Friday, June 22, 2012

Having Your Cake, and Smearing It on the Floor

By now you've probably seen or heard about the Atlantic Monthly article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former policy planning director in the State department under the Obama administration.  The article is amazing but long.  A shorter discussion is available in today's New York Times or across the blogging world.  [Update 4pm: For instance, this excellent piece in Salon.]

Obviously the article resonated with me, one of those 30-something women she referenced who looked around one day and realized that "having it all" was an old, tired and cheap cliché, one that didn't seem to apply to me.

To recap, I rose up the ranks in the healthcare industry until I was most recently the Vice President of Business Development at an excellent community hospital in the suburbs.  Although I liked my job and my colleagues a lot, I left in September of last year, when I realized that the commute was barely tolerable and would be completely unfeasible once the baby arrived in December.  I figured I would find something in the city after the baby was born.

I pursued some leads starting when Henry was three months, but I admit that I did not try very hard.  There was one job that I was recruited for that actually would have been a great fit -- interesting work, good people -- but I felt ambivalent even about that.  When the position was put on indefinite hold due to internal issues, I felt a wave of relief.  Telling.

The emotion I feel most acutely when I think about working is disappointment.  I want a career.  I feel incredibly lame without a job.  When I think about the fact that I am not working, I roll my eyes at myself in disgust.  I want my children to see that women are important to and can contribute to public life just as they are and do at home.

I feel disappointed in myself for not somehow having the foresight to choose a career with more flexibility and for being scared to even try to go back to work full-time.  I know how stressed out I was when I was working and commuting; I remember how much of strain it put on my marriage.  How could I add another full-time job on top of that?  I've always been such a perfectionist.  I'm afraid I wouldn't know how to dial it back.  And then I would implode.

I'm disappointed that the "working world" would value me less if I did dial it back from 120% to 90%. I hate how that world, and my industry in particular, still values face time.  As Ms. Slaughter puts it:
Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments.
I once had a boss ask me how he would know I was working if I weren't in the office.  Here's the real question:  How do you know I'm working when I am in the office?  I could be on Facebook or Blogger.  I could be writing poetry.  And here's the real answer to both questions:  If I didn't accomplish what you asked me to do, in the timeframe you asked me to do it in, that's how you would know I wasn't working.

Alas, as Ms. Slaughter makes painfully clear, common sense does not reign.
The culture of “time macho”—a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you—remains astonishingly prevalent among professionals today.
Maybe I would go back to work if I thought it could be tenable.  But the current structure of the working world -- and of my industry in particular -- just doesn't work for me.

The second most prevalent emotion I have is anxiety.  What if I regret the decision to stay home now?  What if it derails me in the future?  Ms. Slaughter also captures this sentiment perfectly:
Many women of my generation have found themselves, in the prime of their careers, saying no to opportunities they once would have jumped at and hoping those chances come around again later. Many others who have decided to step back for a while ... are worrying about how long they can “stay out” before they lose the competitive edge they worked so hard to acquire.
What was the point of all those long hours, all that money spent on graduate degrees, all that time, if I can't get back in?  Even if I'm not sure I want to get back in?

Finally, I feel guilt.  Guilty for wasting energy ruminating on my extremely privileged position.  I can decide whether or not I want to go back to work only because my husband makes enough money for us to survive on one income, at least for a little while.  Cry me a river.  Most people do not have that luxury.

I always thought that I would be the type of person who would "need" to work, who would want a high-powered, 120% job.  I thought I would continue to plot my next step, just as I have always done.  When discussing what led her to leave her Washington "dream job," Ms. Slaughter says:
But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.
As it turns out, I love being home with my little boy. Raising Henry is the most difficult -- and most rewarding -- job I have ever had. I'm trying to put aside the disappointment, anxiety and guilt and enjoy every day with him for the gift that it is.

I'm not sure what's next. For the first time in my life, I'm (almost) okay with that.