Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter on “having it all” (More on the Generational Divide)

In the prior post, I ended with a quote from Dr. Slaughter’s article.  She concluded that the professional culture valuing power and prestige over family had to be changed.  She opined: “But it cannot change unless top women speak out.”  I don’t disagree with her assessment of the solution, but in my experience that is much easier said than done. 

Again, I am not of the generation of such “top women.”  They entered the work force 10 or more years ahead of me.  As I’ve written previously, such women were not welcomed with open arms when they broke the workplace gender barrier.  Most “top women” had to make huge sacrifices to get to where they are now.  As I have observed in my career, they either forewent having children at all, or they had children but had to sacrifice much time and involvement with them.  Having made such sacrifices, such “top women” aren’t necessarily keen on helping others avoid the same sacrifices.  I suppose misery loves company.  And if we’ve lived our lives in conformance to certain ground rules, it can be difficult for us to muster a vision that others can experience something better, something more humane. 

Dr. Slaughter noted this resistance of “top women” in her article as she observed how “young professional women feel under assault” by older women.  She quoted Facebook COO Sheyl Sandberg who gave a famous commencement speech at Barnard College.  According to Dr. Slaughter, Ms. Sandberg lamented the “dismally small number of women at the top” and tried to encourage younger women to change that situation.  But Dr. Slaughter noted that Ms. Sandberg’s words contained “more than a note of reproach” and seemed equivalent to saying “We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

For purposes of this intergenerational strife, I’m sort of in an interesting spot.  I’m not exactly part of the younger generation any more.  My undergrad commencement was 20 years ago!  But I was also not on the front lines of workplace gender integration and consequently I am younger than the decision makers in most organizations.  Put another way, I’m not a Baby Boomer or a Millennial; I am a Gen Xer.  I suppose I have one foot in each of the warring generational camps, so I do have some thoughts about the answer to this “What’s the matter with you?” question that the Baby Boomers are essentially posing to younger women.  My thoughts are grounded in my own life experiences and observations.

My husband and I were both raised by parents in what society might describe as “dual career families.”  However, “dual career” sounds a little more glamorous than it actually was.  My husband and I both come from a long line of blue collar workers and grade school teachers.  Our families did not have a lot of money when we were growing up.  We did not starve or go homeless.  But finances were tight most of the time.  The term “dual career,” at least in my mind, conjures up an image of two adults pursuing exciting careers for personal fulfillment.  That was not our families’ experiences.  Basically, our moms worked for financial reasons.  Things would have been tighter financially in our respective households if our moms had not worked while we were growing up. 

My husband and I certainly never judged our parents for the decisions to have both parents work throughout our childhoods.  But in retrospect, as adults, we do believe that having both parents in demanding jobs and having no one at home full-time was not terribly conducive to family life.  When we were growing up, there was not much time left over at the end of the day for our respective families to share life and cultivate relationships.  My husband and I half-joke that we were raised by the TV, which is one of the (many) reasons we don’t have cable and don’t let our own kids watch TV very often. 

Because of our own life experiences, my husband and I have had a different vision for our own family.  We’ve very cognizant that our kids are not little forever.  We’ve got only a relatively short time to be with them and try to raise them as well as we can.  My husband and I were fortunate enough to both be the first non-teacher professionals in our respective families.  We worked hard, had some great opportunities, and were well-compensated so that we had choices our parents never had. 

I don’t think our story is unusual.  Adults who were “latch-key kids” or spent hours each week in day care centers don’t tend to aspire that their own children would repeat such experiences.  My sister has a master’s degree, but put her career on hold when her first child was young and she found child care options pretty dismal.  She has since devoted herself to raising her three kids full-time.  In opting that path in life, she was influenced in part by her own childhood and the lack of family time after both parents get home from demanding jobs.  I have a lot of female friends who have had similar experiences and opted to stay home.

My  husband and I have also known a number of folks who are around the same age as our parents, and in retirement have a bittersweet experience as grandparents.  These folks really relish grandparenting and absolutely adore their grandchildren.  That is great.  But the bitter in that sweetness is that we’ve often heard such folks describe regret that they never got to enjoy their own children while they were young.  We’ve heard such folks lament that when their kids were kids, they spent so much time at work and essentially missed out on raising them.  I think people of my generation learn from such regret.  We don’t want to experience it, and as a result we are often unwilling to make the same familiar sacrifices.

Dr. Slaughter described similar values in the younger professional women she encountered who lamented the inability to find any professional role models who successfully achieved “work-life balance.”  Such younger women describe the “tremendous sacrifices” of the professionally successful women at the “top.”  According to Dr. Slaughter, such younger women also noted that many of these older women didn’t “even seem to realize” the family sacrifices they had made relying on “round-the-clock nannies” and seeing their children “barely at all.”  Per Dr. Slaughter, these younger women were essentially saying that was not the life they wanted. 

Colossians 3:21
Parents, don’t be hard on your children. If you are, they might give up.

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