Why We All Have to Have It All -- The Good and the Hard

I just got back from this year's SXSW Interactive festival in Austin. In addition to catching some 40:20 Vision with my former 20-something roommate from NYC who is now an "Austinite," I met a ton of fascinating people, ate great food and got to hear amazing people speak. Many of the panels I went to focused on women; what we could learn from each other and what we have planned for the future.

Today, I'm sharing a few highlights from a session on work-life balance with Anne-Marie Slaughter of "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" fame. For Slaughter, the issue really comes down to "why we ALL can't have it all," meaning both men and women sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of leading a full, balanced life. Having it all isn't all fun and games, as we all know. But if men and women both pitch in with the same expectations and values, it can all equal out. Admittedly, this is far easier said than done.

Slaughter made an interesting point about shifting from thinking about work-life balance in terms of men vs. women to caregiver vs. breadwinner. With today's life expectancies and the boomer drive to reinvent retirement, we may all work until we are 80. So, why not think about work-life balance over time -- in terms of each partner kicking in when the time and place is right? Both men and women can, and likely will, take turns being the caregiver or breadwinner based on what makes sense for the family and their earning vs. personal growth potential. It's hard for both parents to be full-on career and full-on family, regardless of the amount of money available for hired caregiving.

On the bright side, Slaughter felt that if anyone was going to get this right, it's Millennials. Trends indicate that Millennials place a different value on meaning vs. money than previous generations, so perhaps the time for change is now. According to Slaughter, "This generation is going to figure out how to work less and share more."

I agree with her sentiment that 20-somethings (and the older folks too) have the opportunity to use technology, knowledge sharing and the nurturing of creativity to create new solutions. We are now in an age where lifelong learning is a value. If you are not done learning when you are out of college, why should your career have an expiration date (regardless of when you have children)?

Slaughter envisions a world where both men and women share more of the childcare responsibility, but acknowledges that to make this work, society has to change. She shared that her sons tend to agree with some of the media on "the end of men" -- that women are outperforming men in academics and career growth.

But that doesn't mean that young men want to hear, "You can do anything a girl can do." This refers to the fact that many of us 40-something women grew up hearing the mantra, "You can do anything a boy can do." Why can't the conversation simply be that you can be what you want to be (if you work at it, believe in it and there is a market for it are the caveats I would add)? But until that is the case, it will be hard for many men to feel they have to permission to be the caretaker.

That brings me to the second point Slaughter made that I found thought-provoking. Women have to take responsibility too. You can't say, "I want to be equal" and then still want the security blanket of knowing you can quit your job and your husband/partner will step up to be the dominant breadwinner. Slaughter continued:

That is really not going to work. We have got to find ways to value the guy who is really the equal partner... recognizing that some of the time that means that you are going to out-earn him... or some of the time he is going to do the traditional work that women did. And until we can value that, there is no way we are actually going to get men who are able to be equal partners and thus for women to have equal opportunities in the workplace.

Sadly, and regardless of the media focus on woman who "want it all," some women today consider the option of opting out as a major form of stress relief. A few 20-somethings I've spoken to secretly admit that sometimes, the idea of opting out seems like a welcome escape from the hard work of "leaning in." That is a shame, or as Slaughter put it... "the bottom of the barrel."

Which brings me to my third and final point. I related to a response to a story from Jessica Coen, Jezabel editor-in-chief and nimble interviewer, about a female friend who was on the fast track at work but after giving birth, lost all interest in that fast track. Slaughter felt this was dangerous. Yes, some women might feel this way after a child is born, but so do some men. However, men don't have permission to feel this way, or at least act on it. She also believed this may only last for a period of time, which comes back to the cycle of taking shifts as caregiver vs. breadwinner:

Guys still have careers and families without having to make the choices that many women do. So in that sense I stick to my original point [from the Atlantic article]. But what a lot of these guys are saying is 'look, I want a different set of choices. If I say I want to go home at 6:00 to pick up my kid from day care, or I need to work from home one day a week or I need part-time', they get the same pushback women get in terms of dedication to their careers. But they also get a whole thing about, 'Well you are not one of the guys.' There is a whole masculinity thing that makes it much more difficult to be equal supportive spouses and be equal engaged parents.

So one of the things I am convinced of is that if we are going to have better choices for women, we have to have better choices for men. We have to make it as possible for guys to step back and be fully engaged whether it be caring for children or parents or spouses as it is for women.

Of course, we have to navigate the reality that only women can carry the child for nine months and only mothers can nurse. As Slaughter consistently proposes, we all have to fight for change and change has to come from the top. But perhaps there is a new future if we begin by giving our men permission to be caregivers and absolve them of the default to be breadwinners when all else fails. Women have to say hello to Princess Charming and be as prepared to play a role in the family fortune. That is equality.

This blog post originally ran at www.4020vision.com.