Lisa Hickey responds to an article in The Atlantic about ‘having it all’ and debates feminism and Tom Matlack along the way.
“It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.”
The Atlantic, King of the Stupid Headlines, is running a much-discussed article called “Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
Why is the headline stupid? Because it is harmful to both genders to imply that one gender “can’t have it all.” Does that mean the other gender can?
Shortly after my fourth child was born, my then-husband had had enough of me and my career. Shannon was barely 6 months old, and I wanted fly out to shoot a television commercial in Los Angeles. Alone. For a month. My husband discussed the situation with me calmly. How would he get the kids to baseball practice he asked? To ballet school? With an infant in tow? Did I really think he’d be able to do all that and go to his full-time job, too, without any help, while I sat in a studio somewhere eating bon-bons?
He had a point. So I flew to LA with a 6-month old. My boss was not happy. I didn’t care.
After one particularly long day of shooting we headed back to the glitzy hotel where production crews abound. The director and camera crew and agency folks crammed into the elevator – with their gear, the movie cameras and tripods, mikes and clipboards. The elevator door opened on the next floor and a women looking to get in took in the scene. Ten guys and me. With Shannon on my hip. “I’ll take the next elevator. But you…” she said, pointing to me, “You should be the poster child for the feminist movement.”
When I listen to the stories of the men I meet at The Good Men Project, there are common themes. One that comes up all the time is that the men want to be good dads. They also want to be seen as good dads. Not the meatheads and knuckleheads and incompetent bumblers portrayed in the media. They want to be seen as good dads because they ARE good dads. Not because they are trying to get away with some master plan of going off to work and ruling the universe while their wives stay home and wash the dirty laundry.
“Women can’t have it all” implies that men can. That it’s more fun to go off to work than to stay home with the kids. That the jobs these men are running off to are all intellectually stimulating, high-paying, and that every single guy can rise up the corporate ladder just by showing up and wearing a tie. Nobody mentions the fact that there’s not enough room at the top for everyone who wants it. Nobody mentions that guys are often going off to work two jobs. Or a job in a middle management job where the CEO makes 231 times the salary of the workers. Maybe on a construction site, a job where there are more deaths than in all of the armed forces combined. Or a job where a 12-hour work day is the “new normal.” Is that included in women’s vision of having it “all”?
I’ve been a CEO twice. I’ve had jobs where I got paid more than the President of the United States. During that time I raised four kids. The last seven years as a single mom. My oldest daughter is in grad school at MIT, launching her own start-up with a group of all-male engineers. Along the way, I did so many things wrong that I still cry at night when I think of them. And I’m happiest now, when I don’t have nearly as much of “it all” as I did at one time. What I have is people I can tell stories to, and people who will listen. People who can tell me stories back, so that we both might change.
You see, having it all, dear Atlantic, is a men’s issue as much as a women’s issue. The way to solve it for women is to actually NOT make it a women’s issue.
The way for women to have it all is to realize that men don’t have it all, at all.
It was a cold day in January when I pulled into a parking space on a street in Harlem and squinted around to find the right address. Ran up the three flights of stairs to an office with some still remaining holiday lights and a plate of cookies. Julio Medina came out and gave me a hug.
We walked into a squished conference room where his staff was sitting around a table. I had come to teach Julio’s staff about social media, but first I listened to their stories. Everyone at that table had been in jail. All had thought their lives would change for the better once they got out. But, as one guy said, that was a feeling that lasted only for twenty-four hours. After the one day of getting out of prison, he said, it just kept dawning on him that yeah, he was out, but he was out in a world with no job and no prospects, somehow had to feed himself and what was left of his family. Being back in jail no longer seemed like the worst thing in the world.
True, my experience wasn’t exactly the experience Tom had. I wasn’t in Sing Sing. I was in a small cramped office in the middle of Harlem with ex-cons not lifers. I was there because I wanted to help a bunch of guys who had recently gotten out of jail stay out. And I wanted to help Julio grow and expand his business. I had been as enthralled by the story of how Julio founded his business by realizing what he was good at as I was about the story of the pool of blood in Sing Sing. A story Tom had told me the first day I met him. Yet, I disagree with Tom that there was anything different about what was told to me in that room because I was a woman. I disagree that the guys I met with couldn’t be helped when I listened to their stories without judgment. I disagree that the amount I was changed when I walked out of there was any different because I was female. The experience changed me for the better, the same way sitting with Tom that first day at lunch when he talked about The Good Men Project and the power of men’s stories changed me for the better.
But one of the best things about The Good Men Project is that I’ve also learned that my experience isn’t the only experience in the world.
We’ve talked a lot about the tragic case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Trayvon was shot by George Zimmerman. That was an indisputable fact. Zimmerman shot him either because he was afraid for his life and acted in self-defense or because Zimmerman made some assumptions about Trayvon’s “goodness” or “badness” based on the color of his skin.
I care about the case as anyone interested in men, violence, societal pressures that cause people to act in certain ways, social justice, and racism, would be interested in the case.
And what I am interested in most is not the story of what happened the moment when Zimmerman pulled the trigger. What I’m interested in most is the decision before the decision before the decision to pull the trigger.
If guys spilling their guts to each other can help prevent a story like that from happening, then I’m all for it. If that takes me walking out of the room so that story can be told I will walk on out in a heartbeat. Maybe that change – the change that happens to the teller of the story and the change that happens to the listener – is more powerful when it’s guy-to-guy. Who am I to say? Maybe Tom is right – that the guys sitting there in Julio’s office could only have told me about themselves after some moment of transformation that changed the way they thought of themselves as a man. If so, let that happen. What I believe in most is that it has to happen.
“If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all, (note, Atlantic, not “women”) here’s what has to change.”
The stories need to be told, in a place where people feel safe, in a way that others listen, without judgment.
Sometime after we had first started The Good Men Project I was, like I am now, trying to make deals with everyone. And I had a business call with a guy, the stand-up comedian for The Ellen Show; who had also started a dad site, The Life of Dad. When I got on the phone, I started off by saying, “Sorry if you hear any weird announcements or I have to go suddenly – my daughter’s in the intensive care unit of Mass General Hospital’s and I’m in the waiting room.” And Tommy Riles said “Believe it or not, I’m in a hospital with my daughter as well – I don’t know if you know that my daughter was born with a rare heart disorder and needed open heart surgery as soon as she was born.”
Tom Riles and I still work together. As far as business deals go, it was one successful call. A few days later we ran this video where he talked about his experience to the Ellen crowd.
This doesn’t sound like a guy who doesn’t get the need for a gender-neutral work-life balance. Tom Riles started his website, The Life of Dad, to celebrate all that is good and funny and heartbreaking and complex about being a dad. Tom was also there in the hospital with his daughter when her heart stopped and she needed CPR. And I’m sure as heck not going to accept that award for poster child for the feminist movement unless Tom Riles accepts it with me.
The surprising thing isn’t that Tom Riles has a story like that to tell, in fact, almost every dad has a story like that to tell. Every dad that that I’ve encountered wants a work life balance the way that Anne-Marie Slaughter wants in her article. The dads are willing to learn: one of our most popular articles of late is 25 Failsafe* Rules for Dads and their Daughters. The dads want to form a community that helps each other however they can.
And the guys in our comments section, the angry ones, those who complain about father’s rights and custody battles? Well, guess what. They do so because they want nothing more than to build more treehouses with their sons before it’s too late. I was talking to a feminist about why custody battles were so important and he said “well, actually, 85% of cases where males ask for joint custody get it.” And you know what? That percentage is too small.
“Not having it all” for working dads means they can’t spend as much time with their kids as they’d like to. “Not having it all” means men who stay-at-home with their kids instead of pursuing careers get ostracized. “Not having it all” for everyone means having to decide – moment by moment and day by day – not just what is best for you but best for those you love. Sound familiar, feminists?
In the thick of a flurry of discussion about feminism, a writer and editor for The Good Men Project, Marcus Williams, told me, “I’d love to respond to this feminist debate but I’m too busy taking care of my twin girls. Can it wait until tomorrow?”
If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all, these are the stories that change everything.
photo of vintage book by Shutterstock