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Stop asking working moms about "having it all" — and women, stop answering

The focus on "balance" over achievement is a game working women can't win


Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 28, 2015 11:40PM (UTC)

Sometimes, all you need for a little Monday validation is Shonda Rhimes tweeting, "THIS!" THIS, as in a rousing hell, yes to Facebook executive Margaret Gould Stewart's recent USA Today op-ed, in which she quite reasonably suggests, "Let's talk about my brain, not babies." THIS.

Stewart writes, "My uterus doesn’t have much to say on the matter of technology and how it can improve people’s lives," adding, "though my brain has quite a bit to offer." She recounts attending the Fortune Brainstorm conference earlier this year and watching YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki introduced by an interviewer who credited her for "truly extraordinary" feat of raising five children. And of course, he asked her the inevitable, "How do you do it all?"

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Please. The working mothers of the world beg you. Stop. Asking. This. Stupid. Question.

Stewart aptly explains, "When the venue is a tech conference, let's talk about tech, for goodness sake. Making motherhood a required topic for women leaders minimizes their contributions to the industry…. It minimizes my expertise and accomplishments and those of my fellow women tech leaders." She helpfully offers advice on how to do better, including a simple tip: "As I see it, you have two choices: you can either ask everyone these questions about their private lives and their role as a parent, or you should ask no one."

And she encourages female professionals, "Please don’t engage in these discussions when the focus is supposed to be on your professional accomplishments."

Again I say, THIS.

The "having it all" legend, much like a demonic serial killer from an '80s horror franchise, refuses to die — it seems instead to just keep getting stronger and scarier. It's been more three years since Anne-Marie Slaughter's self-explanatorily titled "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" became a sensation in The Atlantic, soon followed by Sheryl Sandberg's command to "Lean In," though it came with an acknowledgment of "The Myth of Doing it All." In Slaughter's new book, "Unfinished Business," she posits, "Perhaps the problem is not with women, but with work." Or maybe it's how it's framed. When NPR this weekend ran a feature on the book, it came with the headline, "When Working Families Can't Do It All."

I know I keep asking this but… seriously, who out there is Having It All? And what's with this specific expectation that women are supposed to? The trick is, they're not. Not really. They're supposed to come up short and serve as cautionary tales of what happens when women want things, especially things in addition to babies — or even, oh Lord, no — instead of them. How's that "having it all" going for you, ladies?

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What? You say you're just here to talk about economic growth or a new drug you developed or social media outreach? Yeah, first we need to know where your children are right now. Who fed them dinner? How do you feel about that? Is your husband at home right now "babysitting" his own children? Does he "help out" with stuff like cooking and scheduling family activities? Did you take any time off when you had your last baby? Do you feel it got you off the career track? Do you want to have more children and if so, when? Please put your hand on a bible and solemnly swear that your first and best "job" is being a mom. We'll be here looking for any cracks in your facade that might suggest compromise, trade-offs, flexibility, or, most of all, imperfection. Then we can point at you and say "A-HA! You call THAT having it all?"

I think the reason that women are so often so challenged on the "having it all" trope is because there's something implicitly threatening in the message. After all, if women start having it, and all of it, then there's nothing left for men, right? They'll have the jobs and the kids and the world will be a cold and masculinity-free place. What's your game, women? Better keep asking them about their kids — maybe they'll get scared off from this whole "careers and ambitions" thing.

Of course, the work-life tightrope is a very challenging one to walk, and the burden of navigating it falls disproportionately to mothers. We can have conversations about that. We can conversations about that all damn day long, if you'd like, because I have plenty to say. But when women come to talk about work and get asked about their babies, it sends a message to everybody reading, listening and watching that babies are the top story and work is a hobby. So just remember that women — yes, even women who've had children — are capable of talking about things other than children. And that there is no magical all to had, for anybody.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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