Why we love talking about women’s failures


Veruca Salt wanted it all. Today, tomorrow and the whole world. Geese who lay gold eggs for Easter. Cream buns and doughnuts, “pink macaroons and a million balloons and performing baboons… a party with rooms full of laugher, ten thousand tons of ice cream.” I know Roald Dahl made a cautionary tale of her, but how excellent does that sound? I want that too.

Still, I would not dream, in 2012, of suggesting that anyone could “have it all.” Just typing those words makes me itch. It is a lame, abused, over-used and now meaningless phrase usually flung at women to suggest they cannot work and be mothers, which is demonstrably ridiculous, or to girls, to tell them to limit their horizons while still growing wings.

No one on the planet has it all; being human means not having it all, growing past the age of, say, two, means accepting that you are not Lord and Mistress of the Universe.  Yet the idea of “having it all” – rooted in unrealistic expectations – has somehow been linked to workingwomen. The more women succeed professionally, it seems, the more we talk about their failures; they must be bad mothers, there must be someone, somewhere, suffering for their achievements.

Ever since The Atlantic published a cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, suggesting that “Women Still Can’t Have It All,” newspapers, magazines, blogs and the twitter-sphere across the globe have crackled with anger, sympathy, vitriol, frustration, and recognition. Slaughter commuted weekly to her “dream job” in Washington, and spent weekends with her family in New Jersey; she gave it up after two years. It was not possible, she decided, to mesh “high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys.”


The piece was lengthy, well researched and beautifully executed. The title may be the most provocative part of it. Slaughter writes clearly about difficulties high-achieving working mothers face – the response alone indicates it remains a scorchingly real issue today. Her suggestions: flexible work practices, prioritizing productivity over face time, redefining the arc of a successful career, and making school schedules match work schedules are all very good.

But it would wrong to draw the conclusion, from the hype accompanying the article, that working is incompatible with mothering.

First, she is writing from a particularly American perspective, a land of no mandated maternity leave, and of an elite work culture characterized by boasts of working long hours, called being “time-macho.” Australians work long hours, but boast of leisure time; we expect women to take six to 12 months maternity leave, and, often, return to work part-time after the birth of a child.

Second, Slaughter returned to Princeton as a professor. This is what she considers scaling down: "I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book."

Third, at a time of a global recession and high divorce rates, few women have the luxury to not work. For most, the problem now is not so much working hours, but the precipitous drop in real incomes, the extraordinary gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, and extensive layoffs.

Fourth, the idea of “having it all” sets up a straw feminist – a kind of Veruca Salt who supposedly promised women endless pie and ice-cream, and well-oiled working and parenting schedules. I know no feminist who touts this, only those who argue that both fathers and mothers should be entitled to leave and flexibility in their workplaces. This is necessary, and practical, not greedy or deceitful. Yet the headline on the video accompanying Slaughter’s piece read: “Have Feminists Sold Women a Fiction?”

Find me a single feminist who has claimed that women are not torn between competing demands of children and bosses – the cliché is “juggle” - and I will bake you twenty apple pies while balancing my children on my head.

Men are torn too. The most recent studies in the US report in recent years men felt a higher degree of work –life guilt than women. We used to expect fathers to simply provide for their children; now we expect a greater commodity than money - time.

But can you really imagine a commencement speech where a high-profile man tells graduating students if they excel, they will inevitably disappoint, and struggle? That if they work and have kids they will be accused of wanting to “have it all”?

No. Yet young women are told this often.

So are mothers, who have long asked for equitable, flexible work practices with reasonable hours, and part time options. Neither men nor women should be discriminated against if they make sacrifices or adjustments for the sake of their families. We should value decisions that put children first.

The problem is not the debate itself; it is a crucial one, and even the experiences of the elite and privileged, in rarified worlds of fortune CEOS or White House advisors is worth examining because they should have clout to make changes, and because, simply, we want women to be able to scale those heights, just as men do.

The problem is the way the debate is framed. Wanting it all? Give me a break.

Or give me large vats of ice-cream and a party full of laughter. I do want that.


Follow Julia Baird on Twitter @bairdjulia.


  • I don't know Julia, having read the piece, Slaughter just seems like many of the emotionally stunted "high" achieving women I have met over the years at women and work talkfests. Women who are so egotistical, insecure and lacking in any sense of themselves outside work, they can ride roughshod over the basic needs of a two or five year old they voluntarily brought into the world. Slaughter describes her 14 year old "resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him." Competent mothers would be freaking about this and doing whatever they could to fix it. Instead, Slaughter is name-dropping in Washington. Who cares what she has achieved in her career if there is clearly something very wrong with her child and she is completely absent 5/7ths of week? Sure, she quit the job but only because it took her 14 long years to learn what most parents learn in 14 days or months - you can't parent telepathically. You're only being a parent when you are physically present with your kids. You don't need to be there 24/7, but you do need to be there the majority of the time. What women and men like Slaughter don't realise is that most people don't admire them for their achievements. They actually think they are a bit pathetic.

    Cathy Sherry
    Date and time
    July 03, 2012, 9:38AM
    • Where was the father during this 14 year period? You say "competent mothers would be freaking out..." but what about competent fathers? What would they be doing? Working 80 hour weeks or freaking out that their kids has failed maths? This article is directed at people like you and your unreconstructed worldview! Until we as a society can also start haranguing men for not being present fathers, then we will not really have progressed very far towards equality. I am constantly amazed at the level of blind, unaware acceptance of this unnecessary double standard by both women and men. Hopefully articles like this will start to open peoples eyes...

      Date and time
      July 03, 2012, 12:06PM
    • "you can't parent telepathically. You're only being a parent when you are physically present with your kids."

      That is absolutely ridiculous. I grew up with my single mother often working 6 days a week at a financial institute, and I am now interstate for university and work. My mother and I have a much, much stronger bond than any of my friends. I grew up knowing my mother loved me absolutely unconditionally, and worked incredibly hard to provide for me. As an adult, we're incredibly close, and she cares more for interstate than most mothers do at home. If I get sick, she rings instantly with comforting motherly advice; she books appointments, reminds me of chores and running-around I have to do (despite the fact that I already know), how my study is going etc. She knows what I do day-to-day, and can tell from my voice if I'm tired, angry, happy or sick. I've met so many parents who spent amply "quality time" with their children, or who were stay at home parents. Their kids ended up awful, bratty, promiscuous, spoilt and did poorly at school.

      Also I do happen to admire Slaughter for her achievements as a hard-working mother. What I don't admire is the way she gave up and declared her university work a "scaling down." But why isn't she being judged on her time in government, the changes she affected while in her position? Instead she's being examined on her ability to juggle life as a working mother. Image recalling Barrack Obama's time in office and saying "Oh but he didn't spend enough time with his kids," instead of discussing what he actually achieved.

      Date and time
      July 03, 2012, 12:51PM
  • So her husband, who was physically present, was not parenting? Or does he get a free pass for being a man and therefore somehow less responsible, despite being the primary caregiver in their family?

    Does that mean you're not being a parent when your children are at school? Or do you homeschool, Cathy Sherry?

    The problem isn't having it all -- it's being expected by internet experts to DO it all.

    Old bag
    Date and time
    July 03, 2012, 10:37AM
    • Good article on a very difficult issue to resolve. But my one qualm is why do we always only focus on parents having access to more flexible work arrangements?

      "... both fathers and mothers should be entitled to leave and flexibility in their workplaces."

      What about all of us non-parents? Perhaps if such benefits were bestowed on all workers, there would be less resentment and discrimination towards parents seeking to access flexible work arrangements, work from home days and less working hours. In more and more industries, especially professional industries, there are less reasons for having everybody at the office from 8-6 or whatever the case may be. Of course people are going to be upset and resentful when one employee gets special treatment because he or she happens to have a child and the rest are just expected to pick up the slack and get on with it. Everybody should have the opportunity where possible to access flexible hours that better suit their own needs. This would help parents as well as those who have other caring responsibilities or just work better in the mornings or the afternoons or from home. The more mainstream it becomes, the easier it is to implement and access and the less working mothers are singled out.

      Date and time
      July 03, 2012, 11:35AM
      • Yes! Great article...why is the default parent the woman? Why is it only women who are made to feel they must choose ? (between having a family and career). Why aren't men told they cant have it all? I have also been asking these questions for a very long time. I love the fact you've deconstructed this double standard and laid bare the assumptions underpinning it. Women should only be *expected* to carry out three roles, if they choose to have kids, and only because men don't have the hardware. Gestation, childbirth and some period of lactation. That's it! Everything else, every other facet of parenthood is something men can do also. And should be expected to do! In equal proportion to women, if they too want kids. Apparently in Sweden it is expected that men will take significant time out of their careers to help raise kids, starting with paternity leave when their babies are born. As usual, the scandinavians are leaders in this while the rest of the world lags behind - at least we're not as bad as America though, and have put in place paid mat. leave. (finally!).

        Great article - thanks!!!

        Date and time
        July 03, 2012, 11:59AM
        • Men have always known that they can't have it all. Nor do men expect to have it all. Since the industrial revolution men have known that it was up to them to spend long hours working to earn an income while the wife was at home looking after the house. Men didn't choose to be house-husbands, that was the role they were handed. They also knew they wouldn't get much time with the kids or family. It was off to work for umpteen hours per day.

          This does not mean it has to stay this way. However, it's up to women to choose men who want to be house-husbands rather than follow their typically hypergamous notions and go for men of equal or higher social standing.

          It's now up to women to determine what they want out of life and make choices that will support those decisions. If they want a career then find a man who is willing to stay home and look after the kids. If they want to do that then find a man willing to have a job that supports them.

          Problem now is, most women want the career with the equally successful husband. This is what doesn't work. Nor does expecting workplaces to accommodate them. Workplaces are all about profit and should remain as such. This means total dedication to work which cannot be done part-time or in reduced capacity as it is taking a job from someone else more willing to do it. Employers are always going to favour the latter and so they should.

          It's time to exercise that thing feminism was supposed to be about: choice. Choose wisely.

          Date and time
          July 03, 2012, 2:22PM
      • Ah, Cathy Sherry. Well do I remember your column, back in the day, exhorting all of us young women to forget about our careers and have our babies as quick as we could. It used to stress me out, seeing as I was training in a demanding medical specialty at the time despite really wanting a kid. Glad I didn't listen to you then; I finished my training, had a baby in my very late 30s as a single mum and am now combining my well paid career (part time) and raising my baby very happily.
        Still! Mustn't play the man rather than the ball. I think you missed the fact that Slaughter didn't spend the whole 14 years of her son's life commuting to Washington, it was only two years, and then she stopped because the impact on her family was too much. Are you saying that women who value their brains and their careers and have interests and passions shouldn't even try, even after at least 12 years of intense, physically present childrearing? Yes, I agree with Julia that no-one can 'have it all'. But it seems pretty harsh to hold the view that having tried, and decided it wasn't right for her family, this makes Slaughter an incompetent mother. Or to demand that if you aren't physically present with your kids the majority of the time then you aren't a parent. What does this mean for divorced parents? People who have to travel a lot for work? Military personnel on tours of duty? Not real parents, according to you. Cathy, there is a real world out here, not the fantasy world you appear to inhabit. Do get used to it.

        Kate Stewart
        Date and time
        July 03, 2012, 12:12PM
        • @Kate Stewart, I have never told young women to "forget about careers". Not once, not ever. To say so is simply a lie.
          And as a legal academic, ie a working mother, I can assure you that being a law professor and then Dean, as Slaughter was, is not "12 years of intense, physically present childrearing." It is extremely demanding, difficult, time consuming work.To do those jobs in the US you would have to be working at least 50-60 hours a week.
          The point is never that women should not work, or that we should not be educated but rather that we should be realistic and honest about what working with children is like. Presumably you work part-time because you think that being with your child is important, even if it is at the inevitable expense of your career. Or is it just a lifestyle choice and you can't be bothered to work full-time like the rest of us?

          Date and time
          July 03, 2012, 2:21PM
      • Agree with Cathy. Life is all about comprise and how you choose to focus your energies. I think in the past for women, our choices were fairly limited or at least we were led to think they were fairly limited. We are now in an era where the traditional roles are being questioned and redefined both from a male and female perspective. Which I think inevitably returns to the concept of 'success' and 'achievement'. It seems the concepts of success and achievement hasn't progressed much in line with our expanded horizons of choices. In fact, to me it seems our notions of success and achievement has been quite stunted and short sighted. People still bang on social, professional or income status as a measure of success. Maybe it's the fear of the unknown or the fear of those who are in those priveliged positions don't want to change the status quo - because suddenly they are not in the special group. I don't know- but I don't get it. Both men and women have a still long way to go to loosen our shackles and really understand or explore just what having it all means.

        Date and time
        July 03, 2012, 1:03PM

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