Having it all

published June 27, 2012, Manila Standard Today, page A5

Anne-Marie Slaughter was the first woman director of policy planning at the United States State Department. She was appointed by President Barack Obama in January 2009; she spent two years on the job. She published an article at The Atlantic’s July/August 2012 issue —but it is not about American foreign policy or any other international issue. Her article is called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”.

Slaughter is married with two teenage boys. The family lives in Princeton, New Jersey. When she snagged the high-profile job (her immediate boss was Secretary Hillary Clinton), she decided to move to Washington and only came home to New Jersey during the weekend. It was fine with her husband—he was a progressive, supportive man who did not feel threatened by his wife’s professional growth.

But all was not well. Amid the glamor of her “important” job, Slaughter found herself wondering whether she had made the right choice living in Washington, especially as her 14-year-old son had resumed his habit of “skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math and tuning out any adult who tried to reach out to him. “ Her husband was doing his best to deal with the boy, but it seemed that it was not enough.

In January 2011, Slaughter’s public service leave at Princeton University was due to expire. If she did not come back, she would lose her tenure as an academic. She resigned her State Department job and moved back home. Not that she’s staying at home doing nothing. She’s back at the university, gives speeches and writes foreign policy papers left and right. But at least she’s there—and feels she made the right choice. Did she cave in? What happened to the much-ballyhooed drive to succeed, to be at the top of her game, to have it all?

In her essay, Slaughter wonders whether the previous generation of feminists and high-profile career women, role models all, promised too much to younger women: that it WAS possible to have fulfilling careers and equally fulfilling home lives. If they didn’t, something was wrong with them.

Another high-profile mother is Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Her recent trip to Europe, her first in 24 years, was much publicized. She received her Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway and her honorary doctorate from Oxford University in England. She addressed British leaders at Westminster Hall, only the second woman to do so after the Queen. In her home country, she is a symbol of hope and unity. Around the world, she is regarded as the personification of grace, courage and principle.

But at what cost? She left her family —a husband and two teenage boys—in London in 1988 to go to Burma, supposedly for just a week to tend to her ailing mother. She did not know that her mere presence in her country would change the political equation there. She opted to stay and refused to leave—not because she was held as prisoner, but because of fear she would not be allowed back. She stayed on and has now been elected to parliament amid encouraging signs of reform.

What are perhaps most touching are the images of Suu Kyi with her sons, now grown men, and grandchildren. She was not there for her boys while they were growing up. She was not able to see her husband before and after his death. There is no doubt that Suu Kyi has made extraordinarily tough choices between her personal and public lives. Do we conclude that Suu Kyi doesn’t have it all?

Anybody who believes that a woman can have it all must be delusional.

Two weeks ago I was part of a group that interviewed female officers of the Philippine National Police, one of which was Director for Community Relations Lina Sarmiento, who just last week became the first two-star woman police general in the country. Sarmiento said that it was tough to not be available for her children, to help them with their lessons, for instance, because she was always out on duty. Fortunately, she has many brothers and sisters willing to take on her functions, enabling her to prove herself at the male-dominated police force.

Other police officials like Emma Libunao and Grace Madayag who both enjoy strategic positions in the PNP volunteer that they are not married. They do not think any man would understand the demands of their calling. Can we say they don’t have it all, because their “success” is not without complete with a husband and children, just as we can argue that college graduates who are now stay-at-home mothers are not successful?

But who are we to say what “all” encompasses? Of course you can’t have everything. Life is tough and full of harsh realities, biases and conflicts. A truly empowered woman can have as much as she wants, just a little, or nothing—because it is only she who can define what her “all” is. The good news is that it is up to her.