Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter kicked the hornet’s nest two weeks back when she published an article with that title in The Atlantic. In it she explained why the feminist ideal—women can have it all, a family and a fulfilling career at the same time, just like men—is still unattainable and, therefore, why she decided to leave her high-profile post at the State Department and return to her family (and professorship at Princeton University). Despite what many of her peers assume, Slaughter argues that her inability to balance work and family wasn’t due to any lack of ambition or commitment on her part, nor was it that she’d simply married the wrong person or had her children at the wrong stage in her career arc. Rather, it was due to the fact that our culture currently defines career and work in ways that make motherhood impossible for most women. And, unless our culture changes—unless, e.g., we make work more flexible and family/women-friendly—women will continue to be forced to choose between the two. It’s an intelligent piece and one that I’d recommend to the readers of this blog—esp. those of us who are male and complementarian—for at least the following three reasons.

First, if having it all requires the sort of commitment to one’s career that Slaughter describes, then I’d want to suggest that some men can’t have it all either. The very same things that make it impossible for Slaughter to have it all make it impossible for most fathers with young children to have it all too. And, it’s probably impossible for women and men with aging parents to have it all, as well. In other words, Slaughter’s piece doesn’t simply burst the feminist bubble, it’s an indictment against all of us who misprioritize work over family. It’s an indictment against workaholism. It’s far too easy for many of us to read Slaughter’s piece and feel a bit of satisfaction that even committed feminists cannot escape God’s hard-wiring—God created mothers to mother—while neglecting the fact that God created fathers to father. We may think that Slaughter’s decision to leave her family for a high-profile job in D.C. is deplorable, but we may not have felt the same moral outrage had Slaughter been a male, a father. The fact remains that too many men neglect their families in the interests of their careers and too many Christian men justify their neglect under the guise that they’re fulfilling their God-given role as “breadwinner.” In fact, some of the worst offenders are those of us involved in “vocational ministry.” We justify our neglect by the double-cover of supporting our families and advancing God’s kingdom. For those of us with these tendencies, we need to let Slaughter remind us that we too have responsibilities—important responsibilities—that cannot be delegated. We’ve been given the task of discipling our children—and caring for our wives—and it’s impossible to do this if we’re never home. And, for the vocational ministers among us, let’s remember that one of the ways we demonstrate our qualification for leadership is through our work at home, through the way we shepherd the flock that shares our last name. We cannot neglect that flock and still qualify to supervise the other. It’s not meant to work like that, no matter how important that second flock and its mission are.

Second, Slaughter’s piece is a good reminder that this world is full of intelligent, creative, ambitious and highly-capable women. And this is a very good thing. Too often some of us attempt to go beyond the Bible and explain in detail why God prohibits women from certain kinds of leadership in the church. We come up with all sorts of reasons based on supposed gender differences that don’t reflect what God has said and, instead, reflect our own sinful pride or our naïve attempts to generalize from our severely-limited personal experiences. For those of us with these tendencies, I’d recommend reading Proverbs 31 immediately after finishing Slaughter’s piece. In short, read Slaughter’s piece as an exercise in distinguishing between criticism of the feminist ideal based on the Christian worldview and criticism based on our inherent and ungodly chauvinism.

Third, use Slaughter’s piece to remind and encourage the women in your life with young children that their present calling requires just as much intellectual energy, ambition, creativity and sheer effort as do the more high-profile jobs Slaughter describes. The goals of motherhood are just as noble, just as important, just as demanding as any of these more glamorous careers. Mothers are tasked to shape and nurture creatures made in God’s image to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. Those of us with young children know well that motherhood isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak-willed; it’s not simply for those who couldn’t make it into law school or who don’t have an M.B.A. It may take nerves of steel to negotiate a multi-million dollar contract, but at least these sorts of deals don’t normally occur in the dead of night or involve anyone vomiting. Motherhood is a calling for the best and brightest. It’s not simply something a woman does because she failed to dream big enough.

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4 thoughts on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

  1. Annalisa says:

    Thanks for the level-headed and Biblical take on this! Just wanted to point out that Slaughter agrees with your first point–she herself said that “It’s not clear to me that this ethical framework makes sense for society” regarding the workaholic tendencies we have and suggests that if men in leadership spent more time with their families they’d have a fuller picture of the impact of their decisions. And also wanted to clarify that motherhood itself can be done poorly or well like any other job–an it’s a bit tricky to say it’s a “calling for the best and brightest” when it’s also a “calling” that nearly every woman will get. Part of why it is difficult to value is its commonality. But thanks very much for the encouraging words and pointing people to this culturally significant piece!

  2. Jared Compton says:

    Annalisa, Yes, very helpful observations. Thank you. I will say that I had originally wanted to include that line from Slaughter’s piece–in fact, I tried to find a way to link to it directly (and unsuccessfully). She’s right, isn’t she? It would make better leaders of those men. Moreover, the point about motherhood being a calling for the brightest and best was simply meant to encourage talented women to see motherhood as an opportunity to use their gifts, to see it as a worthy “career” and not simply something they do on the side or something reserved for women who, as I say, fail to dream big enough.

  3. hamid says:

    I think there is equality of men and women!

  4. I am in the unenviable position of being the breadwinner, the vocational minister, and the mother in our family – due in part to my husband’s health situation. On top of this, I am very involved in church activities. I’ve come to this conclusion: we are ALL CALLED to lead different lives. The work/family/ministry (ministry as in using your spiritual gifts in the local church) balance is different for each one of us, men and women. We can sin on any side: idolatry of work; idolatry of family; idolatry of church/ministry; even idolatry of friendships or leisure time. ETC. The tricks are to listen to God’s individual callings in each of these areas of our lives, stay in tune to His conviction of sin (and stay in the Word!), and STOP COMPARING. If I look at women who are stay-at-home moms – worse yet, home-schooling stay-at-home moms – I can fall into a guilt trap. Then I remind myself (after prayer!) that for some reason, my current set of callings are exactly what my kids and husband need. God in his sovereignty made me who I am and put me where I am. I just read the autobiography of one of the greatest evangelists of the 20th century: Helen Duff Baugh. When God called her to take the helm of Stonecroft Ministries, she ended up leaving her children to be raised by her siblings because she was on the road so much! Was that sin? I don’t know her heart, but I doubt it. This was a calling. And God took care of the kids. Bottom line: never be sure you are sure of your calling – keep in touch with God. Don’t judge. And don’t compare. End of sermon.