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Women Can’t Have it All, But They Can Have What Matters


The conversation about mothers in the workforce seems to be at once continuous and clamoring. Rarely does a working mother nail the problem and solution without sounding too whiny or too arrogant. Yet a recent commentary in Forbes comes as close to any as I have seen recently, complete with some eyebrow-raising admissions. If more men and women—parents and CEOs—viewed this exhausting issue with such clarity, perhaps we could finally work towards a solution.

In the piece, succinctly titled, “Female Company President: I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with,” Katharine Zaleski recounts how, while employed in high-powered editorial positions at The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, she regularly scoffed at the work ethic of other women just because they were mothers, either mentally or by failing to support the decisions they made related to work and family.

She reveals this penitent anecdote: “I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her ‘commitment’ even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.”

What’s just as surprising as her admission that she evaluated a mother’s work-related achievements on a different scale than she did other employees is the equally important truth that the workforce isn’t just a tough place for moms because of their male bosses. “For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this – or how horrible I’d been – until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.”

Women Can Have It All—Just Not at the Same Time

Zaleski goes on to discuss how she lamented her status as a new mom and employee only briefly before she determined to find a solution, both for her daughter so she wouldn’t feel “trapped” and other moms facing the same struggle. She wound up co-founding a startup called PowertoFly that matches women in technical positions they can do from home.

They had it all, all at the same time, and found it miserable, if not nearly impossible.

While many conservatives and liberals alike might call this an abandonment of the feminist theory, I think it actually expresses the heart of feminism—not radical left-wing feminism, but one of the few Oprah gems I agree with: “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”

At the core of second-wave, or modern feminism’s, life-giving mantra was yes, we can have it all, at the same time, and without a man’s help, thank you very much. At the time, it sounded forward-thinking and Progressive and mysterious and ideal. So women took the next five decades and put their nose to the grindstone, and became CEOs and entrepreneurs and moms. They had it all, all at the same time, and found it miserable, if not nearly impossible.

In the bookMaxed Out: Working Moms on the Brink,” author Katrina Alcorn experienced this now-common phenomenon when, despite a dream job, three kids, and a husband, she had a breakdown and “lost her ability to manage the stress of competing demands.” While recovering from depression and anxiety, she “started talking to other working moms and was shocked to learn that many of them, too, were maxed out—sick with stress, and blaming themselves.” Alcorn claims that although mothers are increasingly primary breadwinners, “the American workplace is uniquely hostile to the needs of parents.”

Remember: This Very Conversation Is a Luxury

At a conference in February, Hillary Clinton said “When women’s participation in the workforce is limited, the growth of the economy is limited.” Studies show workplaces thrive with more women because the intuitive sense and problem-solving skills they bring to the table differ from their male counterparts. But if they also long to be home when their children get off the bus, how can they reasonably do both?

But only women with leisure time, a support system, and at least some financial means can actually address this issue.

A brief, but essential aside: To a middle- to upper-middle-class woman, these struggles are not only real but occupy nearly every waking moment of her life, all-encompassing in their scope, urgent in their importance, and complex in its solution. But the luxurious nature of this issue—millennials would label it #firstworldproblems—should be recognized.

Many women long to be housewives. Others desire a six-figure career. But only women with leisure time, a support system, and at least some financial means can actually address this issue and, as the author of this article in The Atlantic says, “can actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique.”

But alas, the issues remain, however real or borrowed, luxurious or necessary, penetrating every nook and cranny of our conversation, as American now as, perhaps, baseball and apple pie.

We Will Never Jettison Tradeoffs

Many believe the foundational concept that drives this debate, that you can be a loving wife, dedicated mother, and productive employee all at once and “have it all,” performing at max capacity through every stage of life, is misguided at best, and a fallacy at worst.

‘My greatest comparative advantage is as mom to my own kids.’

The Federalist writer Robert Tracinski said to me in an e-mail, “Economics is founded on the truth that life is all about tradeoffs. If you spend money over here, you can’t spend it over there. The very concept of ‘having it all’ is an annihilation of the entire field of economics.” Just as a financial advisor would suggest a budget to mitigate tradeoffs, Zalenski suggests working from home as a way to improve the work/life balance.

Economist and mother Diane Lim Rogers described it this way: “The mom in me may still feel pressure from society to have it all, to take care of everything. But the economist in me remembers the law of diminishing marginal utility, that if we could really have it all, whatever we had last obtained wouldn’t be worth anything to us […] A concept economists call ‘comparative advantage’ applies here. I might have inherent absolute advantage in terms of my skills as an economist over some men and women who have more successful careers as economists than I. But my greatest comparative advantage — absolutely! — is as mom to my own kids.”

Working from Home Can Be a Solution

So women are searching for a solution. Zalenski advocates the work-from-home compromise. Admittedly, not every career is suitable for this type of flexibility, such as medicine, and neither is every family situation. I work from home as a writer, but still have to line everything up perfectly for a phone interview to proceed in a quiet and peaceful space (and I’ve locked myself in the bathroom to continue an interview when that failed to happen).

Instead of blaming her male bosses, female peers, or the ‘system,’ Zaleski and many others have found a suitable solution for the dreaded tradeoff.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea, either. In 2013, Yahoo! CEO Melissa Mayer banned all her employees from working from hom,e citing the importance of face-to-face engagement and productivity. (Even though statistics say employees are more productive when working from home.) Yahoo! executives claim that, since their decision, productivity and engagement are up (Did you expect them to say otherwise?).

Certainly, some good ideas come via watercooler interaction—two colleagues come up with a new angle on an old problem while exchanging ideas in the hallway—but is that a regular-enough occurrence to sacrifice the benefits of a shorter commute, more interaction with your kids, and overall lower stress many advocates of working from home tout? (I’m sure Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, on his 10,000th try, when he bumped into Albert Einstein. Right?)

One of the unfortunate, and by now prosaic, hallmarks of feminism is the twisted equation: Ideology coupled with whining equals more whining, typically about the “patriarchal” system they’ve found themselves suffering within. They don’t realize even the opportunity to find new ways to work, because a loving family is a rarity in a global perspective—a privilege, not a burden. Zalenski doesn’t go there. Neither should you. Instead of blaming her male bosses, female peers, or the “system,” Zaleski and many others have found a suitable solution for the dreaded tradeoff. This middle ground is reasonable, sustainable, and profitable.

She concludes her piece thusly: “There are so many ways we can support each other as women, but it starts with the just recognizing that we’re all in different positions at different times in our lives. One thing is clear. Motherhood is the future for most women. Over 80% of us will become mothers by the age of 44, according to the US Census Bureau. So embrace your future and support it at work!”

By working from home, a woman won’t have it all. But she might have the priorities that matter most in the right order. That might be just as good, if not better.