Anne-Marie Slaughter had been the director of policy planning for the State Department for two years — commuting from Princeton, N.J., where her family lived, to Washington, D.C., where the job was — when she realized something had to give.
"It was a fabulous job, but at the end of two years I simply had to recognize that I needed to be at home," Slaughter tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. Moreover, she adds, "I wanted to be at home, and there was no way to do that and to do the kind of job that Secretary Clinton needed me to do."
Now, granted, for Slaughter, being "at home" was hardly akin to leaving the workforce to be a full-time mother. She returned to a job as a tenured professor at Princeton University and continued to write, publish, give talks and teach a full course load.
Nevertheless, being forced to make this choice that so many women face — between her family and her career — was a wake-up call. The experience led her to write an article for The Atlantic last summer explaining why women still can't have it all.
"What my experience made me see was how it is that so many women actually do face a choice," Slaughter says. "When they face a choice, they are then systematically disadvantaged in terms of their careers."
There is a certain pressure now, particularly on educated women, to have it all and do it all — to take advantage of all the gains inherited from the feminist movement and to "lean in," as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encourages.
Slaughter's mother, Anne Slaughter, tells Montagne she thinks this pressure is the result of a generational shift. Anne, who became an artist after raising Anne-Marie and her brothers, had considered going to medical school but her mother told her she'd get married instead. "I remember telling that to Anne-Marie. I said, 'Look, you can go as far as you want,' " Anne Slaughter says. But as Anne-Marie found, the idea that women can "have it all" is untenable.
"There are many, many women who face the situation where that careful balance [between work and family] suddenly tips — a child needs them or they move or have an aging parent — and then what we're seeing is mostly women having to choose and when they choose, they end up opting out of the workforce or going part time or working differently and suddenly they're no longer on the leadership track," Anne-Marie says.
One of the reasons that women take time off from work, she says, is because they are socialized differently than are men. "As my friends say, they drop their kids off at day care and feel guilty for leaving them; their husband drops the kids off at day care and feels good that he dropped them off at day care because he was being an active parent," she says. "In my experience, women feel much more strongly that they should be at home."
The lack of quality, affordable child care and the inflexibility of many work schedules make it difficult for women to juggle. She suggests, for example, a "time-out period" for companies to allow employees, for whatever reason, to take as much as a couple years off and then still get back on the career track.
Ultimately, Anne Slaughter suggests, whether they decide to stay home or work, women today have a much better sense of themselves than did previous generations. And it's that sense of self that led Anne-Marie to "think in the end I am somebody who wants to be with my family," she says. "I have all the choices — and I have choices my mother didn't have — but it is the freedom to be who you are and to actually recognize what you want most fundamentally that in the end led me to make a choice I never thought I'd make."
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.