Unfinished business

Unfinished BusinessMy review of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, Unfinished Business, ran in today’s Wall Street Journal. (If you are not a WSJ subscriber, you can try Googling “The Other Princeton Mom” and WSJ — yes, that’s what the Journal called the review!). Slaughter’s 2012 essay for The Atlantic on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was read close to 3 million times, and this book is the result of the inevitable book deal that followed.

The Atlantic essay suffered from all the usual problems in Can’t Have It All literature. There was the requisite Recitation of Dark Moments, followed by the epiphany that life was unsustainable, followed by the broader cultural accusations. The broader cultural accusations are based on some elements of truth (the US does lack universal paid maternity leave — though our heroine in these tales almost always worked for somewhere that offered it). But the broader accusations also stem from the odd logic that if our hard-charging heroine was unhappy with her life, we can’t just conclude that charmed lives have stressful seasons. No, we must make sweeping statements. After all, they do click well.

The book is…what it is. There is little new in here. We have the usual story that Americans are chronically overworked and so we need to change the way we work. Women need to let go of our status as superwomen (a theme Slaughter seems to think is profound, though as I point out in the WSJ review, it’s the subject of at least one essay per women’s magazine per month). She has various policy prescriptions, but no explanation of how we will wind up with higher quality and more affordable childcare — and exactly how our current politics would support the subsidies necessary to make that happen. After I wrote my review, I read the New York Times review of it, and that reviewer noted that the book reads like it was written by someone who’s running for office. We’re promised good stuff but it’s vague on the details. I think that’s a pretty apt description.

There are plenty of vague books out there. But I think what bothered me most was Slaughter’s near sneering take on Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In. She writes that “I would have written a very similar book to Lean In at forty-three, Sandberg’s age when she published her book. My kids were very young and I had never met a work-life challenge that I could not surmount by working harder or hiring people to help out.” Then she goes on to claim she and Sandberg see the world differently because Slaughter’s interest is in policy, with the implication that this is the better area to focus on. That, of course, makes the not-exactly-new and not-exactly-explained policy proposals even more underwhelming.

All of this is too bad, because Slaughter seems to me like a great example of someone who has it all: a family, several great career options that she’s re-invented herself through multiple times. A better story would be that life is bumpy, but you can make it work. Unfortunately, she didn’t write that. I really wish she had.

In other news: Did you read my post about “The Princeton Mom” last year? (That “Princeton Mom,” as in Mrs. Patton). It was a favorite.

12 thoughts on “Unfinished business

  1. Very cool that you got to review it in the WSJ! I wonder if you’ll get a response from the author? 🙂

    I’ve had a couple of friends move to Sweden and Denmark from the US and it’s mindblowing how much better they accommodate working families there.

    There’s a pretty interesting essay about being a “workaholic” in Mindy Kaling’s new book (which is quite hilarious, if you’re looking for a light read.) She outlines a typical workday which for her starts at 6am and goes through 11pm.

    I thought of you when I read that part, and the essay about how she thinks it’s ok to love your job.

    1. @ARC- I haven’t read the Mindy books, but I should – maybe some plane reading coming up!

      My day yesterday was like that – left at 7:30 to drive to train station, home around 10:30 and dealing with stuff after that. It’s OK to do some days. Too many days and I get tired though 🙁

  2. Great review! Like you, I can’t really feel sorry for her- I’m sure her decision to go back to Princeton was personally difficult, but it’s hardly something to whine about! Most academics would give anything for that opportunity! I wonder what her colleagues think of her “sacrifice”??

    1. @Pamela – Yes, that’s one of the most bizarre aspects of the whole tale. I understand that in literature on women and work and life it’s practically a requirement to begin with your own story of woe. But I really think her own story is not particularly relevant to much of the actual pain points and policy aspects of this discussion.

      1. I read the comments, too. I don’t think they were “strange”—they were expressing a pretty deeply held view about women’s place in the family & workplace.

  3. I liked your review. The book and the review made me think of this story on the Lean In website (written by someone I know a little):


    Both this story and A-M S’s story suggest the obvious. There are situations in life– your kid repeatedly getting arrested is one of them– when all of the adults in the household are going to pull back on other things and put nearly 100% of their energy into that situation. And those situations are hard and draining.

    And, I think its good to acknowledge that some people have been dealt cards that make that situation more permanent than temporary. If you have a profoundly disabled child, for example, your work-life balance is equation is going to look very different. And you don’t really know what its going to be the day you have the baby.

    I can imagine that someone has been through one of those situations can be very judgmental about someone who writes work-life management books and who hasn’t been through one of those situations (yet!). But doesn’t A-M S understand that she had a lot more options for dealing with her crisis because she spent the first 45 years or so “leaning in”? (That is why she had the tenured job at Princeton consolation prize in the first place).

    Great job.

  4. Good review! Between yours and the NYT’s, I am even more sure I have no desire to read this book. In fact, I saw the NYT review and thought “her again? what more could there possibly be to say?”. I like particularly how you point out the fallacy of “one women has a hard time with her kid”=”women can’t work & be there for their families”. It was bizarre that she twisted her own unique & personal experience and used it to make these sweeping declarations about all women everywhere.

  5. I appreciate and enjoy your whole approach of expecting and accepting ‘stressful seasons’. Life is not a novel, sitcom, fairy tale, or even a reality show- it is real life, with peaks and valleys. It is often hard to see one while we are hiking through the other.
    Thanks for putting your ideas out into the world and being an inspiration to strong women !

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