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19 July 2012

Lies I was told: women, work, and "having it all"

Hello everyone,

Anne-Marie Slaugher's recent essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” incited vehement and very polarized reactions from readers. I personally didn't find anything particularly surprising in the essay (except Slaughter's underlying assumption that life should be easy).

190712 - 1

Many of you sent me your comments on this article - so many, that I decided to ask one of my good friends, Sindhu Hirani Blume (another PwC alum), to write a guest blog with her personal reaction.

Except for my own mom, Sindhu is the coolest mom I know (I tell her this all the time) and I felt that because of Slaughter's angle, it was important that a mom write this blog.

Sindhu has been a critical influence in my personal and professional life since we met in PwC's Washington, D.C. office, where we worked in the same group. She ordered me to take a writing class (which directly and indirectly led to many things, including a secondment to Europe and my current master's program); Sindhu kindles my motivation (she sends daily reflections to me and another mutual friend, like this one: "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do" - John Wooden); and hers was the first Indian wedding that I ever attended, which changed my culinary tastes forever (yum, Vindaloo!) and fostered a semi-obsession with all things Indian

Here's what Sindhu has to say about having it all:

"In 1993, I unknowingly lied to my college classmates at a women’s college in Virginia.  I also lied to their parents, our professors, and anyone else who was at our graduation ceremony on that hot day in May.  I was the student commencement speaker for my class at Hollins College (now University) in Roanoke and I told everyone in a rather heightened voice, and with the naïveté that is naturally present at that age, that we (women) could have it all.  I meant it because I believed it.  And I believed it because it had been drilled into me.  And it was a lie.

But as with some lies, it was a great motivator.  It pushed me to set and meet goals, to do the things my grandmothers could or would not do, and the things my mother did but to do them with more freedom, choice, and control.

Today, 19 years after that speech, “having it all” is still a relevant discussion as evidenced by the much-talked-and-written-about essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic.  Slaughter writes of her internal struggles in dealing with her troubled teenage son who was in New Jersey, while she was on a two-year, high-profile assignment at the State Department in Washington, DC. After the two-year mark, Slaughter returned to her family and her job at Princeton University, although she wanted to pursue other opportunities in Washington.

190712 - 2I now have a husband, two children, a mortgage, a business, and live in one of the most professionally high-pressure areas of the country, and my reaction to that article was:  Well, of course you can’t have it all.  No one can.  It is painfully difficult – still more for women than men -- to have a career and family life, and for all the pieces to come together at once.

Parenting and having a robust career are two separate and mutually difficult things.  And on top of these two complex undertakings, some of us want a social life, to read a good book from time to time, to exercise, to travel.  And getting all or any of that comes down to making choices. I have no problems, for example, telling my disappointed 3-year-old son that I am not chaperoning a preschool field trip because of a meeting, but I make sure it doesn’t happen all the time.

I grew up thinking that having it all was what I perceived most men had: a thriving career and family life, and, as a well-deserved bonus, a martini on a sliver tray at the end of the day (perhaps too much “Bewitched” in my childhood).  But there are two inherent problems with this fantasy:  1. I am not a man, and 2. I did not understand fully that that concept of “having it all” for a woman meant getting lots of help (thereby lots of money) or a spouse who stayed at home.

I knew after I had a family that I would continue to work, and I have.  I love working.  I love having a job.  I love getting a paycheck.  What I did not know about was the massive love you feel and have for your children, and how it changes your heart, your energy level, and your priorities.

I was a Director in PwC’s Washington office when my daughter was born in 2007.  For a while, I felt as if I could manage and juggle.  But after my son was born in 2009, the time and energy required for two children along with my commute became unbearable.  The commute was eating up more time than I wanted or expected: the logistics of getting out the door, sitting in traffic, dropping the kids off at daycare, parking the car, getting on a train, and then walking into work were becoming mind-numbing.  By the time I got into work, I felt as if I had already put in a day.  I was exhausted and unhappy, and wasn’t doing my best at work or at home.

I studied all of my options and made a change.  I gave up a salary and incredible benefits to start a business with several other partners.  Having my own business allows me to work mostly from home and provides the flexibility to set my own schedule without a lot of guilt.  We’ve had to make a number of drastic changes in our life, both financial and behavioral, but there is something to be said for feeling sane.  I work more hours and more days now but it’s from my home office.  I still have to make compromises, but there is a difference in my energy level and what I’m able to give to my career and my family.

There are plenty of men and women who have a hellish commute and continue to do what they do after they have children:  they make choices, they enlist help, they telecommute, they work part-time, or they do none of these things and suffer through it because they have no viable or immediate options and have to put food on the table or they need the employer-provided health insurance.

I think we have to keep telling young people that they can have it all with the caveat that “all” is different things to different people and it means different things in different careers and industries, and, most importantly, you cannot have it all at the same time.  If you’re working 14 hours a day in an all-consuming, high-profile job, don’t expect to have a lot of daily, quality time with your children, unless some of those hours are committed from home. That’s a whole other discussion about work-life balance.

By the time my children are thinking about “having it all”, the work environment will have changed.  But I think I still will have to offer unsolicited advice urging them not to bend to someone else’s ideal of having it all.  Not easy, but doable."

Sindhu Hirani Blume is vice president of Trinity Place Technology, Inc., an IT government contractor.  She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.