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Opinions of Friday, 13 July 2012

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

It’s Alright: Women Can’t Have it All

– Princeton Lady Prof

No matter the occasion or the nature of her audience, Anne-Marie Slaughter insists that every introduction of her must necessarily include the fact that she is a mother of two boys. Family is her real life, as Mrs Hilary Clinton put it when she was asked about Chelsea’s wedding. Otherwise, she is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. She is also former and the first female dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and former director of policy planning for the US State Department. You would think Anne-Marie has it all. But with her enormous influence in the corridors of power, meeting and talking to high-powered heads of countries and bosses of huge conglomerates, she concedes in an article published in The Atlantic, that women, not even her kind of accomplished achievers, can have it all.

Many are outraged at Prof Slaughter’s concession. Some 1.2 million people have read the op-ed article and comments keep pouring forth on social media and other platforms, about the good old work-life debate. It is so far the most read news item on the Atlantic website. Prof Slaughter digs into the generational past of women, where they had fewer options. Her own grandmother was stopped from going to medical school because she was told she was going to get married. And this was America. In Africa, it was, and is still the case for many a girl child. So women have generally played second fiddle to their men, or looked up to them to chart the course.

The situation is very different now. The statistics have not favoured women compared with their men, but women are really on top of their game. Nobody doubts the capacity of women in any area of endeavour. And most often, they do the job better than men. They combine family obligations with serious career business and sometimes manage to sail ahead of men in terms of sheer output. If the likes of Prof Slaughter are the extreme cases, there are equally hardworking and intelligent women doing great at the middle levels of their careers. This is very much the age of the accomplished woman.

The reality, however, is that women cannot build great careers and maintain their wonderful families all at the same time without making some sacrifices. Men often needn’t make those changes in their careers and family lives, and everything will be fine. While women would need to seriously consider when to get pregnant and get children, men have no problems with their biological clock. Prof Slaughter recommends that a woman should plan and get children before 35, best if earlier. The biological clock is a biggie. It ticks. And while it is ticking, it is not such a bad thing for a woman to make a few adjustments in her career to have those children. The men may have shot ahead when they are done breastfeeding the tots. But that is the thing: You can’t have it all, not at the same time. It’s alright.

I was shocked when the wife of one of my friends in Toronto complained that her husband has wasted her career because she had to sacrifice five years to get their three children while he took a PhD and worked to earn high wages. She feels cheated by her husband, not even when she has three adorable boys to show for her sacrifice. She doesn’t see it as a sacrifice for herself and her family; she wished she also had a PhD, because she had the academic ability. Women should know that it is not about ability anymore; it is about them, being the only people who are naturally disposed to make those fantastic sacrifices men are never able to. I felt so useless when my wife was pregnant with Sonnet. Beyond helping her to car and tickling her feet when she was in pain, I was totally redundant. If we share the costs on everything these days, we must do turns in carrying the baby in our womb. In addition to being men, women also have a womb (wombman).

It is the case in all societies, even in the so called advanced societies of the West, that a woman at 37 has a lot more pressure to settle and start a family than a man. They might not give in to any configuration with the looks of a man simply because time is against them. But it is understandable that they will be willing to prune their Mr Right list to accommodate some old school mate who usually would not have been good enough for a causal date. That’s how come some apologies found their great wives. But the Mr Right list never gets destroyed after the wedding; they hold on to it and judge their husbands against the imaginary ideal hubby. That is why most accomplished women think they married beneath their status. They could pay the mortgage all by themselves, buy a nice SUV and afford luxury holidays anywhere on the globe without any control freak barking down at them in the name of marriage when he is not husband enough. A sperm donor would do just fine.

Prof Slaughter gives some fascinating details about some accomplished women who are either single mums or plain single. She doesn’t say they couldn’t tolerate men, but the pattern is all too familiar. The accomplished woman is often hard work for most men. But Anne-Marie is a sweet exception: she praises her husband’s contribution to the life of her boys. She doesn’t mention his profession but it is almost clear she would not mind if he is not a fellow professor or a White House material. She acknowledges that she is a woman first, a mother second, a wife and of course a professor.

What exactly do women want in life? And we are not talking about the accomplished career type; we are limiting ourselves to the average, uni-educated woman in her late 20s or early 30s. It looks simple enough a question that has ready answers in a great 6foot muscular build guy, with good education, great career, nice car and a house is a cute bonus. Well, it is not as simple as that. Women look for all these and a little bit more. Or perhaps a little bit less. The modern educated woman is often prepared to contribute half the down payment for the mortgage. But they would be happy if you paid it all, so they get to keep their half for other girly stuff.

A young woman I dated briefly in England worried that I didn’t own a house at the time. We were all students in the same university, doing the same programme. We were even the same age. She had been in England longer than me and lived with family. I thought it was inconsiderate of her to expect me to accomplish in three years what she could only dream in five. She wanted to see me in a great career before she would say yes. When she bought her own house, it was not only nice to have a man around; it was also strategic. But she didn’t want any kind of man; she felt cheated that a man would move into her house and eat her food. After a few tries with some ideal men who never stayed, she sponsored an old school sweetheart from Africa to join her. Three years later, she is still looking for the ideal husband.

Women are not an enigma, just that there is something enigmatic about them. We need them around, maybe more than they need us. But how do we manage their expectations and satisfy their curiosities? The commentary that followed Prof Slaughter’s article, especially those from seemingly independent career women, queried why she had not sought to highlight the concessions that men should make to help the female cause. But the Prof is emphatic: “Yes it’s work-life balance, but it is still an issue that affects women more than men”. She chides: “Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the alter of public service, sacrifice that includes their family. Yet, their children, too, are trained to value public service over private responsibility”. A woman is indispensable to family and children. Not many women can quit a juicy US Homeland Security post like Juliette Kayyem, to pursue a ‘happiness project’ (just keep happy), but while at the top of their careers, women “must rush to adapt to the ‘man’s world’ that our mothers and mentors warned us about”, Prof Slaughter says. Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin writes from Ottawa, Canada.