We “Have it All” for you on Women, the Workplace, Opting Out & Leaning In

The conversation of women’s fulfillment both at home and at work has resurfaced in a major way. Recent lengthy articles in publications like Salon and New York Magazine are revisiting the dilemma of the “opt-out generation,” academically and professionally impressive women who sacrificed careers to focus on family. The New York Times’ Judith Warner wrote on August 7th that this opt-out cohort now wants back in, after crushed hopes and troubled relationships reignited their ambition.

But is the career-and-caretaker conversation still an “and/or” discussion? What about women who opt not to be mothers, to instead focus on careers? Is the idea of “having it all” irrelevant for today’s women? What role do men and society play in shaping the debate? Or is it ultimately a woman’s question exclusively?

Here’s a summary of some of the the major articles contributing to the discourse:

Ann Friedman’s piece in NY Mag teaches us that “the real lesson of the ‘opt-out’ generation” is twofold: the “it’s her choice” slogan is no longer relevant for the work and family discussion, and “it no longer makes economic sense for women to default to a caretaker role and men to a breadwinner.”

In a commencement speech at Barnard, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urged young women to “lean in,” instead of opting out, urging them to “close the ambition gap” between the sexes “right here, right now.”

Women still can’t have it all, according to the Atlantic’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, until they collectively “stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal” and outright demand that policies and career paths “accommodate our choices, too.” (And apparently, “many men” stand beside them in solidarity.)

Salon’s Rebecca Traister upbraids Slaughter’s viewpoint as “cheap and reactionary;” Traister also laments the “have it all” model, labelling it a “a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall.”

Vermont’s first female governor, Madeleine Kunin, cites the correlation between childcare availability and “the ability of [both] men and women to be in the workforce,” and challenges “men to promote issues” of work and family balance “with equal fervor.”

The rare male with a place in this conversation, Tim Kreider suggests that none of us can have it all, “even [our] children.” His NYT Opinionator column argues that our busy lifestyles are a “present hysteria” that “we’ve [all] chosen” in order to feel alive.

Hanna Rosin responds to Kreider’s piece, via Slate, by concluding that busyness is not a true choice but actually “a condition we are passively not resisting.”

“In a world where men still run things and women still feel drawn to the kitchen and the nursery,” cautions NY Mag’s Lisa Miller, “an army of flextime females” may make competition “with men for big jobs” impossible.

These perspectives represent many facets of a reality that we all confront in some way, whether is about our own motherhood and our own career or the motherhood and careers of our wives, sisters, daughters, friends and colleagues.

How did your decisions about career and family influence you? How do the important men in your life contribute to that decision? Did the decisions you made help you achieve the life you wanted? If not, what has proven different from your expectations? And, when you think of your conversations with your daughters, nieces and friends in the future, what wisdom would you share?