“Why Women Can’t Have It All” challenges career-child balance

Elizabeth Polsdofer

For 22 years of the average undergraduate’s life, the box they can check without hesitation on any form is the “student” box when asked for an occupation. We have all been students; it’s an easy label to apply to ourselves despite our differences in backgrounds and creeds. However, with age comes additional labels and the ability to check more boxes.

A recent article published in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” asks how realistically can women check the “professional” and “parent” boxes off to a satisfactory degree.

“One thing that struck me is that ‘Women Can’t Have it All,’ right?” said Mayly Sanchez, ISU assistant professor of physics and astronomy. “It’s the title. Is that really true? Is it true that we can’t have it all? 

“What struck me about the author is that she’s exactly the example that somebody that can have it all. Everyone is going to make sacrifices and decisions about personal lives and careers all the time; everybody does, even when it seems to you that people are not really making those choices.”

In her article, Slaughter explains the difficulty of planning a life around her high-profile career working under Hillary Clinton with balancing her responsibilities as a mother of an adolescent son who is acting out in school. 

When Slaughter isn’t working under one of the most powerful female politicians in American history, she teaches at Princeton, where she also holds administrative positions.

Even if women are not holding high level positions in government or teaching at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, they can certainly appreciate the difficulty of balancing work and career. 

Emily Heaton, assistant professor of agronomy, is a woman trying to gain tenure and mother of a young child. She isn’t shy about admitting the balancing act is challenging.

“To be honest, at Iowa State it’s pretty fun,” she said. “It’s not to say that it’s not challenging; it’s very challenging. I’m not sure that the challenges that I have are any harder than any young professional mother. At least in my department I’ve had a lot of flexibility. I still have very high expectations, but I have flexibility and that’s been very helpful.

“Unfortunately, it’s not been that way for everyone. I know policies at other universities or at least at this university to have a different department head, [create] a different culture, and they don’t feel like they have the flexibility.”

Slaughter argues that a flexible schedule is a major factor that lets women “have it all” but warns generalizing this specific case does not mean all women can have it all. Heaton is not the first professor to use flexibility as a tool to balance her professorship and parenthood.

As the first female faculty member of the department of physics and astronomy, Lee Anne Willson attributed this crucial balance as the reason for her success as a young professional and mother.

“Back when I was having my kids people were saying, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never had a pregnant colleague before. I don’t know how to deal with this,’” Willson said. “There was one guy who wouldn’t get on the elevator with me, because he was sure I was going to give birth between the first floor and the fifth floor. … I didn’t feel like I could take time off because I felt like I would lose the respect of my colleagues if I did, so it was a week with one and two weeks with the other.”

Annie Deam, wife of senior lecturer in political science Dirk Deam, chose to stay at home when her children were born. Deam is working on a degree in Spanish, since she can only find part-time work as a French teacher due to budget cuts. Although she stayed at home with her children for eight years, Deam said she was ready to get back to work when her children were old enough.

“Having our children was a very long and arduous process — almost 10 years, and I really wanted to stay at home with them. At that time my husband worked as a manager in the space shuttle program, and our income allowed me to be at home full time,” Deam said about her decision to stay home with her children. “It was a combination of many things, but I was pretty passionate about staying home with them. For me it was a pleasure; I enjoyed it thoroughly but was ready to return to the workplace part time when my kids were in elementary school and then full time a few years later.”

Staying at home was not an option for Willson. Traditionally there have been very few women in physics and astronomy, and since Iowa State does not have a separate astronomy department, fitting in as a woman in astronomy made it all that more difficult for Willson.

“I think I would have come back ,but I don’t know if I would have been welcomed back,” Willson said. “There was enough uncertainty about what the heck this person is doing in this department when I first came, and it wasn’t just being a woman, it was also being an astronomer. Physicists aren’t really sure what the astronomers do, so here’s this woman astronomer and is she really one of us or not? So, I felt like I needed to be clearly focused on the job nonstop in order to get through that.”

Although Deam chose to bear the brunt of the parenting responsibilities in her time as a stay-at-home mom, she said having a good spouse as a must-have for working women.

“My sisters and friends who went straight back into the workforce full time and those who have been happiest and most fulfilled at work and at home are those who have really, really good support from husbands or partners,” Deam said. “If you’re going to be a parent and you’re not going to do it alone, if you’re going to have a dad around, you need one who is willing to do all the tasks that a stay-at-home mom typically does so you can split the workload when you’re both working outside the home.”

The decision of when and how to have children is strategic for many women pursuing careers in addition to parenthood to think about very carefully. Sanchez described a friend of hers who, during her graduate work at MIT, planned pregnancies around key events in her career. Planning worked well until Sanchez’s friend found out she was expecting twins.

“It was [a] perfectly reasonable planning approach, then life hits you with twins,” Sanchez said. “What are you going to do?

“I don’t think of [the decision whether to have children] as a conscious choice, though. It never really happened,” Sanchez said. “I might still have kids. But if I look at why, I think I always had concerns about having to move or not being in a very stable situation for awhile. There was always going to be a better time, and the better time took a while to get to.”

“I think there are lots and lots of different ways to do it,”  Deam said. “The way I did it worked well for me, and it could be a direction other women might take. Some women don’t want to be at home full time and some people’s careers don’t allow them to do that. Some careers, like teaching, are more forgiving to women who choose to stay home with their young children. Whatever your profession, it is crucial to go into marriage and then parenting with a partner who is willing to support you in whatever choices you make.”

“I think people choose different things. Everybody makes a choice. Is there some magical formula in which your life somehow looks like as if you’re sliding by and doing everything? No. Everything takes a huge amount of effort, whether it be you spend a lot of time working for your career, or you try to make your work-balance,” Sanchez said. “There’s going to be regrets; there’s always going to be regrets.”

“It’s really amazing to me how the department head and the college can completely set the tone and make it either a fun environment to get your things done or something that makes you want to quit, which has happened to most women in the sciences,” Heaton said. “I don’t think it’s worth going some place that is not committed to your retention and is not committed to your success. It shouldn’t be a weed-out process; it should be a joint development.”

The light at the end of the tunnel for women in science, in addition to balancing motherhood and professorship, is what Sanchez refers to as a “critical mass” of women who are able to support each other.

“My first year I didn’t know that many people and there weren’t a lot of other young women who had been hired, but now I feel like I have friends and that I think is huge, actually. I think it’s really huge to have a network of people,” Heaton said. “If you feel like you have a group of people who care about you and you care about them, it’s a whole of a lot easier to do it together.”

The clear message each woman gave when asked to give advice to women is to make their own paths in life. While not every woman can identify with Slaughter’s success and lifestyle, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is a viral article because it raises so many questions women have about balancing careers and children.

“I think that what we all underappreciate when we’re young is that we’re all going to have to make choices about what we do,” Willson said. “She’s simply pointing out some of the choices that she has had to make.”