Who wants to have it all? Why mothering remains an important space for feminist resistance and contestation.

Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” published in The Atlantic earlier this year has gone viral. It has generated wide reaching debate in policy and academic circles. This is clearly a heartfelt piece. Slaughter provides a candid overview of the struggles and internal conflict she felt as a working mother.

The response she has received to the article in the form of comments, blogs and response pieces highlights something that I have been trying to grapple with the whole of my career: mothering. The values associated with this function remain as contested today as they were at the height of the equality-difference debate in the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas Liberal feminists have long advocated equality of access (i.e. formal or legal equality), Radical feminists have focused on revaluing women’s caring role as a key value of society. Feminist scholars have thus been trying to navigate a difficult social and political territory between promoting women’s right to participate in the employment market on an equal footing to men whilst recognising the importance of care as a social function. The main aim of most feminist work in this field is to challenge a socio-economic model that is based on the division between public and private, and which supports inequitable gender hierarchies in the family.

The starting point for a meaningful engagement with Slaughter’s argument must be to recognise these tensions. Equally, we should acknowledge that there is nothing fixed or essential about the current gender order or the socio-economic structures within which we all operate. These values are neither neutral nor natural; they reflect a set of dominant social, political and economic interests that shape and restrict individual choices.

Slaughter’s main argument revolves around the impossibility of reconciling the demands of a high level executive or political career with the responsibilities of mothering. It should be noted at this point that Slaughter’s standpoint is based on her personal experience of trying to reconcile a career at the top of the American political pyramid with the demands of caring. As she points out in the second half of her article, she has been able, and continues to be able, to reconcile a highly successful career as an academic and public intellectual with the demands of mothering. What she perceives as the key to unlock the “holy grail” that is work-life balance was flexibility. Something she clearly felt was not reconcilable with the ambitions of US foreign policy and the demands of the State Department, despite working for a boss as understanding as Hilary Clinton.

The conflict of interests and emotions she experiences is something that many working mothers would recognise. These complex emotions, however, come as something of a revelation to Slaughter, leading her to a revaluation of core values. In particular she considers whether women with care responsibilities (i.e. mothers) can, or should try, to compete for high level jobs. She provides other examples of women who made the difficult choice to scale down professional activities/aspirations to concentrate on the needs of their families. Slaughter is sensitive to the complex set of variables that influence these women’s choices, but ultimately she concludes that focusing on equality in the public sphere (i.e. politics, employment and the boardroom) has been at the expense of women’s caring role. In so doing, Slaughter provides a detailed critique of liberal feminism, particularly the expectations placed upon women and the limitations of this approach to equality.

Men and socio-economic structures are not forgotten in this open and personal assessment of the shortcomings of the work-life balance narrative. Fathers have a particularly important role to play in changing expectations. She recognizes that men also cannot “have it all”. Many highly successful men may have to “sacrifice” the kind of personal fulfillment that is enjoyed by playing an active role in the upbringing of a child, for a “greater” (public) purpose. Yet, she also notes that wider society seemingly remains supportive of these choices. Such sacrifice is often seen as duty towards the family or the nation; there is little or no reflection in the press of the impact this has on children, society and “the family”. The same is not true of working mothers. So, she concludes that we should reconsider whether women should adopt the dominant masculine values that permeate contemporary economic structures. Rather than engaging in a detailed critique of hegemonic power hierarchies, she retreats into a difference stance that assumes the ethic of caring and the demands of work are binary opposites. This standpoint is irreconcilable with her own position as a driven professional and public intellectual. Clearly, what is needed is for feminist scholars and activists to deconstruct and challenge the very values upon which the labour market is based. This means challenging the long hour working culture for all, not just working parents (mothers and fathers). Recognition that balance will benefit society (and the economy) in the long run should remain on the key propositions of feminist politics.

Slaughter’s final conclusions about the role and position of mothers within the family are potentially a dangerous position to take. Media coverage of the (negative) impact of maternal employment on the psychological and social development of children is testament to the power of the hegemonic order. Most social scientists would point out that none of these values are fixed or detached from the pursuit of specific socio-economic interests. Yet the guilt is real for many working mothers. Well meaning childcare providers’ disciplining behaviour towards mothers (it is mostly mothers) who arrive late to collect children at the end of a working day not only shape women’s self perceptions, it also socialise children into the hegemonic discourse. Slaughter’s feelings should therefore not be divorced from the wider social framework that has helped to shape her identity as a professional woman and mother.

The article does what most good feminist writing should do: it asks where are the men? Not just in terms of the absence from the private, but also their role in shaping the employment structures. Slaughter is quick to acknowledge the supporting role played by her husband, also a highly accomplished international scholar. Clearly fathers/partners have an important role to play in augmenting equality of access and equality of opportunities in formal employment. Recognition that diversity matters, not just in terms of economic/market gains, but also in terms of social prosperity should then lead to a revolution in the way we conceptualised and structure work (both paid and unpaid). Slaughter opens the door to this kind of contestation but falls short of the intended objective by not challenging the values that underpin this particular gender order and associated economic model.

Laura Sjoberg’s (2012) response to Slaughter’s piece picks up on many of these issues, though she reminds us that work-life balance does not matter only for working parents. Her criticism revolves around the expectation that women want to, can and/or should be mothers. She therefore calls for a non-essentialist feminist politics that helps us to challenge dominant narratives about what it means to be a woman, a mother and a professional. Recognition that gender values (including dominant views about mothers’ and women’s roles in society) are an articulation of a particular social order allows us to uncover relations of power within society, the work place and the family. Sjoberg is right in challenging the focus on mothering, yet this must remain one of the main spaces of feminist contestation and resistance. Dominant assumptions about gender roles and divisions stem from entrenched views of mothering and caring. This should not lead us to buy into essentialist views of gender, but should encourage a continued engagement with critiques of the disciplining role of social values. For these values not only shape the relationship with the public sphere of women with children; ageing population is adding a different, but equally gendered dimension, to the politics of care.

Slaughter is right in calling for a detailed critique of how we value success and achievement. Recognition that nobody can “have it all” at any one time should be the starting point of a renegotiation of the gender and economic contract upon which contemporary socio-economic structures are based. The sharp decline in fertility rates in some parts of Europe is testament to the changes in women’s aspirations and expectations about participation in the public sphere. I have argued elsewhere that this demographic transition is the result of deeply engrained inequalities that prevent women from being able to reconcile aspirations in the public and the private sphere.

The discourse of “reconciliation between work and family life” or “work-life balance” had come into vogue in the last decade as a way to encourage women’s labour market activation. Despite the gender neutral language of the vast array of policies that have been adopted under this particular umbrella, their main aim is to allow women (mothers) to engage in formal employment. Lip service is often paid to encouraging men to take a greater share of responsibility in caring for children (and increasingly the elderly), yet the socio-economic structures have remained largely unchanged. Ultimately the current socio-economic model is largely exploitative of both men and women.

I find myself broadly in agreement with Slaughter’s position. Managing my professional goals with increasing numbers of family activities is constant juggling act Yet, I find this process empowering as well as both emotionally and physically tiring. However, my standpoint, much like Slaughter’s, comes from a position of privilege. Not only do I work in a profession that is both interesting and intellectually stimulating, I also have the opportunity to work (fairly) flexible hours. This is not the reality for many working women/mothers. One of the most power myths of the turn of the century is that maternal employment is a recent development. Working-class women have always had to juggle the reality of work with mothering and caring because of economic necessity. What is different about the current situations is the rise of middle-class values and the dominant position in society. Far from spending less time with children 21st century working mothers are devoting an increasing amount of time to child-led activities. These are the kind of (normative) expectations that shape women’s experience of work and parenting. This vision of society, however, is not gender neutral. Despite recent claims about the advance of the adult worker model, the values that underpinned the male breadwinner model continue to permeate the social order.

Hegemonic gender norms tend to resurface to serve “higher” political and economic interests. We are still trying to assess the long term impact of the current crisis on women’s equality. A lot of work has gone into challenging these values, yet many women (myself included) are trapped between social expectations and personal aspirations. I have long accepted that I cannot have it all, all of the time, but neither have the majority of men and women in history. We must remember that women’s employment is not a new development, what is new are the pressures and demands placed upon men and women in post-industrial societies. Wellbeing and balance should replace “having it all” as a frame of reference as a starting point for developing a society that revolves around people rather than economic interests.