Men Can’t Have it All, Either

I've joined The Atlantic's debate over a thought-provoking cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

My latest for The Atlantic, “Men Can’t Have it All, Either,” has been published. It was more timely Thursday, when it was written and submitted, but the editors wanted to package all the response pieces together as part of a debate on the Myth of Work-Life Balance. Over the next couple of days, we’ll react to one another’s essays.

An excerpt from my piece:

[T]here’s no doubt that there are unique pressures on women. Although women are approaching something like equality in the workforce, biology still puts the burden of childbirth on women and gives them a limited window in which to do it. So women are often pressured to make sacrifices at a critical point in their careers, whereas men are not. Relatedly, society holds mothers more accountable than fathers for the well-being of their children. And yet, as Slaughter’s story illustrates, superstar women are judged more harshly than their male peers when they choose to put family ahead of career.

That said, men can’t have it all, either. At least, not by the standard Slaughter outlines, and which I happen to think is spot on.


The fact is that life is full of trade-offs. It’s not possible to “have it all.” It never was. And never will be. For women or for men.

Slaughter calls for changing the workplace culture to eliminate “the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office.” While I join her in wishing for that evolution, I don’t see how it’s possible.

All things being equal, those willing to put 90 hours a week into their careers are going to get ahead of those willing to put in 60, much less 40. While there is any number of studies showing that working too many hours is actually counterproductive from an efficiency standpoint, there nonetheless is a rare breed of cat who can keep up a frenetic work schedule for years on end. And those workaholics are simply more valuable to the company, agency, or organization than those who clock out at 5. That means that those of us who choose to prioritize our children are going to get out-hustled by those without children, or those willing to let their children spend longer hours with a partner or childcare provider.


Amusingly, many of the examples Slaughter gives of family-friendly workplace innovations were introduced by men, like Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. These men are facing essentially the same sorts of choices that Slaughter continues to insist are unique to women.

I’m less optimistic than Slaughter that we’ll ever create a culture that values family time as much as work time — much less one where those who run our government and businesses will do so. But we’ll come much closer if we stop looking at this as a “women’s problem” and instead see it as a societal problem.

In the lag between my writing and publication, a goodly number of other people have made similar arguments. Among them, Dan Drezner in a piece titled “Why foreign policy professionals can’t have it all.”

As someone in a more traditional marriage than Slaughter, I’d tweak this just a bit. First of all, unless someone is inheriting a trust fund, there’s also really no choice in providing for a family either. Seriously, there isn’t. Second of all, a difference between men and women is that when parenting issues come up, it’s totally cool for women to anguish about it — in print, no less — while it’s happening. For men, it’s totally cool to drink Scotch, brood and repress feelings about the costs of careerism for years until it all boils to the surface at some family vacation when the kids are grown up and resentments can be aired. But trust me, men have to cope with this as well.


[S]ome of Slaughter’s recommendations would likely have unanticipated consequences that would exacerbate the very problems she wants to solve. For example, one of the issues that she raises is family leave for raising children. Now, this is an innovation that has been cemented into the academy pretty well — but the effects have been somewhat perverse. That’s because after maternity leave, paternity leave got institutionalized. This sounds great, but I know from personal experience that women and men use these leaves differently. Women tend to use it by being moms. Men tend to use it by being more of a dad, but also by using it as a semi-sabbatical to publish more. I should know — that’s what I did. So an innovation that was designed to allow redress gender imbalances actually exacerbated them.

That’s a great point and one that didn’t really occur to me.

Father with stroller image via Shutterstock.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Gender Issues, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    I had it all once…I gave it back.

    E. Vedder (w/ N. Young)

  2. rodney dill says:

    This isn’t anything that is that new. I’ve read articles on the Mommy Track and the Daddy Track for quite a while. Over ten years ago when I worked for a company that no longer exists, they would talk about Roles and Goals. You could set one, but not both. If your goal was to be CEO, your role would be dictated for you as far as hours, travel, taking certain opportunities. If your goal was to clock out at five every day and head for home, your role in the company would be limited. A couple of older references below, one is from 2006, I couldn’t date the other one.

  3. Scott says:

    Seems to me a lot of the anguish revolves around status, i.e. how much money do I have, How big a house or car, where do I go on vacation? And how do I stack up against others? This affects women as well as men. Then it becomes a matter of choices and living with those choices. More important, being comfortable and proud about your choices in the face of what society or your peers expect.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    It’s one thing to be constrained by other people making BS assumptions about you.

    It’s entirely another thing to be constrained by real, actual limitations. Childcare: somebody has to do it. You either pick a parent to stay home, or you pay for childcare (daycare or nanny). Corporate (or academic, for that matter) ladder-climbing: you either pour effort into your career (which leaves less for your family) or you put in your 40 and head home.

    Where this gets tricky is when you have a group of high-achievers who are both trying to “make it” and also do so while presenting a facade of perfection in order to deflect attacks. To me, that pretty much explains the feminist side of this. You had a bunch of women trying to break into previously male-only spaces, and to do so they felt (likely correctly) that they could not show or admit to fault, doubt, or any sort of weakness (or something perceived to be weakness). Some of those who followed up on that bought into what was essentially a myth (perhaps a necessary one, but a myth nonetheless) and are now a bit frustrated.

    Or it could just be that we’re human, and humans have this general tendency to complain about stuff even when it’s not all that terrible (which, in turn, seems a prerequisite to progress, so keep complainin’ boys & girls!).

  5. @Rob in CT:

    We also have a human tendancy to, after making a life altering choice, spend the rest of our lives romanticizing the option we didn’t take. “And memory insists on pining / For places it never went, / As if life would be happier / Just by being different “

  6. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

    I see this with my wife’s second-guessing of pretty much every choice she’s made in her career path (fortunately, said second-guessing doesn’t tend to last long, and doesn’t seem to do any harm).

  7. @Rob in CT:

    When I graduated from high school, I had a very hard time deciding whether to accept my offer from Penn State or from Carnegie Mellon. Almost 20 years later I still find myself wondering how my life would be different if I’d gone the other way.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Heh. I flipped a coin to chose between my two favorite colleges that accepted me. That’s one I’ve never second-guessed.

    I will admit to some second-guessing over an offer my father once made to me: 1) go to one of the expensive little liberal arts colleges that accepted me, or 2) go to UCONN, and he puts the difference in tuition + room/board directly in the bank for me. Totally awesome either way, no doubt (ahh, privilege. How does it rock? Let me count the ways). I picked door #1. The results have been a-ok. Not least b/c I met my wife in college. But the frugal side of me always wants to pick at that one.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    It’s not a question of whether we can “have it all”; it’s a question whether we have double standards.

    No one makes rude noises about Justics Alioto being a Bad Parent because he has (how many is it–eight?) kids and is a Supreme Court Justice. For some reason, it’s only when women end up having driving careers that anyone “worries about the children.” Daddy being a workaholic isn’t thought of having the same damage.

    Guys, if you don’t want your kids to think of you as nothing more than a fat wallet you’re going to have to be around for them. Forget making CEO. And don’t bitch because your wife wants to share the load of raising the kids.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. Oh, and the reason those family-friendly policies were instituted by men? Because as long as only the women bitch, no one cares. It’s not considered “a real problem.”

    (The number of times that I’ve seen kidcare and eldercare articles thrown on the “women’s page”….grrr. These are problems that affect everybody. )

  11. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The only people who can “have it all” are those suffering from DSM-specified delusional disorder.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: But that wasn’t the point of the article. Slaughter’s husband, a very successful Princeton professor, was taking the time to be at home with their teenage boys while she was living in Washington five days a week and many weekends. Slaughter isn’t complaining that her husband isn’t pulling his share of the weight; she says the opposite. Rather, she doesn’t think it’s fair that we have a culture that demands that those who have certain really powerful jobs be so dedicated to them that they can’t be home to eat dinner with the kids every night.

    My point is that it’s about trade-offs–always has been, always will be. Those of us who choose to be home most nights with our kids are going to get out-competed professionally by those willing to have their spouses or day care providers raise their kids. The difference is that I’m not bitching about it.

  13. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @James Joyner: Indeed. That’s life in a nutshell – how do you allocate the limited resource of time? Do you allocate it optimally? And how do you as a person define optimal?

    I took the salary and prestige trade off to move from private to public sector a couple of years back in order to have greater flexibility in scheduling to take care of elderly parents, to take better control of my health, and to have the freedom to do higher ed teaching at night without worrying about work conflicts. I also work in a female-dominated environment, because in general in our society it is women who tend to make that trade off.

    Honestly, I think it is the workaholics that are the ones getting played. I know that when my parents pass on, I won’t have to worry that I didn’t spend enough time with them.

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: What is it that the founder of Vanguard Funds said? “When people who are old and about to die look back on their lives, no one says ‘God, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.'”