It's the new black.
We’re having the “Have it all” debate again.
While perusing wedding blogs for no practical reason, I stumbled upon Richard Dorment’s latest piece for Esquire, entitled “Why Men Still Can’t Have It All,” a direct rebuke to Anne Marie Slaughter’s manifesto in The Atlantic. What I found perplexed me. Dorment’s article promised an argument but it was not an argument I found easy to follow; instead, it was rambling, angry, frustrated, carrying the promise of saying something about dads and women and Facebook but exactly what, I couldn’t figure out. I knew I was awake, thanks to 4.5 tablespoons of Caffe Verona. The only solution seemed to be outlining his piece from start to finish (I did, and it is included at the end of this post).
This is my summary after the outline: Dorment’s main contention is that men struggle as much as women in maintaining work/life balance, because life at the top is hard for everyone. Focusing the argument solely on “working mothers” ignores working fathers who face work/life conflict. Those seeking life at the top, being hard and rewarding, should not complain.
Dorment faces an issue fraught with complications, some he (thankfully) acknowledges and others, like codified power structures and brazened gender hierarchies, that he does not. Overall, his defensive tone and lack of organization do not help his argument, nor does his failure to satisfactorily identify and elucidate the other half of the “have it all” debate.
When we talk about “who can have it all,” there are two fundamental parts to the question (this is why grammar matters, a fact my third-grade-self would have debated). One part is the “who,” and the other is the “it.” Both must be identified and argued persuasively for the overall argument to have merit.
Who’s the Who?
Both Anne Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, the two “theorists” of modern work/life balance whom Dorment quotes, identify the “who” as women, justifying this choice because of the historic difficulties facing women who sought to work at the top.
The novelty of Dorment’s piece is that he changes the “who,” from “women” to “men” and then suggests that the argument, at some level, should be nongendered. Towards the end of Why Men Can’t Have it All, he writes, “In the end, isn’t that what feminism was supposed to be about? Not equality for equality’s sake—half of all homes run by men, half of all corporations run by women – but to give each of us, men and women, access to the same choices and then the ability to choose for ourselves?” Dorment funnels the discussion to the individual and in doing so, argues that this process makes it more equitable and more realistic, given the complexities of contemporary life.
Dorment’s argument reminded me of an unexpected source (perhaps for him; never unexpected for me): the patron saint of Gaudy, Dorothy L. Sayers. In the essay collection Are Women Human? , Sayers criticized the feminists of the early twentieth century for advocating “success for women” without asking which women, what success?
What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether…. That a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person. A certain amount of classification is, of course, necessary for practical purposes… What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs.
When it comes to discussing matters of individual choice, especially in the domain of careers, Sayers was frustrated by both masculine and feminist attempts to group women as a uniform collective. By gendering these arguments, Sayers thought, we were once again identifying women as “other,” as sub-human, rather than recognizing their humanity as evident in their individualism. (I should note that Sayers is not talking about historical trends or historical grounds for inequality in job opportunities for women.)
In a similar fashion, I think (I think!) Dorment is asking us to turn the conversation more towards the difficulties facing individuals and individual couples in managing work/life balance. By focusing on individuals rather than men vs. women, we may be more realistically addressing the problems of the day. (Again, neither is Dorment addressing fundamental or historical grounds for inequality; in this summary of his argument, he is focused on the contemporary conversation on advising women and men how best to balance life and work).
There are times and places for having gender-specific conversations about balancing work and family, ensuing from shared threads of commonality and widespread patterns of discrimination or hierarchy. But I think that Dorment’s point about individual choice, within the larger context of Sayers’ argument, is worth contemplating.
What’s the It?
While Dorment addresses the “who” of the question, he fails to properly address the “it.” What do we mean by “have it all”? How do we mean to have this “it,” and is that important? His elliptical reference to it consists of another critique of Slaughter (“The ‘it’ in question being like Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: you know it when you have it”), making his own omission more egregious.
He might argue, with some merit, that the crux of the “have it all” debate lies in the indefinable nature of the “it”; it reflects a social unwillingness to define fulfillment as “work + family” without an unknown factor. Unwilling or not, it is useless to have the debate without at least considering what “it” might be and whether we want “it” or not, otherwise we may come to the end of our fraught debate only to discover that what I meant was Cousin Itt and what you meant was happiness.
James Allworth discusses the “it” in the best critique of the Sheryl Sandberg debate I’ve read. Writing for the Harvard Business Review blog, he argued:
I want to posit that there’s another reason why so many women have chosen alternative paths, and it’s not because it’s difficult: it’s because that in terms of what generates sustained long term happiness in our lives, careers are a long way from the be all and end all, and women have simply done a better job of recognizing it. If men have taken the C-suite hostage, then Lean In presents with underlying symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. 50/50 is a worthy goal — both getting women in leadership, and getting men at home — but it’s not just important that it happens, but how it happens, too.
Like Sandberg and Slaughter, Allworth accepts the idea that men and women make different choices along a general line; however, like Dorment, he examines those choices as a collective movement. Allworth probes the wider philosophical consideration of what, collectively, they are striving towards. What are we choosing to have, and should we choose to have it?
Allworth’s argument is superior to Dorment’s for two reasons; the first, because he examines the motive, the “it,” while Dorment does not. The second is that, by considering the object of the debate and of our social strivings, he contextualizes the debate within a social narrative. He tells us a story about the way that many contemporary Americans are living, and why we are living that way. He challenges the larger story that Sandberg tells about the way modern success should work. He asks us, implicitly, to consider the stories we are living.
In a better version of Why Men Can’t Have It All, Dorment would have acknowledged this question of motive and movement. He would have abandoned the childish barbs of Slaughter or fawning over Sandberg. He would have avoided reducing the complexities of feminism to “Isn’t that what it’s all about?” and avoided using Mad Men to prove a point about how hard life is for men. He would have integrated personal anecdotes into a more engrossing narrative about modern “dadhood” rather than inserting his story snippets at odd angles, leaving them to jut awkwardly. He would have included more respected, more diverse, and older social theorists than merely those who are sitting on the New York Times bestseller lists or have done in the last five years.
Slaughter and Sandberg succeed in their arguments about the working woman’s dilemma because they present compelling stories about her world, stories that Dorment and others can recognize as such. It may be true that Dorment’s version of events, by including masculine and more individualized perspectives, represents one of greater complexity. Yet greater complexity requires greater organization, better structure and better storytelling; until I see evidence of those, I remain unconvinced that this round of the “have it all” debate is worth having. – GCL
Other Responses to Dorment’s Manifesto
Lisa Belkin for HuffPost, “What Esquire Gets Wrong on the Work/Life Debate”
Brian Gresko for Babble, “Why No One — Men or Women — Can Have it All”
Mike Bertha for Philly.com, “Thankfully, Esquire is here to remind us that life is tough for men too”