In recent years, smart, successful women have been giving working parents—moms, in particular—advice intended to help them succeed at work and at home. Don't be afraid to pursue a leadership role at work, advised Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. Don't completely dump your career and assume that you can depend on a husband, or that the work world will welcome you back when you suddenly need it, warned Leslie Bennetts in The Feminine Mistake. These are important, thought-provoking books, ones I keep in short reach on my bookshelf.
Indeed, women have gotten plenty of advice about what they should be doing. Then along came Anne-Marie Slaughter and her groundbreaking article in The Atlantic: "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Slaughter wrote about how an unexpected crisis with her teenage son forced her to reevaluate whether she could combine her dream job and family, even with the advantages of a supportive boss and husband. "Perhaps the problem is not with women, but with work," Slaughter wrote, and women everywhere who were pushed out of jobs after they became mothers or couldn't afford the ridiculous cost of childcare silently screamed, "Thank you!" Most women who are at the top of their professions after all, she noted, are either superhuman, rich, or self-employed (and sometimes all three).
Where does that leave the rest of us, flummoxed by all the issues that face working parents, from school schedules that don't match work hours, to bosses who bang their heads on the desk when we announce our pregnancies? (That actually happened to a friend of mine.) And how many of us, superhuman or not, are just one unexpected life blow away—a job layoff, a family illness, a child in trouble at school, the loss of a caregiver—from our family falling into chaos?
I'm excited that Slaughter's now got a book, Unfinished Business, released today, which expands on the points made in the Atlantic article. Slaughter writes about "the failure of modern American companies to adapt to the realities of modern American life." We need to stop seeing care for our children and elders as a women's issue, she writes, which marginalizes and devalues this important responsibility, and see it as a care issue. Managers who resist change and "like the workplace culture the way it is—based on presence, and hence control, more than performance" need to focus less on how long workers are at work, rather than what they actually get done. And parents who want work-life balance, or simply a life outside of work, shouldn't be viewed as lacking commitment to their work.
I'm so glad to see Slaughter's book sparking fresh conversations on these issues and more, particularly in an election year. Who will appreciate this book? Any parent who's had a boss who wasn't sympathetic to her needs as a caregiver to her children or aging parents. Anyone who's had a manager who expected her to stay for meetings that ran past 6, precisely when the daycare closed. Any parent whose go-to member of the family (usually, no surprise here, a grandmother) who's always watched the kids couldn't, or wouldn't, do it any more. The single mom who has no choice but to be the breadwinner and the caregiver. (Slaughter writes: "Compared to single parents in other high-income countries, American single parents have the highest poverty rate and the weakest income-support system.") And countless other parents who've found it increasingly hard to work, and afford to work given the crushing cost of childcare, especially after a second child came along. This book is just as relevant to stay-at-home moms, who never know if they, too, may need a supportive work environment and infrastructure if and when they need or want to return to paid work—not to mention how better policies will make the working world a more hospitable place for their own children and families someday.
As Slaughter tells us: "If we can adopt policies and practices that support and advance women at every level of our society, we will make things better for everybody."
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mom of three.