Monday, August 6, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter on “having it all” (Cultural Undervaluing of Family)

Later in the article, Dr. Slaughter made a good point about our culture’s values: “Yet the decision to step down from a position of power—to value family over professional advancement, even for a time—is directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures on career professionals in the United States. One phrase says it all about current attitudes toward work and family, particularly among elites. In Washington, ‘leaving to spend time with your family’ is a euphemism for being fired.” 

Christians often talk about “the culture”’ being at odds with our values.  This euphemism that Dr. Slaughter references is a perfect example.  The Christian emphasis on people and family in particular is so foreign to most in our country’s dominant culture. 

I’ve noted before that my own family experienced this incredulity about valuing family over professional advancement.  Several years ago, when my husband resigned and left his successful corporate accounting career to stay home with our toddler and infant as a full-time caregiver, most people didn’t know what to say or how to react.  Apparently, it was unfathomable to most that someone would pass-up the rewards of a blue collar career with a Fortune 500 company for raising precious human beings. 

When my husband’s resignation was announced in his office, a few of the women congratulated him admiringly, but most seemed to think there was more to the story.  The men especially seemed suspicious and even appeared embarrassed for him.  One of his more junior co-workers followed him to his office after the announcement, closed the door and demanded to know where he was going to work next.  She also asked if he could get her a job with his new employer because she wanted to work for him and was willing to change employers to do that.  It took a lot of effort to convince this young woman he really was leaving to care for his kids. 

In retrospect, it is kind of a funny story that people did not believe my husband would quit to be a stay-at-home dad.  But if you dig a little deeper, such stories are actually heart-breaking. It is sad that in our culture the care of one’s children has so little value to most people that it is inconceivable someone would voluntarily take that on when a great professional career is available.  They must have been fired or otherwise forced out.

If they do believe someone voluntarily chooses to put his family above career, it is even sadder that many people then look down and even pity the person for making such a choice.  When I proudly told my then co-workers about my husband’s placing our family first, they too seemed unsure how to react.  At the time, I was so crushed they did not share my pride in my terrific guy.  Even some fellow moms in my office—women who were really struggling in dual career households--seemed embarrassed for me.  I didn’t understand such reactions and was stunned at the time.  But I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on why my co-workers reacted as they did and believe I figured it out.  I’ve come to the conclusion those co-workers either thought my husband must have been fired and/or they viewed him as being a loser to have not been more ambitious professionally.  Truly, I was shocked to have not had a more positive reaction, particularly from fellow working moms.  At the time, it really demoralized me, but now I understand it is simply a symptom of a pretty warped dominant culture.

Indeed, Dr. Slaughter wrote:

“Think about what this ‘standard Washington excuse’ implies: it is so unthinkable that an official would actually step down to spend time with his or her family that this must be a cover for something else. How could anyone voluntarily leave the circles of power for the responsibilities of parenthood? Depending on one’s vantage point, it is either ironic or maddening that this view abides in the nation’s capital, despite the ritual commitments to ‘family values’ that are part of every political campaign. Regardless, this sentiment makes true work-life balance exceptionally difficult. But it cannot change unless top women speak out.” 

So, per Dr. Slaughter, it comes down to a choice of valuing power or people.  I think she is on to something.  And as a Christian, I know which option my Savior valued.

Matthew 18:5
And when you welcome one of these children because of me, you welcome me.

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