I have too many kids and my language can be a little too crude. At least, that’s what I’ve heard from the responses that have poured in after my cameo role in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s now-famous article about the difficulties of elite working women.
Since the piece by the former top State Department official appeared in the Atlantic on Wednesday, it has stirred up a huge reaction online, setting traffic records for the magazine’s website and stirring up a debate on whether working mothers in prominent jobs can really “have it all.” In a measure of how quickly it entered the zeitgeist, the debate triggered by the article landed on the front page of the New York Times this morning.
I was quoted twice in Slaughter’s lengthy article, and this has lead to an enormous amount of commentary from friends, family, colleagues, and even total strangers.
A little background first. I am a bit player in the working mother wars. I wrote a short piece about the dearth of women in foreign policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, which was picked up by Slaughter for her article; she also recounted a conversation that we had at a party. At the time of that conversation, I was a commuter mom; my husband David had taken the kids back to Boston after his tenure in Washington with the Obama administration. I remained in DC as assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. The opportunities we both had working in government were amazing. But were they easy times? Not for us.
So, here’s what I learned about myself in reading the comments about the article.
1) It turns out I may have too many kids. Honestly, that is what Lauren Sandler on Slate’s DoubleX blog takes from my quotes about my three children. She may be right. My husband and I generally say we have one kid too many. (It’s not any one child in particular; rather, it’s just that when we think we’ve got two under control, there is always that third.) The question for me now is, could I have done it all so much more gracefully with just one kid? And, if yes, which one would I choose?
2) My mother does not like the fact that I used the word “sucks” to describe travel, which I said was an additional burden for mothers of young children. Sorry. But saying travel merely “is hard” or “is an inconvenience” wouldn’t quite do it justice.
3) My husband liked being referred to as having a “high position” (he ran the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice). He is really happy about that; adding “handsome” would have been even better.
4) Turns out that I like being named alongside other really talented women, most of whom are far more accomplished than I am. It’s kind of fun reading about myself with Elizabeth Warren. That even got my mom to forget her annoyance at my language (see number 2).
5) My friends, family, and colleagues have shown more interest in those two minor passages in a very long article than anything else I have ever done. And all I have to say is: really?
I’m much more interested in the reaction to Slaughter’s piece than anything else. Slaughter surely knew that this would generate significant buzz. (The timing was ripe: every few months we need another motherhood controversy, and Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom is already passé.)
But I worry that while Slaughter has generated a healthy debate, too many readers will view her experiences as a universal prescription. Slaughter’s account is very personal to her; it is familiar to so many of us, and that is what makes it important. But all the media attention risks losing a point that Slaughter made herself: what she experienced isn’t necessarily an example for others.
That applies to my experiences as well, which I wouldn’t hold out as a universal model for others. My comments were unique to David and me, our jobs in the administration, and our children and how they dealt with the changes.
I’ve never delved into the mommy wars before; I don’t like it much. Each day, each hour, is some balance; this morning, I think I lost a battle with my youngest over how much brown sugar he gets in his oatmeal because I was running out the door to finish my column on the Egyptian elections. There is no “theory” of work-life balance for me, any more than there is for my husband.
We should all give ourselves a break and stop trying to find oracles. And if, in her admission that (drum roll please) working and being a mother is hard, Slaughter has again reminded us that feminism’s true success is that we should have such problems, then I’m glad that I was a bit part of it.
And, again: sorry about the language, mom.