fundamental changes took place. I went back to teaching, writing, and speaking as a professor and foreign policy commentator, a more than full-time schedule but a wonderfully flexible one. Now, however, I realized in a way that I never had before just how essential that flexibility had always been in allowing me to be both a mom and a career woman.
Equally important, small things that I had previously taken for granted suddenly seemed much more precious. For the first six months at home I bounded out of bed and made some kind of homemade cooked breakfast for the boys: muffins, scones, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, eggs, you name it. Andy had gotten the boys up, fed, and off to school every day for two years; he rolled over that first morning I was back and said, “Your turn.” After a while, though, he did gently suggest that perhaps I was overcompensating just a bit for my absence. In fact, my cooking was as much for me as it was for them. One of the things I never expected about being a mother is the sheer elemental pleasure I get out of watching my sons eat food I have cooked. It must be some very deep evolutionary urge. Regardless, I was home, and I couldn't have been happier.
As the months passed, I started asking myself deeper questions. My decision to leave government was based on my love for and responsibility to my family. But still I thought I would try for
another foreign policy job if President Obama were to be re-elected. If you are a political appointee and your party is in power for eight full years when you are at the height of your career, that's your time to reach for the stars. When I left in 2011, I certainly was not ruling out trying to come back in 2013.
But I kept wrestling with myself. Even if I were lucky enough to have the chance to go back to government, leaving again would mean missing the last two years my oldest son would be at home and missing my younger son's transition to high school. It had never occurred to me not to put my career first, as long as my family could handle it, but now I had to be dead honest with myself. This crisis had forced me to confront what was most important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want. That realization led me to question the feminist narrative I grew up with and have always championed. I began to wonder why success as a woman, or indeed as a man, meant privileging career achievement above all else.
I had always believed, and told all the young women I taught and mentored, that women could “have it all,” meaning simply that they could have careers and families in the same way and at the same levels that men do. Men who are presidents, CEOs, directors, managers, leaders of all kinds have families too. Women surely could do the same, I told my studentsâthey just had to be committed enough to their careers. But here I was, as committed to my career as I had ever been, making a choice I had never expected to make and being certain it was the right one.
For someone who grew up in the 1970s, shaped by and devoted to the opportunities, power, and promise of the women's movement, deciding to choose family over career felt like heresy. But an event in May 2011, four months after I left D.C., made me see this entire set of issues in a different light. I was invited to
Oxford University to give the first Fulbright Lecture on International Relations. At the request of the event's organizers, I agreed to talk to a group of Rhodes Scholars about “work-family balance.” Attending was a group of about forty talented and self-assured young men and women in their mid-twenties.
What poured out of me was not really a talk but more a set of frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it had been to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be at a demanding time for my children. As many women and men have told me since, it may have been naÃ¯ve of me not to expect this tension, given my commute, but I had simply assumed that my family and I would make it work the way we always had. I concluded by saying that my time in office had convinced me that further government service would be very unlikely while my sons were still at home, even if my party remained in power for another six years.
Somewhat to my surprise, the audience was rapt and asked many thoughtful questions. One of the first was from a young woman who began by thanking me for “not giving just one more fatuous âYou can have it all' talk.” She had clearly heard plenty of those and was deeply skeptical. Most of the young women in the room planned to combine careers and family in some way, but they were starting from a much more informed place than I had been in at age twenty-five, when I had simply assumed that I could pursue my career full tilt and a husband and family would just magically follow. Regardless of their achievements at such a young age, these women and many of the men in the audience already assumed that juggling work and family was likely to be hard, even if rewarding. They wanted to hear about real experiences and trade-offs from people who were in the middle of that juggle, words of wisdom or advice that might help them plan for or at least anticipate the road ahead.