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June 27th, 2012
11:00 AM ET

Opinion: No one at the top gets to have it all

Editor’s note: Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She writes about social issues, parenting and relationships on her blog, Carolyn Edgar. Follow her on Twitter @carolynedgar.

By Carolyn Edgar, Special to CNN

(CNN) –Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,”  contains an inconsistency: after describing all the reasons why she had to give up her “dream job,” Slaughter writes: “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.”

It’s hard to imagine how well the utopian society Slaughter describes will work for female leaders. Those women will still be forced to struggle with the challenges Slaughter describes of trying to hold a position at the top of one’s field while maintaining one’s commitments to family and community.

The truth is, no one – male or female – who wants to work at the top gets to “have it all.” No one gets to be CEO of a Fortune 100 corporation, or managing partner at an international law firm, or United States senator – or President–without making significant personal sacrifices.

Opinion: Why is 'having it all' a women's issue?

I experienced this first hand.

Years ago, when I was an ambitious young associate in an international law firm, the prospects of my own rise to the partnership looked dim.

There were only a couple of women partners in my office, and only a handful of women partners throughout the firm.

Those women partners were either childless and unmarried or seemingly blessed with stay-at-home husbands who shouldered the burden of raising the kids while their wives pursued their career ambitions.

Only one or two of our firm’s senior women partners were in dual-career relationships, and their lives – including round-the-clock nannies who logged several thousand miles traveling around the world with the couples and their kids – seemed, in a word, nuts.

I remember the whispered stories about one high-profile litigation partner who had given birth weeks before a bet-the-company trial for one of her biggest clients. Rather than turn the case over to one of her partners, she sent the baby home with her husband and returned to work immediately after giving birth to prepare for trial.

“She FedEx’ed her breast milk home,” chuckled another woman at the firm.

The implications were clear: Be the kind of woman who freezes and express ships breast milk to remain lead trial counsel in the firm’s most high profile case – with an eye toward eventually becoming the only woman on the firm’s managing committee – or molder forever in the second-tier doldrums of firm management.

I learned which kind of woman I was a few weeks after I returned to the firm after having my first child.

Although I’d gotten quite adept at pumping my breasts during conference calls, I simply couldn’t handle the hours, the 24/7 sacrifice considered “commitment” to the firm.

I didn’t mind leaving as late as 9 p.m., but when I left the office and went home, I needed to be home. I resented the assumption that I would bring work home and continue to work after my daughter was in bed. I despised that the people who scheduled Saturday and even Sunday conference calls failed to understand that personal chores, not to mention family time, had to be squeezed into two days of a weekend.

I felt that some of the round-the-clock expectations were simply hazing rituals, not borne of necessity or client demand, but “I did it, so you should have to do it, too.”

When I left the firm to take a job in a corporate law department, I missed law firm practice. By the time I returned two years later, the woman who had express shipped her breast milk home during trial was one of the most powerful and influential women in the firm. I remained curious about her, and asked a colleague who worked for her what she was like as a boss.

His gushing ran counter to the sneering stories I’d heard from other attorneys – mostly women – in the firm. She was a supportive boss. She made sure her staff received great opportunities and were recognized for their contributions.

His comments were sobering.

Like Slaughter, we women lawyers in the firm always talked of how wonderful it would be to have a woman among the firm’s power brokers. We spoke of what it would mean to the younger women in the firm to have such a woman to look up to.

We never talked about what life might be like for that woman. We never considered what sacrifices she might have to make to get there, or to remain there.

We snickered about – and judged – a woman who seemed to put her career over motherhood, at the same time lamenting that there weren’t more women in the firm’s most senior positions. We wanted women leaders without considering the personal sacrifices those women leaders might have to make.

When I left the firm for good after my son was born, I left without bitterness or regret. I had given it a good shot, but the pressures of firm life no longer fit with who I was as a mother. I was no less ambitious than I had been before I had children. But I had to harmonize my career ambitions with motherhood.

Slaughter’s major flaw in the piece - her failure to consider that her struggles are simply the challenges that come along with taking the high-powered job at the top - have led many to dismiss the article entirely.

But as Slaughter’s article reveals, those of us who are blessed with careers make choices about the role our careers will play in proportion to the rest of our lives.

Mothers should be no different.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carolyn Edgar.

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Filed under: Family • Relationships • What we think • Women
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. visit this page

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    May 19, 2013 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  2. Kevin

    iam 60 yr. old been working sence i was 15 drnivig truck for 13 yrs. i would like to do some thing els my age hurts me now they see woman and 60 and think i cant do the job there should be training for us who still wa nt to work or need to work

    September 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. BMW57

    The key issue I did not see here is the crazy idea that anyone should have to work more than 40-50 hours a week for any job in the first place. When did we buy in to the notion that 80 hours is required or desired? IF the job really need 80 hours then hire two people. The problem is not balancing work and life, its limiting work to 40 hours for everyone. We work too hard people without any idead what we are working for.

    July 3, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jim Steele

    Excellent article! Men have the same struggles, but culturally it is not acceptable to admit it. Corporate America is like a spoiled child - it only thinks of its own, short-term needs.

    PS: You made the right career choice.

    July 2, 2012 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Katrina

      iam 60 yr. old been working sence i was 15 driinvg truck for 13 yrs. i would like to do some thing els my age hurts me now they see woman and 60 and think i cant do the job there should be training for us who still wa nt to work or need to work

      August 3, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LS

    I am a married woman with a 2 year old. I have no problems working the position I am in for the next 20 years. I understood the job I was in and its demands even before I considered children. I also made the decision that once I had a child, he would be my priority, not my climb to the top. So after his birth I decided to just stay where I'm at. It works for me and my family. Those who want to work 80 hours a week, all night and all weekend can have the top job. After all, they put in the hours and made the sacrifces to get there. They deserve it. As long as I have my pay, vacation, insurance and the same time off benefits as everyone else, I'm fine right where I am. I have never asked for special treatment and never will.

    Both men and women should give up a little something to start a family. Those who don't think they have to or should are insane.

    July 2, 2012 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  6. mickey1313

    The main problem is the dog eat dog culture of corporate America. If the bottom dollar at all costs wasn't the creed, then maybe it would be more fair. That however is a pie in the sky pipe dream.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mary S

    My goal at one time was being the first female VP at the firm I was working for at the time. I changed my tune when I befriended the highest ranking woman at the firm. Her life was no different than any of the men in those ranks and it did not appeal to me at all. I, like so many naive people, had no idea of the sacrifices people at the top make in their personal lifes. And do not kid yourself, it is a necessity not a choice. We all reap the benefits of their sacrifices. l was and continue to be single and childless, I can't imagine why women wih children are willing to trade the precious time they would have with their children for corporate power.

    June 29, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Meia

      I can't agree more. I"ve met and have a couple of friends who are CEOs at major coroporations and the truth is that any advancement at that level requires complete dedication. Period. Clients don't want to see or hear about baby this, child that, family blah blah blah. Keep it at home. If you can't afford childcare, nannys, etc., and you don't have a house husband, then stay at home, or the no brainer...don't have children, or if you are one of "those" women who want a child no matter what...reduce your living or change your lifestyle so you can raise your child at home. The rest of us...really, we have our own lives, interests and obligations...really. You are no more important than the rest of us. Stop complaining...can we talk about something else already?

      June 30, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • duckforcover

      People "at the top" actually sacrifice others on their climb up the ladder to power and wealth. Man, woman, one race or another, they are usually ruthless and self-centered sociopaths willing to ruin the lives of anyone in their way.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jim Steele

        I agree!

        July 2, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  8. Melissa

    Oh wah. They have at least one house paid off, at least one car paid off, can afford to pay their bills and the only reason they wouldn't be able to afford to take care of themselves for a long period of time is that they're spending way beyond what they should be. Sure they don't have it all. Sarcasm if you can't tell.

    June 29, 2012 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
  9. asdf

    I once was working with this guy who had mono, and he was always absent from work. Every day. It was frustrating because much of my work depended on him being there so for a few months, I got nothing done and kind of blamed him for it. I never had mono before and didn't realize what a debilitating (but also temporary) illness it was. Finally someone took me aside and chatted with me about the affects of mono and how it wasn't his fault he couldn't preform, and that I should be considerate of these things.

    The point isn't that women should have tons of maternity leave and a fatty bonus when they get back. The point of these articles (Slaughter, her many responses) is that if people (women who don't have kids, men who don't primarily take care of kids, etc) understood the toll these things take on the human body, then we wouldn't be so quick to judge and expect the impossible. I don't see why that's something you should "dismiss entirely."

    June 29, 2012 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
    • nokidsnoman

      Wait a minute, being a parent is a choice, having a career is a choice. Sounds like a lot of complaining from women who have chosen to have kids. I'm a woman, I have chosen not to have kids and to have a career instead. Why should a woman who chose to have a kid get, as someone suggested, get a bonus for time away from work while the rest of us don't? Answer me this; how is it somehow acceptable for a parent to be late or leave early because of their kids but if a person was late tweo hours because of a hangover it's an abomination? Same thing, you missed work when youi were supposed to be there. I have little sympathy for these women. Sorry but you chose to have kids, I chose to rise up the corporate ladder. No. You can't have everything so quit complaining

      June 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
      • Mary S

        Couldn't agree more. Some colleagues made it known at the time that they thought I should take up the slack for my "firiend" when she had family obligations. (I am single and childless). It is interesting that now that her children are 13 and 16, she still has the schedule she needed "while the kids were small" and the rest of us have to work around that.

        June 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
      • seesaw

        Well I'm a mom who made career choices around the kids. I immediately saw that I was no longer willing to hang out at work past 6 or 7pm (the work day ended at 5pm) once I had a darling baby at home. I was happy to reach home just to put my feet up only to realize that wasn't gonna happen either with a baby in the house. I was tired, sure, but these were my choices that made me feel fulfilled. My point is this...I scaled back. Worked in a different path with less money and opportunity all for the chance to be home more. It bothered me when I was single that women could take time off early from work so to pick up kids. And when it was brought up, they acted so indignant as if no one had a right to say a thing against it. They had to pick up their kids from school. After all!

        I never, ever used excuses like that...I'd be too ashamed. But yeh, many pull out those excuses and expect the rest to fall in line with them.

        June 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
      • asdf

        Also I don't have kids. Just adequate respect for those who do. That's all. Not everyone who makes a point is a whiner...

        July 2, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • asdf

      Oh, my other response got erased... probably because I cursed...

      I think you guys read "isn't" and mentally changed it to "is". I never said women should get benefits just because they have kids. In fact I said the opposite. My point is that all this aggression towards a series of articles meant only to enlighten us that there are people with different levels of personal trials all trying to hold the same employment spot seems kind of over the top. That's all.

      July 2, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. judeamorris

    Obviously men replying to this article who have no idea the difficulty mothers (especially those of preschool aged children) face in the workplace. "Dismissed the article entirely"??? You've never had, obviously, to be up all night with a nursing infant, express breast milk for 20 minutes every couple of hours while trying to get your work done, deal with side effects of hormones and body changes. Being a mom, especially a new mom, is the most difficult task on earth. No man can EVER understand that; but they sure expect women to "do their [sic] part for society." Give me a break. Mothering is an unequal task from day one. Women who choose to work and mother are at an even bigger disadvantage in the workplace than their childless counterparts.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Meia

      First, being a woman....just because you chose to have children doesn't mean that you get to be treated any different than anyone else. If you desire to do all the things that are required for raising your children then get to it! The rest of us should never be asked to fill in for you because today, having children is a choice, NOT an necessity. Mothers are becoming more and more annoying with all their whining about just about everything. Go home and raise your children...I am not your babysitter (I have been NOT asked but thrown into babysit a number of women's children in the workplace and I don't appreciate it at all). If you are a high powered employee then pay for day care or a nanny...it is your business so handle it. And for goodness sakes...stop the freaking whining!!!!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      I agree with miea. Women with children want equal pay but special treatment, you can't have both. Either equal pay and equal work, or lesser pay and lesser work. Having children is a choice, if you choose it you have to understand that in the world of high level corporations, you will lose out. Take a lesser job live within your means and quite complaining. Like is not fair for most people, live with it.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. PPLRWRD

    You know what I am tired of, I am tired of being treated like I am average because I am a white, Christian, straight male. You want equality, then get over yourselves. Everyone. White, black, women, man, straight, gay. Do your job, do your part for society, and accept that were you are is either because the world is subjective and "buddies" always get promoted over "that guy" in an organization or because you need to do something more with yourself.

    June 28, 2012 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Mary S

      Well said. I feel for you. I hate to add insult to injury but a search for a position at my university was cancelled because all of the candidates selected by the committee were white males. If it is any consolation, all of us were disgusted. I even contacted an author who was writting a book on reverse discrimination. He emailed me back that when publishers found out the topic, they refused to work with him.

      June 29, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. JJ

    Yah. I dismissed the article entirely. Struggles with high power career expectations are dillemna for parents, not just women.

    June 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skew

      Agreed. But not just a problem for parents either – it's an issue for anyone who has passions outside of work.

      June 27, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |