A few years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, announced on the cover of The Atlantic that women “still can’t have it all.”
She’d had a massively successful academic career, and a family too, but she experienced stress in a new job, so she switched to something else. That her own story would be used to illustrate the plight of womanhood generally was a little strange, yet clearly she touched a nerve. The piece scored millions of reads.
But was she right? Will combining a demanding career with a family lead inevitably to becoming a harried mess?
Beyond this strange focus on the few crazy moments in otherwise blessed lives, the assumption that demanding work and a full personal life are incompatible is just wrong on a mathematical perspective.
I’m not sure that’s the case. I’ve spent the past few years studying time logs from women who earn six figures and have kids. The good news is that women with demanding careers turn out to have space for family and leisure too. That’s something to celebrate, rather than lamenting the tough moments that exist in any calendar.
I’ve always been a bit mystified by the bleak tone of much literature on women and work. There is certainly much society could do to better support working parents. But no one is entitled to a stress-free life, and the structure of many of these stories -- these stressful things happened to me, and therefore life is unsustainable -- misses much of the richness and complexity of how we spend our days.
Life is stressful and life is wonderful, particularly if you are blessed enough to have a big career and a family too, a choice many women didn’t have in generations past, and many women around the world lack now.
But beyond this strange focus on the few crazy moments in otherwise blessed lives, the assumption that demanding work and a full personal life are incompatible is just wrong on a mathematical perspective.
For a book I recently wrote called "I Know How She Does It," I had well over 100 high-earning women track their time for 7 straight days (168 hours). They wrote down when they worked, slept, exercised, read, watched TV, did housework, and so forth. Though these women had jobs in various demanding fields (medicine, law, accounting, finance, small business owners, corporate executives, etc.) they worked, on average 44 hours per week. That’s longer than the average person, to be sure, but it’s not around the clock either.
The other good news? They got a reasonable amount of sleep. We have a tendency to remember bad nights more than good ones, and it’s hard to figure out a typical night. But when you add it up over a week, these women averaged 54 hours of sleep, which is not much less than 8 hours per day. Sleep is a biological function, not a testament to how busy you are, so even these busy women got a reasonable amount of shut-eye.
If you add up 44 hours of work, and 54 hours of sleep, that leaves 70 hours for other things. Not surprisingly, women had time for their families and for leisure in these 70 hours. Why not? It’s the equivalent of 10 hours per day! And so, while there were stressful moments -- missed planes, traffic jams, kid-meltdowns -- women made time to read to their children, to volunteer at their schools, to take yoga classes, and go out with girlfriends. Perhaps these things didn’t happen as much as people wanted, but that’s a very different story than them not happening at all.
When you look at the whole picture, life for working mothers with big jobs isn’t that bleak. Indeed, it’s often very good. Full, but good -- and I believe in celebrating abundance rather than lamenting choices or claiming that women can’t have it all.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of "I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time." She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children.