Mike and Diane were both deeply committed to their careers when they got married five years ago. For the most of that time the security, support, and sheer fun of being married seemed to compound the enthusiasm they brought to their work. Their game plan had always included having children—both of them had grown up in large, warm families—and Diane got pregnant right on schedule. She worked through her pregnancy at an architectural firm in their hometown of Houston, up to the first labor pains, having arranged everything she would need when the baby arrived. The firm had a well-established maternity-leave policy, and she signed up for four months off. When Delia was born, Mike and Diane, both in their late 20s, expected to immerse themselves in caretaking. They both adored her. But Diane was there. Mike was not.
Soon most of the tending to Delia’s needs fell to Diane, as did most of the bonding, playtime, and walks with Delia nestled in her stroller. An increasingly fine-tuned connection with the baby became second nature to Diane. The same experiences became special occasions for Mike, whose work as an attorney was as demanding as ever in terms of both time and attention.
At this point in the story, one might expect to hear about Diane’s resentment of Mike’s unbroken career track, his freedom to come and go in child care, his lack of understanding of what her day was like. But that is not the story. In fact, Diane was very happy to return from maternity leave to a three-day week at the architectural firm. She had made peace with what she saw as necessary trade-offs between the drive toward an all-systems-go career trajectory and the pleasures and demands of parenthood.
It was Mike who was resentful and conflicted. He had looked forward to the egalitarian family life; he expected to be there for the serendipitous and mundane moments of parenting. He hated being a guest in his baby’s world.
He was also beginning to feel anxious about his job. Was he concentrating as intensely as before? Was he shortchanging the team-spirit time with his bosses in order to get home sooner? Was he losing his edge—and the guarantee of financial success? And why was it that Diane seemed to have all the luck, including the intimacy with the baby that he missed, the job satisfaction, and the domesticity he felt too wired to enjoy? To his horror, Mike realized that he was angry at Diane because she seemed to be having it all and he couldn’t.
“Having it all” has vexed women ever since we broke through the barriers to the kind of work that promised satisfaction, prestige, and power. Since the early days of the women’s movement, those in power have benefited from the idea that it’s impossible to be fulfilled both personally and professionally. What they were really questioning is whether women should have equal access to it all. But the phrase has taken on a life of its own as a synonym for family-work balance. While articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 bombshell “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” set the controversy off for a new generation, the discussion doesn’t provide definitive answers, but it does highlight the inherent problem that doesn’t go away: the underlying system is rigged against finding that balance.
As Slaughter herself concludes, “Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men. After all, we have a new generation of young men who have been raised by full-time working mothers. Let us presume, as I do with my sons, that they will understand ‘supporting their families’ to mean more than earning money.”
Indeed, those young men are entering family life with expectations similar to those of their wives and are already feeling the stress of the work-family balancing act. The irony here is that in the past, one of the reasons women had such a hard time balancing work and family was that the fathers of their children didn’t. But now the sons of those men are chasing the “having it all” promise themselves and finding it wanting, just as women have and still do.
For men, “all” might include what one working father called “the Triple Crown.” “It’s really hard,” he told me, “to find that equilibrium between home and social life and work. It just depends on what you’re willing to sacrifice for what.” Like the women before them, men are finding that the balancing act required to achieve even two out of three is difficult to maintain. Even with both parents committed to sharing the responsibilities of being a family, domestic management is still an acrobatic challenge, with virtually no safety net.
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