I remember the smell of my mother's first briefcase. She carried it during my earliest years, the years from which I can recall smells most deeply. But my mother regrets carrying the briefcase and, according to her, missing so many of my moments. A photograph of a baby sitting in a briefcase summoned the memory for me recently. The photograph accompanied Anne-Marie Slaughter's pot-stirring article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" in this current Atlantic magazine.
In the article Slaughter admits that deep down women want to be at home when their children need them. Yet she proposes that adjustments in society and economics (i.e., congruity between working hours and school hours, the creation of a professional atmosphere in which women referring to their families becomes normal, and perhaps having a female president) would improve work-family balance for mothers in the workforce.
Given family as the most basic unit of society, and maternal instinct as the glue that binds it, it's no wonder Slaughter's article has attracted so much attention and reawakened an old debate: Which path, career or family, or the two combined, promises female happiness?
My mother fits Slaughter's demographic ("highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place"). This morning she told me:
"We love home. We love work. We love it all. But the job will always be there, not your kids."
For my demographic (educated, young, unmarried women privileged enough to have observed and wanted to emulate good motherhood), I'd like to expand on Slaughter's assertions about what it means to both be a leader and "have it all."
Even as a young unmarried woman I have felt the blind fury about family Slaughter refers to. Slaughter talks to young women about freezing eggs to ensure a greater chance of fertility when they find a longtime partner. This is the language of careful planning. But judging from the unfolding life stories I've observed, motherhood-that creative occupation fraught with the unexpected-does not often submit to calculation. It does seem to get at the nerve of living, though.
As a child I hung onto the homeschool movement by the tail. My mother attended me as I sat on the basement steps crying over A Beka math. We put on homeschool Bible plays: I wore a plaid dress and went on all fours, pretending to be the donkey.
Since both our parents worked full-time my brother and I started public school in second and third grade. But I still tagged along with homeschoolers because of their big families, true friendship, and tendencies toward innovation. They taught me to play chess at the county fair as we ate boiled eggs from the cooler in the trunk of their red minivan-a signature of their compulsory frugality, since mom stayed home.
At school among the new arbiters of my education, a tall blonde teacher in turquoise first made me want to be a writer. She didn't have to do much-just show my 7-year-old self what an adjective was. I sallied forth in pursuit of career. At times I was deterred: By third grade I wanted to be an artist, by seventh grade I wanted to be a philosopher. Either way, I was going to college-and it would be expensive. No one suggested that raising a family could be a career choice.
"The babysitter was doing my job," said my mom. "But no one said that to me when my kids were little. At least not to my face." No mothers in our neighborhood stayed home. It didn't feel safe, she said, to be there alone.
Some stigmatize motherhood, saying that it is ignoble or that a fulfilled life requires supplemental career activity. Why not emphasize the creativity motherhood entails? Giving birth and nourishing life, of course, is a vital act of creation. As a young Christian woman this challenge of John Piper's captivates my imagination:
"Which would be greater for the Kingdom-to work for someone who tells you what to do to make his or her business prosper, or to be God's free agent dreaming your own dream about how your time and your home and your creativity could make God's business prosper? [I pray that you] make your choices not on the basis of secular trends or upward lifestyle expectations, but on the basis of what will strengthen the faith of the family and advance the cause of Christ."
A different definition of leadership would help disentangle this kind of guilt from motherhood. Must women occupy 50 percent of high-level jobs, making companies friendlier toward their needs, in order to improve their happiness? Does leadership consist only in high-level jobs, or in the rearing of the next generation?