A matter of perception

Friday morning I had the rather exciting experience of taping a segment for the Today Show. I woke up bright and early in my hotel room — at a lark-ish 5:45 a.m. — to be at the Rockefeller Center studio at 6:45 for hair and make-up. Everyone was very friendly — including Matt Lauer, who interviewed me — and I was happy with how the segment turned out. I actually liked how my hair looked! And I appreciated being able to share the message of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast with a national audience.

Of course, getting myself to be in NYC at 6:45 a.m. on a Friday was logistically complex. Our nanny had requested Friday the 29th off months ago. So naturally, that’s the date the Today Show folks selected about a week prior. My husband had been planning to be home by 7 p.m. on Thursday the 28th to take over, but things happened and he was on the west coast instead. We made it all work, though. I took the train to NYC on Thursday afternoon, and home on Friday morning, with my children well-cared for in between.

It occurred to me, though, as I was in the midst of all this, that if I were prone to believing narratives about how “crazed” working mothers’ lives must be or, per the whole Anne-Marie Slaughter hubbub, that women can’t “have it all,” I might have viewed Friday a little differently. I might be writing fraught blog posts about childcare conflicts and the difficulty (impossibility?) of “balancing” parenthood with trying to write and promote books people will read. But I’m inclined to view whatever logistical issues come up as problems to be solved — not as a broader statement on social issues necessitating a magazine cover with a baby in a briefcase. Life always has challenges — and the challenges involved in figuring out who’s watching your kids so you can appear on the Today Show are challenges billions of people on this planet would love to have. Talking about my ebook on national television, then taking the train home to spend Friday with my kids, felt pretty close to having it all — whatever that phrase may mean. It’s all a matter of perception.

25 thoughts on “A matter of perception

      1. Oh, I dunno about that, yesterday DH was reading one of the older Barbara Sher books (from the 1990s) and half the thing was about figuring out how your parents screwed you up. Just like the Siblings without Rivalry 1987 edition I just read. (I’m guessing “blame your parents” was big in the 80s and 90s.) But perhaps having a growth mindset is the part of self-help that actually works.

        That said, Mindset by Carol Dweck is an excellent self-help book.

  1. In addition to perspective, it’s also a matter of scale and frequency. You were gone from Thursday afternoon to Friday morning, and Slaughter was gone from Sunday night to Friday night. Likewise, having a childcare dilemma once in a while is different and less stressful than having a childcare dilemma a couple of times a week.

    For example, last year I took a consulting project that required a lot more on-site time than I normally do. Some weeks I was on-site 45-50 hours, and at best I was there 25 hours. My husband and I worked it out on paper, but AT LEAST once a week we had a crisis with a babysitter flaking, or getting sick, or having her car break down, or a kid throwing up and needing to be picked up from somewhere, etc. It became a huge source of stress after a couple of months. The project was worth it, and I know I had way more flexibility even there than most working mothers have, but it gave me a good reminder of why I haven’t tried to on-ramp with a more traditional company at this point in my life.

    All that to say, while I don’t think that difficult childcare logistics mean that women can’t do it all, I don’t know if we can say that your experience means we necessarily can, either. Isn’t it all right to say “I can’t parent the way I want to parent if I work the way I want to work” sometimes? I know that thought is fairly constant for me as I try to navigate parenting and career trade-offs. I think it’s important to remember that “it all” can mean different things for me at different times in my life, and that I need to be gracious enough to allow other people’s priorities and definitions to differ from my own.

    1. But she didn’t say that everyone can make their chosen career and their style of parenting mesh- just that she did. This is a post about a personal time conflict and her personal experience- and why shouldn’t women who have this experience be allowed to share it, too? If all we hear is about the times it doesn’t work out, it is easy to start believing it can never work out, and then perhaps people decide to not even try. It seems to me that every time a woman for whom things are working out writes about it, someone shows up in the comments to say “yes, but, it only worked because….” implying that the writer doesn’t really understand how hard it can be. I want everyone to get to tell their authentic stories, but I have to say, this phenomenon, which makes me feel like I need to write 15 different caveats on any post I write about things going well in my life, makes me less inclined to want to tell my story. I don’t know the solution- your experience is real, too. But maybe we all need to work hard not to generalize from our lives to what is possible for everyone, and acknowledge that sometimes women can have what seems like “it all”, and sometimes they can’t- and for that matter, the same is true of men. The only difference seems to be that there are major national publications telling us that we never can.

      1. I didn’t mean that people can’t make it work, or that Laura shouldn’t have shared her story. I enjoy reading about people who make things work–it’s inspiring and encouraging. My issue was with the title of the post “It’s a matter of perspective” and the mention of Slaughter’s article, as though if Slaughter or other women who struggle to strike a balance and reconcile what they have to give up to get something else would just change their mindsets, they could have it all. Perspective certainly plays a role in work/life balance, but my point is that other factors are in play as well.

        I apologize if it seemed like I was saying Laura shouldn’t have written about her day working out. I’m glad she did and that it did work out. I don’t think we should have to apologize when our lives are going well! But I don’t think we should dump on women who aren’t able to swing everything all the time either, and I felt like a lot of people kind of piled on Slaughter’s article.

      2. @Cloud – thanks for this. I get frustrated by the narrative from these publications about what can’t be done, and yes, that means many people never try, or get flummoxed by things that might be changed if they tried. I was quite nervous, going into motherhood, as I read all these screeds about how women “can’t” have a career and a family and be happy, often citing some anecdote like my Friday scheduling problem. In five years I’ve learned that, yes, it’s entirely possible to scale up your career at the same time you’re building your family. Does that mean it will be smooth sailing for everyone who tries it? Of course not. But the “can’t have it all” words in these headlines imply it’s impossible for everyone, and that is false. Not just from my perspective. From the perspective of millions of women who have lives and careers and love what they do.

  2. First — very exciting about Today Show. I watched the segment on your blog and it was great ! Hope it will increase sales!
    I think what Slaughter was saying was that we have to have a conversation about what is required, so this post does this… first acknowledge what it takes to do that one important thing and how difficult– though possible — it is and what is required .. for example who did watch your kids.. I think you should mention — as slaughter suggests in her article exactly who was watching them… (husband, backup) and show women what is required… like to make it happen… slaughter talks about how she won’t go see students over dinner hour 6 to 8 as a dean at princeton but she will be back on campus at 8… and that she talked a lot about this.. when women — and men do this — this will get us a long way to what we want..but we need to have the conversation about what is required… I think your stuff is great but that you are too negative about what slaughter is trying to do.. I see her as fighting a similar fight as you ..

    1. @Leslie – thanks! I am not a big fan of most self-help books (even if I write them!) but the idea of taking ownership of one’s life is usually a good one.

  3. Catherine, thanks for those posts. It sums up a lot of my views.

    If you are going to write your story, write your story. However, when you write your story of success against the backdrop of someone else’s trouble, consider whether what you are writing is really a criticism of the person who was honest enough to admit that she just couldn’t do it. (Looking back, I think is what bothered my about the Jillian Michael post).

    1. Again, nowhere in this post does Laura indicate that she thinks Slaughter wimped out. She writes about her experience, and how, given the current hubbub about how “women still can’t have it all” sparked by Slaughter’s essay, it would have been easy to view the experience differently than she did.

      I actually liked the Slaughter article. But I HATED the title (which I know she probably had nothing to do with). And I hate the way people are generalizing from the fact that Slaughter found it impossible to make a really challenging work situation at the very high end of her chosen career work long term (she did, after all, do it for two years) and concluding that “women can’t have it all.”

      You don’t seem to think Slaughter should have to make it clear that her more negative experience is not one every woman will have- and given the unusual aspects of her experience, that actually seems like a reasonable request. So why must Laura bend over backwards to make it clear that her positive experience is not one every woman will have? Why assume judgement in this post? Maybe it is just offered as a counterexample.

      To me, this isn’t an “either-or” situation. Slaughter is right, and this post is right. They are looking at two of the myriad different ways the life of a woman can turn out. However, I actually think Slaughter’s main points have been overshadowed by people focusing on her specific situation, which is hardly representative of what most working mothers face. And I wonder what Susan Rice thought about being called a superwoman? I wonder if that has the same odd sting as the “how do you ever do it all?” comments those of us in less lofty positions get.

    2. @WashGirl – my beef with Slaughter’s article is not that she couldn’t do it. It’s that this was spun as evidence that women can’t do it. Jillian Michaels was basically saying new moms couldn’t exercise. These are broad social statements based on their own situations, and which I think play into a backlash narrative that’s surprisingly prevalent.

  4. Cloud, you have attributed quite a lot of things to me that I did not say. I didn’t say anything about Laura bending over backwards to say it’s her experience. If, however, she wants to tell her story, perhaps she (or you — weird to talk about you, Laura, in third person) should consider the context of the story. Slaughter does say her experience is unusual – I posted once such quote in that discussion. I assumed judgment in this post because I found the first half of the third paragraph to be needlessly negative. It was possible to accomplish her purpose without discussing mindsets of those Laura disagrees with.

    I thought Slaughter’s piece was quite thoughtful. I’m not sure why much of this conversation has focused on the title and other people’s mischaracterization of her essay.

    Could Jillian Michaels have been speaking for herself and her experience, rather than motherhood generally? Could she have been saying that she understood why many of the mothers that she had previously worked with reacted as they did?

    Laura, I get it; because of your personal experience, you do not subscribe to many popular narratives on motherhood.

    However, because of my personal experience, can’t it be okay that I do, in fact, identify with some of the popular narratives?

    1. Well, I think you’re attributing things to this post that it doesn’t say, so I guess that just shows how hard it is to communicate clearly sometimes. We’ll just have to agree to disagree, I think. I read that paragraph several times. and I get no judgment from it at all, except perhaps towards the media machine that feeds on making women insecure in their life choices. Only Laura can tell us if any was intended.

      People focus on the stupid headline because choosing to frame an otherwise thoughtful and nuanced piece in that inflammatory way contributes to a negative culture that ensures we never do actually get to “have it all” and does so just for the purpose of driving revenue for a magazine that seems to take particular pleasure in telling educated and ambitious women that they are doing it all wrong, no matter how they are doing it. It contributes to a culture where I have to worry that my colleagues will assume I am less committed to my job than the guy in the next office- even if he also has young kids!- because, haven’t you heard? Women can’t have it all. So if I’m working and parenting, surely I’m short-changing one or the other of those things. It contributes to a culture where putting in reasonable societal changes to make things a little easier on two-career families is seen as unnecessary, because geez, its just those selfish career women, trying to have it all again! Why should the rest of society do anything to try to help them out? If they didn’t want to spend time with their kids, why did they have them? (In this regard, that obnoxious headline actually counters the content of the article.) And it contributes to a culture that turns the work-life balance issue into a woman’s issue, when it should really be an everyone issue, and in doing so it makes it harder for the people arguing for more sane workplaces to make any progress. Because geez, why are those women always complaining? So yeah, that pisses me off. They had a choice to make when they wrote the headline, and they chose to contribute to the problem instead of trying to highlight the potential solutions offered in the article. I hope the ad revenue was worth it.

      1. Ok, we can just agree to disagree. I don’t understand your last post, though. How will Laura’s post of how everything can work out just fine in today’s society (or any other story along those lines) encourage “reasonable societal changes to make things a little easier on two-career families?” When someone like Slaughter says aspects of society are not set up to accomodate 2-career families (e.g., school day and school year — though, as you know, she advocates changing the workplace not school), and someone else posts a story on how it’s possible for everything to work out, isn’t the take away from the latter person’s story that there is no need for societal change because everything is just fine as is?

        1. I don’t think this is an either/or situation — it’s a false dichotomy that you can’t encourage social change, and look at individual factors as well. I can argue for more and better childcare arrangements and yet still note that it’s important for 2-career families to arrange back-up childcare because stuff happens.

      2. @WashGirl, I think we just look at this from fundamentally different viewpoints. To me, Laura’s post and the posts like it help show ambitious young women that it is in fact possible to make it all work- so maybe they should go ahead try if they want both family and career. If they do, there will be more of us advocating for the changes that would make it work easier. If we just throw up our hands and say “well, we can’t have it all” then what is the incentive to try to improve things?

        As I said, on the whole I liked Slaughter’s article, particularly the second half with the description of changes that could help improve things. But I hated the title for the reasons I outlined above, and I am generally annoyed by articles that proclaim that a life similar to the one I am leading is “impossible”. I acknowledge that my life isn’t the sort of life everyone would want- but to be completely honest, a lot of other women are leading lives I’d never want. To each their own.

  5. I get both of these arguments… personally I think it’s partly a matter of writing. Yes, sometimes it is not clear when a writer is saying, “This is the way it should be for everyone” vs. “Here is a counterexample which shows that it isn’t this way for everyone.”
    ***
    I also think the dominant media culture right now is one of “women can’t have it all” and “parenting is hard” etc. etc. That’s what the vocal majority is saying, at least in the NYTimes, mothering forums, the internet in general. It’s not like this narrative is some sort of new thing, and frankly, as someone who comes from several generations of successful working women with families, it is a little irritating that our experience is never acknowledged (we even get attacked for our privilege of not feeling guilty about being WOHM by the complaining about how they feel bad they can’t be SAHM!). We have a series of posts on our blog about this idea from last year or the year before. I was irritated by the “baking thing”, the “perfect mother thing” and so on. But not in the way the NYTimes is irritated by these things, exactly the opposite. In this media climate, Slaughter is saying nothing new (see our “Why I have it all” post from a year or two ago… it’s a reaction to similar earlier articles), but Sandberg is saying something revolutionary. And that’s kind of sad. Maybe we could stand to go back to take a page out of the “We girls can do anything” and “Free to Be You and Me” philosophies of the late 70s and early 80s.

    1. I am in love with that article. Also, I am confused by the fact that I am apparently working in the State Department. Just joking. But the similarities in my approach and philosophy to the ones she described were sort of eery- right down to the fact that the only regularly scheduled weeknight appointment on my calendar is book club.

    2. I wondered if other folks at the State Department would weigh in on all this. I’m sure there are long hours and travel involved in diplomacy, but fundamentally, Slaughter’s issue is that she was living apart from her family. I’m sure there are reasons she didn’t move her family, but those factors are specific to her family — other families have moved for a parent’s job. And I’m not willing to believe that women still can’t have it all (to quote the headline) because the State Department was unwilling to pack up and move to Princeton, NJ.

      1. Her husband is a professor at Princeton, too. I think the issue is not whether women can have it all, it’s more whether women AND THEIR HUSBANDS can have it all. If you want a demanding career, marry someone willing to be a stay-at-home or trailing spouse, regardless of your sex.

        1. Often what happens is the academic couple will do a stint in DC as a couple, but I assume they wanted to keep their kids in the Princeton schools. Schooling is kind of a PITA in DC, from what I understand. Either you live in the city and pay through the nose for private school or you have a longish commute to work from Virginia.

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