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Why Families Can't "Have It All"

Madeleine Kunin

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman director of Policy Planning in the State Department, sent Internet sparks flying when her recent Atlantic cover story told women that, yes, she’d tried to have it all—an elite career and a happy family—but, she couldn’t do it. And, she told readers, neither can any other woman. In the midst of the ensuing firestorm, a simple reality emerged: men can’t have it all, either. The solution to work-life balance lies not in the battle of the sexes, but in the policy fixes that have stalled for decades in the United States while we have watched the rest of the world, including developing countries, pass us in the race to make life better for working families.

That’s a race that Americans seem to be largely unaware of, despite its importance. The personal story Slaughter conveyed was unusual. Not every woman works in Washington while her family lives in Princeton, or has to pull all-nighters on her office couch while worrying about her teenage son. Yet the tug of war between work and family—that never-ending balancing act that all families attempt to perfect—is far from unusual. Instead of concluding that we have to reject the women’s movement’s promise that women could “have it all,” it’s time to acknowledge that many of the same limitations hold true for men. Getting home in time to read a bedtime story and kissing the kids goodnight is becoming important for fathers, as well as mothers.

It is not women’s fault that the acrobatic feat of balance is rarely achieved. Neither can we entirely blame men, even if they have set the standard for how the workplace functions, from the lowest rung to the top. The real culprit is embedded in the policies of the American workplace. Men and women have to march in the same parade for change, joined by the elderly, the sick and the disabled; all would benefit from more sensible policies that are the norm in almost all other countries.

Those policies include Paid Family and Medical Leave, Workplace Flexibility and high quality affordable child care and early education. We got a start when President Bill Clinton signed the Unpaid Family and Medical Leave law, on his first day in office, the similar bill which had been vetoed twice by President George Bush. It was thought to be a good first step. Nineteen years later, we are still waiting for the second step: Paid Family and Medical leave.

Paid leave sounds like an expensive idea to many American businesses. Why then, is some form of paid maternity leave the law in every country except Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia and the United States? The rest of the world recognizes that the first few months (in England paid leave was extended from six months to a year) of an infant’s life is critical for its development. According to Save the Children, paid maternity leave is the best predictor of both mothers’ and babies’ health. The United States ranks twenty-five on the list of best countries for mothers. The Scandinavian countries, wishing to engage fathers as well as mothers in child care have carved out special “use it or lose it” father time.

Women, Men, children, and the elderly ... all would benefit from more sensible policies that are the norm in almost all other countries.

Unpaid leave is an impractical option for most new parents. The birth of a baby puts new stress on family budgets; not a good time for a family to give up a badly needed paycheck. Slaughter writes that the ability to control her own schedule is what prompted her to leave the State Department and return to her (more than) full-time job at Princeton University. Workplace flexibility is precisely what every working father and mother would love to have; to be there when Emily is sick, to leave a half hour early from work to pick up David from child care, to be in the stands cheering for Johnny’s team, or to take an elderly parent to the doctor in an emergency. Women and men in top management positions often can negotiate flexibility, either in the number of hours worked, where they work, or how many days they work. Mid-level and low-level earners rarely have that opportunity because they have little power, and fear that by asking for flexibility they might be fired.

England and Australia have come up with a compromise that works for most employers and employees. It’s called the Right to Request Flexibility. An employee may ask her or his boss for flexibility without risking dismissal. The employer does not have to grant the request, but they are required to negotiate a compromise. If it is not achieved, the case goes to a tribunal. Employers have grown to like the law because it enables them to attract and retain talent, which saves them much more money in the long term than the cost of flexibility. James Wall, former vice president at Deloitte, calculates that it costs two to five times an annual salary to retrain a new employee, women and men alike.

Often the cost and quality of childcare is the biggest barrier for two-wage-earner working families. Childcare can cost the equivalent of paying off a mortgage. Care can be hard to find, especially for moderate to low-income families. Once again, the United States is a poor cousin compared to our global partners who are much more aware of studies that have shown that the availability of good child care is directly related to the ability of women and men to be in the workforce. One sector of our government understands the link—the United States Department of Defense. The Secretary of Defense manages the best child care system in America. All programs are nationally certified and parents pay on an affordable sliding scale.

It is not difficult to figure out why the Defense Department makes this investment. It would be impossible to recruit and retain men and women in the military if they could not obtain good care for their families while serving their country. Moreover, they saw a correlation between the lack of good childcare and the lack of suitable future recruits.

If only American businesses could make the same connection. The lack of affordable quality childcare has a major impact on economic security. A parent who can’t afford childcare can’t afford to work, and raises children in poverty. In America, we have the highest childhood poverty rate of all developed countries. Hovering between 20 and 22 percent, it has increased by 41percent since 2000. This means mean that we will have a generation of young people who are more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, be incarcerated, and have lives interrupted with tragedy. The impact of a declining skilled workforce will be felt by everyone, particularly when we ask this same generation to pay for our Medicare and Social Security without having the ability to pay taxes.

There are success stories. We have succeeded in reducing poverty for the elderly to 9 percent. The consensus is that two government programs achieved these results—Social Security and Medicare. Government intervention, while never the total answer, did in this case, produce dramatic results.

Female leaders have traditionally been in the forefront on family/work issues, changing policies in the private sector, and promoting legislation in State Houses and in the Congress. It is time for men to promote these issues with equal fervor, drawing on their experiences as fathers and sons, just as women have done as mothers and daughters.

To succeed in a time of severe budget cuts in domestic spending and increasing hostility to the role of government, women and men have to join forces both at the grassroots, and in the top echelons of power. The case has to be made that work/life balance is no longer a women’s issue, nor is it a question of reducing stress or increasing comfort, it is a question of providing this generation of women and men and the next generation with the capacity to achieve what all families desire and the nation desperately needs: to enable parents to be both good caregivers and good providers. That conversation has begun. Now we have to continue the dialogue between employers and employees, between the old and the young, and between women and men.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Madeleine Kunin

Madeleine M. Kunin was the first, and only, female governor of Vermont and a former Ambassador to Switzerland under President Bill Clinton. Her latest book is The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution of Women, Work, and Families (Chelsea Green Publishing, 20120).

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