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“Unfinished Business:” Work and Family, Success and Survival

A few years ago I was tasked with the unenviable job of developing the first employee handbook for a start-up I was working for. It fell to me to define everything from work hours to vacation to family leave. The first draft included a generous paid family leave policy which I had benefitted from after having my first child—four months of leave, two paid at 100% of my salary.

But when I gave it to my boss to review, she told me she “didn’t believe in paternity leave” and insisted we only give that benefit as a “pregnancy leave”—in other words, it was only for women who carried babies and gave birth. Everyone else was allowed 6 weeks unpaid leave. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Did she not believe that dads want to raise their kids, too? What about families who adopt or use surrogates?

We argued extensively about it, but in the end, my boss was shockingly straightforward about her rationale. Bearing and raising kids—especially babies—was women’s work. And if she, a highly successful woman in her own right, could somehow run a household and also run a company, then we all could.

Sadly, the bias baked into that policy—and the reasons behind it—is not at all unique. Despite the massive cultural and demographic transformations American families are undergoing, traditional notions about who is responsible for childcare persist.

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter

This puzzle is at the core of Anne Marie Slaughter’s important book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which she wrote after an article in the Atlantic on the same subject matter went viral in 2012.

Slaughter’s own journey began when she had to to leave her round-the-clock position as a foreign policy advisor for Hilary Clinton to attend to urgent family needs. Although she was already a full-time tenured professor at Princeton, the reactions of her peers showed that they subtly devalued her decision. The decision to “spend time with the family” was for women who had given up on promising careers and abandoned the ambition of “have-it-all” feminism which pushed women to simultaneously run their households and lean into punishing careers with no room for error.

Slaughter’s book is a clarion call to value caregiving and breadwinning equally, and to restructure our policies and laws to reflect the importance of family in our pursuit of living happy and fulfilled lives.

What’s holding us back? As Slaughter observes, it’s not just that we lack the political will and leadership to enact change, but on a more basic level (as my experience with my former boss shows), outdated notions of care persist up and down the socioeconomic spectrum and in all kinds of workplaces.

Slaughter systematically debunks the “half-truths” that women, men, and employers tell themselves, and which are responsible for maintaining the status quo. Most women cannot have it all even if they “are just committed enough” to their careers, “marry the right person,”  or “sequence it right” because none of us can predict what’s going to happen in our careers, marriages, with our health or our kids.

Workplaces that frame work/life balance as a “women’s problem”  shut women out from having the type of career they want while also erasing men from the caregiving equation. Flexible or part-time work schedules are not the answer, because research shows that, when it comes to things like salary and promotion, they penalize the caregivers—again, mostly women—who choose them.

All this may seem particularly surprising to younger generations, who are being raised at a time when the composition of the modern American family and workforce is radically changing. Today, 40 percent of women are the breadwinners in their families; in 60 percent of families in which there are two parents, both work; and over half of children are being raised in “nontraditional families”—with single parents, grandparents, or same-sex parents.

Many of our kids are also being raised by parents who are working in the “gig economy” or part-time jobs with no benefits, low-wage jobs with unpredictable hours, or workplaces with no paid family leave or sick time policies to speak of.

Maybe our kids will throw everything out the window and start from scratch when they become adults. Until then, Slaughter argues, just as the physical infrastructure of our nation—our highways, bridges and railways—needs updating and repair to support our modern ways of travel, our infrastructure of care—family leave policies, childcare supports, and workplace policies—need updating and an overhaul to support our modern way of parenting and working.

But where to begin? Slaughter argues that the type of change we need requires massive social, cultural, and political shifts, and so proposes tackling change in two realms—the personal and the political.

In our personal lives, Slaughter proposes we use a language of equality that does away with qualifiers like “stay-at-home” (implying that the office is the norm). She encourages us to talk about things other than work at social gatherings, to ask our potential hires how they plan to divide up care responsibilities at home, and to avoid overpraising dads for doing all the normal things that women do as a matter of course without praise (changing diapers, taking kids to the playground, taking the lead role at home while a spouse travels for work, etc).  

Some of Slaughter’s advice is naive: she urges couples to have, well in advance of adding a child to their family, the difficult conversations about careers and the trade-offs they’ll have to make.

It’s theoretically practical advice that’s unlikely to be followed by people who can’t really imagine the transformation that’s on the horizon. The arrival of a child is not like renovating a kitchen–you can’t draw up plans for what life will look like. Identities shift, career and life ambitions are revisited, prioriites and even personalities change.

And when Slaughter encourages us to think about our careers in terms of “interval training” (pushing hard, then stepping back), I can’t help but think about the number of women I know with advanced degrees who “stepped back” only to find it nearly impossible to step back into a workplace that penalizes them for ever leaving to begin with.

Slaughter points to promising models that are springing up around the country on an ad-hoc basis: for example, workplaces that are experimenting with results-only models of work, where employees co-create the policies, and where there are radically flexible work hours.

These are worthy examples, to be sure, but the irony is that these types of arrangements tend to flow to the people who can already afford other types of care, or have the skills available to go elsewhere. Slaughter has been accused of purveying a white-collar, elitist brand of feminism; and the “lifestyle” recommendations of the book’s second half do seem to shed the concern for working-class women, same sex couples, and other groups to whom she makes inclusive gestures in the book’s opening chapters.

Still, Slaughter knows that all the small-scale transformations in the world will not be able to compensate for a lack of a comprehensive infrastructure of care created and supported by government policies; it’s here where her recommendations are most inclusive and important.

High-quality and affordable child and eldercare, higher wages and training for caregivers, legal protections for part-time and flexible work, and financial and social support for single parents are among the essential elements of such a plan. Slaughter encourages more women to run for office, and for us to elect them, because female officeholders are more likely to propose and support family-friendly laws.

Unfinished Business stands at the gap between two worlds: the world we currently live in that values work and aggressively devalues care, and a seemingly inevitable world to come.

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In the world to come, women and men equally share caregiving, families aren’t shut out of benefits because they don’t conform to old definitions of what a family is, and, most importantly, caregiving is valued just as much as breadwinning. In our homes, Americans have already started this great transformation–never before have so many of us been modeling new norms of caregiving. It’s time for our aging institutions and policies to catch up, or we will all fall behind.

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