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Katrina Alcorn's picture

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

By now, you’ve probably either read or read about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic essay in which she recounts from personal experience why she believes women cannot “have it all” and calls on all of us to recognize the conditions that must change to make it possible for women to thrive in careers and motherhood.

As someone who has been writing about this issue for three years, I read her essay with relief. Finally! Now, at last, we can have the dialogue we should have been having for the last few decades instead of all the bogus “Mommy Wars.” How can we make the workplace more friendly to women — and men — with family obligations?

But the reactions I’ve read to the essay have not gone in that direction. Instead, there has been the usual debate about what “having it all” really means, and the it’s-not-really-that-bad opinion pieces (despite so much evidence to the contrary). Then comes this essay, by Susan Chira, the assistant managing editor for news at the New York Times.

Chira talks about how much she loves her work, despite the strains that long hours and travel put on her family life. Now that her youngest child is only a year away from college she says, “all in all, I think my family would agree that I managed to juggle without depriving them.” In other words: I worked hard, and my kids are fine.

Chiro admits that she had more flexibility in her job than many other women, in part because she could take advantage of modern technology so that she was not “tied to the office.” She admits many women don’t have this option, and surmises they probably never will without “federal mandates.” Then she quickly writes this off as “a pipe dream in today’s environment of austerity and the drive for smaller government.”

Chira says there’s a price to pay for high achievement and asks, “Is it realistic to expect anyone can ascend to the top without that total commitment?” She concludes with this advice for younger women: “Be patient. And relentless.”

There are so many things wrong with this response, it’s hard to know where to begin, so I will take them, as the writer Anne Lamott would say, “bird by bird.”

Bird #1: I worked hard and my kids are fine.

I, too, have worked hard. At times I’ve given every last ounce of energy I had to my work (web consulting and management) and my children (now ages 5, 9 and 11). Three years ago, I burned out at my full-time job and had to take a year to recuperate. My kids were fine. I was not.

I know I’m not alone. Studies show that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to that of men. About a year ago, I posted a survey on my own blog, asking working parents about stress and its effects on their health. Of the 560 respondents in households where all parents work, a whopping 88 percent said they experienced stress-related health problems since becoming a working parent.

Chira’s argument is a more delicate way of saying “I did it. Why can’t you?” It perpetuates the ugly idea that the answer lies in just working harder, sucking it up. There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but those of us with family obligations are often working too hard, way too hard, and it’s making us sick. We have to stop taking our own health for granted.

Bird #2: Women won’t get flexibility at work without a “federal mandate.”

Huh? There’s no way to change workplace culture without a government mandate? By now, there is an impressive body of evidence showing that progressive companies already use telecommuting, flexible schedules, and other “custom-fit work practices” to make the workplace more friendly to mothers (and fathers). What’s more, these practices cost little or nothing to implement and lead to increased productivity, decreased costs in turnover and absenteeism and a stronger bottom line.

In other words, it is in a company’s best interests to do the right thing, no government “mandates” required. But the leaders in most large companies (read: mostly guys with stay-at-home wives, full-time nannies, or both) are often ignorant of the issues their employees face, so they have little incentive to change, even if that change is in their company’s best interest. Which is why it would be really great to have more women leaders, (women like you, Susan), to help get the word out.

Bird #3. Government help is a “pipe dream”

Not so fast. Government may not be the only solution, but we can’t let government off the hook so easily.

The United States has a deplorable record when it comes to supporting working families. Human Rights Watch published a report in 2011 that declared the U.S. is “failing its families” through “weak or nonexistent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities.” The very least we can do is demand some form of paid maternity (or parental) leave, something that every single developed country in the entire world enjoys, with the exception of the United States. If Zimbabwe, Honduras and Bulgaria can figure this one out, surely we can, too.

Bird #4. It’s not realistic to expect women to ascend to the top if they don’t show “total commitment.”

What does that phrase, “total commitment,” really mean? Being a workaholic, not having any family time, and giving oneself completely to one’s job? I don’t call that total commitment. I call that mental illness. How can people be truly effective leaders — in the corporate world, the non-profit world or government — if they are not grounded in the relationships that make them human? How can they understand the needs of their employees and constituents without a vehicle for compassion in their own lives? It was “total commitment” (and lack of perspective) that begat the risky, self-centered behavior by Lehman Brothers and others that ushered in the economic collapse of 2008.

We need more leaders who have a visceral recognition of the human consequences of their actions. That understanding comes from a rich and full life, including a network of respectful and loving relationships, not from pulling all-nighters at the office.

Bird #5. My advice… be patient.

Why does almost every essay on the subject of working mothers seem to end with advice for working mothers? Has it occurred to you, Susan, that we don’t need your advice?

We are working our butts off, making the best of incredibly trying circumstances, in a country with the worst work-family conflict of any developed nation in the world. The problem is not us. The problem is a society that doesn’t value the role of caregiving. A workplace that doesn’t value the well-being of its employees. A belief that you aren’t “committed” to your job if you leave at 4:30 to pick up your kids from daycare, or that a few years off to care for young children spells the ends of career advancement.

My advice to Susan Chira and women like her is this: Save your advice for the people who need it — your colleagues, your HR departments and your employers who don’t understand why the new mom needs to take a nursing pump break every three hours. Those are the people who need enlightenment.

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