With all due respect to Sheryl Sandberg, I am thrilled that the conversation about work-life balance for women has finally moved beyond what Facebook's most famous female executive has to say about the topic. And for this we can thank a thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who recently stepped away from a big job at the State Department.
Slaughter's piece is ultimately discouraging; it is unlikely this accomplished woman will gain the iconic status that Sandberg has with her inspiring advice about dreaming bigger and keeping yourself in the running come what may.
Sandberg's observations about women are frequently spot-on. ("Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce," she said in her famous Barnard College commencement speech last year. "They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there.") But I've never found her advice for avoiding this -- to not be afraid, to not talk yourself out of opportunities for the sake of establishing some semblance of future work-life balance -- to be anything more than a starting point for thinking about how to manage a career. After all, it's hard to commit to running your professional life in the way Sandberg recommends unless you have the tools to do it without putting the hurt on your life at home.
My complaint goes beyond the garden variety stress about meeting the long list of demands on me both professionally and personally. The demands I can meet. (While there never seems to be enough time to do it all, the magazine I edit still manages to get out the door every month, and the thriving daughter I'm raising still seems to really love her mom.) The balance I struggle with most is much more complicated than that. It's the balance between the happiness I derive from my work and the happiness I want for myself and my family to derive from our home. These things are very much intertwined for me, and yet they often seem to be at odds with one another.
In my own experience, taking on more challenges at work means something on the home front is bound to suffer. I can live with the idea of a tradeoff. What I resent is when Sandberg and others apply the "just do it" theory to career advancement for women without allowing for husbands who simply aren't thrilled with the idea of having more of the domestic burden placed on them, and without allowing for wives or mothers who simply aren't thrilled with the idea of giving up some of their presence at home so that they can increase their visibility at work. As Slaughter notes, "... [T]he proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case."
Of course the problem with these kinds of observations is that they have to be, by definition, based on our own experiences. Perhaps your experiences have been different from Slaughter's. (I for one can relate a lot to what she says.) In any case, the diversity of experiences for working women demands a diversity of thought about the issue of how women can better manage their personal and professional lives. So thank you, Sheryl Sandberg, for getting the conversation started in an important and insightful way. And thank you, Anne-Marie Slaughter, for taking the conversation in a new -- and more nuanced -- direction.