Anne-Marie Slaughter on the value of caregiving, co-parenting and why we need to do less

In 2009 Anne-Marie Slaughter landed what she has called her dream job—director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State. But during that time, her two sons were experiencing a rough period of adolescence, and she found herself wanting to be home in New Jersey with them. So she left her dream job in government after just two years, and then wrote a powerful article for The Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." That article went on to become one of the most read articles in the history of the magazine and helped to reignite the conversation around gender equality.
Today, Anne-Marie is still one of the most prominent political scientists out there, and in 2015 she published a widely-read book based on the response to her Atlantic article, titled, "Unfinished Business: Women, men, work and family." In addition to being President and CEO of New America, she is also the mother of two sons.
In this episode, Liz and Anne-Marie talk about the value of caregiving, the reasons why it has been so undervalued in our society, and what we can do to start changing these norms and push towards equality.

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Liz: Hi Ann Marie. Welcome to the Motherly podcast. We're so excited to have you here today.

Ann Marie: I'm delighted to be on.

Liz: So something I like asking all fellow mothers is what was your view of motherhood before you actually became a mother yourself?

Ann Marie: I have to think back some time ago since my sons are now 20 and 22.

Liz: Okay.

Ann Marie: I had a brother who was ten years younger than I was and I was mature enough that I did definitely mother him in all sorts of ways and I was also a professor. I had lots of students who were not the same as your children but if you are maternally minded by which I mean you like investing in others 'cause that's how I think of it. I thought of motherhood as kind of a continuation of a relationship I'd had. I think the difference is I was not particularly obsessed with babies. But then of course a lot of my friends started having kids and as I've written it took me two and a half years to get pregnant. So by the time I actually got pregnant I was thinking about motherhood nonstop day in and day out. But before that period I think I didn't really think that it was going to be all that different than the kind of relationships that I had had.

Liz: After all of the work and emotional effort of getting pregnant and having a baby was motherhood what you expected it to be?

Ann Marie: It was wonderful. Again, it really is in the context of we wanted. You know I was 35 when I got married for the second time and we started trying pretty much right away. And you know nothing happened and nothing happened and we went to our first infertility doctor and then we tried a few things and the second doctor said, "Look you're so old" essentially because I was 37. He said we should go directly to in vitro fertilization. We got pregnant on our first round but only there was a sort of hiccup at the very end where I went through the procedure and they then called me up and said, "You're not pregnant." I was devastated. Then I went back in the following Tuesday, this was a Friday, and they said just to check your blood levels just to end it. And I went back in on Tuesday and that afternoon they called me up and said, "You're pregnant." And so I remember that so wonderfully and Edward was just. He was. He was nine pounds nine when he was born.

Liz: Wow.

Ann Marie: And this is very important because he slept through the night very quickly.

Liz: It is important.

Ann Marie: Yes. It is very important. So my first experience with my first child was really; my husband and I both had a semester off because we were both professors. My husband was completely engaged from day one and I. So I remember it really as a quite wonderful time, which I am certainly aware is not everyone' s experience because I had a lot of luxuries to make it. Make it easier; time off and an 100% engaged spouse.

Liz: Absolutely and I'm looking forward to talking about other moms and other circumstances that often find themselves in new motherhood. So a big theme in your more recent work is the value of caregiving both in economic terms but also in terms of our lives and where we get our meaning from. How did we get to a place as a society where we look down on caregiving and in particular, the women who do that work?

Ann Marie: I think I can start answering your question by saying I had re-educate myself on this. When I wrote my Atlantic article, Why Women Can't Still Have it All in 2012, I was a pretty typical feminist career woman. I grew up wanting to be a lawyer like my father. And if you had asked me to introduce my mother in 2012 I would have told you that she was a professional artist and I would have talked about her paintings and the collections they hang in. I would never have said she spent 20 years as a stay at home mom or housewife or homemaker or whatever term you prefer. But by the time I wrote the book, Unfinished Business in 2015, I had really examined this question and thought in terms of the value to our society, the work that mostly mothers do but it's not limited to mothers, what parents do is every bit important to the future of our society, the future of the race, happiness, health, wellbeing, all sorts of things.

Liz: To name a few.

Ann Marie: Yeah, to name a few as the dollars that traditional breadwinners have provided or the services that they provide. I have a chapter in the book saying managing kids is harder than managing money, which is kind of like heresy but it's certainly true for anybody who's ever tried the two. So how did we get here? I think just straight out power relationships. You know men are in power and I think many men ironically before the women's movement, would have say you know my wife is essential to my career. She's the lynch pin. I value her work but money talks and we don't pay for it. And then I think many women felt following the power structure of our society if I want to be somebody I've got to be like my father. And again, none of us would want to go back and I just think all people need to value both and do both to the extent that their life circumstances allow.

Liz: So talk to us about the actual value of caregiving

Ann Marie: Yes. So the value in part you can think of the value in terms of what you have to pay someone who will provide what; I can just use my case, my mother provided a you know highly intelligent educated person who invested in not just her children individually but in constructing a family. I've just come away actually from my father's retirement party. He's 87 and retiring and my two brothers and I were all there and saluting my father. One of the other people there said, "You know if you look at this family that's." Yes my father provided but my mother constructed the family and without that foundation and I should emphasize it doesn't have to be a biological family. Often you can construct a non-biological family. But a really good family is the foundation for success. It is what allows you to achieve what you're going to achieve. It helps you be resilient. It catches you when you fall and that work of care, and again care is investing in others. So that can be also teaching or ministry or healthcare, lots of different care jobs. But that value if we paid people to do all that work, it certainly would come to what most men earn. But if we also think about out in terms of social cohesion and again health, wellbeing, confidence, all the things that. That good mothering and good parenting provide, it's. It's almost priceless.

Liz: In your book you I believe rightly argue that caregivers deserve to be well paid. But as you know most working families in America today find the cost of childcare to already be so high that the expense alone pushes many women out of the workforce because they just decide, "Well it's cheaper for me to stay home than take my entire paycheck and pay a babysitter." What? What can we do about this dilemma?

Ann Marie: So this is a question of national priorities, it's sort of a huge collective action problem because in every individual case it's just your child and your family and you are going to do it. But if we look collectively this is the future of our economy, the future of our national security and certainly the best chance we have at becoming a more equal society. All those things depend on giving every child the same basic opportunity and all the more because we now know in the first three years of a child's life and then at periodic intervals thereafter, when you're caring for them you're not just giving them knowledge you're shaping their capacity to learn. Your interactions with them is determining how many brain cells they're going to have. So if we think about that from a national perspective, we need to invest in an infrastructure of care and that means you've got to subsidize high quality childcare enough that it attracts lots of folks into it who then get certified and are professionals just as much as you need in law or accounting. And that you can afford to pay people a decent wage. Now there're always going to be people who decide, "No. I'd rather do this myself." In which case we should include them in the social security system which they do in Canada. We should make people eligible for the earned income tax credit. If they in other words calculate their hours to which they'd get paid. We effectively have to strike a different equilibrium. I mean right now childcare for two children is more than the cost of rent in all 50 states. So of course people are making the decision to stay home. But that is bad for our economy. It sucks female talent out, so it means we don't benefit from them but also it means we're not really investing in our children the way we should be.

Liz: It sounds so obvious when you talk about it that way as an infrastructure investment. You're sitting in Washington, D.C. What policies do you think would make the biggest difference for families and actually have a chance of getting passed?

Ann Marie: Yeah. Well the have a chance of getting passed still does require I do think electing many more women although I don't think only women think this. But we do have to start by electing people who run on these issues and who say we are undermining the foundation of our country unless we do something big. And then the two things big that I would do; one would be absolutely subsidized high quality childcare. We can do this. There are plenty of countries that do this and we can do this and again for our poorest citizens nothing will equalize their life chances more than. More than that. And the second thing that I would so is a universal family care account. So it's like you know if you think of a health savings account although that's more subsidized or you think of social security you think of Medicare. It's a. It would be a big, big social policy reform on the order of the kinds of reforms we made in the 1930s. But it would give everyone an account that they could draw on for any kind of care, whether it's children, whether it's yourself, whether it's your parents, whether it's a sibling or a spouse. And you could do that over your lifetime and it would solve the problem of relying on different state laws, different city laws, different employment policies. And so those are the two things I would do, and both of them are doable if we make the case for it and probably we're willing to make some guns and butter tradeoffs that are a little different. But you know I'll take fewer aircraft carriers and more early education. And I say that as a national security professional.

Liz: You know you write in your book about the women who would benefit the most from this national infrastructure of care are disadvantaged women, single moms and women of color. Can you talk a little bit more about why these women in particular stand. Stand to benefit from a world that values care giving?

Ann Marie: Absolutely. I mean in the first place because women like me, privileged women, enable our continuing work by paying other women to care for our children and most, not all, but most of those other women are women of color. Many are immigrants documented or undocumented and that's a very, very uncomfortable trade off and you really don't want to build a care system on the backs of poor women, often women of color, often immigrant women who have left their own children behind in the Philippines or the Dominican Republic. So we really resetting and saying, "Look. Everybody's children" If you then provide high quality childcare and make it possible to pay caregivers a decent livable wage, Suddenly I and you know a woman I might have otherwise employed have access to the same basic infrastructure of care for all of our kids. Now I will still have. I can give my children advantages on top of that that probably another woman might not be able to, but at least it's a foundation of. That gives everybody an equal starting point. But you know you ask why that doesn't happen. Who's speaking for those women? Many, as I said, some are not citizens. Those who are citizens are certainly not out there you know voting and. And agitating for people to run. And even the women who run traditionally have not made this the head of their platform because they're appealing to male voters as well as women. So we need a norm change

Liz: So I have to tell you. I am the mother of two sons as well and they're four and six.

Ann Marie: That's a nice age.

Liz: And regarding your book I actually got teary eyed at the part where you wrote that the next phase of the women's movement is a men's movement.

Ann Marie: Yes.

Liz: What do you mean?

Ann Marie: So the only way to get to real gender equality is to change the roles of both genders and what we've been trying to do is we had a system. If you think of the 60s the 70s and the second wave of largely white privileged women, we changed our roles dramatically. We went from caregiving almost entirely to working and working for money and then still caregiving. Men's roles have not changed. I mean they help more but I hate the word help. Help means you're in charge and he's doing what you tell him to do. It does not relieve you of the burden of responsibility of management, of thinking about it, all of that. And but lots of men have you know stepped up, but their role, their socially expected role is still a bread winner. And indeed men who say as my husband did, you know he. I'm the bigger breadwinner and he's the bigger caregiver, what we call the lead parent. That is. That you know lots of. Lots of men are scared to do that. They feel like their masculinity will be questioned. You know society as a whole questions men who do that. But the only way to get to equality is for them to be doing as much caregiving as we are doing breadwinning and ultimately it's just not should be a gendered issue. It's an issue of who are you, what are you interested in doing, how you know successful are you at doing it, but it should be as easy and as expected for a man to say, "You know I'm 35. I just had a child. I'm now going to step out for a while or slow down for a while because this is my caregiving period" or later in life for his own parents as it is for a woman. And that means it's gotta be a men's movement because men have got to say, "I want a different life." And women have to value the men who do, which meaning we have to retool our, some of our expectations around what makes a good man, a strong man, a masculine man.

Liz: And on that you know many of our listeners are parents to boys so not just how we relate to men as adults but how we parent and talk about boyhood and manhood. How can mothers help their sons have this revolution in masculinity that they deserve?

Ann Marie: So a couple of things; one expect that your boys will get babysitting jobs just as much as your girls. This is a very early gender tracking where we just think, "Oh of course girls are babysitters." My eldest son is fantastic with younger children. He's always been great with his cousins. He saw that as an economic discrimination. Why shouldn't he be able to? So the socialization of men. The second is when their little really all the way through the mother needs to praise the father and it's not even praise, it's clearly value the father for what he does at home as much as for what he does in the workplace. So my husband's the cook or and you know all my children's lives they've seen dad as the cook and I think it's pretty fabulous that he is the cook.

Liz: Yes.

Ann Marie: You know I'm the baker but he is the cook and so they've seen that not only do men cook but women really admire men who cook. And one manifestation when my sixteen year old was first with you know had a girlfriend he wanted to impress, he cooked her dinner. And that was when I thought yes. You know 'cause he thought, "Well my father does rather well with my mother by cooking. I'm going to try this." But the same thing. You know I often would tell my sons when we would talk about you know money or what we were going to do and I would say, "You know your dad is investing time that I don't give you. Your dad is the one who's there with your homework." And you know I may pay for the vacation but he's investing time and time is just as important as money. So yeah you have to value it and show your sons because you know, I had men say, "Yeah you say that's what you want but that's not the guy you're going to go home with." And they say it you know in the end you're going to fall for the Marlboro Man even while you're saying you want someone to do the dishes. And so until women really say, "No, no. This guy." I look at my husband and say he's as competent at a stove as he is in the classroom I think I value that and I frankly think it shows security and. And competence which I find very sexy.

Liz: Me too. You talked about how women or mothers in particular must go beyond this idea of asking for help from their. From their partners to a truly equal partnership where men and women both feel accountable for the family and the household but how. How do women get from where they are now to that world?

Ann Marie: So you remember Frozen. That great song, "Let it Go", that's what you have to do and start small. Let your husband take responsibility for planning birthday parties. That should be your first step. Most mothers are like, "Huh? They wont have a birthday party. They'll be eating cold pizza. They'll you know the house will be a disaster." And you know again, the phrase run a tight ship comes from the Navy and if you sail a ship it's gotta be spotless. Everything's gotta be in place. Men can do this. Of course they can do this right. If they can you know do all the things we do and trust them to do, they certainly can organize a child's birthday party. The only way to get out of the I'm in charge of everything and he helps is to give him things and really let him tell you what to do. But the corollary to that is you may often not agree with what he does and this was the hardest thing when my husband and me moved from co-parenting to him lead parenting, was you know I would come home and say, "No, no. You've gotta do it this way." And he just was not having it. He was like, "Fine. You want to do it your way? Great. Come home and do it. But if I'm doing it I'm doing it my way and who's to say that you know better than I do?

Liz: Something you've noted before is the fact that when you introduce yourself at a speaking event or at a workplace that you always mention that you're a mother. And I'm wondering if there are other little ways that you think. People who are perhaps not as prominent a position as you are can help to contribute to making parenthood more visible, normal and respected.

Ann Marie: Yes. If you are a manager or a teacher or anybody working with younger people starting out in their careers, you should ask every man who is sitting in front of you, "How are you thinking about juggling work and family?" If he is you know and at every point you would say that to a young woman and most of us do you should say that to a guy. So you normalize the expectation. And then yes when. When you are introducing yourself or interestingly Twitter handles are a good one and I see a lot of men on Twitter identifying themselves as husband of x or father of y which is I think great progress. But you know you. You present yourself as a whole person. You say you know, " I'm Ann Marie Slaughter and this is my job. And I'm the wife of or the mother of." That is a just as important part of your life. And you know even you know super famous people at the end of their lives. I always listen to George H.W. Bush was a great example, what was most important to him in his life was his family. And President Obama is on record of having said, "On my deathbed I will remember that I was the father of Malia and Sasha" not that he was President of the United States. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's what makes us human and it's wonderful.

Liz: And yet it's something that women have more recently been told not to define themselves by.

Ann Marie: Yes, you know you don't want the women saying they're mothers without the men saying they're fathers. How can we be good allies? I want to say you can fight to change your role. You can fight to have you be defined as much as being a father or a husband as women have been traditionally defined by our relationship than what we're individually known for.

Liz: Ann Marie is there anything that we didn't talk about today that you think is important for our listeners to know?

Ann Marie: You know I think the place I'd end is the reason women want it all and again I don't use that phrase anymore because it got so misunderstood. But the reason we do want to be in the workplace, many of us again not all, and but don't want to give up the family part is because we know that both are really important. And that's right but similarly they are important to men too. And they're. This is hard for women. And I'll illustrate it that when my husband and I are traveling and again, my husband has spent more time with them but I'm a fully engaged mom, but we're traveling and my. My boys will text him. Which I'm immediately so I text them back and say, "Hey what am I? Chopped liver? Why didn't you text me?" And there's this constant competition. And a lot of that is funny but a lot of that is also. It's hard to let go the role that we kind of owned and we don't want to let it go. It gives us an enormous sense of being needed and valued. And even though I want to be needed and valued as the professional I am I also want to be needed and valued by my. My children, my parents, others in my life. So really to get to gender equality we do have to let go. We have to give that gift of being as important at home as you are in the office to the men or other women in our lives whom we love and share caregiving responsibilities with.

Liz: I love it. So Ann Marie one last question before we go. Something that we talk a lot about here at Motherly is this idea that we have superpowers that we discover when we become mothers. What is your super power?

Ann Marie: Oh goodness. Well the one I discovered as a mother was the ability to transmit my deep, deep love of reading to my children. I mean indeed reading to my children was the thing that I loved most about being a mother and I was so sad when they learned to read themselves. I could read to them for an hour. But it was more than reading. It was communicating love of the written word but it was also kindling the imagination. I was able to teach my children how to create a world that they and I inhabited. And that's still in many ways a very strong bond for both my sons and me and it's not something I. I. I expected when I thought about being a mother. But boy it's been deeply, deeply satisfying and I've got a son who's now writing scripts so.

Liz: Thank you. Ann Marie Slaughter, thank you so much for such a rich conversation today. You gave us a lot to think about.

Ann Marie: I so enjoyed it.

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