Why Christians can’t ‘have it all’

Like many, I read the most recent Atlantic cover article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (reports suggest record-breaking pageviews). I was prepared to get my feminist hackles up and hate the article, but instead, I found some suggestions Christians should affirm and also some assumptions we should resist.

Author Anne-Marie Slaughter offers several concrete suggestions for how jobs can adapt to allow everyone, not just moms, opportunities to both succeed at work and fulfill family obligations or pursue goals outside of the workplace. For instance, she suggests that companies align the workday with the school day and allow more work from home in the evenings in place of work during specific hours at the office, including teleconferencing. I think Christians should take these suggestions seriously, and those who run businesses or organizations with employees should think about how they could support employees’ attempts to succeed at work and also in other arenas of life.

My main beef with the article, or maybe even just the headline, though, is the implication that anything short of excelling at an extremely demanding job and having a perfect, well-adjusted family is some kind of failure. I was astonished when I realized Slaughter’s version of “not having it all” was having an intact family who cares about each other and tenure at Princeton. Seriously. (Slaughter left a job as a top aid in the State Department so she could spend more time with her family.)

That got me thinking about how Christians might define “having it all,” and if it might be different from the assumptions Slaughter seems to hold, but does not really examine. I am reminded of Paul’s first-century version in Philippians 3, and the surprise ending: that he counts it all as garbage compared to knowing Christ. Paul argues that knowing Christ re-orients your life’s goals dramatically. Instead of pressing toward the corner office or the Harvard-educated kid, you “press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me.”

In many ways, Slaughter’s suggestions might support this goal. In fact, she mentions a person whose rigorous observance of Jewish Sabbath serves as a model for how others might carve out time for their personal life. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that one cannot press toward better knowing Christ from a corner office, or a cubicle, or a cash register or a kitchen. However, when we - men or women - start measuring our lives in terms of what we have accomplished, we have already missed the point, and we have already lost sight of “it all” in the name of trying to have it.

Paul remarks in the same passage that he has not achieved his goal of knowing Christ and becoming like Him, and I don’t think we can in this life either. In other words, “having it all” in a fallen world is always an impossibility, and when our vision of “it all” does not include first and foremost knowing Christ and imitating Him, gender is not the biggest thing standing in our way.

What Do You Think?

  • What is your definition of "having it all?"
  • When you try to balance work and family life, where does your spiritual life fit?
  • Why does it seem we rarely hear about high-powered working dads who have altered their careers to spend more time with family?


Comments (3)

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Bethany adds some needed perspective to this article, which had my head hurting with some of its presuppositions (e.g., that being a tenured professor is ‘settling.’) Not that I would have expected Christlikeness to show up in an article like this, but it’s a welcome splash of water to the face.

If believers really did orient themselves in the direction of Christlikeness, the world would still be changed for the better, perhaps much better than merely by having a high-level job at the State Department.

I think you nailed it, Bethany. I also liked all the suggestions she had for the workplace to begin adapting to all workers’ other needs. However, I also wished she had acknowledged—or maybe she doesn’t realize—the number of people that are doing these things on their own in this economy. Perhaps it’s the freelance circles I run in, but I know very few people that work in the kind of places Slaughter describes. Even those who have more traditional jobs also enjoy some creative flexibility on most days.

I’m also frustrated by the assumption that men “have it all” but women do not. There may very well still be some blatant or unintended sexism in the workplace, but I bet if you polled the children of these “top-tier” dads, you’d find a lot of kids that wish their dads were around more. Producing offspring that someone else cares for/knows intimately while you climb to the top isn’t exactly “having it all.”

Nonetheless, I love your call for us to remember Christ, who is our all. There’s so much freedom to be had when we acknowledge that He is the Person we’re striving for, not the perfect work/life balance.

There are a lot of interesting responses to here. A few good ones are summarized here: http://theweek.com/article/index/229808/the-atlantics-women-cant-have-it-all-manifesto-the-backlash

What is assumed is the secular frame that life is lived in our short zero to 90ish lifespan. Slaughter’s quest is all about time. She’s got images of a preferred life and her self-goal is to accomplish these during this period.

I think part of a Christian response illuminates the filters causing the narrative. What is “good”? How does a Christian theology of the resurrection alter her assumptions?

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