By: Revanche

That’s Life?

June 23, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, comes at a poignant time for me.  Warning: long read.

I mentioned that I’m struggling with some increased stresses in life, mainly to do with work, and it’s got my health in the tank. Or my health was in a death spiral and the stress means I can’t pull up out of it. Chicken, egg.

In any case. Slaughter argues that even she eventually, to her surprise, found herself making the choice to give up the high-powered government position to go back to (let’s point out still highly placedjob to be with her family because the juggle, despite the full support of her academic husband, wasn’t sufficient for their needs, in her estimation. So she can’t imagine how, short of being truly superwomen, women would be able maintain powerful positions and families and whatever else they wanted. 

I felt a twinge: why does this argument have to be gender specific?  Do not men also suffer sacrifices or the loss of being with their families when they’re off pursuing high-powered careers?

Not a few months, my feminist soul would have risen up out of my body in extra-normal outrage at the suggestion women couldn’t have what we wanted. But realistically? I don’t always think everyone and anyone can have this “everything” business if it actually assumes that everything means everything.  I think it’s highly unusual for any single person to have a “whole” package unless they are hideously wealthy and genuinely blessed. 


On the other hand, “everything” is bandied about very cavalierly as though we all want the same generic packages. Some of us are happy with messy homes, a pack of half mad pets and decent jobs that make us money whilst others need picture perfect roosts, don’t care about the job thing and whatever other combination of pieces and still others, well, just add water. 

I did appreciate the fact that she went on to reframe the discussion to view the problem from the sociocultural standpoint: the fact that the (American) workplace isn’t family-friendly, that we don’t respect family or simply life outside of work. That our usual current business practice is the assumption that employees who are childless may be more reliable than (typically newer) parents, but that’s got to be recognized as a red herring. That in our political arena, the euphemism for being fired is to “spend time with the family”, and that is a demonstration of how devalued is the coin of the role of the family. 

I always knew when I was in the wrong workplace when it came to these matters, even though I had no intention of becoming a mother any time soon. When employers pried about my plans to have kids, it was really easy to tell when they were simply making conversation or trying to determine whether I was a maternity risk; and their attitudes about performance and merit were equally shoddy.

My truly personal twinges are that I’m already feeling the pains of limitations. We haven’t yet made the decision about whether or not to have a family, and I had far greater ambitions for my career than where I am now. And yet, at this stage, just reaching into what might be called senior management, I find myself burning out.

My health is refusing to cooperate with any grand plans to be a high powered anything.

There are aspects of my job that I do really well and quite enjoy, but the new stresses of the growing pains haven’t settled yet.  And even newer stresses that may or may not be permanent changes were recently piled on unexpectedly that ate up all my happy life balance, eating into any ability to take care of myself at a time I desperately need it most.

For all that I work to protect my staff and fight for their work-life balance, their salaries, their promotions, and I win, dammit, I have no shelter of my own in the face of adversity at the moment. And that lack is wearing on me.

I’ve accomplished a few things, in my time here. But it’s just a handful of things. Educated a few people a bit, brought some people up a few ladders, sent some to their next dream. But have I made a difference yet? I really don’t think so. 

I find myself wondering: for so many years, I climbed and leapt the ladders and toiled for experience to rise to this level. It feels like I have achieved next to nothing, compared to where I’d really like to be. And now? Will I have to give up now? So far from having accomplished something real?

Is this it for me?

I’m not sure which targets I want to hit in life precisely.

To help. To make a difference. To secure freedom, security. To educate. To improve. To leave things better than I found them. To achieve. To “wear the white hat” if I can quote “Scandal.”  To be happy.  To live a good and true life. Maybe to have a family, which I would then need to support.

It doesn’t have to be at this job that I do most of those things. I do need to make a living somehow. But right now, it’s feeling like I’m going to be lucky if I can walk to the grocery store most days of the week. And that’s not particularly conducive to having anything at all, much less having it. And All.

Cloud of Wandering Scientist has a great discussion going on this very topic.

14 Responses to “That’s Life?”

  1. SP says:

    I read the article yesterday, and several blogs about it… i think it is great that we have these conversations, but like you, I wish the conversation would switch to balancing having a job and having a LIFE (which may include a family, or not). And include men & women.

    I don’t have a master career plan or life plan or how I will fit kids into it all… i don’t expect to have “everything” because I’m the type who always wants to do just a bit more, no matter what I do. Everything is an infinite thing, a goal that is always just beyond the cusp. But I expect to be happy, to make a difference, and (god willing) to raise a few little humans to do the same.

    • Revanche says:

      You know, I’ve finally accepted (am accepting?) that I don’t have that master plan either, and same as you, I will always want to keep reaching just a little more. I think that reaching isn’t meant to be unhappy and unhealthy, it’s to stay fresh and active and challenged.

  2. Katherine says:

    Fabulous post! And such a timely one because it’s a topic that’s been on my mind.

    What I’ve had to come to terms with in myself is the fact that as a currently married, childless worker – I’ve been frustrated before with colleagues that had children – we all arrive to the office at 9 AM, so why does it matter that I was sleeping until 830 and you were taking care of your kids starting at 6 AM? Why should you get to leave early? Yet I know that if we have children…I’ll be wanting the same flexibility. It’s a perception thing and one that even women (like me) hold unfortunately.

    • Revanche says:

      Thanks! I know I’ve struggled with coming to grips with the outward appearance of this a lot and am finally wrapping myself around it a bit more.

      I realize that the perception is hard to break through but the heart of the matter is difficult for people to accept even when they have managed staff because they are still part of someone else’s staff and struggle with being perceived at the same time – at least that was part of my difficulty in coming around the corner on some of this. But I contrasted one “workaholic” male boss with children against another workaholic male boss with children and I suddenly started understanding what I had been missing.

      What always frustrated me was when the children were an excuse, not simply a fact, and when the work didn’t get done to a standard.

      One boss never got anything done, no matter how many hours he claimed to work, ever. I did my job and his.

      The other? Got more done with twice as many children, in or out of the office, time on or off, travel or no travel, got more done than even I could get done, and I worked enough to hold down two jobs and managed more staff than anyone else in the organization. The mental clouds cleared.

      And I had PLENTY of childless staff/coworkers who chose to spend their time in and out of the office unwisely in any number of ways that impacted the quality of work and wanted to whine their way out of their responsibilities: I’m sick (70% of the time because I don’t want to be here), I’m tired (because I hung out with my friends all night and told all my coworkers in the break room), I’m hungover, I’ve got a marathon to train for, I’ve got an acting job on the side, I’ve got this other thing I have to deal with, etc.

      That really helped me see that it didn’t matter if people had kids or not – if they were excellent at the job at hand, they would be excellent and deserved flexibility to carry on with producing excellent work because they were hardwired to care about that – whether they wanted to do that 80 or 30 hours a week was a different story and understandable. People aren’t automatons, but they are going to continue to want to produce at the level they are accustomed to if you work with them.

      The mediocre ones would always find an excuse whether they were reproducing or not to be lackluster because they never had pride in their work to begin with.

  3. I really relate with you on this. I am in senior management and I too fight for my employees to take time off and have a nice life/work balance. I however have zero life/work balance and I am getting super burned out. I’m 25 and now that I am in a serious long distance relationship I feel like I’m in a cross roads. I either decide top stay where I am at or move to live with my boyfriend eventually marry and maybe have a family but definitely less of a carrer.

    • Revanche says:

      I’m sorry to hear that – without knowing more, I understand the template and it can be a toughie. I very much hope the decision is a clearer one for you.

  4. Chickenlover says:

    “I find myself wondering: for so many years, I climbed and leapt the ladders and toiled for experience to rise to this level. It feels like I have achieved next to nothing, compared to where I’d really like to be. And now? Will I have to give up now? So far from having accomplished something real?”

    I’m a curious bystander. Maybe I’m asking something personal, but what do you mean when you say “really like to be” and “accomplished something real”?

    Because I have some thoughts in this direction as well. It’s like the three steps in South Park:

    1. Steal underpants.
    2. ????
    3. Profit!

    I’m trying to get to Step 3, but I have no idea on exactly HOW. It seems that you’ve worked your way to a certain position, but it’s not the place you really want.

    So what do you really want, in terms of company hierarchy? And would that mean that you’ll say something like: “Well, I’ve achieved whatever I can. That’s the best I can do, I think.” when you’ve got the position?

  5. So much of this post hits home. Here are my favorite parts:

    “On the other hand, “everything” is bandied about very cavalierly as though we all want the same generic packages. Some of us are happy with messy homes, a pack of half mad pets and decent jobs that make us money whilst others need picture perfect roosts, don’t care about the job thing and whatever other combination of pieces and still others, well, just add water.”

    So, so true. Some of us don’t need a dream job. Or at least we’re content with working an okay job while we prepare to take the leap towards our dream job. Just add water!

    “I did appreciate the fact that she went on to reframe the discussion to view the problem from the sociocultural standpoint: the fact that the (American) workplace isn’t family-friendly, that we don’t respect family or simply life outside of work. That our usual current business practice is the assumption that employees who are childless may be more reliable than (typically newer) parents, but that’s got to be recognized as a red herring. That in our political arena, the euphemism for being fired is to “spend time with the family”, and that is a demonstration of how devalued is the coin of the role of the family.”

    Unbearably true. I often feel judged in my work place for using my PTO, and my husband feels the same way as a teacher. If we aren’t supposed to have lives, why is the workday only 8 hours? There’s a hearty 16 left to have a family, a life, hobbies, and to take care of ones health!

    And I know this is a long comment, but I really feel for you about your health. To think about all the preparation that goes into getting to where you are and to find that something outside of your control might take it away… infuriating!

    There’s always the four-five day weekend to reset your internal clock, if possible?

    • Revanche says:

      A reset is definitely needed, though I sense that a much longer break will be necessary to be truly restorative.

      Thank you for your thoughtful responses!

      I think there is a lot of judging and perhaps it is because people tend to project themselves into the conversation instead of considering the ideal solutions first and then try to make them workable. That tends to make everything impossible right from the start.

  6. Something’s wrong when young women — at 25! — are feeling burned out and wondering where their lives went. That’s supposed to happen to you at 45.

    From an old bat who profited mightily from the resurgence of the feminist movement during the late 60s and 70s, here’s my two cents:

    We expect way too much of women. And we demand that women expect way too much of themselves. There are only so many things you can do in one lifetime. IMHO, one needs to investigate those things and then decide which are worth the effort and which are not.

    Clearly, being able to support yourself is a nonnegotiable. However, one does not need to earn six figures to do that, nor does one necessarily need to be one of the bosses. It may be better, once the matter of bare survival is settled, to devote one’s effort and attention to things that matter more, whether it’s making a home or making a difference in the wide world.

    Do you work for a for-profit or a nonprofit organization? If the former, have you thought about transferring your considerable skill to the nonprofit arena? You wouldn’t earn as much, but you’d have a shot at meeting some of the personal goals you describe: “To help. To make a difference. To secure freedom, security. To educate. To improve. To leave things better than I found them. To achieve. To ‘wear the white hat.'”

    You might even accomplish some or all of those things in certain federal government jobs, where pay is better, benefits can’t be beat, and people get generous vacation and sick leave.

    Where “making a difference” is concerned, when you’re working with human beings it may be years before you know you made a difference. Or maybe never. People rarely come back and tell you how wonderful you were in their lives…even if you actually were wonderful.

    And,you know…men do suffer sacrifices and the loss of family life. Most men reach a point where they realize they haven’t fulfilled and never will fulfill their early dreams and goals, and often they realize that in pursuing those high-powered careers (or ordinary careers) they’re wasted a great deal of time that could have been spent doing things that really matter with loved ones. Or that they could have earned less and not run aground on the shoals of self-interest and stress.

    • Revanche says:

      Upon further reflection, some of the things that frustrate me most about the things I want aren’t just the inability to do them, though that can be part of it, it’s the inability to do them unhampered by pettiness. There will always be a degree of that in every workplace but there is a level that I can tolerate and a level that will become an absolute barrier to achieving any and all useful work.

      And then there is the need to be simply satisfied with the work I do. I’ve never needed anyone else to tell me I made a difference in their lives, I just needed to know that my work had value intrinsically and objectively. If the work has meaning, I’m happy.

      Of course, when one runs out of that personal steam, no amount of external props will do. Something to be said for extrinsic motivation at that point!

  7. oilandgarlic says:

    You know I think if you truly want a high-level position, you can do it regardless of kids (with sacrifice of time of course). Most women I know who pull back or opt out were not dealing well with work stresses anyway. We all have a breaking point, some at higher level positions than others. Children are a life-changing experience that just makes the decisions more obvious or urgent.

    Funny about Money’s comment about men and their work/life balance/sacrifice is spot on, too. We all make trade-offs in life.

  8. […] from steeping in the sheer power of so many creators, artists, writers and thinkers despite my overwhelming fatigue that it felt like any little bit would make a […]

  9. Katie C. says:

    I do wish the conversation was about men and women instead of exclusively about women. But that’s because of societal expectations. For sure, there are men out there who miss their families and would probably rather have a job that demanded less of them so they could spend time with their families. But it’s expected that men lead these lives, whereas women are expected to feel guilty for having jobs that take them away from their true calling: motherhood. Being a woman who doesn’t want a child, I get some crazy looks from people when they find out. As if being a woman automatically means I want a child. Just like the statistics on children and chores show that girls are compensated less for their chores (preparing dinner, cleaning up after dinner, dusting, vacuuming, etc.) because girls are taught that these are labors of love, these are things you do for your family because you love them. Whereas young boys are given money to do lawn work or wash the family vehicles. It’s so complicated and so shitty a situation.

    But here are the only ways I see this changing:
    1) When there are men who act like they could care less about putting in time with their children, contributing to caring for their child through means other than bringing home a paycheck, women need to stand up and say, “This is your child too. You love this child, correct? Then you can share some of the burden of raising him, including bathing him, changing his diaper, feeding him, etc.” (This may be an area-specific thing, but it’s very rare that a man in our neck of the woods is involved in the actual rearing of his child. My BIL hadn’t been alone with his son at all before I dragged his girlfriend off to the movies with me for a few hours, and this was when his son was 15 months old. 15 months and never had he been alone with his child.)

    2) Men need to stand up to employers about their desires to be with family. One of the reasons that women are punished for the ability to procreate through lower wages is because it’s most likely that she’s going to be the one taking off work to take the kids to the doctor or go on field trips or be home to raise them in the beginning of their lives. Love him though I do, my dad never once went on a field trip with us growing up. It was Mom every time.

    If employers began seeing men as a part of their children’s lives as much as women, there wouldn’t be such a stigma attached to being a woman because, hey, maybe she’ll be the one taking the kids to the doctor or maybe it’ll be her husband. There still will be some stigma, mind you, because only women can birth the children, and it’s expected that she’ll need some time off for that process.

    And then, once we get that out of the way and employers see both men and women equally in regards to child rearing, we can talk about the fact that children are not a liability, and you should not ever expect an employee to devote their entire lives to your company.

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